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Archive for July 28th, 2009

The Malaise That Most Harms Invention: Caution!

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

by Geoff Ficke

The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell was famous for his pithy observances of life and mans foibles. He was also a great mathematician and his perspective was greatly affected by the certainty and absolutism that is found in the order of numbers and theorems. I have always found that one of his most famous quotes is particularly applicable to the pursuit of invention by aggressive entrepreneurs.

In 1930 Mr. Russell published “The Conquest of Happiness”. One of his most famous quips was, “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness”. I first read this line while an impressionable college student in the 1960’s. It always stuck with me, but has evolved into a broader meaning and I have applied it to my professional life, as well as my personal affairs.

The idea that caution is a stumbling block appealed to me on many levels. Love from afar, the schoolboy crush that would probably never be more than a chimera always seemed pointless to me. Ask the young lady out! The most she could say was no. If she said “yes” the adventure could begin and who knew where it might go. If it went nowhere, you might have enjoyed a teaching experience. If the lass was fun; interesting, exciting, then you were rewarded for overcoming the natural impediment to happiness that comes with being cautious.

As my business career evolved to be almost wholly centered on invention, entrepreneurship and marketing new consumer products I have applied Bertrand Russell’s famous observation about caution to my commercial pursuits. As a young entrepreneur, desperate to start my first business, I realized that these words were a wonderful theme for a young entrepreneur to follow. My adaptation is this: “Of all forms of caution, caution in commerce is perhaps the most fatal to business success”.

Cautious inventors, small business persons and entrepreneurs almost always fail.

I do not counsel recklessness as a prescription for success. Quite the contrary, recklessness is worse that over abundant caution. Prudent aggression, with a well constructed plan of attack that can be realistically executed is the antidote to overcoming excess caution. This path is the surest one to success for aspiring new business opportunities.

Caution often leads to paralyzing over analysis. Successful inventors are action people. They know they will be confronted by vexing problems that must be squarely taken on and overcome. They do this with relish. Each problem overcome is taking them one step closer to the ultimate goal, success. One problem down, what do we face next?

My marketing consulting firm reviews hundreds of new ideas and product submissions each year. Some are silly. Some are just unpolished. Some have potential. A few are spectacular. The ideas that we devote the most support and attention too are almost always paired with individuals willing to make a commitment. An unpolished idea with potential can be more interesting than a spectacular idea with an over cautious owner.

Recently we reviewed a green, environmentally sound, beauty product with a natural wellness benefit. The product was spectacular. We were immediately intrigued with 2 things: the amazing benefits that the product embodied, and the fact that the developer had not already fully commercialized this amazing product. Why was this product not on every store shelf in the world?

Our consultation with the creator of this amazing beauty product was most telling. He was in the 15th year of patent life on this extraordinary item. He was more than cautious, he was afraid of letting go, afraid of success. Over the years he had elicited interest from a number of Companies that could have made him rich and famous beyond his dreams. Sadly, he could not overcome his cautious nature and he will never enjoy commercial, spiritual and personal fulfillment because of this handicap. This is a major waste.

It is a waste not just because he missed out on enjoying the amazing benefits of his creativity. It is a waste because millions of consumers will probably never be able to experience the superior benefits of the product. It is a waste because retailers, wholesalers and international distributors will miss out on sales/profits of this exciting product. Those sales will not be available to support job growth and tax revenues that keep recycling through the economic system and provide opportunities at so many levels of society. Creative agencies and print and electronic media will not enjoy the revenues they would normally generate by providing services to promote the product. Display and point of purchase manufacturers will likewise lose out. Shipping, warehouse and fulfillment firms also will not enjoy the added income stream successful products generate.

I could go on and on. The ripples caused by timid, insecure, cautious indecision are felt throughout the economic system. Everyone loses when real innovation is crippled by paralysis.

I have morphed the original intent of Bertrand Russell’s words. Somehow, I think if Mr. Russell were still with us he would agree that his observance is just as applicable to commerce as romance. In both instances, caution is not conducive to the pursuit and attainment of success and happiness.

Innovation Requires Not Forgetting Your Aim: Redoubling Effort If You Do

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Successful business owners tend to approach fanaticism in nurturing every aspect of their enterprise. They work longer hours than their employees, take the work home with them, sacrifice leisure and relaxation as they obsess over their competitors and continually seek new systems and innovation to expand their shop. They are rewarded by receiving the respect of their peers, providing a comfortable lifestyle for their families and their employee’s families and participating in the social fabric of the community in which they operate.

The erudite Spanish critic and philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim”.

When things go cockeye in any enterprise, the only opportunity the group will have to right their ship is to look at history and recalibrate. What made them successful? What did their customers reward with support? Where did they fall off the rails?

