Business Banking E-Newsletter - June 2012

Embracing Failure on the Path to Success

Successful people will tell you they have failed. That, in fact, they have failed many times. The difference between these high achievers and the rest of us is that even though we all may reflexively regurgitate the same clichés about failing and the value of lessons learned, successful people actually believe them in a substantially deeper manner.

Those in the top tier of success don’t internalize failure in the same way that most people do. For them, failure is not a reflection of self. It is completely objectified and isolated, believed to be an experience from which to learn, a measure of the inability to accomplish one specific task at a single moment in time, or the result of variables that likely have little to do with the individual in question. Nothing more.

Regardless of entrepreneurs and leader’s respective goals or definition of success, failure was never a topic about which they are guarded or reserved. In fact, in many cases successful individuals were even more enthused to discuss their failures than their successes. An unemotional relationship with failure is a contributing factor to why some people succeed.

Ido Leffler, cofounder of Yes To, a San Francisco-based maker of hair and skin-care products, talked about a failure that could have bankrupted the company. When they received their first large order from Walgreens, knowing that Yes To products needed to sell well in Walgreens’ stores in order to push the initial trial relationship to a full-fledged partnership, Leffler and his team decided to launch a multimillion-dollar print media campaign to help bolster sales.

Despite careful planning, the results were, according to Leffler, “disastrous,” with the rate of return coming in far below what the company had invested in the ad campaign. So far below that it almost derailed the company entirely. “We went into survival mode,” Leffler told me. “But then, we put peanuts into social media and some interesting things began to happen.”

When he said social media, he wasn’t referring to the hot technology of the moment. The Yes To team latched onto an old-fashioned form of marketing by attaching the brand to National Carrot Day, an admittedly obscure holiday on February 3. The company spent very little money to organize hundreds of people with “Yes to Carrots” signs to stand outside NBC’s Today Show. When it came time for weatherman Al Roker to interview a few people in the crowd, the only ones to choose from were the swarms of self-professed carrot lovers who were sporting both signs and orange clothing in support of the Yes To brand. This low-cost media blitz led to spots on CNN, The Martha Stewart Show, the Today show, and to features in many top publications.

Many corporate higher-ups might have internalized a failure of this magnitude and allowed it to function in a destructive manner, either by accepting the defeat as definitive or by convincing themselves that they simply picked the wrong publications or needed to spend even more on the traditional media campaign. Instead, an unemotional response to the poor results of the print media effort led Yes To to a different approach that worked.

Blake Mycoskie, founder and “chief shoe giver” at TOMS, is also familiar with failure. He started a number of other companies before TOMS took off, some of which were successful and some of which were not. Yet these failures didn’t slow him down—they just redirected him.

For example, he had to give up a promising tennis career in college because of a knee problem. It would have been very easy to sit around and feel defeated. But instead, Mycoskie started a campus laundry service that ended up becoming a franchise—all because he realized how difficult it was to do laundry while on crutches.

Later, Mycoskie missed winning a million dollars on The Amazing Race by less than four minutes—largely because he “refused to stop to ask for directions,” as he has joked on several occasions. He then turned his attention to starting a 24/7 all-reality cable television channel called Reality Central. “The idea had a really compelling pitch: here I was, a former reality star, starting an all-reality network funded by the winners of big-time reality shows,” Mycoskie said. “I was so confident that the idea was going to succeed that I went out and bought a brand-new Porsche—in bright yellow, no less. I felt like I was flying.”

Then, everything fell apart. “Big personality conflicts started to develop between my partners and me. Team morale began to slip,” he said. “And then, in one fatal blow, Rupert Murdoch and Fox announced that they were creating their own reality channel with almost the identical business model as ours. The hardest part of this experience was having to call each and every investor and explain to them that their money was gone. What made it even worse is that many of these investors were friends and family members. As an entrepreneur, there is no worse feeling in the world.”

As Reality Central was tanking, Mycoskie read the biographies of successful people, such as Abraham Lincoln, Sam Walton, Richard Branson and Ted Turner. “The common thread among all of these great successes is that every one of them failed—and spectacularly, no less—at some point in their life,” he said. “As much as it hurt, I realized that failure is an inevitable part of thinking big and going after what you’re really passionate about.”

