What you are about to read is about real business life, namely, outsmarting the competition. As eminent scientist Charles Darwin might put it,businesses breed beyond available customers; companies with successful strategies have a better chance of survival; and successful enterprises force out weaker ones, creating whole new business models. In other words, the businesses that succeed not only survive but grow, gaining more of the supply of customers and forcing their rivals to adapt ordie.
“Chaos Is an Opportunity”
Changeis the very essence of business, of course — hence, its Darwinianimperatives. We live in a time of innovation and expansion — a world ofsmart and smarter strategic options. The catch is that the prize willgo to the smartest competitor: In whatever field you’re playing, youmust outsmart your rivals. Shrewd competitors can stake out newterritory, define the boundaries and even set new rules for the game.
Peter Drucker, the late, great management thinker, was famous for declaring in the fairly peaceful 1980s, “Chaos is an opportunity, not a threat.”
Winners in the Growth Race
Taken together, the following companies represent what is really working in business today.
Businesseswith exceptional growth rates are a fascinating lot, creative companieswith unusual strategies that combine an irresistible promise tocustomers with an enviable record for delivering it.
Outsmarting the competition requires more than intelligence, experience andbusiness sense; you also have to be quick, flexible and ready to adaptto the transforming world. The penalty for failure is Darwinianextinction, but the prize for success is survival, growth and the richrewards of a life spent in the brave new world of business.
PanosPanay is a guitarist who never made it but a talent agent who did — andhe has never forgotten how tough it is for hungry musicians to connectwith the promoters who might hire them.
Panay founded Sonicbids in Boston. The business ranks 88th on Inc.magazine’s list of the top 5,000 privately owned businesses in theUnited States. Launched in 2001, Sonicbids had revenue of $248,000 in2003, $3 million in 2005 and $8 million in 2007.
Makinguse of technology, Panay figured out how to connect thousands ofaspiring musicians and small bands with promoters who needed theirtalents. Sonicbids is akin to a musical matchmaker. Some 10,000promoters use the site to connect with Sonicbids’ 120,000 musicianmembers, a quarter of whom are from abroad.
In theprocess, Panay offers both the promoters and the musicians a proactivecustomer-service operation, which is, in effect, the character andpersonality of the business.
An Expanding Vision
Panayhas proved both his capacity for difficult work and his ability to seewhat others don’t. And his vision does not stop with the musicbusiness. He has only begun to tap what he sees as another neglectedmarket. Jugglers and magicians have already signed up as members ofSonicbids, and Panay has had inquiries from actors, supermodels andfreelance writers. He suspects that speakers might be interested too.
Lessons From Sonicbids
Here are six ideas that spring from Panos Panay’s success with Sonicbids:
Connect the dots.Opportunities lurk in neglected fields everywhere, especially wherepeople take dysfunction as the expected way of life. You can lookwithin your own industry for the same kind of opportunity Panaydiscovered.
Scale quickly. Scale isimportant when you are building any kind of community-based business.But achieving scale is not just about signing up people. Your servicehas to offer value to all participants.
Pay attention to service.High-tech businesses still require much human interaction. Panay pointsout that a little human touch can help define the character and feel ofyour business.
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Panay’s plans for expansion and his visionary notion of how large his neglected field might be are both bold and sensible.
MinuteClinicgives patients — and insurance companies — an alternative to theemergency room. It is a classic example of a company whose foundersrecognized a significant unmet consumer need and seized the opportunityby borrowing an idea from a seemingly unrelated industry.
Whatbegan as a notion for a few partners in Minneapolis eight years ago hasblossomed into a coast-to-coast operation serving more than 500,000customers a year. And when CVS Caremark Corp. bought the company in2007, the all-cash payoff for the founders was $170 million.
Whydo some people easily spot opportunities where others see onlyobstacles, if they see anything? The answer begins with the humanpenchant for living in a bubble — an airtight cocoon of assumptions,beliefs or worldviews.
