Postmortem: Big Idea Productions (Veggie Tales): What really happened...

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Old 02 February 2013   #1
Postmortem: Big Idea Productions (Veggie Tales): What really happened...

Postmortem: Big Idea Productions (Veggie Tales): What happened?
Since IP development seem to be hot topic right now, I think it is a good idea to first take a look at our recent past, to see if we can learn from what went right and what went wrong with other companies.

So lets start with Big Ideas productions.

Back in the early 90's the company specialized in the creation of faith based content and its seemed that it was on the verge of becoming a media powerhouse.
Two years before Pixar changed the animation world with Toy Story, Big Idea created the first ever computer animated video series in the U.S.


Their crown jewel was "VeggieTales" (Created by Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki ), a series of computer animated films featuring anthropomorphic vegetables in stories conveying moral themes based on Christianity. an frankly it was groundbreaking.

And the consumers noticed them and all of the sudden the Veggie tales videos were selling Million of copies.

Big ideas found a niche in the faith based market by making content that kids actually wanted to watch. Of course their quality, back in the early days of CG was NOT even remotely close to Pixar quality, but that did not seem to affect their sales.


They expanded their offerings by releasing another show called 321 Penguins and moving into feature animation.

And then, like a bad Greek tragedy, in a span of a few years, the company collapsed.

And like a scavenger, Dreamworks bought their IP last year.
From Wikipedia:

"In 2003, after management and financial issues and a lawsuit by Lyrick Studios, Big Idea declared bankruptcy and was auctioned off to Classic Media.[2] After purchase by Classic Media, the company relocated to Nashville in 2004.

In March 2009, Entertainment Rights sold its UK- and US-based subsidiaries, including Big Idea and Classic Media, to Boomerang Media.[3] As of 2011 Big Idea, Inc. has been repackaged officially as Big Idea Entertainment, LLC. In July 2012, Big Idea's parent company, Classic Media, was acquired by DreamWorks Animation and renamed DreamWorks Classics."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Idea_Productions
I did some digging to see if could find a clear reason why this company went down so quickly, and to my surprise the creator of the "Veggie Tales" has posted online his version of the events that transpired.
this those looking to use their IP to create their own company his blog offer an insight on how an seemly successful enterprise can go from apparent riches to utter failure in short span of years.


Quote
"Many people think Big Idea Productions died because of the lawsuit brought against it by Lyrick Studios over general market distribution rights to VeggieTales home videos. While it is fair to say that it was the loss of that lawsuit that forced Big Idea into bankruptcy, it certainly wasn't the only factor causing Big Idea's downfall. Others believe the money spent producing and marketing our first movie, Jonah, brought the company down. Originally I had hoped to produce and release the film for less than $15 million total. When the final production and marketing costs came in at nearly twice that, our hopes of recouping our investment vanished. In the end our distributor got all of its marketing investment back, but not a penny made it back to Big Idea to recoup the money we had spent producing the film. So surely that killed the company, right? Not exactly. These two factors were certainly the straws that broke the camel's back, but the camel was pretty sickly before Jonah even began production, and long before the owner's of Barney the Dinosaur and Bob the Builder turned a litigious eye toward Bob and Larry.

So what killed Big Idea? Pour yourself some tea, and I'll tell you the real story."

http://www.philvischer.com/phil-new...ig-idea-part-1/
http://www.philvischer.com/phil-new...ig-idea-part-2/

So guys, what lessons can take from this?

Looking forward to your comments and ideas.

-R
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Last edited by RobertoOrtiz : 02 February 2013 at 12:32 AM.
 
Old 02 February 2013   #2
Hollywood mentality and production style.

I remember him mentioning he had more Lawyers and marketers than he had animators and even spending more money and higher expenses was turning out less animation.

He hired some big wig guys who really just know how to spend money and line their pockets.
He should have kept it small and left the "bisnaz guys" out of it and stuck to his original budget.

There is something about American style film making and their huge unnecessary budgets.

Jackie in an interview on the Rush Hour 2 DVD was talking about 1 scene in the movie that cost 5 million dollars and he was laughing. For that I could have made 5 Chinese movies.

A perfect example of that mentality and way of doing things is like Blur spending 400,000 for a "stoyrboard". Napoleon Dynamite, an entire movie, was made for 400,000.

