Think Like a Geek

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Holland Herald on 1 October 2007

What distinguishes you from your competition? Your brand? Your customer database? Your distribution? Your product? I beg to differ. In the long run, the only thing that distinguishes your business from anyone else’s is your smarts.

By “smarts” I don’t just mean your personal intelligence, or even the intelligence of the people working for you, but the intelligence with which your entire culture operates. What smarts does your company bring to the table? Or to put it another way, how does the very existence of your firm change the rules of the game?

I believe we’re in the midst of a unique window of opportunity–fostered by the low standards and bottom line obsessions of today’s global industries. There’s a conspiracy of incompetence out there in the greater market place. Companies are searching desperately for ways to “outsource” their core competencies to anyone who will pick up the slack and maybe deliver goods for a few cents cheaper than can be accomplished at home.

And, as most firms eventually learn, such wanton disregard for core competencies may look good on the first quarterly report or two, but ultimately costs more when a disaster strikes (think Chinese toys) or customers figure out that their favourite products are made under unfavourable conditions (the famous “Nike effect”, named after the sport shoe company’s bad publicity following allegations of sweatshop exploitation). Sure, a CEO might be able to vest some quick options by dumbing down a company through lay-offs or outsourcing, but then what’s left of the company itself? A balance sheet?

Shareholders looking for a fast sale may be happy with such short-term solutions, but no one who works for you or buys from you will be. And if you have any love for your industry, or any passion at all for what it is your company supposedly does, neither will you.

**Bold and brainy
**No, the secret of success in today’s global and highly commodified market place is to zig when they’re all zagging. While most companies look for “out of the box” solutions that distance them from their core competencies, the smart company strives to get back in the box and become the ultimate geeks of their industry.

Such a strategy initiates a virtuous circle between management, employees and customers that simply can’t be accomplished any other way. This is particularly true in the era of the internet, when everything going on inside your company is broadcast more effectively to your consumer base than whatever it is you hired your public relations firm to communicate to them.

Traditionally, companies sought to hide their inner workings from both competitors and consumers. Believing their best innovations were most likely behind them, companies shrouded themselves and their processes behind walls of marketing. New ads or packaging substituted for new ideas. Once a market was saturated, the only place to find increased revenues was to make production more efficient. This meant replacing the smartest people, who were demanding the highest salaries, with fewer, cheaper and dumber people. No wonder businesses felt the need to hide.

I get so many calls from companies like these, asking me how to become more “transparent”. For them, however, transparency isn’t an option. How can they open the window to their company, when there is nobody really at home?

Collaboration is key
The opportunity before us now, however, is to change our orientation to innovation. Instead of seeing our best innovations as secrets to hide, we must see them as intelligence to be shared. If you’re really in this for the long haul, then you know your very best innovations are still ahead of you. Why not let everybody see what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it?

That’s the real power of the open source movement, still misunderstood by almost everyone in the business world as some kind of profit-sharing model. What open source software development does is invite everyone to make things better–users, developers, anyone really. If you see a way to make an open source program better, you are cordially invited to pitch in and make it so.

Simply the best
A great business can adopt this attitude as well. It can only do this, though, if it believes it already has the smartest people around as its employees and customers. If a company represents the real centre of intelligence in its field, where else are people going to turn to share their best ideas?

If someone had a great idea for how to share music or create a new kind of MP3 file, where would they go? Why to Apple, of course. We all know they represent “iPod culture”. If our idea were accepted by Apple, it would not only mean a good return on our innovation–it would mean you were accepted by the core culture of MP3 music. Likewise, if you thought of a new way to make an office chair, a television set or a hybrid vehicle, I can promise you that you would go straight to the same companies as the person sitting next to you.

Why? Because you have a sense that they have the smartest people working there. That the minute you cross the threshold of their company (or even venture onto their website), you will have crossed into the heart of the culture of that industry. The smartest of smart companies know this and put forth a standing invitation to customers and competitors alike for help.

Adobe, the software company, knows its Photoshop program is best of breed, and that its developers are also the best. This is what empowers them to create a website like Adobe Studio Exchange, where customers are invited to upload their own “plug-ins” (which are basically additions) for the program. The best contributions are included in future releases. Do users upload their plug-ins for money? No. They do it because they want to be included in the culture. They want to be known as smart.

