Fast Company

Deviants, Inc.

Deviance tells the story of every mass market ever created. What starts out weird and dangerous becomes America's next big corporate payday. So are you looking for the next mass-market idea? It's out there ... way out there.

In case you missed it, the February 2000 cover of Rolling Stone magazine sent an unmistakable wakeup call, a message from the Land of Deviants to Main Street America: Times have changed. There, on display at newsstands from coast to coast, was a photo of the New American Family, looking for all the world like a Norman Rockwell painting retouched by Charles Addams. Grouped together in loving bliss were David Crosby and his wife, Jan; Melissa Etheridge and her life partner, Julie Cypher; and two children. The kids, it turns out, were the biological offspring of a test-tube sexual dalliance between genetic material belonging to the honey-voiced Mr. Crosby and the striking Ms. Cypher.

Outrageous? Not the photo. Shocking? Not the test-tube babies. If anything raised readers' eyebrows, it was the lesbian couple's choice of Mr. Crosby as sperm donor. Who would pick a balding, overweight, recovered cocaine addict whose past penchant for recreational pharmaceuticals had already necessitated a lifesaving liver transplant? The whole ensemble was wholesome Americana and just plain weird. Deviance was knocking loud and clear on the door of Main Street America. Interestingly, Main Street America was answering it.

It was a measure of how far we've traveled and how fast. When most of us were kids, American families -- even show-business families -- still looked more like Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson than a test tube full of promiscuous proteins. Harriet wasn't leaving Ozzie for a lesbian partner. In fact, Harriet didn't even know any lesbians. Ozzie didn't stroll around randomly donating sperm to his friends down the block just because they hoped that his musical talent might be passed along. After all, Ozzie and Harriet slept (chastely, apparently) in separate beds. Despite their sleeping arrangements, they somehow managed to be the biological, legally wed, faithfully heterosexual parents of David and Ricky. And if either Mr. or Mrs. Nelson had wandered away with different sexual partners of any preference -- on-screen or off -- their show would have been canceled instantly.

So what happened in the years between Ozzie and Harriet and David, Jan, Melissa, and Julie? Somewhere along the line, deviance jumped out of the shadows and into the driver's seat. Change not only happened faster, it happened in odder and odder ways. Meanwhile, the fabric of society and business became inherently more deviant. Once upon a time, the William Morris Agency represented society's elite. By contrast, it now has among its clients Jim Rose, proprietor of the most notorious freak show in America, the Jim Rose Circus, replete with transvestite wrestlers and a program of self-mutilating entertainers. Another William Morris client, the Genitorturers, is a hard-rock band that routinely performs "stitchings" (think S&M instead of R&B) on members of the audience who crawl onstage hoping to be degraded. It doesn't stop there.

Do a quick scan of the relationship between the criminal-justice system and the social register. There was a time not so long ago when pimps were women-abusing scum who clung to the bottom rung of the social ladder. Today, they are the subjects of flattering HBO specials. Gangsters used to be criminals who took off on crime sprees and lived to be hunted by the law. Today, "gangsta-ism" is a prerequisite to having a Top 40 hit (not to mention your own record label).

The list of "used to be"s versus "is now"s could go on almost indefinitely -- but you get the idea. Things, large and small, legal and illegal, public and private, business and pleasure, have taken a decided turn for the weird. In December 1911, future IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Sr. wrote down the word "T-H-I-N-K" as a slogan to rally the sales and advertising departments of the National Cash Register Co. Almost 86 years later, on September 28, 1997, Apple launched its "Think different" ad campaign. Today, the best advice anyone in business could heed would be, "Think deviant."

Here's the raw truth: Deviance is the source of all innovation. It's the wellspring of new ideas, new products, new personalities, and, ultimately, new markets. It can be a force for good or for evil (and sometimes both). In its purest sense, deviance is really nothing more -- or less -- than any one of us taking one measurable step away from the middle of the road. Extend that step once more, and you'll find yourself moving from the comfort of the accepted into the fast-paced world of the trendsetter. Take another small step, and you'll land in the rarified realm of the ultracool avant-garde. Venture one hesitant step further, and you are in the sometimes seductive, more often frightening world of the cultist and the fanatic. Dare to take that last lone step, and you'll crash head-on into the heart of social darkness: the world of naked, pure, unabashed, and largely frightening deviance.

