Success Conceals Wickedness

Biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashlee Vance)

Two common themes in the biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashley Vance) are these entrepreneurs’ extreme personalities and the costs of their extraordinary successes.

The world mostly regards Musk, Jobs, and Bezos as passionate, inspiring, visionary, and charismatic leaders who’ve transformed their industries. Yet their biographies paint a vivid picture of how ill-mannered these innovators are (or were, in the case of Jobs). They exercise ruthless control over every aspect of their companies’ products but have little tolerance for underperformers. They are extremely demanding of employees and unnecessarily demeaning to people who help them succeed.

  • Steve Jobs was renowned for his cranky, rude, spiteful, and controlling outlook. Biographer Isaacson recalls, “Nasty was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.” Jobs famously drove his Mercedes around without a license and frequently parked in handicapped spots. For years, he denied paternity of his first daughter Lisa and forced her and her mother to live on welfare. He often threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way and publicly humiliated employees.
  • In a 2010 commencement address at Princeton, Jeff Bezos recalled his grandfather counseling, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” Still, according to Brad Stone’s biography, Bezos often imparts insulting rebukes and criticisms to employees: “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” “Why are you wasting my life?” and “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • According to Ashlee Vance’s biography, when an executive assistant asked for a raise, Elon Musk asked her to take a two-week vacation while he contemplated her request. When the assistant returned from vacation, Musk fired her.

“Success covers a multitude of blunders”

The great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde once remarked, “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”

The other great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.”

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams In 2015, NBC suspended prominent news anchor Brian Williams after internal investigations revealed no less than 11 instances where he either embellished facts or bent the truth. Members of his team and NBC staffers who knew about these ethics violations chose to overlook because he was powerful. According to The New York Times,

Mr. Williams has been drawing 9.3 million viewers a night, and his position seemed unassailable. Even as the stature of the nightly newscast faded in the face of real-time digital news, Mr. Williams was one of the most trusted names in America … He was powerful. Williams had the ear of NBC boss Steve Burke. He was a ratings powerhouse. And he spent years overseeing TV’s most watched newscast. He was a winner, for himself, those around him and those above him—until it became clear the man who is supposed be among the most trusted in America had issues with telling the truth.

Power Corrupts the Mind

Brilliant men and women engage in morally wrong conduct simply because they can. They can get away with extreme pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Our high-achieving culture adores the successful, the powerful, and the rich. And part of this adoration is the exemption we grant these celebrities from the ordinary rules of professional civility.

Idea for Impact: The more people possess power and the more successful they get, the more they focus on their own egocentric perspectives and ignore others’ interests.

How Johnson’s Baby Powder Got Started: Serendipity and Entrepreneurship

1921 Advertisement: Johnson's Toilet and Baby Powder - Antiseptic Borated Talcum Powder

Making Fortunate Discoveries Accidentally

Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist famous for his 1922 discovery of penicillin, once said, “Have you ever given it a thought how decisively hazard—chance, fate, destiny, call it what you please—governs our lives?”

Serendipity is the accidental discovery of something that, post hoc, turns out to be valuable.

'Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science' by Royston M. Roberts (ISBN 0471602035) The history of science is replete with such serendipitous discoveries. “Happy findings” made when scientists accidentally discovered something they were not explicitly looking for led to the discovery or invention of the urea, dynamite, saccharin, penicillin, nylon, microwave ovens, DNA, implantable cardiac pacemaker, and much more … even the ruins of Pompeii and Newton’s law of universal gravitation. (I recommend reading Royston Roberts’s Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science)

In each of these instances, the crucial role of discovery or insight occurred in accidental circumstances. Therefore, we must understand serendipity’s role in terms of the circumstances that surround it.

Serendipity has also played a pivotal role in establishing many successful businesses. In fact, serendipity is a rich idea that is very central to the entrepreneurial process. As the following case study will demonstrate, many experimental ideas are born by chance and are often reinforced by casual observation and customer input.

Johnson & Johnson Got into the Baby Powder Business by Accident

Johnson & Johnson Got into the Baby Powder Business by Accident In 1885, entrepreneur Robert Wood Johnson was deeply inspired by a lecture of Joseph Lister, a British surgeon well known for his advocacy of antiseptic surgery. Johnson started tinkering with several different ideas in an effort to make sterile surgery products.

A year later, Johnson joined his two brothers to establish Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their first commercial product was a sterile, ready-to-use, medicated plaster-bandage that promised to reduce the rate of infections after surgical procedures. As business developed, the Johnson brothers compiled the latest medical opinions about surgical infections and distributed a booklet called Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment as part of their marketing efforts.