Thegood thing about business bubbles is that they invite inventive mindsto stick pins in them. MinuteClinic’s founders are bubble bursters,creative guerrillas who thrive on outsmarting complacent companies inindustries that run on tired ideas. The MinuteClinic story is a lessonin outsmarting competitors by trying ideas that they think have nothingto do with their industry.
Here’s howMinuteClinic works: The company’s kiosks are open seven days a week fora total of at least 72 hours. The kiosks clearly post the ailments thatcan be treated there, along with the fees. Generally, one nursepractitioner staffs each kiosk. Only verifiable, quickly identifiableillnesses are treated.
Jiffy Lube had the insightthat you don’t need a fully trained mechanic to change the oil in yourcar. Until MinuteClinic’s founders came along, no one in the healthcare field would have dreamed that they could learn anything from thegrubby business of auto maintenance.
What MinuteClinic saw that others either didn’t see or simply ignored were the fault lines in the healthcare delivery system. MinuteClinic addresses some of the system’s dysfunctions by biting off the easiest, least complex chunk of the health care market.
Lessons From MinuteClinic
Here are some lessons MinuteClinic’s founders learned along the way:
- Widen your lens.Retailing offered an obvious alternative to physicians’ offices and hospital emergency rooms: Mini-clinics could give shots, treat sore throats and prescribe flu medicine without a doctor on the premises.
- Make friends.MinuteClinic has gone to great pains to reach out to physicians and hospitals to explain its operations and earn their trust. MinuteClinic is reaping thousands of referrals from overworked full-service clinics and hospital emergency rooms.
- Execute on the change.For MinuteClinic, execution means building a company that delivers both high-quality health care and a high standard of service, and changes have to be made in people, processes and technology to get the job done.
- Redefine the culture.MinuteClinic’s Michael C. Howe recognized that nurse practitioners are,by nature, caring, empathetic individuals, but they are not in there tail business. His understanding of the distinction led him to create a customer-centric culture that is exemplified by a program to teachMinuteClinic nurses to welcome complaints as a way of improving theirservice.
COMPETE BY USING ALL YOU KNOW
In 2004, Michael Golden presided over the Kohler Co.’s cabinetry division.He knew nothing about the arms industry. When he was invited to becomepresident and chief executive of Smith & Wesson (S&W), a150-year-old firearms manufacturer that was in dire straits at thetime, he took the job.
After Golden had been runningS&W for less than three years, he had already achievedextraordinary results. The company’s revenues had soared from $100million in 2003 to $237 million in 2007. From its nadir of $1 a share,the stock had soared to about $23.
How did Golden bringabout the turnaround? By leveraging everything he’d learned from morethan two decades in business. In one way or another, all the strategieshe employed at S&W — the new processes he put in place, thethinking that led to an acquisition and a leap into new markets — werean outgrowth of events encountered and actions taken in his previouscorporate life. His achievement shows how using everything you know canhelp you outsmart your rivals.
Smith& Wesson was both venerable and storied — but one of its problemswas that it had forgotten or simply ignored the lessons of its ownhistory. The strategy of Golden’s predecessors had been to dominate aniche market, focusing entirely on handguns in the United States.Golden had much grander goals. Overall, he wanted to push the brand toever-greater heights of recognition and approval so that it wouldsupport and advance all the company’s projects.
Atnearly every turn, Golden applied lessons learned at previous jobs. InJanuary 2007, Golden announced the purchase of Thompson/Center Arms, a$65 million gun maker. Now, he’s looking into businesses such as homesecurity and law-enforcement products such as body armor.
Goldenis intent on making the most of S&W’s powerful brand. “I think wewould be cheating shareholders and the employees if we didn’t enhancethe brand,” he says. “But my number-one responsibility is to protectit.” So far, he’s done amazingly well on both counts.
Lessons From Smith & Wesson
Here are four lessons that can be taken away from Golden’s experiences at S&W:
- Hunt (the right) heads. Golden had the perfect set of experiences — in both manufacturing and turnarounds — to prepare for the challenges at S&W.
