by Brian Dunning
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ever there was a harmless man, it is Conrad Wiegand, of Gold
Hill, Nevada. If ever there was a gentle spirit that thought
itself unfired gunpowder and latent ruin, it is Conrad Wiegand.
If ever there was an oyster that fancied itself a whale; or
a jack-o'lantern, confined to a swamp, that fancied itself
a planet with a billion-mile orbit; or a summer zephyr that
deemed itself a hurricane, it is Conrad Wiegand...
When I met Conrad, he was "Superintendent
of the Gold Hill Assay Office" -- and he was not only
its Superintendent, but its entire force... Here latterly he
has entered journalism; and his journalism is what it might
be expected to be: colossal to ear, but pigmy to the eye...
He doubtless edits, sets the type, and prints his paper, all
alone; but he delights to speak of the concern as if it occupies
a block and employs a thousand men.
- Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1880
I love that quote, as it so clearly illustrates the old maxim
that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 125 years
later, the world of small business is still bursting at the seams
with Conrad Wiegands and his ilk. I often wonder how Conrad would
avail himself of today's communication tools, and give his invisible
newspaper compositors a veil of third dimension.
Automated phone menus permit a sole proprietor to make it seem
as though an army of extensions and departments are on call. Email
and mailing lists let anyone create barrages of communiques from
non-existent Alter Egos and phantom employees. Web sites can show
legions of headshots on the company directory page, all gathered
from Google's image search.
Yet even the modest tools available in 1880 are still employed
today. Whenever I read how Conrad introduced himself as the Superintendent
of his assaying business, I am reminded of the CEO I once knew
of a dot-com drycleaning delivery business. He's the same guy who
drove the van around. He answered the corporate cell phone with
one name, wore the corporate delivery uniform with a different
name on the nametag, and conducted the corporate business using
his own true name with the grandiloquent title "CEO" appended.
In real companies, of course, "CEO" is meaningless unless
it refers to the executive officer who is appointed by, and answerable
to, a Board of Directors who represent shareholders. But, there's
certainly no law (in the United States anyway) that says these
can't all be the same person. There's also no law that says a sole
proprietor can't title himself Grand Poombah, Mickey Mouse, or
Sultan of All Creation. Thus, "CEO" is no less valid
a title for a sole proprietor than "Pretentious Quack" is,
and it might be more likely to trick a potential customer into
thinking that you're more than just a one-man-shop. Of course,
such a customer would need to be someone who's pretty easily tricked;
in which case, I say, just pickpocket the buffoon when you meet
him and be done with it.
Then there is my realtor, as independent a surfer as ever lived,
who, while paddling his board toward that left break, has an answering
machine responding that a member of his "team" will reply
soon. His business name, in fact, is "Your Team, Inc." If
you can call the back of a 1975 VW bus an office, that's what it
is; but when on the phone, he always needs to "drop by the
office to speak with his team" and speaks only in the first
person plural: "We" have been talking about your house
and think you should hire one of
"us" to sell it for you. That I can recall, he has never
used the word "I" when in realtor mode. Like Conrad Wiegand
of Gold Hill, he "delights to speak of his concern as if it
occupies a block and employs a thousand men."
Another modern advantage that Conrad would have liked to have
in his corner is the ability to sell electrons. In nearly all cases,
I advise my companies to sell by electronic download only: no physical
packaging, no expensive boxes, and most significantly, no inventory
costs or carryover. I like the fact that I never run out of electrons,
and if I ever do, I can always get more of them. I use it to improve
the bottom line; Conrad would use it to increase the apparent depth
of his talent with the trend of eBooks.
Some clever wags have conspired to call themselves authors of
"books" that have never darkened a page with ink, and
certainly never troubled a publisher. You'll see them all over
the Internet: get-rich-quick schemes, How-To guides, and a thousand
other excuses for the vainglorious to call themselves authors and
"books". Nothing strokes this type of personality finer
than to casually mention references to his "book". As
we all know, what this means is that he wrote something in a pirated
copy of Word and saved it as a PDF, then stuck it on his web site. "I've
written a book."
"If you'd like to learn more on this subject, you might want
to take a look at the book I wrote." Or, for the especially
generous, "We're able to give away free copies of our 265-page book today."
264 of those pages are probably upsell attempts to some other worthless
content on his site. There is one particular perpetrator of this
crime against modesty in the person of a prominent proponent of
New Age healing, whose "book" warning of the dangers
of medical care is so popular that it would probably get published
as a real book, were it not so full of grammatical errors, spelling
errors, editorial errors, and, well, just errors in general, let's
But, just to prove that I'm not biased, let's talk about my own
occupation, software; and to prove that I'm not above hypocrisy,
let's point the collective finger at me for a change (which finger
is for you to decide). Something that always makes me laugh is
the practice of Photoshopping fake software boxes. As I've trumpeted
above, I don't sell boxed software (used to: been there, done that,
learned my lesson) and don't plan to return to the practice. So
why are there pictures of software boxes on web sites that I've
been rumored to be associated with: here,
Worse, I even made one of those myself: I won't say which, I'll
leave it to you experts to decide which was done by a professional
designer and which was hacked together by some fat clown who had
nothing to better to do in the middle of one night. Let's do ourselves
all a favor, and the next time we see a pretend box shot of non-existent
software on a web site, let's call the owner out on it and enjoy
a group laugh. I volunteer to be first on the chopping block.
A partner and I have a property business, and one of the vendors
we use sells products and services for property investors on a
web site. The guy has a practice that always makes me blow milk
out of my nose (even when I haven't been drinking milk - it's amazing!).
He posts frequently - annoyingly frequently, desperately frequently
- to a mailing list I subscribe to. Most are announcements of new
or rehashed product offerings. And almost without fail, there is
a silly claim that response to his last offering was so crushing
that it overloaded his web server! Now I've met the guy, and
I know that the total nationwide market is only about 2000 customers
(and if he's doing great might capture 1/10th of 1% of the market
- say, 2 people) - nevertheless all 2000 of them seem to need his
attention all at once. His replies to questions on the mailing
list - although very prompt, there probably being little else to
do in his quiet office - always apologize for the delay, due
customer response." A couple years ago he offered classes,
and magically, when the first class was announced, it had already
been filled! Amazing! Overwhelming customer demand had filled unannounced
classes, and severely limited the space on those few remaining
sessions. In fact, the demand had overloaded his web server.
I have no doubt that I will see another such post from him today.
Fortunately it's still funny. My guess is that he bought
a cheap self-help book on marketing yourself and was advised to "tell
them they can't have it, and they'll want it." Gee, haven't
heard that one before.
Now I don't mean to sound like I'm down on all the world's blowfish,
or that I simply dismiss them as cheap entertainment - and if I
do dimiss them, I still don't mean to sound like it. Certainly
many of them provide good products and services. But if they were
a little more genuine about who they are and what they're about,
I for one would take it as a breath of fresh air. Or if they would
just dump the embarrassing "CEO" title and go with the
more distinctive "Sultan of All Creation" - it's a better
ice breaker, and even has more syllables.