On June 8, the original manuscript of one of the best-selling books of all time was supposed to have been sold at auction. Valued at $2-3 million, its title is Alcoholics Anonymous, but it's better known as the Big Book and, for nearly 80 years, it's been helping alcoholics in their struggle to get and stay sober.
In late May, Alcoholics Anonymous sued to stop the sale, claiming it was the rightful owner of the manuscript. But that's hardly the most interesting part of this story. What you probably don't know about the Big Book is that it played an integral role in the greatest business failure of all time.
In 1937, Alcoholics Anonymous co-founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith discussed publishing a book to raise awareness about alcoholism, to help promote their program for combating the disease, and to attract investors for a for-profit chain of detox centers.
Recovering alcoholics themselves, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, as they are known, almost got the business off the ground: In 1937, Bill W.'s brother-in-law wrangled a meeting with a group of wealthy philanthropists associated with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
The potential investors were impressed with the idea of an organization devoted to helping alcoholics, according to the timeline on A.A.'s website, "however, after it is pointed out that money could spoil the movement's purpose, the meeting reaps welcome enthusiasm and moral support, but no funds."
A few months later, in early 1938, one member of the group recommended that Rockefeller himself invest $50,000 as seed money for a for-profit hospital to be run by Dr. Bob. Rockefeller declined, but he did contribute $5,000 to help support Bill W. and Dr. Bob in their efforts to help other alcoholics.
The first publication of the Big Book in 1939 was also a disappointment. Harper & Brothers offered to publish the book. Instead, Bill W. created a company, sold stock to finance the book, and published it himself. Unfortunately, the publicity and marketing campaign for the 5,000-copy first printing was a failure and few books were sold.
A.A. operated on a shoestring into the early 1940's, but word spread of the effectiveness of the 12 Step program outlined in the Big Book. Book sales picked up, and more and more people formed and joined A.A. groups. In 1947, Bill W. announced that A.A. had become self-sustaining, thanks to income from book sales and contributions from members.
Today, A.A. is serving more than 2 million recovering alcoholics in more than 180 countries. Moreover, the 12 Step program that Bill W. laid out in the Big Book has helped millions of people with a host of other addictions. "These include Narcotics Anonymous, the more specific Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous," reports the BBC. "Clutterers Anonymous deals with those with hoarding problems. Underearners Anonymous offers support for those suffering an 'inability to provide for one's needs.' Support for loved ones of those going through addiction is on offer at Families Anonymous."
In 2011, the Big Book was named one of most influential books written in English by Time. In 2012, the Library of Congress named it one of 88 books that shaped America. More than 35 million copies of the Big Book have been sold since 1939.
I'd say that all adds up to a very strong argument for naming Alcoholics Anonymous the greatest business failure of all time. And there's a terrific lesson hidden in that for entrepreneurs: Maybe your great business idea isn't a business at all.
Maybe it's a non-profit or some other kind organization. And maybe that will be more rewarding than any billion-dollar unicorn you can imagine.