In 2006, Mycoskie’s passion and entrepreneurial spirit led to the creation of TOMS. After seeing children walking without shoes on a trip to Argentina, he founded the company and pledged that for every pair of shoes the company sold, TOMS would give a pair of new shoes to a child in need.

5 Ways to Boost Your Creative Power

For entrepreneurs, creativity is not simply a luxury. It’s an essential survival skill. Common entrepreneurial pitfalls include:

  • Trying to do everything on your own
  • Difficulty developing strategies or deciding where to focus your energy
  • Neglecting to invest in yourself
  • Falling in love with a venture and pursuing it without proper development

The key to avoiding these traps is understanding how you approach a challenge. The latest creativity research finds we all use our creativity in different ways, but follow a common problem-solving process. Once you understand the creative process, you can intentionally apply it, boosting your creativity and efficiency while strengthening your initiatives. It boils down to these four stages:

  • Clarify the situation: We explore the issue at hand, find all relevant data that will help us make sense of it and figure out the most effective path to take to resolve it.
  • Generate ideas: We come up with and select the best new ideas for making a change that best addresses the situation.
  • Develop solutions: We tinker with those ideas till they are perfect, then break and rebuild them, and then polish them till they shine.
  • Implement the solution: We put ideas into action by: gaining acceptance of the solution, helping people manage change and adapting solutions as needed.

This process can happen very quickly or deliberately, and in or out of sequence. It can be done in groups or independently. These simple strategies for using the creative process can help keep you on track toward breakthrough success.

1. Stop and think before you start. Self-awareness is a fundamental trait of successful leaders and teams. Once you know your limits, you know where you’ll need to bend, where you’ll need to ask for help, and where you’ll be fine on your own. Thinking about how you get things done, reflecting on the ways your team may work together, will help you be clear about direction and limit the amount of fires you have to put out along the way. This is not “touchy feely” talk. It’s serious work that will save you tons of time on the road ahead.

2. Embrace diversity. Knowing how to leverage diversity is a powerful skill. Here we are talking about diversity of thought -- leveraging different ways of thinking. Recognizing where you (and your team) are strong, and where you aren’t, is critical. If you know you are not adept at one part of the creative process, seek others who are. Bounce thoughts off them and listen to the new directions their different thinking can provide. Challenge yourself to be open to other’s perspectives.

3. Beware of love at first sight. If you find yourself enamored with a particular direction or idea – great, but watch out. You may be onto something, or you may be not exploring things carefully enough. Take the time you need to be sure the direction you are heading fits the need, the idea you have is well thought-out and you’re prepared to manage the change effectively.

4. Take one step at a time. Skipping stages can lead to serious problems - like focusing on the wrong issue, or implementing a half-baked solution. We all have preferences for different parts of the process that may lead us to unconsciously gloss-over or completely skip essential steps that would make an innovative idea a reality. Notice where you are in the process and where you need to go next – be deliberate.

5. Know when to move on. When we enjoy a part of the process, we tend to linger in that stage. Witness the guy who spouts a new idea every five minutes, or the gal who keeps asking, “How will this work?” People who apply the process effectively know when their preferences are getting the best of them and are able to shift direction. So don’t obsess over endless possibilities or clarifying details. Be sure that you’ve done a thorough job, you are still on target, and then move on.

Innovation is more than just coming up with a new idea. Instead, it’s a process with many components and many players. Any idea, no matter how world-changing, can die in committee or, worse still, after implementation, without attention to all four steps of the creative process. Paying attention to targeting the right issues, developing solutions thoughtfully, and then implementing them with both sensitivity and determination will help you turn that creative spark into a true breakthrough innovation. Knowing the process is like having a good map, now it’s up to you to drive innovation home.

A Secret to Creative Problem Solving

Ever find yourself going over and over a problem in your business, only to hit a dead end or draw a blank?

Find an innovative solution with one simple technique: re-describe the problem.

