Felix Dennis, Dead at 67. That the majority of obituaries begin with a similar headline always struck me as a bit diminishing to the deceased. In the instance of Felix Dennis, it seems particularly inappropriate. Wildly successful in a number of fields, he was the polar opposite of what now passes as a serious businessperson. Although he ran a large corporation, Dennis was anything but corporate.
If you don't know the name Felix Dennis, you likely know his products. A magazine publisher with a flamboyant history that dates back to the 1960s and the countercultural Brit magazine OZ, he is better known today as the publisher of Maxim, Computer Shopper, PC World, Men's Fitness and Stuff. He also made a fortune from the mail order business MicroWarehouse.
Interestingly, his story is more typical American than British -- real Horatio Alger stuff. Quitting school at 15, he took a job as a gravedigger. A series of somewhat less Dickensian jobs followed, including a stint as an ad manager of OZ and an obscenity trial. It was the 1960s.
From there he built a publishing empire and became a genuine mogul. When he started writing poetry, he promoted it with a tour entitled "Did I Mention The Free Wine?" Poetry snobs turned up their noses, but apparently still attended the readings, presumably for the free wine. He was said to have spent $100 million on mistresses, though some put the figure north of that. And he planted hundreds of thousands of trees. Along the way he also battled drug addition. Just how hard it waged battle is a matter of debate.
Dennis might have been the mad man of business, but he was also brilliant at business. One component of that brilliance was his ability to recognize a market. Seeing a group of people lining up outside a movie theater for a martial arts film gave him the idea to start Kung-Fu Monthly, an enormously popular international magazine. When home computers first came on the scene, he launched Computer Shopper and PC World.
Still, he didn't see his timing as the secret to success. "I think having a great idea is vastly overrated," he once said. "I know it sounds kind of crazy and counterintuitive. I don't think it matters what the idea is, almost. You need great execution." In another instance, he compared ideas to sports shoes, noting that sports shoes don't win races, athletes do.
No matter the business, there is much we can learn from Dennis and his book, How to Get Rich. He was particularly skilled in the art of negotiation, which he described as the accumulation of small lies leading to an advantage. "You have to persuade yourself that you absolutely don't care what happens. If you don't care, you've won," he once said. "I absolutely promise you, in every serious negotiation, the man or woman who doesn't care is going to win."
I'd add that over the years I've met at least a dozen of his employees, including journalists, editors and art director types. None of them had kind things to say about him. This might not be true for all his employees, but it was true for the ones that I encountered. Equally true is the fact that they didn't quit. They all enjoyed their jobs enormously. I know at least one who still calls his time at a Dennis publication the best time of his life.
Felix Dennis died on June 22 at his home in Dorsington, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He was 67.