The no-Dilbert zone
Corporate culture banned from man's Web firm
Brian J. O'Connor / The Detroit News
David Wassmann marvels at some of the stupidity of the corporate world.
"People used to watch the parking lot at the agency to see who was leaving early," recalls Wassmann, 45, who spent several years supervising auto accounts at ad agencies. "Even if they had nothing to do, people would stay at their desks until after 7."
It wasn't the most frustrating aspect of working in the big-time world of global ad agencies and the Big Three, but it was one of the most obvious.
The most frustrating feeling was the sense that no one could take chances to make a real difference in the company and its goals.
"Anybody in business knows that if you try 10 things, you'll fail on eight," Wassmann notes. But in the corporate culture, "You can't fail on eight things, you can't even fail on two. You have to have 10 out of 10 or you don't get promoted."
Now, the Bloomfield Hills man runs a Web-based auto marketing firm, which he founded, with the kind of culture that rewards good work, not good looks. He notes that this summer he was wearing shorts to work, not $1,200 suits.
Says Wassmann: "My focus in on the quality of the work and enjoying the work we do."
Where he came from: After graduating from Yale, Wassmann landed a job at a consulting firm that helped nonprofit organizations handle fundraising.
He then moved into advertising, moving around to big-name firms such as J. Walter Thompson and BBDO Advertising. The work included corporate accounts for Chrysler and Ford Motor Co..
"I did the full round of getting big clients to approve ad campaigns, and worked all night editing commercials and running around like an idiot for 16 years," Wassmann recalls.
"The reason I got out of the ad business is that, unless I owned my own agency, it's pretty much an empty business. I think there was a time when advertising was fun, in my early days, and maybe that's the only time it's fun, when you're young and lead the wild life."
What changed: By 2000, Wassmann had developed a keen interest in the Internet, and convinced a few investors to start an online customer relationship service for auto dealers.
"We made all the usual mistakes you make in a start-up coming from the corporate world," he says, laughing ruefully. "It blew up like a cheap hand grenade."
When the dust cleared, Wassmann was working as chief marketing officer for two auto marketing Web sites, until the company running the sites was purchased by a larger firm from California. When Wassmann saw his office being cut from 80 to 10 employees, "It had a definite feeling of doom."
Moment of truth: Over the years Wassmann had begun to chafe at the absurdities, inefficiency and pointless priorities of corporate culture.
"I felt I could always go back to what I'd been doing, but I'd rather have another hole in my head," he says.
So, with some other co-workers, he launched MotorAlley.com. in 2004. The Web site offers users a chance to request quotes directly from dealers and to browse and compare dealer specials from newspapers and other sources to find the lowest prices on cars.
"We thought we can do something and do more things that we enjoy, and we think we can make a living at it and create a different work style," Wassmann says.
The result is a business that broke even after nine months, Wassmann says, and where people work with no dress codes or fixed hours, free to telecommute or take time off when they need to, while also being responsible for producing quality work on time.
Stumbling blocks: "The hardest thing initially was that when people come in and start to complain, there's nobody to complain to any more," Wassmann notes.
Another problem for any new business is discovering that when a client turns out to be a deadbeat, you're the one getting stiffed.
"We had a customer not pay us at all this year and that cost us $30,000," Wassmann says.
Words of wisdom : Having the financial wherewithal to strike out on your own is essential, Wassmann says. He put up as much money as his investors did to launch the business, then went without a salary for months.
"One of the things I did was to save some money, because I have a family and I don't want us to live paycheck to paycheck. If I don't get paid next month, we'll all survive," Wassmann explains. "I wouldn't advise doing what we're doing without a safety cushion."
He also stresses that a new venture should focus on making money quickly: "You can dream all you want, but until somebody writes you a check, you have nothing."
More personally, "You have to figure out who you are," says Wassmann, who recommends Po Bronson's book "What Should I Do With My Life?"
"A lot of people go do something because they think this is what they're supposed to do, and 20 or 30 years later they find out they don't like it," Wassmann says.
"This is what I really wanted to do. I could have done this 10 or 15 years ago, but I didn't because nobody told me I could."
You can reach Money & Life Editor Brian O'Connor at (313) 222-2145 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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