Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor says companies in even the most challenging sectors can expand with a little help from renewed perspective… and a can of WD-40
When Bill Taylor co-founded US business magazine Fast Company in 1995, he had to make ends meet by borrowing office space near Harvard University. Five years later, it was sold for $340m (then £220m), complete with an avid global following of executives and entrepreneurs. A former editor, and still blogger for, the Harvard Business Review, and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Mavericks at Work, it’s fair to say that Taylor has met countless directors from every conceivable sector and has a good idea of what makes successful leaders tick.
In that time, Taylor says he has noticed a mindset that is holding companies back from growth potential – their very definition of ‘success’. “For a long time, particularly in well-established fields, the definition of success has been ‘let’s be the best at what lots of other people already do’,” he tells Director. “That’s the world of – do it a little cheaper, make it a little higher quality, offer one feature that other companies don’t offer, incremental improvement, the economic value proposition.
“But the new logic of success has to be ‘let’s do things that only we can do – what do we promise that only we can promise? What do we deliver that only we can deliver? What are we capable of doing that nobody else in our field can do?’ What that requires is not a pounds and pence ‘value proposition’, but a richly defined ‘values proposition’. Yes it’s about what you offer, but it’s also about the experience you create, the gestures and signals you send to your customers and suppliers about what it means to do business with you – it’s about the originality of how you approach the marketplace.”
However, he says that many business owners are prone to coming up with reasons for not finding this original approach to their markets – something he believes is understandable given the heavy media focus on the achievements of certain tech behemoths: “I worry that we, as a collection of leaders, are getting so focused on – and excited by – the radical technology-driven disruptions in places like Silicon Valley. You can’t go a day without reading some hyperventilating news report about the latest development at Google or Uber, or Tesla.
“For all the value of that – they’re doing amazing things – my concern is that for the vast majority of companies who are not in those ultra-cutting-edge parts of the economy, this focus almost creates excuses for leaders in more familiar, traditional, mainstream fields about why they don’t have to be just as ambitious, just as daring, just as open-minded as leaders in Silicon Valley. You can rethink and reinvent what’s possible in just about any field if you’re prepared to make sure that what you know doesn’t limit what you can imagine.
“One of the push-backs to this I hear all the time is ‘we can’t be cutting-edge and progressive, we’ve been around for 100 years – we’re not Google, Facebook or Tesla’. Or another is ‘you want us to engage emotionally with our customers, but we’re from a drab, unglamorous, not-very-sexy field, we can’t be like Apple, Nike or Starbucks’. It gets me frustrated, because there is no such thing as a traditional or old-fashioned business, there are only traditional old-fashioned ways to do business … It’s often easier to do something fresh and compelling in industries that have been far too predictable for too long.”
Spurred on by this frustration, for his new book Simply Brilliant: How great organizations do ordinary things in extraordinary ways, Taylor set out to meet successful companies from such ‘unglamorous’ sectors and learn how they had re-imagined their marketplace and achieved growth. From the entrepreneur who turned the mundane business of multi-storey parking into a thriving retail and social hub, to the Finnish cleaning firm boss whose philosophy of empowering staff transformed perceptions of her brand, Taylor is now armed with a host of examples of businesses that have found new revenue streams by making the way they work as distinctive as the products they create.
One of his favourite examples is the renewed growth of industrial lubricant manufacturer WD-40, whose CEO Garry Ridge found a way to revive a business that had stagnated: “When Garry Ridge took over he’d got an iconic brand that was basically printing money. But it had one product, and largely one market with only 20 per cent of its revenues coming from outside of the US. The stock had been flat as a pancake for years and the business was distributing 100 per cent of its profits every year as cash dividends for stakeholders – there was no new thinking.
“The culture change at WD-40 was, he said, ‘from this day forward we will be a company of learners’. His phrase was ‘learning maniacs’ – it became part of the deal of being a leader at WD-40 that you had to seek out new experiences and opportunities and share what you’d learnt… Another thing he did was take a small number of executives, five or six, out of the day-to-day business and put them in what he called ‘Team Tomorrow’ and said, ‘Your job for the next several years is to simply learn as much as you can and figure out what WD-40 could and should be five or 10 years down the road.’”
Today, Taylor points out that WD-40 now generates 65 per cent of its revenues from outside its home territory and, driven by a host of new products and brands, by the end of 2015 the company’s stock had soared to $1.5bn (£1.1bn). “It’s back to being a growth business with an exciting trajectory, precisely because the CEO didn’t set out to find success by saying, ‘let’s reposition the portfolio’ or ‘let’s do a return-on-investment analysis’ – he said, ‘let’s make sure that we are learning as fast as the world is changing’. And that is how a pretty prosaic, straightforward product and company can be reinvigorated and transformed.”
Bill Taylor CV
Education Princeton University; MIT Sloan School of Management
Early career Works with consumer advocate Ralph Nader; associate editor at the Harvard Business Review; publishes The Big Boys and No-Excuses Management
1995 First edition of Fast Company magazine published – Taylor is co-founding editor
1996 Taylor’s book Going Global is published
2000 Fast Company sold to Gruner + Jahr for £220m
2006 Mavericks at Work is published and later named business book of the year by The Economist and the Financial Times
2011 Publishes Practically Radical, which Sir Martin Sorrell says “reminds us this is not the time to downsize your dreams or stop taking chances”
Today Writer, speaker, blogger for the Harvard Business Review; director and special adviser to Xconomy. New book Simply Brilliant launched
Simply Brilliant: How great organizations do ordinary things in extraordinary ways is out now (Portfolio Penguin, £14.99). For more information, visit williamctaylor.com