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Blog

Computers and Cowspots

Many people made small fortunes in the direct-to-consumer computer boom of the nineties and early 21’s century. Unfortunately for many of those people, the small fortunes were made out of much larger fortunes.

When we began working with Ted Waitt, founder of Gateway, his company and Michael Dell’s, founded in the same year, were just two of 7,500 PC direct marketers in a gold rush mentality.

But Ted wasn’t just a savvy direct marketer, he was also a brilliant brand builder. He knew the shakeout was coming long before others realized it. While most people would just count their millions and feel brilliant, Ted had a small City to keep employed, so he had to peak around corners and try to see what was coming.

Luck for North Sioux City, South Dakota, Ted saw keenly and knew what to do. He’s the guy who said, “We have to stand out in a way that anybody can see. Let’s put cow spots on the boxes.”

What a brilliant, entrepreneurial, brand-driven growth move. Frugal, because Gateway already owned the boxes. They were what we call at DIGO, “owned media.” We counsel, beg and hector our clients not to miss the media right in front of them… the touch-points they own. We used creative hangtags and sewn in labels for Joseph Abboud. We put men running in human-sized hamster wheels in the window of Crunch gyms. In the seatbacks of JetBlue planes, we placed Airplane Yoga and Flying Pilates cards. In the airport terminals, we hung punching bags labeled, “Middle Seat” and “Missed Your Flight?” Snapple got messages under their caps, and Vitamin Water used the labels of the bottles to tell a unique and charming story every time.

What Ted did was transcend the limitations of the direct marketing tribe. He had a bigger vision.

It’s been my observation that what’s great about human nature is that we can transcend our limitations. What’s perhaps not so great is that most people and companies don’t. Marx saw history as proceeding from material conditions in a sort of a “follow the money” analysis. It’s true that business model seems to determine the strengths and the limits of most businesses. But every day, I see history being made by precisely those leaders who are able to transcend those limitations.

Of all the limiting factors, the greatest of all is probably YOU.

Limitations. We all have them. And one of the greatest sucks on potential is that we don’t know what they are. You want to hack into your own system, and see it for what it is. After that, writing yourself some new code gets a lot easier. So here’s a tool for looking at the tribe that is your business and your industry. This, by the way, is what leaders do. “Innovation is what defines leaders and sets them apart from followers.” So said Steve Jobs. Right again, Steve.

Leaders look at their own prejudices and unconscious systems, and they drill in with better questions. Once they have freed their own minds, they use their new knowledge of the problem to open the minds of others.

So, the world of followers is a Marxian world. People do as their business models dictate. They follow the money. They follow the system that makes the money flow. Unless and until the money stops flowing, they have predictable strengths and weakness. They are limited by their special relationship to the means of production.

Leaders make all of that mechanistic thinking a lie. Leaders challenge the complacency of those who might ride the conveyor belt of life as predictable extensions of the machine. And by doing this, innovative mid-market growth companies are the primary scrubbing bubbles of capitalism.