I ONCE TRIED to get entrepreneur publisher Felix Dennis to back the launch of a European management magazine. Ten pages into his book How to Get Rich , it's easy to understand his lack of interest. For this weird, brash, compulsive, irritating and highly entertaining volume is best described as an anti-management, or more accurately an antidote-to-management, tract.
True to his promise, there is not a word of business jargon in it - 'Who bloody cares about management?' he exclaims at one point. Instead, there are exhortations, often in verse (usually his own – as he boasts, spending three hours a day writing poetry while sipping Chateau d'Yquem on Mustique is a privilege of the extremely rich), supported by an eclectic collection of non-business quotes (he is voraciously well-read), lists, and a stream of publishing anecdotes, autobiographical snippets and philosophical diversions. And that, gentle reader (as he would say), is about it.
Actually, I have no doubt that, despite his distaste, Dennis would have backed our project 'in a heartbeat', as he would also say, if there had been commercial value in it. He is nothing if not opportunistic. He has made fortunes variously out of kung-fu exploitation, computer and lads' mags (Maxim outsells all rivals in the US), but also out of apparently lost causes he has obstinately upheld even when they gave other people heart attacks.
Thus, against dire warnings from his directors, he invested in a struggling, cheaply printed weekly news magazine with no ads called The Week . 'You can guess the result. The Week is now the most profitable magazine I own in the UK. Pound for pound... it is the most profitable magazine I ever owned.' Even more quixotically, he launched a US version which has now, he claims, reached break-even, although it cost him $50m to get there.
How much of a fortune? Between $400m and $900m (pounds 212m and pounds 478m) before tax, he says - not bad for a penniless hippy who was jailed in 1971 for his part in the Oz schoolkids' issue, which was judged obscene. In short, there is method in the Dennis madness - and there is, too, in the book, once you get past the surface annoyances. The style, for instance. Short sentences with no verbs. Like this. Very wearing.
And you may wonder what the verse is all about as well, until you realise that, as he explains, 'poetry forces a writer to condense and crystallise his thoughts and often represents a short cut to truths unsuspected by the author himself'.
Stripped of the woolly euphemisms of management, How to Get Rich is a sharp reminder of what entrepreneurial capitalism is about: the scary, exhilarating business of multiplying money through new ventures, and in turn spreading the proceeds about (with tens of millions binged on rock'n'roll-style indulgences, he was particular good at the latter).
Getting rich this way requires insane determination and self-belief, coupled with relentless emphasis on execution (rather than a great idea) and a rigid refusal to give away a single point of ownership ('Ownership is not the most important thing. IT IS THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS'). Cleverly, Dennis realises that, unlike him, most people are not primarily motivated by money so you can hire smart people to make you rich by being generous with the things that turn them on: good pay, opportunity, a great place to work, start-ups to launch - and a ringing send-off when they depart for pastures new.
This is not rocket science. In fact, ironically, it corresponds with the findings of some, dare I say it, good management books. But, despite Dennis's exhortations, that doesn't make it easy. Just how not easy becomes clear in some extraordinary passages on fear and luck, the sentiments of which would do justice to one of Dennis's heroes, that most anguished and terrifying blues singer, Robert Johnson. Luck helps - but not if you seek it. Fear of failure, Dennis believes, is the single greatest impediment to getting rich. But in the face of the certainty of death, why should anything else matter?
'If you want to be rich you must make a pact with yourself about fear... You cannot banish fear, but you can face it down, stomp on it, crush it, bury it, padlock it into the deepest recesses of your heart and soul and leave it to rot.'
In his heart Dennis must sense that few people can resolve the Catch-22 at the heart of his proposition. You can only get rich if you really, really want it. But if you really, really want it, you are liable to forget that getting rich is a game, a game you can only win if you treat riches as if they didn't matter - otherwise you destroy the fragile things that made you want to be rich in the first place.
The rich really are different.
Dennis apparently wanted to call his book How to Get Rich (But it Won't Make You Happy) . Did his publisher persuade him that was too negative, or was it his own realisation that it's something everyone has to find out for themselves? Either way, his book may not succeed in making other people rich - but I bet it adds to his mighty pile.
The Observer, 8 October 2006