- Find what’s truly valuable.Golden knew that S&W was a much-respected name in the gun world. Heinsisted on extensive research to uncover what he perceived to beS&W’s most valuable asset — its brand. What he found helped him tomake a sharp turn in S&W’s course.
- Squeeze nickels.Golden introduced new manufacturing techniques to reduce expenses andraise productivity. But he combined his understanding of dollars andcents with a skill for demand creation. The combination producedsimultaneous high productivity and job creation.
- Walk and talk.Golden had the intelligence and business training to make the rightmoves in terms of reorganizing the sales force, hiring talented aidesand leveraging the brand. He was both a no-nonsense, results-orientedboss and an empathic, open-minded leader — a walk-around guy.
HOW TO THINK OUTSIDE YOUR INDUSTRY’S BUBBLE
Here are some questions that can help you think outside the bubble:
JeffreyHousenbold, an eBay vice president with an MBA from Harvard, became CEOof Shutterfly, based in Redwood City, Calif., in January 2005. At thetime, the company billed itself as just an online photo finisher. Butwithin two years, Housenbold had turned Shutterfly into something muchbigger and smarter — an Internet-based social-expression andpersonal-publishing service.
Housenbold had found one ofthe prime secrets of business growth: changing his business’s frame ofreference to expand its identity and compete on a new and much largerfield.
Housenbold’s insight called for a completemakeover of Shutterfly, which led to a sales explosion. In 2007 alone,revenues were projected to increase 45 to 50 percent, to more than $138million. The company was on track to reach 7 million orders in 2007, a37 percent jump from 5.1 million in 2006 and nearly double the 3.6million orders received in 2005.
Building a Solid Community
Housenbolddiscovered the makings of a solid community at Shutterfly. Its clientsare amazingly loyal — 77 percent of the company’s revenue comes fromactive customers, who currently number more than 2 million. Housenboldreimagined the company’s frame of reference, expanding it from photofinishing to a full range of products and services.
Housenboldenvisioned Shutterfly as the premium lifestyle brand in the onlinephoto-finishing business. But even as he widened his lens, Housenboldstayed focused on his primary business.
Many of thecompany’s innovations have sprung directly from Housenbold’s finelytuned sense of community. That sense of community extends to hisemployees, whom he views as fellow innovators.
Housenbold’sperformance was not a one-man show, of course. Others contributed their ideas. But it was Housenbold’s ability to view the company in a broader context that encompassed societal trends and provided the springboard for Shutterfly’s hugely successful reincarnation.
Lessons From Shutterfly
Here are a few things that can be learned from Shutterfly’s success:
- Look at the bigger picture.How is the industry changing, and how can you change your frame of reference to compete on a wider field where you could develop an edge?
- Build a community, but tend to business.Much supposedly smart venture money is flowing into community-basedInternet businesses, which derive their profits solely from advertising. A less risky business model includes marketing some of the thousands of products and services that can be sold to Internet communities. Shutterfly has achieved success through a fully integrated vertical operation.
- Widen your lens, but narrow your focus. Web sites that focus on a single market do better than those that spread themselves around, no matter how big they are.
- Organize for ideas.The ability to view your company in a new frame of reference is not limited to the executive ranks. Shutterfly has created a culture that puts a high value on employee suggestions.
- Persist in your quest.It takes courage to move out of your familiar boundaries and play a bigger game on a new field. But success belongs only to those with the courage to stand by their convictions and risk failure all the way.
Engineer Dan Johnson started a company in 1992 in Loveland, Colo., called Special ApplicationRobotics, which made tools that could substitute for humans in the dismantling of nuclear reactors. By spring 2003, Johnson’s company had outgrown his Loveland garage and was now a 12-person operation. But with revenues having topped out at $12 million in 2001, S.A. Robotics was deeply in debt. Forced to seek help, Johnson found it in his old friend Mike Cappello, another engineer.
Cappello became co-owner and chief executive of S.A. Robotics. Within four years,revenues had skyrocketed 2000 percent to greater than $17 million a year, the work force had expanded to 140 and the company was fighting off venture capital investors.
