Perspective from a Hard Business Lesson

Ray Keating Some businesses survive, others thrive, and many fail. Those are the straightforward, harsh realities of business and the marketplace. As an economist, I sometimes falter by looking at such developments from a cold, numbers perspective.

However, a very human story stands behind every business tale. There’s the entrepreneur whose dreams are wildly exceeded. Others never come close to reaching those dreams. Some just struggle day to day to keep the dream alive. Then there is the person who achieves the dream, and then loses it.

I just read about a case in which the dream was reached, and then lost. For me, it turned out to be a very sad, but hopeful business story. That’s due to the fact that I have so appreciated, believed in and enjoyed the firm’s products.

This business tale didn’t appear in Forbes or Fortune or The Wall Street Journal. Instead, it was reported in the May 2004 issue of Christianity Today. It was about Phil Vischer, the creator of a company called Big Idea Productions, which produces “Veggie Tales.”

Perhaps you don’t know what “Veggie Tales” are? As a parent with young children, I’m intimately familiar with Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber, Archibald Asparagus, and their many friends. They are computer-animated vegetables that joke and sing while telling Bible stories and teaching valuable lessons. Vischer once described “Veggie Tales” as “Monty Python taking over your Sunday school class,” and that description is on the mark.

At a time when parents have to even worry about their children watching sporting events because a woman’s breast or a commercial about erectile dysfunction might pop up at any moment, “Veggie Tales” serves as a wonderful oasis of safety, good humor and sound values. I never worry about my kids watching “Veggie Tales.”

The Christianity Today article notes how the company started with little more than a big idea. Vischer struggled to get his business off the ground, starting out in a spare bedroom. The first video was completed by Christmas 1993, and over the next decade, the company sold more than 25 million videos. A “Veggie Tales” movie – “Jonah” – hit movie theaters in the fall of 2002.

However, a year later, the firm filed for bankruptcy and was sold to a New York-based company, Classic Media. What happened? It’s a classic case of faulty growth projections. In essence, Big Idea assumed that its phenomenal growth would continue into the future; hired, expanded and spent accordingly; and when that rapid growth did not continue, all came crashing down. Sales flattened, and bills couldn’t be paid.

Strong business growth is wonderful, and what so many entrepreneurs obviously pursue. But as Big Idea shows, such growth also needs to be managed in a realistic and sober manner.

What’s the outcome for “Veggie Tales” and Vischer? Christianity Today noted that Classic Media is getting back to “the basics of telling biblical stories with quirky humor,” while leaving the content to people long working for Big Idea. Two recent releases – “The Ballad of Little Joe” and “An Easter Carol” – certainly are top-notch “Veggie Tales” productions.

According to the magazine, Vischer hopes to still do some writing and directing on “Veggie Tales,” but he has pretty much lost everything except for his house. Reading this article, though, one also sees that Vischer has gained some additional perspective. It’s not all about the business; it’s about his faith and family.

Those with the entrepreneurial spirit want to and should chase their business dreams. However, though sometimes it may not be easy, such pursuits must be kept in perspective relative to what’s ultimately important. That’s a valuable lesson for business and life.

Raymond J. Keating serves as chief economist for the Small Business Survival Committee.

Category: Business Planning
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