Within a few years, a doctor complained to J&J that their bandages caused skin irritation in his patients. In response, J&J’s scientific director Dr. Frederick Kilmer sent the doctor a packet of scented Italian talcum powder to help soothe the irritation. Since the doctor liked it, J&J started to include a small sample of talc powder with every package of medicated bandages.

By 1891, consumers discovered that the talc also helped alleviate diaper rash. They asked to buy it separately. The astounded J&J’s leadership quickly introduced Johnson’s Baby Powder “for toilet and nursery.” Over the years, J&J built on that huge initial success and created the dominant Johnson’s Baby product line with creams, shampoos, soaps, body lotions, oils, gels, and wipes.

J&J Got into the Sanitary Protection Products Business Too by Accident

Serendipity also played the key role in establishing J&J’s sanitary napkin business. In 1894, J&J launched midwife’s maternity kits to make childbirth safer for mothers and babies. These kits included twelve “Lister’s Towels,” sanitary napkins to staunch post-birth bleeding. Before long, J&J received hundreds of letters from women who wanted to know where they could buy just the sanitary napkins. In response, J&J introduced disposable sanitary napkins as part of its consumer products line. J&J thus became the first company in the United States to mass-produce sanitary protection products for women.

Clever Marketing Exploits the Anchoring Bias

Clever Marketing Exploits the Anchoring Bias

In the ’70s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were the first to study a cognitive phenomenon called “anchoring” and its influence on decision-making. Over the decades, extensive research on anchoring has explained that the way and context in which we receive information profoundly influence how we synthesize it.

The effects of anchoring are very visible in marketing, sales, merchandising, and product pricing as it profoundly influences consumer behavior. By offering clever price contrasts, marketers can shape customers’ purchasing decisions. For example,

  • By offering lower prices and promotional sales, department stores induce customers to compare the sale price against the original price—the “anchor”—and think they’re getting a bargain.
  • By displaying shiny, expensive new cars in the showroom, car dealerships encourage customers to accept the prices displayed on their used cars or less flashy models.
  • Patrons at restaurants tend to order the second least-expensive bottle of wine in an attempt to avoid looking cheap. Therefore, restaurants tend to put the highest markup on that very bottle.

The Case of the $429 Breadmaker

Anchoring Bias: Williams-Sonoma $429 Breadmaker Customers are usually more likely to purchase a product when competing alternatives are included, as opposed to having only one product option.

Consider a classic example of this “single-option aversion” phenomenon. A few years ago, Williams-Sonoma couldn’t get customers to buy their $279 breadmaker. They cleverly added a spiffier-and-slicker deluxe breadmaker model to their product line for $429. While Williams-Sonoma didn’t sell many of the new and expensive breadmaker, they doubled sales of the original and less-expensive model.

When the $279 breadmaker was the only model available for sale, customers couldn’t tell whether the price was competitive because there was nothing to compare it to. By introducing a better product for a higher price, Williams-Sonoma provided an anchor upon which its customers could compare the two models; they naturally sided with the $279 model as an attractive alternative.

The Case of the $69 Hot Dog and the $1000 Chocolate Sundae

Anchoring Bias: Serendipity 3's $69 Hot Dog Usually, absurdly expensive premium goods are less of publicity stunts and more of strategic marketing tactics.

Consider the case of Serendipity 3’s menu anchors. In 2010, the popular New York eatery introduced a $69 hot dog called “Foot-Long Haute Dog” with dressings as exotic as medallions of duck liver, ketchup made from heirloom tomatoes, Dijon mustard with truffle shavings, and caramelized Vidalia onions to justify the high price. Of course, Serendipity 3 gained plenty of publicity when The Guinness Book of World Records certified this hot dog as the most expensive wiener of all time.

The true purpose of these ridiculously priced premium items is to make the next most expensive item seem cheaper. Customers who were drawn by the Haute Dog’s publicity gladly ordered the menu’s $17.95 cheeseburger. Even if $17.95 was too pricey elsewhere, Serendipity 3 customers deemed it reasonable in comparison to the $69 hot dog.

A few years previous, Serendipity 3 similarly offered a $1000 “Golden Opulence Sundae” that was only available with a 48 hour-notice. They sold only one Sundae per month. Nevertheless, this was just a shrewd marketing ploy to convince customers to spend more on high-profit margin desserts such as the $15.50 “fruit and fudge” confection or the $22.50 “Cheese Cake Vesuvius.”

