In 2005, as a frustrated consultant, I started writing a series about a consultant who tries to help Supervillains be more profitable and efficient. Three things surprised me about the process.
How well the books have sold. (The first book has sold over 10,000 copies alone.)
How many people share the frustration of not having their best advice listened to. (It’s pretty much universal.)
How much writing the books taught me about business.
And #3 is no exaggeration. I’ve created more value for my clients and made more money with less hassle since (and because) I’ve written these books.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Nothing (not even crime) pays without a good business model.
Many people (and I am not excluded from this by any means) want things because they think they are cool. Especially when it comes to marketing. But ‘cool’ without a reason is almost always a mistake. Here’s how I fictionalized this kind of dialog.
“I have plans for a giant laser.
Please, don’t say “in space,” Edwin thinks. Anything but another giant laser in space scheme.
A giant laser!” cries Dr. Loeb. His eyes dart from one side of the room to another, looking for those who would steal his secret and sinister plan. Seeing that the coast is clear, he bellows “IN SPACE!” Once again, maniacal laughter.
Edwin rubs the bridge of his nose and waits.
“You’re not laughing,” says Dr. Loeb.
“That is correct. I am not laughing.”
“But why? Do you not see the beauty of my sinister plan? Is it not unstoppable?”
“Unstoppable?” Edwin asks. “It’s unstartable. Let’s try it another way. What would you do with your laser?”
“I vould destroy Vashington!”
”Vhat do you mean? It’s Vashington!”
“Yes, and since the British burned it in 1814, it has remained inviolate. And increasingly picturesque.”
“How do you plan to make money from destroying the capital of the United States of America?”
“Vell, then I vould be feared.”
“Then you would be broke. Having spent all your money on a laser, and getting it into space, you would then destroy a perfectly good city and get nothing in return.”
“But, but, but... ”
All the motorboat noises in the world aren’t going to get Dr. Loeb out of this one. Edwin folds his hands and pronounces his stern judgment. “Your business model is deeply flawed. I cannot see the benefit, much less the possibility, of a giant laser in space.”
For the first time during the whole session, Dr. Loeb does not have a ready and horribly ill-informed reply. He cocks his head. The accent falls away completely. “So what am I gonna do?”
2. Ego is the Enemy of Good Decisions
Writing many egomaniacal characters showed me the irrationality that lurk, not just in others, but also in myself. Thankfully, once you become aware of something, you can do something about it.
In several of the books, Edwin Windsor (Evil Efficiency Consultant) contends with a Batman knock-off known as the Lynx. The Lynx is very rich and very passionate about helping people, but he is all ego and never checks to see how much he is actually helping people by dressing up in a rubber suit and beating up muggers. And all his toys and technology cost so much that he is bankrupting his family company. It is a pure example of ego getting in the way of results, that Edwin exposes like this:
“Poverty drives people to crime,” said Edwin Windsor
“Yes, it is caused by flaws in the system that grind the little people like corn,” said the Lynx
“So if you got rid of the poverty…”
“Yes,” said the Lynx, “Exactly. You do understand!”
“So rather than spending a fortune on costumes and weapons systems, you could make a dent in the problem by simply giving money away. And make a substantial dent in the number of vigilante-related crimes.”
“Your tricks won’t work on me, Windsor.”
“I have no tricks. Only logic and positive cash flow.”
The Lynx smiled and chuckled, “Oh, if only the problem of poverty were so simple that money could make it go away.”
Edwin closed his eyes and rubbed his right temple. “Lack of money is the definition of poverty. If you give someone money they are not poor anymore.”
“And your point is?”
“What evidence do you have that you have done any good?”
“I get it now. I understand,” said the Lynx, snapping his fingers. “I know what this is.”
“I very much doubt that,” said Edwin.
“You’re jealous of me! You see, you portray yourself as the cold-hearted, profit-minded cynic — but all the while, you… you… you… you…”
“If you’d care to continue with the alphabet, the letter you’re looking for is ‘v’.”
“You seemed stuck.”