I think that way of business crept into Veggie Tales and left the creator's head spinning. They got a blank check and starting hiring a ton of non-essential folks and treating it like a standard H-wood production.
 
Old 02 February 2013   #3
A few things that come to mind:
Disclaimer: The following are only my subjective personal views.

1) "The owners of Barney the Dinosaur and Bob the Builder turned a litigious eye toward Bob and Larry." - There's a key omission here about what HIT's argument was against exit-clauses predicated on the sale of Lyrick or the departure of Mr. Leach (BOTH of which appear to have occurred). I would have been interested to know what HIT's angle was and why it felt it had a case to bring to court. Having said that. The best thing probably is to push for clauses that empower the first party without conditions. I help draft contracts at our Legal department and we always try this first. If the other party agrees? Great. If not, we attempt to strike it out altogether or just set a HARD-WRITTEN expiry.

Edit: It seems Phil has indeed done an omission in his telling of the story. Court Document reveals that the core issue was that there was NEVER a signed contract. This could mean that Phil's agreement with Leach was totally verbal only and was effectively nothing more than a "promise" by Leach that if Lyrick was sold or if he left, that the rights would be freed. A very short-sighted view. The case doesn't even list Leach as a key person, and it appears only a certain Bill Haljun at Lyrick understood that any distribution rights agreement even existed "by phone" - a statement encoded as an internal memorandum. It is possible Haljun had never heard (or is choosing not to recall) any promises made by Mr. Leach.

2) "The NEW Big Idea Productions could not be built fast enough! America's Kids need it that badly" - In my view this is too aggressive. Take it from me. I've been through this experience. I've talked to three (pretty good I think) producers, and I nearly sat down with a major studio ready to bank it all. You are driven to do this within 24 hours because you "think you can't get there fast enough". Give it a few days. Sit down. Make an HONEST assessment of what capability you have or what your property has. More importantly think of what other parties have in it for you, and you'll realize the Fangio rule is true: "The secret to being quick in the race is to try and win it as slowly as possible."

3) "most of our executives were from the Chicago region and came primarily from large financial services and packaged goods companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Motorola, GE Capital and Price Waterhouse. It really was a pretty impressive group with tons of business experience. While they lacked traditional entertainment experience, the fact that VeggieTales was a product sold from store shelves made us all believe packaged goods experience would be just as valuable." - This is a mistake. In my view, film making is a MANUFACTURING concern. He actually might have been better off bringing in people from a Toyota factory to help him get the house in order. In my view, it's about operations, cost, timetables, damage control. His team sounds like it was imbalanced and it appears they suffered from Socratic wisdom. "Wisdom is knowing that you know nothing". His team knew nothing about Entertainment and applied Packaged Goods Sales logic to their product. Both are nothing more than "guesses" because they really didn't know anything.

4) " Between 1998 and 2000 our marketing department grew from 1 person to 30 people. We gave away 400,000 VeggieTales videos at the grand openings of malls and Target stores and took out two-page ads in People magazine to introduce America to the concept of VeggieTales. As a result, our marketing expense grew from $3 million in 1998 to $13 million in 2000. No problem, though, since the team estimated the increased awareness would double our sales within 24 months." - See Point No. 2. Again, too fast too soon. And don't count your chickens before they hatch.

5) "Except for one thing: The projected sales growth never happened. After 1998's amazing 7 million video mark, sales actually declined in 1999 and 2000. Our marketing costs exploded, but our sales didn't." - I knew this was coming...

6) "Pax announced they weren't interested in a Big Idea Saturday morning block, but would much rather we supply them with an hour of programming for prime time. Since none of the shows I had been considering for Saturday morning would work well in prime time, I was back to square one." - After this, Phil switched over to a completely different and even riskier strategy - The Full Length Feature Film. He should probably have thought about how to alter Veggie Tales or make a second version that would fit Prime Time TV or... Make a totally new show to fit that category as a "Hedge against the Hedge".... Risk is covered in layers of twos and threes in Manufacturing. I was in talks for doing the same (a feature film). I decided it wasn't the best thing for even a major studio to try. No details available. But let's just say I find my view of this event in time different to Phil's.