Unsuspecting customers ended up paying too much for other meals at Serendipity 3 while believing they were getting a great deal.

Idea for Impact: Be Sensitive of Anchoring Bias

In both the above case studies, even if the companies sold almost none of their highest-priced models despite the publicity they generated, the companies reaped enormous benefits by exploiting the anchoring bias to induce customers to buy cheaper-than-most-expensive high-profit products.

In summary, anchoring exploits our tendency to seek out comparison and our reliance on context. The anchoring bias describes our subconscious tendency to make decisions by relying heavily on a single piece of information.

Call to Action: Sensitize yourself to how anchoring and anchoring bias may subconsciously affect your decision-making. If you’re in marketing or sales, investigate how you could use anchoring bias to influence your customers.

For more on cognitive biases and behavioral economics, read 2002 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow. Also read Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products on how to influence customer behaviors and build products and offer services that people love.

Lessons from Sam Walton: Cost and Price as a Competitive Advantage

I recently finished reading “Made in America”, the bestseller autobiography of Sam Walton (1918–1992.) The book is very educational, insightful, and stimulating.

Walton, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. From 1985 until his death, he was the richest man in the world. On the 2015 list of the world’s richest individuals, his descendants ranked at #8, #9, #11, and #12.

Despite his immense fortune, Walton lived a humble life right up until his death. He as an enthusiastic outdoorsman and lived in a modest home in Bentonville, Arkansas, for 33 years. On quail hunting trips, he slept in smelly, old beat-up trailers and ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He even drove a red 1985 Ford pickup and famously said, “What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”

Sam Walton's Red 1985 Ford Pickup Truck

Cost and Price Control

One of the book’s key takeaways is to “control your expenses better than your competition.” Walton says that this focus on cost-efficiency contributed more to Walmart’s enormous success than did any other aspect of his business model:

This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For twenty-five years running—long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation’s largest retailer—we’ve ranked No. 1 in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales. You can make a lot of different mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

A Child of the Great Depression Takes to Retail

Walton was a child of the Great Depression. The poverty he experienced while growing up in a rural Missouri farming community taught him the value of money, hard work, and perseverance.

Walton learned the value of a dollar early from his parents, who financially struggled to raise their family. The two squabbled constantly, except on one topic. “One thing my mom and dad shared completely was their approach to money: they just didn’t spend it.”

Walton was just plain cheap. His devotion to bargain became Walmart’s underpinning. He lived by a simple formula: pile it high, sell it cheap. “Say I bought an item for 80 cents. I found that by pricing it at $1.00, I could sell three times more of it than by pricing it at $1.20.” He refused to increase profit margins at the expense of price: “I might make only half the profit per item, but because I was selling three times as many, the overall profit was much greater. Simple enough.”

The Lasting Impact of Sam Walton

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. He studied his competitors and borrowed liberally. His strategy was to buy low, sell at a discount, and make up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory. Over the decades, Walmart has relentlessly squeezed as much value as possible from its supply chain and passed those savings on to consumers.

Walton’s passion to serve as the “agent” for consumers has changed retailing forever. It’s hard not to overestimate Walmart’s influence on local communities and economics. Walmart’s obsessive focus on low prices changed the way Americans shop. Its bargaining power, superlative size, and logistical efficiency not only dampened inflation, but also brought about productivity gains throughout retailing and manufacturing. Its dominance has attracted backlash from labor unions, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and anti-sprawl activists. Critics also blamed Walmart for contributing to the movement toward overseas production jobs, and for destroying small-town merchants.

However, Walmart’s business model has struggled overseas, especially with profitability in countries where it operates three fourths of its international stores.

Sam Walton’s Influence on Entrepreneurs

Walton inspired legions of other entrepreneurs who thrive on managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage. Prominently,

  • Dell’s Michael Dell kept costs low by using direct sales as his primary sales channel and orchestrating Dell’s supply chain with that of its suppliers.
  • Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary used absurdly low fares to generate demand from fare-conscious travelers who would have otherwise used alternative means of transportation or would have not traveled at all. O’Leary’s operating costs (aircraft, equipment, personnel, customer service, airport access, and handling) are one of the lowest in the airline industry.
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos used innovative sales-discounting methods and a strong emphasis on customer service to grab market share from traditional retailers. Without the burden of operating physical stores, Amazon’s efficiency has played a key role in the structural shift away from brick-and-mortar retail.

