Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Trouble with the New American Dream

I love business. I enjoyed being part of the actual business part of the music business (most of my frustrations came from how little of that business has to do with work, talent, or brains. It's pure luck and the odds are far worse than Vegas). Making deals is a thrill and I even enjoy it as a spectator sport, particularly watching small businesses take off.

I'm a firm believer in capitalism as a concept, it is the only way that people can be free and open markets create better global relations as well as opportunities where there never were ANY before.

However, what has happened to American business? When did personal greed completely take over to the point where so many people don't even care about their company or colleagues, let alone anyone or anything else?

I have been a big fan of the BBC show Dragon's Den since it started airing here. While not the most realistic portrayal of pitching (especially since entrepreneurs are not allowed to use notes or Power Point), it's a fun way to watch what people are concocting and what makes a pitch click or not. I also like the "dragons" they've had participating over the years, they clearly are in it to make money but they also seem to genuinely want to build the businesses they choose to invest in. Their decisions and offers make logical sense and their advice is often fantastic. I would be happy to work with any of them.

When I first heard that ABC was rolling out Shark Tank I was rather excited to see our homegrown version. I was familiar with the "sharks" on the show already and thought it would be fun to see them in action even in the strange environment of reality television. My main reaction to the actual show, though, is it makes me even more disappointed in the way Americans think about business.

You have to be tough to succeed but do you have to be ruthless? Kevin O'Leary likes to point out constantly that, "Money has no soul," and yet he views money as a religion, to worship and even listen to. Well, I agree, Mr. O'Leary, that money is soulless but that is the reason to NOT worship it. It's also the reason that we, as the ones with souls, could use a lesson in responsible use of money. Money is a tool, much like a gun. Having some or lots of it enables you to do good or evil, the money itself will never make that choice. You can protect your family, build a legacy, and even help people with it. You can also use it to dominate, oppress, and destroy all kinds of entities.

There always have been and always will be people who are motivated purely by greed but that used to be the exception and these days it seems more like a rule. I firmly believe it is the reason we're in the mess that we are in. Greed promotes bad management practices which undercuts employees' enthusiasm (key to getting good performance) which makes them treat customers poorly. At that point, you either need a near-monopoly or extremely low prices (Wal-Mart, anyone?) to lure in and keep customers. It's bad business, no matter how much money you might personally make in the process.

People who make a lot of money by wrecking people's lives (and livelihoods) and peddling irresponsible garbage should never be proud of themselves. People who build truly great companies (the kind that benefit everyone involved with them from founder to end-customer) should. Think about who you look up to and use your own money, no matter how much or little it is, to support the latter.

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