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Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets it Right Hardcover – October 19, 2010
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From the Inside Flap
Before he was a success, Dal LaMagna was a failure. A self-described "compulsive capitalist," he failed at every business he tried, from one of the original computer dating services (run on a 1950s vacuum-tube computer), to an ice cream parlor on the Venice boardwalk, to converting drive-in movie theatres to drive-in discotheques (he tried to compete against Woodstock), to a Harvard Square waterbed store. All these ventures got him, aside from some really good stories, was about $150,000 in debt. As he puts it, "I failed to get ahead." Yet his tale has a happy ending.
Raising Eyebrows reveals how LaMagna turned his failures into the seeds of his success, founding the beauty tool company Tweezerman and building it into both a premium brand and a socially responsible enterprise. If you're tired of entrepreneurship stories that gloss over hardships or sugar-coat risks, LaMagna pulls no punches in depicting the long and difficult work of realizing his dreams.
Over years and years of starting and running companies, LaMagna discovered how his early unsuccessful ventures equipped him to ultimately achieve triumphs. While reading Raising Eyebrows, you will learn from his mistakes so you can apply them to your enterprise. You'll find practical wisdom on raising capital, marketing, selling, and more, all woven into a rich portrayal of doing business in the radical 1960s and beyond. You'll also learn how building and running a socially responsible company works in the real world, straight from an entrepreneur who has walked the walk. And you won't want to miss the painfully funny story of how LaMagna first got the idea for Tweezerman!
By turns inspiring, hilarious, poignant, and enlightening, Dal LaMagna's story, cowritten with his lifelong friends Wally Carbone and Carla Reuben, offers an unforgettable business and life journey that brings new meaning to the saying "never give up." If you've ever dreamed of following your own path and changing the world along the way, you'll want to see how a lot of pluck—and a little luck—had one man Raising Eyebrows.
From the Back Cover
Praise for Raising Eyebrows
"Dal LaMagna tells his story with startling candor about how he learned from his business and personal failures to develop that combination of resiliency, curiosity, and necessary entrepreneurial discipline to build a successful company, sell it at the top, and open up many other new initiatives."
—Ralph Nader, leading consumer advocate
"Raising Eyebrows is the story of an indefatigable entrepreneur and adventurer who meets life's failures with an unrelenting forcefulness to always forge forward. Dal's book is a lesson in innovative life engagement and the power of unbending will."
—Juleanna Glover, republican strategist, founding principal at The Ashcroft Group, LLC
"Dal's improbable success after many failures is a lesson for all of us not only about business but about life. Dal tells his story in a delightfully humorous 'no-holds-barred way' and shares what he has learned about creating a business that benefits society as a whole. This is a really good read. Dal rocks."
—Ben Cohen, co-founder, Ben and Jerry's
"Dal LaMagna is one of the funniest, most original people I've ever met. He puts his money, passion, and creativity to work for what he believes in. I say that with particular appreciation because he was the first person ever to invest in me. Dal is a born storyteller who has good material to work with. This book is guaranteed to make you laugh—and think about how you are living your life."
—Nina Rothschild Utne, co-founder, Utne Reader, and founder, Future Fit
"Dal LaMagna is a great storyteller, both funny and emotionally deep. He has gotten into and out of more trouble than any ten of us. This makes great stories, but it also allows him to teach the essence of entrepreneurship in a memorable and entertaining way. In addition to the laughs and thrills, reading Raising Eyebrows will make you a better businessperson and a better human being."
—Gifford Pinchot III, co-founder, Bainbridge Graduate Institute
"Dal's book is delightful, entertaining, real, thought-provoking, and when it is over, you are inspired to live a more authentic, adventurous, and courageous life. Read it so you too can become a more engaged citizen for the peace and well-being of the world."