The “wheel of retailing” theory in corporate strategy posits that a lower-cost innovator eventually undercuts every dominant merchant. To combat the risk of cost-leadership from Amazon and other online retailers, Walmart has made major investments in e-commerce, even at the risk of cannibalizing its in-store sales.

The Truth Can Be Bitterer than a Sweet Illusion

Bitter Pill - The truth can be bitterer than a sweet illusion

In 1998, as CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com, Jim McCann could not bring himself to let one of his senior executives go. McCann and the rest of his leadership team understood that this senior executive was neither right for the job nor performing well.

For McCann, the biggest hindrance was that he was friends with this executive and had spent time with his family. McCann agonized over being heartless to a friend and couldn’t bring himself to dismiss the executive.

Unexpectedly, McCann met General Electric’s CEO Jack Welch at a dinner party and discussed this dilemma. Welch advised, “When was the last time anyone said, ‘I wish I had waited six months longer to fire that guy?’ Always err on the side of speed.”

Urged by Welch’s counsel, McCann deftly dealt with the situation. Initially, McCann felt that being tough was unjustifiable and was pained by the loss of a friendship. He was hurt but relieved because firing the executive was the right decision for everyone.

On a happier note, the former executive soon got a new job that better suited his background. Their friendship stood the test of time and they eventually made up.

Firing is awful—indeed, it’s the most difficult thing managers have to do, especially for those who encourage camaraderie and treasure loyalty. As in McCann’s case, if you think an employee isn’t up to par and you may fire him/her within the next year, it’s always better for management, the employee in question, and other employees to take the right actions promptly.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Be Conflict-Avoidant

Confront the Bitter Truth The truth is that the truth hurts sometimes. Even if the truth can be bitterer than a sweet illusion, delaying action will only make things harder.

Making the right decision and taking the action may involve unpleasant confrontations. Though conflict can be emotionally distressing, being decisive and doing what’s best eventually works out well for everyone.

Instead of being hyperconscious of other’s possible judgments and avoiding conflict, do difficult things as soon as practically possible.

When dealing with difficulties involving others, there is nothing more insidious than unresolved conflict and inaction. Read “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (by Patrick Lencioni) to understand how to engage in conflict in a way that nurtures (rather than harms) relationships. Also, read “Crucial Conversations” (by Kerry Patterson, et al.) on how to conduct effective discussions by stating the facts, speculating possible remedies, and then skillfully leading the other person to a course of action. Stick with facts to reduce defensiveness. Have the other person develop and commit to a course of action on his/her own.

The Opportunities in Customer Pain Points

The Opportunities in Customer's Pain Points

Ellis Paul Torrance, the American psychologist who devoted his career to researching and teaching creativity, observed that “the process of sensing gaps or disturbing missing elements and formulating hypotheses” is pivotal to the creative process.

This is especially true of solving customer’s problems. Many innovative ideas are born of a reliable formula: prudent attention to and empathy with customers’ experiences, as well as applying resourceful imagination to solve customers’ pain points

Many an innovator—either as a provider or as a consumer—develops deep empathy for customers’ pain points and sees an underexploited customer-need for convenience. The innovator contemplates, “This customer’s experience does not have to be expensive, protracted, hard, or inferior, as it is with the incumbent provider.” The innovator then uses his/her imagination to convert that understanding into a business idea with broad potential.

Consider the following cases of innovation that could be traced back to customer pain points:

  • Crispy Potato Chips. Legend has it that in the 1850s, Chef George Crum of New York’s Saratoga Springs created potato chips. A cranky customer at Moon’s Lake House frequently sent Crum’s fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were mushy and not crunchy enough. To appease the customer, Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible and deep-fried them. The customer loved them. Before long, “Saratoga Chips” became popular throughout New England.
  • Airtight Packaging for Potato Chips. When potato chips were first mass-produced for home consumption, they were packaged and distributed in metal containers, in which the chips would quickly go stale. During the 1920s in Monterey Park, California, Laura Scudder conceived of packaging potato chips in sealed bags. Scudder’s employees ironed wax paper into the form of bags and fill them up with potato chips. This airtight packaging not only kept the chips fresh and crisp longer, but also reduced crumbling. After the invention of the moisture-proof cellophane wrap by DuPont a few years later, chips were packaged in polymer bags. Then, nitrogen gas was blown in to prevent oxidation, extend shelf life, and prevent chips from being crushed as they were handled and distributed.

