Books

Dal LaMagna: A Serial Entrepreneur Parlays Tweezerman Business Success into Social Activism

The founder of the company Tweezerman shares his business wisdom in an excerpt from his new book, "Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right."

The following is an excerpt from Dal LaMagna's new book, "Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right,"(Wiley, 2010).

When I started Tweezerman, I had not imagined the company it would eventually become. At the time, I had no grand vision for a grooming implement empire; all I was hoping for was a modest business that could support me.

That hadn’t always been the case.

After 16 years of failing at dozens of businesses, I was simply trying to be realistic, to scale back my schemes, and to take one small step at a time.

It was that sense of caution and focus that put me on the right track. Even today, I’m not sure what would have become of me or Tweezerman had I not experienced those early failures.

Like the start of most small businesses, Tweezerman was a one-man show. I did all the selling, inventory management, bookkeeping, shipping, and deliveries myself. I operated out of a 400-square-foot bungalow that was my office, warehouse, and home. My initial investment was $500.

Today, Tweezerman International operates a 65,000-square-foot marketing and distribution facility in Port Washington, New York, and a responsibly run factory in Pondicherry, India, where many of the products it sells are produced with the highest-quality standards and a lot of proprietary know-how. Tweezerman products are sold in thousands of stores around the world, and the company employs hundreds of people. I am truly in awe of what happened.

What I am most happy about is that I was able to put into practice something I call responsible capitalism. My employees, from those who worked in the stockroom to those who were on the steering committee, all became owners of the company and shared proportionately in its success. 

This book is both a story about me and an account of the businesses I created. It begins with my early days at Harvard, harks back to when I was a kid growing up in Queens, and tells about building the Tweezerman Corporation and, finally, my years in politics. 

I believe my many failures to be as important as my later accomplishments, because it is there that the seeds of success for Tweezerman are deeply rooted. 

There is nothing extraordinary about me. What I did I think anyone can do. In fact, I warn you. Expect success and make sure you want the life it will create for you.  I invite you to enter my story about perhaps find in it some inspiration of your own. -- Dal LaMagna

Chapter Thirty-Five: Good Morning, Baghdad

“When I was a child I wanted to save the world.

When I was a young man I was going to save my country.

Now I’m an old man and I’m committed to saving the pond in my backyard. And you know what? For the first time, I’m actually being successful.”

— [wise business axiom as quoted by] Michelle Long, Executive Director, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies

The day after the November 2006 elections, I was on a plane with Congressman Jim McDermott flying to Amman, Jordan. I had been working on stopping the war in Iraq for over a year. Now the Democrats had won back the House and the Senate and optimism was running high. The American electorate had spoken clearly, and what they said was they wanted us out of Iraq.

Jim and I had become friendly many years before when I was running for Congress in 1996 against Peter King. He was the only member of Congress who helped me, and later when the Republican Party was going after him, I was more than happy to help fund his defense. When I heard that Jim was going to Amman, I eagerly offered my services as a videographer.

“Jim, I’ve been there already, and I filmed the meetings. When you get back you won’t remember these guys, much less what they said. You need to get it on video.”

We stayed at the home of the former water commissioner for Jordan. We spent four days interviewing a string of Middle Eastern leaders: the ambassadors to Israel and Jordan, the speaker of the Jordanian Parliament, members of the Lebanese Parliament, and a large contingency from the Iraqi Parliament. Jim, who at one point in his career provided psychiatric services to Foreign Service, AIDS, and Peace Corps personnel in sub-Saharan Africa, was a great interviewer and we got some wonderful material.

I rented a townhouse across the street from Capitol Hill when I got back to Washington and arranged and distilled the more than 26 hours of taped interviews into a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation. I walked the halls of Congress. There are 535 Senate and House of Representative offices on Capitol Hill. Few wanted to see the presentation. Finally, I got the attention of 20 Democratic members of Congress. Neither Congressman McDermott nor I could get John Murtha, an antiwar representative from Pennsylvania, or Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, to sit down long enough to view the presentation. The Democratic Party was engaged in a power grab. No sooner had the Democrats won back Congress than a sense of opportunism spread throughout the party. When the control over committees switched from Republicans to Democrats, the Democrats were more concerned about who would be the majority leader and get committee chair appointments than stopping the war in Iraq. Everything they did was defensive. They wanted the Republicans to continue to be responsible for the war. They wanted to maintain and increase their power. They were already looking at 2008 and a chance to increase their majority and probably take the presidency. Meanwhile, every day the war continued in Iraq.

