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Nelson Davis Headshot

Helped by The Help

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A motion picture titled The Help is proving to be a surprise late summer box office hit and after watching it recently, I wanted to know more about the author of the book on which the film was based. Among the things I found in the book, the film and the author's personal story was a set of the most important lessons any business owner can ever learn.

A Canadian friend strongly recommended that I read The Help because she knew that a small Alabama town was my birthplace and the stories of a group of black maids in the 1960s segregated south might interest me. The book was the uplifting first novel from Kathryn Stockett who was born in a small Mississippi city. It took her five years to complete and earned her about sixty rejection letters before finding a publishing home. The book was set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early days of the civil rights movement when a tectonic social shift was beginning. Like my hometown, Andalusia, Alabama, it was a place where black women were trusted to raise white children but not necessarily allowed to handle and polish the household silver.

The first small business lesson I gleaned from all this comes from the author's journey and is simply about flat out, immovable-object persistence. In an article that Ms. Stockett wrote for More.com, she said that she was elated by the first rejection letter for her book which said the "Story did not sustain my interest." I think she was elated because that letter probably gave her hope for being taken seriously as a writer. After the next fifteen rejections, Kathryn says that she was no longer feeling bubbly about the process. And by the time she had enough rejection letters to paper a wall, I'm sure that Ms. Stockett began to question the whole idea.

Whether you are taking the first tentative steps toward starting your dream business or you are dealing with business threatening challenges, persistence determines the difference between success and failure. Winston Churchill's advice to "never, never, never give up" comes to mind. Author Stockett had a lot more rejection headed her way before any tangible glimmer of success became obvious. With her best friends questioning what she was doing she had more than a few depressing days. The Help became such an obsession that according to her she became secretive about it even with her husband. How would you feel if sixty different people "didn't get it" regarding your business idea and in fact rejected it as unworthy of success?

From watching the film I saw the two main maid characters Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) demonstrate the second attribute needed for business and person success. Whether they were born with it or developed it over time, they had courage. No matter what happened to Aibileen, she wasn't stopped. Slowed sometimes, hurt at other times, but she continued to be true to her personal sense of pride and values. Minny had a bit of a free spirited self destructive streak but in the end saw courage in others which helped uncover her own strength. Courage is what the civil rights movement demanded or what Steve Jobs demonstrated by returning to run Apple, the company he'd founded and been thrown out of.

There is a bonus lesson in how The Help finally got to the marketplace and that is you have to take calculated risks. Amy Einhorn, whose imprint at Penguin Group USA published the book, took a calculated risk. Her boutique publishing operation was founded in 2007 and launched in February of 2009. The Help was the very first title published by Amy Einhorn Books. Kathryn Stockett had found a person willing to roll the dice with her and bring an end to the marathon of rejections. There is a real relationship between risk and reward.

Perhaps like your business category, publishing has many reasons to doubt a healthy economic future. Kathryn Stockett braved a Everest of rejections and an ocean of self doubt on her way to seeing her idea achieve literary and movie success. Being based in Hollywood, I'm confident that there's a long line of studio executives who passed on the notion that The Help could help their bottom lines. The movie is quickly closing in on $100 million in gross business. The book has since been published in 35 countries and three languages. As of August 2011, it has sold five million copies and has spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.

It is so easy to give up on your dream if you allow the chorus of no to be the only music you hear. The Help lesson for me is that with persistence and courage seasoned by a shot of risk, you are a lot closer to the success you dreamed your business would be.