Of course, we all do things like that, especially the last one which birthed the phrase "Monday Morning Quarterback." So the real question is whether the accountant or the guitarist or the quarterback would take you even vaguely seriously. The answer is: very likely NO. Partly because after the fact second guessing is very much different than making decisions in real-time under great uncertainty. But mostly because without the experience of setting up charts of accounts, fingering guitar riffs, or calling plays, realistically, your input isn't terribly useful. On the other hand, advice from another accountant, guitarist, or quarterback is much more likely to be of value since they've had similar experience and a great deal of knowledge.
Now I'd like to switch from accounting, guitar playing, and football and consider business. Of all of the things I've ever done, from recording rock music to robotics, starting and running a business is by far the hardest. Resources have to be constantly orchestrated and many of those resources need to be kept "happy" in order that they do the best job possible. Market trends have to be guessed, regulators complied with or dodged, suppliers (who have the same issues) have to be convinced to supply at an acceptable time and price, customers need to be found and product delivered, funding needs to be found, and on, and on, and on.
All of these ons and ons and ons have to be balanced in a web of hard to fathom tradeoffs. For example, perhaps there's yet another of the many cash crunches we've faced. Do I lay off a couple of employees now, hurting them, and if so which employees, or do I hold on and keep them because there's a reasonable possibility that one of two contracts will begin generating revenue in time, but if the revenue doesn't start in a timely fashion I won't be able to pay anybody next month and the whole company will unravel in an unpredictable way and possibly everybody will be out of a job? Every day, I have a hundred questions with that level of complexity.
So when non-business folk do the Monday Morning Quarterback thing regarding some business catastrophe, I mostly just laugh. Recently, I made the following comment along those lines:
"I rarely take criticism to entrepreneurs seriously except from other entrepreneurs because I'm convinced that those who haven't started and run businesses have no idea how hard it is since I certainly didn't before I did it."That's not my friendliest comment ever and I apologize for the dismissive tone. I made that comment during a discussion about the 2013 Savar building collapse in which 1,129 people died and thousands more were injured. There were some comments that I found not credible and/or not relevant that went something like: "it pays for itself to implement basic safety standards."
Maybe. But the question is who has the incentive to take this safety action. Let's start in the middle of story. Let's say I'm one of the factory owners/managers. I don't own the building and I'm simply leasing space. The building is evacuated because there are large cracks in the building. But the next day:
It is also reported that Kabir Hossain Sardar, the upazila nirbahi officer visited the site, met with Sohel Rana, and declared the building safe. Sohel Rana said to the media that the building was safe and workers should return to work the next day. One manager of the factories in the Rana Plaza reported that Sohel Rana told them that the building was safe.Assume I'm the manager mentioned. I see these huge cracks and I might well be skeptical that the building is safe even though I'm told that it is. I can make one of two choices:
- Not have my employees go in the factory and work. In this case, I'm nearly certainly bankrupt, which I'll bet is pretty damn unpleasant in Bangladesh. Not only is my family ruined and perhaps destined to be homeless on the streets, but my dozens or hundreds of employees aren't going to get paid which will seriously damage them as well. If the building doesn't collapse, I've badly hurt a lot of people, including my family, for no good reason in hindsight. If the building does collapse, I'm still ruined, but at least I've saved some people.
- Have my employees go in the factory and work. Hopefully, the building won't collapse, or if it does, perhaps there will be enough warning to get out.
One thing that I've found is that many non-business owners think that all entrepreneurs and business owners are rich and have essentially infinite resources at their command. Nothing could be further from the truth:
...small business owners ... are receiving an average salary of $68,000 annually, down from $72,000 a year ago. In addition, nearly 15 percent of small business owners need to work a second job while running their business in order to make ends meet.I'm in that 15 percent. Not all entrepreneurs are Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and even they were probably short on cash in the beginning. If I had to fix the building I'm in, I'd throw in the towel and walk away. There's no possible way I could afford to fix it.
Working backwards, where could've decisions been made to prevent the catastrophe. Clearly Kabir Hossain Sardar could've declined to declare the building safe. My bet is that some sort of corrupt deal between Sardar and Rana was made. However, let's assume not for a moment. Even without bribes Sardar would've been under immense pressure to say the building was "safe." Not only from Rana (possibly a mob thug), but also from the factory owners/managers and even the employees. No factory equals no work equals no pay equals serious problem.
Working back from there, I could've not started the factory. But my opinion is that discouraging business in Bangladesh is wildly counterproductive. No businesses, no jobs, no work, no pay, no food.
Working back from there, Rana could've not built the building and/or not allowed the modifications to the building and/or made the building safer. My guess is that Rana simply wouldn't have bothered to build the building if he had to incur the extra cost of making it safer. In other words, the ROI wouldn't have penciled out. It's easy to Monday Morning Quarterback it and say that since the building collapsed, he would've been better off making it a safer building. Yes, but he might've been even better off not building it in the first place and investing elsewhere if it was going to be more expensive. Then, no building, no factories, no jobs, no work, no pay, no food.
Another choice is that the government could've done a better job enforcing building codes. Then Rana wouldn't have built the building. Then, no building, no factories, no jobs, no work, no pay, no food.
Another choice is that the government could've taxed the people more and built the buildings themselves using appropriate building codes. With $1,100 per year GDP, higher taxes pretty much means someone's not eating. And if you think the government is somehow going to tax people like Rana instead of the poor, think about how corrupt Bangladesh is.
Nobody had the incentive to prevent the catastrophe. Note that even the government wasn't going to bother doing anything about the collapse until Americans complained.
I want to end with a snippet about George McGovern.
Senator George McGovern was the Democrat's presidential nominee in 1972 and was possibly the most left wing candidate ever to run for president as part of a major party. As a Senator, he was involved in a great deal of legislation that directly affected business.
Later, he became a businessman (my guess is he thought it would be really easy) and reminisced about the experience:
In 1988, I invested most of the earnings from this lecture circuit acquiring the leasehold on Connecticut’s Stratford Inn. Hotels, inns and restaurants have always held a special fascination for me. The Stratford Inn promised the realization of a longtime dream to own a combination hotel, restaurant and public conference facility — complete with an experienced manager and staff.
In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business, especially during a recession of the kind that hit New England just as I was acquiring the inn’s 43-year leasehold. I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender. [emphasis added]Everybody thinks business is easy, but most who try it, find it's not.
And now, one of my favorite songs: