September is such a great month for many reasons, but maybe the best is that it promises a fresh start. As the warmth of the evening air starts to fade, and with kids getting ready to (finally!) go back to school, people tend to start thinking again about new beginnings and new ideas.
For small-business people here in Oregon of course, this past year has hardly been a time to dream big dreams and make big plans, but that’s the whole point. No matter what happened before, these cyclical moments of fresh starts are a perfect time to stop retrenching and begin retooling.
There is great power in thinking big, even if your business is small. One thing I have learned over the years is that the best businesses — the ones that grow and where the culture is positive — are more interested in ideas than profits.
Of course this is not to say that profit is not important; of course it is. We all love profit. But the best businesses, and the ones that go from small to big, are keyed in to a lot more than the bottom line.
Here’s an example: There is no bigger business in Oregon than Nike, but Nike started out as a very small, small business, to wit: After running track for the University of Oregon and getting an MBA from Stanford, Phil Knight went to Japan where he met with representatives of the Tiger Shoe Company. Upon his return, Knight began to import Tiger tennis shoes and sell them out of his car at track meets.
You don’t start much smaller than that, but Knight and his partner, former UO coach Bill Bowerman, always thought big. Knight says that from the start: “We wanted Nike to be the world’s best sports and fitness company. Once you say that, you have a focus. You don’t end up making wing tips or sponsoring the next Rolling Stones world tour.”
Another thing that Nike did right, right from the start, was to innovate. Great businesses, big and small alike, dare to be different and try new things. For instance, as legend has it, Bowerman created Nike’s first game-changer, the waffle sole tennis shoe, by pouring a rubbery potion into his wife’s waffle iron. The waffle sole shoe begat a culture of innovation.
So maybe the question for you this fall should be: What is your waffle shoe? What can you do that is unique and different? Of course, your innovation may not change the world like Nike’s did; it just needs to change your world. Dare to think big and think different.
Those two traits — thinking big and innovating — are the exact same ingredients that fueled the growth of Oregon’s other big athletic clothing company, Columbia Sportswear. Columbia began when Gert Boyle’s parents, Paul and Marie Lamfrom, fled Nazi Germany for Portland in 1937 and bought a small hat company, renaming it the Columbia Hat Company.
The company chugged along and grew slowly and fitfully over the years through various changes in leadership, but only really exploded after Gert Boyle and her son, Tim, took over. They made several significant changes, the most important being the introduction of an innovative “Interchange System” — a jacket with a soft liner and a weather-resistant, lightweight, breathable shell. Offering interchangeable wearing options and a new fabric technology created an avalanche of sales. Columbia became Columbia.
But it never would have happened if Gert and Tim Boyle had done what had always been done at the company. That had, in fact, led the enterprise to the brink of bankruptcy. It took some new people thinking in new ways to create new (and better) results.
So if you want one, this can be your assignment as school starts again: Sit down with your team and have one of those crazy brainstorming sessions where anything goes. Write down all ideas, weed out the worst, and mull over the best. Who cares if last year was crummy? It was crummy for most of us. The thing is, new markets create new opportunities.
Don’t let Columbia Sportswear or Nike’s size today trick you. We can all learn from what they did right.
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