Crazy Is a Compliment: A book review by Bob Morris

Crazy:ComplimentCrazy Is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging When Everyone Else Zags
Linda Rottenberg
Portfolio/Penguin

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Tennyson’s Ulysses

Most people are caught up in what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” That is why, when someone comes up with a breakthrough insight, most people think it is crazy and ignore it. Some of them ridicule it. Then, if the idea seems to gain traction, they do all they can to oppose it. When Galileo supported Copernicus’ assertion that the sun (not the earth) was the center of the universe, for example, he was brought before the Spanish Inquisition. Had he not recanted, he would have been executed. More recently, many people thought Henry Ford was crazy when he began to pay his workers a dollar an hour in wages.

In Linda Rottenberg’s thoughtful and thought-provoking book, she discusses a number of people who illustrate “the power of zigging when everyone else zags,” whose ideas were (at least initially) called “crazy” and ridiculed. What she shares is based on what she learned from working with more than a thousand entrepreneurs over the years. She classifies them within four category types: gazelles (agile and fast-moving with high-impact), skunks (“operating within large organizations “who go out of their way to stink up the joint”), dolphins (visionary contrarians in the non-profit world), and butterflies (sole proprietors or small-business owners with small-scale impact). This book is her attempt “to beak down a process that often seems overwhelming into a series of achievable steps. It’s my shot at answering the question: Since everybody has to take risks these days, how do you know that you’re taking smart risks?”

In his latest book, Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder, written with Sangeeta Bharadwaj Badal, Jim Clifton observes, “Innovation is essential, and we need it. But the real magic starts with entrepreneurs – with people who are born with the rare gift to build successful businesses.” Years ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Clifton obviously agrees. “An innovation has no value until an ambitious entrepreneur builds a business model around it and turns it into a product or service that customers will buy. If you can’t turn an innovative idea into something that creates a customer, it’s worthless.”

I agree that such an initiative is “worthless” in terms of its commercial value. However, many so-called “failures” in experimentation or prototyping can be of substantial value in terms of what can be learned from them. Creating more and better jobs will depend on wide and deep support of entrepreneurism in both the public and private sectors.

Here’s my take on what I think Rottenberg and Clifton seem to share in common in terms of their perspectives on entrepreneurship:

1. The better the idea, the greater the resistance to it. (See Tennyson quote.)
2. Small-scale, low-risk experimentation and refinement are essential and must be continuous.
3. Combine tenacity with patience while keeping the faith.
4. Keep the dream alive but focus on the process of collaboration.
5. If an idea is DOA, bury it and come up with a better one.
6. Several ideas are good and a few are (potentially) great.
7. Many ideas initially make little (if any) sense.
8. IDEO uses brainstorming of as many ideas as possible to generate a few to prototype.
9. Conventional wisdom is not necessarily wrong but, more often than not, it may be inappropriate to the given need.
10. The most successful entrepreneurs are results-driven, customer-centric visionaries with an insatiable curiosity to understand what works, what doesn’t, and especially, why. They thrive on challenges and delight in building value for everyone involved in the given enterprise.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, listed also to suggest the scope of Rottenberg’s coverage:

o Susan Senglemann (Pages 22-25 & 202-203)
o Thomas Edison (30-32)
o Richard Branson (43-44)
o Friends and Family: In business and on test-driving ideas (49-53, 116-120, and 163-164)
o Edgar Bronfman, Jr. (65-66)
o Entrepreneurial personalities (89-109)
o Jeff Bezos and Amazon (126-127, 157-158, and 208-209)
o Agility (136-141)
o Mentors (157-177)
o Purpose-driven workplace (181-203)
o Culture Club (190-194)
o Get Going (206-212)
o Go Big (212-216)
o Go Home (216-221)

As indicated earlier, Rottenberg has much of value to say about four different species of entrepreneur. The one with which most successful entrepreneurs will be identified is the “gazelle.” (Ray Kroc, Ted Turner, Mary Kay Ash, Herb Kelleher, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Reed Hastings, and Sophia Amoruso immediately come to my mind). The term refers to the classic entrepreneur of myth and reality, someone who starts a new business venture (or a new way of doing business) and aims for it to explode into a white-hot phenomenon such as Home Depot, Facebook, Jenny Craig, Netflix, Under Armour, and Instagram.

The term “gazelle” was coined by the economist David Birch. His identification of gazelle companies followed from his 1979 report titled “The Job Generation Process” (MIT Program on Neighborhood and Regional Change), wherein he identified small companies as the biggest creators of new jobs in the economy. In 1994, however, Birch revised his thesis, isolating job-creating companies he called “gazelles.” Characterized less by size than by rapid expansion, Birch defined the species as enterprises whose sales doubled every four years. By his estimates, these firms, roughly 4% of all U.S. companies, were responsible for 70% of all new jobs. The gazelles beat out the elephants (like Walmart) and the mice (corner barbershops). When you hear politicians say, “Small businesses create most of the new jobs,” they’re really talking about young and growing firms. They are talking about gazelles.

Unsurprisingly, gazelles are rare creatures. A 2008 study by Zoltan Acs, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at George Mason University, found that a mere 2% to 3% of all companies were high-impact firms. Elephants and mice cut jobs, and the deeper they slice the higher unemployment rises. But when it comes to job creation, they are almost irrelevant.

I commend Linda Rottenberg on the abundance of invaluable information, insights, and counsel that she provides. For aspiring entrepreneurs as well as for others whose business initiatives need a turbocharger, this may well prove to be the most important book they ever read.

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