What Works A Tale of Two Motivators

August 26, 2001
At first blush, Mike Weinbach and Justin Sewell seem to have a lot in common. Mike is 27 and Justin is 29. Both run successful dot-coms, in Boston and Austin, respectively. Both are in the business of motivation and inspiration.

But dig deeper, and oh, what a difference you'll find. Weinbach is CEO of U-inspire, Inc., a one-stop source for motivational workplace products and services. Sewell and twin brother Jef co-lead Despair, Inc., which sells parody posters, plaques, mugs, and more. The two companies are on the Web at and

One of the many items sold by U-inspire is a poster titled "Vision." It shows a majestic lighthouse guiding the way through a foggy night. The caption reads, "Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be."

Compare this to one of Despair's posters. Called "Apathy," it's emblazoned with a cobweb-covered phone and the caption "If we don't take care of the customer, maybe they'll stop bugging us." You can order the 24-by-30 Apathy lithographic print (with or without ebony frame); the Apathy note cards (12 with envelopes); and the 5-by-7 Apathy desk frame (black-brushed aluminum). Of course, if you're so enamored of apathy, you might not care enough to place an order.

How did these two arrive at their world views? Consider Weinbach's story. Early in his high school days, he was a pretty good wrestler who wanted to win more matches. Nothing seemed to help -- until a coach gave him a quote book with these words on the cover:

In the battle of life it is not the critic who counts. . . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. . . . Who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Something about this quotation from Theodore Roosevelt went straight to Weinbach's head and heart. He explains: "I had this watershed realization that the biggest thing holding me back was the fear that if I tried to do better, I might not do as well as I hoped."

Wanting to be anything but a "timid soul," Weinbach turned into his own Rocky Balboa. He started waking up earlier to work out. He practiced after regular practice hours. And people in Milburn, New Jersey, got used to seeing him jogging their streets. Before long, the high-schooler was winning tournaments and heading for the state championship.

Ever since, through his two years at Harvard Business School and beyond, Weinbach has been keeping Roosevelt's wisdom nearby. "It has hung in my college dorm room, and now in my home and my office. As far as I'm concerned, this quote contains the meaning of life. Do it and do your best. You may fail, but you will not be a failure."

Justin Sewell took a different path. At age 19, he left the University of Texas at Austin and went to work as a contract graphic designer and multi-media author. Then in 1994, he became one of five employees at a start-up Internet service provider. Things were pretty informal at the company, so a spoken promise of stock options seemed good enough for the trusting 23-year-old.

When the company started growing, Sewell asked to have the promise put in writing. Nothing happened, he says. He asked again. Again, nothing. Several other people, including his brother, had received the same promise -- and all of them grew deeply discouraged when their equity expectations vaporized before their eyes.

Then an opportunity fell into Sewell's hands -- in the form of a catalog from a motivational-products company. He took it to his brother, Jef, and coworker Larry Kersten. They flipped through the pages and had a few painful laughs.

"We started talking about success, teamwork, excellence, customer service," Sewell recalls. "We began to joke that there weren't any products in this catalog that addressed companies like the one we worked for or situations that we were in. Someone said, 'There's no failure poster -- they need one. There's no mediocrity poster -- they need one. There's no apathy poster -- they need one. There's no burnout poster -- they need one.' "

Of course, now there are posters for failure, mediocrity, apathy, burnout, and other grim workplace realities. The brothers Sewell and coworker Kersten saw to it by pooling their severance bucks to launch Despair, Inc.

"It sounds hokey, but we really came out of our prior jobs with a newfound appreciation for just how critical it is to keep your word," Sewell says. "Despair would not exist if so many things had not gone so wrong, most of them involving promises being broken."

Sewell concedes that there is a place for serious products like those sold by U-inspire. He cites Southwest Airlines as one organization where inspirational posters proliferate and make a positive difference. "There's no tension between the messaging that's on the walls and the environment itself, because people there are treated with respect," he explains. "The culture is one that loves the customer, customers love the company, and it all works. Everything is in harmony with itself. But if you put those same motivational posters in an environment where there are massive layoffs, where management seems completely out of touch, where there's a lot of politics, it creates enormous tensions."

This actions-speak-louder-than-words philosophy is echoed by Weinbach. "I stay away from saying, 'this is inspirational,' then giving three quotes that I think will inspire everyone. That's not what this is about. It's really about being respectful, getting to know people, communicating, creating a learning environment, and giving people latitude to make decisions."

Weinbach and Sewell are different indeed, but both are awesome doers who have built successful businesses from scratch. Any company would be lucky to have them. They're also proof positive that the best and brightest are inspired in dramatically different ways. They remind us that those one-size-fits-all motivational approaches really fit only a fraction of the workforce.

In the words of another great doer, General George S. Patton: "If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."

Workforce, July 2001, pp. 22-23 -- Subscribe Now!