By: Dan Schawbel
I recently caught up with Michael Feuer, who co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003.
In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. His new book is called The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition. In this interview, Michael talks about entrepreneurship lessons that he learned, when it’s possible to turn an idea into a business, how entrepreneurs can create brands, and more.
Can you describe what a benevolent dictator is?
A benevolent dictator is not an evil-doer; instead he or she is a leader who does the right things, for the right reasons for all of his or her constituents. The dictator part of the equation refers to the fact that in a start-up or fast-track company the “dictator” has to make the decisions when the time for talking is done so that the enterprise can move to the next step.
As the co-founder of OfficeMax, what entrepreneurial lessons did you learn in the early days that helped you grow the company?
In a startup each click of the secondhand on the clock is your enemy because time is your most precious, yet wasting, asset and too many entrepreneurs try for perfection rather than just getting off the ground and fine-tuning as they go.
How do you know when an idea can turn into a business and when it can’t?
Use your head, heart and gut and recognize that the truth is out there but you have to “man-up” and deal with what these three barometers are telling you. Your customer will tell you, but you have to translate what you’re hearing into what it really means. If it’s not working fix it or bag it; when it starts to work “go all in”.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who is struggling to create a brand for his or her company?
Look at what you’re trying to accomplish through the eyes of the customers, and instead of giving them what you want them to have, give them what they need in a different form or fashion than they can find elsewhere. It’s all about positioning and filling a need.
What is the “Mother Rule” as illustrated in your book?
Don’t ever do anything that you would be ashamed to have your mother know about, because it’s probably something you shouldn’t have done in the first place. The same applies to hanging out with people your mother wouldn’t like. In business, if you meet someone you know your mother would not approve of, they’re probably not someone with whom you should work.