One of the podcasts I listen to on a regular basis is How I Built This from NPR. Guy Raz interviews founders and entrepreneurs about how they built their companies. Every episode has been great.
But one of my favorite episodes was Sara Blakely, founder of Atlanta-based Spanx.
I had three big takeaways from her startup story.
#1 – Work on the idea, don’t just talk about it.
When she got the idea for Spanx, she didn’t talk incessantly to her friends and family. She went to work.
“Ideas are most vulnerable in their infancy,” she said. If you share too soon, you’ll end up spending more time defending your idea than actually pursuing it.
Today, ideas are everywhere. We all have them.
I have an Evernote folder full of great ideas, any one of which could be a big thing or a solid company. These ideas may be important but they don’t really matter.
When I first got into business, I was infatuated with ideas. I loved the idea-sessions. I loved meeting with people who had a great idea.
Now, I’m a little worn out on great ideas. I’m not as excited to meet with someone who has a great idea, because they are so common.
We love to talk about our ideas, but what’s impressive is people who work on their ideas.
#2 – Launching and building are very different.
Sara Blakely had a great idea, but that didn’t mean people knew about it or even understood it. She was confident in her product, but she still had to convince people to buy it.
I hate the word because it’s overused and misused, but what she did was hustle. She worked hard launching and marketing her product, not just making something great.
One of her early clients was Nieman Marcus. “How did you get your product there,” she was asked. “I just called them,” she answered.
She was bold and demoed her product to execs in the ladies room.
When her product made it to the floor, she paid her friends to go in and buy it. She went into the stores and moved them from the hosiery department to up front by the registers.
She mailed some to Oprah. She ended up on QVC.
Sure, a lot of luck and good fortune was involved, but luck seems to follow those who work hard.
#3 – You don’t have to figure out how to scale right away.
Sara Blakely did things early on in her company that weren’t scalable. They wouldn’t work at a company 10 or 100 or 1,000 times bigger.
But that didn’t matter. She didn’t have a scalable company…she had a new company. She had a young idea and the beginning of something important.
If she spent all her time mastering the art of scale, she wouldn’t have been able to get her company off the ground.
Too many times, we’re worried about scaling when we should be worried about launching. We try to scale prematurely, and we overextend ourselves.
In another episode of How I Built This, the founder of Airbnb talks about visiting listings in New York City, offering to take better pictures of the property than the ones already posted online.
The CEO showed up with a camera in order to talk to customers.
The company was brand new and there were only a handful of users. There’s no way this idea could scale, but what he learned in that time and through that experience shaped the company for years to come.
I really enjoy How I Built This and I really resonated with the ideas Sara discussed in her interview.
I joined the Big Green Egg cult five years ago and it’s one of the best purchases we ever made. We grill, smoke and even bake several times a week.
I regularly cook reverse Seared Steaks, ribs, wings, pulled pork, and even vegetables. Since I get asked all the time, I thought I’d list out some of my favorite accessories. A few of these are “must have.”
You must have a good meat thermometer because it’s really the only way to know if the meat is done properly. I use three different ones.
Flame Boss 300. This is the gold standard…takes 1 minute to connect to the vent and uses a fan and an app to keep your temperature consistent. This is what you want for long cooks like Boston Butt or Brisket. You can control the temp from anywhere via the app.
Therma Pro. This is a little simpler…like a baby monitor for your meat. It just measures the grill temp and meat temp and sends the numbers to the other unit inside.
Lavatools. This is a small instant read thermometer. It’s perfect for steaks and chicken, when you want to just check the temp quick. For what it’s worth, I cook steaks to 120 (then sear for a couple of minutes on each side), then rest for 10 minutes. Chicken breasts are done at 163 and then rest for 1o minutes. Boston Butt goes all the way up to 195 or higher depending on the cook method.
Next, you’ll want to get a BBQ mitt like this one. I’ve had it for five years and it works great. It allows me to pick up the grate or the plate setter or a cast iron pan. You may want to order two of them.
And speaking of cast iron pan, you’re gonna want to pick up this Lodge 10 inch. You can cook bacon and finish steaks this way. You can expand your cast iron collection over time but this is a good starting point.
Finally, this pizza stone is a lot of fun. You can make your own wood fired pizzas on the Green Egg. Because it gets so hot, the stone is how you have a crispy crust. Heck, you can even cook a frozen pizza on the Egg and it will taste amazing.
