Opportunity and Innovation – The Power of Weird Thinking

“The Big Idea” that will make an entrepreneur successful is not obtainable by filling in the blanks on a magic invention template. Where do ‘The Big Ideas” come from? Why are some people able to develop exciting concepts and others, though constantly scheming, achieve nothing of value? How do serial inventors repeat success, again and again?

Entrepreneurs are born, not made. Thomas Edison performed over 1000 experiments before perfecting the electric light bulb. Think of that fact, and apply it to people in general. He failed 1000 times to get it right. How many people do we know that will keep trying to succeed at a task if they fail three times, five times, 12 times? We all know the answer, not many. Business school can not teach this kind of drive, determination, and dedication to a task.

Entrepreneurs and inventors are different. Successful entrepreneurs excel at commercializing opportunities. Inventors excel at creating. Not every inventor is an entrepreneur. Nevertheless, creating exciting new products is an art that is essential to entrepreneurial success. Many inventors employ others to commercialize their creations. Some entrepreneurs also have the ability to develop exciting new projects. There is simply not one silver bullet answer that defines the requisites for success.

There are, however, several traits that all original thinkers have in some fair amount. Thinking outside the box, pride in weirdness, seeing problems others miss, acceptance of failure and the Natty Bumppo halo are a few of the qualities we see in successful original thinkers.

Thinking Outside the Box
This has become almost a cliché. We see the term used in advertising and executives trying to spur creativity always are exhorting the team to think outside the box. This is difficult, impossible for most people, to actually do. They live in the box. They are risk averse. They fear failure. They certainly do not want to present an idea that others might laugh at!

For these and other reasons thinking outside the box is almost impossible in mature organizations, certainly any organization with an entrenched bureaucracy is not readily open to new ideas. This is one reason there is so much opportunity for entrepreneurs and small business to succeed.

Wal-Mart has re-engineered the logistics of retailing by designing order flow technology superior to every other retailer in the mass-market space. W.T Grant, Montgomery Ward and Woolworth were huge businesses before Wal-Mart existed. They did not think outside the box and allowed Wal-Mart to carve them up with better prices, selection and service.

Southwest Airlines was created as a low cost, fun alternative to the big established carriers. They have remained profitable and grown while American, United, Delta, USAir and Northwest stuck with the old business model and all suffer bleak futures as going concerns. Southwest standardized fleet equipment, have stayed non-union, hedge fuel contracts and only fly from cities where they identify huge opportunity to succeed at the expense of the national carriers saddled with excess overhead.

Estee Lauder is the recognized queen of the cosmetic world. She started in the 1950’s making a moisturizer in her home. The product was not accepted by a single department store. Finally, she asked the buyer at Pogue’s Department Store in Cincinnati, “why won’t you give me a chance”? The answer: “We already have plenty of moisturizers. Give us something different”. Mrs. Lauder did not give up. She reckoned that the product performance would not open the sales doors necessary to be her salvation. She designed a new marketing feature: the gift with purchase. Today every cosmetic brand uses the gift with purchase as the most successful sales tool in the history of the beauty industry. The leading brands of the 1950’s (Elizabeth Arden, Germain Monteil, Helena Rubenstein, Max Factor and Revlon) are all either out of business or greatly diminished while Estee Lauder is the largest fine cosmetic house in the world.

Ms Lauder, Sam Walton at Wal-Mart and Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines did not invent cosmetics, retailing or air travel. They did think outside of the box and create marvelous successful businesses. Ray Kroc did not invent the hamburger: he only created McDonalds standardization of quality assurance and a franchise system to deliver that benefit. Michael Dell did not invent the computer. He invented a way to customize each unit and eliminate the need to carry expensive inventory by pre-selling each unit before a component was assembled.

Pride in Weirdness

Who wishes to be thought of as weird? A very small portion of any population hopes to stand out by being weird in dress, body markings or other appearance feature. For the most part, people work very hard at being accepted as normal, in sync with their surroundings.

Entrepreneurs are generally average, normal in the way they talk, dress, recreate and live their personal lives. It is their thinking that is different, and this can be weird. They see things differently. The entrepreneur may divine a problem that others do not see or does not yet exist. They see answers before the rest of see needs.

Who needed the TV dinner before introduced by the Swanson family in the early 1950’s? Most homes did not yet have television. Dinner was an American ritual. And yet, as television intruded on American life, our habits changed. Speed and convenience replaced ritual as pre-eminent product features sought by consumers. The TV dinner was the perfect example of a bit of weird thinking addressing a need that did not yet exist.