—Jodie Evans, co-founder, CodePink
Top customer reviews
From the very beginning, LaMagna had the makings of an entrepreneur. At the age of 8, he won a sales competition selling raffle tickets. Shortly afterward, he learned a key lesson of entrepreneurship while playing with friends – the power of belief. As he describes it:
This [belief], I think, is the essential key to entrepreneurism. When you really believe, it sets off a chain reaction. Your manufacturer believes. Your employees believe. Your customers believe…It transforms us and awakens in us something greater and more profound than ourselves. It is this exhilaration in the process of achieving collective belief that drives me to be an entrepreneur.
LaMagna then had a near success organizing the formation of a community center near what was then known as Idlewild Airport. However, his plans were forgotten in the wake of the assassination of JFK, and LaMagna learned yet another lesson.
Sometimes in life you cannot change what has already come to be. The most you can hope for is recompense… Reality is not always affected by the good or bad intentions of everyone involved. Sometimes there are events that occur outside of us, outside of the interested parties that have nothing to do with the problem that needs to be solved.
This marked a turning point for LaMagna, and the end of his moderate successes and graceful failures. From here until the founding of Tweezerman, all of his ventures were to end in disaster. LaMagna kept meticulous records of each business, and the reasons for its failure; now, he can pass his lessons on to us.
Early in his university career, LaMagna, along with a partner, decided that there was an opportunity at the intersection of dating and a new technology, the computer. LaMagna formed the Cupid Computer Company, which promised to find college students their ideal match after a sufficient number filled out a questionnaire to determine compatibility. This business might have been a success, but LaMagna changed the business model for some free publicity: in exchange for free airtime on a Providence radio station, the Cupid Computer Co. hosted a dance for algorithmically matched dates. It was a disaster, with 60 out of the 500 people who showed up abandoned by their dates, and the company was roasted in the local news. Though LaMagna wouldn’t realize the lesson learned here until much later, it should be obvious: he overcomplicated the premise, hosting an unnecessary and ultimately failed event in exchange for some free advertising.
After that disastrous semester, LaMagna started a summer business in Newport, RI, intending to open an outdoor barbeque to cater to the attendees of the Newport Folk Festival. He acquired all the supplies required, and got an old freezer from the hotel where he was employed. Because he wasn’t organized, and wasn’t paying attention, he didn’t realize that the freezer he would be using was on the verge of failure; come time for the festival, all of his frozen meat had thawed and had been ruined. The lesson learned here, as he pointed out himself, was that of organization: “If you’re not an organized person, don’t start a business.”
LaMagna started his next venture during a year abroad in Switzerland. Called “Le Club Shindig,” it was a brilliant idea that saw him flagrantly violate the spirit of local laws without ever actually breaking one. The town in which he was studying was a strictly Catholic town, and the moral codes had prohibited dancing for centuries. The local authorities allowed dances to be hosted only under strict conditions: only nonprofit societies could host dances, and each society could hold one dance a year. LaMagna and his partner formed a new non-profit society each week, and then held their ‘annual’ dance before dissolving the society. Soon, upwards of 200 students were attending these weekly events. Eventually, after they offended the town’s leaders one too many times, LaMagna and his partner had their venture closed down and were asked to leave early, but for months, they had successfully bent the rules without technically breaking the law. LaMagna also attempted to re-start the Cupid Computer Company in Europe under the name ProContact, this time without the gimmicky dance for publicity. However, they were the first computer dating service in Europe, and they were not able to overcome the liability of newness to get a sufficient user base to sign up. LaMagna learned yet another lesson here, which he described thus: “It’s not always advantageous to be the first when it comes to introducing new concepts to the marketplace.”
LaMagna returned to the United States and enrolled at Harvard Business School, where he promptly made another disastrous mistake. After hearing about a supposedly bulletproof stock tip, he invested all of his funds – including the funds that HBS had loaned him for his education. Predictably, the tip was a bust, and LaMagna lost everything. He realized that for him, there was now “only one road to solvency.” Working a safe corporate job wouldn’t get him to success fast enough; what he needed, as an entrepreneur, was a cause that he could believe in. He thought he found it in the summer after his first year, when he thought upon the idea of the ‘drive-in discotheque;’ the idea being to provide teenagers with an alternative to the nightclubs so frowned upon by local communities. Test marketing led him to think that this would be popular, so he launched his drive-in disco at 6 movie theatres across the Northeast. Naturally, it was a flop. His lesson learned here: “Be wary of test-marketing your product. Tests are by definition artificial and rarely yield helpful results.” However, here is again where LaMagna’s integrity shows through. At this point, he was over thirty thousand dollars in debt from this venture alone, and he could have declared bankruptcy. He refused to, though, and paid off the creditors over the course of thirteen years.
