Treats for Your Inner Cynic

In offices across America, posters with inspirational slogans plaster the walls, complete with slogans like "ambition," "dreams" and "hope." They seem to be so uplifting and motivational — until you read the fine print, that is. Then you learn that with ambition, "the journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly"; that dreams "are like rainbows — only idiots chase them"; and that hope "may not be warranted at this point."

"We like to say we are the brand for cynics, pessimists and the chronically unsuccessful," said Lawrence Kersten, the co-founder of Despair, Inc.

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He says the "future of Despair" looks pretty good. These are boom times for the Austin, Texas-based company that deals in demotivation.

One of Despair, Inc.'s more popular slogans? "Worth: Just because you're necessary doesn't mean you're important."

"I guess a lot of people feel that way," Kersten said.

Kersten and his co-founders, twin brothers Justin and Jef Sewell, are trying to make a business out of mocking the motivational industry: the genre of posters, speakers and slogans that tries to make us work harder and feel better about our jobs and position in life.

Demotivation at Work

"I would say that the fundamental wrongness of the motivational poster industry is that they just don't work. … We say motivational products don't work, but our demotivational products don't work even better. This idea that products can motivate employees to work harder is not true," Justin Sewell said.

The founders began their endeavor of "nonexcellence" 10 years ago, when they all worked for a struggling Internet start-up.

"About midway through our working life there, I ended up on the mailing list for a motivational poster catalog and it came at a really bad time, and we started flipping though it and just sort of laughing at how not a single thing that they sold was relevant to the company that we worked for, or our working experience there," Kersten said.

They left the company and started trying to sell their parody posters, T-shirts and mugs. At first they didn't have high hopes.

"I don't think that we recognized how widespread people felt similar to the way that we did about things like motivational products and so forth," Justin Sewell said. "So I think we tapped into a chord that we didn't know existed the way it did."

They didn't realize, they say, just how much dysfunction was out there.

"We didn't know that what we thought was an inside joke would be more universally relatable," Justin Sewell said.

Glass May Be Half-Empty for Some, but Not for Despair Inc.

As it happens, in this economy, a lot of workers in the U.S. are seeing the glass as half-empty. And that is making Despair, Inc.'s cup runneth over. The company is having its best year ever, hoping to reach $5 million in sales.

"There's just a lot of anxiety and fear and uncertainty, and I think that during those times, products that can maybe help you laugh at a circumstance that would otherwise be scary or frustrating. I think that's where we kind of maybe fit," Justin Sewell said. "I'd just like to see the motivation industry implode during my lifetime. That would be a contribution, I think."

But that wouldn't help Despair, Inc.'s business. Kersten said, "I'd rather get rich."

Despair, Inc. strikes the same chord as the Dilbert comics and NBC's comedy "The Office." It's the notion that sometimes there is something just fundamentally wrong with the way we do business. Despair, Inc. takes this parody business very seriously. They use all the best materials and can even create custom calendars, where you choose the message for each month.

"[Someone] will say, 'I'm building my calendar for my sister who's got this terrible boss,' and so she'll pick designs that are arrogance, elitism, demotivation, and her calendar might have designs that are just about that. Somebody else might be buying it for themselves, and maybe they are procrastinators, so it's procrastination, laziness," Justin Sewell said. "So we let them tailor their demotivational experience to their particular workplaces or dysfunctional relationships."

Despair, Inc. shoots a ton of video to post on its Web site, with Kersten playing the role of a diffident and domineering boss … the kind who uses hand sanitizer after shaking an employee's hand.

'Expect Mediocrity'

The joke is around every corner of the company's Austin warehouse, where the packing slips are printed with mottos such as "Operators are standing by … idly" and "Inspected by some random idiot," while the shipping boxes are branded with "We're serious about failure" stamped on the side.

They tell their customers to "expect mediocrity" and then "if we even do a little bit better than that, they're overwhelmed and delighted," Justin Sewell said.

With the grim reaper as the joke on the back of a T-shirt, their message can seem dark. But the owners bristle at those who say their cynical attitude is making things worse.

"Honestly, I can't think of a business that's more cynical than selling a poster that's for 20 bucks, that you're supposed to hang in front of your employee and make him work harder," Justin Sewell said. "To me, that is the height of cynicism to reduce that whole thing down to, 'Hey here's your cheap little trinket that's supposed to make you work harder for me so I make more money.' That's cynicism."

Kersten says that they're making the world a better place because "we are giving voice to people's experience because even if they're in a bad situation, we are in some degrees a safety valve or we're giving them an opportunity to express themselves."

But what would they do if their own employees were to feel disgruntled? The founders respond in kind, suggestions ranging from "Buy our products" to "Tell someone who cared."

And if all that fails, it helps to remember another one of their best-selling slogans: "It's always darkest just before it goes pitch black."

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