Does it make you uncomfortable to dwell among the denizens of deviance? Don't get too tense: The simple fact is that deviance's impact is ubiquitous. Look around a bit, and you'll see that all innovation and progress -- commercial, biological, social, scientific, artistic, and personal -- is a direct result of deviance. Think of deviance as an innovation virus, one that infects the status quo, changing traditional thinking at a cellular, primal level. Now imagine that innovation virus with a voice -- call it the "devox." The devox describes how deviance -- in individuals, ideas, or products -- is expressed as it vectors across a fixed, linear, predictable, and measurable passage from the "Fringe" (where it first appears in the mind of a true deviant) to the "Edge" (where it picks up a small following) to the "Realm of the Cool" (where it begins to develop a broader following among trendsetters) to an arena we call the "Next Big Thing" (where the formerly unthinkable becomes almost de rigueur) until it finally arrives at "Social Convention."

Go back to the cover of Rolling Stone. What really happened over the past three decades was that deviance, not reason, began to drive the social and commercial agenda. The result? Things that we found repugnant only yesterday we lionize today. Deviance migrates from the Fringe to Social Convention, rapidly creating markets and permanently changing the rules of the social and commercial game. The pace of change has picked up to the point where the functional distance between the Fringe and Social Convention has all but disappeared.

For businesspeople, the implications are increasingly important and dramatically risky. Markets form -- and dissolve -- in unanticipated places and at record rates. The opportunity to monetize a devox as it migrates from the Fringe to Social Convention, becoming successively tamer at each step of the journey, is simultaneously more prevalent and more ephemeral. Yesterday's pariah is tomorrow's market darling, and what was once beyond the social pale is suddenly a hot commodity. The pace of deviant change is so intense and so relentless that we are beginning to witness compound deviance. The rules of the game keep changing before we have a chance to write them down.

Today, if you want to catch the wave of the future, you have to start surfing a lot closer to the Fringe.

How to Gain the Deviant's Advantage

In the beginning, there were tribal chants and pounded rhythms among Western African tribes, the kind of sounds that Europeans would have dismissed as primitive babble. In the beginning, there was a moment of stark, unimaginable shock when Captain Cook's sailors encountered a Polynesian tribe whose bodies were covered with brightly colored geometric patterns created by dyes that were pierced into their skin -- a sure sign of the natives' distinct lack of civilization. In the beginning, there was Leonardo da Vinci in 1500, dreaming alone of a strange, unimaginable device that could be used to conduct far-fetched calculations. Or, perhaps the beginning came 125 years later, when Wilhelm Schickard touted his version of a mechanical calculator to a response that was a far cry from an avalanche of venture capital and a surefire IPO on Wall Street. That "harebrained" scheme was not much of a market maker.

At the beginning of every transforming, mass-market creation is the deviant on the Fringe. That goes for rock and roll, tattooing, and computing (as well as a huge number of truly crackpot schemes that never got beyond the Fringe). In the beginning, the devox has an audience of one -- the original deviant. Sometimes, the devox is only audible to a hermit, a mystic, or a psychotic. But it always manifests itself first on the Fringe, where the lone deviant is the only one interested in communicating it.

The next step along the path to Social Convention is the Edge, a zone that is a single notch over from the Fringe. There, the devox starts to find an audience, as the solitary deviant finally leaves his apartment and begins preaching on the street or the artist begins to show her work to a handful of trusted acquaintances. At the Edge, embryonic markets begin to form. The devox starts to develop limited commercial appeal, carried by followers of the original deviant, who spread the message by word of mouth. The audience expands, but a trace of the vision's authenticity begins to diminish.

Rock and roll moved to the Edge when African and African-American slaves turned the chants of their forebears into field calls and work songs in the American South. The sounds of West Africa were morphed and modified by other devoxes, vectoring into the space that was occupied by the sounds of Southern Christian churches and the indigenous music of the next-lowest social tier: indentured servants from Ireland, Scotland, and other lands.

Tattooing migrated to the Edge when the first modern sailors and explorers encountered tattooed "primitives" and made the decision to "go native." Decorating your skin wasn't something that respectable people back home did. But these sailors weren't respectable people, and they didn't mind wearing the badge of the misfit on their skin (or under it).

