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Weekly Thoughts: Successories

Here is something that caught our eye this week:

Successories

DARE TO SOAR: Your Attitude Almost Always Determines Your Altitude In Life.

Like some other children of the 90’s, certain members of the Chenmark team grew up in bedrooms adorned with motivational quotes similar to the above, which were always paired with pictures of things like eagles soaring, majestic waterfalls, or rowers on a river at sunrise.  We are always interested in learning the business stories behind seemingly innocuous daily items, and motivational posters are no exception. As such, this week we spent some time learning about Mac Anderson, and his business, Successories.

Started in 1985, Successories was not Anderson’s first entrepreneurial venture, as he previously owned companies in the travel and food distribution industries.  However, quotes were something of a personal hobby for Anderson, who made it a point to record inspirational sayings he liked.  One year, he made a book of such motivational quotes for one of his customers to distribute at a national sales meeting, and was surprised with the volume of positive feedback.  Based on a hunch, he tested the idea more broadly by putting the book in hotel and airport gift shops, and sold 800,000 copies within 18 months.  Confident that he was onto something, he teamed up with a designer to put some of the quotes on posters, and Successories started its motivational wunderkind reign, selling up to $75 million a year at its peak in the mid-1990’s. That’s a lot of soaring eagles.

While we have a nostalgic fondness for slightly cheesy motivational items, it turns out they are also surprisingly effective.  For instance, researchers have found that appropriately placed posters can actually change behavior: They can increase contributions for coffee in communal break rooms, encourage people to pick up more litter, and bolster call center productivity. Quartz at Work provides some insight:

“Being exposed to a stimulus, even one as seemingly benign as an image on a wall, can have a powerful unconscious effect on later behavior, a concept known as priming…. Posters “absolutely” have an effect on behavior, Latham told Quartz At Work—just not at the conscious level. Most people in Latham’s experiments don’t actually realize that they’ve seen a poster in the room, he said.  Motivational posters are practically made to be discarded by the conscious mind.” 

Since the typical Successories customer is a “female in a management position, trying to manage an office and motivate people,” it should come as no surprise if the Chenmark offices feature some new wall art in the not too distant future.  That said, we are aware that not even the best placed posters can ensure business success, as Successories itself went through a series of misguided attempts to manage growth.  Unfortunately, poor internal controls led to significant losses; at one point the company thought they were making a profit, when in fact they lost $7 million.

Anderson was eventually forced to sell the company, which has since restructured and now sells personalized motivational swag alongside its iconic posters.  The most amazing part of this story is that after leaving Successories, Anderson had another hunch that people would value short books with great content, went on to found Simple Truths, a multimedia publishing company, and to date has sold more than $50 million worth of short motivational books (all of which are designed to be read in less than one hour).  At Chenmark, we love stories like these, which provide the inspiration associated with entrepreneurial success as well as the cautionary tales that can come from growing too fast without proper investment in supporting infrastructure. Perhaps the next poster should read: Dare To Soar, But Bring a Good CFO Along For The Ride.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Capital Team

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