Congressman McDermott and I organized a live videoconference with eight secular members of the Iraqi Parliament. We convinced only nine Congressmen—sevenDemocrats and two Republicansto come down to the studio in the House Cannon Building to participate.

It appeared I would be staying awhile in D.C. I bought a seven-bedroom home that straddled the DuPont Circle and Adams Morgan neighborhoods.

In April 2007, I brought Mohammed al-Dayni, a member of the Iraqi Parliament, to my new home. He had with him secret documents that proved that there were Iranians in the Iraqi government, some operating death squads within the Iraq Ministry of the Interior, and that there were prisons where dissidents such as he were being tortured every day. I hired a public relations firm that arranged interviews of al-Dayni with every major media newspaper and network. They didn’t believe his evidence, and the New York Times ran a story that we considered a hatchet job against him.

In the midst of all this political maneuvering I was looking for an opportunity to give al-Dayni a little break. We traveled up to my bungalow out on Long Island. When we got there, we cleaned up the kitchen together, had some pizza, and went out for a walk on the beach. It was early spring, and if I were a landscape artist I could not have done a better job. The crocuses were up; even the early tulips were spinning in the wind. We walked off the path into a jungle of underbrushbrambles and tree limbs that pulled at our hair and poked at our cheeks. Finding a stream I knew well, we followed it out until an opening revealed the expanse of Long Island Sound as the sun started to set over the horizon. We sat on my favorite rock just as I had done a thousand times before.

“No bombs, no shooting, no helicopters, no workingvery good, Dal,” Mohammed said. “Just the water and the wind.”

I glanced over at Mohammed and noticed tears flowing down his cheeks. I turned quickly away, not wanting to be gawking at some emotion I didn’t yet understand. What was Mohammed feelingrage, frustration, sorrow, remorse, fatigue, or maybe just the simple joy of life?

Suddenly I felt a pain right where my heart ought to have been. I wasn’t dying, I knew that. It was a feeling that reminded me of deathwith my mother and my father.

When my father had died six months before, he did so peacefully in the quiet serenity of my house, trusting that the universe, as he knew it, had been fair and just.

This was different. I’d have given anything, promised anything, not to feel this man’s despair but to see a glimmer of hope pass over him even just for a moment.

As the evening mist settled over us, we walked back to the bungalow. I thought how futile it had been trying to get the Bush administration interested in an exit plan for Iraq. I was feeling very similar to how I had felt many times beforea failure. My acquaintance and truce with failure had always sustained me. Losing didn’t bother me as much as not trying, and what was necessary here was something Herculean. I decided to try to broker a cease-fire in Iraq. I would do it as an American citizen diplomat.

I flew back to Jordan with Mohammed and stayed in his small apartment in Amman with his wife, his two-year-old daughter, his brother, his son, and an occasional traveler, friend, or relative. I slept in their bedroom; they slept in the spare bedroom. For two weeks we were like family. Security needed to be very tight. I couldn’t go out alone, and couldn’t go jogging; when we did venture beyond our quarters we were surrounded by security guards.

The goal was to meet with powerful Sunni sheiks to see if a cease-fire between the Sunnis and Shiites was possible. A meeting with Harith al-Dhari, Iraq’s most influential Sunni cleric, was arranged. Al-Dhari was the co-founder of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the most influential Sunni clerical body of its kind. The U.S. military leadership and the Iraqi government believed that al-Dhari was the spiritual head of the Iraqi Sunnis and wrongly believed he was also an instigator behind the insurgency.

Al-Dhari had refused to meet with any American, including President Bush, and the very fact that I might actually meet with him would certainly give me legitimacy in going further with the peace process.

