Parasite Entrepreneurism

Starting off in business is not easy. For the author, a terrible job became an opportunity to start a small business. We continue our Leadership Hall of Fame series, a year-long look at the top business books and authors, with an excerpt from What Should I Do With My Life? (2002) by Po Bronson.

I was told in high school that I couldn't write, that my ideas were unintelligible. My teachers weren't being mean. They were being honest. At the time, they were right. I was better at math. I was great at math. I scored nearly perfect on every math aptitude test, and competed in the Washington State Math Championships held every year at Central Washington University. Too bad I couldn't see the point of math. I could solve for the relationship between X and Y, but the relationship of math to society completely eluded me. It was my gift, but I didn't want it.

In college I avoided English classes, because I'd recognized how they dragged won my GPA.

I majored in economics, the practical thing. But I wrote one personal essay that was published in the school newspaper. It was about "being versus doing," and back then I took the side of being. As a senior, everyone asks you what you'll be doing next year. My answer: "Being Po is what I'll be doing a year from now." That quote was enlarged and turned into the essay's title. Many students told me how much it calmed their fear of being boxed in by a job description.

But what was I going to do, actually, after I graduated? I didn't know. I'd been working since seventh grade. Busboy, cafeteria manager, line cook, cement factory janitor, sports medicine intern, assembly line technician manufacturing bus lifts, kitchen manager, aerobics instructor, bookkeeper. It was an impossible list to sort out. In contrast, the feedback I got on that one essay had hatched this curiosity that I might be a writer, despite what my teachers had always said.

The summer after college, I followed my girlfriend to New York, where she had a job. We slept on her sister's couch. I had all this free time and absolutely no money to spend. So I decided to attempt a novel. How else could I discern if I had talent? I wrote longhand into spiral-bound notebooks. At the end of the summer, I borrowed a neighbor's typewriter and began to translate my scratch into a legible form. Rereading my novel, one thing was clear: It was so incredibly bad. Even I couldn't stand reading it. After a hundred pages of laborious typing, I stopped cold with boredom. Clearly I had no talent after all. My teachers were right.

It was time to face the truth, grow up, buy a suit, and go get a real job. My girlfriend was transferred to San Francisco, and so I followed her.

Playing up my economics degree, I got a real job.

Every morning I slipped into a navy wool suit and rode the bus downtown, saluted the chipper security guard, rode up to the twenty-second floor, strolled past the window offices, and eventually took my seat in the back row in a gray windowless room of twelve young professionals my age. My employer was a litigation consulting firm—supposedly a blend of the best of law and the best of management consulting. It was the perfect setup job for law school or business school. That wasn't my plan (I don't think I had a plan), but it suggests the high reputation this firm had.

The image that had lured me was not the reality inside its doors.

Our client was a large utility, which was suing the state of California for reimbursement of the $5 billion it spent building two nuclear reactors in San Luis Obispo. The reactors were budgeted at a billion each, and our client blamed inflation for most of the $3 billion overage. So our firm created enormous spreadsheets, each hundreds of pages long, detailing every expense over ten years, factoring out inflation. That wasn't my job, though. Oh no. That would have been the job I would get to do in two years if I was good at my job.

My job was to use a ten-key manual calculator and add up columns of numbers on the spreadsheets to make sure the computer hadn't made a rounding error. If the computer was correct, we put a little red check mark on the bottom of the column. Then, with that same column, we'd do it again. Every column needed to be checked twice. That, and only that, was all I ever got to do. Ten or eleven hours a day, six days a week. I was being paid $12 an hour and being billed out at $75 an hour to our client (which was in turn passing the cost on to the lawsuit). All twelve of us in that windowless room were doing this. I was in the back row, staring at the backs of heads, entertained only by the occasional ghost of a bra strap or a bare Achilles. The crazy thing was, at least ten of my associates were competitive about being the fastest spreadsheet checker. They'd been brainwashed to believe rounding errors were as dangerous as the Ebola virus, we were printing money for the firm by racking up billable hours like monkeys hidden behind a door, but it didn't occur to us.

I'd had grueling and mind-numbing jobs before (janitor, assembly line), but we always acknowledged we were mere shit shovelers. Here, everyone pretended what we were doing was somehow important, somehow relevant. The pretending was the worst part.

I wanted out by the second day—they'd misrepresented themselves—but I had $42,000 in student loans to pay off versus less than a month's worth of savings. Besides, I couldn't quit. Years of competitive sports and my natural stubbornness made me hold quitting in such low regard that it was simply unacceptable. I was sure nobody would hire a quitter. So I made the best of it. "It's just a day job," I tried to persuade myself, even though my days usually stretched well into the night.

After a couple weeks I began crying into my pillow at night. My girlfriend would hold me and offer solace. I fantasized about someday getting Saturdays off. I felt like my soul was withering away. Every dollar I spent was extending my prison time that much longer. So I ate rice and cabbage at night. Cornflakes with powdered milk for breakfast. I doctored my bus transfers to use them for the ride home. On my family's birthdays, I'd save the dollar a greeting card cost and draw my own on a scrap of paper. One day I went swimming at the YMCA. The entrance to the pool was through the showers, and at the entrances to the showers there was a scale to weigh yourself. So I stepped on the base and set the weights at 157 pounds, because 157 pounds is what I'd weighed ever since high school. The lever arm fell hard. Hmm...I must have lost some weight. So I slid the one-pound weights to the left, tap, tap, tap, waiting for that lever arm to rise. Then I moved the fifty-pound weight one notch over, and resumed tapping, tapping…tapping. The lever arm finally lifted up to the balance.

