In business publishing, much of the material aimed at aspiring entrepreneurs and ambitious creatives is of dubious merit. Sure, charismatic “thought leaders” can give a great pep talk, but do they actually impart practical, teachable, implementable skills? Doing so requires more than personal anecdotes; it’s predicated on data, collected from a sizable subject pool, and coded for patterns. This is what Stanford Lecturer Amy Wilkinson believes, and has executed on in her new book The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs.
Over her varied career, Wilkinson has been a White House policy advisor on international trade, a McKinsey strategist and the CEO of an export company that opened U.S. markets to indigenous Mexican artisans. As an author, she interviewed 200 CEOs from “high growth, high impact” companies (those that made $100 million in revenue within 10 years and have been around for at least five) and then coded this information for cognitive and behavioral patterns. The result is a set of six integrated skills, which leaders in engineering, design, fashion, and food have relied upon to become successful. Here are three highlights.
The most important skill in the creator’s code, upon which all the others rely, is the ability to identify gaps. Successful creators are always on the lookout for holes or inconsistencies in the marketplace, and they seek to fill them first. All of Wilkinson’s 200 CEOs were able to do this, but after coding for various methodologies, she identified three different approaches.
A Sunbird is an Australian hummingbird. It picks up something in one place, and then cross-pollinates by dropping the object elsewhere. Bob Langer, who runs MIT’s Langer Lab, is one such example. He’d been studying smart materials in cars, when he realized that the same technology could be applied to medicine. The result was a bandage that stitched human organs back together. Another prime cross-pollinator is Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. Until the ’80s, coffee drinking in the U.S. was a largely solitary activity, with people drinking at home or at their desks. “Schultz saw communal coffee culture in Italy and brought it to US, where it didn’t really exist,” says Wilkinson.
In the Creator’s Code, architects are entrepreneurs who build something that didn’t previously exist. With SpaceX, Elon Musk “first tried to see if he could buy a rocket but he found the cost prohibitive,” says Wilkinson. So instead, he researched the rocket’s component parts and built his own. “It’s a tenth the cost of NASA’s and is now supplying the international space station.”
Steve Ells of Chipotle integrated two disparate approaches to eating. He was a classically trained chef who loved the casual burrito culture of San Francisco’s Mission District. With Chipotle, he fused the two into the “fast casual” category of dining. “It wasn’t fast food like McDonald’s hamburgers, which are frozen,” says Wilkinson. “They’re preparing the food in front of you—cooking, slicing, and dicing like a professional chef,” but you can still grab your food and go. Another example of smart integration would be the Gilt Groupe, which melded high-end fashion with the excitement and thrift consciousness of the flash sale.
In the past, says Wilkinson, companies believed they could prevent failure simply by eliminating imperfections in their products. Today’s successful CEOs take a different approach. They view failure as necessary and even beneficial. “People who shape the future are more willing to fail, because it’s a learning mechanism,” she says. But they “fail wisely,” never relying on the success of just one idea. “They place small bets, use trial and error. It’s a portfolio approach.” Wilkinson points out that VCs make the wrong bet roughly 70% of the time, but they’re taking so many small risks, they can still come out ahead.
One great example of smart failure is OPower, a software-as-service company that wanted to push consumers toward energy conservation. The owners pinpointed a large neighborhood and experimented with various messages to see which would most likely compel people to use fans instead of their AC. “Help Save the Planet” signs convinced nobody. Cost-saving messages were equally ineffective. What eventually did work was social pressure. When signs specified that a large percentage of the neighborhood had chosen fans over AC, energy consumption drastically decreased. “Results came out of tiny experiments with what worked and what didn’t,” Wilkinson says.
But even these results didn’t solve the problem. The company assumed that social media would be the best way to target consumers, so they expended resources on a Facebook app. It was a failure. So OPower resumed their trial and error testing. Eventually, they discovered that sending people consumer reports, which documented their neighbors’ energy consumption, had a much greater impact than social media. Today, says Wilkinson, OPower’s “cumulative [energy] savings is enough to power the city of Miami for a year.”
“If you’re trying to solve new problems, you need very different types of people to come up with solutions,” says Wilkinson. This means hiring a team of people who don’t think the same way and who may not even get along so well. She points to research out of Columbia University, in which fraternity and sorority members were given problems to solve. When members of the same houses worked together, they reported feeling more comfortable and finished their work more quickly—but they only solved the problems correctly 54% of the time. When members of different houses were shuffled, team members said they felt less comfortable and took longer to complete the tasks—but they their success rate was 75%. “It may be awkward to get these points of view together, but it does produce a better result,” says Wilkinson.
Brain diversity can also mean harnessing a large community of passionate individuals. Jake Nickell drew upon a disparate community of artists to launch Threadless, which uses a voting system to promote the work of aspiring designers. He created an online space where designers could critique each other’s work, help promote and monetize new products and even form partnerships with companies like The Gap, Disney, and the Cartoon Network. “The more artists that participated, the more feedback they received, and the more motivated they became to stay involved,” says Wilkinson. “It’s almost like a drug: you have to get better and better so people respect and appreciate your work.” But you can only improve your work (and, by extension, your personal brand) by a creative melding of the minds.
In addition to these three skills, The Creator’s Code explores how to cope with the speed of expansion, how to stay ahead of the competition and how generosity, when treated like a practical skill, is vital to success in a networked economy. Wilkinson says that each of the six skills was vital to the 200 CEOs she interviewed but that “code” should not be mistaken for a paint-by-numbers system. “Within each skill, there are degrees and depths of implementation,” she says. “Chipotle is a very different business than SpaceX or Spanx.” Which means that The Creator’s Code is at once universally applicable but can only be implemented in a highly specific manner. It’s no 4-Hour Work Week, but it might be the ticket to your first $100 million.