Business Obits, II

David Silverman’s Typo: The Last American Typesetter, or, How I Made and Lost $4 million (An Entrepreneur’s Education) is a terrific business memoir. It’s a painful, honest, elegiac tale of the failure of one typesetting company (his) during a time when the entire industry has inexorably migrated overseas. I’ve always admired business books that don’t shy away from the fact that success is always remarkably challenging, and full of pitfalls and failures. (Barry Moltz’s great mix of candor and enthusiasm makes You Need to be a Little Crazy: The Truth About Starting and Growing Your Business) an excellent read in that regard.) And fact is, some businesses collapse under the sheer weight of mistakes, new technologies, new markets, individual fallibility, and other assorted items that don’t appear as footnotes on the balance sheet.

By sharing the painfully personal story of his typesetting company’s demise, Silverman sheds light into all that is challenging and often insurmountable in business. His beautifully written memoir avoids no details about the realities of managing people, the natural conflict between capitalism and humanism, and, in his case, the business consequences of a young owner’s naiveté.

Like many individuals whose technical expertise is critical on one level, and yet entirely insufficient for tackling the broader business challenges, Silverman slowly discovers some of the intractable challenges facing his would-be turnaround. A cast of stubborn, small-minded, workers continually thwart Silverman’s attempts to spur empowerment and change. Things must be done the way they’ve always been done, regardless of how antiquated or costly they are. Add to that Silverman’s gradual awareness of issues such as the total cost of producing a page of work to client specs, and the ambitions to capitalize on the company would already be challenged.

But there’s powerful external challenges happening as well. Typo is an entrepreneurial tale of struggle, learning, and reconciliation set against a disturbing backdrop of shifting economic conditions. His poignant memoir brings the “global” issue of globalization to an all-too-human level. Over the course of the book, the extent to which employees in foreign companies can do the exact same work for a fraction of the cost becomes clearer and clearer. The fact that all major publishers expect significant and ongoing cost reductions (without saying how) exerts another pressure.

So it’s little wonder that despite some small victories, Silverman and his partners ultimately fail in this venture. But the experience has certainly created something of value for readers. By reporting on the demise of the domestic American typesetting industry through the lens of his personal struggles both within and outside the business, Silverman sheds light into both the intractable macroeconomic pressures and the stubborn human dynamics that can, and often do, destroy an enterprise.

Posted by tom at March 21, 2007 05:34 PM
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