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Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars – Book Review – Jared Keller

by on November 9, 2008

Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars. David Silverman. NY: Soft Skull Press, 2007. 352 pp. $11.53 (ISBN: 978-1933368658)

Typo is a humorous, though ultimately tragic investigation of an entrepreneurs attempt at turning a small typesetting business around. With the increasing commodification of typesetting, and much of the business going overseas to India and the Philippines, David (the author) and Dan enter the business with a risky plan to take over the typesetting market in the US. From the start there are issues with gaining capital, sales, and just about every process and employee related to the newly acquired typesetting company, Clarinda. Ultimately the book defines the importance of trust and change management in the business world – with employees, colleagues, customers, and personal relations.

The story is broken into several threads – primarily David’s personal and business relationships, which develop into a common theme of trust. While trust fuels the initial capital needed to buy the company – there are ultimately breakdowns in every regard. As a new owner of Clarinda, the existing employees of the company lack any trust in David, making it nearly impossible to institute the changes to the business and processes of the company needed to keep the organization afloat. Here the value of competent, trusting employees is made clear, as the recurring theme of Typo is the constant and repeated sabotage of the company by its own employees and branches. Lack of trust in management seems to be the root cause for the failure of the company to change internally – in addition to internal conflicts, fear of change, and those needing to pioneer the change failing to recognize where change is needed.

While the theme of “lack of trust” carries much of the earlier conflict – with customers and employees, it is ultimately misplaced trust than instigates eventual failure. David’s business partner, Dan, acts as a mentor and maintains a good portion of the authority over employees and customers. His demeanor, attitude towards business, skills as salesman, etc. are crucial in creating the vision that the company falls in behind – improving sales by large margins for the first years. The downfall of Dan represents a unique case of trust; while he serves as David’s mentor, David eventually discovers much of what he knew of his friend was false, and later on in the book finds he has been severely alcoholic. To add to to this betrayal of trust, many of the employees of Clarinda confess to David that they knew of his alcoholism well before David did, and for some reason decided not to inform him. Dan’s behavior sabotages business relationships, and leaves a huge vaccuum in management, and the lack of action on the part of the employees prevents David from addressing the issue before it is too late for Dan and Clarinda.

Intimate knowledge of key people, processes and relationships is key to success in business. It seems that the critical failures Clarinda faces (aside from the industry moving overseas) is ultimately an issue of trust. The employees and customers display a lack of trust in David and in Clarinda in general, coupled with the betrayal of David’s trust by Dan, as well as the betrayal of David’s trust by his father, all suggests that issues of trust are the root cause of the heartache and problems in the story. That said, David is ultimately the one that lives through Clarinda, learns the most and while in massive debt, seems to come off better in the end.

Management of change is another central theme. As an entrepreneur coming into a new business, there are immediate expectations for change from everyone. Though in the case of Clarinda, everyone is expecting to see change except, unfortunately, the employees of the company. The typesetting processes of the company are terribly inefficient, and those who are veterans to the processes resist revisions to the system based on “Why break what works” attitudes towards changes introduced by David and his team. This illustrates a key point in the book as well as in the field of change management – the need to create urgency and communicate the need for change. It may have been the case that if new owners were able to have the executive committee as well as the employees understand the urgency and the need to revise the processes, they may have been met with less resistance. This point is re-enforced late in the life of the company when it is ready to tank – managers and employees realize the organization is in trouble and support the change, but by this point it was far too late for the changes to have any benefit.

The real power of Typo is the way it illustrates these themes of trust and change in a way that is easy to relate to. The opening quote relates the entire story back to the reader:

“We’ve all been in debt from time to time. Maybe you borrowed five dollars from a friend, or maybe you ran up something on your credit card you shouldn’t have, like a bread machine. Who needs a bread machine? If Armageddon comes, you won’t need a loaf of homemade rye
Or maybe you borrowed a couple million dollars to buy a typesetting company in the Midwest with your best friend and mentor and then watch it all go horribly wrong…”

Understanding and relating to the problems David experiences – the realities he faces, the lies, the successes and the failures all work together to build an experience by proxy. Reflecting on the problems he faces gives one the opportunity to think of what they might have done given the same situation, the same colleagues, etc. There are a number of hard lessons learned by David in this book, and it serves as a strong education to relate to him – and to learn of the heartache and betrayal as well.

Another strength of Typo is the level of detail- it provides a close enough look into the life of the company and its processes to give the reader an understanding of what is going on (and specifically what needs to change and why it is wrong) without being overtly technically or drawn out in any regard. At the end of each chapter there is a breakdown along with simple graphs to show the progress, regression, and eventual downfall of the detailing the company’s revenue, debt, number of employees, etc. solidifying the mental model the reader has of how the company is doing, regardless of the tone of the surrounding chapters.

Where Typo falls a little short is in the conclusion. With the number of problems and strong themes of trust and business failure, the glottalization and commodification of the industry, the struggle and the catharsis, the story concludes rather briefly. It would serve as a much more interesting and educational text if the author had reviewed the events in summary; identifying the key points of success and failure, how certain things could have been avoided, and what he might have done differently given a chance to do it over again (if he would do it again at all). While it gives the reader an opportunity to reflect themselves, there are a lot of issues that are glossed over that might benefit from the authors reflection.

Ultimately, Typo serves as a great education for entrepreneurs entering into a new business venture. David Silverman’s entertaining presentation of the issues faced by himself and the company create a great way to express the very real problems faced by a person entering into a business that is definitely not a blank slate, and attempting to institute significant change to turn the business around. Not only does it teach a hard lesson – but shows how elements of a business can and will go bad at every turn. Nothing happens quite as it is expected to, and often people are not entirely who they seem to be. The way the issues are presented provides a much more effective learning tool than a text book, models or theories of business change and success. Digesting these lessons as a part of a story, a real-world experience is the best way to maintain awareness of these issues and how they might arise in ones own life. I would recommend anyone going into a new business venture or starting a new business to read Typo.

One Comment
  1. Thank you for the wonderfully insightful review. Of course, as the author, I’m a little biased… But again, thank you, I’m glad the book is illustrating the lessons I learned. All the best, David Silverman

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