On one of those washed-out Middle Eastern afternoons, I met with the Sunni leader at the Association’s headquarters. He was obviously a man of peace, a scholar, universally revered. He had been instrumental in negotiations to free hostages from several nations, including China, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I knew he abhorred the violence and death in Iraq and I didn’t want to waste time, so we got straight to the point.

“Sheik al-Dhari, why don’t we have a Gandhi moment here? Where you call a cease-fire for a month and show the Americans that there is not going to be a sectarian bloodbath if the U.S. military leaves Iraq. Americans are convinced if we pull out nowthe Shia and Sunnis are going to slaughter each other. I know that won’t happen and you know that isn’t going to happen, but Americans don’t believe it.”

He sat back and took a deep breath as if he were about to sing a note he had sung many times before.

“I would if I could. But the people are not bound by me; they are bound by the Koran. And when your president does not publicly state that American forces will ever leave Iraq, then the people in the street revolt. This comes up from the street and this is nothing I can control.”

Harith al-Dhari was a beautiful man and we left each other on a positive note. I told him that I would do my best to get some sort of commitmentat the minimum an admission that America will eventually withdraw from Iraq.

Meeting with al-Dhari helped me to get a meeting with General David Petraeus. I was involved with an organization in D.C. that did conflict resolution and they assisted in setting it up.

Several days later Mohammed and I were flying over Iraq. Looking out of the airplane window, Iraq appeared very much like Idahoflat farmland divided into a patchwork of grazing and planting areas. You’d see the occasional farmer with his cart of hay. The airport outside of Baghdad was small and unassuming, like flying into Manchester or Charlottesvillea small terminal with fire trucks and cargo carts.

We landed uneventfully and walked into an air-conditioned waiting room. Immediately we were surrounded by Iraqis wanting to bring us drinks, pour us tea, give us little sweets. It seemed to me they all knew Mohammedthere was lots of smiling and bowing, like Mohammed was everyone’s cousin. I ended up sitting in front of a large flat-screen TV watching a Hummer SUV convention live from Las Vegas. It was 9:30 and we had an 11:30 meeting with General Petraeus at the American Embassy, so I was getting antsy. Mohammed told me not to worry. Suddenly we got up to move.

When we stepped out of the airport door, it was another universe. It was 120 degrees, maybe hotter. I could not catch my breath. The sun bleached out the sky, the air around us. It was total devastation, a bombed-out world, people with AK-47s everywhere, armored vehicles turning left and right. We rushed across the street and ducked into a parking garage. Four armored vehicles pulled in and screeched to a halt in front of us. The first one had a little American flag on it. The soldiers in Army fatigues, my protectors, were holding up flak jackets (bulletproof vests) for Mohammed and me. Mohammed refused his. I assumed it was a kind of Iraqi-Sunni-macho thing. I was very hot and just wanted to know if I could wear it under my jacket. Then the two soldiers turned to us and started talking rapid-fire, like their words were coming out of the guns they were holding, each finishing the other’s sentences.

“Here’s the deal. It would have to be a direct hit for this vehicle to be affected. If we stop and we get engaged by the enemy, do not get out of the car unless we pull you out. That’s importantwe’ll pull you out. And keep your head down and your body down.”

I thought, I can do that. I felt this adrenaline rush like I was a point guard again back in Providence College. It’s practice and the coach is having us go through another suicide drill, that’s all. I can do this, I repeated to myself. I can do this.

As we left the airport, my soldier friends, my good buddies now, were reloading and readjusting all their weaponry: two M4 carbines, two M240 machine guns, an automatic grenade launcher, and a big bazooka-like thing for artillery rockets. I just had to sit back and be taken care of. I can do this, I said to myself again and again.

We ended up on the highway known as the Route Irish, a seven-mile stretch to the Green Zone, considered by some to be the most dangerous road in the world. It was once lined with beautiful palm trees, which are now cut down to mere stumps. The daily explosions from suicide missions and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had left huge blackened pits in the asphalt. Sulking carcasses of vehicles sat like smashed Matchbox cars along the road’s shoulder. Safety fences on the overpasses slouched over the road that had shoes and torn, bloodied clothing hanging from broken metal poles. The soldiers were on their phones calling Army vehicles ahead, making sure the dozens of cars that were coming toward us or passing us were not planning to kill us. Like Indian smoke signals, lights were flashing back at us. We were traveling much faster than I would expect, and I wondered: How can they know what’s happening amid all this chaos? But I felt confident; I had U.S. soldiers protecting me. Then I saw this white pickup truck, the open flatbed crammed with standing, unsavory-looking guys who didn’t look like U.S. military. They were all holding rifles, and the truck was coming straight at us on our right from an entrance to the highway.