7) "The next logical step, I decided, was a 44-minute video project that would be longer and more elaborate than anything we had done before (thereby justifying a bigger marketing budget to create more “buzz” and a higher sale price to cover the added expense), but not as complex as a feature film." - No. It is not logical. The "core product" had already started failing prior to this. Again, my view would have been to scale back, regroup. Definitely not launch a feature film project.

8) "As brilliantly funny as he is, Mike isn't always the most disciplined of writers, and seventeen pages into his script he was still in the modern-day setup. He was just having too much fun with a van fulla veggies and a weird old seafood restaurant. My first thought was, “Well, he'll just have to throw it away and start over again.” But when I read it, I really liked it. It was fun stuff. So here's where I made a large mistake: I let my fondness of Mike's pages overrule my business conviction that we were NOT ready to make a movie. Instead, a little voice in my head was whispering, “Well, maybe just a little movie…” - I can understand. But he points it out himself. This is also something you shouldn't do. Scale-Creeping Expansion is DANGEROUS.

9) "The recently released Christian film “The Omega Code” had surprised everyone by grossing $13 million at the US box office with a tiny marketing budget of less than $2 million. Using “The Omega Code” as a model, I estimated a small VeggieTales film with a $7 million production budget and a $7 million marketing budget needed to do $18.5 million at the box office and sell 3 million videos and DVDs." - Wrong. Always assume the worst. Relativity Media's Ryan Kavanaugh has mentioned before that one should never use the most "optimistic-in-class" model when planning. Most articles about film finance state that the best plans usually involve assuming the Production Budget is "sunk" (ie: gone forever without return). It's not how you'd probably REALLY operate. But it's a good practice because that's what can happen. Use the worst, or at least, use an average. The reason something is a surprise is because it isn't probably repeatable. Not even WB set goals for TDKR to break TDK's record.

10) "In my excitement, the question of whether or not we were ready to make a movie somehow escaped me." - See Point No. 2

11) "The process at times resembled “The Lord of the Flies” more than “The Art of Management.” In the end, the studio would go “headless” for more than a year as our recruiter scoured Hollywood for the right person and Jonah barreled towards production like a runaway locomotive." - See Point No. 2

12) "They were inheriting a process and a crew that had been built and rebuilt over the years by a series of managers. On top of that, a fair amount of hiring had already taken place with Jonah in mind. Some department leaders had carefully thought through their own plans for Jonah and had begun hiring accordingly. Others later admitted they started hiring simply “because everyone else was.” The first budget forecast came in at $10 million. I gulped. Not the $7 million I was hoping for, but – heh, heh – it could be worse.
Within a few months, it would be."
- If any one recalls how I praised the management of Jurassic Park's film production and how Digic plans its process... I can tell you, what Phil did for Jonah, is NOT how Digic nor Universal make their movies.

13) " I told my new president I needed some time off. We agreed that I would take the month of October off to rest and recuperate. The team was in place. They could manage the business without me. October came, and Lisa and I headed to Hawaii for a week of rest. I had intended to spend the rest of the month playing with my kids, taking pictures and studying the Bible. The distance from Big Idea, though, gave me ample time and space to think things through and I began to doubt that things were going as well as I had thought. - Should have gone to Hawaii sooner (See Point No. 2)

14) "My president, however, wouldn't speak to me for two days. When he finally did, he declared it “the biggest leadership disaster he had ever seen.” The next day he instructed our new head of HR to help me write a full retraction and apology. Boy was I confused. I finally felt like I was leading boldly, but the man I had hired to help me lead described my bold leadership as a "disaster." I agreed to apologize for any embarrassment I had caused by addressing concerns so publicly, but stopped short of issuing the full retraction my president had demanded. It was clear the two of us didn't see eye-to-eye, and our relationship would be strained from here on out." - He should have fired the President. In POLITICS, never apologize. Which is why one should think a long time before calling a meeting to tell everyone they suck. (I've done this before. You REALLY want to think before saying it.) It is notable that early on he stated a Vision for Big Idea Productions, but I am not so sure he actually instilled it in the people he hired to be in leadership positions. This episode with executives tells me Big Idea became mired in Corporate Politics. Nobody was interested in building a "Top Four Family Brand" like he was stating earlier as his BHAG.

