Small Business

Those Who Flop, Teach


J. Peterman, the purveyor of floridly written mail-order items aimed at armchair travelers, became a household name after being parodied on Seinfeld. In the TV series, his character waxed poetic about clothing and exotic destinations, introducing himself to Elaine by noting her coat's "deep bi-swing vents, perfect for jumping into a gondola." Yet despite the notoriety, John Peterman's $75 million business went bankrupt in 1999, shortly after Seinfeld went off the air. He lost his 13 retail stores and even his own "J. Peterman" name at bankruptcy auction.

Now, though, he's back. He's relaunching his business, teaching courses ("Following Your Entrepreneurial Dreams" at New York's Learning Annex), and lecturing MBA students at New York University's Stern School of Business.

What's a failed businessman doing giving advice? "You never really experience anything if you don't fail," explains Peterman, 59, outfitted in his trademark cowboy jacket ($184) and Australian "Drover's" hat ($69). "Failing is one of the most important processes of learning." As for his catalog, he has bought back his name and plans to resume publication in June. His e-commerce Web, johnpeterman.com, site is now up and running.

And guess who's one of his business partners? The actor John O'Hurley, who played him on Seinfeld. By Joan Oleck


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