Chips taste fresher in Cellophane: DuPont Advertisement

  • Netflix. At the video rental chain Blockbuster, customers who were paying the most in late fees were also the company’s most prolific renters. Even as they continued to patronize Blockbuster, these customers vented their frustration to Blockbuster’s employees, as well as to other existing and potential customers. In fact, in the ’90s, almost $300 million or 20% of Blockbuster’s pretax profit came from late fees. In 1997, Reed Hastings, one devoted Blockbuster customer, was charged $40 in late fees on a VHS tape of the movie Apollo 13. Frustrated by his fees, Hastings started Netflix, a mail-distribution movie-rental service. As soon as the business caught on, Hastings eliminated late fees. Netflix grew quickly, drove Blockbuster into bankruptcy in 2010, and is now valued at $50 billion.
  • Google News. After 9/11, Google engineer Krishna Bharat and his teammates repeatedly visited ten to 15 news sites looking for a wide range of news reports. Using Google’s legendary “20% Time” policy that allows employees to spend one day a week on side projects and collaborate beyond their immediate teams, Bharat wrote an artificial intelligence software to crawl thousands of news websites, cluster news articles based on topics and keywords, and aggregate a summary. Other engineers at Google loved Bharat’s prototype software and joined the effort to build Google News.
  • Corning’s Gorilla Glass for Smartphones. By 2007, cell phone makers and consumers were frustrated with the screens on their cell phones. The plastic screens broke too easily when the handsets were dropped, and keys and other objects left deep scratches. Sensing a business opportunity, some engineers at Corning dug into their corporate archives. They dredged up the formulation of a super-strong, flexible glass, Chemcor, which was unsuccessfully prototyped for automobile windshields during the 1960s. The engineers spent $300,000 to produce a trial run of Chemcor and discussed the results with cell phone manufacturers. The resulting cell phone glass was called Gorilla Glass and was widely adopted by Samsung, LG, Motorola, and other cell phone manufacturers. Gorilla’s thinness, strength, and resistance to scratches became the defining feature of touch-screen operation. Later Gorilla Glass became a core component on the iPhone, smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices. For Corning, Gorilla Glass has become a significant revenue stream.

Corning's Gorilla Glass for Smartphones from Chemcor formulation

  • Uber. In 2008, during a snowy night on a trip to attend a tech conference in Paris, American entrepreneurs Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick had trouble getting a cab. Garrett purportedly said in frustration, “Why can’t we just tap a button and get a ride?” Before long, during a brainstorming session on ideas for new startups, Camp and Kalanick thought of starting a taxi company with a smartphone app to summon taxis. Instead, they built an app to hail taxi-rides on-demand and opened their app for use by established taxi companies as well as by casual autonomous drivers. In 2010, they launched UberCab in San Francisco. Uber is now worth $50 billion and operates in over 300 cities around the world.

Idea for Impact: Transform Customer Pain Points into Customer Delight

Customer pain points are a consistent pointer to potential opportunities not least because customers are usually willing to pay a premium to have their frustrations with a product or a service resolved.

Discover what opportunities may exist in your customers’ pain points. Examine product- and service-features that your customers find inadequate, more urgent, unpleasant, frustrating, or otherwise troubling. Consider how you could transform those product- and service-deficiencies into innovative features.

Don’t just satisfy customers; delight them by becoming more sensitive to their problems and reducing or eliminating their pain points.

Burt, Bees, and Simple Happiness / The Curious Case of Burt Shavitz


Narratives of entrepreneurial success and great wealth are fascinating

Today’s high-achieving culture adores people like Elon Musk who dream big, set ambitious goals, stubbornly get things done, and build wealth for themselves.

This scale of purpose, however, is not for everyone. A surprising number of people find their purpose by going the other way—by rejecting the trappings of wealth and pursuing humble, unpretentious, contended lives.

Consider the case of Burt Shavitz, the namesake and co-founder of Burt’s Bees, a prominent beauty-products company. Burt, whose bearded face and scruffy hat grace the tins of the company’s hand salve and ointment, died this summer at age 80.

Burt Shavitz of Burt's Bees and Simple Happiness

The small, simple, happy life

Burt Shavitz’s extraordinary reclusive life exemplifies what Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

As a young professional photographer in the sixties, Burt grew increasingly disenchanted with city life in his native New York City. He was particularly distressed by the loneliness of an old woman whom he photographed at a home across his apartment—she always looked out sorrowfully from behind dingy curtains and never left her room. “As soon as I took this shot, I knew that that would be me, ninety years old and unable to go outside, if I didn’t get the hell out. I borrowed a van from a former girlfriend, packed up everything I needed—my bed, what clothes I had, an orange crate of books—and disappeared into the declining sun,” Burt recalled in 2014.

