The News Today, Oh Boy
We have news this month about two people who have appeared on the cover of Inc. in the past couple of years. One is Doug Mellinger, the founder of PRT Group Inc., whom we billed as "The Next Bill Gates" on the cover of our January 1998 issue. The other is Harriet Rubin, author of "The Solo Diaries," which we ran in three installments, including the November 1998 cover story.
First, it turns out that Mellinger is probably not the next Bill Gates after all. Since the publication of our article (which inside the magazine was titled " The Antihero's Guide to the New Economy"), PRT has experienced a series of bitter setbacks that have resulted in Mellinger's being replaced as CEO, the departure of most of his management team, and a slide in the stock price from a high of $21.63 in February 1998 to $2 at press time. Executive editor Michael Hopkins, who wrote the 1998 story, has re-created the company's dizzying decline in a new article titled " Paradise Lost."
I hope the update will prompt you to go back and take another look at the 1998 article, which remains one of my favorites. As with any great story, there were several things that made it memorable, not just for me but for the many readers who wrote us after its appearance. For openers, there was Hopkins's success in bringing to life a young, complex organization and Mellinger's extraordinary vision of a company that would become "the backyard of his youth," the place where people would want to come and hang out.
Then, of course, there was the central theme of the article: "antiheroic leadership." Far from being built around the genius of a charismatic founder, PRT was guided by a man who made no pretense of having either genius or charisma. His gift was his ability to attract people who could get things done.
Unfortunately, there simply isn't enough "inside" information available yet to draw any conclusions about the limitations of antiheroic leadership. There's plenty, though, about the perils of going public in the most demanding -- and punishing -- market in memory. Mellinger's fall also makes me think about the paramount importance of paying attention to the fundamentals. Doing the basic stuff may not guarantee success, but not doing it can kill you.
That's worth remembering as you read Inc. or any other business publication. It's easy for us to inadvertently convey the impression that innovative approaches to management can take care of everything. They can't. They're certainly no substitute for good, solid business execution. That's not a very sexy subject to discuss, particularly in this economic environment. Maybe everyone would pay more attention if we made up another one of those "New Rules for the New Economy": Be competent or be dead.
The news about Harriet Rubin is much happier. HarperCollins has just published her new book, Soloing: Realizing Your Life Ambitions, which grew out of the articles she wrote for Inc. The articles themselves had grown out of a conversation Rubin and I had several years ago, during which she informed me that she was leaving Doubleday Publishing, where she had created the Currency imprint, one of the most successful and inventive business-book programs of our time.
Her career to that point had followed a familiar arc, from novice professional to high-powered executive. Then, one day, she looked around and realized that there simply weren't any jobs out there that she wanted. So she decided to create her own instead.
Rubin is as gifted a writer as she is an editor, which led me to ask her to start keeping a diary chronicling her journey from employee to soloist, a journey that so many people are now making. The result was "The Solo Diaries."
The articles drew a tremendous response from readers -- a reflection, in part, of the loneliness of the solo journey, as well as the sheer originality and inventiveness of Rubin's language. You could almost feel the yearning for community in the E-mail that poured in. Rubin had obviously hit a raw, collective nerve.
Soloing reads more like a travel book than like a business book as Rubin describes her adventures in going from paycheck to the solo life and her discovery that the only remaining barriers to entry to the solo life are our fears of life after the corporation.