“In the course of human endeavor chance favors the prepared mind.”
– Louis Pasteur
“Sometimes chance favors a total idiot.”
– Michael S. Maurer
Ben Lytle, the father of Anthem (now Elevance Health), is writing the second installment of his business philosophy trilogy. He asked me to contribute to that effort with a piece about wisdom.
Ben’s first book is a reflection of the author, his brilliance and creativity. I was honored to add my thoughts. I relayed a story from the cable TV wars of the ’70s in which I lacked wisdom but acquired enough to ultimately succeed in winning a cable television franchise for Decatur, Indiana.
While thinking about that story I was reminded of another cable TV misadventure. My partner Bob Schloss and I were pioneers in the cable television industry in the early ’70s. If a pioneer has opportunities to make mistakes that have never been made before, we were pioneers. Most cities had never heard of cable television. In fact, the fledgling industry wasn’t even labeled cable television. It was called Community Antenna Television, or CATV, describing a system for communities to share the cost of a large tower in order to receive network channels from far-away transmitters. CATV was a godsend in rural communities. Vincennes, for example, enjoyed one of the first CATV systems in Indiana. Before that, to view network channels from the nearest metropolitan area, Louisville, Kentucky, residents had to erect a climbable tower reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In those days, cities granted a franchise to only one cable operator, creating a quasi-monopoly for the boob-tube entertainment dollar. We won a number of these exclusive TV franchises in Indiana and southern Michigan. We also lost a few.
Our first foray was in Brazil, Indiana. Much to my surprise, no sooner did I sit down after my presentation to the Brazil City Council than it granted the cable TV franchise to us—by unanimous vote. I was so pleased with myself that I sang at the top of my lungs all the way back to Indianapolis. Was the cable TV business that easy?
We leased land, built the tallest tower within miles, bought lots of electronics and strung cable. It seemed odd that during this process no one walked into our office in downtown Brazil to request a subscription to our product.
One morning, four of us donned red jackets and marched door to door around town to sign up customers. Only then did we learn that residents of Brazil could receive network channels off the air not only from Indianapolis but also from Terre Haute, which was even closer. Market research, who did that? Our investment was destined to fail. One of our employees suggested a leap off that big tower we built before it was dismantled. Believe me, when I drove home that night after our sales day, I was not singing at the top of my lungs.
Within weeks of this fiasco the first television satellite was launched. The receiving dish and related electronics cost close to $100,000 but that enabled us to offer a unique selling proposition. We imported WGN-TV Channel 9 from Chicago and WTBS-TV Channel 17 from Atlanta, the stations that broadcast movies and professional sports. Soon thereafter, HBO and Showtime were available to Brazil residents but only on the cable. Just that fast, we became “brilliant businessmen.”
Don’t tell Ben Lytle about this story. Let’s keep it to ourselves.•
Maurer is an entrepreneur and a shareholder in IBJ Media.