“What? No. I’m not stuck, you’re jealous. Jealous of me because I have a purpose. I have a destiny. I make a difference!”
Edwin indicated the crime rate graph once again. “I don’t doubt that you’re making a difference. I’m saying it’s not a positive difference.”
3. Doing the Same Thing as Everyone Else is a Trap
While writing these books I made a survey of villains and their schemes and motivations. And what I quickly realized is that villains, while often cool, are almost always vying for the exact same thing as the hero, using the same schemes that every other villain uses.
In almost all of the Marvel movies, the villain is trying to be the exact same thing as the hero. The Hulk fights a hulk-like thing called Abomination. Wolverine fights Sabretooth. In the first Iron Man movie, Tony has to overcome Obadiah Stain in a bigger mechanical suit.
The Joker, in all his marvelous incarnations, has but one goal: to get Batman.
But that’s not all that different from many of the companies I’ve worked with. I’ve seen industries where the #1 and #2 firms are as destructively obsessed with getting ‘the competition’ as much as Joker has ever been obsessed with Batman. And many companies work as hard as they can to do the exact same thing as their competitors. The trap is, then the entire industry stagnates and become more and more ripe for disruption. Until one day a brash new competitor rolls in and eats everybody’s lunch.
4. There’s always another way to make money with a resource.
In “How to Succeed in Evil” Edwin Windsor signs the Cromoglodon (Think the Hulk, but dumber) as a client. At first, he hires him out to do demolition, but the Cromoglodon can’t be controlled and proceeds to wreck the entire neighborhood. That business model is blown.
Then Edwin puts an electronic billboard on him and sells reverse sponsorships. The highest bidder gets to put their competitor’s logo on the villain’s suit. This anti-branding scheme is very successful, but also doesn’t last.
In the end of the series, as Edwin goes bad himself, he opens up an insurance company and uses the Cromoglodon to enforce a kind of protection racket. Don’t buy your property insurance from us and the brute will knock your building down.
If you have something of value, there's always a pivot. And in a post that is turning into a catalog of human follies and foibles, I find that a cause for great optimism.
5. Simple plans are the best plans.
Having been a part of many a strategy session over the years, and having suffered through the cleviosity of many consultants (my own included) I’ve come to believe if you can’t state your plan in simple terms, you don’t have a good plan.
One of the major inflection points in Amazon’s success (and perhaps the first big one) was when Jeff Bezos drew a flywheel diagram on a napkin that clearly illustrated how they were going to get HUGE. The execution was difficult, but the plan never got complicated. I find Jeff Bezos to be remarkable and admirable in many ways, you’ve got to admit, he looks the part of a genius villain. He’s even got the maniacal laugh.
In one of my favorite parts in the saga, all the characters were dithering about how to rob something important, and Topper bursts in with this monologue:
“It’s a smash and grab job. Which means you’ve got two phases. Phase 1—Smash. Phase 2—Grab. And it’s just that simple. You,” he said, pointing dramatically, “Steal a dump truck. You, get some ski masks. You, get a crapload of Uzi’s.”
As the Adjustors scribbled this list down furiously in their leather padfolios Topper continued, “Then WHABAMM! You drive the friggin’ dump truck through the wall of the friggin’ bank. BRAAAAAAP! BRAAAAAAP! Blow off some rounds. Yell something like, ‘Everybody down on the ground!’ Then you grab the cash, jump in the getaway car and you’re outta there before the they even know what hit them.”
“What about the dump truck?” asked Timothy.
Topper gave Timothy the kind of a look a vicious reptile gives a defenseless kitten. “Well, of course you need to take the dump truck to a car wash, make sure you vacuum out the interior, use some touch-up paint on any scratches, and be sure to fill it up with gas before you drop it off.”
Topper waited patiently for Timothy to finish writing his notes. Then he grabbed the padfolio and beat him about the head with it. “NO! NO! NO!” he shrieked. “You leave the dump truck. In fact, just to be safe, light the dump truck on FIRE when you’re done!”
Or all the books I’ve ever written by subscribing and supporting this Substack.