My first boss was a badass, and he was the smartest person I’d ever met. Bill Briggs was so much smarter than me, that it took me decades (of life and work), to realize that the one thing he said that seemed obviously wrong at the time – was actually obviously right.
Bill grew up in northern California, had a master’s degree from MIT and a beard with a little gray that added to him being a cool laid-back brilliant guy. He was always in a good mood. He hired me as a new engineer straight out of Purdue, and I eagerly moved to join him at a large technology company in California where we designed and built advanced equipment used by US Navy ships, planes and submarines.
One day, we were talking in his office about effort and success. It was probably about a new project at work, but Bill’s answer was intended generally. To this day, I remember exactly what he said.
“I try to always get things right,” Bill said, “but on average, if I can get just more than about half of my new things to work out – that’s good.” Bill was kind of laughing when he said it, but he wasn’t joking.
I was dumbstruck.
This guy was the smartest person I knew, and he said nearly half his endeavors don’t work out as planned? What the hell! I thought he was going to say “maybe 1 or 2% of the time he was wrong.“
I stood there looking at him. Bill took out a stick of gum from his desk and offered it to me. It was Juicy Fruit.
Here’s what I learned over the decades since.
Let’s say you work to develop a product that utilizes some emerging technology,
or you launch a new service into the market,
or you start a new venture,
or you strive to set a personal best time for a 5k,
or write an article that resonates with people,
If on average you can get more than half of your stuff to work out – that’s exceptionally good. Seriously, you are a rockstar of getting new stuff to work out.
Here’s a billion dollar example of someone who got only one-third of his new stuff to succeed. Turns out it’s someone else named Bill and it involves the gum my boss gave me that day.
Bill Wrigley came to Chicago in 1891 with only $32. His idea was to start a business selling scouring soap. Sales of his soap were slow, so he did what many marketers do and tried incenting customers by including something else – in this case a small can of baking powder. It turned out Wrigley’s baking powder was more popular with customers – so he switched his business to selling baking powder.
Then to incent his customers to buy more baking powder, he decided to include some chewing gum. And this time, he learned his chewing gum was more popular with customers than the baking powder. So Wrigley switched businesses again – this time selling gum.
Switching from scouring soap to baking powder and finally to gum – was Wrigley’s 3rd pivot to a new business. Even a success ratio of 33% can result in world-class achievement. By comparison, approximately 85% of new CPG products fail within two years.
Fast-forward to 2008 and Mars acquired the company for $23 billion. That’s a lot of gum. And from another badass named Bill.