October 26, 2006
News & Opinion: Bill Taylor Interview from OnMilwaukee.com
I wanted to repost the great interview that our friends at OnMilwaukee.com did with Bill Taylor. They wrote this leading up to the live event we had two weeks ago.
On Thursday, Bill Taylor, one of the co-founders of the cutting-edge business and lifestyle magazine, Fast Company, is in town talking about his new book "Mavericks at Work: Why The Most Original Minds in Business Win." He collaborated with former Fast Company colleague Polly Lebarre on the project.
OnMilwaukee.com is a media sponsor of Thursday's event, and took a few minutes to get Taylor's take on media, business and his book.
OMC: Define success.
Taylor: I'd never suggest that my definition of success should be anyone else's definition, but here's how I think about it: Can I make use of my natural talents to do work that means something to me, that makes even a little bit of a positive impact in the world, and that creates something of value in the marketplace? I firmly believe that there is an iron-clad connection between the values you believe in and fight for -- as a company or as an individual -- and the economic value your create. That's how you do your best work -- and how material success also feels like "real" success.
OMC: What two albums do you need on your iPod for a long trip?
Taylor: I am the world's most passionate Bruce Springsteen fan -- I have a bootleg of the famous 1975 Milwaukee "bomb scare" show at the Uptown Theater. So my first choice has to be a Bruce album, probably "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Second album has to be Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." I know, I'm showing my age. Hey, the truth hurts.
OMC: Does a "rise in tides lift all boats?"
Taylor: The answer is no, both in business and society, I'm afraid to say. The story of our times is the "disappearing middle." Everywhere I look, whether it's in the computer business or the auto business, or whether it's in society itself, there seem to be big winners, big losers and not a lot of companies or people just moving along in the middle. That's why the stakes are so high -- and why it's so important to think hard about how you compete as a company and work as an individual.
OMC: How do companies turn ideas into money?
Taylor: Actually, the only way to win big in the marketplace today is to stand for something distinctive and disruptive -- to stand for a powerful set of ideas. Every industry in the world is plagued by overcapacity, oversupply and utter sensory overload. We already have too much of everything -- cars, computers, cell phones, banks, you name it. In this kind of hyper-competitive environment, the companies that thrive are the ones with a distinctive point of view.
Think Southwest Airlines, Pixar Animation Studios, Starbucks Coffee Company. As one of our maverick CEOs said, "Every great company has reinvented the business that it's in." That's why ideas matter. The only sustainable form of business leadership is thought leadership -- generating better ideas and making smarter adjustments than the competition.
OMC: What's next for media?
Taylor: More choices, more grassroots participation, more variety in every way imaginable. That said, I am not one of the blog-crazed cheerleaders for the demise of the so-called mainstream media. For the life of me, I can't figure out why the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times can't figure out how to become incredibly prosperous businesses -- Google and Craigslist notwithstanding. But whether or not they succeed as businesses, as a society we can't afford them to become shadows of their former selves. No other institution has the brainpower, the time, and the resources to figure out what's really going on in the world. To all those bloggers out there who like to dance on the grave of the mainstream media I say, be careful what you wish for...you might just get it.
OMC: Any suggestions for the owners of OnMilwaukee.com?
Taylor: I learned a long time ago not to offer detailed advice on other people's businesses -- they quickly realize how little you really know. So I'd suggest that you keep asking yourself a small number of questions that I believe are at the heart of being a maverick:
Is there a distinctive and disruptive sense of purpose behind everything you do?
If you went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?
Why would great people want to be part of your organization?
Do you work as distinctively as you compete?
OMC: How has competition changed?
Taylor: Competition is both more intense and more lackluster than ever before. Intense in the sense that in every industry, there are more rivals, from more parts of the world, offering better products, at lower prices, with better quality than at any point in human history. Think about how much computing power you can buy for two thousand bucks. Think about how cheap it is to make a cell phone call or send an e-mail. And yet, competition is lackluster in the sense that most big companies in most industries seem to compete in identical ways. How is it that all cars look so alike, or that all airline service is so lousy, or that every TV network copies from every other TV network? That's why this hyper-competition opens up so much room for mavericks. If you do something truly different, people notice.
OMC: Who is your pick to win the World Series?
Taylor: I am lifelong New Englander, which means I'm a die-hard Red Sox fan. So my only must-have in the Series chase is for the Yankees to lose. That said, I am both picking and rooting for the Oakland A's. They've got the "maverick" approach to building a team -- they can't outspend the competition, so they out-think the competition. Plus, Billy Beane, the general manager of the A's, did a great blurb for our book -- so rooting for his team is the least I can do. Go A's!
OMC: Finally, why should I buy your book?
Taylor: Because it offers new and exciting and compelling answers to some of the most basic questions in business -- questions that are center stage for entrepreneurs, executives in big companies, even people running a business on the Internet or out of their house. What does it mean to have an effective strategy -- how do you create value in the marketplace? How do you forge enduring connections with customers -- how do you stand out from the crowd when the crowd gets bigger, better, and louder every year? How do you unleash innovation -- where do ideas come from? How do you win the battle for talent--how do you attract more than your fair share of the best people in your field.
This is both a how-to book and a what-if book. It is meant to persuade people of the power of business at its best -- and we think the companies and characters we discovered in the course of research deliver on that promise.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.