Commentary Magazine


100 Stories of Business Success, by the Editors of Fortune

Getting Rich on Notions
100 Stories of Business Success: Case Histories of American Enterprise.
by the Editors of Fortune.
Simon and Schuster. 174 pp. $2.95.

 

This little volume presents a selection of “success stories” from Fortune magazine. The subtitle may be somewhat misleading, for the “case histories” are limited to “small” businesses, those run by individual entrepreneurs whose profit is rarely more than $100,000 a year, the kind of men with whom most of us may not too unreasonably hope to identify ourselves. When they originally appeared in the magazine, these little islands of neatly framed print devoted to individual small winners were placed in the midst of surging analyses of whole industries or all-encompassing trends, and thus given something like their proper proportions. And yet, when one reads these vignettes all together and, so to speak, on their own, they are seen to represent something new and by no means insignificant in the American pattern of business success.

The stories are seductive—and perhaps deceptive—being structured on the overnight quality success assumes in narration or reminiscence. Years of preparation and failure are neglected or telescoped into a moment. “He went to work as a salesman in 1938 but made only a bare living until 1949,” reads one sentence. Then in the next sentence, the morning after the dream: “But last year [1952], at thirty-two, Kaufman’s manufacturers’ sales agents had gross billings of $4 million and Kaufman’s tax return for the year was in a class with that of many a Pittsburgh captain of industry.” The writing slights the inescapable, grubby details of humdrum organization, of daily application, of repeated failure, and concentrates on the delicious statistics of financial gossip, giving earnings in the most impressive light—including taxes to raise total figures, excluding them with emphasis when the remainder is striking by itself.

Throughout, the theme insists that this could be you, or rather, that it takes only you to bestow fortune on yourself. Responsibility is emphatically private and asserted in the face of immense odds; some “break” is needed, but people make their own “breaks,” apparently. The stories go out of their way to relate themselves to the ordinary and to adversity. “ . . . one of a large and not at all rich Pittsburgh family . . . when the bottom dropped out of the cotton market. . . . Tom Carvel, now forty-five, was a discontented door-to-door salesman of radios in New York City in 1934. Sales came hard . . . .” Salvation comes through the direct efforts of the victim himself. But the sacrifices demanded are heavy indeed. “By day he worked on the railroad, by night on the press.”

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All this, however, belongs to the “typical” American success story as we have always known it. What is new is the paths these self-driven men now take. Unlike their great predecessors, who are conceived as pursuing one “dream” until it came true, these newer enterprisers keep shifting their field. A druggist becomes a liquor dealer when liquor proves his best item. A tool-maker turns to constructing aluminum furniture when he comes on a bargain of 10,000 pounds of scrap aluminum tubing. What is pursued is not success through devotion to some particular need or product, but success in general. What makes for success is means, not end; the Big Idea, the gimmick, is Success alone.

So in these hundred “cases” we see that the path to success is always a by-path. Not one made his fortune in any common, familiar way. One man invented a toy called “Slinky,” which can “coil and uncoil down a flight of steps”; another inventor produced a “sno-car,” a vehicle for travelling over snow. One man sells burlesques of business clichés: “I can keep confidential what you tell me but the people I tell it to can’t.” One man has a machine that will give you a massage right in your own home; another digs cheap swimming pools; another manufactures shoes with built-in foam rubber; another, giant parade balloons; another, a tiltable floor which converts a school gymnasium into an auditorium.

Nowhere in the book is there an inventor or salesman or idea man on the order of Bell, Marconi, Ford, Rockefeller, Sears and Roebuck, or, say, Ivy Lee. No one in this book has inaugurated a business that promises to become an “industry.” These new American pioneers are cultivating little spots overlooked during the first great settlement of the industrial and business empire, or else they simply latch onto the big fish—by producing automobile and telephone accessories, for example. But we have only to look at the regularly repeated little advertisements in the Sunday papers and in the ladies’ magazines—do-it-yourself kits, dowsers that locate wall beams, devilled-egg dishes, gigantic gold-plated paper clips—to recognize how well and respectably established this marginal territory has become in the course of satisfying the most specialized demands, from the sensible to the frivolous.

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In a way this display of free-floating American know-how is testimony to an even greater achievement than our proved ability to turn out automobiles or create sales campaigns. We create business itself. Our real genius is combining whimsy with practicality, hitching dreams, any dreams, to rocket ships of efficient fulfillment. Often, the businessman can find his opportunity even by creating a kind of “anti-business” to oppose the frills and annoyances of American industry: for instance, you can buy a gadget to cut out television commercials, and a consumer’s magazine once passed the word along that there are certain establishments which for a reasonable fee will take off all the chrome trim on the outside of your new car and cover up the holes. Nor are the products of enterprise only materialistic: there is a man in this book who intends to make a million through selling Bibles on the installment plan, and we have only to think of the highbrow paper-book publishers, or the industries of high-fidelity phonograph equipment and art reproduction, to see that the spiritual and the intellectual have not been overlooked. America, one is tempted to say, can satisfy any need, indeed create needs to oppose needs. If the spectacle of these stalls and pushcarts of our economic life is often ridiculous, it presents a certain marvelous richness: what a country it is, where one can become a success by producing a doll that wets its diaper, or an indelible lipstick. Excelsior!

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