The Pro: The Rules
Take seasoned, unsentimental management skills with an industry that hasn't encountered them. Mix
The comic-book superhero, with a few notable exceptions, is no alien divinity but rather an all-too-human being, blessed by fate or cursed by science with extraordinary powers and compelled by some anomaly of character to exert those powers in the service of forces greater than himself.
That's also a pretty good definition of an entrepreneur.
It certainly describes Mark Alessi, the founder and president of CrossGeneration Comics, in Oldsmar, Fla. In the 1990s, Alessi used his powers -- of the sales and management variety -- to build a successful technology company and sell it to Ross Perot in a single bound. (OK, it took six years.) Now, in a bet on the time-honored start-up gambit of bringing professionalism to an unprofessional industry, he is applying those same abilities to the woefully depressed world of comic-book publishing, whose sales shrank from $850 million in 1993 to $275 million last year. While demand is shriveling, the supply side is plagued by inefficiencies perpetuated by publishers' reliance on webs of far-flung freelancers who are paid by the page and forced to juggle assignments from multiple masters. Alessi claims that that system erodes the artists' loyalty, the books' quality, and the publishers' ability to deliver the product on time. Take that, Decentralization Man!
So in 1998, Alessi, at 45, decided to resuscitate the industry that had stoked the rich fantasy life of Alessi at 12. He would do so by creating a densely woven graphic universe -- the planets of CrossGen, backdrop for all five of the publisher's futuristic-cum-sword-and-sorcery titles -- and building a company managed by the same rules that had served him so well in high tech. As CEO of Technical Resource Connection (TRC), the object-oriented-programming company he founded in 1990 (which placed #36 on the Inc. 500 in 1996), Alessi had learned "the questions you have to ask up front: How do you build a compensation program that promotes company goals and unity? How do you create an environment where people do their best work? How do you guarantee that you meet your deadlines and deliver a quality product?" Alessi answered those questions with systems that propelled TRC to $30 million in revenues and more than 200 employees. "In a comic-book company the rules may not be as strict," he says. "But we're still working from some of the same principles."
"Comics taught me lessons about might for right, doing the right thing, and justice for all."
As Alessi points out, technology and comic books aren't exactly parallel universes. Take staffing: although skilled programmers are scarce, CrossGeneration received between 6,000 and 7,000 applications for 13 positions when it advertised in a trade magazine last year. But Alessi never used the surfeit of people who wanted to work for him as an excuse to stiff those who ultimately did. His goal as a technology chief had been to build loyal and collaborative teams of top-notch in-house talent. That goal didn't change when he switched from clashing operating systems to clashing titans.
Consequently, Alessi promised CrossGeneration's staffers not just comic-book-industry rarities such as salary and benefits but also the price of admission at Silicon Valley-style businesses: profit sharing, to the tune of 25%. A comparable arrangement had produced several millionaires when Perot Systems Inc. purchased Alessi's earlier business, a transaction that provided CrossGeneration's start-up capital.
CrossGeneration's pay scale, too, resembles the technology company's in proportion, if not always in scale. TRC paid lavish salaries to object-oriented-programming pioneers; at CrossGeneration, "the average salary of our creative people, with one exception, is higher than the highest salary on the management team," says Alessi. Artists' compensation begins at around $40,000 and rises in a few cases into the low six figures.
Alessi's hiring practices have been almost as consistent as his compensation plans. The vast majority of TRC's technical consultants were able to write code in several languages; similarly, CrossGeneration hires only those who can perform some combination of penciling, inking, and coloring. In addition, having had his fill of "bright young people who are hard to manage, hard to discipline, hard to motivate," the CEO chooses "respectful, responsible, hardworking grown-ups" over hotshot, but immature, talent. "The average age here is mid to high thirties," says Alessi. "I am certain that on the creative side that's the highest of any comic-book company."
Given his preoccupation with maturity, Alessi, not surprisingly, insists on a certain level of professional decorum. The company's dress code and prescribed hours proved initially disconcerting to young staffers accustomed to the pajama-top-optional milieu of home labor. "We concentrate on basics," says Alessi. "Try to come to work on time. Plan lunch sometime between 11:30 and 1:30. Shower every day. It's good for you and good for the rest of us. I keep razors here and shaving cream. If you come in here unshaven, you shave."
Alessi's discipline of the workforce extends to discipline of the production process: the company is organized into project teams that use work-tracking mechanisms similar to those employed by software-development groups. And both types of discipline serve the grander purpose of disciplined product delivery. "In technology," explains Alessi, "you have either a fixed-bid contract -- where you deliver this product in this time frame for this amount of money -- or else the client pays for time and materials and you work on their project until it's finished or they throw you out. Most of the comic-book industry today is time and materials. We're fixed bid."
What that means in practice is that every single title will hit newsstands on time. That's an ambitious commitment, given that many of CrossGeneration's 20-some competitors -- chary of the gap between quantifiable promise and amorphous fulfillment -- don't print publication dates on their books at all. "Someday will we miss a date?" asks Alessi. "I'm sure we will. Will we miss dates frequently? I'm sure we won't, because I will kill the people involved."
That aura of professionalism also surrounds CrossGeneration's marketing efforts. The debut of the series in May and June was accompanied by two sincere but calculated gimmicks -- a money-back guarantee and the pledge not to release single issues with multiple covers, a much-maligned industry ploy. Both tactics seized the attention of likely fans, as did Alessi's purchase of MegaCon, the third-largest comic-book convention in the United States. Although not on the scale of Softbank's acquisition of Comdex, the MegaCon deal has served to get CrossGeneration's name out there.
And the company's name is out there. In their first month of publication all five of CrossGeneration's titles made the top 100 list of Diamond Comic Distributors, the industry's primary market channel. By month three, CrossGeneration was fielding initial inquiries from Disney Animation, Showtime, and Miramax, among others, and by month six it was preparing to sign licensing deals with two video-game companies. In June CrossGeneration became the fifth-largest comic-book publisher in the country, after DC Comics, Marvel, Image Comics, and Dark Horse.
Alessi doesn't know whether CrossGeneration will ever make him as much money as TRC did. But he doesn't care. "I really hate technology," says the CEO. And, of course, he loves comics, which he recalls fondly as a formative influence on his moral code. "Comics taught me lessons about might for right, doing the right thing, and justice for all," he says.
Those sound a little like the management principles to which CrossGeneration aspires. Undoubtedly, Alessi learned much from running a technology company. But maybe his real education came from the funny papers.
Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc.
THE START-UP ISSUE
The Rationalist: The Death of Gut Instinct
The Copycat: The Next Starbucks
The Spin-Off: Hiding in Plain Sight
The Soloist: Balancing Act
The Idealist: Into the Frying Pan
The Zealot: Mission Critical
The Pro: The Rules
The Accidental Entrepreneur: Field of Dreams
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