Businessman Behaving Badly

Interview that accompanied the release of my book, The Little Book of Bad Business Advice:

Tired of pretentious business advice books filled with obvious platitudes? Then check out the Machiavellian maxims in Steve Altes’s The Little Book of Bad Business Advice (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). We recently interviewed Steve about his unique opinions on business.

What is the essence of business?
Well, some people will say “to meet customer’s needs.”  Or to create value for shareholders. Or to bring products to market. Those are all interesting answers. But wrong. No, the true purpose of business is to give us an excuse to rent and punish rental cars.

Care to share any secrets of career success?
The first thing you need is a good business card. I get a little nervous when someone hands me a business card printed on a laser printer. And the edges still have those little perforations. And the ink is still smudgy. There’s just no better way to say “I won’t be in business very long.”

More and more people are working out of their homes today. Any advice for them?
Lots of people work out of their homes today. Nothing wrong with that. Except when they try to make it sound like they’re running some huge multinational corporation. Hmmm, Transglobal Management Consulting, World Headquarters, 14203 Prancing Hobbit Lane? Then they try to make it sound more businessy by adding “Suite 200.”  Suite 200. Yeah right. That’s your pantry. I just FedEx’ed my proposal to your pantry.

Any advice for grads who have an entrepreneurial itch?
Why not get a day job, then get entrepreneurial from the safety of your cubicle? Consider the service industry. I think the future lies in super-fast paper cutter haircuts, thumb-tack acupuncture, and white-out manicures.

And if your business takes off, what’s the best way to tell your boss you’re leaving?
I like to invent “imaginary principles” and tell my boss that’s why I’m quitting. “I demand a ten-hour work-week, that beer be put in the soda machines, a corporate helicopter and a secretary for my secretary! What? You refuse? I’ve had it with this den of stupidity! I’m outta here!”  They’ll talk about you for years to come. “Can you believe his demands? Where did he think we were going to find a unicorn skin rug for his office?!”

So you see work as “a den of stupidity”?
Sure. Nobody thinks in an office. It’s like everyone’s on auto-pilot. A bunch of sleep-walking zombies. Don’t believe me? Try this experiment: leave a banana in the office kitchen with a sign that says “Do NOT Remove,” and see how long it stays there? A month? Til Christmas? Until it crawls away on its own?

Sounds like you don’t see yourself returning to the 9-to-5 corporate world?
Nope. Couldn’t handle the commuters. Take the evening commute west on a sunny day. A lot of times the only reason traffic will be slow is because people are driving into the sun, not wearing sunglasses. It’s like they’re saying: “Who knew the sun was going to set in the west tonight? Who knew!?”

What business practices annoy you the most?
So many things. My latest pet peeve is businesses that answer their phones with a long, rambling spiel like, “Good morning and thank you very much for dialing the award-winning Kwalitee Hotel where serving the customer is always our number one priority. At Kwalitee we put you first because we know your time is precious. My name is Michelle and I’ll be your customer service representative. How may I help you this morning, Sir or Madame?”  By the time she finishes, I’m napping in another hotel.

Or office managers who put elaborate locks on the copier requiring special access codes. And when you ask to make a copy, they raise their eyebrows as if you just asked for the launch codes to our nuclear arsenal.

What are some things a person can to get their boss to notice them?
Fed Ex’s get attention. Try Fed Ex’ing your memos to your boss. Even if he is only two doors down from you. Or put your trashcan on your desk and label it “In.”  If you really want to get noticed, mount a paper shredder on it.

Name one thing a business can do to increase sales.
Give your product a stupid name. Like Orville Redenbacher popcorn. Or Otis Spunkmeyer cookies. Some marketing whiz must have decided that the geekier the name sounds, the more people will pity the slob who created it and buy the product. Who wants to buy “Handsome Robert’s Cookies?”  Sell brownies or something. Call them “Lester Bumblesquat’s Brownies.”  They’ll fly off the shelves.

What is the worst business to start?
The worst business in the world has got to be owning a rug store. Every day I see twenty ads in the paper, rug stores having going out of business sales. Drive by the stores, they all have big banners: lost our lease, everything must go. Something’s not quite right though. It’s the same stores with the same banners, week after week, year after year.

And what is the best business to start?
Anything having to do with the Internet. Just yesterday I saw there’s a company that will do birth announcements on the web. It’s called “My First Web Page.”  My First Web Page! I remember when I was a kid. We didn’t have My First Web Page. We had toys like My First Rusty Can, My First Dead Squirrel and My First Blasting Cap.

In your book there’s a photo of you stealing office supplies. Is there anything wrong with that?
Come on, who among us hasn’t stolen a stapler, a fax machine, or a color laser copier from the office? Actually, snatching office supplies from your day job is a time-honored method entrepreneurs use to bootstrap their home-based businesses. Especially if that new business is… selling stolen office supplies.

A lot of companies are wise to this and put clerks between you and the supplies. Don’t let this slow you down. Goad the clerk with “Why do you worry about employee theft? This is an office, not a diamond mine. What do you think you’re protecting? The Hope Paper Clip? The Star of India Ink?”

Often it’s easier to stock up on supplies by raiding your neighbor’s office. That’s why so many staplers these days bear menacing signs like “Return Me or Die Slowly and Painfully, Jagoff!”

What do you plan to do with the profits from your book?
I’ll probably squander it all in a series of foolish get-rich-quick schemes, as usual. Dang!

And if you strike it rich? What then?
I had a loads of money, I’d give it away to charities, but with strings attached. Can you imagine donating $5 million to Harvard to endow a scholarship for The Study of Charlie Sheen Movies? They’d take it too. “Well Johnny, the good news is you’ve got free tuition. The bad news is you have write your thesis on symbolism in “The Shadow Conspiracy.”

Speaking of movies, what was it like being Brad Pitt’s stand-in on “The Devil’s Own”?
Brad Pitt? Hah! I had to carry him through the whole movie. First day on set, I go to Brad, “See that guy? He’s the director. When he says ‘action’ you do your thing.”  Funny, Brad never warmed up to me. So after a few weeks I stopped giving him acting tips. I figured, “He’ll learn.”

Actor, model, author, business consultant…how do you manage to juggle so many different careers?
I live by the motto “Carpe Diem.”  Which as we all know is Latin for “death to carp.”  And why should we let carp stand in our way? I say death to them!

No, actually the key is to set goals, stay focused, and get organized. I’m a compulsive organizer. I get sexually aroused just walking into Staple’s. My last girlfriend ran from my apartment in terror when she saw my shirts hung in the closet by the colors of the spectrum. Pants by Dockers. Shirts by Roy G. Biv.

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This interview originally appeared in somewhat different form in The University Reporter.

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About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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