The business lessons of a random assault by a crackhead


A personal experience is a metaphor for entrepreneurs and promising executives of the verge of losing their focus and humility.

“When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door,” Robert Hunter

Commodore Plaza Coconut Grove

The site of the attack, Commodore Plaza's northeast sidewalk in Miami's Coconut Grove district.

As any writer (or sales person) knows, a metaphor can be worth more than 1,000 words in demonstrating a product, idea or principle. If a sudden, random physical attack in a high-end dining district gives birth to the metaphor, it may be worth much more.

How many words is this metaphor worth?

Not so very long ago, I returned to Miami, my hometown, to participate in a promising start-up company’s strategy meeting. My presentation focused on anticipating and addressing risks, the reason many young companies fail. After checking into a Coconut Grove hotel, I walked out to see how the area had changed in the years since my last visit.

Strolling on streets I’d known intimately long ago, memories easily replaced thoughts of business. Searching for a place to eat, I mused about cruising the district in my teens, dining romantically in my 20s, and entertaining clients in my 30s.

More sudden than an earthquake, a hysterical man slammed me to the ground screaming an alliterative vulgarity about gays. He beat me on the head with his fists. Almost as quickly, three men lifted and restrained him.  I was not hurt, but I could have been.

I was stunned; he was totally out of it

Addled by more than drunkenness, my assailant thrashed on the ground. Apparently, he had mistaken me for the owner of a bar who had ejected him a few minutes earlier. The police came quickly and hauled him away.

After using a couple of strong drinks to help the adrenaline ebb, I translated the experience into a business lesson, especially for entrepreneurs on the verge of success. Never, ever let your guard down!

The founders of start-up technology companies — whether scraping money together or attracting investors — cannot be faulted for feeling great when their products are finally launched and purchased. However, too many entrepreneurs behave as if they have already reached the mountaintop.  And, that is when you are most vulnerable to being blindsided.  I allowed myself to become bonded by nostalgia to the once familiar neighborhood. I forgot that Miami always has the potential to be dangerous. Otherwise, I swear the crackhead would never have caught me off guard.

Few people invent something, bring it to market, and demonstrate its potential to change people’s lives. For those who have, inflated self regard is hard to avoid.  Employees defer to you, vendors fawn, news articles laud your accomplishments, and many people beg to be your “partner.”  A sense of invincibility becomes a drug. You awe everyone, except your competitors who drool while waiting for you to make mistakes.

You don’t need crack to have a false sense of invincibility

The next day, while acknowledging that these entrepreneurs had a unique product with great potential, I warned that the possible ways for any new venture to fail vastly outnumber the paths to success. A corollary to that theorem is: Success requires virtually everything to go right, while failure can result from any one miscalculation or misstep out of hundreds.

Those whose humility increases with their accomplishments are on the path to greatness.

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Tony Bright September 5, 2012, 4:07 pm

Glad you were not seriously hurt John… Interesting article!

John Ribbler September 5, 2012, 4:21 pm

I both amazed and self-satisfied for being able to take the hit so well. It was as though I had called for a fair catch on a punt return and a tackler plowed into me at full speed anyway.

Nicole Klein September 5, 2012, 3:45 pm

Nice metaphor John! Even better, the subject line was an amazing hook!

John Ribbler September 5, 2012, 4:26 pm

Thanks Nicole. No matter how much people complain about sensational headlines, they become (perhaps regrettably) more important as the clutter gets thicker. But, if the story contradicts or disappoints, credibility is lost as well.