Burt left his city life for the backwoods in Maine and started living in a camper van. He led a hippie lifestyle; he had no ambitions and very little money. He took to beekeeping after unintentionally stumbling upon a swarm of bees at a fencepost. One day, while peddling beeswax by the side of the road, he met Roxanne Quimby, a single mother who was hitchhiking to work. Roxanne and Burt soon got romantically involved.

Roxanne had an entrepreneurial mindset: she made candles, lip balm, and hand lotion from a 200lb stash of unsold beeswax and started selling personal care products to tourists and at fairs. Over time, when their business thrived enough, Burt and Roxanne moved to North Carolina to establish a factory. However, Burt missed Maine very much. After a falling out with Roxanne, Burt sold his one-third stake in the company to her for a measly $130,000 and returned to Maine. (In 2007, Roxanne and her associates sold the company to Clorox for $913 million; she claims to have given him $4 million of the proceeds. Burt’s Bees/Clorox continued to pay him an unrevealed amount for continued use of his likeness and his name on its products.)

Burt's Bees Hand Salve

Idea for Impact: Happiness is mostly a matter of perspective

After returning to Maine, Burt no longer kept bees to make a living. He just enjoyed life—doing what he wanted, when he wanted. He told Flare magazine in 2013, “I’ve always had enough. I never starved to death, and I never went without a meal. I served in the army and went to Germany and slept in snowbanks, and walked 100 miles in the day carrying an 80-pound pack. What was it that I needed? My beekeeping produced enough cash that I could maintain my vehicles and pay my land taxes. What do I need? Nothing. No wife, no children, no TV set, no washing machine. All the pins sort of fell into place my entire life.”

During his later years, Burt lived in a cluttered country home in Maine that had no hot water and liked to watch nature pass by. A 2013 documentary called “Burt’s Buzz” captures his long and unconventional life. This highly recommended documentary (entirely on YouTube) juxtaposes Burt’s ideal day—“when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere”—with the rock star adoration that he received from fans during a visit to Taiwan as the ‘brand ambassador’ of Burt’s Bees products.

In interviews—as in “Burt’s Buzz”—Burt denounced the emptiness of consumerism and extoled the virtues of simple, reclusive living. Evidently, he never regretted missing out on millions, but felt hurt by a three-decade-old business deal with Roxanne gone bad. “I’ve got everything I need: a nice piece of land with hawks and owls and incredible sunsets, and the good will of my neighbors,” he once said. An obituary in The Economist observed,

Settling back in his rocking chair, feet spread to feel the heat of the stove, Burt Shavitz liked to reflect that he had everything he needed. A piece of land first: 40 acres of it, fields and woods, on which he could watch hawks and pine martens but not be bothered, with luck, by any human soul. Three golden retrievers for company. A fine wooden house, 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep, once a turkey coop but plenty spacious enough for him. From the upper storey he could see glorious sunsets, fire off his rifle at tin cans hanging in a tree, and in winter piss a fine yellow circle down onto the snow, and no one would care. … He would wander into the woods or lie on his lawn to watch the baby foxes play, murmuring “Golly dang!” with simple happiness.

The seventeenth century French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld once wrote, “Happiness does not consist in things themselves but in the relish we have of them; and a man has attained it when he enjoys what he loves and desires himself, and not what other people think lovely and desirable.” If, indeed, contentment consists of liking of what one has and having what one likes, Burt’s humble life illustrates how happiness arises from the harmony between oneself and the life one leads in one’s simple corner of the world.

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars: A Case Study in Determination and Competitive Ferocity


Competition Drives so much of our World Today

We live in a hypercompetitive age where winning is the outcome, often necessary for survival—in classrooms, sports, trade and commerce or at work. The archetypical successful person is determined, aggressive, and obsessed with winning at everything, sometimes at any cost. Of course, competition is healthy; but, winning may come at a hefty price—always striving to win or being overzealous can be both unnecessary and unproductive. Besides, collaborative or naturally uncompetitive individuals tend to find competitive people somewhat unpleasant.

History provides but a few vivid portraits of intense competition that compare to the mid-90s’ “browser wars,” a narrative characterized by the dogged determination and intense competitive spirit of some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are legendary for using brute power: whenever a new competitor emerged, Microsoft would muster its financial resources and its smarts to storm into those markets with alternative products that would eventually dominate. Up until the dot-com bust, Microsoft not only out-competed Borland, Lotus Development, Corel, and other rivals that were previously in the lead, but also crushed upstarts such as Netscape.

