In 2015, Fast Company released a list of the world’s most innovative companies. The previous three companies that had received the awards had been global giants, namely Google, Nike, and Apple. This year they chose a small company called Warby Parker. It was making waves by selling prescription glasses online for $95 when the average price was $500. If you look at Warby Parker’s example, they should never have succeeded in a marketplace dominated by one goliath named Luxottica.
What is the most common myth prevalent in the Technology startup sector? The one myth is so sacred that everyone raises capital by paying homage to some version of that myth.
The myth is that you must have an original idea. A brand new fresh idea that no one has ever thought of, and your unique genius brain is the first to conceptualize it. Once you have that idea, you drop everything and go for it. You have no fail-safe or backup plan, and you put the pedal to the metal and keep executing until you succeed.
Warby Parker and, actually, most successful technology companies had none of these ingredients. Warby Parker was not the first to sell prescription glasses online. Eyeglasses.com, Googles4u.com, and Zenni Opticals were all selling glasses cheaper online at discounted prices. The founders of Warby Parker were not even sure they wanted to start the company. They all had backup plans for their careers and were hedging their bets by accepting jobs with venture capital and banking firms. They took six months to agree on the name of the company.
Adam Grant, the author of the best-selling book Originals, declined to invest in Warby Parker because they did not meet the typical definition of startup founders who had an original genius idea and bet the house on it. In the book, Adam explains how much he regretted the decision and how this myth of originality and extreme risk was flawed. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates saw the first generation of personal computers in Xerox Parc and rushed back to start Microsoft and Apple. Steve Wozniak continued working for HP even after Steve Jobs started Apple because he did not want to risk everything. Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out the technology behind Google in 1996 but did not quit their Ph.D. at Stanford till 1998 because they wanted the safety net. This story repeats itself in every sector. The safety net allows you to evaluate the risks of the business and make rational pivots versus blindly believing in your “original” idea.
The co-founder of Warby Paker, Dave Gilboa, had the idea of selling glasses online when he stood in line to buy an iPhone. He could not believe that his glasses and this magic piece of glass in his hand would cost the same money. A few hours of research revealed that Luxottica made 7Billion dollars by selling prescription glasses, and they saw a gap in the market.
Since their idea’s originality did not blind them, they tested the concept and introduced minor changes to improve the customer experience. They ordered only 10000 frames and assumed that only 2-3 customers would buy these glasses daily but were surprised by the demand. They ran out of the most popular styles, and customers kept enquiring if they could try the frames out in an outlet. The founders invited customers to come to their apartment and try on the glasses. Customers actually turned up and placed orders and even referred the service to their friends. The cofounder Neil Blumenthal made the following key points.
First, we know that some people want to touch and feel the glasses. Second, if you deliver an unexpected experience, like going to someone’s house, or more important, seeing behind the scenes at a startup, that leads to a conversation and connection, that brands can build relationships with customers just like human beings can build relationships. And that’s through vulnerability. So, if we’re showing our warts, that’s okay, whereas conventional wisdom is that brands have to be super polished.
When someone refuses to acknowledge that various sources have influenced their idea, they suffer from Kleptomnesia. Then you become overprotective about your idea, don’t share it openly to receive feedback, and refuse to consider objective criticism. The Warby Parker team did not get obsessed with the originality of their idea. They also did not believe in a risk-it-all mentality. Instead, they focused on customer satisfaction and grew to become the best-known eyewear company in the United States.
So how do you train your mind to accept that what you think is original is a small derivative of existing concepts and ideas that have already been explored? The ego rush you get from working on an “original” piece of work is far more than trying to solve supply chain and execution issues.
Sanatana Dharma always relied on stories that teach us such lessons, and today’s story is about my favorite deity, Lord Shiva. Before you read the story, let me explain how we use such stories in Sanatana Dharma. The peerless Swami Vivekananda says we should not scrutinize them for absolute truth because the same story has multiple versions. He says let the stories wash over you like floodwaters. He asks you to immerse yourself in them; when the flood waters recede, they will leave within you a drop of truth. That intuitive understanding will be difficult to describe, but you will get it.
This story is about how the celestial being Pushpadanta created the magnificent Shiva Mahima Stotra – A Eulogy to Lord Shiva.
The Story of the Shiva Mahima Stotram
Pushpadanta was a celestial musician and an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He was blessed with the power of invisibility, and he used to wander the world seeking flowers that he could use to worship Lord Shiva. One day he chanced upon the garden of King Chitraratha, who had a beautiful garden. He gathered all the flowers and flew away to worship Shiva with the flowers. When King Chitraratha came to his garden to pick flowers for his daily worship, he was amazed to see that it was barren. The royals guards and gardeners swore that they had not seen anyone pluck them. This happened for a few days, and the king knew they were dealing with a celestial being. The king took the sacred flowers and leaves he offered to Lord Shiva and scattered them in his garden. The next time Pushpadanta came to collect his loot, he accidentally trod on the holy leaves and lost all his power of flight and invisibility. The guards captured him and threw him in prison.
The heartbroken Pushpadanta knew he had erred, and in that pain, he composed the magnificent Shiva Mahima Stotram to sing praises of Lord Shiva, who appeared before him and blessed him. Pushpadanta was so amazed by his creation that he swelled up in pride. Nandi, Lord Shiva’s bull, decided to rid him of his pride and gave a large toothy grin. Pushpadanta saw the entire Stotram written on Nandi’s teeth long before he composed it. He realized that it was merely Lord Shiva’s grace that allowed him to compose this hymn, not his own talent or skill. What he considered his original work was merely inspiration that struck him when he was in deep distress.
This lesson of now being too attached to what we consider our original work is crucial. As people go up the value chain in corporate organizations, they lead large teams. They become custodians of the team’s work and get credit for the team’s success. Many leaders take all the credit and claim success as a result of their original thought or idea and mention the team as an afterthought. Good leaders always hang back and let the team bask in the glory of success because they know that execution is far more critical than the originality of the idea. Netflix was started by Marc Randolf, who took inspiration from Amazon and created an online video rental/sales business. However, it found its feet under Reed Hastings, who ruthlessly dissected the original idea and developed a new product to address real customer needs.
A Small Note of Gratitude
I often get undue credit for writing these articles, but honestly, I start every weekend having no idea what to write. I pray to my Guru, Om Swami, for guidance, and somehow something floats into my orbit, and I end up writing something enjoyable. I do not write too much about my Guru because my words can never do him justice. Swami Vivekananda was once asked why he never wrote a biography of his Guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. He smiled and replied that he would fail like the little children of Calcutta who try to create a mud statue of Lord Shiva and end up creating a deformed monkey. When Swami Vivekananda himself, one of the greatest saints to walk this planet, cannot do justice to describing his Guru, what chance does this mere mortal stand? I can only say that he has filled my life with love and inexpressible joy with his mere presence.