Since 1989, Scott Adams's Dilbert comic strip has given voice to people all over America who have just about had it with management fads and corporate jargon. I myself have found it one of the few things I can count on for a laugh every day. Still, when I picked up Adams's new book, The Dilbert Principle (HarperBusiness, 1996), I was not at all sure how he would come across in prose form. Here's the short answer: he's even funnier. Except for one passage, that is, on page 83: "Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same." When we asked Adams about it, he said, "Um, that was a typo."
To some managers, the comic-strip character called Dilbert has come to epitomize the employee from hell, but I have to admit that I've always found him to be one of the country's most astute commentators on management practices in the Fortune 500. For nine years Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, had a bird's-eye view of those practices from his cubicle at Pacific Bell -- until June 30, 1995, when he was given the old heave-ho, like thousands of his big-company colleagues before and since. By then, of course, he had a thriving business on the side, and so it was an easy decision to follow the path so many others had taken, from corporate treadmill to full-time entrepreneurship. We asked him to shed some light on the transition. He agreed to be interviewed by E-mail -- one question a day. Here's what he had to say:
Inc.: What has it been like to go from being an employee to an Inc.-type guy who owns his own business?
Adams: It was unsettling at first. I had to build a little cardboard fort at home to wean myself away from the security of the cubicle I had left behind. But since I've gotten used to the change in physical surroundings, it's been great. I hardly ever have to deal with idiots. I never do status reports or have United Way meetings or form task forces. I never reengineer my core processes or brainstorm quality initiatives. Almost everything I do is useful. The only downside is that I end up working ridiculously long hours.
Inc.: Nobody spends all day doing useful things. Surely you must have already begun dreaming up policies, rules, dress codes, and the like.
Adams: My dress code is mandatory pajamas until 10 a.m. My cats hate it. You should see them struggle when I try to get them up to code. Here are some of my other rules: (1) I have a "no-talk zone" from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., when I do the majority of my creative work. (2) I will not pose for photographers while wearing a Dilbert-like necktie. They have to think of something more creative. (3) I will not conduct interviews over E-mail.
Inc.: Do you have a title?
Adams: This is a harder question than you might think, because my professional time is spent doing such different things: cartooning, writing, product design, and speaking. They're all creative activities, so I guess my title should be the Creator -- unless it's taken.
Inc.: How about a mission statement?
Adams: I don't even have a company name, let alone a mission statement. It's just me and my Schedule C. If I ever have a mission statement, please shoot me.
Inc.: Now that you're the boss, do you find yourself with an uncontrollable urge to write memos, create task forces, and hire consultants? Do you fantasize about hiring someone, just so you can "right-size"?
Adams: It's hell being the boss and the only employee. I keep telling myself to "work smarter, not harder," but it only makes me bitter and cynical. The weird part is that I didn't see it coming. I'm resisting the hassle of having a real employee, but I do reorganize my cats often just to keep them focused on the core competencies.
Inc.: What was the ultimate event, the milestone, that led you to leave your day job as an engineer at Pacific Bell?
Adams: The milestone was when my boss asked me to leave. It could have been more exciting.
Inc.: How did you manage to stay there as long as you did while you had a whole other career on the side? Did you have to keep some aspects of the Dilbert business a secret?
Adams: Not at all. I did Dilbert and worked at Pacific Bell from 1989 to 1995. During that time I had about a dozen different bosses. They all knew about Dilbert. It wasn't the kind of thing I could hide. I think most of them liked it on some level. For most of those years, I needed the Pacific Bell income, but -- toward the end -- it was clear where my future lay. In my final year my primary career was cartoonist, both financially and mentally, and my day job was just a source of material, social release, and extra cash. My days at Pacific Bell were numbered, but I didn't know what the last number would be.
Inc.: So did Dilbert have anything to do with your being asked to leave?
Adams: Not that I know of. I'd told all of my bosses I would resign if they ever felt my costs exceeded my benefits. One of the benefits, of course, was the positive PR. I get interviewed often. Anyway, in the spring of 1995 I got a new boss, and I reiterated my offer to resign if asked. A few weeks later he asked. The reason given was budget constraints. I'm pretty sure it was a local management decision, not one from the top. Dilbert reprints are published in the company newsletter.
Inc.: Had you always wanted to be in business for yourself?
Adams: I knew I wanted to make as much money as I could, and I always figured I would make it by doing something entrepreneurial. I had several models in mind. The one I liked best involved making some kind of intellectual product and then selling it over and over. I tried a number of things -- software programs, a perpetual-motion machine. I finally hit on Dilbert, which was very much in the make-one-sell-many mold.
Inc.: What led you to cartooning?
Adams: I read a book.
Inc.: You read a book?
Adams: Yeah, that's how I solved the distribution problem. I found out that cartooning is one of the few professions where you don't need any connections to get your product out. I literally bought a book on the advice of a cartoonist, and the book told you how to put together photocopies of your work and send them to the 13 major syndicates. One chapter, three pages, gave you everything you needed to know. Even the addresses.
