Today You Started a Business

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A friend of mine left his corporate job yesterday after 23 years of being trapped in the Matrix. I hate it because I’m envious of that moment. The day I left a corporate job to be on my own for the first time. Suddenly you go from managing a cubicle from the hours of 9 to 5 to having to manage ALL OF TIME AND SPACE. The holograph screens that altered the universe around you peel away to show you what the real world looks like. The extra colors and intensity that had been hidden from you behind tinted-black glass windows and fluorescent lights.

I wish I had done it differently. I wish I had known what I know now.

I was working at HBO. I had a cubicle on the 6th Floor of 1100 Sixth Avenue. My boss was down the hall. His boss was in the room next to his. His boss was in the room next to that. And the real boss (the top guy’s secretary) was in front of all of their offices. I had a view of the McDonalds at Sixth Avenue which is now the big Bank of America building.

Work in the corporate world is like a hazy drug dream to me now. You could get in at 10am. Everyone took breaks downstairs to smoke. I didn’t smoke so I took licorice with me. Then at noon, LUNCH! And then after lunch, chess in Bryant Park. Then my boss left to catch his train at 4:15. So I would leave at 4:16. Before I had my own business on the side I’d take the subway to Astoria and go to Steinway Billiards. Everyone there was Greek. We’d all sit and play backgammon and chess and drink thick Greek coffee until about two in the morning. Sometimes my friends from HBO would come with me and it would be like a party every night. And I loved all the girls in the place but not a single one ever talked to me or looked at me no matter how many two dollar bills I tipped with.

There were goals and deadlines at work. Except for the summer. There was never anything to do in the summer. And all other times the deadlines were mild. Like if you missed one then it just meant a meeting was rescheduled. Nobody would get fired. The saying was, “if you want to get fired you have to stand on Albie’s desk and pee on him.” That was the boss’s boss’s boss. As part of my job I got to go to San Francisco for the first time, Los Angeles, and sunny Orlando (to make the website for the series “From the Earth to the Moon” which was shot right in Disneyworld.)

And then I quit.

I had to. I was running a business on the side. We had clients, some of whom were even competitors to HBO. We had employees. I had payroll to meet. And I felt myself stagnating at my job. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I stopped enjoying the meager things I was doing. And I thought I could handle the psychology of being on my own. What could be different, I thought. I wanted to spread my wings even though I had no idea how to fly.

I cried twice the first day on my own.

First time, at lunch with one of my partners, Randy. It suddenly hit me that I didn’t have a multi billion media empire as my backstop. I was on my own. I felt alone. Which is another way of saying, if I fucked up I had nobody to blame. Like we all did in corporate America. So over pizza I cried. “Are you ok?” Randy said. Poking at my weakness. “Yeah,” I said.

Then later at dinner with all my ex-employees and friends at HBO. I ordered pasta AND fries. Everyone started to laugh at what I had ordered and I wasn’t sure why. That made me cry again but nobody noticed. I felt like a four year old in a room filled with laughing adults. I had no idea what I was or what I was supposed to be.

I had been anchored close to shore with Time Warner as the dock. Now I was in deep waters. Too deep to anchor. I had to fish now. I had to find food. I had to get water. I had to feed a lot of people. I had to kill or be killed. I learned a lot in the next few months:

A) It was always my fault when things went wrong. If you blame others, you go out of business. Take responsibility for your problems and fix them or move on.

B) I had to communicate to people. If you hide from customers, they will fire you. If you hide from employees they lose respect for you. If you hide from investors, they sue you.

C) I had to help employees feel good about their jobs. I had to help customers feel their jobs were about to get a lot easier because now I was in their lives. I had to learn to reward people. I wanted everyone around me to feel good about it. To spread the word that I was someone to work with, to be around.

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