Legitimate “Must See TV”

A month ago, I wrote about Lemonade Stories, a new documentary airing at 9pm tonight on CNNfn. Thanks to a generous gift from Ms. Mazzio, I watched the film last night. My original anticipation was rewarded.

The film is broken into segments with each entrepreneur and his or her mother spotlighted. I expected to sit through the early segments, hoping the film would get to Richard Branson quicker. During the opening segment with Arthur Blank, the co-founder of The Home Depot, I forgot that Richard Branson was in the film.

The concept is simple, straightforward, and worthwhile. Ultimately, the lesson each of these entrepreneurs has learned from mom is the inner spark we should all yearn to grasp: the unyielding longing to be themselves and the willingness to accept nothing else. But here’s the shocking revelation that I think defines why they’re successful. They’re willing to fight through the times when they don’t know who they are. And who is there to support them? You guessed it… mom.

This is particularly true of the stories of Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic and Tom Scott, co-founder of Nantucket Nectars. I’m not going to tell those stories here because you should watch the film. But there is an important lesson for every would-be and budding entrepreneur, offered by Mr. Scott. From the film, here is the lesson in his words:

“We do our case study at Harvard Business School and by the end they’ll say, ‘Well, these guys are really smart because they didn’t focus on supermarkets, they flew under the radar of Coke and Pepsi’. But it’s all B.S. cause I was there and I know what happened. Everything that they said that we did intelligently, we tried the other way and failed.”

My guess is that there are very few entrepreneurs who willingly strike out to break every rule. Entrepreneurs don’t try new businesses if they don’t intend to break some rules. That’s the nature of entrepreneurship. But it’s the rare lunatic who sets out to make the task as hard as possible.

Success seems logical in hindsight, but in the moment, the decisions aren’t easy. Mr. Scott and Mr. First knew that distribution would be the key to their business. The obvious answer is to sell to supermarkets and let them worry about distribution to the final location. Safeway, Piggly Wiggly, and Kroger are the experts, so that’s the way to go. But Nantucket Nectars isn’t Coke and Pepsi. This next quote from Paul Hawken’s book Growing a Business describes what I suspect Nantucket Nectars discovered when they couldn’t get into supermarkets:

The unpredicted is the gap between perception and reality. The unpredicted is your best toehold on reality because it is from these events that don’t “go right” that you can discover what is really happening with your business.

Coke and Pepsi are commodity beverages. Nantucket Nectars’ products aren’t commodity beverages now. They would only discover this through actions and mistakes. And the company is wildy successful because of their persistence in the face of failure. As the film shows, every featured entrepreneur’s persistence comes from mom.

As a teenager, my first business venture was delivering newspapers. I shared a route with my brother for the now-defunct evening paper in Richmond, Va. We continued this sharing until a second route opened in our neighborhood. I took this route, while my brother maintened the original. We shared expenses and profits, treating the two routes as a single entity to achieve economies of scale. We couldn’t have defined economies of scale if we’d heard the term, but we’d focused on our experience to understand the concept.

After we worked out delivery efficiency on the combined routes, we absorbed a third route. After a few months, we “divested” ourselves of the third route. We had customers who refused to pay, in addition to juvenile harassment from some of the neighborhood kids. (I’m a redhead… harassment is a fact of life.) Our initial analysis had told us that we’d build our empire further, but we were wrong.

Who was behind us, supporting this venture? Mom. (You thought I’d lost my focus, didn’t you?) On a day-to-day basis, my brother and I had it under control. We never had to borrow money to keep going, since a newspaper route isn’t capital intensive, but at 13, we couldn’t do everything.

When it rained, newspapers had to be bagged. This doesn’t seem too tedious since we got out of school at 3pm, but in the rain, our supply of newspapers usually arrived late. The newspapers had to be delivered by a set time, which I don’t remember. If they weren’t delivered on time, our customers could call the newspaper to complain. Each complaint cost us 25 cents. We only made pennies per day for each newspaper, so we couldn’t afford complaints. A few would destroy our profits for the month and that would mean fewer Garbage Pail Kids. (We were 13. Reinvesting was a foreign concept.) Guess who was there to help bag the papers? If the delivery was especially late, guess who was there to drive us on our routes? I even remember a few instances of riding in the back of her station wagon, tossing papers onto porches in the snow.

My mom never asked for anything in return. She never complained that she’d already worked a full day. She let us know we could get the job done, but on the occasions when we needed help, she’d be there. I can never repay that. My only response is gratitude.

At a time when there is significant discussion about family values, I can think of no better way to celebrate a mother’s impact than Lemonade Stories. The stories in the film are riveting and diverse, but the common theme is the same. Family values aren’t defined by Disney movies, Chutes and Ladders, and freshly-baked cookies. Family values can come in the form of a swearing mother who teaches her children to believe in themselves and to strive for self-defined success. That’s a lesson I can live with.

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