Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On Being an Iconoclast

At Roeder-Johnson, we like to work with companies that are not in the mainstream. That’s because quite often it’s the companies that don’t follow conventional wisdom and the evolutionary path that actually make the most dramatic changes. And we like to work with companies that are truly redefining markets or industries.

But, in addition to the proverbial “arrows in the back” admonition that is the price of redefining (or being first in) a market, there are a few other costs.

Cost #1: You’re not in fashion.

If you choose to challenge conventional wisdom, you are de facto asking the market to look at the world in a new way. That means the approach you take is not (yet) in fashion. And in a world where being in fashion sells, it can be very difficult to capture mindshare if you are not in fashion.

Cost #2: People don’t always know how to fit you into their existing models of the market and the way things should be done.

If you choose to do things in a new way, you are likely going to need to talk first with visionaries who can either (1) see the big picture and understand how to fit you into the world as it is coming to be; or (2) talk with people who are willing to be flexible and have their minds changed about how they do things.

Cost #3: You might not be in the “club”.

Particularly in the Silicon Valley, being in the club matters: It’s easier to raise money and convince influencers that you know what you are doing. There are some "club members" who can see the big picture, and believe in challenging convention; but not all of them. And for those who don’t see the big picture, if you are not a member of the club, how do they know you are legitimate?

Cost #4: The press may not care.

This is really an offshoot of points 1, 2, and 3. But it is a real price of being an iconoclast and therefore you need to have “intestinal fortitude” to evangelize your story, even when the majority aren’t willing to accept it. There are, of course, some forward thinkers who not only understand new and different stories but also relish them. Moreover, along with being an iconoclast comes a certain amount of drama or conflict which, if you care to mine it, can make for a very interesting story.

Last week I was reminded of these facts of life about being unconventional several times:

  • Once when a company with a good announcement had to work really hard to get attention because: (a) the names of the partners involved were significant but not particularly chic; and (b) the subject matter was important, but not user-generated-video or other Web 2.0 mania.
  • A second time when I spoke with a company that has deliberately not allowed itself to become a member of “the club” and will potentially pay a price for it.
  • And a third time when I read a positive review of a new book called "Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win". I am looking forward to learning more.

Daily, I see reminders of the price of being an iconoclast. But as much as it might cost, I still remained convinced that often it’s the way real change happens.


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