History is resplendent in examples of organizations that lost their way. Those that “forgot their aim” either redoubled their efforts at getting back to their original success path or were consumed by their mistakes. Empires such as the Hohenzollerns, Romanov, Bourbons and Hapsburgs expired as times changed and they didn’t. The Royal houses of Great Britain, Holland, Sweden and Denmark, however, recalibrated in the face of modern democracy and adjusted to the times and still enjoy their thrones and a large measure of popularity with their subjects.

In World War II the Russian army was initially invaded, pummeled, mauled and demoralized by the German invaders. However, the Red Army adjusted, replaced their general officer corps; devised new strategies and weapons systems that were purpose built to fight the Nazi menace. After a grueling series of embarrassing defeats the Soviets finally were able to absorb the Nazi push at Moscow and slowly turned the tide. Changing strategies lead to the Russians seizing Berlin at the end of the war and complete vanquishing of Hitler’s forces.

Contrast this result with the inflexible strategy executed by the Imperial Russian army in World War I. The Russians simply sent waves of under-equipped, starving, freezing peasant soldiers in waves to be slaughtered by well dug in, well armed, well-provisioned German divisions. The disgust that these soldiers felt at being used as cannon fodder lead directly to mass mutiny and the opportunity for Communists to seize the government and control of the army. After pulling back and virtually surrendering to the Germans, the newly entrenched Bolshevik government seized the Romanov family and murdered them.

There are many examples of religious movements, charities and businesses that did not adapt to changing times user tastes or styles. Islam has lasted for centuries while Zoroastroism and Coptic Christianity have virtually become extinct in the Middle East. Animism is on the decline in Africa even as Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity groups convert large numbers of people across Africa.

The Salvation Army and Catholic charities enjoy sustained growth while the United Appeal and Red Cross, while still important, have been hurt by scandal.

The most starkly obvious examples of groups losing their way can be found in the business world. Look at listed stock equities that made up the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the 1930’s. Only Standard Oil (Exxon), Procter & Gamble, Dupont and United Technologies (United Aircraft) remain from the original list of blue chip companies that defined American industrial might. How did so many formerly stellar performers fall by the commercial way side.

The most stunning fall, and most relevant to contemporary observers is General Motors. Former GM Chairman Charlie Wilson once famously said, “What is good for General Motors is good for the United States”. GM was synonymous with American industrial might and was a symbol of American strength, creativity and the good life.

GM was assembled in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the management innovator Alfred Sloan. By taking Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac and creating stair step marketing Mr. Sloan targeted an automotive nameplate at every demographic group. Young families started with Chevrolet and as their economic situation improved they moved up the ladder of brands to Buick and later Cadillac.

The loyalty this strategy created was reinforced by constant fresh styling cues.

GM design was personified by the brilliant craftsmanship and coach design of Harley Earl. Mr. Earl had a signature style that came to scream GM, cutting edge, beauty and created consumer desire for being seen driving GM cars.

As late as the 1970’s over half of all vehicles sold in America were produced by GM. Then a series of events occurred which caught the behemoth corporation flat footed, bloated and unable, unwilling and without the guile necessary to change direction and adapt to changing market realities. A long, slow, inevitable decline has resulted in the implosion of GM, bankruptcy and shedding important component divisions that will forever hamper the company’s ability to compete with more nimble competitors.

GM has failed. It is the butt of late night comedian’s jokes. Sales have cratered and Government Motors is out of most consumers mind when considering a new vehicle purchase. The demise of GM has occurred even as agile competitors from Europe, Japan, Korea and China see their growth accelerating. The necessary value retention, durability, warranty, performance, fuel economy and styling that GM did not address has been committed too with gusto by the competition.

Brands like Toyota, Hyundai, Fiat, Honda, BMW, and Chery have recognized what consumers want and provide these features and benefits at prices that GM could not match. GM did not redouble efforts to provide consumers with true value in exciting packages. The competitors have.

GM is now trying to reinvent the corporation. All Americans hope they can. However, the deck is as stacked against GM as it was against Studebaker, Hudson, Crosley, Nash, Stutz, Pierce Arrow, Dusenberg and Hupmobile.

GM, like so many other enterprises, lost their aim. They did not redouble their efforts to please their formerly loyal consumers until far too late in the game. This is a crippling malady that is most difficult to overcome. The fanaticism of Harley Earl, Alfred Sloan, Charley Wilson and Zora Arkus-Duntoff (creator of the Corvette) has been missing for too long. The Cadillac Cimarron is a symbol of a legacy short on passion and fanaticism and long on lethargy and mismanagement.

Every entrepreneur can take an important lesson from the horrific demise of this fallen American industrial icon. Passion can never lessen. Stay focused while being astute in keeping abreast of changing consumer tastes is essential. As tastes change, you must adjust. The fanaticism you bring to your enterprise will enable you to succeed initially, but redoubling efforts is key to maintaining growth and long term viability.