Felix Dennis was best known as the British owner of magazine titles including – Computer Shopper, PC World, Maxim and The Week. With interests on both sides of the Atlantic, he had a fortune estimated at $1 billion.
With all this money, what was his purpose in writing a book? Amid a plethora of rosy ‘you can do it!’ type motivational books, he felt there was an absence of honest insights into what entrepreneurs really think and feel on their way to the top - and the costs that are incurred in reaching it.
The book devotes as many words to his mistakes and disasters as to his triumphs, and rather than being about how to get rich quick, it concerns ‘Knowledge learned the hard way’. Dennis is very clear that he has not written a ‘self-improvement tome’ that whips the reader into an inspired frenzy – and yet, it is an inspiring book. To write it, he retreated to a writer’s cottage on his estate on the Caribbean island of Mustique. Usually, he goes there to compose poetry, but felt it worth his time to put forth his wisdom at what had made him one of Britain’s wealthiest (and most colourful) business people. How To Get Rich is an entertaining read that many people (even those not much interested in money) finish in a day or two thanks to its humor and fast pace. Dennis never went to university, but the text is littered with quotes from great thinkers and doers such as Bacon, Shakespeare, Churchill and Kipling, along with his own excellent verse on money and life. Though at some points written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, the points made are in fact razor-sharp, and in the tradition of John Paul Getty’s How To Be Rich, his book will be inspiring and educating potential entrepreneurs for years to come.
The five most powerful points I took from the book were;
Money does not make you happy, but people continue to believe that it will. What money can do is giving you something else valuable: control over your own time
The hardest thing, in business as in life, is actually taking the first step. There always seems so many reasons not to.
If you cannot face up to your fear of failure, you will never be rich. “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights” - John Paul Getty:
Ownership is not the most important thing. IT IS THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS”. You can forego intelligence, skill, talent, a winning personality, but if own, you can be rich.
Think big about your dreams and your work, but in your personal life, act small.
What are the chances?
What are the odds of actually getting rich? Dennis notes that only a tiny percentage of people in his native Britain could be considered really wealthy. To be included in the Sunday Times Rich List of the wealthiest thousand people in the country, in terms of population you have only 25 chances in a million. Not as bad as the lottery, but not that encouraging either. But don’t let this get you down, because large chunks of the population (and this applies to most countries) “…either have no desire to be rich or have chosen professions that rule them out of the race”. Five million people in the UK (out of 60 million) work for the government in some way. None of them – barring winning the lottery – are ever likely to be rich on their civil servant wages. For the rest, their only hope of getting rich lies in winning the lottery. He asks: among the people you socialize with, see on the street, work with – are any of them really dedicated to becoming rich? Only maybe one or two per cent ever are.
Plenty of people are ambitious, but this drive is usually channelled into career success, not on amassing money per se. So, the odds are better than you think, but you have to consciously intend to be rich. Mere desire is useless.
Is it worth it?
Dennis enjoys five homes, three estates, luxury cars and uses private jets (he does not own them because, “If it flies, floats or fornicates, always rent it – it’s cheaper in the long run”), has an art collection, a valuable library, cellars of fine wine and chauffeurs. He never learned to drive, and when he was young told friends, “You don’t understand. I was born to be driven.” Yet all this chasing after money took a toll. Working 16 hours a day, it led him to drugs, prostitutes and general debauchery, and stopped him from beginning (in his 50s) his other much loved career as a poet. At one point describes himself as a “coked-up, overweight, cigarette-smoking, malt-whisky-swilling idiot with too much money”, a veritable Keith Richards of the business world. He only came to his senses after a stay in an American hospital where he almost died from Legionnaire’s disease. Eventually, Dennis handed over much of the running of his businesses to others and sorted out his personal life, but admits he should have done all this a lot sooner. The other not-nice element of seeking to be rich is how others see you. To get rich, Dennis writes, you have to grow a mental armor that protects you against the snickering, mockery and envy of others who do not want you to succeed. Even friends and family will often say they want you to succeed, yet if you do it may just expose their own timidity, and at a deeper level they may actually be pleased if you don’t. Given the above, Dennis observes, you have to see obtaining wealth as a game that you can laugh about - or it will destroy you and your health. Given that there are more important and serious things in life, you must know when to step back.
So why do it? Money does not make you happy, Dennis notes, but people continue to believe that it will. When he points this out to non-rich friends, they respond that while this might be the case for him, money definitely would make them happy. Money, Dennis confesses, “quite definitely improved my sex life”. This is because money equals power, and power is an aphrodisiac. He quotes author James Baldwin: “Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex. You thought of nothing else if you didn’t have it, and thought of other things if you did.” On a more serious note, he examines the other reasons for seeking great wealth, recalling F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous comment, “Let me tell you about the rich. They are different from you and me”, and Hemingway’s famous riposte, “Yes, they have more money”. He sides with Fitzgerald, noting that what wealth really gives people is confidence, whether from the pride of making it or having been born rich. The paradox is that you need loads of confidence in yourself in the first place to become rich, although this is something which can be learned or faked. Money can also give you something else valuable: control over your own time. Though you may have an army of financial advisors and employees, you are still not obliged to be in a certain time and place every day. You can be on an island in the Caribbean writing poetry if you want to, drinking fine French wine, and the world can go to hell. This does not mean that the pursuit of wealth suits everyone. Only pursue wealth, Dennis warns, if you have an inner need to do so. Do not mistake mere desire for compulsion. You can’t get rich by being half-hearted about it. You must commit.
