I’m convinced that everyone has a really great idea for a product or service that would make life just a little better. It wouldn’t even surprise me if you had two or three ideas right now that would somehow ease frustration, solve a problem, or streamline a complicated process. I’m also convinced that most people have an inner voice that whispers fear and doubt and keeps them from acting on their ideas. Today I want to highlight someone who ignored the voice of negativity and took action, becoming incredibly successful along the way.
When Sara Blakely first got the idea for seamless panties, she wasn’t the billionaire fashion guru that she is today. She was a door-to-door salesman selling fax machines, and she was irritated by the way her panties showed through her business suits. So what did she do? It wasn't complicated. She snipped the legs off some pantyhose and created a working prototype. When her prototype worked and she realized there was nothing like it on the market, she bought a “how-to” book at Barns & Noble and wrote her own patent application.
From there, it took persistence, hard work, and more than a little luck to build Spanx into a billion dollar company. But in my experience, most people never get to the critical first step of building a prototype.
So what would it take to create a prototype of one of your ideas? It might be as easy as cutting the legs off of a pair of pantyhose. But if you need more help, here are some practical takeaways from the Sara Blakely/Spanx story to give you guidance:
1) Pay attention to your "felt needs." If you experience frustration, chances are others do too, so find a solution that works and try to sell it. This is the core of entrepreneurship. Sara's problem? Visible panty lines. Her solution? Using thinner material.
2) Always be ready with an elevator pitch. When you have an idea or product, you need to develop a 60 second pitch clearly explaining the problem, the solution, and why your product is different than anything else on the market. You never know when you'll have a chance to pitch to potential backers.
3) If you get permission to give a pitch in person, do whatever it takes to make it happen. When Sara was finally given the chance to pitch to Neiman Marcus, she knew she wouldn’t get a second chance so she dropped everything, got on a plane and flew to Dallas
4) If you have a good pitch, but people aren't receiving it, figure out why. In Sara's case, it was a gender barrier. Men just don't have experience wearing panties, so when she pitched to men, they couldn't see the problem. When she finally pitched to a female buyer at Neiman Marcus, she had to take her into the women's restroom and show her how the product actually works to convince her to place the products.
5) Don't give up. Others may not give you the time of day, but if you know that your product is valuable and that there is demand for it, persevere. We all love overnight success stories, but most of the time what looks like a catapult to fortune and fame from the outside took years of hard work behind the scenes.
6) Just because you got your product into a store, doesn't mean you can relax. There's a lot of legwork necessary to make sure it sells and stays in the store. Sara got Spanx into department stores pretty fast, but they weren't selling because their placement was not intuitive for her customer base. She made it her full time job to stand in the department store telling people about her product, and even went so far as to move the display to a more prominent location without asking management's permission.
Do you have an entrepreneurial success story, or a question about how you can get started on your own path to success? Leave a comment, or click the contact button and get in touch. And be sure to share on Facebook and twitter!
I like this definition of leadership from Greg Dess: "Leadership is the process of transforming organizations from what they are to what the leader would have them become. This implies dissatisfaction with the status quo, a vision of what should be, and a process for bringing about change."
Based on this definition, are you a leader? How about the managers, directors and executives in your company? Are they exercising leadership, or simply maintaining the status quo?
Notice that all three aspects of this definition are necessary for good leadership. If you are satisfied with the way things are and can't see any way to improve, there's nothing to lead people towards. Hence, dissatisfaction is necessary because it points out the problem. I guarantee that your life is not perfect, and your workplace includes areas of friction where change would be beneficial. If you want to increase your leadership skills, begin to be intentional about seeking out friction areas. Watch the people and processes around you for areas of improvement and you will soon find them. Ask questions. "What if I..." "How could we..." "Why aren't we..." The squeaky wheel will become apparent and you will have the opportunity to lead others in applying the grease.
But dissatisfaction alone is not sufficient. I've worked with a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the way things are, but have no vision for what could be. They complain to their peers, grumble to their friends and family about how bad they have it, and become jaded and sarcastic about almost all aspects of life. But they have no idea what to replace the status quo with.
