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How a Billion-Dollar Idea Came From One Question

In an excerpt from their new book Brainsteering, authors Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne explain why just asking the right thing at the right time can create a business empire.

Brainsteering

What’s the secret to Brainsteering? As it turns out, there are two. First: if you ask the right questions, answers and good ideas soon follow. And second: the right process for consistently generating breakthrough ideas looks very different from what you’ve probably been taught.

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Obviously, many layers of subtleties lie beneath these two simple secrets–and those layers are what this book is all about. But before we dive into those layers, perhaps you’d like a little convincing about the power of our two core principles.

Asking the Right Questions

Let’s look at the first secret of Brainsteering: If you ask the right questions, answers and good ideas soon follow.

How powerful can a single Right Question be? Let’s visit the scene of a lunchtime discussion that took place in 1981 at a restaurant in Houston, Texas. Four years earlier, Apple Computer had legitimized the personal computer industry by introducing the Apple II, the first mass-produced personal computer. With a central processor and keyboard unit, disk drives, and a separate monitor that was about the size of a small television set, the Apple II stood about two feet tall. Transporting it required a suitcase-like box.

Then IBM followed with the IBM PC. It combined the disk drives and processor into one unit, but separated the keyboard and kept an independent monitor (also the size of a small TV). It stood about twenty-one inches tall and was heavier than the Apple. IBM allowed other manufacturers to copy its technical details, so a variety of tall, heavy machines nicknamed “PC clones” flooded the market.

In 1981, three Texas Instruments executives–Rod Canion, Bill Murto, and Jim Harris–met over lunch at a restaurant in Houston. Their discussion came to center on a single question: “How could we design an IBM-compatible computer that would fit into the overhead bin of an airplane?” By the end of that lunch, the three execs had agreed on all the major design requirements–and the result was Compaq Computer Corporation, which was founded in February 1982 and grew to over a billion dollars in annual sales in less than four years–all on the strength of that one product.

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Was Compaq just a lucky fluke? Not at all. It’s more typical than you might think. In fact, there are at least forty-one other examples just like it. Here’s the story.

One of the many key subprojects during our research effort at McKinsey was to study the universe of companies that had achieved a truly extraordinary level of success: start-up companies that had grown from scratch to achieve over a billion dollars in annual revenues (measured in constant dollars as of the year 2000) in four years or less, without making a single major acquisition. We called them “Z–1–4” companies, for “zero to $1 billion within 4 years.”

We found that as of 2006, there were twenty companies that had ever accomplished the Z–1–4 feat in North America, Europe, or Australia. (There may well have been others, too, but there were no comprehensive, reliable, and readily comparable data sources for effectively analyzing companies in Asia, Latin America, or Africa). The list of megasuccessful companies included such now household names as Amazon, Reebok, Google, and of course, Compaq.

In addition, we found another twenty-three companies that we categorized as “near Z–1–4”–that is, companies that already had a modest level of annual revenues (less than $50 million) before their period of explosive growth began, or that took a little longer to reach annual revenues of nearly $1 billion (specifically, companies that took up to six years to achieve at least $850 million in annual revenues). This second group included equally famous names such as eBay, Apple, Home Depot, and Priceline.com.

Clearly, these forty-three companies would have to be considered major success stories. Although some faltered in later years for various reasons, including corporate hubris, most enjoyed continued success. And in every case, it’s impossible to deny the brilliance of their early performance.

Best of all, here’s the most dramatic commonality among them: forty-two of the forty-three companies were based on a single concept. That’s right–with the exception of one company that was based on three parallel ideas, each of the Z–1-4 companies was based on a single shining idea that carried them to over a billion dollars in annual sales. Needless to say, most of them have since discovered additional ideas and grown even further–but think of the power of each company’s first idea.

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In many cases, the company’s breakthrough idea was literally the result of answering a single specific question–the Right Question–at the outset. But much more important, we discovered that in every case, there was at least one Right Question that, had you asked it at the right time and place, could have revealed the Billion-Dollar Idea to you.

Excerpted from Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas by Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne (Harper Business). Reprinted with permission.

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