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Friday, July 10, 2009

Killing a business

Friday’s paper brought news of the planned liquidation of the Smith & Hawken, the premium garden store founded in 1979 in Marin County. Although I’ve never visited one of their stores, it was nonetheless sad news, because the company provided important inspiration for my early days as a tech entrepreneur.

When we founded our company in July 1987, my partner Neil Rhodes and I were intentionally (and ultimately unsuccessfully) emulating Hewlett & Packard. Like Bill & Dave, we started in a garage, and we deliberately emulated certain elements of the HP culture (which also became our biggest customer).

However, it was Smith & Hawken that provided explicit validation for some of our ideas about what a business was and could be. A year after we launched, in 1988 we read Paul Hawken’s Growing a Business; this was decades before the two comparable HP histories, The HP Way and Biil & Dave.

In his book, Hawken talked about issues that resonated closely with us, things like how to treat employees and the meaning of business. Although it’s been 20 years since I opened the book, I recall his view as being that creating and growing a business was more than just about money, and that founders could and should shape the firm to reflect what they believed important.

Although his industry was very different, this was a view quite consonant with tech startups of the 1980s, back when people tried to build a business for the long haul and before IBM and HP layoffs changed forever the idea that somehow tech companies were different.

Perhaps Smith and Hawken weren’t different, either. Hawken used the success of the book and the company to branch out into other things, leaving the company in 1992, which was then sold in 1993 for $15 million to the parent of NordicTrack. Some of the experiments by the founders (losses on an unsuccessful clothing line) were seen as contributing to the company’s need to be acquired

Since 1993, Smith & Hawken has had three corporate parents. The last owner was Scotts Miracle-Gro, which bought the company in 2004 and has been unable to find a buyer for the firm. Some of the turnaround moves sounded plausible, but nothing worked.

The two founders showed none of the remorse one might expect of a parent outliving its child:
"Scotts couldn't have been a worse corporate owner," said Hawken, who lives in Mill Valley. "Smith & Hawken had become just a ghost of itself."

[David] Smith, who lives in Mendocino County and owns Mulligan Books in Ukiah, said he had gone so far as to ask friends not to shop there.

"When Scotts bought it and Smith & Hawken was owned by the largest pesticide seller in the U.S., I suggested people boycott it," he said. "It had completely lost its roots."

Hawken, chairman and CEO of engineering company Pax Group, used the occasion of the closing to host a party Wednesday night. "I couldn't be happier to see my name come down," he said.
What’s the moral of the story? Perhaps that nothing lives forever. Certainly that (as my mentor Charlie Jackson advised me 15+ years ago) once you sell a company, you have to let go and accept what happens. Also, people change — even visionary founders — and their passions will also change.

Most of all, I think it says that even with a unique business concept and vision, firms need to have the management depth and the dispersed leadership and the culture to continue on after their founder is gone. This is certainly a crucial issue for Apple to deal with, more than a decade after Steve Jobs undid the terrible damage done by his three CEO predecessors, and nearly five years after his initial cancer surgery.

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