Wendy Guild Swearingen
you are an insomniac, work the graveyard
shift, or are simply a night owl, chances
are good that you know Matthew Lesko.
Lesko, a.k.a. “Mr. Info,” has
been an information consultant to Fortune
500 companies, and is a columnist, best-selling
author and regular talk show guest. He showed
up for his talk, “Building Your Business
on a Shoestring,” co-sponsored by
the HBS Marketing and Entrepreneurship clubs
at Harvard Business School on April 5, wearing
a trademark lavender suit emblazoned with
dark purple question marks with matching
bowtie, violet socks, periwinkle sneakers,
and rainbow-hued spectacles.
about his famed late-night TV commercials,
Lesko said, “I don’t pay for
any of those ads.” Instead, he has
“relationships with media people.”
He splits the profits garnered from the
commercials with the stations and networks,
like ESPN, that carry his ads.
barter system has worked well for Lesko,
keeping his overhead to a minimum. “You
make more money if you don’t buy anything,”
he said. “My cost of goods sold is
was no mistaking the enthusiasm Lesko has
for his product. So, what exactly is Matthew
Lesko selling to his bleary-eyed public?
For starters, his enormous (as in 1,100
pages), best-selling 2002 book, Free Money
to Change Your Life. He has more than fifty
books, e-Books, and CDs to his credit, among
them Free Legal Help, Free Health Care,
Free Stuff for Seniors, and Gobs and Gobs
of Free Stuff. Are we seeing a pattern here?
But what Lesko is really selling is a chance
for his readers to improve their lives.
getting his masters degree in computer science,
Lesko worked as a consultant, helping “fat
cats” find money, information, market
studies, and competitive analysis to grow
their businesses. And where did he find
this information? The U.S. government.
represents 35 percent of the U.S. economy,
he said, and there’s a government
expert for everything imaginable. For instance,
if an Italian restaurant chain wanted to
expand, he wouldn’t have to hunt down
all the details. He’d ask the government
pasta expert. Lesko said that somewhere
in DC, there’s a guy sitting in his
office with an entire wall of pasta research
behind his desk. All one needs to do to
get the information is ask. “Hell,
he’d be thrilled that anyone had come
down to talk to him,” said Lesko.
tiring of consulting, Lesko went into business
for himself. “My first two businesses
failed. And thank God they failed,”
he said. He was able, then, to find out
what he really wanted to do.
school, Lesko said, is a great way to learn
how to run a huge corporation, but what
if you want your own business? “Can
you solve [a] problem without throwing money
at it? Can you do it with little resources?”
scoffed at all the business-speak employed
by b-schools today. “Branding?”
he says of his brightly punctuated suits.
“I was just trying to have fun.”
about the importance of flexibility and
stick-to-itiveness, he said, “I know
what worked yesterday. I don’t know
what will work tomorrow. Nobody does.”
But that doesn’t mean you should stop
trying, he said. “If you never fail,
you’re really not doing anything.
Go out and do it your way.” Taking
a page from his own book, he advised, “Take
whatever is weird or different about you
and make that your best part.”
gets the money?
can apply for a government grant. Some notables
are George W. Bush, who invested $600 thousand
in a baseball team, then got a $200 million
grant to build a stadium, and Donald Trump,
who made his first million with a government
property in Cincinnati. Halliburton, the
big contracting company that Dick Cheney
used to run, had more than $300 billion
in government grants in the form of contracts
“It’s a system,” said
Lesko. “Learn to use the system.”
contracts are especially lucrative propositions,
and they are opportunities that people don’t
realize are available. “It’s
like elephant hunting,” said Lesko.
“Man, you bag one of those suckers
and you’ve got meat for a long, long
has a unique writing process: plagiarism.
It turns out, he says, that in the government,
nothing is copyrighted. He simply cut and
pasted text from government publications
for his first New York Times bestseller,
and has been “writing” that
way ever since. His description might be
a little breezy, however. The real value
Lesko adds is in his rigorous and tireless
research efforts, as well as the extremely
logical and helpful organization of the
material. While it is true that anyone can
find these resources on the Web or by calling
government numbers or writing government
agencies, not everyone has the time or inclination
to do so.
easy part, he said, is finding the information.
The real difficulty lies in what to do after
you have it. After one of his seminars on
how to contact the agencies that distribute
grants, one person asked him, “What
do you do after they answer the phone?”
“People don’t know how to take
advantage of [the information I supply].
I make fun of myself to demystify the process.”
acknowledges that information is one thing,
but execution is quite another. The less
money you have, the less time you have,
he said. “Do I say, ‛You may
get the money and you may not; it’s
a lot of work’ or do I say, ’Free
money for life!’ to get peoples’
attention? Maybe I have a chance of educating
you, then, if I make an ass out of myself
to get your attention.”
than the lottery
from Mr. Lesko:
state has an Office of Economic Development
that keeps lists of data. Find the office
that regulates your competitors; the information
offers a CD
that contains examples of forty successful
business plans. “Some of these are
written in crayon,” Lesko joked. “If
you brought one of these to your business
professors, you’d fail. It doesn’t
take a mental genius.” And if you
submit a business plan for a government
grant and that fails? You can ask the government
for a copy of a business plan that succeeded
the previous year. “It’s like
getting the test ahead of time!”
can call your congressperson’s office
and ask for Congressional Research Service
(CRS) reports on any subject.
million entrepreneurs get money from the
government every year to start businesses.
Two out of every three people who apply
get the money.
government is not only a great source of
dollars; it also provides free legal help.
In fact, says Lesko, it’s better than
hiring a lawyer because everything is regulated.
Say an insurance company doesn’t pay
your claim. “Are you going to hire
a lawyer for $200 an hour?” Lesko
asked. “Their lawyers are better.”
Instead, call your State Information Operator.
They will help fight the battle for you—for
If the insurance company loses your business,
they don’t care,” explained
Lesko. “If they get a letter from
the government who issues their license
to sell insurance…it’s cheaper
to pay you off” than fight the government.
government also provides free or low-cost
healthcare for families and seniors, as
well as free prescriptions. “But only
if you know where to look,” said Lesko.
the good of mankind
motivation is not greed, but altruism, Lesko
said. When asked whether the government
has given him money to advertise different
programs, he responded, “Yes, but
money is not important to me anymore.”
He said that “some bureaucrats say,
‘Talk about my program,’”
but they’re not trying to get rich.
“They’re just earnest people
trying to help.” After all, said Lesko,
the American people have already paid for
all of these programs through taxes and
fees, so shouldn’t they use what they’ve
are so unhappy working for large organizations,
because, really, they don’t care,”
Lesko said. “When you have your own
thing, you can paint the world your way—the
way you always wished the world was.”
Guild Swearingen is the publications coordinator
for HBS Working Knowledge.