Later that year, LaMagna dropped out of Harvard Business School, out of money and unable to pay for his education. His next venture was the Selectavision, a light organ that would sync lighting effects to music. However, just like with the Cupid Computer Company, he made his venture more complicated than necessary, giving consumers the option to change the pattern projected by the device. This turned out to be a critical flaw, as every organ in the first shipment was damaged, because the pattern selection slot was too weak to survive shipping. At this point, LaMagna began to realize a pattern in his failures: by overcomplicating things, he was introducing new possibilities of failure into his ventures. With the Cupid Computer Company, he changed his original popular concept for some free advertising, and this killed his business. With the Selectavision, his introduction of unnecessary optional pattern screens resulted in the failure of his product. As he describes it, “the lesson I learned here was not to overdesign your product.” He draws an analogy here to Ford’s Model T: when it was first sold, there were no options, and no variations in the design, with every vehicle exactly alike and stripped down to its most essential components. It would be decades before Ford built options for consumer choice into their products. LaMagna should have done the same: started simple, and enabled choices down the road in response to consumer demand.
By the time LaMagna founded Tweezerman, he had failed at 15 previous ventures, and had run up a $150,000 debt. All he had to show for it was “the realization that the common thread running through all these failures was me.” This time, however, it would be different. After having his idea for improved tweezers, LaMagna didn’t look for investment: as he put it, “Hadn’t I several times before made this mistake of trying to launch a business I could not finance? Plus, hadn’t I created a huge debt by using other people’s money? I had been here before and failed.” LaMagna, though he doesn’t say this directly, is expressing the principle of affordable loss: the idea that you should only invest into your venture as much as you’re prepared to lose. LaMagna, already so deeply in debt, couldn’t afford to take on more debt to finance his venture, so instead, he started it in his 400 square foot bungalow, turning his home into his office, factory, and distribution center all in one. “Instead of spending your time raising money, why don’t you go find something you can do with the money you already have?”
Tweezerman truly became successful because LaMagna was open to outside input and suggestions. When an acquaintance suggested that he create special eyebrow tweezers for the beauty market, he did so, and they quickly became his best-selling product. He also started by selling only to professionals – who not only guided him in developing his products, but often helped to sell them to others. By changing his business and incorporating outside input, LaMagna is using the principle of the crazy quilt: he formed partnerships with those best able to give feedback and guide the creation of his business.
LaMagna, as a result of experience gained from his many failures, became comfortable using temporary setbacks as opportunities to grow his business. Tweezerman’s biggest supplier experienced a sudden change in ownership, and overnight, his main contact was fired and the contract was terminated. This could have been a disaster for Tweezerman, but LaMagna and Mario (his contact) instead forged out on their own, and opened their own new factory in Italy. Within a few months, Tweezerman was back in business, and products made at the new factory cost 25% less than before. By exploiting this unexpected event and turning it into a net positive for his business, LaMagna is using the lemonade principle: he leveraged this surprise and used it to instead grow his business. As he puts it:
Life can act in surprising ways. It’s important to find the bright light in every failure. You can turn tragedy into success. Opportunities for change and innovation are everywhere.
