Jennifer Rock and Michael Voss are Minneapolis-based entrepreneurs and authors who share a lifelong passion for storytelling. For more than 20 years, they have had the good fortune to work for and with companies that span industries and impact. Their paths crossed at Best Buy headquarters where, for 12 years, they spearheaded global communication strategy and execution for the Fortune 50 retailer.
One day, after yet another mind-numbing, daylong meeting about a project, they fled to a bar patio in the shadow of their company’s office building. There, they drank to excess and swapped hilarious and heartbreaking tales about life in corporate America. At that point they realized they had a story—actually, many stories—worth telling, and they pinky swore that after sobering up, they’d write a book about their experiences.
In 2013, they struck out on their own to form the communication agency ROCKdotVOSS, and to finish their first novel, “B.S., Incorporated,” a funny, heartfelt story based loosely on their experiences.
“B.S., Incorporated” is a feel-good story about people finding themselves and coming into their own while simultaneously skewering every aspect of life in corporate America. Although it is a work of fiction, it draws from the author’s real-life corporate experiences.
The following is an excerpt from “B.S., Incorporated,” selected for StartupNation readers. We join Will, the idealistic corporate employee of Business Solutions Inc. (BSI), and Big Al, Will’s mentor and former warehouse supervisor, at the bar to discuss the company’s downward spiral:
Al lowered the beer menu. “We need to grow the top line—sales, revenue . . . call it what you want. That’s what the Street wants to see, and that’s why they’ve been ripping us apart. Our business is shrinking, and we haven’t delivered any returns on the new strategies. And now it might not ever happen.”
Will reached across and stole a fry off Al’s plate. “Don’t be so sure. I haven’t seen what the CEOs have cooked up—they’ll probably have new plans to unveil, too.”
“You think Jerry and Ron know how to get us growing again?” Al stared over the top of his black-rimmed glasses at Will. “They’re in Asia right now, trying to convince some greenhorn manufacturer we’re not the broken-down has-been that analysts say we are. The CEOs are just trying to keep us afloat. And then what? When’s the last time either of them came up with anything new that mattered? Something a consultant didn’t feed them?”
For a guy who had convinced Will and hundreds of other part-timers to make BSI their home and career, Al sounded like one of the pessimists from outside.
“Doesn’t sound like you have much hope left for this place.” Will’s stomach turned, not only from the grease-soaked fry he’d devoured.
Al tossed the beer list back onto the table. “Look, Ron and Jerry are two of the smartest, most resourceful guys I’ve ever met. They started this company with nothing but a maxed-out Visa card and a clammy handshake. I don’t always like the way they do things, but I’m not ready to bet against them, either.” He paused to take a long drag from his bottle.
“We got so damn big, so fast, Will. When we went public, I’m not sure anybody realized we signed a lifetime contract to run on a treadmill that never stops. And the treadmill keeps accelerating—so slowly at first, nobody realizes it. But you gotta keep growing—top and bottom line—every quarter, year-over-year, to please the Wall Street beast. It comes easy at first, and you assume growth like that is your birthright. But every good business plan reaches the end of its runway.”
Will thought about the go-go days they had enjoyed in his first years with the company. BSI couldn’t expand the warehouse model fast enough. Every new market became a boomtown, and every quarter’s performance outpaced the last. The result—a decade of double-digit comps and a multiplying share price envied across the industry.
“Then your performance starts to level off.” Al used his hand to trace a flat line in the air. “And panic begins to creep in. Because you know if you can’t keep growing, they’ll shove you off the treadmill. Onto the scrapheap of failed companies whose only crime was not running at an unrealistic pace forever.”
He wiped more cheese from his fingers before continuing.
“That’s when they come circling—consultants, market researchers, B-school profs. They tell you to reinvent yourself. Forget the principles that made you successful. And then what happens? You cozy up to crooks like the Synerpoint consultants, and they stomp you in the crotch and take your lunch money.”
Al took another bite of burger and another few swallows of beer, talking as he chewed. “I think over time Ron and Jerry lost faith in themselves. Then they stopped trusting their own leaders to figure stuff out. Pretty soon, if you weren’t wearing a visitor’s badge, they couldn’t hear you.”
Inky came back with a fresh drink for Will and more napkins for Al, who ordered a Grain Belt Nordeast.
Will hesitated and then pointed to his drink. “Um, there’s a lime in here.”
Inky rolled her eyes, fished out the floating wedge with two bony fingers, and tossed the wet fruit onto the table. Will decided it best to accept the cocktail, lest she stab the swizzle stick into his eardrum.
Al wiped his mouth, pushed away his plate, and wiped crumbs from the table. Will studied his mentor—now in his late fifties—under the amber bar lights. The reading glasses magnified the wrinkles around Al’s eyes and the sagging skin under them. Coarse strands of gray intertwined with his dark hair. He’d spent the most important years of his working life in the warehouse, making his way into a position of authority and respect. Everything he had—friends, retirement accounts, and self-worth—had become inextricably woven into the fibers of BSI. He was probably too old and most certainly too unwilling to start over, even if someone would hire a man so set in his ways. A man so near the end of his own runway.
Al’s not looking for another job. He has nowhere else to go.
Will blinked hard a few times. It hurt—seeing Al like this. Vulnerable. Mortal.
“So, what now?”
Al leaned back in the booth, his broad frame dwarfed by the puffy seat back. “You wondered if I had any hope left for this place. I do. I have hope in you—to help figure this out.”
Will let out an uneasy laugh. “Yeah, like I have the answers. That’s pretty far above my pay grade.”
“Good ideas can come from anywhere,” Al shrugged. “You know that.”
Will didn’t like being pushed. It made him nervous. “Listen, I’m a middle manager. Not even ‘middle.’ More like two rungs from the bottom. Nothing I touch feeds the Wall Street beast.”
Al’s eyes narrowed as he stared across the booth—the look he used when he wasn’t getting what he wanted from a crewmember. “Knock it off.” He waved a hand at Will. “I didn’t give you a shot in this company so you could plop your butt on the middle rung and hope for a miracle. You have that vantage point for a reason. The corporate types are either paralyzed with fear or barking up the wrong tree. My guys may have some answers—but they’re not connected or confident enough to push anything through. And here you sit with access to both sides—a direct line into the C-suite and the ‘Boxes. You can bridge the gap. You have to.”
A swell of anxiety raised the hair on Will’s arms. Big Al couldn’t possibly be putting the weight of the entire company on his back. I already see a chiropractor from lugging my laptop bag around.
“B.S., Incorporated” is available via all major online book retailers and at rockandvossbooks.com.