Cartoonist Scott Adams on why he fired his main character, Dilbert, and what he's learned from his own forays into business
Scott Adams is best known for his mordant chronicling of cubicle culture in the comic strip Dilbert, which appears in 2,000 newspapers and 65 countries. But Adams also owns a restaurant and for a time ran a healthy-foods company. As for Dilbert, he was fired earlier this year after starting a business on company time. Staff Writer Jeremy Quittner spoke with Adams about the economy, entrepreneurship, and knowing when to call it quits. Here are some edited excerpts from their conversation.
Q. Why did you ax Dilbert's job?
A. Dilbert is a reflection of the real world. I try to bring something that's a big deal to people—like job security—into the comic world.
Q. People often start companies to control their professional future. Did you want that for Dilbert?
A. Yes. At work, Dilbert lost a project and became the "walking dead"—the guy who's about to be laid off. So he uses company resources to start DilbertFiles.com, a service for moving computer files via e-mail. The company lawyer tells Dilbert that the company owns DilbertFiles. For a while, Dilbert is unable to use his real name without paying a royalty. DilbertFiles is actually a real company that I started.
Q. Is Dilbert ambitious enough to start his own company?
A. He doesn't have the cutthroat instinct. But he has the intellectual wherewithal. He has the brains but not the gonads, I guess.
Q. You once worked in the corporate world yourself. Why did you leave?
A. I worked at a bank, then a phone company. I got on the fast track, if you will. But I kept hearing the same story: As a white male, I could not be promoted anytime in the foreseeable future. So I started looking at outside interests, like cartooning. I really was not thinking of setting the world on fire. I was just thinking of a diversion. Jack Cassidy, a cartoonist I had seen on a TV show, told me to buy the book How to be a Cartoonist. I essentially followed its advice.
Q. Why open Stacey's, a restaurant in Pleasanton, Calif., in 1997?
A. I wanted something in the physical world—something I could see and touch, because cartooning is too conceptual. I had worked in restaurants growing up and my grandfather owned a diner, so maybe there is some genetic connection.
Q. Around the same time, you also started Scott Adams Foods, which sold the "Dilberito," a vegan burrito. Why did you close it in 2004?
A. We were successful in selling into most of the big stores: 7-Eleven (SE), Costco (COST), Safeway (SWY). But I wasn't equipped to deal with the problems of the food business, like competitors hiding my products behind theirs or moving it to the bottom shelves.
Q. What's your advice for entrepreneurs?
A. Know when to give up on an idea. In my experience, the ideas that worked best are the ones that took off right away. People either fall in love with an idea or not.
Q. What's the most important thing you've learned as an entrepreneur?
A. Trust the customer's opinion over your own. Originally, Dilbert was a generic comic strip, but readers told me: "We like this mostly when he is in the office." So it became a workplace comic strip, which isn't my first choice for what I would want to read. So I basically put their opinions ahead of my own artistic opinion. That is what made the difference.
Return to the BusinessWeek SmallBiz April/May 2009 Table of Contents