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The secret to business success lies in making good decisions. I have no doubt that thousands of qualified individuals could offer monumentally wiser business advice than this, but in that most general, inarguable, obvious-even-to-a-schmuck-like-me way, it all comes down to decisions.

Some culture-shaping decisions were outright brilliant, like JVC and Microsoft spreading VHS and Windows around numerous manufacturers while Sony and Apple kept the Betamax and Macintosh systems to themselves, leading to one’s demise and the other’s miniscule 1990’s market share. Other business decisions, like my choice to devote at least two hours of each of my days over this thousand-day period to producing articles for free public consumption online – not so much.

That’s okay, I can live with it. So what if this project floats gratuitously among the ether, leaving no significant residue upon my personal net worth? It’s art. Art that is smattered with Cliff-Claven-esque trivia and poop jokes, so the best kind of art. And besides, as far removed from savvy fiscal acumen as I may be, at least I can pride myself on not having made the bonehead decisions these folks did.

DickRowe

Meet Dick. Dick was a successful producer in the 1950’s. By 1962 he was a proud A&R man (that’s ‘Artists & Repertoire’ – the guy who screens potential acts) at Decca Records in England. On a blustery New Year’s Day, Dick sat in the studio as a hopeful young quartet from Liverpool tried to dazzle him with their sound, one which had already billowed many a swoon into excitable young women (and even men) in the northern towns. Those men were John, Paul, George and Pete Best, and they proceeded to make Dick famous.

Famous for flubbery, that is. Dick Rowe told the group’s manager Brian Epstein that guitar groups were “on the way out”, and he turned them down cold. It would take a few months for the Beatles to become the biggest group in the country and years before Dick was able to scrape away all the solidified egg from his face.

George Harrison felt bad for the guy, and introduced him to the Rolling Stones. Dick had smartened up by then, and after signing the Stones he went on to lasso the Moody Blues, the Zombies, Them with Van Morrison, John Mayall’s Bluesbrakers, Tom Jones and the Small Faces. In the end, Dick made good.

MegoCorporation

In the 1970’s, few companies brought more giggly bliss to children than the Mego Corporation. Mego was the toy titan of the 70’s, producing the World’s Greatest Superheroes line of action figures, which featured a hodgepodge of DC and Marvel favorites, like Captain America, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man… pretty much all the comic book A-listers of the decade. Then in 1976, company honcho David Abram was offered the rights for another toy franchise for an unproven sci-fi film.

He said no.

David felt that his company would go bankrupt if they made a toy out of every “flash in the pan” sci-fi B-movie that trotted through Hollywood’s grimy streets and backlots. Kenner Toys snatched up the Star Wars franchise and made a mint. Mego tried to peddle at top speed to every ensuing sci-fi fad, and they were able to secure the toys for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Buck Rogers and Moonraker. Unsurprisingly, the Moonraker toy juggernaut was not enough to save Mego from this horrible decision, and they drizzled down the corporate drain in 1982.

M&Ms

In the midst of production for Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Amblin Entertainment reached out to the good folks at Mars to offer them an opportunity to sprinkle their delicious M&M’s candies throughout the film. Perhaps Mars had reached the limit of their annual advertising budget, or maybe they simply weren’t ready to leap into the relatively new realm of cinematic product placement. They passed.

Hershey was offered the gig next, and they happily inked a deal to plug the movie with $1 million in advertising, in exchange for using E.T.’s lovely visage on their products and in their own ads. Reese’s Pieces were a fairly low-key Hershey product before that film became the most lauded piece of 1982 cinema. Now they were being devoured en masse by movie-lovers and candy-snarfers alike. Mars didn’t wither and die, of course. But they did miss out on the opportunity to be pioneers in the now-commonplace product placement domain. The sales boost might have been nice too.

RyanLeaf

I don’t want to pick on Ryan Leaf. The guy is famous for one reason and one reason only – being the biggest draft bust in the history of the National Football League. This is one instance where saying yes was the poor business decision, as the San Diego Chargers scooped Ryan Leaf out of Washington State as the number 2 draft pick of 1998 (#1 was Peyton Manning to the Indianapolis Colts – the polar opposite of a draft bust). Leaf had been a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and by every measure appeared to be the second-best quarterback in the draft class that year.

It wasn’t a good fit. Ryan made quick enemies of his teammates, yelled at the press, and within two months his backup had replaced him as the Chargers’ starter. Injuries and poor playing dogged him through three seasons in San Diego, where he won only four games. After one more year as a Dallas Cowboys backup option, he retired. The players San Diego could have taken that year instead? Well, pro-bowlers like Charles Woodson, Randy Moss and Hines Ward for starters.

BellvWesternUnion

In 1876, the only way to send immediate long-distance communication was to go through Western Union’s network of telegraph wire. It was a legal monopoly; Western Union had all the technology. Company president William Orton should have been able to coast into the 20th century atop one of the most powerful companies on the planet. When a guy named Gardiner Greene Hubbard showed up on behalf of an upstart inventor named Alexander Graham Bell, Orton thought the offer of $100,000 to purchase the telephone patent was ludicrous. He turned it down, calling it an electrical toy that had no commercial possibilities. Keep in mind the telephone was designed to work with all the nation-wide telegraph lines in Western Union’s domain. They just had to plug it in.

Undeterred, Bell set up his own company, which eventually became American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T). I don’t believe I have to warn about spoilers here – Bell did just fine with that company. Orton, meanwhile, was soon scrambling to create his own telephone empire, employing a fleet of inventors – including Thomas Edison – to improve the technology, then challenged Bell’s patents in court. What he could have owned for a hundred grand cost Orton much more in legal fees.

In 1879 the dispute was settled by the US Supreme Court, with the patents clearly remaining in Bell’s hands. Western Union was forced to retreat from the telephone world and while they still exist as a means to wire money from place to place (en route to obsolescence thanks to email-transfer technology), I’m sure they’d rather own a piece of AT&T, Bell, Qwest, Verizon, and everything else under that corporate umbrella today.

These decisions are all being seen through the well-scrubbed pane of hindsight, of course. Still, with the exception of San Diego drafting Ryan Leaf, it seems as though someone should have seen the potential in these botched decisions. But then what do I know? I give my stuff away for free.