Several Edge dwellers can be credited with moving computing over from the Fringe. The most likely carrier of the devox was Charles Babbage, who designed his "Difference Engine No. 1" in 1821. Babbage never actually produced a working model of his machine, which owed much to other inventors (including Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French weaver who pioneered the first punch cards). But Babbage clearly played a seminal role in transferring the idea of computing machines from the Fringe to the Edge, headed toward the Realm of the Cool -- the next stop in its continuing evolution.

As the devox enters the Realm of the Cool, it acquires a small but rapidly growing audience, in part because the idea is starting to win slightly more favorable media coverage. What was once unconscionable is now considered to be daring and provocative. It's at this point that real markets begin to form, nurtured by Cool Hunters and other for-hire trend spotters and culture vultures.

You can almost trace the evolution of rock and roll into the Realm of the Cool on a map of America, tracing how jazz, blues, and "race records" (early rhythm and blues) migrated up U.S. Highway 61, from towns like Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta north to St. Louis, Chicago, and New York. The blues buried itself in Chicago's South Side juke joints. Jazz found its way to New York's Cotton Club. Rhythm and blues began to ferment into what would one day become the vintage Motown sound in Detroit's Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. Whatever the city, the pattern was the same: White audiences were hypnotically drawn to what were primarily segregated venues, lured by a chance to hear the raucous joy of African-American music as it matured and evolved. (Never mind that it was being played and sung by people they would never live next door to or let their daughters marry.)

Tattooing entered the Realm of the Cool immediately after World War II when legions of rather sheepish servicemen returned to respectable society bearing the indelible mark of one or more nights of mixing a dangerous blend of testosterone and alcohol. The members of the Greatest Generation may have publicly wished that they had never gotten that anchor, eagle, hula dancer, or remembrance of "Mom" on their arms, but there it was -- a graphic reminder of a time when they were young and life was more exciting.

In 1927, computing edged its way into the Realm of the Cool when Vannevar Bush designed "Product Intergraph" -- an analog computer that could solve simple equations -- with the help of two colleagues at MIT. Product Intergraph and its 1930 successor, the Differential Analyzer, proved to be so popular that they served to slow down the development of digital-computer models.

Once the devox achieves audience size and market scale in the Realm of the Cool, it's ready to move on to the Next Big Thing. At that point, the original deviant is little more than a distant reference point, and the devox has become sanitized, commercialized, and packaged. Conventional society may flirt with the devox when it's in the Realm of the Cool. But when the devox hits the Next Big Thing, those in the mainstream become genuinely engaged with it.

Rock and roll entered the realm of the Next Big Thing when Elvis Presley (whose career is in itself an interesting example of a human devox moving from the Fringe to Social Convention and beyond) jump-started the engine built by early rockers such as Bill Haley. Elvis was the dream incarnate of Sun Records' founder Sam Phillips: a white boy who sang as if he were black. True, Elvis's version of "Hound Dog" was less menacing than the original version recorded by Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, an enormous African-American woman who routinely appeared onstage dressed as a man. Big Mama's growling delivery of "Hound Dog" on Peacock Records left no doubt about the song's subject: the pleasures and pain of backdoor sex. But it fell to Elvis to smooth out the menace from the message, to slide the devox from the Realm of the Cool to the Next Big Thing, and to ride the song to teenage mass-market glory.

If Elvis was rock's triumphant carrier, then Cher can take equal credit for moving tattooing into the arena of the Next Big Thing. Here was a card-carrying member of the "beautiful people" tribe who chose to adorn her skin with ink after she had already become famous! All of a sudden, athletes, actors, and musicians used body ink as a way of telling the world that they were big enough and powerful enough to reject social taboos. Tattoos shifted from being badges of guilty pleasure (or nights only dimly remembered) to being visible status symbols proudly worn.

In 1951, with the introduction of UNIVAC, the first true commercial computer, computing made the leap into the Next Big Thing. Prior to UNIVAC, computers existed apart from the mainstream world. They were toys that only military strategists and scientific wizards could play with. After UNIVAC, however, the application and the future of computing were undeniable, even though the market for computing machines was still limited.