If that describes you, the road to health involves intentionally asking yourself "What makes me angry, frustrated, or annoyed about this situation?" "What do I really want?" "Why am I here, instead of somewhere else?" Many people stick around too long in an unhealthy situation because they have never allowed themselves to give an honest answer to these questions. Leadership starts with yourself, and if you are so dissatisfied that it leaves you bitter and jaded, it may be time for a drastic change of scenery. Find a new job, go worship at a different church, get a new group of friends. Wherever that bitterness is coming from, it will keep you in a downward spiral until you either change the situation, or give yourself the freedom to get out.
People who have dissatisfaction and a vision don't become jaded because they have hope. That vision for what "could be" is one of the greatest energizers available to humankind. It provides direction and a goal to strive towards. A vision can become a rallying point for friends, coworkers, and even strangers. Think of all the people who showed up in Washington D.C. for the women's march in January, 2017, or all of the disenchanted individuals who camped in public spaces across the United States during the Occupy movement. Dissatisfaction provided the impetus, and a vision was born for what could be. But what was the result of these movements? It's not completely clear.
While publicity was immense for the Women's March and Occupy, both lacked a process for achieving change. As a result, whatever net effect these movements had are minimal compared to what could have happened if stronger leadership had been in place.
What applies to these large movements also applies to much smaller situations, including your own circumstances. If you have both dissatisfaction and a vision, use that energy to create a process. Write down a plan. Set goals and objectives that are measurable (measurable means they are not abstract; you could either achieve them, or fail to achieve them). Now you are exercising leadership, as you have not only cast a vision, you have also created a road map and have started down it with everyone else who was captured by your vision.
Books I am currently reading to satisfy my curiosity and increase my understanding of myself, the people around me, and the world at large:
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman
This is an engrossing look at the psychology of killing from ancient times through the Vietnam War. According to Grossman, the vast majority of soldiers in combat (not just in the military, but actually in combat) have never killed and have never even fired their weapons at an enemy soldier. This is due to a healthy psychological barrier. Starting in Vietnam, the U.S. began using a new type of combat training that makes firing a weapon more instinctual, undercutting the natural psychological barrier. As a result, firing rates have gone up dramatically. This has implications for our military, as well as our law enforcement. An increase in someone's willingness and ability to shoot must come hand in hand with increased ethical and situational awareness training.
Grossman also addresses PTSD and the support structures that make PTSD less likely, and the book is worth reading for that section alone, particularly if you have a family member in the military or law enforcement.
On Killing is not without flaw. First, where are the sources? Some of the data feels questionable and Grossman does little to acknowledge critics. Also, Grossman should stop with his area of expertise (killology), and not foray into cultural exposition. After some hyperbole about Hollywood and video games in the introduction, I read the rest of the book with one eyebrow raised. Still, it is a fascinating read and will introduce most readers to a new subject they know little about.
Man's Search for Himself by Rollo May
Boredom. Anxiety. Fear. Loneliness. These are characteristic symptoms of the modern self. As western culture shed cultural rituals and traditions after the dissonance of WW2, we found our orientation towards meaning shaken. The ancient ways gave us stability and a sense of affirmation that we were doing something meaningful with our lives. But the cultural revolutions that happened in the early 20th century have left us to seek and create our own meaning (this is one of the things we will talk about in a coaching session). Rollo May wrote this insightful book in 1953, but it is prophetic in the way it foreshadows the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, and later, postmodernism.
Rollo May (d. 1994) was one of the fathers of existentialist psychology and was incredibly well read. This book draws on philosophy (kierkegaard), psychology (Freud), Greek myth, and theology (May earned a degree at Union Theological Seminary and was a pastor before becoming a psychologist. He was also lifelong friends with influential theologian Paul Tillich). While this book is clearly dated (some of the psychological trends he describes are more pertinent to my parents' generation), nevertheless, it is invaluable for the insights it gives into the making of our national ethos, and the evolution of our self-perception. Reading May, I find myself stimulated and challenged to become more fully myself, and I have to thank my wife for introducing me to one of her favorite psychologists.
Reading these books side by side has been illuminating. Grossman is concerned with a mechanical question: How are humans, who are naturally reticent to kill, made into more effective killing machines? His answer has to do primarily with unconscious conditioning. May, on the other hand, sets the reader on a journey that frees the person from unconscious influences to move towards a complete and independent self that is full of wonder and intention. Together, these books lead to intriguing questions for reflection: How does the soldier, or the person conditioned to a response for the sake of survival, become a whole person? What is the proper place of authority, the kind of authority that asks to be obeyed without question, in a mature humanity?