Let’s talk about meat. If you’re going to do it right, you want to cook good meat. Believe it or not, my favorite place to get meat is Costco. They have great steaks, boston butt, ribs and chicken. They often sell pork belly, brisket, and other cuts too. And if you want a great steak, opt for their Prime cuts. It’s worth it.
Lastly, spices and rubs are important. I’m partial to the selection of rubs from Meat Church. The Honey Hog and Honey Hot hot it is my go-to for ribs and chicken. The Holy Cow is great on beef and brisket. And I use the Fajita seasoning all the time. I also love Socks Love as a good general purpose rub. For steaks, all I really use is salt and pepper – no need to do more than that if you start with a great steak.
There are dozens and dozens of other accessories you can get, but these will get you started. Part of the fun of having a Big Green Egg is trying things.
Whether you’re writing a book, working on a talk, building a website or preparing a sermon, there’s one important ingredient you must include.
Nearly everyone leaves this out.
It’s the answer to this question: What’s at stake?
If I don’t buy into what you’re writing, if I don’t implement what you’re asking, if I don’t click the button…what’s it going to cost me? What am I going to miss? What is at stake?
If your sales page perfectly describes the features and benefits and payment plans and product but doesn’t communicate what’s going to happen if I FAIL TO ACT, then I’m probably not going to act.
If your talk has facts, stories, emotion, or props but doesn’t put the status quo in jeopardy, I’m probably not going to act.
If your book is interesting, funny and well-written but doesn’t convince me why it even matters, it will just end up on the shelf.
Early on, tell people what’s at stake.
Here are my notes, quotes, and thoughts from Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s well worth the investment of your time. Along with J.J. Abrams, Sir Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, and Peter Thiel, I add my endorsement. 🙂
Economist Michael Housman found customer service agents that used Firefox and Chrome Internet performed higher than those that didn’t. Why? To get these browsers, you have to intentionally download something new rather than accepting the default. You have to seek out an option that might be better.
People are motivated to rationalize the status quo as legitimate, even if it goes against their interests. “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it.” – John Jost and team.
Child prodigies rarely go on to change the world.
Copernicus only shared his findings of the earth revolving around the sun with his friends. He stayed silent for 22 years because of fear.
Entrepreneurs are famous for taking risks, but they are rarely reckless. Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33% lower odds of failure than those who quit and pursue a passion. If you’re a freewheeling gambler, your startup is far more fragile. A sense of security in one realm gives you the freedom to be original in another. By covering your base financially, you escape the pressure to publish half-baked books, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.
“Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks – but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.” – Malcolm Gladwell
Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors
Steve Jobs offered an inventor $63 million for 10% of this company and later offered to advise the inventor for six months – for free. He said, “People will architect cities around this.” Jeff Bezos told the guy his product was revolutionary and would have no problem selling it. It was the Segway.
The biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation – it’s idea selection.
70% of high school seniors say they have above average leadership skills. 60% put themselves in the top 10 percent. 94% of college professors say they do above-average work.
Creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers; they simply produce a greater volume of work which gives them a higher chance of originality. Mozart, Shakespeare, Picasso and Maya Angelou all produced a tremendous quantity of work; only some of which receives critical acclaim.
The creator of The Daily Show says she still doesn’t know what will make people laugh.
As you gain knowledge about a domain, you become a prisoner of your prototype. Being creative in one area doesn’t make you a great forecaster in others. Your intuitions are only accurate in domains where you have a lot of experience.
In 2013 alone, 300k patents were granted in the US. The chances any one of these inventions will change the world is tiny. Individual creators have far better odds over a lifetime of ideas.
Out on a Limb
“Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds.” – Albert Einstein
“When people sought to exert influence but lacked respect, others perceived them as difficult, service, and self-serving. Since they haven’t earned our admiration, we don’t feel \they have the right to tell us what to do, and we push back.” – Alison Fragile, UNC professor on people trying to exercise power without status.
“The way to come to power is not always to merely challenge the Establishment, but first make a place in it and then challenge and double-cross the Establishment.” – Francis Ford Coppola
When you’re pitching a novel idea or speaking up with a suggestion for change, your audience is likely to be skeptical. Rampant confidence is a red flag – a signal that we need to defend ourselves against weapons of influence.
The job of an investor is to figure out what’s wrong with the company.
People think an amateur can appreciate art, but it takes a professional to critique it.
Norbert Schwartz has shown that the easier it is to think of something, the more common and important we assume it is. Ask people to list three things they love about their life and it’s easy. They feel grateful. Ask them to come up with 12 and they draw the conclusion that their lives aren’t as good as others.
