When :-( = $

Despair.com, demotivation, and capitalizing on the variables of Web content

Co-founder and CEO Justin Sewell (l) and CFO Walter Stokes
Co-founder and CEO Justin Sewell (l) and CFO Walter Stokes (Photo By John Anderson)

Life is hard. You're sad. It's a lonely world out there. But don't worry. It's all right. Just close your eyes, and picture an eagle soaring through the sky. Beautiful. Majestic. Across the image you read the words "Dare to Soar," followed by "Your attitude almost always determines your altitude in life." Don't you feel better? Yeah, right. Neither does any other sentient being within our known universe.

The motivational industry is a staggeringly massive multibillion-dollar-a-year business. Austin-based company Despair Inc. exists as a reaction to this absurdity. Observes co-founder and CEO Justin Sewell: "You can find countless examples of authors claiming to produce 'life-changing experiences' and 'lasting motivation,' and as often as not, I think it ends up leaving people feeling more miserable than they were to begin with."

Consider the long-bestselling motivational book, Who Moved My Cheese?. On its Web site (www.whomovedmycheese.com), the author, Dr. Spencer Johnson, is promoted to "help millions of people manage in changing times and rejuvenate their spirits." Having sold more than 40 million copies, the book is a parable that tells a story about two mice and two miniature people (representing employees) who are trapped in a maze and fed cheese by some mysterious process. When the cheese runs out, the mice prove to be smarter than the people. That's it. That's the story changing lives and rejuvenating spirits: The mice are smarter than the miniature people. The market is flooded with this stuff. "It's offending people," Sewell says. "It's so condescending and patronizing."

Enter Despair Inc. Enter a vibrant color photograph of a windblown tree on a blue seashore that bears the word "Adversity." Below this, in smaller print, "That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable." Or a close-up image of a shining pearl with the word "Beauty" followed by "If you're attractive enough on the outside, people will forgive you for being irritating to the core." At a passing glance, these posters resemble the same ones bearing sickly sweet, motivational jargon. But instead, they come from a different source: demotivation. "We try to say things that we think are ultimately true," Sewell says, but "it's a painful truth."

Dropping out of UT in the early Nineties, Sewell and his identical twin, Jef, found themselves enduring crazy hours and low pay at an Internet start-up in Dallas. Befriending their co-worker, Larry Kersten, they continued to become more disillusioned as the company proved not only unreliable but also deceptive. In the course of this frustration, Justin began receiving catalogs for motivational products. As he recalls, "Jef and Larry and I started to flip through the catalog. The sentiments of the posters were so syrupy, you just couldn't help but think, 'If there were a catalog with posters of toxic work cultures, it would be perfect.'" The inspiration was immediate.

In 1998 Jef and Justin left their jobs and, together with Kersten, created Despair Inc. The fledgling company launched an Internet store. At the time, Justin thought, "We're going to run out of money and have nothing to show for it but a huge stack of failure posters." But by the fall of 1998, they were getting as many as hundreds of orders a day, and the success of Despair Inc. has been at a steady incline ever since.

From the beginning, Kersten was the face of the company. A former professor and Ph.D. in organizational communication, Kersten looks more like an executive than most executives. While they waited for sales, Jef and Justin found ways to amuse themselves. "We had nothing to do," Justin says. "And so we thought, 'Let's just write fake stories.'"

Photoshopped images of Kersten meeting with captains of the high tech industry commonly appeared on their Web site. Thus began what has become a massively constructed, fictionalized world. In June of 1998, Despair Inc. registered the "frowny" emoticon, ":-(," with the U.S. Patent Office. To their surprise, they were awarded a registered trademark for the emoticon two years later. They posted the following press release: "Despair's COO, Dr. E. L. Kersten, announced his intentions to sue 'anyone and everyone who uses the so-called "frowny" emoticon, or our trademarked logo, in their written email correspondence. Ever.'" According to the press release, compliance with the injunction "will require the defendants to submit a handwritten letter which repeats the phrase ':-( is a registered trademark of Despair Inc.' one-thousand times." But what began as biting satire became the object of some offense. Wading through hundreds of infuriated e-mails from readers who took them seriously, the company even wound up on German Nightly News representing the evils of corporate America – which is exactly what they were lampooning.

Despite being misunderstood, the company continues to pursue their crusade for demotivation. In 2005, Despair Inc. released a book by Kersten, The Art of Demotivation, which, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, attacks the pervasive management theory that to placate an employee with gooey platitudes will result in a better employee. The following is from the book jacket: "Kersten offers ... a prescriptive solution; one grounded, not in the humanistic fantasies of the infinite human potential so often embraced by the motivation industry, but in the grim realities of a broken world. Managers who seek a productive, loyal work force must first seek to liberate their employees from their prisons of narcissism by forcing them to confront that which they expend enormous energy to avoid: their true selves." Despair Inc. repeatedly outdoes itself in the extensiveness of its satire. Available only on their site, the book comes in three editions: the Manager, Executive, and Chairman. While descriptions of the first two are dense with comedy, they are at least believably priced ($24.95 and $39.95, respectively). But the Chairman edition sells for $1,195. The edition is letterpressed with a goatskin cover and is shipped in a humidor fitted with a light-sensitive voice-activator chip that, upon opening, proclaims a personalized "Welcome to the Chairman Edition" to the happy buyer. The joke is that it's not a joke. People have bought them.

The richness of Despair Inc. is that it's not constrained to a certain medium. Recently, the company began producing audio and video podcasts. "The bar is so low in terms of what's online," says CFO Walter Stokes. "It seems that so much of content is created not from any certain framework but just to fill a void in the entertainment industry. But there's a developed fiction within Despair and a richness that lends itself to some really funny content." It's true. It is really funny. With four audio and three video podcasts available (the most recent of which was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times), they've only just begun to explore the possibilities.

"It's the area of greatest interest to us, to explore that realm of cinematic content," Justin says. "We've spent a lot of time trying to develop a big fiction framework that we can explore cinematically, but we've only realized a tiny amount of that."

Despite their reactionary approach, the company is quick to express genuine humility. Justin defines their origins without any lofty embellishments. "We were motivated because we were annoyed by our situation and by a catalog that distilled that positivism down to such an absurd level. What we make is a disposable novelty product that has no eternal value whatsoever." I wonder aloud if he's selling them a little short, and Justin and Stokes laugh. "We sell everybody short," Stokes says. "You want any 1999 calendars?" end story

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