“Who are those guys?” I asked in what I hoped was a calm, manly voice.

“They are Iraqi soldiers, the most dangerous force in Iraq,” the Americans said, chuckling with each other ina way that assured me the other guys were no threat. I immediately felt sorry for them all herded in the pickup truck, unprotected from snipers from behind the roadway embankments firing on them because they were working with the Coalition Forces.

Arriving in the Green Zone was a big relief. As Mohammed and I waited at the entrance to the American Embassy, I thought if, miraculously, these seven miles of hell could become the daily commute for the 535 members of Congress, we’d stop this war in a heartbeat.

It was 11:15 when Mary Koehler, General Petraeus’s executive assistant, came out to greet us.

“I’m sorry, but there has been another bombing at the Samarra Mosque and the general is occupied with this new crisis. He apologizes and has arranged for General Lamb to meet with you.”

The attack was a grim reminder of the February 2006 bombing of the shrine by al-Qaeda militants, which triggered a brutal Sunni-Shiite bloodletting. I knew it would raise fears that there would be a resurgence of sectarian violence. I worried about the attack and was disappointed not to be meeting General Petraeus.

Mohammed and I would be in Baghdad for a few days. We had free access to anyone in the embassy so we decided to make the most of it and arrange appointments with people we thought could help. Suddenly, as we walked into the hallway, there was General Petraeus with his entourage.

“General! General Petraeus!

My voice was louder and more congenial than I had intended, like I was calling out to some buddy for a pickup game at the schoolyard. One look, and there was no mistaking it; General David Howell Petraeus had gravitas. Dressed in fatigues, sinewy and fit, looking much taller than his five-foot-nine frame, he moved swiftly and with purpose. You’d never know that years before he had broken his pelvis when his parachute failed to open or that he had been shot in the chest once, the bullet missing his heart by fractions of an inch. He was our modern equivalent of Apollo, and I was intent on not being seduced by the myth or his aura. My goal simply was to stop this bullshit war, and there was no one in the world more capable of pulling that off than the guy I was hurrying to keep up with.

“General. Just to say hello. I know you are busy. Dal LaMagna. We were going to meet earlier.”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that.”

“That’s okay. We are going to meet with General Lamb.”

“Well, he was going to be in the meeting anyway. He is the head of the reconciliation cell and the engagement cell and was actually going to work for the force and the embassy as well.”

“This is Mohammed al-Dayni.”

The general greeted Mohammed in Arabic.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I had every intention of doing this.”

“No. I understand how your life is moment to moment.”

“Well, let me say this to your friend. Tell Harith al-Dhari and company that the ship has left the dock and they need to go swim out to it because it’s moving out. What is happening in Anbar is breathtaking.” He was referring to the Awakening Program in Anbar Province where he had recruited Sunni tribal leaders to actually help the coalition forces root out al-Qaeda.

“That’s nice to know,” I said. “We would certainly like to help.”

“Great. Well, you’ll be meeting with General Lamb. He will go over things with you. Nice to have met you, Mr. LaMagna.”

We later met with Lieutenant General Graeme Lamb and Major General Paul Newton, both of the British Army. They told us to write a proposal and that they would get back to us with their follow-up. After a few days in Baghdad, we flew back to Amman, Jordan, wrote out a proposal, translated it into Arabic, and had it signed by eight insurgent groups and 18 tribal leaders. It reiterated the Iraqi concern about the occupation by American forces, the need for an admission there will be a withdrawal, and their support for a cease-fire. I sent it via e-mail to the generals.

They acknowledged receiving it, but I never heard from them again.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Dal LaMagna, a progressive activist and entrepreneur, is the founder of Tweezerman and the Progressive Government Institute. He is the author of Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right (Wiley, 2010).