It took the oil tycoon John D Rockefeller 46 years to make a billion dollars after starting out with a single refinery in 1863. Fast forward to the modern business era and the 1980s computer baron Michael Dell achieved billionaire status in 14 years; Bill Gates in 12. It took Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, just three years to do it.
They are all standout examples of business success but, according to Shane Snow, pick any era and you’ll find people – across industries and continents – who defy convention and do incredible things in implausibly short amounts of time.
In his first book, Smartcuts, this New York-based entrepreneur and journalist examines what makes these over-achievers tick, or as the subtitle puts it, How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.
The book is an extended exercise in ‘myth busting’, not least the convention that businesspeople must pay their dues. Snow’s over-achievers all adopt “smartcuts”, not merely shortcuts, as they succeed in life or business.
“If I am passionate about one issue,” he says on the line from America, “it is that we as a society, and certainly in business, need to get away from this idea that just because you’ve been there for a while, it doesn’t mean you deserve that upgrade or you are more qualified for a task. Within big companies, patience is rewarded but patience doesn’t necessarily correlate with breakthrough innovation or staying on top.”
Smartcuts is the culmination of countless articles on the rapidly changing tech sector for the likes Wired and Fast Company magazines. The journalism led in 2010 to Snow co-founding a company of his own, Contently, which in turn saw himself inducted to influential groups such as Forbes and Inc.’s 30 Under 30 lists of up-and-coming entrepreneurs. As he relates in the book, “this star-struck kid from Idaho” was soon mixing with incredible people, from business leaders to inventors whose life work was to solve unemployment in India or topple dictatorships.
From his close vantage point, Snow was able to observe people who were doing crazy things in surprisingly fast time, and discern what lay at the root of their success. More often than not they were premium practitioners of lateral thinking. As Snow argues, lateral thinking doesn’t replace hard work; it eliminates unnecessary cycles. Another point he is quick to make, lest prospective readers misconstrue the book’s subtitle, is that ‘hacking’ is something done not just by criminals and computer scientists, but by anyone who has the capability to approach a problem laterally.
Of course, lateral thinking in business is hardly new – just ask Edward de Bono – although it is good to be reminded of the potential benefits. Nor is lateral thinking necessarily synonymous with all entrepreneurs, but it probably is with the more successful ones and it certainly was with the tech startups, such as Foursquare, that Snow encountered as a budding reporter in New York.
“I wanted to write about how these tech entrepreneurs in particular were very good at rethinking the rules,” he says, “and ask why doesn’t this happen in so many other industries, like say government, healthcare or the law? There are entrepreneurs who can make a buck and they can build a business. And then there’s the class of entrepreneurs who change everything on its head and that’s where lateral thinking is absolutely required.”
Smartcuts is a page-turner compared with the airport departure lounge business books that usually succumb to management speak by bullet point. This one is instead enlivened by first-hand anecdotes but mostly well researched journalism. No doubt some in business – probably those aged over 30 – will balk at Snow’s central thesis that you don’t have to pay your dues to get on, but his arguments are supported by fact. He regards Smartcuts as “a simultaneous hat tip and counterpoint” to some of the better innovation literature out there, but he nonetheless claims that his book is “the first codification” of the ways rapid success has happened throughout history.
He also argues that once up and running, the best tech companies have all managed to maintain momentum, and not just the recent wave of startups. “You see some businesses that are huge but keep going at a pretty good clip,” he says, citing Apple and Salesforce. Both manage to keep growing their share prices and regularly release new products that redefine the sector.
“I think Apple is particularly interesting just because everyone knows them and they had the slump and they pulled out of it. And now it is an interesting time to see if they’re going to plateau again,” he says.
One chapter deals with creating the conditions for simplicity in business, which is a particular challenge for any mature company. “How can you do what you’re doing for a hundred times cheaper? That kind of question forces you to do more innovative things, which can help growth,” he observes. “What Apple did really well in the last 15 years is that they reduced the complexity [of their business]. They have an enormous business but for the end user they reduced the choices and in doing so they were able to reduce the size and the friction for growth. You saw that with the iPhone – essentially cannibalising the iPod.”
Smartcuts concludes with what Snow calls “10x Thinking” and how it is often easier and more productive to make something 10 times better than 10 per cent better. In other words, we are less likely to perform at our peak potential when we’re reaching for low-hanging fruit. Be bold, says Snow, highlighting one study that shows how brands with lofty ambitions beyond making profits wildly outperformed the S&P 500 between 2001 and 2011.
If nothing else, working on Smartcuts has stoked Snow’s ambitions for Contently, which is pioneering the growth of so-called content marketing and operating as a sophisticated match-making service between 40,000 freelance journalists and designers and blue-chip companies such as Coca-Cola and AmEx. Now pushing 30, Snow plans to “steal from the masters of other industries”.
And yet, for all the wisdom of its content, the book is a labour of love. As Snow concedes, it is the result of countless hours of research, hundreds of interviews and the dissection of myriad academic papers. It seems that with some endeavours, there are no short cuts, let alone ‘smart cuts’.
Illustration: Andrew Baker
Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success is published by HarperCollins, price $26.99/€21.60/£16.99. Also available as an e-book