In its last stage, as the devox arrives triumphantly at the center of Social Convention, one and all join in celebrating its inevitability and ubiquity. The media close ranks and mandate the adoption of the devox as the accepted social standard. Think of the difference in the way that the media covered the earliest version of the ARPANet in 1969 compared with the dizzying dash in the early 1990s to be the first company in a given industry to have its very own Web site and email address. At this stage, the devox has achieved its largest market and its greatest commercial potential. The original deviant has either been co-opted or eliminated, the authenticity of his concept is at its lowest point, and the triumph of the devox as a mass-market phenomenon is complete.

Today, tattoos are an essential part of the formal uniform of any self-respecting, pampered, suburban youth intent on demonstrating her individualism. These days, every male athlete worthy of the name carries a storyboard of ink on his body. Rock stars are known by their tattoos, and even corporate chieftains proudly ink themselves, tattooing the logo of their brand into their skin as a permanent statement of brand loyalty. In the realm of rock and roll, both Big Mama Thornton and Elvis have boogied their way to that great Heartbreak Hotel in the sky -- only to be replaced by the rockers of Social Convention: 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears (whose porno-saccharine presence is frighteningly ubiquitous), and a legion of such "classic rockers" as the Rolling Stones, who are more likely to bounce grandchildren on their knees then to pose as street-fighting men. And as for computing? Today, it's as conventional as electricity or telephony -- and, increasingly, just as exciting.

Anywhere you look, you will see the same pattern. It could be film, food, or fashion. It could be magazines, music, or medicine. It could be wellness, fitness, or any other form of hipness. Deviance and the flight of the devox tells the story of every mass market ever created. What starts out as weird and dangerous morphs until it becomes a safe haven for America's latest corporate payday. You see it more and more: A clip from Easy Rider -- that 1960s love song to outlaw biking, counterculture, casual sex, and selling cocaine -- is now being used to hawk Diners Club. "I Put a Spell on You" -- a song released in 1956 by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a singer once rumored to be a cannibal, who wore a bone through his nose to match the one in his necklace and who would begin his act by rising out of a coffin -- is now a jingle used to push Pringles, the most sanitized, processed, and standardized potato chip in history.

Deviants are the source of innovation. The path of the devox is predictable, its impact measurable. Deviance ought to be a big business. And it would be, if it weren't for one thing: culture. All business problems are, in fact, cultural problems.

The Deviant's Disadvantage

Culture poses two opposing problems for deviants: First, mass culture is continually birthing new opportunities. The fact is, mass culture loves the devox. Second, in one American company after another, corporate culture serves as an organizational prophylactic, protecting business-as-usual businesses from new opportunities. In truth, corporate culture hates the devox. Corporate culture works to eliminate deviant employees. Corporate culture works to discourage deviant ideas. Corporate culture punishes deviant behavior and attitudes. And, of course, as a result, most large companies lose the opportunity to discover the future and get there first.

Companies are stuck in a puzzling -- no, a deeply disturbing -- syllogism that they are unable to work out: All innovation springs from deviance. Innovation is good. But somehow, deviance always ends up being bad. As a consequence, established businesses tend to feel caught between their addictive thirst for breakthrough offerings and their visceral fear and hatred of anyone who refuses to parrot the party line.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Deviance and order can not only find a way to coexist but in fact are also profoundly codependent -- a lesson that business and business leaders could learn from a quick study of nature.

Imagine where Xerox would be today if it had been deviant enough to stop thinking of itself as a copier company. Think about what it would have meant to the former Big Three automakers if they had been smart enough to hire Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates as consultants and social-trend spotters, instead of chasing them down the backstreets of Detroit. How different would the airline industry be today if the nation's air carriers were deviant enough to imagine that their mission was to transport people, not to ship weight?

The history of innovation proves it; corporate leaders need to accept it: The advantage always falls to the deviant, because nature -- and commerce -- hates stasis. Deviants, by definition, are individuals who don't, won't, or can't play by the rules. Their mission is to propagate their deviance, not to climb the corporate ladder. As employees -- if they can even tolerate being employees -- they tend to be insubordinate. They often appear to be unfocused. They are almost always highly individualistic, and, more often than not, they make lousy team players. They range from difficult to manage (the best-case scenario) to totally unmanageable (the default mode). They are also the greatest hope that moribund corporations have for renewing their vision, energy, innovation, and future.

