The silence of commercial success

In doing commerce most of the work and thinking that makes great a product or the value a company add, lies mostly hidden from the public. Even sometimes, the vision and the real aim of the entrepreneurs behind it, is not fully shared among friends or family. In a great extent commerce implies a necessary silence of stating the motives, which are to be discerned from the actual actions of the business itself. Like the silence of the doer, actions are to express much more than words.

The main reasons to be secretive is that by definition successful commerce is about concentrating the interests of many in a few hands, which are to gain economic advantage of this imbalance. Any disclosure of how to better gain this advantage might result in somebody else seizing it, diminishing the prospects of staying ahead. The best merchant is the one unknown as an individual, a incognito a guardian of the essence of its success in business.

Some will say this view of the entrepreneur is highly individualistic and easily confused as only driven by wealth in the form of money. But even for the ones that money is not the driver, for most, the only way to translate their vision into reality is by speaking less and doing more. The transformative energy of their efforts can only be realized when winning in the commerce game, which usually means something protected out of the public knowledge.

I can continue on analyzing the fairness in the rise of the few by way of protected secret. But, I’m more interested to explore how much they lose in the impossibility of communicating clearly what they want to do because they need to protect a commercial position. I think is interesting to realize how little much of the greatest entrepreneur have disclosed of their thinking, vision, and methods to take society in their ride, while they are at the top of their influence. We really only hear part of the stories either once they fall, retired, or even only when they are dying or after they pass out. The natural human longing for recognition and expression, needs to be restrained in them, so not to be much in the spotlight, hence less exposed to disclose the essence of their commercial success.

Is like a silence clause, in a virtual contract where they have the chance of becoming great but they can not speaks their minds freely, as it might affect the realization of a vision. Like Nassim Taleb described in his latest book (Antifragile), there is something “fragile” around certain occupations, whereby a small setback can drive a disproportionately large negative consequence. Like just a single trade secret, falling in the hands of people capable of replicating it, or understand their commercial impact, might bring down a company dependent on it. Compared that to some other professions, like: artists or performers, where the more negative publicity or controversial their works are, the higher the benefits in terms of sales: books, paintings, sculptures, performance engagements. These are the other side of the coin, the rare “antifragile”. Then a big portion of starting up a business seems to be understanding how much you will be really “free”, or not, to speak your mind about what you want to contribute changing.

This aspect of a silence of thought prevalent on commerce ventures is not one most people starting up will have a problem with. The upside of the possible benefit compensates the downside of not being able to tell the whole truth about how one got there. And yet, there are the ones for whom not being able to share their story creates a dilemma, as being in business is an expression of their freedom, now in conflict with what can be expressed without jeopardizing commercial interests. Chaining expression of their thoughts and views to only what is commercially convenient becomes a moral burden to their conscience. As Seneca viewed hundred of years ago: “Wealth is the slave of a wise man. The master of a fool”; how much an entrepreneur understands the difference between being chained to its wealth (success) as opposed as being a master of it, is a question all of them have to answer at a certain point. Even only to themselves.
Reviewing history for the great man and women in commerce, recognized by being mavericks, innovators or just revolution catalysts in their fields, it is difficult to find many of them, in full control of a successful business, explaining their true views on world problems and possible solutions while on the peak of their success. Usually, they only start telling their story, either once they fell from business grace, grow old and start to retire, or when they are dying. How much does society loses from these individuals being constrained by their own interests in regards to the problems they can help solve? How much they lose themselves in terms of impact and influence, by being silent?

It would appear to most that independence of view and work towards the greater benefit of society is in conflict with a natural individual desire to prioritize self-interests. Then, anything that aligns the two unlocks the greater good, even if it means not really understanding the thinking behind the actions from the individuals delivering the change. The mold of a silent entrepreneur, or a discoursing one only looking to advance it own interest fit most, but notable exceptions are worth exploring, like the few trying to operate in the border between philanthropy and the business of making money. For some, a business venture is only interesting that if scales up to dominate the world leaving something good in the process. In Yvon Chouinard book, “Let my people go surfing”, he describe a personal journey in founding of Patagonia Inc., and his dilemma of not wanting to be a businessman. Not really not finding any other way to make an impact on a cause that felt most important to him (environmental), and to provide the best gear to his friends (the mountaineers) to explore and care for the outdoors, he decided is was right and just to be in business — in his very own way though, as Patagonia is recognized for being very unorthodox in the way of managing their business. Somehow he managed to be very vocal about what Patagonia could help addressed, and the problems that were important to him, without being seen as less independent in thinking given a clear commercial interest — actually, many see it as a great marketing effort, I disagree, as entrepreneurs that speak their minds have a better chance to elicit change.

Another example might be Elon Musk (original founder of Paypal), now CEO of Tesla Motors (electric cars), and SpaceX (space travel). Also very open in his views of what ventures to focus that can help the world and also make him a good buck, and massively contributing via his foundation (Musk foundation) to environmental, energy, and transportation causes.

There are many more examples than these notable two, but I just wanted to bring about a key aspect of their operations: the conscious choosing of the areas to scale up and dominate beyond the money. They could have operated anything to spend their wealth, but choosing to make a business/cause work out ‘privately’ that ‘publicly’ has not been able to be addressed (sustainable manufacturing, electric cars and space transportation), speaks about understanding much more than just business. It speaks of somebody aiming at leaving a legacy beyond individual success.

The path to freedom is full of chains, choosing which ones you can liberate from separate the wise from the rest.

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