Eye of the Founder?

Along the 48 year path of my business life I have noticed that I do not have the eye of the Founder…my strength seems to be operational.  Once I get the vision, from someone who gives the vision, I have often been lucky enough to do something about it.

But I continue to marvel at the remarkable prism that some people have. When confronted with a “vision” they see a product, where the less gifted among us might just see… confusion!

It's a nice Labor Day weekend as I write this, sitting at the Cardiff Reef, early, thinking about the amazing Founders I have been fortunate enough to encounter. What did they see, what did they do about it, how did they know?

In the mid 90’s one day at Merrell in Vermont, we got this call: “this is Jerry Lauren from Ralph Lauren. We would like to come up to Vermont and visit you.”  Of course we thought it was a prank, but it wasn’t . Jerry came to town and said“guys, we think you are doing something really amazing. Your hiking boot program is the most authentic one out there. We think the Outdoor Business is about to explode. We are going to start up Polo Sport, and we would like you to help us. Authenticity is key for us and we know that's you.”  What did Jerry see?  Among their many amazing successes, he saw a younger market focused on functional outdoor wear. Worked out pretty well for Ralph Lauren and not too bad for Merrell, who made “Polo Sport by Merrell!”

Fast forward to Nike. Lets stipulate that Phil Knight has the ultimate entrepreneur’s eye. My assignment at Nike was two fold: make golf part of Nike (you know, old fat white guys riding around in carts is not a sport) and make Nike part of Golf (stodgy Golf was not all that keen on Nike showing up). There was one other secret handshake and that was to make the sport of Golf look like Nike, definitely not the other way around.  But how?  Well it so happens that we went to the US Amateur that year and we saw Tiger win on the 36th hole. Phil looked at me and said “Tiger could be the first $1 Billion dollar single athlete in history.”  How did he know?  The outcome, well one thing is for sure, maybe 2: Nike is IN the golf business, and Golf looks like Nike!

Our San Diego homies have not done that poorly either. How did Santiago and Fernando think of Brazilian bikinis as the signature product for Reef sandals? And how in the world did Jeff Kelley think up a sandal that looked like shoe but was indeed a sandal? Or Wooly and Volcom..I mean did the world need another Surf apparel collection? Apparently it did, and the tie breaker was an amazingly effective sales team.  How about Tony Finn and Liquid Force?  He thought a surf board towed behind a ski boat could be fun. But there wasn’t any such thing, so he invented the sport so he could enjoy it. Now they have a 65% global market share!  The water skiers don’t hate him as much as the day he started, and boat manufacturers love him!!

And Beaver…prAna is just his latest effort…add Life’s a Beach and Spy to the list, both before prAna.  All fun, disruptive, unexpected!

I tried to put some of these experiences into a lesson for myself. What does it take to be that Founder that's makes things go ballistic?

1.      Look for a mature, preferably fat and happy market, and DISRUPT IT. (Liquid Force)
2.      Think about a demonstrably different product that can be the lever to topple all the conventional competitors (sanuk)
3.      Secure all your Intellectual property (every one who succeeds)
4.      Build a Team , each of whom can do their function better than you can do individually (Reef)
5.      Stick to it. The Founder can never ever give up(prAna)

And steal a page from Nike:
·         Innovative , functional product
·         Attach it to a world class athlete
·         Market with surprise, firepower and audacity!