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[posted 05.06.2001]


OVER THE PAST FEW years I’ve pursued an early calling to be an entrepreneur. To my mind, the most exciting companies are the ones in their earliest stages with no corporate baggage, no draconian rituals (“procedures”), executives who actually take their own calls and read their own email, and not one single motivational poster in sight. These companies (with the exception of those enterprises who add “no business plan” to their attribute list) are lean, mean, flexible and ready for anything. I love the energy, I love the speed. And being my own boss by 23 wasn’t half bad, either.

I’ve been involved in three such startups (all in different fields) and, as I’ve pursued my peculiar craft, I’ve wondered why it is that larger businesses seem so unable to squelch me. Why could my upstart service provider compete with the likes of a Baby Bell? In a traditional military scenario, we’d have been wiped out in the first engagement. We were outnumbered and outgunned 10,000 to 1 at the start: Our competitors had the territory, supplies, money, men, equipment, experienced generals and overwhelming force. Yet we carved out a niche for ourselves and not only survived, but thrived — almost like a virus who, though tiny and prehistoric, survives the ablest attempts to dislodge it by men whose brains alone are billions of times larger.

How was this possible? How could it be done? And, I wondered, what happens to agile, upwardly mobile companies that causes them to stumble and fall, ultimately succumbing to the creeping, wasting illness that infects medium-sized companies across the country? What is the contagion? How can it be stopped or its virulence diminished?

At first I thought the cause was awkwardness. Like a quickly growing teen, a fast-track company can expand so quickly that it loses its agility. A 747 is less nimble than a fighter jet, an elephant has a wider turning radius than a lynx. But the argument could not be maintained. Nimbleness alone could not win the day — my motorcycle might outflank a main battle tank, but I’d have no way to wound it and a shell wouldn’t have to come very near me to discomfit me quite a lot.

I tried and discarded other possibilities before I finally pegged it. The problem? Conference calls.

Like politicians, executives in medium-sized businesses set a dangerous precedent: They talk a lot and do little. Like rot through an old sandwich, this philosophy permeates the strata of their organizations, finally reaching the “project managers” (salespeople), “business development directors” (their bosses) and other middle management. Soon all subscribe to the theory that “we are not generating sales, we are building relationships.” This means that, rather than trying to sell you a product in the traditional “it’s just what you need” kind of way, these people want to be your friends. They want to be your partners. They want to talk your ear off in the hope that, in a moment of weakness, you will let them in your bed.

Following the trendy mantra that, thanks to modern communications technologies, it doesn’t matter where you work — so long as its in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, “Virginia” (no one wants to admit to working in D.C.) or Raleigh-Durham — these companies are located all over the country. Long-distance relationships are always tough, but, like warm and caring partners, these salesmen try to make the distance closer by keeping you on the phone. What they forget is that a relationship, a real partnership, is a warm and intimate connection between two people. It often requires monogamy — it always requires privacy. You would not call your lover with your mother, your friend, your boss, your most beloved professor and your friend’s roommate from college who’s just back from a three-month stay in Germany on the line.

Similarly, it is indiscreet to call your client with your boss, your boss’ boss, your sales engineer, your stuffed Cookie Monster and little dog Toto on the line. In meetings there is a law of diminishing returns, by which each person added contributes less to the mix than the one before. On a conference call it is a law of inverse returns: Each person actually detracts.


Once you’ve overcome the mechanics of bridging the call (usually an erudite process known only to a single receptionist with unparalleled job security), confusion ensues. Take away all your visual clues, and the indistinguishability of employees of the big five consulting firms will be driven home to you like a hot nail in the base of the spine. Each caller must identify himself, Bob Dole-style, before speaking so as to provide some clue who he is.

And when the caller speaks, each suffers to be more obsequious than the next, spouting platitudes that eclipse the most sycophantic courtier of Louis XIV. But the real regard in which each flatterer holds you is made evident by his joining the call from a cell phone while he runs to catch a plane. An onslaught of honking, PA systems and crowd noises shred the peace and calm of your office or cubicle, all funneled through the quirky, jittering cellular connection. (And, if you do these frequently, the call is mainlined to your cranium via a headset that doesn’t even offer the option of holding it away from your ear.)

The sensory overload continues for hours. You learn how valuable and wonderful you are — until you ask for better pricing or for the smallest change or customization, or point out that you never really wanted the product to begin with but just handed the salesman your card during a tradeshow to make him go away while you were talking with somebody important who actually wanted to get something done rather than talk about it. Then you are whitewashed, distracted and confused. You are told about business processes, strategic growth assessment and the annual revenues of the salespersons’ firm (a means of indicating how many people have already paid their protection money to escape this torture).

One by one, callers drop off as their planes depart or their cell phones lose service. You may have found a cunning means of drawing the call to a close — perhaps through having to administer an outpatient lobotomy to an equally beleaguered colleague. In traditional sales training, the end of the conversation is the point at which the caller should make the sale: Your customer’s resistance broken, now’s the time to make your move and take her home. But that is not the modern method. Just as the modern man is always waffling and uncertain, the modern salesman talks about the value of the call, the progress of the relationship and just asks when you’d like to talk again.

It is an effective tactic of engagement. Until I discovered the ploy, my competitors were able to diminish my company’s efficiency purely by using their peons to engage my best and brightest via phone. If that is what they do to me, a comparatively small blip on the radar, I can only imagine what they do to each other.

But now I have the secret. I am forewarned and forearmed. When a company makes a pass at me, I judge it. Is it attractive? Is it sound? Am I ready for this kind of relationship? If I am, I do the deal. If I’m not, I just say No. But under no circumstances do they get more than one conference call.

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dan ratner is known to the police as a “serial entrepreneur” — a repeat offender — and is most frequently spotted near his home in cambridge, mass., where sources report that he is contemplating a new enterprise with certain suspicious looking visitors. authorities around the world are on high alert — look for more as the situation develops….