Claude Hopkins Great Mistake

Claude Hopkins was one of the greatest copywriters of the 20th Century. He documented his development as a copywriter and the advertising principles he discovered in two books: My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising.

In Chapter 18 of My Life in Advertising, Hopkins reveals what he calls his “great mistake.” And what was that mistake?

I will tell you.

After Hopkins’ initial success selling Bissell carpet sweepers, the president of the company, Mr. Bissell himself, invited Hopkins in for a heart-to-heart talk. Believe it or not, Mr. Bissell advised Hopkins to leave the company and venture out on his own. In fact, Mr. Bissell went so far as to say…

You are too good a man to work for me. […] I am selfish enough to want you to stay here. If you do, your salary will be much increased next year. But I am fair enough to advise you not to stay. Don’t let someone else glean the chief profits from your hard work and your talent.

Imagine if you worked for a boss so honest — so interested in your long-term success — that he advised you to leave the company and start your own venture.

I can imagine that rarely, if ever, happens.

Anyway, long story short, Hopkins stayed. He writes:

My Scotch conservatism led me to stay. It was my great mistake. Soon after that I married, and any venture of my own became increasingly difficult. Thus I tied myself to a lifetime of service as an employee.

There are millions of Americans who have made the same “great mistake” as Claude Hopkins. It is the mistake of succumbing to fear and choosing security over freedom.

Even though Hopkins was entirely capable of starting and growing a business on his own, he lacked confidence in himself; he feared he would fail. And so he worked as an employee for 35 years before he finally cut the umbilical cord.

Soon after he made the leap to being self-employed, his income was magnitudes larger than it ever was when he was an in-house copywriter. In his own words:

One of my first ventures was in Pepsodent tooth paste. I bought a share in that, for which I paid $13,000. It paid me some $200,000 in dividends, then I sold the stock for $500,000.

There are two things that make this extraordinary.

First of all, Hopkins made about $100,000 a year as a copywriter. In this first venture of his own, he made at least  $700,000 — seven times what he normally made in a year.

Secondly, Hopkins published this story in 1927, which means he earned this money before 1927. Seven hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money today; it was a fortune back then.

And it was all because he finally had the chutzpah to set out on his own.

Hopkins concludes the story of his “great mistake” with this:

So that is my future. Instead of confining myself to building businesses for others on a temporary commission, I have started for myself the enterprises which seem to promise profit. If even one turns out as scores have turned out under my direction, it will win me more than I ever won from writing.

While being a business owner isn’t for everybody, it’s certainly worth considering if you’re already growing businesses for other people. And Hopkins story is instructive to anybody who’s ever been employed (or self-employed, for that matter).

-Ryan M. Healy

P.S. If you’re interested in reading the whole chapter, just flip to Chapter 18 in My Life in Advertising.

Ryan M. Healy

Ryan Healy is a financial copywriter and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.

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