CHICAGO — I like business. I’ve spent most of my adult life helping grow businesses—first as an advertising executive, where I got to learn about high-end stereo chains, foot-pad manufacturers, hair salons and real estate; then as a personal manager, where I was the ad hoc chief executive officer in charge of developing the careers of actors, writers, directors and comedians.
I think about other people’s businesses often—what they do well, and what I might do differently if I ran their circus. For example, I always wonder why some fast-food restaurants use single-ply napkins. Sure, each single-ply napkin is about 50% cheaper than a stronger one; but one three-ply napkin does the work of 20 thinner ones, making the “more expensive” model a lot cheaper in the long run.
Again and again, I come to the same conclusion: The best business decision is rarely the cheapest; it is always the one with the best long-term implications. Think about it: We know to look not just at a car’s sticker price, but also its future trade-in value. And we all know how even multinational corporations can be brought to their knees when they compromise their long-term objectives for a short-term gain in stock price. Just the same, we often make decisions today with little thought about how they’ll affect tomorrow.
I think I owe my success to as a personal manager to long-term thinking. I remember having two lunches with a particular publicist—one when I was first getting started, and another a decade later. In the mean time, my business had grown from a one-man operation to a 13-person firm with annual gross revenues of about $8 million, and he had gone from being a partner in a good public-relations firm to struggling on his own.
He congratulated me on my success, taking credit for a piece of advice he’d given me years earlier. “I’m sure my telling you to take on any and all clients—just to make sure your rent gets paid—was really helpful in creating your foundation, wasn’t it?” he said.
“Actually, I have a very strong memory of you telling me that,” I said. “I went home and started to call a couple of comedians I didn’t think were really funny, but would bring in some needed income. I decided then and there that I’d never take on a client just because I could make money from them.
“For the first couple of years, when I’d have trouble paying my rent or covering my credit-card minimums, I’d think back and wonder if I should have listened to you,” I continued. “Then I’d realize that every so often when I called a casting director or network television executive, they’d compliment me on my taste. They believed I would only offer them quality talent.”
(Over time, I had helped my customers “discover” Leah Remini, the "Queen" in The King of Queens; Craig Ferguson, who played the boss on The Drew Carey Show and now stars on CBS’ Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson; Seth Rogen, who has recently appeared in Superbad, Knocked Up and Pineapple Express; and others.)
“So while it took me a bit longer than it might have to succeed, soon enough I was able to buy a nice house—in no small part, I think, by not representing clients I didn’t believe in just to pay my rent.”
The moral is universal. It doesn’t matter if you’re creating a $1.99-per-piece operation or an $80-per-suit showplace—figure out what kind of business you want to build, and then be loyal to that vision as you move forward. Let your customers trust your consistency, appreciate your loyalty and figure out that they won’t be able to find another cleaner who can compare.
Good business is just good business, no matter what business you’re in. And every decision you make today can affect your success tomorrow.