Sunday, July 13, 2008

umbrolli cutco

While visiting the Bay Area this week, I watched a great deal of BBC America television programming, having stayed with my friends Rob (who spent his early childhood in England) and Kate (from Scotland). They tivo shows like Hell's Kitchen, Top Gear (brilliant), and Dragons' Den. Except for Top Gear, a show with genuinely hilarious banter between its three hosts, none of these gripped my interest and held it fast.

However, a portion of Dragons' Den inspired this post and the tangential thinking therein. For any reader as unfamiliar I had been with the show, each contestant in Dragons' Den pitches a business idea to a panel of investors (the "dragons") in the hope of impressing one or more of them enough to invest in the idea. In this particular episode, one of the contestants on the show sought enough start-up money (150,000 pounds) to get his umbrolli (British for umbrella) vending business off the ground. He intended to place a vending machine in several hundred London tube stations that sold disposable umbrollies for 2 pounds apiece.

He thought of the business idea after getting caught in the rain once on his tube commute home. With as much as it rains in London, a disposable umbrolli vending machine in each tube station sounded like a good business idea outright, but he took it a step further. He intended to sell ad space on the front of his vending machines, placing them within line-of-sight of the commuter traffic exiting each station. He estimated the ad revenue that he would generate from his machines would be 2x that of the umbrollies he sold.

Rob, Kate, and I declared the idea genius. Kate wished she had thought of it, and I was thinking the same. It really was a good idea, but it wasn't just that. As Rob correctly pointed out, when this contestant ended up successfully negotiating with the dragons for his start-up money, his success was due as much to the work that he did around the idea as the idea itself. He had proprietary rights, valuation estimates and expense projections. He had already solicited the London transportation authority and signed a 12-year renewable contract to place his vending machines in several hundred tube stations. He had an artistic rendering of his vending machine design and even had an umbrolli prototype, airbrushed with the company logo, to pass around for the dragons to examine for themselves.

Just as I was letting myself slip into Kate's envious line of thinking regarding this guy's idea, it occurred to me that if I had indeed thought of it, I would never have brought it to the stage that he was presenting it now. I got a headache thinking about the paperwork required to file the proprietary rights to the idea, not to mention the spreadsheet work involved in making all the sales projections and estimates. For the record, you'd have to force me, at gunpoint, to petition any kind of authority at all. I can't even bring myself to ask a police officer on the sidewalk for directions.

More than this ancillary work, though, what would have sunk the umbrolli idea (if it were mine) was the mere thought of having to stand before the "dragons."

I suppose I just don't have an entrepreneurial nature. Or perhaps it is a case of nature vs. nurture. After watching the show, I thought about something I hadn't thought about in years. It was the very first time that I ever made any kind of sales pitch. This early experience may have been formative in developing my general aversion to the business world.

One summer in high school, I sold Cutco knives for the Vector Marketing corporation. I went door-to-door in my neighborhood, giving my rehearsed sales presentation. It involved cutting an empty Coke can in half with a carving knife, finely slicing a tomato with a bread knife, and then scissoring through a penny with a pair of kitchen shears. Getting through the penny was the toughest part of the presentation. Though the shears managed this feat, I was never able to make it seem as effortless as it was supposed to. It always required a visible effort on my part, often requiring the use of both hands to force the shears through the penny. In retrospect, my lack of hand strength may have ultimately been responsible for my failing to meet my sales quotas, but it was not directly responsible for the aversion I developed for the act of selling.

Every week, as I recall, I was required to attend marketing meetings at our regional office, and after my first, I left wondering why I was bothering with the job in the first place. Part-pep rally, part-bitch session, part-capitalist indoctrination, these meetings conflicted with an idealistic, artistic worldview that I had already begun to cultivate.

I remember one occasion when a Marketing VP from the corporate office surprised our regional sales manager by showing up for one of these meetings. He gave a speech that could have come straight out of Alec Baldwin's mouth in Glengarry Glen Ross. He dismissed our sales numbers as pathetic, instructed us how to "go the extra mile" for the sale, and he actually pulled his car keys out of his pocket, jingling them in front the conference room. "That's my Porsche outside," he said. "Trust me, you'll never own one unless your numbers improve."

But it was the beginning of his speech that made an indelible impression upon me. The gist of his opening remarks were, "In any sport, you know who is the winner is by who has the most points on the scoreboard. Life is a sport, and the points are dollars. At the end, whoever has the most-- wins."

(I just realized why a recent Nike ad campaign has always left me feeling unsettled. I couldn't say what it put me off about it until now; it had to be their use of the tag line "Life Is A Sport," resonating in my subconscious.)

What astonished me most about his speech was the nodding agreement the Marketing VP got from almost everyone seated around me. A few actually looked like they had experienced a revelation. "Yes, life is a sport!" their expressions seemed to be saying.

Watching the "dragons" on Dragons' Den, I would have a difficult time believing that any one of them, at that early age, would not have been nodding their heads in the same situation. Their career successes in business imply an espousal of this worldview, and thus my aversion to them-- I wouldn't want to stand before the dragons now anymore than I would have wanted to be seated next to them then.

Here's a poem.

Happy Hour at the Bull Run

The businessmen,
all business in the boardroom
are all men here

after the closing bell,
after the contract’s been
Fed-Exed to the client

they brawn up to the bar,
sleeves rolled to elbows,
Windsors loose in their collars,

thick studs in lust
with the big bucks they push
to the bartender in the low-cut

top, downing pints and
throwing back shots amid high-
fives and shouts.

I try to squeeze between
their broad backs, slipping
an arm through

waving a few dollars
with so little
hope for her attention

it may as well be
a white flag, a pink hanky,
this yellow poem in my hand.

Todd Christopher Cincala

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. So how long did you end up working for Vector? Did you work the entire summer? I worked for Vector for 2 years while in college. Didn't experience exactly what you did, but admit it was hard work. I learned a lot from that company in those 2 years though.