“The Browser Wars”: Rise and Fall of Netscape

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars At the start of 1995, a new software called Netscape Navigator took the computing world by storm. Unlike primitive browsers, Netscape could display text and graphics on websites. Early web buffs eager to discover the marvel of the nascent internet were no longer restricted to downloading text alone. In addition, Netscape could render web pages on the fly while they were still being downloaded. Users did not need to stare at a blank screen until their dial-up connections loaded text and graphics.

Even more astounding was the fact that the upstart Netscape Communications, Netscape Navigator’s creator, had been co-founded by a 23-year-old programmer just a few months previously and seemed well-positioned to take advantage of the imminent consumer internet revolution. Netscape was on its way to an extraordinary 90% market share amongst internet browsers. What’s more: the company’s spectacular IPO was drawing near and was to start the dot-com boom.

Netscape’s meteoric rise could not escape the attention of the world’s dominant software company. Early in 1995, Microsoft was particularly occupied with finalizing Windows 95. Its launch, scheduled for August 1995, would prove to be the largest, most expensive consumer marketing endeavor in history. Moreover, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) had embarked on an intrusive investigation into claims of unfair business practices as alleged by Microsoft’s competitors.

While Netscape was capturing the Web browser market, Microsoft and Bill Gates had seemingly missed the paradigm shift created by the consumer internet. Financial and technology analysts wondered if Microsoft was destined to lose its supremacy over software. Microsoft could not wait on the sidelines and cede business opportunities in the upcoming consumer internet revolution.

Browser Wars: The Rise and Fall of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer

Bill Gates and Microsoft Jumped on the “Internet Tidal Wave”

Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and the Microsoft team were not to be trifled with. Microsoft simply could not afford to be the underdog. Its strategy was transformed entirely when, on 26-May-1995, Bill Gates wrote the groundbreaking internal memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave.”

Bill Gates deployed an extraordinary amount of capital and talent to battle for control over consumer internet. Just after the August-1995-release of Windows 95, Microsoft released an inferior Internet Explorer 1.0. In 1996, Version 3.0, matched the features of Netscape Navigator. Finally, in 1997, after bundling Internet Explorer 4.0 into Windows 95, Microsoft started to take a significant market share from Netscape.

In 1998, the DOJ and twenty US states alleged that Microsoft had illegally thwarted competition by abusing its monopoly in personal computers to bundle its Internet Explorer and Windows operating system.

By 1999, Netscape was an inferior web browser and quickly lost its dominance. The software’s market share dropped from 90% in 1996 to a meager 4% by 2002.

In subsequent installments of the browser wars, Netscape Navigator’s open-source successor, Firefox, regained market share from Internet Explorer. More recently, Firefox and Internet Explorer have had to contend with Google’s Chrome, which has grown to be the dominant web browser.

Microsoft Set Out to Destroy Competitor after Competitor

Historically, Microsoft has never been a substantial innovator. Instead, the company’s most famous strategy was to be a “fast follower.” The variety of rivals’ projects made no difference—competitors could pioneer anything from graphical user interfaces (GUI,) pointing devices, spreadsheets, word processors, browsers or gaming consoles and Microsoft would catch up in due course.

Consequently, the most important Microsoft products started essentially as copies of existing products made by competitors or upstarts that Microsoft was able to purchase early. MS-DOS evolved from QDOS, which itself derived from CP/M. Microsoft Windows was inspired by Apple’s Macintosh, which, in turn, had been inspired by a prototype mouse-driven graphical user interface that Steve Jobs had seen at Xerox PARC. Microsoft Excel borrowed from VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. In addition to riding the coattails of bona fide innovators, Microsoft excelled in smart integration—it combined nifty functions and features into a single product or into a suite of easy-to-use tools such as its Office productivity software.

Microsoft’s Once-Invincible Strategy of Being a “Fast Follower” Wasn’t Sustainable

Alas, in the last 15 years, Microsoft’s “fast follower” competitive strategy has proven unsustainable. As its dominance in the enterprise world grew, Microsoft’s impressive financial performance relied mostly on its “old faithful” franchises. In fiscal 2014, the Windows operating system, Office productivity suite, and servers/cloud businesses contributed 78% of Microsoft’s revenue and almost all of the gross profit.