One hundred thirty-two pounds.

I wasn't metaphorically withering away, I was literally withering away. For several months I'd avoided spending five dollars on lunch by raiding the coffee room. Along with coffee and tea, the firm offered Carnation sugar-free instant cocoa mix, in single-serving packets. I would dump four or five packets in Styrofoam cup, add enough water to stir the powder into a pudding, and spoon down the calories. I'd get invited to lunch, and all I could think about was that five dollars I'd never see again. "Oh, I brought mine today," I'd say, and beg out. Five dollars today, five dollars tomorrow, that's $125 a month (six-day work-week), that's $2,400 a year I could save by skipping lunch. The crazy thing is, until I discovered I was vanishing, I was secretly proud of my ingenious technique for saving money. I'd walk around with my cup of cocoa and nobody was the wiser. I thought I'd found a secret loophole in the code of ordinary human behavior. I was always looking for loopholes—things that people did unconsciously, out of custom, that were unnecessary.

I got a performance review and mentioned to my reviewer that I wasn't happy. He said that was normal. In two year I could go to business school and put it behind me. I didn't tell him that at the rate I was losing body mass, in two years I'd weigh seven pounds.

I dragged out that college essay I'd written a year earlier. "Being Po is what I'll be doing a year from now," I had naively predicted. Boy, did I ever get it wrong. I didn't feel like myself at all. What I was doing was killing me.

I daydreamed about every escapist fantasy imaginable. One of those daydreams was that I'd magically grow rich designing greeting cards. So my girlfriend and I began to secretly design and draw an imaginary line of absurdist cartoon greeting cards—to have something to hope for! That would have been it for me—I didn't want to dare risk destroying this fantasy by subjecting it to reality—but my girlfriend was more practical than I was, and she started to think it was stupid we'd done these drawings and were going to let them sit idle. She went to greeting card stores and asked some questions, introduced herself to some sales reps, attended a gift conference—how hard could it be?—and suddenly our fantasy, this vessel of hope, had a little more room to grow. A month later we'd raised ten thousand dollars, five hundred at a time, and I was running a greeting card company out of the back of that windowless room at the litigation consulting firm.

I'd come in early as ever, take my seat in the back row, lay out my spreadsheets as if I were working, and start to make phone calls to my sales reps around the country. All day long I'd talk to stores, talk to the printer, order boxes and paper, et cetera. I sued the firm's computers and copiers to do the accounting and print invoices. We had forty-eight card designs and were on sale in about two hundred stores in twenty states. The whole room knew what I was doing, but three of them had invested $500 each in the company—they needed hope too—and the others were so flabbergasted at my complete and utter disregard for propriety that they didn't know what to say. At lunch I'd walk to the greeting card stores downtown to make sure our cards were displayed. At the end of the day, I'd scratch a couple red check marks at the bottom of the spreadsheet columns and turn in my work.

It was a new type of small company incubation—I called it parasite entrepreneurism. When I 'd gained the weight back, and my confidence was brimming, and I'd gone through a full order cycle with the cards, I quit the firm to do the cards full-time. Funny thing was, the greeting cards didn't last long—like a parasite and its host, there was something essential in the symbiosis between my fondness for greeting cards and my hatred of spreadsheets. Once I was out on my own, I really didn't have the dynamism anymore. It wasn't nearly as much fund to run a greeting card company as it was to run a greeting card company out of the back of a suffocating law/consulting firm, leeching off their infrastructure. After six months, the card company died for lack of effort. That was okay; I thought it was my dream, but once I gave myself to it, it clearly wasn't. I got another job, as a bond salesman, then as an editor of a political newspaper, then as a high school teacher, and then in small-press book publishing.

If you met me in the years after, and asked me what I did for what I'd done, I wouldn't have mentioned my year in that windowless room. I rarely mentioned the greeting card company. I didn't want to reveal weakness or revisit my shame at having lost people's money, albeit a small amount. What was the point? I was looking forward for answers, not backward.

For a long time, the shame of a wasted year kept me from being open about it. Now, having put it on paper, I look back, and I see nothing to be ashamed of. I see in my own character a gem of reinvention—an ability to create and improvise out of a bad situation.

Read more from What Should I Do With My Life? or our Leadership Hall of Fame.

Reprinted from the book What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story Of People Who Answered The Ultimate Question by Po Bronson. Published by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.

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3 Comments

  • Tarama

    This essay is filled with errors. The author should continue his soul searching, or find a reliable editor.

  • CDS

    Nice article. But it seems the proof reader has taken a leaf out of the author's book.

  • Kimberly Dougherty

    In the past I have seen Po's writing and thought it was good and insightful.  In this article, he also has some great insight about finding out what was really important to him.  But, his last sentence just flummoxed me! 

    His drifting during his lost year may be a painful memory but not necessarily worthy of the shame he felt. The shame he should have felt was about the process for reinvention that he used in this bad situation.  It is NOT admirable that he built his greeting card business while working for someone else.  He was not just leeching off their infrastructure - he was defrauding them by doing other work on their time and then checking off the columns of numbers as if he had actually verified them.  Does he really believe that this is a good method for finding one's direction?  And, what about his "co-conspirators" who didn't rat him out because he had taken their money as an investment in his new business?

    Po, my hope is that this article truncated part of your story so that it displays you more as a thief than as an inspiring entrepreneur.  I will be disappointed if you missed this lesson in life from that time period.