While literary agents, publishers, and would-be authors were lamenting the demise of the recent business-book boom, Paul Hawken was signing a contract for a $400,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for a book tentatively titled How to Grow a Business. "The reason business books are dead is that they're all the same," says Hawken. "And the publisher felt mine would be different."
No one who has followed the peripatetic 41-year-old Hawken was too surprised by his success, however: he has made a career out of doing things differently. In 1966, while the antibusiness counterculture was in flower, Hawken and a group of friends founded Erewhon Trading Co., which grew to some $10 million in sales by 1973. In 1980, along with partner David Smith, he founded Smith & Hawken, importing English garden tools.
"It sounded like a stupid idea at the time," Hawken admits. "We were going to sell products that people didn't know about at two and a half times the price they were used to paying." Stupid, perhaps, but successful -- so much so that Smith & Hawken has gone on to become a model studied by businesspeople worldwide.
But Hawken has always been more than an entrepreneur. With the 1984 publication of The Next Economy, Hawken jumped into the business-guru game, arguing the then-unconventional position that small companies are particularly well suited to take advantage of the changes in the world's economy. The Next Economy brought Hawken to a wide, national audience, including Peter Grace, who showed up outside Hawken's Mill Valley, Calif., house to offer him a job -- and a salary reported to be in the seven-figure range -- at W.R. Grace & Co., the chemicals giant.
"Actually," Hawken says, "it was only in six figures." But he didn't want the job in any case. While flakking The Next Economy, he was developing the ideas that would become How to Grow a Business. "I wanted to write about what I've experienced, not what I think," he explains.
Once again, Hawken is defying conventional wisdom. "The idea of the entrepreneur as hero has gone too far," he says. "People are confusing entrepreneurship with opportunism. I want to show that you don't have to give up your values to be a success. In fact, a business is successful because the people who start it are true to themselves. But there is no right way to do things -- the world is too complex to be reduced to a series of aphorisms."
True to form, Hawken found an unusual way to put his How to Grow a Business package together. He developed the project in conjunction with the San Francisco Public Broadcasting Service station, KQED, which then convinced Computer-Land Corp. to underwrite a How to Grow a Business television series, with Hawken as host. So this October, just as the book should hit the stores, Hawken will hit the airwaves on PBS member stations coast to coast. "I'm not going to talk about the book or the business on the air, though," Hawken insists. "I don't want to be the next Victor Kiam."