It’s humanly impossible to tap out a rhythm of a song without hearing the tune in your head. Whenever you share a new idea, you’re hearing the tune in your head. Because you wrote the song. Everyone else just hears taps.
To get through, MMT: Message, Medium, Time
Four options for handling a dissatisfying situation: Exit, Voice, Persistence, Neglect
Fools Rush In
MLK didn’t begin writing out his famous “I have a Dream” speech until after 10pm the night before the march. Four days before the march he held a meeting of advisers to “review the ideas and get the best approaches.” It is also estimated he delivered 350 speeches that year. Great originals procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.
Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better.
Three out of four starups fail because of premature scaling – making investments the market isn’t ready to support. If you have an idea, it’s a mistake to rush with the sole purpose of beating your competitors to the finish line.
Robert Frost wrote 92% of his poems after age 40. Alfred Hitchcock made his three most popular films in his fifties and sixties. MLK had been speaking on civil rights for 20 years.
Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse
Even though they share a fundamental objective, radical groups often disparage more mainstream groups as imposters and sellouts. For example, orthodox Jews evaluate conservative Jewish women more negatively than Jewish women who don’t practice or observe religious holidays at all.
During the women’s suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton split off from Luch stone because they viewed Stone’s support of voting rights for black men as a betrayal of the women’s cause.
For insiders, the key representative is the person who is most central and connected in the group. For outsiders, the person who represents the group is the one with the most extreme views.
Bert Uchino found that ambivalent relationships are literally unhealthier than negative relationships. Our instinct is to sever bad relations and salvage the indifferent ones. But the evidence suggests we should do the opposite: cut our frenemies and attempt to convert our enemies. The best allies aren’t the people who have supported us all along. They are the ones who started out against us and then came around to our side.
When Disney was changing strategies and looking to create original stories, nobody had confidence in it. They positioned the Lion King, which was struggling to get support, as “Hamlet with lions.” That got the green light. The dose of familiarity helped the executives connect the script to a classic take. People need those handles. Absolute originality can lose people.
“If it’s not original enough, it’s boring or trite. If it’s too original, it may be hard for the audience to understand. The goal is to push the envelope, not tear the envelope.” – Rob Minkoff
Rebel with a Cause
“We are not our brother’s keeper…in countless large and small ways we are our brother’s maker.” – Harry and Bonaro Overstreet
We tend to be overconfident about our own invulnerability to harm. But when doctors and nurses think about patients, their logic improves.
Moral standards are forged in part by what parents say after their children do the right thing. Children who receive character praise are more generous. Affirming character appears to have the strongest effect in the critical period when children are beginning to formulate strong identities. Ask children to be helpers not to help.
Karl Downs was a minister who noticed adolescents were being forced by their parents to attend church and were dropping out. Downs held dances at the church and built a badminton court. Members protested but Downs persisted. A young Jackie Robinson ended up volunteering to become a Sunday School teacher there.
Groupthink is the tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent. But what does it take to maintain a strong culture without spawning a cult?
Skills and stars are fleeting; commitment lasts.
The worse companies perform, the more CEOs seek advice from friends and colleagues who already share their opinions. Confirmation bias: when you have a preference, you seek out information supporting it, while overlooking information that challenges it.
Dissenting opinions ar useful even when they’re wrong.
Look for a cultural contribution, not just a cultural fit.
Rocking the Boat and Keeping It Steady
The most inspiring way to convey a vision is to outsource it to the people who are actually affected by it.
There are tests that when people take alone, they virtually never err. But when they go along with a group, they knowingly give incorrect answers out of fear of being ridiculed.
To feel you are not alone, you don’t need a whole crowd. Just having one friend is enough to significantly decrease loneliness.
It’s easier to rebel when it feels like an act of conformity. When others are involved, you can join.
You can dramatically shift risk preferences just by changing a few words to emphasize losses rather than gains. – Research from Tversky and Kahneman. If people think the behavior is safe, emphasize all the good things that will happen. If people think something is risky, the benefits of change aren’t motivating. You have to destabilize the status quo and accentuate the bad thing that will happen if they don’t change.
Venting doesn’t extinguish eh flame of anger; it feeds it. When you vent anger, you put a lead foot on the gas pedal, essentially attacking the target who enraged you.
When you’re angry AT others, you aim for revenge. But when you’re angry FOR others, you seek justice and a better system.
Adults need to spend less time learning and more time unlearning.