Instagram is the kind of success story entrepreneurs dream about. Founded in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, it gained over 100 million users within its first two years, and today has grown to more than six times that number.
If you are interested in founding your own tech startup, here are 10 takeaways from Instagram that can help you succeed:
1. Learn to forecast the future. Ask, "What will people do with this technology that nobody expects right now?" When Instagram was founded, most people were carrying camera phones in their pockets, but there was no great way to share the photos. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger found a way to make photo sharing easy.
2. Entrepreneurs don't always invent something new, sometimes they develop a new way to use a technology that already exists. As Kevin put it in his interview with Guy Raz, "Everyone knew you could take photos with your phone, they just didn't know the photos could be interesting." Can you think of a technology people are already using, but not fully implementing? Figure out how to increase implementation, then monetize it!
3. Sometimes a little legwork pays off. Cash was in short supply in Instagram's early days. On one occasion, Systrom and Krieger heard that some investors were having a meeting and showed up with a working demo. The investors were so impressed with the product, that they signed on immediately.
4. If an investor tells you to change something, change it right away! Meeting with an interested investor creates a sense of energy and movement. If you wait to make your next move, energy will wane and the investor may think you are not serious and is likely to pull their backing.
5. Don't ask why people are not using your product/company, ask why they continue using it! Loyal customers are worth ten times more than new customers. They are your brand advocates, and are likely to do some of your marketing for you. A significant portion of your energy should be focused on satisfying and retaining these customers.
6.Figure out a way to make people feel better, and your invention will be a success. In the language of economists, people consume a product or service because it increases their "utility." That is, the satisfaction a consumer derives from your product, minus the price they paid for it, is greater than the satisfaction they would receive from another product. Instagram wasn't the only photo sharing app launched in 2010, but it was the first to use filters well. Filters make your photos look better, and that makes you feel better.
7. Ask friends and family for input on your ideas. Getting outside input is one of the quickest ways to leap over a hurdle. And friends and family are the easiest people to get feedback from. Kevin's wife was the one who suggested adding filters to Instagram, and she came up with the idea while vacationing in Mexico. (Maybe I should add another tip: Work hard, but take a vacation before you burn out!)
8. Innovation can happen in the way a product is shared. Instagram was the first app to allow open sharing, so you can follow people without waiting for them to accept you as a "friend." This was another reason for the app's success.
9. When you make a mistake (and you will), apologize and be transparent. Remember the whole fiasco about "Instagram now owns the photos you post, and will use them in advertising?" According to Systrom, that misunderstanding occurred because they didn't put enough effort into writing their terms of acceptance. Instead of blowing off critics or hiding it, they apologized for their mistake and moved on.
10. It takes grit to succeed. When the stars align and your product works and you have investors who back you, getting your product to market is still going to take sweat, sleepless nights, and a strong desire to succeed. This is what it means to be an entrepreneur.
How about you? Do you have any tips for success? Share them below, and be sure to follow me on Twitter.
Organizational change doesn't occur because new data comes to light, or a new analysis was run, revealing a problem. Organizational change occurs when emotions and feelings are changed.
How does that happen? Through personal stories and out-of-the-box experiences.
If you need to bring about change in your organization, but you're feeling stuck as to how you can make that emotional appeal, try using Creative Problem Solving (CPS) techniques.
A good manager seeks out and listens to complaints.
Complaints reveal priorities. When someone complains about a problem in the workplace, what they are really revealing is something that matters to them.
However, it's not enough to just listen to complaints and respond. A good manager is able to help people turn their complaints into commitments. In addressing this subject, Kegan and Lahey use the example of a person who complains that they are kept out of the loop on important projects. Turning this into a commitment resulted in the statement "I believe in open and candid communication."
Next, a good manager encourages people to ask how their OWN actions contribute to the problem. Phrasing it in a positive manner, "What are you doing or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized?" (Kegan and Lahey, 87).
Lastly, a good manager helps people overcome hesitation about making personal changes. "If you imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior, do you detect in yourself discomfort, worry or vague fear?" "By engaging in this undermining behavior, what worrisome outcome are you committed to preventing?" (88)
Managers who respond to complaints in this way will unlock the potential of their employees, and their company.