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For those without hope, there’s Despair
- Move over management gurus, someone’s selling mediocrity & dissatisfaction

New York, Dec. 2: Think positive! Teams work! Work is the Elixir of Life!

Ok, no one has ever uttered that last statement. Still, nothing is more irritating than those smarmy motivational posters that exhort employees to produce more and work harder.

Slackers and malcontents take heart: At last someone is promoting cynicism, mediocrity and dissatisfaction with life in a world awash in books, videos and management gurus selling success. Motivational maven Dale Carnegie must be spinning in his grave.

Texas-based Despair Inc. is blanketing America with 2.3 million catalogues, just in time for the holidays. The company is pitching its anti-motivational calendars, caps and mugs to an audience fed up with their workplaces, co-workers and managers and ready to embrace the caustic humour its products promote.

Co-founders E.L. Kersten and Jef and Justin Sewell weren’t thinking about all that when they launched Despair Inc. in 1998. But the dotcom crash, a sour stock market, the rash of corporate scandals and rising unemployment have helped fuel worker discontent — and, as it turned out, the company’s sales: revenue is just over $5 million today, up from a mere $200,000 five years ago.

Kersten contends there were those who scoffed at the motivational pap that managers spoon-fed their staff even when the economy was booming, and who gravitated toward Despair Inc.’s warped brand of humour. But after more than two years of economic turmoil, there are more.

“Everybody is cynical about something,” Kersten said, “even the optimistic individual.”

Take Deepak Chopra, the eternally optimistic guru of spirituality and fulfilment. He can’t stand all that motivational stuff. “When you have major issues like corporate scandals, a war going on, and politicians hyping themselves, that is all the more reason to despair and to be very cynical about the human condition,” Chopra said in a phone interview.

Chopra doesn’t have the Despair Inc. catalogue. He had never heard of the firm, but said that he agreed with its philosophy. “I would also poke fun at the things we hold dear as examples of success,” he said.

Retired teacher Bob Geary, 60, of Harwich, Massachusetts, got a taste of Despair when its catalogue arrived in the mail this month. He ordered a calendar for his son’s office. He said the calendar reminded him of the corporate retreats he used to attend and the motivational exercises he was required to do.

“I participated in many team-building exercises,” said Geary, who retired in June. “So, I thought the posters were a hoot. At the time, I took those retreats very seriously. Now, I can see the humour in them.”

Julie Price of Boston, a 30-year-old web design specialist, was at a mall two years ago when she saw the company’s anti-motivational wall calendar, read it, and burst out laughing.

“I decided to buy the calendar on a whim, and it was hilarious,” said Price, co-founder of an online networking group called The Dining Scene. “It was also refreshing, especially when you’re used to getting that success stuff shoved down your throat.”

She has bought greeting cards for her friends with cynical messages and continues to buy Despair’s calendars, which she displays at home.

Despair doesn’t sell its wares in retail stores any more. Instead, it built a website whose twisted humour is designed to goad the unhappy, dispossessed, and unemployed into buying.

One demotivator is specifically geared to the love-starved. Called BitterSweets, they’re made from flavoured sugar and they look like pastel candy conversation hearts.

But while most Valentine’s Day candy hearts have messages like “Love U” and “Be mine,” BitterSweets are stamped with mocking messages such as “Time2DumpU,” “Tradin’ You In,” and “CthatDoor'”

Appropriately, Despair’s launch was sparked by bad news. “I was working for an Internet start-up with two friends,” Kersten said. “We got our stock-option grants and discovered that we were not going to make as much as we’d thought.”

They were bemoaning their situation when one of them opened the mail, found a motivational poster, and started mocking it. Soon, they were putting handmade posters sporting cynical slogans such as “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style” in their cubicles, and co-workers were asking for copies. That’s when they knew they had a marketable idea.

They started the company with $75,000 in capital, money raised from savings and the buyouts they received after they were downsized by their employer, a Texas dotcom.

Despair has hit a nerve in America’s workplaces.

“Our fans tell us that they see these things, these foibles in their own companies,” Kersten said. “Even if you work for a great company, you know that there are things that are being done that are not productive. But we don’t see a lot of HR directors handing out our posters in the break room.”

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