What it takes.
Dennis deals with the common reasons people put forth for going out on a limb to get rich. The usual excuse of the young is that they don’t have enough experience or capital, and older people that they don’t want to jeopardize the career they have built so far or can’t afford to put at risk the security of their families. If you believe in these, he notes, then you are destined not to be rich. He has always had a lot of people working for him who he knows are smarter, but they also fear losing what they have gained, so will never go out on the proverbial limb that is required to really enrich themselves. And yet, your family will not love you any less if you decide to ‘seize the day’; it is really you that is stopping you. You have seen how the money is made, so you know how it could be done. You just need to act. The hardest thing, in business as in life, is actually taking the first step. There always seems so many reasons not to. Yet as German philosopher Wolfgang Goethe wrote: “There is one elemental truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one commits oneself, Providence moves all.” It is the fear of embarrassment or failure that stops us from acting. Yet if you are not willing to fail you will forever be bound in circumstances that involve little risk. And with little risk there are only small rewards. Dennis is blunt: “If you cannot face up to your fear of failure, you will never be rich.” This is not just one factor you must consider. Rather, it is “the single biggest impediment to amassing wealth”. Fear rules us, so if you can rule your fear and you can chart your own destiny. Don’t the ‘horrible imaginings’ that Shakespeare wrote about rule your life. Life goes quickly, and the clock is ticking.
Ownership is everything.
Dennis quotes John Paul Getty: “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights”. If you really want to be rich, you must own something, preferably your own company and preferably 100 per cent of it. He recalls the many brilliant publishers and managers of large magazine companies, who at the end of their careers, are worth only £3-5 million, just because they didn’t own anything. Dennis once made $1 million in one day for selling a magazine to a rival that he had not even published yet. Easy? Yes, but the fact is it was his to sell in the first place. He emphasizes that, “Ownership is not the most important thing. IT IS THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS”. You can forego intelligence, skill, talent, a winning personality, but if own, you can be rich. Employees get a lot less because they don’t risk much; they have pensions and sick pay and so on, and are protected by a lot of laws. The majority of people want three things more than they want money: 1) job security 2) job satisfaction 3) power. If you expressly want to be rich you have immediately separated yourself from the ‘loyal lieutenants’ that fill the world’s workplaces. Dennis’ first year or two in business were nightmarish, a depressing slog to raise money in the face of commercial extinction. Friends had steady, well-paid and even interesting jobs, yet he was not even able to buy a round of drinks in a pub. But he remembered Winston Churchill’s comment, “When going through hell, keep going”, and the prospect of being a wage slave drove him on. He had his (unlikely) publishing success in 1974 with King-Fu Monthly, a hit all over the world for 10 years. The key, he believes, was thinking big. Not many magazine publishers in Britain at the time were prepared to fly economy around the world cutting deals with people they didn’t know. Importantly, he did not just license the magazines, but put up his own capital in partnership with local firms. This was more risky, but because he was also an owner, it brought greater rewards.
Ideas are cheap - execution makes you rich.
Dennis notes that ideas cannot be patented, only their implementation. They are worthless unless implemented well and profitably. He mentions Ray Kroc, who did not ‘invent’ McDonald’s, but turned it into a perfect system of fast, reliable food at low prices in a clean environment that could be replicated endlessly around the world. Who became rich? Not the original McDonald brothers, but Kroc. So many wealthy people become so through emulating a great idea that has already proven itself. This is a surprisingly underused path to wealth
What I took from it.
In many ways it is in fact quite a dark portrait of the pursuit of wealth. Dennis is explicit about the downsides of it all, with the tunnel vision and time usually required for first-generation wealth often coming at the cost of close relationships and family. Life is pretty comfortable for most people in well-off countries. Why give yourself trouble by insisting on going out on your own? Rather melodramatically, but perhaps truthfully, he writes: “Somewhere in the invisible heart of all self-made wealthy men and women is a sliver of razored ice…If you do not wish it to grow, then quit any dreams of becoming wealthy now.” If, however, you dare to try, and want real advice that is not overblown ‘you can do it’ inspiration, How To Get Rich is perhaps the best guide around as to what you may be in for. If you can ride the roller coaster, Dennis often points out, and can banish or control your fears, you will discover that “the world is awash with money with your name on it, waiting to be claimed”. He provides plenty of examples from the magazine world to prove his points, but it is the generic lessons that will interest most readers. For all his attempts to mark his book out as ‘anti-self-improvement’ and ‘telling it like it is’, in fact it underscores all the things you read about in motivational titles: believe in yourself, go the extra mile, think big. His conclusion is simple: anyone can become rich, but you must be prepared to pay the price. At the end of the day he does not take wealth, or his mad pursuit for it, too seriously, and counsels the reader not to either. If you start to believe you are ‘king of the world’ when you get a bit of success, it won’t be long before you will wind up in hospital or prison. Think big about your dreams and your work, he says, but in your personal life, act small.