Worthless, Impossible, and Stupid: A book review by Bob Morris

WorthlessWorthless, Impossible, and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value
Daniel Isenberg
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

A brilliant analysis of entrepreneurship as “the contrarian perception, creation, and capture of extraordinary value”

Let’s say that a Mount Rushmore type of monument for entrepreneurs will be constructed and nominations are requested. Which names immediately come to mind? Chances are, none of them would be among the several listed by Daniel Isenberg in the Conclusion section of this book. So what? In my opinion, a great deal. Most books about entrepreneurs focus on business celebrities such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Howard Schultz, Fred Smith, Ted Turner, and Mark Zuckerberg. They did indeed begin with acorns that became oak trees and do indeed exemplify what Isenberg characterizes as “the contrarian perception, creation, and capture of extraordinary value.” However, Izenberg’s book is not about celebrity. His focus is on a contrarian mindset and process he has observed in entrepreneurs he has personally known in 45 countries.

Worthless is about how so many people from around the world see hidden value in situations where others do not. These people then use that perception to successfully develop valuable products and services that customers usually initially don’t think they want, and ultimately go on to realize extraordinary value for themselves.” So what? Isenberg’s response: “A paradox: despite their statistical rarity in creating extraordinary value, most of the entrepreneurs in these pages will strike you as ordinary people like you and me. The differences between them and us are less a matter of who they are or what resources they have than of what and how they think.”

So, Isenberg has two objectives and achieves both: To “catalyze” entrepreneurial aspiration so that as many of his readers as possible to make “the entrepreneurial choice”: extraordinary value creation, and, to “reframe” entrepreneurship in terms of value creation and capture rather than business ownership per se. That is, to understand and appreciate the men and women he discusses as people who are (in most respects) “like you and me” rather than in terms of the companies they have created. I presume to add an opinion of mine: Those on whom Isenberg focuses in this book share much in common with Bezos et al listed earlier insofar as having a contrarian mindset and process is concerned. For example, they also saw and realized value where others thought there was none, and Also acted in ways that were contrary to what almost everyone thought was worthwhile. Selling books online? An airline serving major cities in Texas whose fares were competitive with those of…Greyhound and Railways? Overnight delivery of mail and parcels that “absolutely, positively have to be there”? Ideas such as these are worthless, impossible, and stupid.

These are among the entrepreneurial stories in the book of greatest interest and value to me:

o Robert Wessman’s generic pharmaceuticals company (Pages 12-15)
o Miguel Davila’s cinema chain (16-21)
o Atsumasa Tochisako’s money-transfer service (42-51)
o Carl Bistany’s educational management ventures (72-82)
o Will Dean’s adventure challenge events (100-107)
o Mary Gadams’s RacingthePlanet (137-139)
o Vinod Kapur’s chicken farming (142-151)
o Mo Ibrahim’s cell phone company (152-154)
o Iqbal Quadir’s Grameenphone (155-167)
o Mei Zhang’s experience with cultural tourism (187-193)
o Dean Kamen’s Segway (195-196)
o Itai Isenberg’s nightclub business (217-219)

As Eisenberg suggests throughout the book, the contrarian mindset and process are not for everyone but global giants such as GE as well as start-ups need to include both and indeed the success of the former and the survival of the latter depend on it. Consider these remarks by Jack Welsh at a GE annual when its then chairman and CEO explained why he admired small companies and hoped that GE would become more like one:

“For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

As Welch well knew, Thomson-Houston Company and Edison General Electric Company merged in 1892. Two small acorns became one larger than either but still an acorn. Thomas Edison sold all of his shares two years later but continued his association as a consultant. Over time, driven by its entrepreneurial spirit, GE became an oak tree through diversification of products and services based on research by the first industrial laboratory in the United States and through acquisitions. Presumably there were many occasions when GE’s bold initiatives were widely viewed as worthless, impossible, and stupid. Once again, the company needs such initiatives as do countless others among the Fortune 100.

When concluding his book, Daniel Eisenberg observes: “Entrepreneurship is not about the likely or the average; it is about the possible, the extraordinary. It is about victory. The entrepreneurs who have graced these pages have shown me, and I hope you, a higher possibility.” Well-said.

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