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Dr. Seuss: An Entrepreneur’s Cautionary Tale

Remember the fantastical, magical worlds of Dr. Seuss that we all just FELL into as children? As a toddler-mom, I’ve been rediscovering some of my old favorites and am loving the feeling of re-immersing myself in the magic… BUT, along with all the whimsy, the imagination, and the rhythmic, rhyming couplets… I’m seeing a lot of new stuff I didn’t know was there as a kid…

And what stands out to me most? Dr. Seuss kind of picks on entrepreneurs!

Well… sort of… but he DEFINITELY raises some seriously intense, moral questions for those of us who run businesses. Two of my absolute favorite Seussian tales, The Lorax and The Sneetches, each have a much broader, more obvious point to make (The Lorax being primarily about preserving and defending our environment and The Sneetches weighing in heavily on prejudice and bigotry), but they both also feature business owners as prominent characters and, in both cases, not in a great light…

Let’s start with The Lorax.

In this story, we meet the Lorax (who speaks for the trees) and the Onceler (who recognizes the tufts of the truffula trees as being the absolute perfect makings of a “thneed”). A “thneed” can be used for just about anything and, as the Onceler says, “A thneed’s a fine something that all people need”. Got it. The conflict in this story begins when the Lorax realizes that, in order to MAKE his thneeds, the Onceler is cutting down precious truffula trees... From the Oncelers perspective, he’s created something that people need. He’s selling that something to help the public, he’s creating jobs for his entire family, and he’s building something beautiful that is making a positive impact on the consumer. But what he FAILS to recognize… is how much damage he’s doing in the process.

If he’d just listened to the needs of the community he built his empire in, and on, he might have seen through his greed and found a better and SAFER way to make thneeds.

But he doesn’t listen to the Lorax, he doesn’t care about the brown bar-ba-loots or the swomee-swans or even the humming-fish. As the Onceler says, in the thick of his success, “business is business and business must grow.” And I have to say, as entrepreneurs I think we’ve all thought or felt some version of this sentiment. Growth means success. If a business stagnates, it dies. But what we can take from this story is that growth has a cost. What, or who, are you sacrificing for that growth? Is it worth it? As business owners, it’s easy to get caught up in the I-have-to-s and the feeling that you’re not doing enough. But what if enough really CAN be enough? Are you happy? Are you doing good for the world, for your community, or for your family? Maybe it’s ok to take a break from the pressure of constant growth. Take a minute to realize your accomplishments and to make sure you’re not missing the bigger picture. Otherwise, you might overlook something really important…

Now, for The Sneetches.

This is a fun read and, while still tackling lots of heavy moral issues, it’s at least got a happy ending! We start by meeting the Sneetches. Funny, bird-like creatures who either have stars on their bellies or not. The problem is that the Sneetches who have “stars upon thars” are mean and elitist. They exclude the Sneetches without stars from all the fun things a Sneetch loves, and then leave them out in the cold. NOT COOL. Then, a peculiar character comes to the beech and changes the game... Sylvester McMonkey McBean promises to improve the lives of the no-star Sneetches by giving them stars! And he does!

“I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy. But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-Up Chappie”

He starts by charging $3 for a star. I don’t really know what the going rate for belly stars is, but it seems fair. Then, when the star-belly Sneetches see what’s going on and that what once made them “special” is now common, McBean offers to REMOVE their belly-stars for $10 each. Still cool.

(There’s a lot going on in there Sneetch-wise, but let’s just talk about McBean). He notices a need and fills it. He starts by charging low and increases his prices along with the increase of demand. All sound business moves. But it doesn't take long for things get a little less clear… The Sneetches just keep going through the star-on and star-off machines, over and over, trying to stay one step ahead of their star/no-star counterparts to the point where no one knows what’s going on anymore… except McBean... who is happily collecting payment for every single trip through either machine...

“Then, when every last cent of their money was spent, the Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up and he went.”

The question is... at what point do you step in to stop the madness? And what moral obligation do we, as service providers and business owners, have with respect to guarding our client’s best interest? At what point do sound business moves become an act of taking advantage? McBean just up and leaves the penniless Sneetches to fend for themselves. Fortunately, they realize that stars don’t mean anything and that they’re all just Sneetches. Happy ending, as promised, BUT that whole McBean thing just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Think about McBean and the Onceler and then take a look at what you put into the world. Are the goods you sell fair trade? Do you know the moral stance of the companies you purchase from or provide for? Are you giving back to the world or your community? Are you spreading a message of kindness or happiness or support? And what, in your business, is driven by money vs. passion and compassion? Think of these stories as an opportunity to reevaluate your business practices and feel really GOOD about what you do. Because what you do informs your brand it's impact on the world. Brand building around GOOD choices is BEAUTIFUL and SO possible!!!! Yes, we all have to make money. And yes, we don't always have an option to make the MOST generous choice (this is business, i get it), but KINDNESS in business is ALWAYS a good idea.


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