15) "Due to the rapid growth and hiring, we were a little short on cash. " - I still remember when I first reported to my boss, he showed me three documents: A Balance Sheet, a Profit and Loss Statement, and a Cashflow Statement. I asked: "Which of these is the most important?" He pulled out the Cashflow and said: "This one. You see even if you have a Loss... but as long as you have Cash.. you have ways to move around, improve, do something about the Loss so it becomes Profit later. If you are profitable but have no Cash? You only look good on paper but you are unable to even buy a few things for the office. Think about it."

16) "As soon as we returned from the holidays, I called the leaders together and posed a simple question: “What exactly are we building here?” - See Point No. 14. This is caused by that problem.

17) "My president assured me the budget wasn't yet approved and we wouldn't be hiring anywhere near that many people. Don't worry. We know what we're doing." - What's this clown still doing there? He should have fired this guy way back just for disagreeing with him as Phil is supposed to be the Vision attendant (assuming Vision dissonance is root cause of problem).

18) " “Don't worry,” he assured me, “I've told the sales team they need to make up those lost sales in the second half of the year.” Make up the sales later in the year? How on earth would they do that? It didn't seem possible." - Good question. It's always about HOW you're going to do it, isn't it? Also what's this clown of a President still doing in the building?

19) "They had their own forecast that looked much better than mine, and, more importantly, they had already given their forecast to our bankers. If they changed the numbers now it would make us look bad with the bank." - What's interesting is that this is the one thing his Management Team actually did very well (again, consider the background of people he hired at the top). They went through the right motions this time, but by this time, a whole load of fruit had fallen far from the tree.... Instead of solving the problems... This has become part of the pit they are falling into.

20) "And then there was Jonah. Less than 6 months from its required delivery date, the production was almost hopelessly behind schedule." - Should have been cancelled when the VeggieTales Sales started dwindling (no other source of Cash in Operations).

Basically the whole story reads like Phil lost his way (and forgot his Vision) when chasing a dream. It's sad... But it happens.

Very important article for me. And a must-read for people who are starting out with their own IP.
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Last edited by CGIPadawan : 02 February 2013 at 03:35 AM.
 
Old 02 February 2013   #4
Honestly, my overwhelming feeling after reading all of that is that someone who appears to believe that everything that happens is the will of a deity who is trying to teach him some kind of lesson really shouldn't be involved in any kind of business.

The guy seems nice enough and it sucks that he had to go through all of that but really, he just didn't seem suited for it, or indeed properly prepared at all.
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Old 02 February 2013   #5
Originally Posted by leigh: Honestly, my overwhelming feeling after reading all of that is that someone who appears to believe that everything that happens is the will of a deity who is trying to teach him some kind of lesson really shouldn't be involved in any kind of business.

The guy seems nice enough and it sucks that he had to go through all of that but really, he just didn't seem suited for it, or indeed properly prepared at all.


Basically your post is a summary of my conclusion as well. I was shocked to find that he effectively had no signed agreement for the distribution with Lyrick. Many millions of dollars... passing hands based only on a phone confirmation? Wow. Phil wrote a beautiful article, but he was sort of covering for what amounts to a "wishy-washy" nature.

James Cameron in "The Making of Aliens" once said that when he was starting out in films he was also very naive, but claimed you had to be a bit innocent to make it in the movies - I guess that time is long gone.
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Old 02 February 2013   #6
While reading most of that hurt my brain, I came away with the impression he was an easy going handshake is my contract person. We see lots of people like that in my country, where a lot can be done with a handshake or a nod. That's all fine until you get involved with people who live by legal speak and need every single aspect of a deal on paper and signed.

Nice man he might well be, but he had to be a bit naive to get involved in something without covering his back. I feel sorry for him really.
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Old 02 February 2013   #7
So the lesson? Don't read Built to Last by Jim Collins!

Seriously, he had a good thing going. Why not be content to just keep making half hour videos that were selling millions? Why not, at the most, just add enough staff to maybe produce one more video per year, or start a second series while keeping the quality up?

He had the chance to go back to that. He was in a position, at one point, to stop everything that was going wrong and just get back to making Veggie Tale videos. He chose not to take it.
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Old 02 February 2013   #8
Seems like he didn't understand business well enough and shouldn't have trusted people who weren't good at their jobs.

