Unconventionals Podcast | Season 3 Episode 3

The Beginner's Mind: Why Naiveté is a Critical Business Asset

Having a sense of naiveté is never a bad thing. Because there are no risks, when there are no rules. In the Beginner’s Mind, the most outlandish and bizarre ideas could be the best. And who knows? Maybe they’re right.

In this episode, host Mike O’Toole is joined by David Rogers of the Columbia Business School to discuss the "Zen mentality" importance of naiveté for new, unconventional brands. Using previous guests – such as Higher Ground Farm and UNREAL Candy ­– they explain how sometimes not having an expertise gives brands more options to succeed.

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Video Highlights
PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Speaker 1:

In Japan, we have the phrase: shoshin, which means beginner's mind. The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind. Suppose you recite the Prajnaparamita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. What would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your others end practices (phonetic). For a while, you will keep your beginner's mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, you're liable to lose the limitless meaning or original mind.

In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few.

Speaker 2:

I'm Mike O'Toole and this is The Unconventionals. The clip you just hear is from Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, as narrated by Peter Cyote. Now, we haven't gone soft in the head. We, in fact, have noticed a pretty interesting link between this particular zen principle and business success in our conversations with unconventional companies. If you're skeptical, let me quote from a different kind of zen master. Zen practice is about stripping away one's biases, prejudices, and blindness. It is about realizing the essence of things. That's Randy Komisar, partner at Kleiner Perkins, a company synonymous with Silicon Valley Innovation.

It was Emmanuel Ording, a producer here on the show, that made the connection originally for us. He noticed that when we've asked our guests to talk about the early days or key inflection points of their companies, many of them talked about naivete as a critical ingredient, but business success goes the typical thinking, is about expertise, following best practices, bench-marking successful companies bringing in consultants, experience not in a sense.

Well, this season on The Unconventionals, we're looking at how companies succeed precisely because they abandon conventional wisdom. Let's bring back David Rogers from Columbia University Business School to help us explore the topic.

How you doing David?

Speaker 3:

Good, Mike. Thanks for having me back.

Speaker 2:

I have to say, this one really captured my imagination because the notion that there is something about an advantage that the beginner or the naive might might have-

Speaker 3:

Sure.

Speaker 2:

-in starting a business is certainly counterintuitive in the sense that the beginner sees multiple options, but that's not the traditional advice, right? If you're going to start a business, it's an expert's game, right?

Speaker 3:

You know, I think that would be the conventional wisdom. You want to have both a discipline knowledge, and that's why some people who start businesses have an MBA, right? You learn a lot of core disciplines and management skills. Also, you really want to know category knowledge. You need to understand how your industry works, who the customers are, what the process is, all those things can be very helpful, but as you said, they can also sometimes get in the way.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, well I think that's it. Conventional wisdom exists for a reason, but you don't want it to be a straight jacket.

Speaker 3:

It depends, also, who you are, what kind of business are you at, are you building a business on an existing model, or are you coming into an existing company where you really trying to start something quite new? In which the upside benefits of naivete become more pronounced.

Speaker 2:

Well, that's actually I think where it came about because what prompted this thought, what prompted this topic was two interviews we did on the same day. One was for Higher Ground Farm, which is based here in Boston in the Seaport district, second largest rooftop farm in the country next to one in Brooklyn, and the second is on real brands, which is marketing candy to the mass retailers but candy without the traditional chemicals and additives that the big brands have.

Speaker 3:

Sure.

Speaker 2:

In those conversations, both talked about naivete as a primary asset in their success, which really struck me. First, let's hear from the folks at Higher Ground Farm.

Speaker 4:

I think we started it from a much more idealist standpoint. It was something that we just liked the concept, something we wanted to do, so we just started doing it. It's like ...

Speaker 5:

Yeah, we're on like the dreamer's spectrum, really.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. I don't think a lot of people would approach starting a business that way, and we were like okay, well we want to start a business and this is what we want to do, so we just set about doing it, you know, and the first thing we did was meet with the mayor's office. No business plan, nothing, and they're like okay well come back to us when you have a business plan. Sounds great. We would never do that now, but then we were like, we had no clue.

Speaker 5:

We had no clue. We're like, "Well, we're going to go meet with them, they're going to give us roof."

Speaker 4:

They're going to give us a roof and we're going to start a roof farm in three months. Perfect.

Speaker 5:

Done.

Speaker 4:

We came it very naively, but I think in some ways, that was beneficial in the sense that maybe we didn't have the experience or the hurdles so we just weren't concerned about them.

Speaker 3:

I think that shows a couple benefits of naivete, at least for that kind of entrepreneur. I mean, the one thing is it's easier to break the rules if you don't know what the rules are, right? It can be beneficial if you're in a position of really trying to be innovative and create a new kind of business model. The second, is they were really undaunted by a whole lot of challenges they were facing because they didn't know what they were.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, if they thought they'd be up and running three months after meeting the mayor, I thin kit was three years.

Speaker 3:

If they had known what was involved they might not have started it.

Speaker 2:

Have ever done it. Exactly.

