Success Is Not a Destination, It's a Trip
Cycle 4: Pearly Gates (6 0f 6)
There was a creative community taking shape in an old warehouse
about eight blocks from the square. I signed a lease on 700 squeare feet
in that building, which was owned by a graphic arts company, Hyperion
Studio, a business that included pre-press services, and a photo lab,
services I use.
At that point I moved into heaven. I discovered Steve, the owner of Hyperion,
working every Saturday like I did, and we fell into hanging out over coffee
on Saturday mornings. He had artsy friends who hung around too, friends
who came in to use the photo darkroom, and it became quite the little
art salon. Great wide-ranging conversations, art and the meaning of life,
just like college.
He became a really good friend, and we shared everything, grousing about
our employees, collaborating on graphic projects together.
It was a good time, but something felt a little different. I wasn't thinking
too much about "FAMP" any more. I had basically figured out
how to run my business, and how to do the creative work, and the challenge
and risk of the early years was now more of a memory.
And then one day, the phone rang. A voice said, "I hear you could
write a book on advertising." I laughed, and said "I probably
could, who is this?" No, really, he was an acquisitions editor representing
an east coast publisher, and he was looking for a manuscript on advertising.
He'd gotten my name from an ex-employee.
Because of the writing I'd been doing since Italy, it felt like something
I could try.
That phone call resulted in a contract, and through the next year and
a half I worked on a manuscript nights and weekends, and it was a good
thing. I wasn't sure I could do it, and the sense of risk and challenge
was there for me again. In many ways it was the equivalent of going to
grad school, in the things I learned and the ways it organized for me
things I already knew.
And that led to a second book, and that felt even better. My confidence
in my writing grew. But my interest in my advertising and design work
Meanwhile the rise and fall of accounts in my business was going on, and
of all things, I picked up sort of a partner. He was a friend who was
suddenly fired from his ad agency job for free-lancing, and he rented
my conference room and set up his own ad agency, and I did all his design
and production work for him. Now you would think this was finally the
partnership I'd always wanted. But I found I wasn't very interested in
coaching someone through the beginning stages of entrepreneurship, and
we agreed to just buy and sell services from each other.
It pumped money into my business in a way I hadn't seen before. Suddenly
I was facing pressure to add more staff, more equipment, maybe more space
to accommodate them, to keep up with the volume of work this guy was generating.
I could have signed on for that trip, and joined the rise of the Berry
Group as an ad agency, but I just didn't want to. I'd lost my taste for
I was experiencing some recognition, some success, for the books, and
I began to understand that maybe not my whole life, not everything I ever
did or accomplished, would be through White Space.
This time of indecision went on for months, and I was very overworked
during that time, really tortured. And one night, as I was driving home
from the studio thinking, “am I going to add employees? I don't
want to grow again. But am I going to kick out this client? I don't want
to be poor again." Same ground I'd been going over for months.
And as I was driving home that night, the streetlights were just coming
on over Johnson Street, and they seemed to speak to me. Shimmering voices,
like twinkling lights. Now I listen to my dreams, but I'm not accustomed
to hearing voices. This was like something out of Ally McBeal.
"The answer is right under your nose," the voices said.
The problem was, I didn't know what that meant. And I thought about it
for a couple of weeks, and then it came to me. Who was right under my
nose? Steve, at Hyperion, my Saturday morning buddy.
I would sell my business to Hyperion. He was poised for growth–he could
serve the Berry Group, and I could be part of it, but I'd no longer have
the risk. The best of both worlds.
So I went to Steve and said, "I want to sell you my business."
And he said, "My production manager just quit. Would you like the
job? " The timing was incredible.
Well, this was a marriage made in heaven, and it happened very quickly.
I swapped the value of my business for some stock in his, and moved in
and got to work on a Friday afternoon. He hired my staff, took possession
of my furniture and fixtures, and that was the end of White Space.
My family and friends were shocked. "How could you sell your business?
It was all you ever cared about." Well the answer is it was a child
that had grown, and it needed to leave home. My home, anyway.
I'm very happy to have had the experience, and very happy to have ended
it in the way that I did. I was lucky that I found someone for whom what
I had, had value. With service businesses, especially those based essentially
on the talents of the principal, that's not something you can take for
I was able to come home from my trip, come to rest after all those years.
Despite what the Rotarian asked me when I told him I'd sold my business,
"was it successful", I find in the end that's not an important
question. Failed or successful, I'm grateful for the experience.
While speaking to all those Italian banquets, I found one thing I could
say that was not a lie, or too ungrateful. "Grazie per l'opportunita
di essere qui." Thank you for the opportunity to be here.
As I said at the start, a good trip is one that's filled with unexpected
surprises. Without a few narrow escapes, it's not an adventure. I'm grateful
for the adventure of entrepreneurship. The experiences encountered, and
the friendships made, in the course of guiding a business, are priceless.
They give even the proprietor of a business that has gone belly-up, an
experiment gone bad, a reason to feel successful about the effort invested.
I wish similar opportunities, and adventures, for you as well.
My life stories