Admittedly, in this era ofoutsourcing, the one-stop shop business model seems old-fashioned. Fora company to do it all, a great deal of internal discipline andsubstantial capital investment in labor-saving machinery and softwareis needed. It also requires a full measure of ingenuity and courage.
S.A.Robotics designs and manufactures its own technology. In this way, thecompany can be sure that everything that goes into its products is upto the stringent demands of the hard and perilous work they are made todo.
The company’s success would have been impossible ifit hadn’t been able to hire and retain talented, highly motivatedemployees. Cappello keeps his people happy by encouraging them to speaktheir mind, giving them a chance to work on challenging projects fromstart to finish and making them feel like important parts of a proud,can-do culture.
Alluding to the fact that S.A. Roboticshas just two shareholders (Johnson and Cappello), Cappello is proud to note, “What we have here is a very capital-intensive business going through an exponential growth with absolutely no injection capital. All the growth was funded out of operating revenues.
Lessons From S.A. Robotics
Here are three lessons others can learn from the leaders at S.A. Robotics:
- Control what matters.If you manufacture a complex, customized product, the need for controlis clear. The key is to know what you are really good at, what makesyou distinctive, and therefore, what you need to keep in-house.
- Hire the best and keep them.That S.A. Robotics has managed to achieve near zero attrition is attribute to the culture Cappello and Johnson have put in place and to the high-quality work they provide to their people.
- Don’t build to sell.A business with a life and purpose of its own will have a better shot at success over the long term. Some investors would never buy a company that was built just to be sold. ~
Eagerto protect his new iPod’s shiny white surface and scratchable screen,Jeff Grady tried to buy a carrying case, but no such item existed. So Grady made his own case out of plastic. Other iPod owners admired his case and wanted their own.
Grady obliged: He refined thedesign of his case, found a manufacturer, started the company DigitalLifestyle Outfitters (DLI), launched a Web site and, within weeks,mastered a new specialty — supplying iPod owners with accessories thatApple itself had either overlooked or dismissed as unworthy of itstechie brains. In 2006, selling 100 ancillary products, DLI grossed $84million. In three years, Grady’s company has grown by an astonishing4,385 percent. That growth attracted the attention of PhilipsElectronics, which acquired DLI in 2007.
Every so often,a new product or old brand is so novel or exciting that it creates agroundswell, a mystique, a whole subcult of loyal customers avid to buyanything related to the sacred brand.
People who identify with hot brands create secondary markets for business people agile enough to piggyback on the original company’s success. Piggybackers almost certainly benefit their target companies (and themselves) far more often than not.
Jibbitzis another company that has mastered this accelerated strategy. Sheriand Rich Schmelzer outsmarted the competition because they had vision. Sheri looked down at her daughters’ Croc-shod feet and saw an unmet need.
On a whim, Sheri stuck a silk flower through a hole in one of the clogs. She liked the effect and so did herdaughters. By the time her husband Rich arrived home that evening, his whole family was wearing Crocs decorated with all sorts of baubles. He wasted no time in patenting the idea, organizing a company and coming up with a name for his wife’s whimsy. Their company and decorations would be called Jibbitz, a homage to Sheri’s nickname, Flibberty jibbet.
Sheriand Rich set up a production line in the basement, charging $2.50 perJibbitz. But as news of the decorations spread through Boulder, themultiplying orders forced them to move the operation to an office andhire some help. The Schmelzers took Jibbitz online. Then stores tooknotice of the market that was developing under their noses and beganplacing their own orders. The office gave way to a huge warehouse, andthe manufacturing process was farmed out to a Chinese company.
Sheri Schmelzer, a stay-at-home mom in Boulder,Colo., was crazy about Crocs, the soft-resin clogs that mold to thewearer’s feet.
