John Peterman started J. Peterman Co. and its legendary mail-order catalog in 1987 with a $20,000 unsecured loan. The company had annual sales of $75 million by the time it went bank-rupt in January 1999, a victim of excessively fast growth. In between, the J. Peterman persona became part of pop culture as actor John O'Hurley portrayed Peterman as Elaine's boss on Seinfeld.
Peterman still has his hands full, working on a book due out in October, Never Take No for an Answer (Prentice-Hall), and starting JohnPeterman.com, a multimedia business devoted to shopping the world. This mail-order icon recently took some time out to discuss what he did right . . . and wrong.
How did you deal with the stress of going through bankruptcy?
Really, the key is to get seven or eight hours of sleep a night and exercise. Everyone talks about how the mind influences the body, but the state of your body has an even greater impact on your mind. Sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture and creates paranoia. Entrepreneurs tend to drive themselves too hard for their own good. When you're going through times of great stress you need to alleviate this by sleeping well and exercising. I learned how to hypnotize myself and could go into a very relaxing and deep sleep. Keep a pad next to the bed so the creative ideas you get in the middle of the night can be written down.
Why couldn't J. Peterman Co. handle hypergrowth?
You have to make sure all the parts are in sync to grow fast. The culture of our company was the focus on the brand, and our new people didn't have time to absorb it. You can't dictate a culture.
Your stores were praised as "fresh." What did you do to make retailing different?
I didn't go around and look at everyone else's stores and say, "I want to do a little of this and a little of that." I started out with the original concept of recreating the kind of feeling I had as a 10-year-old boy when I went into my grandmother's barn-of discovery, excitement and awe. We featured products that fit our six key words: unique, authentic, romantic, journey, wondrous, excellent.
Any rules to success in mail order?
The main thing you need is an interesting and different product aimed at a target audience. Don't expect support from others-if your idea is unusual, no one else is going to have a frame of refer-ence. You just have to do it.