The Size of A Business Soul

For anyone who has wandered onto this site over the past year point five and found nothing, welcome back. I, um, took a break. For those here for the first time, thanks for coming. I launched this site to complement my book The Startup Garden: How Growing A Business Grows You, which was based on a decade writing about entrepreneurship. The book was designed around a set of beliefs I formed about the process of starting a company, and is meant to be somewhat of a What Color Is Your Parachute for people who are starting a business rather than looking for a job. Unfortunately, the book hasn’t yet gained traction in the marketplace. More on that in future posts.

I am reviving this blog from its comatose state to continue writing about the key issues covered in the Startup Garden, particularly the ability of business to serve as a vehicle for individuals to realize something greater than they could produce on their own. (This topic seems sufficiently broad to justify writing about a wide range of stuff.)

By the way, please do buy my book. There are several options on the right-hand column; and I am also happy to sell signed copies directly. Just send me an email and I’ll sell you The Startup Garden for twelve bucks, signed. Such a deal!

Okay, enough housekeeping. I’d like to tout two recent books that touch upon a core issue of small businesses: when does growth threaten to destroy the very soul that makes a business great?

I’ll start with The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Couture by Rudolph Chelminski, which has just been issued in paperback. Great book. Chelminski tells the story of Bernard Loiseau, one of the chosen few French super-chefs who earned the coveted three stars from the country’s all-powerful Michelin Guide. Brilliant and manic, passionate and eminently fallible, Loiseau parleyed his ebullient personality and love of the theater of great French food into a renowned restaurant. He worked his way up the professional cooking ranks, learned his trade, cultivated his contacts, and gradually built a brilliant business that earned the highest rank of three Michelin stars. And then, facing challenges to his business, and fearful of losing this lofty status, Loiseau took his life. The country of France reportedly responded as if it had lost a great cultural hero.

Chelminski’s book reminds me, at times, of the rich and refined food he so clearly adores. At times he goes over the top in describing, to the last detail, the technical elements that enabled Bernard to bring a new approach to the regional specialty of frog’s legs, or the process of creating a new deglazing sauce. But his sins of excess are easily forgivable, since he has put so much passion into topics such as the great power and mystery of the Michelin guide, and the tremendous demands of a first-class restaurant.

Indeed, that’s the key takeaway for me from this book: the way in which a great business can almost literally consume its owner. While in this instance Loiseau’s establishment has survived his passing, the book shows how he became owner of a great enterprise that came to completely and absolutely own him. As he built the business, distinguished it through new signatory dishes, and even added his name to the business itself, Loiseau essentially lost his sense of self apart from the enterprise. Being awarded the coveted three stars became the highest form of self-validation and joy possible, and it was almost inevitable that the fear of falling from this pinnacle compelled him to take his life.

Two quotes give a sense of Chelminski’s take on the subject. First, a sentence in which he discusses the practice of cooking fish on just one side, or rose a l’arete in French. “The matter of fish rose a l’arete is something of a minisaga of modern French cuisine.” The fact that he then goes on to share this quasi-epic tale speaks for itself. And then I’ll close with a lengthy passage that speaks to the heart of this book.

“It is difficult to overstate the importance of the [Michelin] guide, or to understand the pressure that its presence exerts on chefs—and, in particular, how deeply Bernard Loiseau would be feeling that pressure as he scrabbled and fought his way up the ladder—without taking the measure of what it is and how it reached the pinnacle on which it sits so regally today. It is a sobering thought that if this happy-go-lucky, somewhat feckless son of an auvergnat traveling salesman turned into a passionately devoted professional almost overnight, plunged into risks that normally constituted persons would have considered foolhardy, indebted himself up to the top of his toque, and, undeviatingly following a self-imposed ideal, built an astonishingly successful career our of thin air—it was all for the love of le Michelin and the stars that it sprinkles down upon those happy few whom it deems worthy. More poignant yet is a second thought: if he took his life, it was also, fundamentally, because of Michelin. Not that it was Michelin’s fault—far from it—but simply because Michelin was there, like Mount Everest, like Papa, like God.”

Tomorrow I’ll look at the flip side of this challenge, as explored in Small Giants: Companies that Chose to Be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham.

Posted by tom at May 30, 2006 12:39 PM

oooh that's too weird that I wandered on to this site for the first time the very day you revived it after 18 months. Congratulations and welcome back. I like your philosophical style and look forward to reading more. Hell, I might even buy your book :-)

Posted by: Rob England on May 31, 2006 03:29 AM
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