Inventors and entrepreneurs tend to take great pride in their iconoclastic thought processes. The mad scientist analogy can be a stretch but the results are often so amazingly offbeat that we must conclude that weird thinking might be a benefit.

Seeing Things Others Don’t!

Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. The Germans Daimler and Benz had perfected and harnessed the internal combustion 10 years before Ford. In the first two decades of the 20th century there were over 200 companies producing horseless carriages in the United States alone. Who remembers the Hupp Mobile? Does anyone pine for the Lansing? What did Ford see that the others did not?

Simply, Henry Ford recognized that the automobile would not achieve it’s potential as a conveyance until most of the public could afford to own one. He had to drive prices down. His success was in the process he created, not in the automobile itself. Standardization, scale, motion production lines, integration of component production and assembly were concepts none of the competition were pursuing.
This vision thing can be applied to almost every successful enterprise. The originator sees opportunity others either miss, or do not recognize as significant. Howard Schultz realized that in Europe people treated the coffee drinking experience in a completely different way than Americans. He took the quality standards of the successful franchise operations he studied, crafted an upscale position for coffee (actually, now latte, frappe, etc.) and founded Starbucks. He saw an opportunity that had not been commercialized, branded an experience, just not the invention of coffee drinking.

Acceptance of Failure

We all fear failure. Successful entrepreneurs, however, know that taking risk does not come with guarantees of success. They do not like failure. Failure is just part of the game. They get up and try again. The risk taking precedes the rewards for success. Smart entrepreneurs attempt to mitigate potential losses and failures. Serial entrepreneurs have an amazing nose for sorting out potential hurdles and deal killing situations.

Do Not Respond to “Prove It”!

Most new ideas are met with a heap of skepticism. Inventors and entrepreneurs often are asked to “Prove it’! You can not prove something until you try it, produce it, test it, or verify performance. Denial of funding or other needed assistance can not be contingent on proving performance of a theory. This is why having working, production quality prototypes is so vital.

Natty Bumppo’s Halo

When I was a boy (many moons ago) we read all of the James Fenimore Cooper classic pioneer novels. These were stories set in the pre-Revolutionary War era and the hero was the Deerslayer, the Pathfinder: Natty Bumppo. Natty was amazing. He was always in dire straits, surrounded, outnumbered and betrayed. Just when the reader thought Natty was a goner, he improvised. Utilizing his immediate surroundings, sunlight, ground cover, knowledge of animal traits, or dozens of other frontier skills that he had acquired he escaped and put things right.

I always called this the “halo effect”. Natty Bumppo was the first great improviser I came upon as a boy and he is an excellent model for creative, improvisational thinking today. He was an 18th century James Bond. He found answers and created successful strategies out of the available elements of his environment.

The successful inventors we work with in our consulting business are normal people. However, they have been able to improvise in an area of their life and create an opportunity. I am always amazed by this ability. The level and amount of creativity in the world is stunning. I wish there were more entrepreneurs (doer’s) than dreamers fronting projects and inventions.

Look at every aspect of your life and consider this a fertile area for creative improvisation. Work, faith, recreation, hobbies, and family are a few of the areas where each of us has some life experience in many areas. Passion about an area (hunting, golf, fund raising, wellness, exercise, education, etc.) is the most likely source for an inspiration.

I have seen a woman, just having experienced delivery of her first baby, successfully patent, develop and market a pain monitor for very late term contraction charting. She looked everywhere for an answer to this need and found nothing available for home use. She saw a need and acted.

A passionate game hunter was losing too many shots while in the stealth portion of the hunt. He was a big man and a bit noisy in the field. He designed an over boot to minimize, distort and muffle sound as he made his approach. This breaks up sound patterns that animals have come to associate with man: edge to the hunter.

We have seen firemen invent an elegantly simple method for putting out grease fires, the largest cause of fires in the home. Board games often come from families shared interests. A teacher brought us a combination game, teaching tool to coach children in proper nutrition habits and combat childhood obesity. A social worker has designed a simple, individualized, inexpensive, modular homeless shelter kit. A Little League baseball coach created a tremendous trainer for perfecting throwing fundamentals. A Christian Ministry has created a prayer club featuring blessed anointing oils as described in the Bible.

In short, people get ideas, innovations, new concepts and creative inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. However, it is far more likely that your idea will come from some area of your life’s experiences. You will more easily be able to recognize an opportunity and place a value on the idea if it comes from your areas of knowledge and interest. We have seen gourmet cooks invent a unique cooking utensil. It is very rare though to encounter a complete field jump, such as a high school English teacher, creating a new style of writing software code for military logistics integration.