In reading info about the business side of stuff it seems the biggest mistakes is when business professionals are brought on that have no passion for the company and product they are working for.
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Old 02 February 2013   #9
I agree Teruchan. I think he should have stuck to what he knew, kept it small and if Hwood came knocking to do a bigger version then let them use their money, not his.

I really feel bad for him though. It is hard when we make mistakes like that. I know I've made my fair share that led to me being behind where I wanted to be and very disatisfied with where I am now because of bad business descisions. Mine are nowhere near his though.
 
Old 02 February 2013   #10
The thing that stood out for me was that when you reach a certain size the bigger companies will show up and seek to buy you out--and if they do they may give your creation little attention. But if you dont sell you might get the "Disney can help Barney, Disney can hurt Barney" ultimatum and find a severed purple dinosaur head in your bed the next morning.
 
Old 02 February 2013   #11
Over the last few years I've had the privilege of being a student under two individuals who both worked at Big idea and were good friends with Phil, so I've heard quite a bit about what happened there. It also allowed me to take part in a good Q & A with Phil.

Viscer is an incredibly nice, honest, and quiet man who is the first one to admit that he's learned a tremendous amount in the last fifteen years. When Big Idea first began to grow and become popular, he felt that since he was doing what he thought God wanted him to do (to grow Big Idea into a Christian Disney) - that the whole process would be blessed by God, and therefore not fail.

Phil wrestled with his faith after the collapse, filled with anger towards God and questions of "Why?". After years of this, he finally came to the conclusion that he had wanted Big Idea to succeed not for God, but for his own selfish glory - if I were to summarize his thoughts into a fake quote it'd be - "pursuing one's own selfish goals under the guise of a God ordained mission is folly."

In the last several years, Phil has started a new faith based production group - Jellyfish Labs - with the intent to keep it small and quiet, with only a handful of workers and interns, as he never wants to lay off a worker ever again.

-----

An interesting side effect of Big Idea breaking up was that all of these animators and artists were sent to every corner of the media world, all of them maintaining contact with each other. My professor was one of these people, and so was able to host small, intimate hour long Skype sessions with many people across the industry, including Paul Conrad , who designed the infamous "Ellie Badge" in 'Up' to Pascal Campion , an astounding French illustrator.

Last edited by LukeLetellier : 02 February 2013 at 07:42 PM.
 
Old 02 February 2013   #12
Originally Posted by AangtheAvatar: I agree Teruchan. I think he should have stuck to what he knew, kept it small and if Hwood came knocking to do a bigger version then let them use their money, not his.

I really feel bad for him though. It is hard when we make mistakes like that. I know I've made my fair share that led to me being behind where I wanted to be and very disatisfied with where I am now because of bad business descisions. Mine are nowhere near his though.


I know what you mean. I know I could have been much further along in my career were it not for the mistakes I made. It really sucks to look back and think of what could have been. What would be different if I had stayed in Japan when I realized I could sell more of my stuff in a day there than I could in a month at home? What would be different if I stayed with TOKYOPOP? I'll never know, of course, but if I was him, I would have been content to make half hour videos of my indie content forever, even if I had 10% of the sales he had.

Originally Posted by kelgy: The thing that stood out for me was that when you reach a certain size the bigger companies will show up and seek to buy you out--and if they do they may give your creation little attention. But if you dont sell you might get the "Disney can help Barney, Disney can hurt Barney" ultimatum and find a severed purple dinosaur head in your bed the next morning.


Remember that little indie film, by an ex Disney employee, Romeo and Juliette Sealed With A Kiss? It looked decent and I bet it could have gone on to make some money had Disney picked it up. Since he didn't sell out, though, it seemed the entire industry was out to ensure this film never got screen time, all the way down to the theatre chains.

Originally Posted by LukeLetellier: Phil wrestled with his faith after the collapse, filled with anger towards God and questions of "Why?". After years of this, he finally came to the conclusion that he had wanted Big Idea to succeed not for God, but for his own selfish glory - if I were to summarize his thoughts into a fake quote it'd be - "pursuing one's own selfish goals under the guise of a God ordained mission is folly."


