Ignore Your Early Lessons When You Outgrow Them

I’ve learned a lot from books I’ve read, and learned an important lesson from one of the first books I read, The Dog and The Bone. To remind you, it’s the story of the little dog prancing along with his teeth around his new-found bone, when he sees his reflection in a river. Thinking it was another dog and bone, he drops the real bone to snatch the shiny reflection of his bone and winds up with neither. The book focuses on the dog’s greed and the resulting consequences.

That story has come to mind, indeed haunted me, from time to time over the years. How could I reconcile that story to my advice to entrepreneurs and business visionaries, namely to take a chance and grab for the brass ring? Seeing and reaching out to grab opportunities is what business visionaries do, but it’s not easy to measure risk and reward as the merry-go-round speeds past the elusive brass ring.

Advising, observing and studying business visionaries has taught me that the answer to the question: whether to drop the bone and reach for the shinier one, depends on numerous factors. The most important factors are learned by doing your homework & knowing your stuff. In my recent book, I tell the stories of business leaders & visionaries who have done that well:

Ø Ross Perot, founder of EDS and Perot Systems (sold for combined several billion dollars) saw the potential of SaaS before anyone. He did so by listening to IBM customers while selling like no one else.

Ø Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, saw computer and medical device companies that didn’t trust the Post Office with their valuable devices and components. He reads extensively to envision market and technological opportunities.

Ø Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network, saw the opportunities of satellite TV before others. She went back to school (literally did her homework) to learn a new science (geosynchronous satellite positioning).

Ø Tony Terlato envisioned Americans drinking quality wine, not the low price wine-by-the-barrel served in the mid-20th century. He read, traveled Europe meeting experts, and taught himself to taste quality differences.

It’s not just knowing about business generally, not even about knowing your business well. It’s also a matter of knowing what to focus on.

         Recently, the Today Show did a retrospective to a 1983 Morley Safer interview of George Finn, a savant who seemed to remember every date and day of various events. Then Finn said to Safer, “What’s your name again?” It seemed an ultimate example of a mind totally focused on what a man wanted to remember. Of course, Finn’s focus was likely beyond his control. For most of us, the control is readily at hand, so we certainly should use it.