Speaker 3:

I guess that unwarranted optimism is the other benefit because if you're an entrepreneur, you do need to have that optimism.

Speaker 2:

An optimism and naivete are probably pretty close cousins that way.

Speaker 3:

Absolutely.

Speaker 2:

Let's listen to Michael Bronerate (phonetic) on Real Brands next.

Speaker 3:

Right.

Speaker 2:

He makes a statement that's actually really similar to Courtney at High Ground Farms.

Speaker 3:

He's not the Brooklyn hipster type-

Speaker 2:

No.

Speaker 3:

-first time starting a business, right?

Speaker 2:

Founded Digitas (phonetic), a venture capitalist, he's a guy who knows business. Let's take a listen.

Speaker 6:

The naivete, which is the greatest asset of the company, was, "Well, how would we just show up, an 8,000 store chain, a 9,000 store chain and actually have everybody go, "Oh, let me go for that."

Speaker 2:

Right.

Speaker 6:

We've been learning out way through this and we've been refining our thinking about distribution. Not in terms of where we want to be someday but where we should be today and how we grow out from there.

Speaker 2:

Very similar words. He talks about naivete as an asset in a way that I love and I think he's specifically talking about they launched, they launched big, and they wanted to be in Walgreens and Target and they felt like it was just going to take off.

Speaker 3:

Sure. That maybe wasn't necessarily the right fit for the brand, so they've had to adjust as they go, as I understand. I think that's, to go back to the opening statement, that's one of the benefits of naivete is that it does give you more options. Often, innovation is about killing certain sacred cows. If you are not beholden to the conventional wisdom within your industry, within your category, how you start, where you distribute, where you [inaudible 00:07:47] your products, how you bring your products to market. You will have more ideas to come to the table on this, businesses are becoming more and more driven with this idea whether it's minimum viable products and this experimental approach to innovation, it's all about having lots of ideas and testing them in the market place. That's where having at least some people in your organization, maybe not everybody depending on your type of business, but some of those beginner's minds is really critical, or else you are not going to be in a position to have a lot of hypotheses to test.

Speaker 2:

I think that's right. For unreal brands to, part of this, going to Walgreens, going to Target, was they were thinking big, they were audacious, and what also came out of that audacious thinking is they were able to attract people like Tom Brady and Matt Damon and John Legend to their promotion when they kicked off their company, and if it were going to be a slow and steady startup, I'm not sure that anybody would have felt the gravitational pull.

Speaker 3:

If you're going to make an omelet, you've got to break some eggs, and sometimes you've got to shoot big even if you know you're going to make some mistakes along the way because that's your strategy, you're trying to bring in these kind of partners. Then, as you grow, it changes. I mean, I think part of this is a story of where you are in the history of a business. If you're Larry Page and Sergey Brin, very naive, starting a company with what turned into a search engine and suddenly discovered they had a massive profit-making machine on their hands. At a certain point, they said, "We need to bring in an Eric Schmidt.

Speaker 2:

Right.

Speaker 3:

We need somebody who's really got the expertise of how do you grow in scale this business with some of the challenges we're now facing on the management side?

Speaker 2:

Yeah. All of a sudden, energy and maybe naivete and just brilliance alone weren't enough, right?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, although they tried to keep that in there, right? That's why they've got the Google X labs. Keep a place for the dreamers, like Courtney and John to still be a part of your organization and still be generating new ideas, even once you've gotten to that kind of scale.

Speaker 2:

Turns out we're not alone in making the connection. Lots of great minds in Silicon Valley are explicitly looking to leverage them principles in their efforts to find the next big thing. I came across a great article in Fastco Design, What Zen Taught Silicon Valley (And Steve Jobs) About Innovation by Warren Berger. You should check it out. I'll call out one excerpt where Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford, echos what David says about balancing naivete with experience. At places where intense innovation happens, they often combine people who know too little and people who know too much, Sutton says, the goal is to foster tension between massive expertise in the ability to see with fresh eyes. Every business could use a little bit more of that kind of tension.

I'm Mike O'Toole, and this is The Unconventionals. We're on the hunt for great stories of disruptive innovation, and we'd love to hear your ideas at facebook.com/unconventionalsradio. Join us next time for our conversation with Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, who spearheaded American Express' Small Business Saturday. We'll discuss how a conversation around corporate responsibility during the recent Great Recession spawned a remarkable campaign that has become a lasting part of small business culture in this country.

The Unconventionals is written and produced with my partner, Reid Mengen (phonetic). Post-production and technical direction by Reid Mengen (phonetic) with Emanuel Ording (phonetic) and Anthony Gentles (phonetic). Promotion and distribution by Gregster Face (phonetic) and Graham Spector (phonetic) with Tori O'Neil (phonetic). Our creative director is Aaron Disova (phonetic). Our executive producer is Phil Johnson (phonetic) for PJA Advertising and Marketing. I'm Mike O'Toole. Thanks again to David Rogers, Higher Ground Farms, and Unreal Candy. To hear more episodes of The Unconventionals, visit radio.agencyPJA.com. This is PJA Radio.

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