Treats for Your Inner Cynic

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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