How to fail and bounce back

DAVID WILSON
Last updated 11:39 14/01/2011
FAIRFAX ILLUSTRATION
MAKING MONEY: Beauty industry mogul Dal LaMagna launched his entrepreneurial career with a series of failures, before hitting the jackpot.

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Beauty industry mogul Dal LaMagna launched his entrepreneurial career at the tender age of eight. The whiz kid worked out how to sell raffle tickets by targeting happy hour barflies.

LaMagna went on to acquire a high-powered education and become a serial entrepreneurial failure. His crazy career flops included a digital dating service, Cupid Computer, and a water bed store called Aquarack. Apparently equipped with a reverse Midas touch, he also found time to invent a contraption that blinked to music, and tried to convert drive-in cinemas to drive-in discotheques. No luck there.

By the time the Washingtonian founded his successful multinational grooming tools firm, Tweezerman, after a steamy session on a splintery redwood deck, he had made every goof in the book - and won vital knowledge. Naturally, being an entrepreneur, he also invented his own 'gourmet tweezers'.

His new memoir Raising Eyebrows: a failed entrepreneur finally gets it right tells his story, showing how, through pluck and luck, he made it. Raising Eyebrows also gives school-of-hard-knocks tips to entrepreneurs who are tired of coaches who gloss over obstacles and sugarcoat risk.

In this interview LaMagna, 64, talks about what he learned from his fiascos and the success of Tweezerman, which started as a solo act.

Lamagna handled everything including deliveries from his bungalow home that also served as a warehouse/office. His initial investment was $500. Years later, after selling the firm, he swanned off with millions.

Richard Branson once said that three months of running a business teach you as much as you learn in three years at business school. Your thoughts?

It was not the facts or how-tos that I learned at the Harvard Business School but how to analyse, think, and advise. 'Til then my education had mostly to do with memorising.

Harvard broadened my vision from thinking about opening a business like, say, a deli, in my town to creating a business that is national and turning it into one international in scope.

Finally, it was the people I met at Harvard that had the most lasting impact on me. Many of them are still my friends. Some of them I have worked with all my life.

What inspired Raising Eyebrows?

The first draft of my book was written back in 1980 when, 'til then, I had only failed.

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I wanted to write out a chronology of all my failures to see if I could figure out what I was doing wrong and also go create the foundation for a book I would eventually complete when I did succeed - if ever.

Twenty-five years later when I sold Tweezerman for millions, I decided I could inspire others to start and operate a business successfully.

Since I had practised responsible capitalism along the way, I wanted to show the world that you don't have to be a son of a b-tch greedy capitalist to succeed.

What was the hardest part to write?

The entire book was hard to write because I am not a writer. Finally, I hired writers to work with me. They put the arc of the story into the book and made it interesting.

What did you learn from writing the book?

That I can write and that today in the business I've tried since I succeeded with Tweezerman that I am not following my own advice.

I funded a movie called War Child  and when we were unable to find a distributor for it in the United States I set up a company called Reel U Films to distribute it... I wasn't careful about spending money.

What's the key secret of starting a low-cost, no-overhead business?

Focus on one thing. Don't spend a dime unless you have to. Buy things used.

What's the key lesson you learned from running the 10-week yard sale you documented in the Huffington Post? (LaMagna, who says he is addicted to starting business of all kinds, decided to sell many of his own possessions)

I learned how much stuff I have that I don't need. How liberating it is to get rid of it.

How much are you worth?

About US$25 million ($32 million).

As a 'compulsive capitalist', what has been your biggest headache?

Trading the markets. I traded foreign currency for years and now the stock market. It is high-class gambling. I've disciplined myself to do it in moderation. I no longer am taking big positions that keep me up at night.

Your advice to budding entrepreneurs?

If you've thought of starting a business, stop thinking about it - and do it.

- BusinessDay.com.au

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