3 Questions with Despair, Inc. Founder Lawrence Kersten


For those who appreciate the humor in cynicism and sarchasm, you have probably seen Despair, Inc. products, such as these:

From CNN: A lot of people find motivational products demeaning," said Despair founder Lawrence Kersten. "We are the brand for the cynics, pessimists and the chronically unsuccessful."

Despair started in 1988 with two twin brothers and Lawrence, who is ironically a pHD in organization development. He is author of “The Art of Demotivation” and host to a popular Podcast, which is one of their primary marketing vehicles. Today Despair has blossomed into a company with $4 million in annual sales.

Lawrence will be the annual featured speaker at Austin Texchange on June 21st. I’m a board of advisor to this group of Austin Entrepreneurs, and since I recommended Lawrence for this presentation, we had lunch the other day to get to know each other a little better. 

Despite the jokes in his products and character (no, he doesn’t act like his podcast character in real life), he had some interesting insights and perspectives. So after lunch I asked him three question that I would share here:

Sam: Your products are charactures of cynicism in the workplace. Each product, each saying, seems to represent a ‘string’ of truth which makes it funny. If you were to gather together all these strings of truth — all your products and what they say — how would you characturize the holistic ‘rope’ of Despair? What’s the main message?

Lawrence: This is a tough one.  I really can’t come up with a "main message" that runs throughout all of them. Moreover, we don’t have a predetermined set of ideas that we’re trying to get across. Having said that, I would say that some of the recurring themes that run throughout our work include:

  1. Reality is was it is, independent of an psychological satisfaction one might derive from believing that it isn’t;
  2. Many of the perceived injustices in the workplace (or the world for that matter) are just as likely to be self-inflicted wounds as they are to be actual injustices;
  3. Some people secretly harbor a desire to become what they publicly condemn in others;  and
  4. Misplaced trust is produces false hope which usually leads to despair.  I’m sure there are others, but this is what comes to mind.

Sam: At lunch you conveyed your opinion of why job satsifaction continues to decline? Can you explain why?

Lawrence: I believe that one of the reasons, though certainly not the only reason, is that people expect their jobs to provide too much meaning and satisfaction in their lives. Historically, people looked to their families, their communities, and their religious affiliations to meet many of the needs they now expect to get from their jobs.  There are very few jobs, however, with the potential to provide the type of meaning and satisfaction that people desire.  Moreover, even if someone has a good job at a good company, they are likely to experience times that are difficult, tedious, frustrating, boring, or otherwise dissatisfying. People who don’t recognize this are ill-prepared to cope with the vicissitudes of work life and ultimately end up dissatisfied.

Sam: You create humorous products, and I’m curious about your creative process. Can you give an example of the process you followed to come up with one of your products?

Lawrence: We don’t have a single process for developing our products.  Sometimes one of us will have an idea that the others will like. At other times one person will have an idea and submit it to the others for review.  At that point, each of us responds and tries to put our own spin. Over time, something emerges that all of us can live with. I don’t think we have a process that is much different than anyone else. Where I think we are different is that the 3 founders of Despair have similar enough senses of humor, taste, and decorum that we’re moving in the same direction.  Consequently, the individual differences we bring to the table tend to be complementary rather competitive.

If you’re an entrepreneur in Austin, Dallas or Houston, I encourage you to come see Lawrence on June 21st.

One Response

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Great interview! I’ve been a big fan of Despair from day one. Once we hung several of their posters around the office and hardly anyone noticed the captions. Despair knows how to blend fine art with fine satire: not an easy task.

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