LaMagna’s final advice is on the ethics of running of business. LaMagna rejects Milton Friedman’s model of capitalism, in which a corporation’s sole job is to provide profit for shareholders. As he writes, “I didn’t care if I missed the gravy train. I had a group of wonderful employees now and they were my concern… I was intent on proving Milton Friedman wrong – corporations should not exist for the sole benefit of the shareholders but for the benefit of all stakeholders.” LaMagna provided health insurance to his employees, distributed 10% of company profit directly back to the employees each year, instituted an employee stock purchase plan to give employees equity in the company, and set up a yearly donation of 5% of company profits to charity. His goal was to “ensure that all [his] employees would share in the profit and ownership of the company.” And he’s not afraid to hire, either:
A small company is not going to thrive if the founder tries to do everything. For me the art of delegating work was very simple. I did the job first, and when I understood the job from the inside, I then found someone else to do it. It didn’t matter how small or menial, I, at one time or another, had done every job at Tweezerman.
When things went wrong, LaMagna didn’t look to his employees for someone to blame. As he advises, “don’t search for whom to blame for a problem, search for the solution.” When business dropped precipitously in the wake of September 11, LaMagna refused to lay off a single employee; he instituted a (necessary) hiring and salary freeze, but promised no layoffs, and kept that promise until business picked back up again. And when offered a big payday by companies looking to purchase Tweezerman, he still stuck to his ideals and refused to compromise the well-being of his employees. He refused to sell unless he had guarantees: no layoffs, no moving of company offices, and the new owners had to continue his practices of ‘responsible capitalism,’ including his profit distribution to employees and to charity. His passion for Tweezerman let him, not the buyers, control the negotiations; as he put it, he was always willing to walk away from a deal, and go back to running his company.
LaMagna’s saga is the best portrait of an entrepreneur I have yet found. After fifteen failed ventures, he finally achieved success beyond his dreams. His ‘endless acts of creativity’ that he believes are the basis of entrepreneurship finally paid off. He learned to take educated risks, instead of gambling on a wild idea. He attributes his eventual success to his learnings from many failures: “I had waged my war with failure and made it my ally. I had been vigilant over my flaws, and had faith in my ability to grow and mature.” LaMagna is too rare a man: a brilliant writer, a responsible capitalist, and an all-around honorable businessman. And there’s no better way to learn from him than by reading Raising Eyebrows.
It was chutzpah that led Dal to organize a petition campaign about the oppressive noise overhead from the airport nearby -- at the age of 8. It was chutzpah again when he set up a computer dating service as a college freshman, and when its collapse reflected poorly on the priests who ran the Catholic college, set up what apparently became Europe's first computer dating service in Switzerland, where they had exiled him for a year. It was chutzpah when he applied to Harvard Business School with a long, detailed accont of the 16 unsuccessful businesses he'd started. And it was certainly chutzpah when he ran for President -- of the United States! -- in 2008. There is no end of chutzpah in this outrageously enjoyable story. And many of the anecdotes about the misadventures of this perennial class clown are downright hilarious. Dal himself even laughed about some of them!
Dal, who has been a friend of mine for several years, is best known to the public -- at least to the eyebrow-tweezing public -- as Tweezerman. By Dal's account, the company of this name that he founded as he approached middle age, was his 17th business venture. The failure of the previous 16 caused him endless grief, lost friendships, and considerable debt. However, Tweezerman grew from a one-person operation in his 400-square-foot bungalow on Long Island into the leading brand in the beauty implements business, a staff of more than 100, a large wharehouse on Long Island, and a manufacturing plant in India, eventually resulting in a sale that made Dal a millionaire many times over.
Dal LaMagna practices what he calls "responsible capitalism." In eschewing the more familiar term "socially responsible business," which is widely used in Social Venture Network, of which Dal and I are both longstanding members, he seems to be emphasizing that running a business in a socially responsible manner is just good business and really not anything out of the ordinary. Except that it is, in an era when the ghost of Milton Friedman haunts Wall Street and Main Street alike.
Books of this sort are rarely so well written as Raising Eyebrows. Dal was wise to work with the partnership of Carla Reuben and Wally Carbone, whose mastery of organization and style is enviable. This book is not just instructive and insightful. It's also fun to read.
Oh, and by the way: I'm way out of Dal's league when it comes to chutzpah, but I've practiced it on many occasions by starting businesses or investing in companies on the spur of the moment based on instinct alone. And you know something? It's served me well.