It might sound like a poor-man’s Isak Dinesen, but I’ll say it anyway. I had a marketing agency in Saratoga Springs, 30 miles north of Albany, the New York state capital. I had it for 15 years, in fact, before a combination of factors led me to sell the business to Phoenix-based McMurry, Inc., in 2006. My company was Redspring Communications, named after the Big Red Spring on the grounds of the Saratoga race course where thoroughbred horses compete for six weeks every summer. I referred to Redspring as my company, but in fact it was our company, built over a decade and a half by a broad assortment of friends, partners, contributors, and even antagonists. Companies, like the buildings I saw in Rome, comprise countless layers of construction and history, with each successive foundation incorporating the previous. In this sense, companies are built on the big and little contributions and bear the marks—sometimes the scars—of every person who worked there. That was certainly the case with Redspring.
By the time I sold the company, we had a rich catalogue of stories that veteran employees shared with new hires over drinks at 9 Maple, the English-style pub downtown, or at airport bars. There were stories about employees who lasted only a few days before they were fired or left in a snit. Or about beloved managers who stayed for many years and were missed long afterward. There were tales of epic sales pitches, huge wins, lost clients, ugly internecine strife, staff surveys gone terribly wrong, misguided party toasts, clandestine romances, and acts of incredible kindness. It is this legacy, this collective mythology, that is generally lost when a company is sold and subsumed into something larger. When Redspring was sold, its legacy became part of McMurry, Inc., which then became part of McMurry/TMG and so on. That’s the way it works, of course; but the process of building and combining businesses is one of inexorable motion toward bigger. It can result in accumulated wisdom being buried like terracotta rubble under the poured concrete foundation of something new.
The Perpetual Business Student
During my 15 years at Redspring, and then the following 10 years as a C-level executive at its successor organizations, I took a lot of mental notes—on the nature of human interactions in the context of a small (and then medium-sized) organization, on what it means to be a leader, on business ethics, and on the nuanced concept of organizational purpose. I studied the company’s mythology not just as stories but as an accumulated curriculum in business management. Having been an entrepreneur and owner, a General Manager, a Chief Operating Officer, a Chief Strategy Officer, and, eventually, a corporate development executive, I saw business from pretty much every angle. And though I frequently heard executives invoke some form of “it’s only business” when they made tough decisions, I concluded early on that business is actually inextricable from the personal. The best organizations are built on human values and they openly, actively embrace their unique human histories. The building blocks of businesses are people, and the dynamics that result in great successes or catastrophic failures are almost always related to the inscrutable thing we call homo sapiens.
It is the very human, very personal experiences that populated my 25 years as a business owner and leader that preoccupy me now: the lessons, the mistakes, the missed opportunities, the resolutions, the wisdom gained. My aim in writing about them is to unearth some of the best insight and present it for consideration to people who care as much about the soul of their enterprise as the size of it. The best part for me is that, as I recall these stories and write about them, I continue to learn from them. I once told our Vice President of Sales that we aren’t defined as leaders by our successes, but by how we deal with difficulty, even failure. It’s failures that chasten us, that remind us we always have more to learn. If, as I believe is the case, the best leaders are students of business, then we should all spend as much time learning from our past decisions as making new ones.