A long time ago, my Dad gave me a piece of advice that I recall time and time again. He said, “Max when it comes to business, look at what everyone is doing. Look hard and really study them so you can understand them. Then, do the exact opposite of what everyone is doing.” This might seem odd to someone just hearing it for the first time. Trust me, I know, but my Dad always has a reason for saying things like this and that got me to thinking. What did he mean exactly?
Take a look at the true innovators in any field. Most of the time, there is a new product that offers something that no one has done, or that no one has done well. The reason I say most of the time is because a majority of “revolutionary” products are tailored to the customers needs and are vast improvements over similar products. Regardless of the industry, product or service, there is one thing they all have in common: They break the mold. They move against the flow of that industry. For the companies that have gone a different direction and done it well, they have been very successful. I am going to focus on the companies who have done this well when they were still considered small businesses.
A 27 year old animator named John Lasseter was working his dream job at the Disney Animation Studio when he was brought into a room and shown a clip for a movie in development by Disney. For John, it was his first look at what computers could bring to the table when it came to movie making. He (and soon to be the rest of the country) was in awe when he saw the “lightcycles” sequence for the movie Tron. Shortly after, John developed short films testing the limits of what these computers could animate. John and a team wanted to see if they could make a movie only using computers to animate. Word of the computer animation project spread around the lot, creating more negative feelings than positive ones, eventually leading to John being dismissed from Disney. Many at Disney saw using computers as a method of animation as a blasphemy against tradition and the accepted standard of how things were done. John and his team then began making a few more short films, mainly to show potential investors what was possible. After substantial investment for this new revolutionary product, John and his team were able to make commercials and expose the public to what was possible. By now you might be wondering what company I am talking about. Here are some of their products: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, and WALL-E. I am of course, talking about Pixar. In 2006, Pixar was acquired (ironically) by Disney through a stock transaction of around $7.4 billion. Not bad for going against traditional cell animation.
In the mid 1970’s, California was the epicenter of counter culture. The status quo was a concept that was destroyed and being totally disregarded. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (known as “the two Steves”) were totally immersed in the early days of computer development. At the time, computers were teletype and the entire concept of a personal computer seemed like fantasy to most. The people working to develop the personal computer as we know it today were the do it yourself computer designers. Steve Wozniak had been attending the Homebrew Computer Club and became inspired to make a computer of his own. Steve Jobs expressed a strong interest in selling this new machine to a local computer store, The Byte Shop. With an initial order of 50 machines at $500 each, the Apple I had officially hit the market. By using a television as the computer's output display, the Apple I offered a vast improvement over the paper output of the computers of the time. Also, no one was under the impression the masses could use a computer, let alone afford one. This was the primary goal for the Steve’s, and one they were about to accomplish. After the Apple I gave minor profit, there was enough to improve on their current machine. The Apple II was able to run straight out of the box for a consumer, but it was still just a prototype. Eventually, Steve Jobs convinced a bank to loan $250,000, despite a personal computer for normal people being a ridiculous idea. Shortly thereafter, the Apple II began production and thus began the personal computer. On April 1, 1976, Apple Computer was formed. Today, Apple is a multibillion dollar company that laid the foundation for the computer you are reading this blog on. Ironically, Steve Jobs saw the vast potential in this technology and thus became one of the very first Pixar investors.
In Boston, Gary Koepke and Lance Jensen, two successful advertising creatives, had an idea to break the standard of what an advertising agency should be. They even worked that idea of unconventional thinking into their business plan. Instead of developing a full, start to finish ad campaign, Modernista develops ideas and concepts for their clients. From there, they outsource for production. In the advertising world, this is a very roundabout and unconventional way of producing a campaign. Since 2000, companies such as Hummer, Cadillac, Product (RED), Napster, Gap, MTV, BusinessWeek magazine, and the rock band U2 have all hired Modernista to produce campaigns for them. Obviously, the idea of an unconventional way of doing things has not hurt business. The Modernista website is also a great example of how “outside the box” they are. Instead of a typical webpage, you are brought to social media pages on Modernista. As for an example of the ads they produce, take a look at any new Cadillac commercial. Specifically, with Kate Walsh, lead actress of ABC’s Private Practice driving a Cadillac CTS, and giving a great monologue.
The idea of going against the flow of your industry seems frightening. You don’t want to step out of line, or shake things up. But, the businesses that see where they are and assess how they can break away from the typical (in one degree or another) have the potential to do great things. By stepping out just enough, you will get noticed and draw customers. I’m not saying change your entire business, but try doing something not typical of what you would normally do. It might be your next big thing.