Creating a Phenomenon
TheJibbitz phenomenon, of course, was riding the bow wave of the giantCrocs fad, and more Crocs wearers were clamoring to decorate theirshoes. Sheri cranked out designs and Rich rode herd on the company’sexpansion. Rich knew full well that piggybacking on a fad could lastonly as long as the fad itself. So even amid the mushrooming demand forJibbitz-enhanced Crocs, he and Sheri were developing a new line ofproducts. Eventually, the Schmelzers moved beyond products with holesto introduce a line of charms for cell phones and bracelets.
Bysummer 2006, the company had 40 employees. Jibbitz were being offeredin 3,300 stores in the United States and hundreds more in Europe andthe Middle East. More than 6 million pieces had been sold. On October3rd, Crocs announced the purchase of Jibbitz for $10 million in cash.
Jibbitzhas since become a subsidiary of Crocs. It all came about because ofSheri’s imagination and Rich’s opportunistic eye for tapping thesuccess of others and riding the Crocs’ groundswell to fame and fortune.
Lessons From Jibbitz
Here are five lessons companies can learn from the founders of Jibbitz:
- You can have too much of a good thing.Rich Schmelzer understood that without the infrastructure to handlepotential demand efficiently, he had to limit his commitments tocustomers.
- Think big. From the beginning, Jibbitz’s growth potential was limited only by the soaring growth of Crocs itself, but not all new ventures are so lucky.
- Don’t neglect your infrastructure. Jibbitz held its payroll to just 40 employees even as it grew in overseas markets and outsourced production to China. Keep yourorganization’s structure simple; that way, if you do need to add people, you can do it easily.
- Think targeted marketing.One way Rich Schmelzer kept operations under control was by relying on word-of-mouth marketing and Jibbitz.com; he avoided spending on traditional advertising.
- Take the long view.Even as Sheri and Rich Schmelzer were trying to cope with the runaway success of their Crocs decorations, they were planning Jibbitz product extensions into anklets, wristbands and cell phone charms. ~
DeanSummers managed a chain of retail electronics stores. Glenn Laumeisterwas a specialist in applying technology to solve complex businessproblems. Together they created an enterprise that would bring orderand sanity to the chaos that was the parts business. They called itPartsearch Technologies.
From day one, Partsearch wasdedicated to helping retailers, repairmen and consumers thread througha maze containing literally millions of parts. It was a market that hadnever bothered to organize itself; every manufacturer’s parts list wasconfigured differently. So Partsearch developed a catalog in which eachmodel of home appliances and electronic goods was presented with a listof all it parts. Obvious, right? Yet it had never been done before.
Opportunities in a Chaotic Market
Today,the Partsearch catalog is not limited to retailers: Individualconsumers, manufacturers and service shops turn to Partsearch for help.In 2006, the company had revenues of $63.7 million — plus an astoundingcompound annual growth rate since 2001 of 85 percent. And it allhappened because two guys recognized the opportunity presented by achaotic market.
Laumeister had a hard time convincingmanufacturers that helping to create an efficient, consumer-friendlyparts supply chain was worth their time. Finally, he sold a fewretailers on the notion, and they, in turn, pressured manufacturers toget onboard.
Now that Best Buy and other major retailers have signed on and Partsearch has built a substantial customer base,only a few manufacturers continue to withhold their parts lists from Partsearch.
Partsearch has applied advanced informationtechnology to reinvent the process of ordering and fulfillment, thusmaking sense of a market that had been running badly on automatic.Laumeister’s overarching vision for his company is nothing less than tobecome “the glue that holds the whole parts business together.”
Lessons From Partsearch
Here are a few lessons that can be learned from the founders of Partsearch:
- Choose the right chaos to tame.Laumeister’s background was in creating and operating high-techcompanies, and he knew how to use information technology to solvecomplex problems. Fixing the dysfunctional, disorganized parts marketwas a challenge suited to his skills.
- Look for fragmentation.Fragmented industries — those in which there are many operating partsthat do not work well together — provide some of the best opportunitiesfor high-growth strategies.
- Go for scale.If you can achieve scale early in the development of your business, youcan become the resource of choice. The combination of ease of access,almost unlimited choice and competitive pricing is hard to beat.