That was the first thing that came to my mind reading the article. He still believes in God after that? I think most people would have thrown in the towel on faith. The interesting thing, the article really does fit your fake quote to a tee. You can see the point where the shift happens in his mind.

Originally Posted by LukeLetellier: In the last several years, Phil has started a new faith based production group - Jellyfish Labs - with the intent to keep it small and quiet, with only a handful of workers and interns, as he never wants to lay off a worker ever again.


That's good news. As I wrote above, if I were doing a couple half hour shows per year, which I could strangely enough, and actually selling, I would be content to do that forever. I would never contemplate growing, making a big film or anything else. Like Aang said, if Hollywood or anyone else came a calling, I would let them buy a license and go do their thing without my involvement. (I might consult, though, for a fee)
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Old 02 February 2013   #13
Originally Posted by LukeLetellier: Phil wrestled with his faith after the collapse, filled with anger towards God and questions of "Why?". After years of this, he finally came to the conclusion that he had wanted Big Idea to succeed not for God, but for his own selfish glory - if I were to summarize his thoughts into a fake quote it'd be - "pursuing one's own selfish goals under the guise of a God ordained mission is folly."


Argh. I realise I'm now treading on sensitive territory, but what irks me about this is that if he thinks like this, then he's never going to get anything done. He didn't fail because he was trying to glorify himself, he failed because he made a number of poor decisions, put his faith (for lack of a better word) in the wrong people and planned things badly.

If he thinks that the only thing that stopped him was his selfishness, then he's never going to learn anything and any future endeavours are likely to end up going the same route because that's not why he failed. With a mindset like this, he's really not cut out to be doing business. He should stick to the creative side and hire business people to deal with the business side of things.
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Old 02 February 2013   #14
I'll have to read the article later but...

My kids were all into VeggieTales when it was big and still owned by Vischer. It was interesting as a CG guy watching these going, "Man these look like crap but boy do the kids love them." That was the early days before they switched packages to I think it was Maya? I've watched just about every behind the scenes and the show was basically 3 main people. Phil, his wife Lisa and Mike. And then there was no Phil. Oh you could tell that Bob and all of his other characters still had the same voice so he hadn't left but he just disappeared whereas before he spoke at long lengths about how that particular episode was produced. That's when I started to research and we heard how Jonah was the sink or swim point. Everyone was saying how we all needed to go see the film or BIG was going belly up. It didn't help.

I remember an interview with Phil after the first buyout and he was speaking about how happy he was once the business reins had been taken from him and he could focus on just making the content. Basically the rat race of running the business side had taken a pretty heavy toll on him physically and mentally.
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Old 02 February 2013   #15
Originally Posted by leigh: He should stick to the creative side and hire business people to deal with the business side of things.


From what I understand, that's exactly what he's doing. I don't think he ever wanted to be a part of the business decisions, it just fell onto his shoulders. He's much more of a creative person who likes to have his own quiet space. A friend of mine interned with him in 2011, and said that even though there were only a few of them in the office, he very rarely talked with Phil - not because they didn't want to talk, he's just a very naturally quiet person.... like most of us I would think.
[Edit: Yeah. What Wyatt said. ]


Quote: That was the first thing that came to my mind reading the article. He still believes in God after that? I think most people would have thrown in the towel on faith.


If anything, it strengthened his faith. This sort of thing is a good indictor of who's real and who's just faking it.

Quote: Argh. I realise I'm now treading on sensitive territory, but what irks me about this is that if he thinks like this, then he's never going to get anything done. He didn't fail because he was trying to glorify himself, he failed because he made a number of poor decisions, put his faith (for lack of a better word) in the wrong people and planned things badly. If he thinks that the only thing that stopped him was his selfishness, then he's never going to learn anything and any future endeavours are likely to end up going the same route because that's not why he failed.


He definitely realized his business mistakes - CGIpadawan covered those in depth, so I didn't feel the need to reiterate them. And Phil doesn't like to focus on those too much when he speaks, because the thrust of his message has to do with those individuals who become incredibly arrogant because they believe that they are the mouth of God --- "God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and He has been speaking through asses ever since. So, if God should choose to speak through you, you need not think too highly of yourself. "

Last edited by LukeLetellier : 02 February 2013 at 10:05 PM.
 
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