Young Upstarts

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[Review] The Benevolent Dictator

To successfully launch and lead a successful startup, there needs to be a benevolent dictator, asserts Michael Feuer, author of The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition“. A benevolent dictator, to paraphrase Feuer, is a leader who is someone who “always puts the entity, the employees, and most important, the customer, first” ahead of himself/herself, but also one who knows when to say enough is enough.

Feuer may know something about leading a startup – he c0-founded in 1988 leading business-to-business office products solutions and retail office products company OfficeMax, which he built from almost nothing to a US$5 billion company. He may not be a young upstart, the entrepreneur also recently founded a new retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first-of-its-kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care.

Feuer’s put many of the lessons he’s learnt over the years in his career into The Benevolent Dictator. Indeed, he recounts many personal examples – from his 15 years as a young up-and-coming marketing executive in to his OfficeMax position – to add weight to his no-nonsense how-to advice about leadership and management. He breaks down the book into 40 specific lessons split into four parts, covering the phases that a startup will go through as it grows.

To help you understand better what kinds of lessons you can expect from the book, I’m extracting a portion of Feuer’s introduction, with which he says are lessons that “stands out most in his mind” in this book:

  • If you don’t ask you will never get. This applies to vendors, employees, and even bosses.
  • The word “no” is just a synonym for “maybe”. This realization led me to train my team to comprehend that the “no” you receive the first nine times is merely a disguised maybe – because the other guy is looking for a reason why not to proceed, or doesn’t understand what you’re asking. It’s only after the tenth time – when the other person hangs up on you or walks out of the room and slams the door – that “no” really means “no”.
  • You must always look at a new idea through the customer’s eyes – not just from an operator’s perspective.
  • The journey better be as much fun as the destination.
  • Always play by the “Mother Rule”: if you don’t want your mother to know you did something, don’t do it – because it is probably wrong.
  • Never fall in love with the underpinnings of your idea. Instead fall in love with the expected results that you might achieve. To put it more crudely, “Don’t drink you own bathwater.”
  • Know when enough is enough and it’s time to pull the plug on your project and pack it in.
  • Know how to put the lightning back into the bottle again and again.
  • Understand why the best start-ups are run by a Benevolent Dictator.

It’s a great book about leadership and should appeal to anyone running, or intending to run, their own business. There are also great entrepreneurship lessons in there as well.

The only downside I find with this book is that Feuer – in an attempt to give as much meat to his ideas and examples as possible – tends to ramble somewhat in his writing. It doesn’t help that, sometimes, ideas don’t flow as well into the succeeding chapter, which is a different lesson altogether. The best way to read this book, I find, is to do what some people do when they read the Bible for inspiration. Flip to the lessons that speak to you most in the stage of your life – or your company’s life – and look for the specific lessons that you believe will help you the most. You’ll be surprised by what Feuer has to say.

The Benevolent Dictator will be launched on June 7 this year.

Editor’s note: We reviewed an advanced uncorrected proof copy of this book. Minor changes to the contents of the book can be expected.

Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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