You don’t have to be in the computer business to think like a geek. The very best companies in smokestack industries, manufacturing and even soap succeed with the same formula: celebrate the nerd. Proctor & Gamble, one of the most enduringly successful businesses on the planet has made a policy of celebrating its lab-coated researchers over everyone else. This is a company that keeps its chemists at its core and understands that they (and not the marketers) are the key innovators. And because they are so confident in their own abilities, they welcome collaboration with others. An entire division of P&G is dedicated to fostering open source relationships with potential competitors - a division that ended up responsible for both Swiffer and Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. These were collaborative ventures, and the most successful of the past decade.

Excite and delight
Of course, the best reason to stay smart isn’t just to create an opportunity for customer and competitor involvement, but because it’s more fun that way. What makes a person feel excited each morning when their feet hit the carpet? Knowing they are going to work on something they love, something they believe in, and with people who feel the same way. This is as true for an employee as it is for the CEO.

I met the founding president of the Ritz C.arlton Hotels at an innovation conference earlier this year. It was a ridiculous affair, with people bandying about four-syllable words like “evolution” and “realignment”, and trying to sound smart. Off in the corner, though, speaking with genuine enthusiasm, was Horst Schulze, barely able to contain himself as he described the process by which his hotels’ maids helped him figure out when to change the light bulbs and when to “deep clean” the carpet. This man wasn’t afraid of his inner geek–and both his guests and his shareholders are the beneficiaries of his nerdy approach to hotel management.

The finishing touch
In the end, the only way to create a genuine culture around your brand is to start with a genuine culture inside. This means being the smartest, hiring the smartest and selling to the smartest people. When you place a premium on intelligence, you become your industry’s greatest advocate. You naturally attract the best talent, and when this happens hardcore customers–aficionados of your product or service–soon follow. In fact, the line between employee and customervanishes, and it becomes hard to distinguish between your newest employee and your most ardent customer. In many cases, they could even be the same person.

It may seem strange to think that the way to be the best at what you do is, quite simply, to be the best at what you do. But this is a logic that has been lost to the seemingly more pressing concerns of short-term share price and quarterly earnings statements.

While every business has the same kind of balance sheet–we all use the same numbers–no two businesses have the exact same core competency. By focusing on that competency, getting back inside the box and being the smartest of the smart in your field, you stand a chance of transcending the numbers and distinguishing yourself on a whole new level. You can be the best at what you do.

The companies to remember

Herman Miller - office furniture. The distributor of the famous Eames chairs has maintained its dedication to deep research and development, with little regard to exactly how or when it will pay off. The people I’ve met who work at Herman Miller talk about their jobs as If they have Just won the lottery. They no longer distinguish between work and play. They are the world’s great office furniture geeks.

Patagonia - camping and hiking clothes. This Ventura, California-based clothing manufacturer doesn’t just cater to the hikers and climbers who buy its clothing. Patagonia has committed itself to keeping the planet clean enough for camping and hiking to continue. Yes, their clothes make use of the most advanced research in insulation, but the company also implements the most intelligent recycling and environmentally sound manufacturing processes in the industry. They are so enthusiastic about maintaining the environment, a significant portion of their profits is used to purchase rainforest land that would otherwise be cleared for development.

Proctor & Gamble - household products. Established in 1837, The Procter & Gamble Company began as a small, family operated soap and candle company in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Today, P&G markets more than 250 products for more than five billion consumers in 140 countries. During this whole time, P&G has put its chemists first, celebrating research and development as the real centre of its intelligence.

Cemex - concrete and cement. I was asked to talk to this Mexican-based cement company a couple of years ago, and haven’t stopped talking about them since. They are the world’s true cement geeks. They kept me up all night telling me about why concrete is a superior road surface to asphalt, how to make mould-resistant cement and what measures can be taken to prevent environmental damage at a limestone mine. Thanks to a renewed focus on the raw smarts of its people, Cemex has grown from a small regional player to one of the world’s top cement companies over the past decade.