The Martha Rules

"The advantage of starting a business in an area about which you are passionate is that when you really care about something… you can often serve your customers very well by thinking about what you need and want yourself."

- The Martha Rules, page 70

Mention the name Martha Stewart and you’ll get a number of reactions, from idolization on one end of the spectrum to contempt on the other. Stewart, with her unabashed perfectionism, is a polarizing personality. We have seen Martha at her best, from her breathtaking rise as an overnight billionaire when her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999, to her pitiful fall from grace when she was convicted of insider trading in 2004. However it cannot be denied that Martha’s commitment to educating her many acolytes on the art of fine living, and her considerable business acumen, are impressive.

The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success As You Start, Build, or Manage a Business, is a book Martha began working on while serving her sentence at Alderson, the federal prison camp in West Virginia. “There, amidst a thousand or so women, were hundreds of young, middle-aged, and older women who had dreams of starting a business when they were released,” Martha writes. “Many of them came to me to express their passion, their hopes, and their ideas. They were like the myriad people who write to me with their ideas, seeking guidance, advice, and a road map to a successful business.” (xi) These women reminded Martha of the countless fans who would send her letters looking for guidance on how to get a business of their own off the ground. It was for them that Martha penned The Martha Rules.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

What's passion got to do with it?

"Without passion, work is just work, a chore. Without passion, quality, the cornerstone of all businesses, is simply about minimum standards."
- The Martha Rules, page 2

Martha subscribes to the notion that passion is the key ingredient to a successful business venture, so it’s no surprise that the first of Martha’s ten rules is indeed passion. Martha Stewart has built her entire multimedia empire around her passion for fine living, and her desire to bring the very best to her consumers; whether we’re talking about a recipe for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, or finding a shade of paint colour that will look as good during the morning sun as it does by candlelight during an intimate dinner party for six (more on that later).

In the early 1980s, Martha Stewart was a successful caterer in Westport, Connecticut who decided to publish a book; a book that would go on spawn a new genre on living graciously. Martha Stewart Entertaining was the beginning of her spectacular multimedia empire that would grow to include not only  books but also magazine publications, TV programs, a newspaper column, a radio show, and a line of products from scissors to sofas, all emblazoned with the Martha Stewart seal of approval denoting its promise of the finest quality.

This billion dollar business all began with passion. Without passion, she argues, work becomes a chore – like doing laundry; a task few of us complete with much relish. Without a focus on passion, your work (whatever it may be) will become something that must merely be completed. It won’t ever be realized to the full of your potential.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Write the book you want to read

"There were plenty of doubters. There had never been a book like it, some publishers complained. (Exactly, I said.)"
- The Martha Rules, page 10

In 1982 Martha Stewart, an unknown caterer from Westport, Connecticut, wrote Entertaining and revolutionized the world of cookbooks, becoming the leading authority on fine living. To call Entertaining merely a cookbook is reductive; it’s a book on the fine art of living with good food as its nucleus. Not only did Entertaining give you menus based on the type of party you are hosting, but it offered tips on décor and hints to make the occasion run as smoothly as possible, something other books had failed to do.

With Entertaining Martha Stewart wrote the book she wanted to read. To Martha Stewart’s mind Entertaining filled a void; it was a book the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. That was the point. She was told it wouldn’t succeed, but succeed it did. While the book inspired some derision among pessimistic critics, the public ate it up, and it has become the most successful cookbook (although it wasn’t really a cookbook) after Julia Child and Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Entertaining actually inspired a new genre of books on the fine art of living, and countless copycats have hit the shelves since.

In Martha Stewart’s case she literally did write the book she wanted to read, but this insight is analogous for all entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to fill any void. She cites Bette Nesmith Graham as an example. Bette, a secretary, invented Liquid Paper after wasting too much time fixing mistakes on her electric typewriter. It not only made work for Bette more efficient, but became a viable business, all because she filled a void.

We have a choice when we see a void – we can complain about it, or we can fill it.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Necessity is the mother of re-invention

"You should never accept what is offered to you if you feel it can be improved."
- The Martha Rules, page 27

For Martha Stewart, a subpar product shouldn’t be unconsciously gobbled up by the consumer: we should perfect it where we see an opportunity to do so. When Martha was looking for the right shade of paint, she was “frustrated” to find colours that were unappealing and not at all what she wanted. So what did she do? Rather than settling for the least offensive shade, she created exactly the colours she wanted. She took her cue from nature (for example the pale blue and green of her Araucana hens’ eggs) and with that Martha Stewart Paint, a palette of harmonious colours, was born. Today my bedroom is painted in one of her soft greens.

Even the design of Bette Nasmith Graham’s Liquid Paper has been improved upon. Instead of waiting for the toxically odourous product to dry on a crusty lump on our page before we can correct our mistake, we now have Correction Tape, which smells great and adheres to the page instantly. There are innumerable such examples, but the important thing to note is that there are more waiting to be revised to make our daily lives more efficient, or in Martha’s example, or aesthetically pleasing.

Martha’s rocket to fame and fortune is due as much to her desire to improve things as it is to creating things.  Not all of us can create something out of thin air, but I do believe it’s possible for all of us to look for ways to make improvements.

Easily digested, The Martha Rules is the perfect book for novice entrepreneurs, or those who need a reminder of why they began their business in the first place. One more point before I end this summary: Martha says that being successful in business is more than just showing up and completing a task.  “It requires eyes in the back of one’s head; constant learning; curiosity; unflagging energy; good health, or at least a strong constitution that will ward of illnesses; and even the strength and desire to put up with sleep deprivation and long hours of intense concentration.” (xiii) With passion and dedication, success is attainable.  In fact, “It’s a good thing.”

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Andy Budgell

ABOUT Andy Budgell

Andy is the Managing Editor at Actionable Books. A graduate of the University of Waterloo's English Rhetoric and Literature program, Andy brings a love of words to Actionable, and complements the team with his distinct writing ability, amazing customer service, and a passion for film.
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