“Cherish forever what makes you unique, ‘cuz you’re really a yawn if it goes.” — Bette Midler
Paul Orfalea was born severely dyslexic. His learning disability wasn’t diagnosed until he was well into grade school and well behind his classmates. It was a humiliating period for Paul, as were most of his school years. Years of low self esteem, of not knowing where he might fit in.
Paul finally did get through junior college as the 1960s came to an end. What would he do? What did he have to offer an employer? Not much, he concluded.
Thirty years later, Harvard Business School profiled three entrepreneurs who had built brand name businesses and had made a large impact on society. HBS shared proudly these true success stories of giants with ties to the school. Two were from the MBA program. The third, Paul Orfalea, had merely attended an executive program.
What had happened in those intervening decades? Paul had simply founded and built a multi-billion dollar organization called Kinko’s — an American staple named for his school nickname (a commentary on Paul’s “kinky” hair).
“The people who got the A’s become professors. Those with the B’s become middle managers, the C’s turn into senior managers. And those who got the D’s and F’s? They’re the ones who donate the buildings.” — a university official on fund raising
Paul wanted recognition that he could be somebody; he wanted to make money. And he did just that by relying on his special gifts as an observer and synthesizer.
Paul couldn’t read as a child . (He doesn’t read much now either –except for the stores’ financial reports, which he memorizes!). So he would spend his time observing, talking to people, and listening to just about everything.
“You can observe a lot by watching.” — Yogi Berra, Yankee Hall of Famer
Taking a walk through a retail center with Paul Orfalea is an unforgettable experience. He sees something over there and something over here, and voila, he synthesizes them into a new business! Because he spends almost no time reading and lots of time understanding human nature, he constantly reinvents this process. It’s his special gift … and his way of building his brand.
It’s widely known that Paul started Kinko’s with a $5,000 bank loan in a 100 square foot store on the UCSB campus in Isla Vista, California. He offered better quality copies at a lower price than the university service. But Paul’s real success story is rarely told with such romanticism — it involves new products and capital.
What else could Kinko’s sell? What else do students need? School supplies, of course. And how best to sell them? Simple: Paul strapped Kinko’s backpacks on the male student body and sent them to the women’s dorms armed with order forms, then he sent the women to do the same in the men’s dorms. Before you knew it, Paul had squeezed another $5,000 per day out of a 100 square foot business.
“A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people.” — Will Rogers
But now Paul had to grow the company with little money of his own. His technique since 1970: Everyone is an owner. After all, how else could co-workers become as committed as he was? Paul recruited his friend, Brad Kraus, who borrowed what he could for a second store. Paul did the same. Thus began the first Kinko’s partnership. Twenty-six years — and 127 partnerships — later, Kinko’s approached 1,000 stores, some as large as 20,000 square feet. All were financed off the balance sheet.
Today, Paul explains the key to Kinko’s success with a Michelangelo analogy. It is that connection — finger to finger — of the customer with the Kinko’s co-worker. It is a company of observers, of listeners, of people trying to help customers “express themselves.” [To read more on Paul Orfalea, see Newsletters #46 & #56 and Fast Company issue 12]
Brand Lifeline #1: Build Your Brand from the Inside-Out
“Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.” — Katharine Hepburn
Kinko’s reflects Paul’s personality, what he is good at, and what he cares about. Likewise, your brand will be unique and special if it reflects what is truly important, truly authentic to you. Do what you need and do what fulfills you before concerning yourself with market needs. After all, there will be good days and bad days. Those people who build brands to last need the resiliency and courage to keep going when things don’t look good. And that means building a brand that connects first with you.
Authentic brands connect with people at many levels. When you are doing what you really care about, others can tell. If they have similar interests, they will help you in unexpected, unpredicted, and even magical ways. Serendipity, it seems, comes from the inside-out, too.
Brand Lifeline #2: Build Your First Concentric Circle
“One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.” — Euripides
When Bill Clinton first took office, Lee Iacocca told me that the key to the Clinton presidency would be his ability to focus on one or two issues and “surround himself with 50 good horses.” Contemplating a run for the presidency in 1986, Gary Hart similarly asked assistant Bill Shore to “sell the message” in New Hampshire — not to the voters or representatives, but to the “25 people who will build New Hampshire support for us. They are our customers.”
Paul did the same with Brad, Tim, and Jim — three men with vastly different skills and gifts, but the same values and direction of the founder.. Paul knew that all the concentric circles of people needed to build the Kinko’s brand could not survive or prosper without the vision and devotion of that first circle — of him. He also knew that your support network is only as strong as its hub. Only as powerful as you, your special gifts, and your devotion to improving the quality of life for those you touch.
“God has given each of us our ‘marching orders’. Our purpose here on Earth is to find those orders and carry them out. Those orders acknowledge our special gifts.” — Soren Kierkegaard
Copyright © 2000 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.