Martha Stewart treats her staff like slaves. Oh, yeah? Howard Schultz "picks on the little guy" by shamelessly opening new Starbucks cafes beside independent cafes. Well, listen to this-Jeff Bezos is trying to send brick-and-mortar bookstores to an early grave; maybe he should focus on getting Amazon.com into the black instead. And Bill Gates-well, he just has too much money!
From tabloid fodder and paranoid proclamations to pure envy, the public sure spends a lot of time tarnishing what are supposed to be joyous success stories. Let's face it, if Gates didn't rank as the richest person in the world in this year's Forbes list, he'd still get picked on-only for being poor instead of rich. So are the years (or months that feel like years, given 20-hour workdays) invested in erecting new industries, adding to today's winning ideas or merely establishing career autonomy all worth it if they make you the bull's-eye in the latest mudslinging match? Well, we found that even if dues paid include botched friendships, the threat of corporate collusion and sheer exhaustion, pursuing "the dream," for most entrepeneurs, is worth the cost.
Facing Fierce Competitors
Even after recounting the loss of valuable time with his wife and two small children, who stayed behind in Ohio while he laid the foundation for his business in Atlanta, William Roth, 32, wouldn't choose a different path if he had the chance. His brainchild, ChannelLink, started in January 2000, is a Web-based trade exchange connecting pharmacies with pharmaceutical manufacturers. "When you're sitting in business school, define the coolest thing you could do, and it would probably have to do with pharmaceuticals, health care or technology," he says. "And here we are, an Internet company focused on the top pharmaceutical manufacturers, and we're being embraced by the buyers to the point that they're hugging us at trade shows."
While buyers have warmed up to the ChannelLink concept, wholesalers such as Cardinal Health, where Roth served in various positions for 10 years, cringed at such a business model. In response to Roth's new company, wholesalers announced their own exchange, as did medical surgical manufacturers intending to add pharmaceutical products. But despite the head wind, Roth negates intimidation with confidence: ChannelLink's niche-name-brand pharmaceutical manufacturers and fragmented pharmacy buyers-goes beyond what he believes wholesalers can achieve. And, he says, "there are always governmental eyes threatening any kind of collusion implication, so the lawyers we've spoken to don't see the manufacturers coming together to rally behind that."
When you create a new business model, which Roth did when he introduced the trade exchange now recognized by industry experts, competition will undoubtedly pop up. For Roth, it's only validation. But when your former boss, after hearing about your idea, hops on a corporate jet just to talk it down to one of your co-founders, it's gotta sting. "That's been really awkward, because if you asked anyone at Cardinal what I was like, they would've defined me as extremely loyal and dedicated," says Roth. "But within two weeks, all that unraveled. The friendships I made in my 10-year career there-it's interesting how it all changes."
Michael Reed, 31, and Alan Ezeir, 32, co-founders of dotcom domain name alternative WebSite.ws in Carlsbad, California, have also had to defend their idea from defamation. But with projected 2000 sales of $20 million, up $17 million from 1999, it hasn't been too worrisome. Take, for instance, Scott Blum, founder of Internet superstore Buy.com and Internet incubator ThinkTank, who, according to Ezeir, told him that ".ws" would be a huge branding challenge. The sentiment was seconded by another industry insider in a San Diego Union-Tribune article. But the comments didn't stop Ezeir: "AT&T was the only [long-distance] company in 1984, and then MCI came along, and a lot of people probably said there's no way another phone company's going to have the ability to come on the scene."
Ezeir, a "serial entrepreneur" who met Reed when he tried to couple telecommunications and the Internet in 1996, hasn't spoken with Buy.com's Blum since WebSite.ws topped 60,000 registrations just 120 days after launching service in spring 2000. He still hopes to work with Blum in the future, though.
Other than discouraging words, WebSite.ws hasn't encountered any all-out assaults from competitors. But if you rattle an industry like William Roth did, it's inevitable other parties will try to counteract the threat. According to Michael O'Connor, an executive consultant for corporations at The Fortunate 500 Foundation in Naples, Florida, and co-author of The Platinum Rule (Warner Books) and People Smarts (Pfeiffer & Co.), when rival companies conspire against you, values (or lack thereof) come into play. To put it plainly, ethics are the least of competitors' concerns when their survival is at stake.
You could join them, but watch your back. "The only way you get people not to be 'shady' competitors is if you do something for them, and they play the Godfather game with you-'You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours,' " says O'Connor. "But when you no longer have anything to offer them, then you're no longer going to get the same response from them."
If partnering with competitors is out of the question, but their attacks show no signs of stopping, O'Connor recommends confronting them. "The best way to approach them is directly," he says. "Say, 'I understand your goal is to win, and I want you to understand my goal, in terms of our relationship, is simply not to lose.' " A signed legal agreement helps, of course. "Otherwise," says O'Connor, "just don't bother with those individuals. Create relationships with [those who have] a value system more likely to contribute to your success."