Echo Chamber

Be different

If you are defining yourself and your business in terms of your competition, you are living in an echo chamber.

Companies and organisations don’t grow fast at the expense of existing competitors. They grow fast for reasons that have nothing to do with whether your service is 5% better or your product is a little more convenient than your competitors.

There are two ways to grow: by “stealing” from the competition or by growing the market. The first path is slow and painful and difficult. The second path is where the magic of fast growth kicks in.

You don’t beat Deloittes or SizweNtsalubaGobodo with better consulting advice, you don’t raise more money than the Gift of the Givers by spending it more efficiently.

Don’t be better, be different.

Cuff Links

If cuff links didn’t exist and you invented them, would they succeed?

I have got one shirt in my closet with French cuffs. As I looked at it one day, hanging there quiet lonely, I got to thinking about cuff links.

Cuff links are arguably a nice way for men to wear jewelry, and they were no doubt functional back in the day. But it’s difficult to argue much of a utilitarian use today.

Yet they persist.

They persist because stamping them out completely is essentially impossible. They are an anachronism, part of a system that many never go away. We can’t get rid of them until all the long sleeve shirts are gone, but as long as there are long sleeve shirts with French cuffs, there will be cuff links, which will only encourage people to buy more French cuffs!

Stores can sell plenty of shirts with holes for cuff links. If there were no holes there would be no cuff links. As long as there are holes, there will be a demand for them.

So if you are trying to invent a product or service that requires the rest of the industry to put a hole out there for you to fill, good luck.

Starting a new industry standard is really difficult. Leveraging one that already exists is easy. If you can figure out a way to profit from an existing “hole,” you have got yourself a huge advantage.


I will be going to watch a theatre play soon, I haven’t seen a theatre stage play in a while. The last time I watched, the star performer didn’t show up. An understudy took his place, and there was a small paper-note on our seats before the play started informing us that the understudy actor would be appearing.

The lights went down, the music started, the curtain went up. A few extras wandered onto the stage. Then the main character appeared.

The audience applauded.


Why was the audience applauding the understudy? Virtually everyone in the audience knew that the big star wasn’t there.

I’m sure that in the old days, when Ken Gampu or Mirriam Makeba appeared onstage, there was the gasp of recognition and the gratitude the audience felt that a big star had chosen to spend valuable time with us, the audience. So the applause is a natural by-product of that emotion.

Here, though, was an actor we hadn’t paid to see, an actor who was sure to do his best, but he hadn’t done a thing for us.

So why applaud?


There are too many choices in our lives. Too many brands of soft drinks, too many kinds of cellphones and too many options of airlines to fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town. There are too many social choices as well, when to clap, how to say hello, what sort of greeting to leave on your cellphone.

As a result, more often than not, with all these options at our disposal, we resort to tradition. We do what we have always done because it’s safer and easier.

You should care about this.

You should care if you are an entrepreneur and trying to launch and market a new idea or product that requires people to upset their existing tradition. Changing the way we do things (whether it’s the design of a bicycle or the structure of the vote counting from manual to electronic counting as we have seen comrades in the Polokwane conference) is hard indeed.

Realising that being better is not nearly enough helps you understand the magnitude of your marketing challenge.

In fact, traditions rarely change quickly just because the alternatives are better.

True story: Walking down Hamilton Street in Pretoria last Friday, less than a block from about twenty great and cheap restaurants, I heard one tourist say to another tourist, “Well, we could have lunch at MacDonalds.”

Why choose McDonalds? Tradition!

Should you care that every single voicemail greeting says, “Hi, you have reached Roche’s voicemail. I’m not available right now, please leave a message after the tone”? I think by now you know what to do after the beep, but still you get instructions every time.

You should also care if you are trying to build something big and important because big and important things often come from changing the tradition. And if you can invent a new tradition, a new tradition around your innovation, that’s when you win big.

The Start-up Revolution is about breaking tradition, upsetting the status-quo.


Where does trust come from?

Hint: it never comes from the good times and from the easy projects.

We trust people because they showed up when it wasn’t convenient, because they told the truth when it was easier to lie and because they kept a promise when they could have gotten away with breaking it.

Every tough time and every pressured project is another opportunity to earn the trust of someone you care about.

The Startup Revolution: Fit In or Stand Out

Startup Revolution Cover 2

In September 2014, I will be launching my debut book: The Startup Revolution: Fit In or Stand Out.

The Startup Revolution is about the new ear of entrepreneurship, about the Industrial Revolution is coming to an end and this means the end to an era of jobs as we used to know it. The concept of a job is now being replaced by a the Startup Revolution where those who will make change that matters are those who will do things for themselves, those who initiate and create things. Those who make change that matters in the Startup Revolution are those that stand out, the mavericks.

Here is a preamble to the book:

The old rules: Go to school, get good grades. Do as you are told and you will be guaranteed a secured job and a performance bonus. Don’t rock the boat and you will be safe for a long time. Innovation is not for everyone, it is for the chosen few.

The new rules: No one is going to pick you, pick yourself up. Keeping it safe is no longer safe. Challenging the status quo and asking difficult questions is what will keep you ahead of the head. Innovation is for everyone and push the boundaries is what keeps you alive. Fear is not something to be shun, but it is something to be embraced.

The Industrial revolution of having a factory job is coming to an end. It is replaced by a new economy of connectness. People who make change today are those who challenge the status quo; those who see opportunities in the midst of chaos and those who are not afraid of failure, but are aware that failure is part of growth.

In the Startup Revolution, doing what you are told is the new definition of laziness. This new laziness has nothing to do with physical labour and everything to do with fear. If you are not going make those sales calls or invest in innovation or push that insight, if you are sheep walking your life, asking no questions, changing nothing, adding nothing new, you are not avoiding being lazy because you need physical rest. You are hiding out because you are afraid of expending emotional and mental labour.

In the connection economy, adding nothing new to the status-quo because of fear is the new definition of laziness. In the Startup Revolution, you either fit in or stand out, you can’t do both. It’s up to you, and that’s part of the power that you’ve got.

In The Republic of Mediocrity

They will push you to fit in, to dress alike, to use the same tools, to fit the format.

They are the high school English teacher in love with his novels and the book editor who needs you to fit in with the program. “That’s the way we do things around here.” They are the well-meaning productivity guru who wants you to get faster, not better.

The safest thing you can do, it seems, is to fit in. Total deniability. Hey, I’m just doing what the masses do.

The masses are average. And by definition, we have a surplus of average.

Don’t be different just to be different. Be different to be better.

“In the republic of mediocrity, genius is dangerous.” ― Robert G. Ingersoll

It’s important to stop basking in the glow of mediocrity.

Resting smiley face

Will Smith
When no one is looking and you are not trying, what shows on your face?

A lot of people say I have a serious face, some even say I am unapproachable until you get to know me better.

My face is not “serious” because I’m serious, it looks serious because that’s my default face when I’m quiet.

It is interesting what people read with your default face.

We all have default faces, default settings, an arrangement of muscles that gives our mouth and eyes a look.

People rely so much on reading faces that even though you might not intend it, people are making an assumption about your mood and your approachability.

Here is an interesting question I have been thinking about:

What is the ‘resting face’ of your brand, your business, your website?

In the ordinary course of business, when no one is really focused on trying, what does your emails, signage and word choices telegraph about you?

Over time, many businesses evolve into an efficient yet foreboding default.

It takes effort to move uphill, to put a smile into your voice and your typical interactions.

What could be worth more effort than that, though?