- Overcome inertia.Manufacturers wouldn’t cooperate with Partsearch until retailerspressured them, so Laumeister found a way to begin his catalog withoutthe manufacturers and let Best Buy take the lead in converting them.
- Expect and look for more complexity.When Laumeister started out with Partsearch, his goal was to make iteasier for customers to find a part. Things got more complicated whenhe realized that some customers were ordering the wrong parts for thejob they wanted to do. He trained his call-center representatives to beon the lookout for such callers and to help them order correctly.
- Pair value with values.There is something liberating and inspiring about a business that makesa real contribution to society, not just for the owners and leaders,but for employees and customers as well.
THE SMARTEST COMPANIES
Thereare certainly differences between the smartest companies and the”incumbents” that operate in traditional ways. Here are a few of them:
- Ambition matters.Companies that outsmart the competition look for dramatic growth, whileincumbent businesses are content with incremental growth.
- Intuition reigns.Companies that outsmart the competition make strategic choices basedlargely on intuition, whereas incumbent businesses often get boggeddown in research and analysis.
- Focus prevails. Businesses that outsmart their competitors stay focused on what they do best.
- Customers rule.Companies that outsmart their competitors focus on how they can betterserve customers; incumbent companies focus on their competitors. ~
Together,Becky Minard and Paal Gisholt have built SmartPak, a business dedicated to horses, health and simplicity. By creating preselected, premeasured and prepackaged medications and supplements for individual horses, and shipping them out in daily dosing packets, the pair has removed all the complexity that used to prevent animals from regaining or maintaining health.
Knowing that day-of-the-week pill containershelp people track their drugs and dosages, Minard set out to designsomething similar for horses. What resulted was an easy-to-open plasticcontainer with multiple wells, each containing the correct quantity ofpowders or pills and labeled with the horse’s name.
Launching a Business
When Minard talked with Gisholt about launching a business based on her invention, he was enthusiastic. Using her skills as a marketer and his as a venture capitalist, they got to work. They further honed the packaging concept, came up with a name for their invention (SmartPak)and began raising the money needed to start production.
SmartPak.com was launched in June 2000. Today the couple presides over a nationwide $40 million business that encompasses nutritional supplements and gear for dogs as well as horses. The company’s volume is soaring — up 46percent in 2006 alone.
Minard and Gisholt have achieved outstanding business success by finding an ingenious way to simplify complexity.
SmartPakhas found ways to stay competitive with the companies that supplysupplements the old-fashioned way, in buckets. How have they managed todo it?
Simplification Proposition Gisholt and Minard have paid close attentionto customer service too. Three out of four orders are handled online.Gisholt and Minard established a call center manned by extremelywell-qualified people.”We use information technologyfor every single thing we can,” Gisholt says, “not just to improveproductivity, but to lift our quality and prevent error.”
Gisholtwent to UPS with a simplification proposition that the shipping companycouldn’t refuse. With SmartPak’s help, the UPS truck making 20different delivery stops a month to hand over 30 separate packages ofsupplements is now able to make the same deliveries in just two stops.UPS gave SmartPak the break on shipping rates it needed to hold downprices.
Gisholt went to the manufacturers of theirproducts as well. “We convinced the suppliers there would be asubstantial amount of incremental income for them because of ourautoship mode,” Gisholt says, “and they have shared some of those gainswith us.”
Lessons From SmartPak
Here are three lessons learned by the leaders at SmartPak:
- Don’t just cut your own costs. Do the same for your suppliers.
- Beef up your culture.Gisholt and Minard first choose horse-smart call-center people; then they train them and give them a chance to make decisions on their ownand learn from their mistakes.
- Develop an appetite for technology. If ever there was a company committed to leveraging technology in the service of simplicity, it is SmartPak.
Businesses that outsmart competitors stay focused on what they do best, while incumbent companies are often searching for new ideas and end up losing their sense of purpose in the process. Can incumbent businesses adapt and learn to behave as smart companies do? The answer is yes.