Beginner's Luck

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If you don’t know the rules, you aren’t bound by them.

By Paul B. Brown

Paul B. Brown is author or co-author of more than a dozen business books, including Customers for Life.

If my buddy G. Michael Maddock ever wants to take a massive pay cut, he could always become a magazine editor.

What triggered this thought is Maddock’s off-beat hobby. Head of the innovation firm Maddock Douglas (and someone who has written for this magazine), Mike collects stories about people who have revolutionized—or created—industries that they knew nothing about. The list ranges from creator Jeff Bezos, a former Wall Street “rocket scientist,” to Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, whose background was in international public health.

While most people would see lack of experience as a liability, Maddock contends it can be a huge advantage. When you don’t know how things are supposed to be done, you are totally free to do them differently. You need look no further than your family room for proof that this can work: People in the movie business “knew” renting by mail would never work; Netflix’s founders didn’t.

Judging by recent issues of numerous magazines, editors believe there is something to this—as well they should. The continuing lackluster economy—let alone the need to differentiate oneself in a crowded marketplace—is a main reason why publications are publishing articles that inform readers of the importance of trying a radically new take on things.

And so endorsing Einstein’s oft-repeated quote, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them,” editors are literally scouring the world to find examples of people who are doing things differently because they didn’t know any better (adding to Maddock’s list in the process). Implicit, and often explicit, in these articles is the message that the old ways don’t seem to be working well, so we need new ways of solving business problems.

Harvard Business Review captures the tone perfectly with a package of cover stories that the magazine sets up as follows: “We need out-of-the-box thinking, audacious goals, and lots of experiments. Today’s entrepreneurs bring all that and more to the table.” Meanwhile, Departures recently introduced “New Think,” a section that “explores the exciting developments at the intersection of technology, design and science.” The magazine’s editors ask: “Remember when we were all trying to think outside the box? Now that expression is as tired as whatever was inside the box to begin with. We need something different.”

What is intriguing about these stories and statements is not so much the offbeat approaches to starting companies in new fields as how receptive customers are to the resulting products and services, as well as how the approaches work depending on the amount of capital required to get under way.

On the inexpensive side, you have Zilok, a website that allows you to rent anything. “People post possessions they’re willing to rent out, along with a price,” writes Clive Thompson in Wired. “Need a zoom lens for a wedding? That’ll be a mere $15 a day. Want to use someone’s car for the day? That’s $60, cheaper than most auto-rental agencies. . . . After two years in business, Zilok has 150,000 items listed, with 6,000 transactions a month, and it’s the fastest-growing renter of cars in France.” French entrepreneur Gary Cige, who didn’t know much about the rental business, started the company when he needed a drill on a Sunday afternoon. Frustrated that all the rental stores were closed, Cige theorized that someone somewhere must be willing to rent him a drill, if only he knew how to find such a person.

On the expensive side, consider something like building a hotel. Everyone knows that in designing a hotel you want a minimum number of room types to make everything from housecleaning to purchasing furnishings simpler and cheaper. And yet, as Alex Calderwood, founder of Ace, a hip boutique-hotel chain that specializes in inexpensive rooms, points out in an interview in Entrepreneur, customers like the unexpected. “When we take over these old buildings, we try to use as much of the existing architecture as possible,” Calderwood says. “We don’t do gut renovations. In all the hotels, we used what was there, so we have all these quirky room layouts. It drives our salespeople crazy. In New York, for instance, there are like 54 different room types. But we see that our customers enjoy it, because each time their room is a little bit different. . . . We didn’t come with any baggage of ‘this will or won’t work,’ and it’s served us well over time.”

It is this kind of you-can-know-so-much-that-you-can-get-in-your-own-way thinking that is, for instance, compelling family-owned businesses to hire CEOs who are unrelated to the shareholders, according to Family Business. Likewise, The Atlantic recently reported that a San Francisco design firm retained a blind architect. And as John Sculley, Apple’s former CEO, explains in a Bloomberg Businessweek interview with writer Leander Kahney, “What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do, but the things you decide not to do.”

What all this amounts to is an attempt to eliminate traditional thinking. “A cliché releases everyone from having to think or deal,” film director Peter Sellars says in an interview with Psychology Today.

Of course, there can be a downside to having inexperience or departing from the pack. Jay Leno, in his very fine (and deliberately not funny) column for Popular Mechanics, writes about Abner Doble, who perfected a car that was steam-powered “when all signs pointed to the internal combustion engine as the powerplant of the future. He was, in effect, perfecting the VHS tape when DVDs had just been released.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the Doble Steam Motors Corp. sold only twenty-six cars between 1922 and 1931.

The point is, people in the book, music, and car- and movie-rental businesses—to pick just four at random—who were in the process of being blindsided by total outsiders tended to dismiss an upstart’s initial success as beginner’s luck. New entrepreneurs, the establishment cried, didn’t know about the existing rules, the channel headaches, the legal hurdles, the technical difficulties . . . No, they didn’t. As a result, they succeeded. Maybe you should “know” a bit less, too.

Perhaps you’re wondering: Can you apply beginner’s luck within established companies? You bet. There seem to be at least four key ways:

Act like a 3-year-old.

Every time you are about to take an action at work, simply ask, “Why?” “Why do we do things this way?” “Why do we know something won’t work?” It may get you to rethink the way things have always been done.

Bring in outsiders.

If everyone you hire has the same industry experience you do, the odds of gaining a different perspective are remarkably small. Tell recruiters—or your HR department—to look for a specific problem-solving ability instead of industry experience.

Ask the new folks.

How would they solve the problems you face? Try not to cut them off with your “expert” opinion, or by explaining how it’s always been done. You might just get a wonderful idea.


What have people in other industries done to solve similar problems?


The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.