IT TOOK 15 years of running my own business before I realised I was constantly making the same mistake.
In the early Fifties, when I graduated from college, all young Americans wanted to work for a Fortune 500 company. I had quite a lot of job offers but decided to work for Eastman Kodak. After that I worked for the government, becoming the equivalent of the assistant minister of education, and later joined IBM.
In 1967, by which time I was 39, I decided to start my own business. My colleagues thought I was crazy to leave IBM. (My wife was certain that I was.) But I went ahead and quit and, with my last paycheque, formed a company called Urban Research, operating out of a basement room in a Chicago hotel.
At that time we were having a lot of riots, President Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated and there was clearly something wrong. I wanted to figure out what it was and sell the research and conclusions to a corporate market.
Before long I had about 50 employees and found out for the first time what it was like to be responsible for so many people and to have to struggle to meet a payroll.
A lot of money was coming in, but very little became profit because it was being eaten up by the corporate structure I thought had to be in place simply because that was what I was used to. The basic flaw was in constantly re-creating on a smaller scale what I had left behind - the same hierarchical institution that fell of its own weight several times until about nine years ago when I realised it was my biggest mistake.
By this time my firm had undergone several incarnations and I decided the only way forward was to sell it and start over with Megatrends. It is a global company that publishes books and organises seminars and conferences. I have 57 joint ventures in 42 countries, yet my company has just four employees, including me. Everything else is contracted out.
I have created what is now known as a 'virtual office'. It is based in Washington but I haven't been there in five years. I have two people there and two in Colorado, but basically run my company in a town of 1,400 people from a house 3,000 metres up in the Rockies. With today's telecommunications I can be as in touch with the rest of the world as if operating from London.
The trick is to keep your organisation tiny, and your overheads low. Today about 65 per cent of our income goes right to the bottom line.
There's a company in my town called Western Eye Press, run by two people who publish wonderful photographic and guide books. They create them in their house, print out the camera-ready pages and Federal Express them to Korea, where they are printed and shipped round the world. So Western Eye Press is a player in the global economy, yet consists of two people on a mountain perch in Colorado. That is the way of the future.
The key considerations for anyone starting out on their own are joint venture and market niche. It only has to be a tiny niche, but because it's global the result can be large. Lone eagles have the competitive edge. They can beat the bureaucracies every time because they are in a position to innovate, to move at the speed of the market.