"The whole idea behind creative problem solving is the assumption that you know something that will help solve this problem, but you're not thinking of it right now," explains Art Markman, cognitive psychologist and author of "Smart Thinking." Put another way, your memory hasn't found the right cue to retrieve the information you need.

Changing the description tells your mind that you're in a different situation, which unlocks a new set of memories. "The more different ways you describe the problem you're trying to solve, the more different things you know about that you will call to mind," says Markman.

Ask yourself two questions:

1. What type of problem is this?
Most of the time, we get stuck on a problem because our focus is too narrow. When you think specifically, you limit your memory and stifle creativity.

Instead, think more abstractly. Find the essence of the problem.

Take vacuum cleaner filters, for example. Vacuums used to have bags that were constantly getting clogged, so innovators focused on how to make a better filter.

James Dyson realized that the problem was actually about separation, or separating the dirt from the air, which doesn't always require a filter. "That freed him to try lots of different methods of separation," says Markman. Hence: the Dual Cyclone vacuum that led Dyson to fame and fortune.

2. Who else has faced this type of problem?
When you think about your problem abstractly, you realize that other people have solved the same type of problem in radically different ways. One of their solutions may hold the key to yours.

For example, Dyson realized sawmills use an industrial cyclone to separate sawdust from air and modified that technology to create the first filter-free vacuum.

"When you begin to realize that the problem you're trying to solve has been solved over and over again by people in other areas, you can look at the solutions they came up with to help you solve your own," Markman says.

You may not use one of their solutions exactly, but you free your memory to retrieve more information, making that elusive "aha" moment easier to reach.

By re-describing the problem, you're much more likely to find inspiration for a truly creative innovation.

Eight Ways to Break Down Barriers in Traditional Workplace Culture

Two new studies point to increasing boredom in the workplace and declining loyalty. But 41 dogs, and maybe one pig, won’t let that happen at an innovative company in Boulder, Colorado called SparkFun.

SparkFun is an online retail store that sells the bits and pieces to make your electronics projects possible. Whether it’s a robot that can cook your breakfast or a GPS cat tracking device, they design their products to be more accessible to the average person. Founder Nathan Seidle is an energetic and enthusiastic entrepreneur and has tapped into the rapidly growing maker and DIY (do-it-yourself) trend. The company is big into the open source philosophy and it influences how he runs the company, to be sure. Some of his approach is beneficial to those building a new company or trying to infuse a sense of passion, change, and opportunity into an old culture.

Here is how SparkFun keeps employees (despite the above statistic) loyal and seriously unbored.

  1. Transparent / allowed to fail: Let’s be open and honest with ourselves and others. If we screw up, admit it openly, fix it, and move on. Let’s protect open communication between everyone.

  2. Least conventional as possible: We realize that business convention has its place. Let’s separate business necessity (like paying taxes) from business tradition (like slacks) as much as possible.

  3. Risk Neutral: We will consider, question and not be daunted by the rules around us. Be safe, but be unruly whenever possible. (This one is clearly a maker tenet.)

  4. Scrappy: We want to be known for something greater than our office furniture. Let’s create our own way of doing things. Do we really need more stuff? If we really need it, let’s get it, but let’s try to get it second hand. If something needs fixing, ask for help and roll up your sleeves.

  5. Appreciation of individuality: This is not the place for close-minded individuals. If you work hard next to me, I’ll respect your fascination with kitchen utensils.

  6. Trust on an individual level: Show up, get the work done, and respect the toes and tattoos of others. We trust you to think through the decisions about your dog, your work schedule, and your dress. We trust you to be honest with your neighbor if they affect your work environment.

  7. Ideas are created equal: Doesn’t matter who had them. Anyone can do something cool and get recognized for it.

  8. Opinionated: If we ever lose the ability to express our individual opinions, we are truly lost. Be cool and think through a problem. Everyone has an equal right to voice their opinion and listen to other opinions.

Back to the dogs and that pig. In a short phone conversation with founder Nathan Seidle, he shared that the company is big on letting people bring their canines to work and he recently saw a request for someone’s pet pig to have an equal opportunity to come join the fun, at SparkFun. With over 140 employees, that’s nearly 30 percent of the team bringing in their best friend. Pretty cool.