Pop quiz, hot shot: think of your favorite business book and distill the description of it down to a couple of words. (Might be a raucous way to liven up your next dinner party, no?) I’d boil down Burn Rate to “willful ignorance.” Author Andy Dunn, erstwhile CEO of Bonobos, practiced this over most of the decade following the launch of the menswear company leading up to its acquisition by Walmart in 2017. In search of opinions “that would buttress my worldview rather than refute it,” Dunn forced out his co-founder and other key staffers because, as he admits in this tell-all, “I wanted the facts to fit my feelings.” His feelings were often of the hypomanic variety related to his long-suspected-and-often-disregarded diagnosis of bipolar disorder, first evident after ingesting a vat of mushrooms as an undergrad. College buddies, colleagues, angel investors, seemingly everyone in his orbit ignored wild mood swings and odd bursts of energy, chalking it up to quirky entrepreneurial behavior. Even his relatives (the thoughtful older sister aside) looked past family history and embedded expertise, turning a blind eye to what should have been obvious.
The fashion-clueless Dunn had backed into the CEO role. While his Stanford business school friend and co-founder learned to design men’s pants, researched the market, built the supply chain, and bought the initial inventory out of pocket, the author took photos and blogged. But it was his clear willingness to hustle that yielded him the car keys and his illness provided the fuel. “The beauty of hypomania is that it’s an engine for creativity, optimism, and vision,” he writes, then reveals, “the line between fantasy and reality can become threadbare.” It’s exhausting to follow Dunn as he races through three networking meals a day, sucking back copious amounts of caffeine and booze, sourcing and fundraising at all hours. He deserves credit for being all in and for owning up to huge missteps, including wrongheaded strategic decisions and management by fear. In a moment of karma, Dunn himself gets nudged out by a couple of his lieutenants with disastrous results in his personal life, including domestic violence and such horrific depression he’d be unable to get out of bed.
Among all of this story’s notable developments, the most significant one comes with Dunn’s realization that the company’s biggest problem was him. He concludes the source of Bonobos’ growing pains wasn’t slouches on the payroll, or impatient investors, or an unreasonable board; it was his shortcomings as a leader when he admits “the unpartnerable person was me” (perhaps inventing a word there). We go from frustrated with Dunn’s behavior to rooting for his redemption and, through skillful writing, the final chapters deliver. He returns medicated, therapized, and focused, allowing him to steer the company toward larger capital raises, strategic growth, and the sale process. Do we need to know that he sung a Justin Timberlake song to his bride at their wedding? Or that he showed everyone a video of their love for each other? No, no we do not. But the guy’s been through the ringer, so we cut him some slack. Let’s take a stab at another two-word summary: well done. No, wait: nice pants.
If you have anything to say about this – or book recommendations – kindly post below (rather than emailing me) to spark conversation. Thank you!