The challenge to business is simple: Think deviant. Start by finding the most deviant person you know. Take her to lunch. Do it today.

Ryan Mathews (ryan.mathews@firstmatter.com) and Watts Wacker (watts.wacker@firstmatter.com) are coauthors of The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets (Crown Business, September 2002).

Sidebar: The Elvis Chronicles: Profiles in Deviance

Circa: 1950 - 1954
Occupation: Teen dreamer; white-trash truck driver
Loves: His momma and African-American music
Where he's at: Fringe to the Edge

Circa: 1954 - 1955
Occupation: Fledgling king of crossover music
Loves: His momma and fame
Where he's at: A local hit, Elvis has entered the Realm of the Cool

Circa: 1955 - 1960
Occupation: Rock star; movie star; soldier
Loves: His momma, young girls, and Harley-Davidsons
Where he's at: Next Big Thing

Circa: 1960 - 1977
Occupation: Vegas lounge act
Loves: His momma, fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, and sequins
Where he's at: Social Convention

Circa: August 16, 1977 -
Occupation: Postage-stamp model; dead King
Loves: His momma, the fact that his daughter is no longer married to Michael Jackson
Where he's at: Between icon and cliché

Sidebar: Advice to Deviants

Hunter S. Thompson, the great deviant gonzo journalist, once wrote, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." Not only is that good advice, there's never been a better time to act on it. If you're a deviant, you're in luck! The market has decided to look on you with favor -- you actually have a chance to cash in on your weirdness. In slightly less forgiving times, deviants didn't make vice president. Instead, they were exiled, stoned to death, imprisoned in cold, dark dungeons, or burned at the stake. So things could be a lot worse. Now, if you're a deviant trapped inside the body of a large corporation, here are 10 pieces of advice.

1. Split before you catch whatever "they" have.
2. Relax! They don't have a choice. Sooner or later, they'll have to listen to you.
3. Start your own company. It's easier than converting the masses.
4. Remember, you look as strange to them as they look to you.
5. Sell out! Sure, it lacks integrity, but the benefits can be pretty nice.
6. Learn the language. Pretend that you're in Uzbekistan. You need to learn to communicate in order to survive.
7. Nothing succeeds like success. Make them some money, and watch how fast they learn to love you.
8. Bear this in mind: Nothing goes from your head to a mass market without being changed.
9. Adopt a suit. Unless you're certifiable, they will have a hard time hating you as they get to know you.
10. Be who you are. After all, what other real choice do you have?

Sidebar: Advice to Corporate Leaders

You may not like it. You may not be comfortable with it. But there it is: The devox is alive and well, and you need to deal with it. Sure, deviants make you nervous. You may not like them, but you need them! Remember what Vito Corleone advised in The Godfather: "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer." Good advice from a deviant about how to deal with deviants. Here are 10 more tips.

1. Consider the metaphor of the windmill: You can harness raw power, but you can't control it.
2. Stop firing risk takers when their ideas don't work out.
3. Unless you are yourself a deviant, quit hiring and promoting people who are exactly like you.
4. Fire Cool Hunters and other cultural interpreters. Odds are, they don't get it. And if they do get it, by the time they communicate it to you, the real opportunity will be gone.
5. Hire artists, clowns, or other disrupters to come in and challenge your corporate environment.
6. Hire a corporate anthropologist to analyze how tolerant your organization is of deviants and other innovators.
7. Once the anthropologist leaves, hire a shaman to drive out the evil spirits of conformity.
8. Encourage your employees to get out of their professional and personal comfort zones.
9. Arrange corporate field trips and learning journeys to see examples of profitable deviants at work.
10. Relax. Resistance to deviance is futile. And acceptance of deviance is anything but fatal.

Sidebar: 5 Things You Need to Know About the Devox

1. Innovations -- from products, services, ideas, and even celebrities move from the fringe to the center.
2. The distance from the fringe of society to the center of the social convention has been compressed, and the pace of making the trip has been accelerated.
3. Social convention has eroded to the point where it no longer authoritatively defines reality for society.
4. Historically, the fringe was defined by the mainstream. Today, the fringe defines what the mainstream looks like.
5. Most companies that say they are seeking "the edge" of fashion, technology, or consumer trends are, in fact, picking up on deviance well after it has begun its journey to the center.

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