Difficult or Not, Follow Your Convictions

Vibram Five Finger shoes

It has been a rather hectic few days, thanks in part to the pressures of preparing for our Structure Big Data Conference in New York next week. On the flip side, it has been a special week for me; after living in San Francisco for nearly eight years, I went (almost) to the top of the Pyramid, aka the Transamerica Building. It was an amazing experience in more ways than one; I’d been invited to attend a lunch meeting with a group of very smart people.

One of the attendees was Bill Liao. He’s an Australian-born serial entrepreneur, and his latest effort was co-founding Xing with Lars Hinrichs. Xing.com is Europe’s LinkedIn and has done well for its founders and employees: It was sold to Hubert Media Group for $57 million. Liao, if you read his Wikipedia bio, is one of those entrepreneurs who marches to his own drummer. It’s a polite way of saying he’s just unusual.

Bill had been in San Francisco after attending the TED Conference. After our little lunch, he told me he was going to go home. For you and me, jumping on a plane would have been the normal course of action. Not for him; he doesn’t fly. “When I became an environmental diplomat, I took a stand not to fly again until we plant the trees we need to re-balance the planet,” he said.

In 2008, he became involved with the WeForest project, which involved restoring “roughly two billion hectares of forests out the four billion hectares we have already messed up,” he said. The logic is that because trees help create clouds, and clouds reflect the sunlight, more trees mean more cloud cover and thus a cooler planet. He’s getting companies involved in the project, and they have already planted 250,000 trees. The target is to get to 2 trillion saplings planted by 2020. Mission impossible? Don’t tell that to Liao.

Walking the Talk

Vibram Five Finger shoes

Talk about walking the talk! “Trains, ferries, buses, ride sharing, an electric car, container ships, horses and my own two feet get me around,” Liao said. Since he officially splits his time between Ireland and Switzerland, the most recent visit to TED is a three-month round trip. “I am on the train back across the country,” he said. “To cross the Atlantic took 10 days, and my fractional use of the vessel The Amber burned less than a liter of bunker fuel, which if it were refined into jet, [it] would be less than half a cup.”

Liao is also a big gadget nerd — the latest iPhone, Macbook and an iPad 2 are always with him. When I asked him how these devices reconcile with his eco-friendly life, he pointed out that he and his family live on a 5-acre permaculture farm next to the sea where they have 20 kw of solar thermal cells and 5 kw of solar PV and a 6-kw wind turbine. “We feed power back into the grid,” he said. “For every device I have, I also plant a tree a year (50 cents a tree) so I am confident that I am doing more good than harm as are my family and community.”

The reason I am telling you Bill’s story isn’t because I want you to follow his path and live an eco-fabulous life, although you should if you want to. Instead, it’s because his story offers us all one major lesson: Believing and then following one’s convictions is a hard, arduous process, but in the end it’s the right though to do — for you. Just look at the hoops Bill is jumping through in order to follow his convictions.

The iPhone and Five Fingers

Apple iPhone

Now let’s put it in context of business world. When Apple first released the iPhone, it was so different from the idea of a phone that it had an equal chance of bombing and succeeding in the market place. Even though it was only three-and-a-half years ago, it took a lot of conviction to go up against the convention — phones with a twelve-button keypad had been around for as long as the cell phone itself.

Someone at Vibram, a 70-year-old Italian shoe-components company, had to have a lot of conviction to release those goofy looking barefoot, Five Finger shoes. Tim Ferris, a well-known author, was the first guy I know who was wearing them. I mean, they make you look like you have gecko feet and are against any conventional idea of shoes. When launched, in 2006, they were slow sellers for a while.

The original target market was boaters, kayakers and those who enjoyed sailing. Small market, if you ask me. They called their shoes “foot gloves” and focused on touting the natural foot mechanics. In his book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall talked about the benefits of barefoot running and Vibram’s Five Finger shoes. The rest was history.

In 2009, Vibram sold only 400,000 pairs, but in 2010, it sold 2.5 million pairs, and the shoes now account for about 30 percent of Vibram’s sales. They are flying off the shelves and have their own copycats. There are counterfeits too — now that is success. (PS: if you have some time, check out this awesome You Are the Technology website from Vibram that goes into detail
as to why the human body is built the way it is.)

Lessons for the Rest of Us

Would that have happened if the company hadn’t followed its conviction? It had a breakthrough product; it was unique, and it was better than everybody else. Sure they had to pivot, retweak and reposition their offering, but they didn’t get up and say, “Well, this is not working, let’s make something new.”

Like Bill, Vibram and iPhone, we entrepreneurs need to have a lot of conviction in what we do in order to get to our final destination. It’s particularly hard following your own convictions, because today’s world has a lot more distracting noise. With the cost of creating a web-centric product or a service or a mobile application going down, we’ve seen a boom in the experimentation and the products competing in the marketplace.

Just because someone announced a new product or raised more funds, that doesn’t mean your strategy is wrong. It means you need to fight harder in the marketplace. It means you need to keep fine-tuning your strategy, but not change it. I know; it’s easier said than done.

But just look at Bill: He’s doing what he believes is right, and figuring out how to do it along the way. As you go into the weekend, I want you to think about that.

Have a great weekend everyone!

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