Good to Great in Drunken Lawn Darts
What is the drunken lawn dart business strategy, and why was it created? How is it different from Jim Collin’s famous hedgehog strategy? I will attempt to answer these questions in this blog, with future blog posts on how to implement a similar strategy in your business, or in your life.
Over the past few years, I have been asked the same question 100’s of times: What has been your strategy in starting all your successful companies? It is hard to believe, but I am now on my 5th company (Canvas Systems, Optimus Solutions, Corus360, Relus Cloud, and ReluTech). There were a few others I was either involved in or started as well (Atadata, FastIT and IHaveIT). To the strategy question, I usually shrug my shoulders and provide a somewhat lame response. “I dunno, it was a combination of lucky timing and having a great team”, is my usual answer. I often add, “I really have never had a strategy”. I guess that has never been entirely true. I have actually had a crazy strategy that finally deserves a name - Good to Great in Drunken Lawn Darts.
To explain - let’s start with the good to great part. Good to Great is a bestselling business strategy book written by Jim Collins and published in October, 2001. Those involved in Optimus Solutions, remember this as a suggested playbook for much of our early strategy. The formula for success was described as a flywheel, where a company should spend all their resources on their key competence, or their “hedgehog”. I recall that the analogy was that a hedgehog is only good at one thing - to which it spends its whole life trying to perfect. I can’t remember what that one skill was though - maybe not getting eaten by a fox? Collin’s research found that successful companies were hyper-focused on small improvements, consistently made over time to their core product or process. While we read it, quoted it, and thought about it, I am not sure we really lived by its core principles very often. In fact, we blatantly defied the strategy most of the time. Instead of sticking to what we thought we were good at, we often changed courses, tried new things, and made some crazy “shooting from the hip” decisions. I chuckle at some of these decisions today, as many of my past colleagues will remember fondly. We often went from idea to decision in minutes instead of months or years, like most of corporate America. And, many of these decisions were fairly radical, without much strategic planning. I recall one day, one of our managers saying, “lets have an awards trip and go to Cancun.” We picked a destination that day on the internet and booked the trip. We launched a business in Amsterdam in a similar fashion, because we had read it was the best city for business in Europe. We set up multiple subsidiaries, trying different business models - often with very little planning. IHaveIT.com was one memorable example. We often hired people for jobs in the company that didn’t even exist, and where we certainly had no job description. We sold our vision, and hired people, then created a job based on perceived value that a new hire might create in a new business, territory, solution or product line. Many non-managers from this time may find this surprising, thinking we had some established 10-year plan that we followed religiously. The truth was quite the opposite - in fact, for years we never even had a budget, much less a business plan. We would even make some of these seemingly reckless decisions while still quoting the book. A company meeting excerpt might have sounded something like this: “we are making a somewhat radical change of course in our effort to go from good to great.” This was far from sticking to the “hedgehog” principals that Jim Collins prescribed.
Looking back through the years, some of these decisions were idiotic, some genius, and some just entertaining. Few, if any, were well-researched or planned by the management team. I think many were made in an effort to try new things and to keep it fun. Sticking to our “hedgehog” and continuously improving was just not as exciting. And like many startups, I am not sure we even knew our major strength. So, nearly 20 years later, I am now suggesting that there is another strategy that worked better for me. I call it “Drunken Lawn Darts”. Let’s face it, would you rather sit in a factory pushing a flywheel, or take some tequila shots and throw darts into the air?
As background, Lawn Darts was an incredibly ill-conceived game from the 1970’s where people played a version of darts in the backyard. Contestants would throw these lawn darts (much bigger and heavier than your average dart) into the air and try to land them in targets set up in the lawn. Clearly the makers of the game did not anticipate the obvious danger of kids, or (drunken adults) throwing heavy darts straight up in the air - so after a few accidents, the darts were taken off the market. Corn hole is the much safer version of lawn darts that people drinking beer and throwing things play today. Perhaps we would not even have corn hole were it not for the invention of lawn darts - but, that is a story for another blog.
Our success in these five companies is much more like a game of drunken lawn darts than any of the strategies from Good to Great. At each of my companies, we have often thrown darts in the air without fear of the consequences of failure. Without fear of spearing the beloved family pet, the business version of drunken lawn darts is actually a proven and solid strategy. I have now proven it five times.
In fact, arguably the biggest success in my career was Relus Cloud - and it is probably the best example of the drunken lawn dart strategy. The idea to partner with AWS was conceived over a lunch I had with the new manager of AWS in Atlanta, Paul Soligon. On faith and an educated guess, I “threw a dart in the air” and decided to invest in an AWS partnership. We signed up, but after failing miserably for months, my management team threw a handful more darts in the air: making multiple nearly simultaneous decisions to hire a sales manager and sales team, launch a big data practice, open an office in Tennessee, start practices for migrations, DevOps and Managed Services all based on our limited research. I mention the “darts” that found targets, but we missed with many others.
We failed in operations - like in our self-service migration portal, Relus One.
We failed in numerous times in sales - especially in our first sales structures.
We failed in marketing ideas - including my favorite: We Buy Ugly Data Centers.
But, the key was that we quickly realized when a dart had missed the target. While many companies prefer to analyze why they missed, and figure out who was to blame, and demand lengthy business plans on how the next shot will be taken, we took no time in these pointless pursuits. In a backyard game, you would never spend days figuring out why you missed the target. Likewise we ran out and grabbed the darts, took another shot of tequila and threw them in the air again. The key to success was having the guts to continue making decisions, and continue trying new things.
We were in an incredibly fast-changing business environment, and being an early mover in the market was critical. Many of my managers will recall that we made most of these decisions entirely against the advice of AWS. Our partner manager insisted we should pick one very narrow specialty and invest everything in just that (sounds like the hedgehog strategy). Instead, we picked up another figurative handful of darts and defiantly flung them into the air. Part of the success of the drunken lawn dart strategy is having the ability to see when you have hit the target, and when you have accidentally hit the neighbors cat. In my businesses, this has meant having the courage to try new things, the humility to admit when we have made poor decisions, and the culture to applaud those who try, even when they fail.
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