Young Upstarts

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Be a Benevolent Dictator (And Eight More Lessons For Getting Your Stalled Start-up Off The Ground)

by Michael Feuer, author of “The Benevolent Dictator

Be your own boss.

It’s a version of the American Dream that most people have fantasized about. Unfortunately, to many would-be entrepreneurs, getting past the dreaming phase and into the doing phase seems insurmountable — especially in a shaky economy where quitting your day job seems foolhardy and funding seems scarcer than, well, pay raises and affordable health insurance.

But the iron is not just hot; it’s smoking. And if you don’t strike now, someone else just might beat you to it.

The perfect time to make your move is when everyone else is afraid to. It’s a lot like investing in the stock market — once everyone else starts jumping on the bandwagon, you’ve missed the window.

The truth is, entrepreneurial success isn’t rocket science. It requires a great idea, the chutzpah to pull the trigger, and the determination and discipline to create and stack the building blocks needed to get from point A to point B — and from point B all the way to Z.

Once you’ve made the decision to take your stalled start-up idea off the shelf, blow away the dust, and move it into the marketplace, you’ll need to know what to do (and, just as important, what not to do). Here are nine tested and true tips and insights for getting the job done right:

You’ll need to rule your startup like a benevolent dictator.

It’s not as scary as it sounds, Feuer assures readers. The “benevolent” part means always putting the entity, the employees, and, most importantly, the customer, first. In other words, you’re focused foremost on doing the right thing for the right reasons, for all stakeholders. The “dictator” piece simply means that somebody in a new venture (i.e., you) has to recognize when debate, conversation, and analysis can’t take you any farther. At that time you have to decide, “We’re taking this fork in the road, for better or worse, and it’s on my head.”

With both OfficeMax and Max-Wellness, being the benevolent dictator provided the critical leadership necessary to take an idea and transform it into reality as fast as possible. Remember, beating the competition is never easy. Someone has to be willing to make the important decisions when it counts.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Whether you’re asking an employee to go the extra mile, asking a vendor for a discounted price, or pitching a business concept to an investor, you have to be willing to put yourself out there. Though most entrepreneurs don’t like asking others for help, they must learn to live with the process, because it’s a stark reality of growing a company.

Asking is certainly much more difficult than getting; however, it becomes much easier if you can learn how to make a strong presentation and tell your story. Attention, interest, desire, and action are the key elements of selling — you can ask for or tell just about anything as long as you do so honestly and spell out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“No” means “maybe.”

The word “no” is just a synonym for “maybe.”  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.”

I’ve seen it over and over: Hearing ‘no’ simply means that you haven’t effectively or passionately explained what you need — or adequately expressed how your success will translate to their success. Obviously, you’ll have to be tactful. You certainly don’t want to alienate potential investors, customers, or employees by harassing them for a more favorable answer. But you don’t have to take ‘no’ for an answer either.

Always look at a new idea through your customers’ eyes.

Today customers have the power — and they know it. No longer do they have to accept inferior products and dismal service. In our world of almost instant computer-driven communications, blogs, chat rooms, Tweets, Facebook pages, and apps galore, the consumer has come of age. There is a fast-growing movement afoot, and customers of the 21st century will not be denied.

At OfficeMax I had an army of customer service reps who were trained to do the right thing for the customer the first time around. Still, periodically, tenacious customers who were outraged by a perceived transgression made it their mission to reach the CEO directly. It was during those phone conversations that I truly learned what listening to the customer really meant.

I would identify myself when I answered my phone, and the irate caller would, many times, launch into histrionics. He or she would often suggest I take the angst-causing product and place it where it shouldn’t go and wouldn’t fit. After the ranting and raving stopped, however, I almost always solved the problem by simply saying, ‘I’m very sorry. I apologize. You’re right.’ Listening. That’s all it took.

Whatever kind of business you’re running — whether it’s a retailer, software development firm, restaurant, accounting firm, or manufacturer — it’s imperative to listen to what your customers are really saying when they tell you what they want from your business. You must learn how to think like your customers and see things through their eyes, not just yours. In essence, you must create an environment, a product offering, and a way of doing business that makes you the company of choice.

The journey better be as much fun as the destination.

Many a great entrepreneur has been derailed by burnout. It’s a disease that can be caused by many factors, but which ultimately boils down to this — too much focus on the final outcome and an inability to enjoy the day-to-day elements of being an entrepreneur. In short, you have to enjoy the journey as much as you enjoy reaching the destination. If you don’t, you might make it there, but you won’t last long once you get there.

I always incorporated this mindset into my business plans, right down to my daily activities. I’d start the day by handling my most difficult or unpleasant tasks first. With those out of the way, I’d take a management walkabout checking with staff members at all levels. Then I’d move on to thinking time, meeting with colleagues, or sometimes just schmoozing, bonding, or focusing on new and better ways to get things done.

