There’s a story that someone once asked Bill Gates where his greatest competition was. The expectation was that he would mention another major high tech company competing for the same business. Instead, Gates said he was more worried about two guys in a garage; quite the antithesis of the presumed response. Why should he be concerned with two guys in a garage?
Because there are people like John Nottingham and John Spirk, who founded their namesake company in 1972, in a garage (several years before Microsoft was born). After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art, they declined offers from well-respected and established companies to instead strike out on their own and form their namesake company. Their objective was to design products using a different business model. Instead of creating products and then trying to sell them to other companies or customers; they invited companies to bring their product predicaments to the Nottingham Spirk Innovation Center. They then engineer solutions for these companies and receive payment in the form of royalties on sales, or a flat rate up front.
Today they’ve moved from the garage to a converted church building in Cleveland, Ohio, where with a small team of 70 people, they’ve amassed over 900 patents to their credit. This includes repackaging Purell hand sanitizer, developing the Twist and Pour paint can for Sherwin Williams, developing Dirt Devil products, Scott’s Snap Lawn Spreader, the Unilever Axe Bullet, Swiffer SweepVac, and the Crest Spinbrush.
One obvious question is why companies like these weren’t able to solve their product dilemmas internally. My guess is that they needed an external perspective and focus; literally, someone to help them think outside their corporate box or mindset. They needed to be able to think like they were in the garage by starting from the beginning and taking a fresh and different approach.
Think about it. As leaders, how many times have we had a product or process dilemma where we needed a simple, but elegant solution? We come at it from every angle we can think of. We brainstorm, use mindmaps, and other elaborate problem solving techniques. But when we casually mention the issue to someone totally unconnected to our organization, they quickly come up with a new perspective on how to solve it. Sometimes their suggestion is so simple that we initially dismiss it, because after all they don’t understand the complexities, rules and processes of what we do. But in reality, the customer needs uncomplicated answers, not encumbered by the back office complexity of how we got there.
Sometimes we find a need for this in our personal lives. How many times have you been thinking though a major decision, or wondering how to handle a situation. You labored with it, until one day you mentioned it to a friend, loved one, coach or even a total stranger. Maybe they only asked you one question, but it was so perceptive and insightful that almost instantly, you had the answer. You knew what to do.
The Magic of a Garage
So back to the two guys in a garage. There’s a slew of companies that started out in the proverbial garage like Amazon, Disney, Apple, Hewlitt Packard, Google and Harley Davidson. A couple of guys and gals, slogging through a problem that no one else perceived as a problem or took the time to resolve. They took risks because at that point they had nothing, so there was nothing to lose. They had few predispositions as to how their project should operate because it had never been done before. There was no bureaucracy or lengthy decision making process impinging on their activity. The boundaries of imagination were wide, and the possibilities for development and integration of technology were unlimited.
Sometimes, in the midst of all the business challenges and demands on our time, we need to find time to become two guys in a garage. Find that spot where we can innovate, concentrate, create, and view situations from the perspective of a learner to come up with an answer. Or find a few people on our team who can work on the issues without being encumbered with an expected solution; who can innovate, inquire, and integrate to arrive at the best answer. So who’s in your garage?
Priscilla Archangel, Ph.D. is a seasoned leadership consultant, executive coach, author, speaker, and teacher. She has a passion for developing leaders, and motivating individuals and organizations to align their values, behaviors and goals with their purpose. Visit priscillaarchangel.com.