Wednesday, February 16, 2011

People: Food or Friends?

Conventional wisdom holds that a business owner's top asset is her people: The office employees, staff, salesmen and managers who keep her business running well. But conventional wisdom is getting stale, at least according to venture capitalist and author Andy Kessler.

He spoke at the Drucker Business Forum in Pasadena this week. (BTW, they host a terrific series of free presentations. If you're in Southern California, I highly recommend them.)

In an entertaining slide show, Kessler laid out a dozen "unapologetic" rules for entrepreneurs from his latest book, "Eat People." His thesis, which reflects the book's Soylent Green title and fork-stabbing-man cover, is about relishing the fact that technology is displacing people in the workforce.

Yes, I said "relishing." The jobs he's talking about, which range from attorney to newspaper editor to toll booth attendant, are unproductive and not worth preserving, in his estimation.

Kessler's book includes dismissive titles for the non-creative people who do such jobs: Sloppers, Super-sloppers, Spongers and Thieves (the latter term apparently reserved for government employees). And he's celebrating the fact that soon they all will be out of work.

What will happen to them? Kessler didn't offer any thoughts. What of human kindness or social concerns for these displaced sloppers and slurpers, who after all could be our mothers, our brothers or ourselves? Yawn.

When asked about social entrepreneurship, Kessler agreed (less-than-enthusiastically) with the goals of philanthropy, though he termed the issue "very complicated." Certainly none of the creative geniuses who profit enormously off the backs of their workers should be criticized if they don't pull a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet, he said. After all, their marvelous innovations have enriched society to untold proportions anyway.

In a week when machine triumphed over man and the New York Times speculated that news editors could be replaced by algorithms, I left Kessler's talk in something of a funk.

Then I got a message from my college-aged son. And I remembered a story Kessler told about his own son getting a summer job doing computer work. When Kessler suggested that the job be automated, his son objected to the idea of putting his friends and colleagues out of work.

Kessler was clearly disappointed in the boy.

But thinking about Millennials - a group I know well - cheered me right up. They are as idealistic, people-oriented and community-minded as any '60s hippie. Yes, they'll get cynical and have their own problems to deal with, but they're not going to eat people. Not even if they're starving.


  1. Interesting theory, Karen, and I could see why you'd leave that conference in a funk...I would, too. As a budding social entrepreneur, I put my faith behind my crew 100%. I think the world would be a cold, heartless place if many of our traditional job roles were automated. Luckily, you can't automate excellent listening skills, compassion or willingness to give....all earmarks of superior customer service.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article!

  2. You're welcome, Lori, thanks for reading.

    I looked up Kessler's background when I got home and found three things that explained a lot: He's an engineer by training, he writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and he worked on Wall Street during the Masters of the Universe years.

  3. Ahhh, so that explains it. For The Power Of Greyskull.....!!

  4. Hmm. I'm sympathetic, but only partially.

    Many jobs will go by the wayside. This has always been the truth, it's nothing new. If that weren't the case, the shops of alchemists, wheelwrights and farriers would line Colorado Blvd. along with the restaurants and computer repair shops.

    Our world changes more rapidly all the time. It's not like the days when you could stick with one career your whole life. But I've known since college I had to watch trends. We have to be prepared for change. I hope the kids coming out of college now have gotten an education that prepares them for that.

  5. He may well be right about all the jobs that will be lost, Petrea. It was his absolutely scornful, heartless tone and the names he used to describe hard-working people that got to me.

    You're right about industries changing and business adopting new trends.

    However, if some of what he and others are saying about the technical revolution is true (and I certainly take it with a large shaker of salt), the changes in the next 10 to 25 years will be much larger and more comprehensive than in the past.

    This isn't just automobiles replacing horse and buggy. Automation of jobs touches nearly every sector, including services, transportation, manufacturing, and on and on.

  6. He does sound like a jerk. A better contribution would be "here's what's happening, here's what we do about it" as opposed to "sorry, loser."

    Did he offer any solutions?
    If we automate everything, what are we going to do with the people who have nothing to do but foment revolution?

  7. No, he didn't offer solutions or even seem to think they were required.

    I had exactly the same thought you did about revolution, especially if 10% of the creative class gets richer and richer at the expense of the 90% of the server class.

  8. They say the uprisings in the Middle East have a good deal to do with the economy. We'd do well to pay attention to that.

  9. These unofficial titles have been around for years, under the radar. When employees become devalued pawns in a larger company, is it any wonder that productivity goes down? I am assuming this gentleman has trained hos employees to their highest live, so they might no longer be sloppers and slurpers? Another entry, I'm afraid, for my Wall of Shame :-/

  10. Thanks for enlightening me, B!

    I guess I've been sheltered and mostly seen the admirable side of entrepreneurs who value and even cherish their employees - from top managers to janitors.

    I've always thought that was the model for success, perhaps I've been naive.