I always tried to teach through my own example that the journey for everyone should be as much fun as the destination. It’s important to shape your day-to-day work in a way that allows you to have some fun. By getting the hard stuff out of the way early, you don’t have to work with a sense of dread and you’re freed up to enjoy the rest of the day. Build some fun into every day, and you’ll stay refreshed and focused on making your business the best it can be.

Let “Mother” do the hiring.

Bad hires are not only disruptive to businesses — they’re also expensive. According to a variety of studies, the cost of firing senior- or middle-management personnel can be as high as 300 percent of that person’s annual salary, and in some cases even higher. This includes the cost of finding a replacement, training, and the ancillary emotional and unsettling peripheral and disruptive effects. How can you stack the deck in your favor when making a new hire? Listen to your mother.

If there is a voice in your head that sounds like your mother and it’s advising you not to hire a certain candidate, the voice is probably just your entrepreneurial instinct telling you to proceed with caution. But beyond what I call the Mother Rule, there are ways to get job candidates to reveal their own crucial character traits.

One way I vet candidates is to ask them to provide a letter of interest outlining why they think they can get the job done, and what it would take to get them to join the organization. This shows me how the candidate thinks and articulates ideas and concepts—and also lets me know if he or she is thorough and has a sense of urgency by getting back to me in a timely fashion.

Don’t drink your own bathwater.

When success is reached, history tends to be rewritten about who did what and why, and how victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. At a certain level, this is all well and good. The problem arises when the true story gets filtered down, and the lessons from the experience lose their meaning because they’re not accurate or they’re too vague. This makes it increasingly difficult to apply what you learned to similar future efforts. If something didn’t work and no one remembers why, you’re usually destined to repeat past mistakes.

Whether you have hit your stride or have reached a milestone, it’s imperative to remember one thing: If you don’t remain hungry to achieve continued success, you’ll soon find yourself believing that you are as great as your last success. Moreover, if you do that, you could drown drinking your own bathwater or make bad mistakes because you trusted without verifying.

Know when it’s time to pull the plug.

One of the biggest dilemmas for any entrepreneur, CEO, or business owner is to know when enough is enough. There are peaks and valleys in virtually every company and industry. The trick for an owner is to understand these vacillations and know when it’s time for you to sell — to the highest bidder, of course.

The key to fulfillment and continued success is knowing how and when to reinvent one’s business and even personal life. It’s all about looking for that new twist or turn that might ignite a new burning in the belly.

That time arrived for me when I decided to sell OfficeMax. The company had been — in my mind anyway — something I did for almost 16 years but not who I was. I was thrilled that what I did employed 50,000 people and did business in every state but Vermont, with international operations in China, Japan, Brazil, and Mexico. At the end of the day, I knew that my team and I had built OfficeMax to fulfill its promise of ‘serving its customers, creating opportunities for its employees, and building value for our shareholders.’ With this realization, I knew it was time for me to move on.

Know how to put lightning back in the bottle again and again.

It is absolutely possible to be a repeat entrepreneurial success. Most successful second-act players have honed their instincts and skills and created a series of methodical steps that they follow. They understand how to get from A to Z while minimizing pain and wasted motions and maximizing available capital. Experience has taught them where to spend the most time and effort to ensure that they meet or beat both others’ and their own expectations.

Like many successful entrepreneurs and operators at this stage, I live to work rather than work to live. I love the challenge, thrive on naysayers telling me it can’t be done, and get great satisfaction in proving the pessimists wrong. I won’t presume to understand the psychological reason why anybody does anything, but the simple answer for me is that I put lightning back in the bottle because I know I can. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than starting from scratch and building a meaningful and relevant business, and if it’s a giant, so much the better.

Navigating a start-up venture is about as close as you can get to a 24/7 ride on the world’s scariest roller coaster. Every morning, when the entrepreneur gets out of bed, it’s showtime. And every evening, when that same would-be tycoon restlessly drifts off to sleep, he says a silent prayer, giving thanks for the fact that he’s survived the preceding 18 hours or so and asking to be granted the strength to fight another day.

If that sounds like an exhilarating life to you — and if you’re prepared to lead and to put the interests of your customers and employees ahead of your own — why not go for it? Take a chance. Pull the trigger. Start building something great. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the economy. If you’re feeling that burning in the belly, there will never be a better time than now.

(Editor’s note: Read our review of “The Benevolent Dictator” here.)


Michael Feuer cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and cofounder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010. After opening initial laboratory test stores in Florida and Ohio, a national roll-out is now underway.


This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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  • Anonymous

    Nice post. Thanks for sharing. =D