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Be a fish, let them be birds

I think I’ve mentioned this Zen Koan before, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of it: the bird and the fish both pursue the same goal in winter – to stay warm – but they take opposite approaches. The bird flies up while the fish swims down.

Similarly, two companies can take radically different approaches to achieving identical goals. Both are pursuing market share and profits, but because of their nature, the best way to pursue these may be quite different.

You can play on this fact by asking yourself how a "fish" would approach this problem and how a "bird" would do it; how a "retailer" would jump into this business and how a "software company" would. 

Just today I was having lunch with two executives from Chartis, formerly part of AIG, and we were discussing the value of asking leaders questions like "how would my competitor approach this problem?" or "how would a company from a seemingly unrelated industry get into this business?"

Blink is approaching the corporate jet opportunity from a fundamentally different angle than most corporate jet companies. The leaders in the space – NetJets, Bombardier FlexJet, etc. – are seeking to match the luxury of owning a corporate jet with the economy that comes from shared ownership. They are to jet ownership what luxury timeshares are to real estate.

Blink, in contrast, is seeking to be the Southwest Airlines of corporate jets. Its DNA, as Blink's cofounder Peter Leiman put it, this is about "achieving high asset utilization" to achieve a significantly lower cost basis than its competitors. By asking the question, "How would Southwest Airlines approach this business," Peter and Jake make thousands of strategic choices that seem obvious from their perspective, but would seem crazy from a traditional airline company’s perspective.

It is these thousands of small decisions – from how they recruit and train to what type of seats to install in planes – that weave a web of advantages that competitors have trouble replicating.

Blink, for example, only uses one type of plane: the Cessna Mustang, just as Southwest operates a single-plane fleet. Blink is the largest owner of Mustangs in the world. This choice runs counter to the strategy of competitors who want to offer their customers choice.

Try this exercise yourself. Pick a successful competitor who is not in your immediate business space right now and ask yourself the following questions:

1.   How would this company enter my business today?

2.   What new technology or service could it try to attach to my business offerings?

3.   How could my competitors background in another field help him make strides in mine?

4.   What new products or services can I offer my customers?

5.   How can I encourage my employees to be thinking innovatively about future offerings?