Despite the competitive ferocity of Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and others at the company’s helm, Microsoft has been unable to return to its domineering ways in the internet’s recent mobile- and social-computing trends. In fact, Microsoft stumbled in category after category of consumer computing and technology, including search, social networking, phones, music players, and tablets. Google, Facebook, Apple—lead by entrepreneurs just as intensely competitive as Bill Gates—have soared ahead, altering the social-media-tech consumer experience.

Recommended Reading: If you like business history and entrepreneurial success stories, read ‘Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time’, Daniel Gross’s engaging profiles of twenty great American entrepreneurs: Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris, McDonald’s ‘founder’ Roy Kroc, Walt Disney, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, et al. For more stories of Bill Gates’s fierce competitive instincts, read Stephen Manes’s “Gates”.

Two-Minute Mentor #3: Where at all possible, defend your people in public and reprimand in private

Richard Branson of the Virgin Group When Richard Branson, founder and chairperson of the Virgin Group, was seven years old, he took some 50 pence in loose change from his father’s table and walked over to a candy store. The shopkeeper suspected Richard and wanted to call his mischief. The shopkeeper called Richard Branson’s father and asked him to come down to the store. The shopkeeper told the dad, “I assume your son has taken this, that you didn’t give it to him?” Richard Branson’s dad seemed irritated at this suggestion. He retorted back to the shopkeeper, “How dare you accuse him of stealing!” Although the senior Branson knew Richard had taken the 50 pence, he avoided humiliating his son in the open. Back home, Richard Branson admitted he had taken the coins from his dad and swore never to take money again without permission.

Idea for Impact

Most people are conscientious enough to recognize their mistakes. They do not want to be humiliated or shamed in the presence of peers and team members. Nor do not need their managers, parents, or other authority figures to ram mistakes down their throats.

When you think you can nail someone’s mistake in the open, take a breather and give a face-saving opportunity for the other. Avoid the temptation to put them down in public. In the privacy of one-on-one meetings, listen to their points of view, describe the impact of their ideas and behaviors, encourage them to reflect on their mistakes, and correct themselves.

Origin of the Expression “You are Fired!” [Business Folklore]

Source of the Term 'You are Fired'

Origin of the expression 'You are fired!' The term ‘fired’ is a colloquial expression for dismissing a person from employment. It became more popular as a result of the NBC reality show The Apprentice where the host, American businessman Donald Trump, eliminates contestants for a high-level management job by “firing” them successively. In 2004, Trump actually filed a trademark application for the catchphrase “You’re fired!”

Some sources suggest the expression may have originated from the verb “to fire,” as in “to discharge a gun.” However, legend has it that the phrase originated in the 1910s at the National Cash Register (NCR) Company.

John Henry Patterson, founder of National Cash Register (NCR) NCR founder John Henry Patterson (1844—1922) is widely recognized as the pioneer of sales management and for developing formal methods for training and assessing salespersons. In spite of all his genius, Patterson was quirky. He sought total control of his surroundings, imposing his personal values on employees. As a food and fitness fanatic, he had employees weighed every six months. He often dismissed employees for trivial reasons just to deflate their self-confidence and, soon after, rehire them back.

Patterson’s employees and customers branded him abusive and confrontational. Patterson once dismissed an executive by asking him to visit a customer. When the executive drove back to NCR headquarters, he found his desk had been thrown out on the lawn. Right on time, his desk burst into flames. He was “fired.”

Thomas Watson Sr. was “fired” by NCR

Thomas J. Watson Sr., former President of International Business Machines (IBM) Famously, NCR’s star sales executive Thomas Watson Sr. (1874–1956) met a similar fate. In 1914, Watson argued that NCR’s dominant product, mechanical cash registers, would soon go obsolete. He proposed that NCR develop electric cash registers. Patterson resisted the idea. He warned Watson not to overstep his boundaries and demanded that Watson focus on sales only and intrude into product innovation. Following an argument at a meeting, Patterson dismissed Watson. In a fit of rage, Patterson had workers carry Watson’s desk outside and had it lit on fire. Watson Sr. was thus “fired.”

Watson Sr. still believed in the potential for electric cash registers. He joined a smaller competitor, Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR,) which soon grew into International Business Machines (IBM.) Watson Sr. led IBM for forty years and turned it into the world’s leading technology company.

Source/Source: Keynote address by Mark Hurd, then-president and COO of Teradata at Kellogg School of Management’s Digital Frontier Conference on 17- and 18-Jan-2003. Teradata was previously a division of NCR Corporation, the company Patterson founded.