Inc.: Had you ever done any drawing?
Adams: Just doodling. Nothing serious.
Inc.: So, when you left Pacific Bell, how prepared were you to be on your own? Do you have a business plan?
Adams: United Media, my syndication company, has a business plan, which I contribute to, but it doesn't have much impact on how I spend my day. My own business plan is to spend less than I earn.
Inc.: Do you have a different perception of bosses now that you are one?
Adams: I don't consider myself a boss in the classic sense, since I don't directly pay anyone's salary or do any performance reviews. But assuming I become one someday, I'll surely think I'm a flawless boss. If bosses could recognize their flaws, they wouldn't have so many. There must be some kind of cognitive camouflage you get when you become a manager.
Inc.: Is there any difference between bosses at big companies and bosses at small companies, or are they all equally stupid?
Adams: Actually, I have to say bosses at big companies tend to be stupider. If you're stupid at a small company, it becomes a noncompany so quickly that, by a process of natural selection, you pretty much have to be smarter if you're still in business.
Inc.: Do you ever find yourself behaving like an employee out of sheer habit? Are you ever tempted, for example, to steal office supplies from yourself? File a grievance? Take an unauthorized sick day?
Adams: I have sexually harassed myself, but it never got reported. Sick days aren't the joy they used to be. The best way to keep my mind off being sick is to work, so I end up putting in 14-hour days instead of 12-hour ones.
Inc.: Tell us about your car. Now that you're the founder, president, and CEO of an emerging growth company, you gotta have wheels -- real, entrepreneurial wheels. With a vanity plate.
Adams: I drive a little black 1991 Nissan NX 2000 with 55,000 miles on it. I hate buying cars, so I'll probably keep it forever. My license plate is "DOGBERT," because my first Dogbert book paid for the car. At the time it was an obscure reference. Now people recognize it. I can't make as many obscene gestures on the highway.
Inc.: Have you started to hate government yet? Have the regulators come after you?
Adams: I hate the government on April 15 every year, but otherwise it leaves me alone. I've organized my cats into a militia in case that situation changes.
Inc.: What about product extensions of Dilbert -- like, say, a theme park for employees only?
Adams: I'd love to start a theme park called Dilbertland. It would have cubicle mazes, engineering marvels, a 3-D boss-shooting gallery, cool but worthless technology -- that sort of thing. But for now we're sticking with the usual stuff like lunch boxes, ties, you name it. If you can write on it, if it will hold a label, it's a prime target for licensing.
Inc.: So you're not worried about overexposure.
Adams: I am, but the odd thing is that you can't get to overexposure without getting to filthy rich first.
Inc.: I realize this probably won't happen, but -- if you ever had to look for a job -- which company would you most like to work for?
Adams: I'd like to work for a small software-game company. I'd like to be able to sit in my cubicle playing games and know it's work related. I won't name a specific company because the disgruntled employees there will hate me for undermining their claims of working for a hideous employer.
Inc.: Do you have any business heroes?
Adams: I'm most impressed with businesspeople who can make something out of nothing. I like how Bill Gates turned a good idea, a lot of hard work, some luck, and a bit of competitive advantage into $16 billion . It's amazing when you think of all the things that could have been done wrong to keep it from happening. Steve Case also impresses me. I like how he's continually confounded the critics and made America Online the biggest on-line service. It's probably the classic case of how to ignore the opinions of experts.
Inc.: Now that you have your own business, do you ever worry that one day you'll wake up and -- poof! -- it will all be gone? That suddenly demand will soften, cash will disappear, and your creditors will start beating down your door? I guess I'm asking whether you ever think you should have kept your day job.
Adams: Not until this moment. Thanks a lot!
George Gendron can be reached at email@example.com
Miscellaneous facts about the man and his business:
The Dilbert strip began in 1989 and now appears in more than 1,000 newspapers in 29 countries.
Adams is 38 and has a B.A. in economics from Hartwick College, in Oneonta, N.Y., and an M.B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley.
He worked at Crocker Bank in San Francisco from 1979 to 1986 and at Pacific Bell from 1986 to 1995, mostly in various engineering groups.
He made about $70,000 a year at Pacific Bell -- far less than he made from Dilbert after the first couple of years.
His Web page is the Dilbert Zone (at http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert). It reportedly gets 55,000 visitors a day.
He has an on-line newsletter with 110,000 subscribers. It goes out on a random schedule and includes cross-promotion for other licensed Dilbert goods, as well as the usual funny stuff.
For about two weeks after a newsletter drop, Adams gets about 1,000 electronic-mail messages a day. Otherwise, he gets about 300 E-mail messages a day, most of which are suggestions for the comic strip. He claims to read all his E-mail personally.
He's a sole proprietor and has no employees.