Amy Wilkinson Shares Keys to The Creator’s Code

Posted in: PSA Partnership

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Amy Wilkinson believes that we all have the capacity to spot opportunities, invent products, and build businesses. But why do some people succeed — and sustain their success long-term — when so many others fail?

To answer that question, the author, entrepreneur, and professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business spent five years interviewing hundreds of entrepreneurs who have launched and sustained $100 million businesses, including the founders of LinkedIn, Chipotle, eBay, Under Armour, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Spanx, Airbnb, PayPal, Jetblue, Gilt Groupe, Theranos, and Dropbox.

This extensive research formed the basis for Wilkinson’s new book, The Creator’s Code. In it, she discusses the six essential skills that turn small ideas into big companies. At the latest PSA Partnership seminar, Wilkinson shared a snapshot of her findings with the audience.

Skills for success can be learned

Successful entrepreneurs are not always the smartest or most talented people in their field. Such was the case for Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. While the self-made billionaire may be a success story today, he did not have an auspicious start. He got kicked out of high school after a brawl with Georgetown football players, and later walked onto the University of Maryland’s football team after college recruiters passed over him, Wilkinson told the crowd.

Plank muscled his way into becoming the “wedge buster” and eventually team captain. The self-proclaimed “sweatiest guy on the football field” weighed his soaked shirt after a game and found it weighed 3 lbs. That was the start of his quest to make a lightweight, sweat-wicking shirt — which only later he would admit was made from the same fabric as women’s undergarments. Plank started out making his shirts in the basement of his grandmother’s house and selling them out of the back of his car. Today, Forbes lists his net worth as $3.5 billion.

Wilkinson cited Plank as a good example of all six essential skills shared by successful entrepreneurs. Using examples of other entrepreneurs in other industries, she delved into each skill in her talk.

Skill #1: Find the gap. Entrepreneurs are detectives, said Wilkinson. They are not afraid to ask questions or look silly. She gave examples of what she called three patterns of discovery, or ways of seeing. These included Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, who strove to bring Italy’s coffee culture back to the U.S., and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and founder of SpaceX, who is currently working on building a reusable rocket that will revolutionize space travel. These entrepreneurs are examples of people who saw a gap in the marketplace and tried to address it.

Skill #2: Drive for daylight. This means thinking like a racecar driver, focusing on the horizon, and constantly scanning the edges so you don’t miss things in your peripheral view. Entrepreneurs who embody this skill include Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout who founded a blood diagnostics company, Theranos, that is now worth more than $9 billion and is poised to change health care. Or consider the founders of Airbnb, whose idea to rent out residences on the Internet started with air mattresses on the floor. Today, the company is valued at $20 billion. “A lot of these ideas are on the margins,” said Wilkinson. “They can go mainstream, but it takes a lot of effort.”

Skill #3: Fly the OODA loop. Borrowed from Air Force terminology, it stands for “observe, orient, decide, and act,” a strategy developed by USAF Colonel John Boyd. In business, this means looking for anything that doesn’t make sense, explained Wilkinson.

Creators notice a glitch or anomaly, and they decide and act on it quickly. PayPal is great example of this: its cofounders had six different business models for the e-commerce site before it became what it is today. At first, it was intended to be a way for Palm Pilot users to beam money to each other. Then its creators noticed people were trying to use it to conduct transactions on eBay. So they used the OODA strategy and pivoted to build Paypal into a web-based transaction site.

Similarly, YouTube started as a video dating site, until the founders discovered that a silly video they made at the zoo was the most-watched on the site. And that’s how YouTube became what it is today. In all of these cases, the Internet entrepreneurs behind these success stories looked for that “counterintuitive blip of data” that many of us learn to ignore, said Wilkinson.

Skill #4: Fail wisely. If you’re not failing, you’re playing it too safe, said Wilkinson. She gave the example of the “marshmallow challenge” — an exercise started at Nokia in 2007 in which teams of four people are given marshmallows and sticks of uncooked spaghetti to see who can build the tallest freestanding structure in 20 minutes.

Of all the different groups to have completed this challenge, the results are surprising: kindergarten students built the tallest structures at 25 inches tall; engineers built them 24 inches tall, and MBA students came in dead last. (Too much planning, not enough building.) The kids are a great example of failing wisely, said Wilkinson. Their towers may not have been structurally perfect, but they were not afraid to jump in and try to figure it out. They were also the only group to ask for more marshmallows and spaghetti.

Skill #5: Cognitive diversity. Successful entrepreneurs also know how to network the minds of the people around them. “What we really need to do is bring brainpower towards us and we can solve things we haven’t been able to,” she said.

A good example of this skill is Doug Dietz, designer of MRI technology at GE. He discovered that 80 percent of children have to be sedated to have an MRI scan. He had his team “network minds” by talking to groups of kids, daycare providers, and museum exhibit designers for children, and came up with child-friendly, themed MRI machines that drastically reduced the sedation rate.

Skill #6: Gift small goods. Generosity unleashes productivity. Small kindnesses or favors — such as forwarding a resume or critiquing a proposal — are noticed and rewarded by others. This concept, backed by research, is the basis of LinkedIn. Company founder Reid Hoffman realized that transparency puts pressure on people to behave better. Now, in our networked economy, “nice guys finish first,” said Wilkinson.

All of these skills are learnable, teachable, and accessible for anyone, she told the PSA audience. It just takes practice. Used together, these six skills are the “code” that unlocks your ability to scale up your own ideas. And while ideas are very available, “people who can scale them up are rare,” said Wilkinson.

Interested in more ideas to make your business a success? Register for our upcoming PSA Partnership event on April 28, “Creativeship,” where best-selling author Bob Kelleher will share his insights on employee engagement, leadership, and workforce trends.