Jeff Bezos’s one empty chair rule

When starting a new business, it can be easy to get caught up in the day to day minutiae.

It seems like there is an endless list of tasks to complete and never enough time to get everything done.

Unfortunately, this often leads to making poor decisions when it comes to setting priorities.

As crazy as it seems, this can lead to overlooking what should always be a company’s greatest priority: their customers.

The world’s richest man Jeff Bezos understands the importance of this implicitly.

This is why at Amazon, he asks for an empty chair in all meetings.

This chair is to represent the customer.

It’s both brilliantly simple and effective.

It’s a constant reminder that everything a business does, it must be done to enhance their customers’ lives in some way.

Without happy customers a business will not survive long term.

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The First ‘Elevator’ Pitch

In 1853, an American named Elisha Otis discovered a solution to a critical problem: how to make lifts safe.

At that time, taking an ‘elevator’ was risky business. They were prone to malfunction, which was not much fun if you had climbed a dozen stories and then the central cable suddenly snapped.

Fortunately, the ingenious Otis had found a way to overcome this. He attached a large spring to the lift cage and added a series of ratchet bars within the shaft so that if the cable did break the spring-activated braking system would bring the lift and it precious cargo to a safe stop.

It was a brilliant idea with the potential to save a lot of money and many lives. The only problem was it was difficult to persuade the public that it actually worked.

Undeterred, the inventor rented out the main hall in what was then the largest exhibition centre in New York. There, he constructed an open lift shaft and platform for all to see. When it was finished, he gathered together a crowd of exhibition attendees.

He stood proudly on the platform and instructed an assistant to raise him up to a height of three stories using a pulley and rope. Once he had reached that height, he looked down at his audience and in a dramatic fashion, instructed his assistant to slash through the rope that was suspending him in mid-air.

The platform fell and the audience gasped in horror. Then, a second or so later, the safety brake engaged and brought Otis to a stop. Again, he looked down at the audience. Only this time, he said, “All safe, gentlemen. All safe.”

Apart from being the first demonstration of a lift safe enough to carry people, this historic event was also the world’s first ‘elevator pitch’. I.e. A short, simple and effective way to ‘sell’ an idea.

Elisa went on to found the Otis Elevator Company of which you are more than likely to have experienced (safely, no doubt) one of their products.

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The Business of Storytelling

Blake Mycoskie is a serial entrepreneur.

By the time he was 30, Blake had already started four businesses. Oh and he also found time to compete in The Amazing Race.

After all that, he needed a well earned break. Somewhere to relax and let his mind unwind.

He choose South America because he wanted to learn how to play polo.

One night he was in a wine bar in Buenos Aires and fell into conversion with two women.

They explained that they were on a ‘shoe drive’ collecting second-hand shoes from wealthy families and taking them to the favelas to hand out.

Intrigued by this idea, Blake tagged along.

It was to prove a life changing experience that sowed the seed for a multi-million dollar shoe empire.

He was waxing lyrical to his polo teacher about his experience when his teacher turned to him and asked ‘But what happens when these kids grow up?’

Blake wrestled with this question overnight. How could he help these kids and make a difference? Would starting a business achieve more than just another charity?

Then one day the idea came to him.

He noticed the canvas shoes worn by the local polo players and thought they would be something cool and different if sold back in his native USA. Blake said “My idea was if we could sell a pair of shoes today, then we’ll give a pair away tomorrow, we’ll call them Tomorrow shoes”

After a few meetings with local manufactures and a shortening of the name to Toms, he returned to Los Angeles with 250 pairs.

With a bit of hustling he got them into a couple of trendy independent fashion stores.

Shortly thereafter, an LA Times fashion writer picked it up and interviewed Blake for a feature.

The day the article appeared in the paper he received orders for 2,200 pairs but only had 80 pairs left in his apartment. And then he got a call from Vogue magazine.

The rest as they say is history.

TOMS went from zero dollars in annual revenue to $450 million in under seven years, becoming the fastest selling shoe company in the world.

How and why did Blake’s vision become so wildly successful?

Because there was a great story behind it.

People loved the idea that by buying a pair of shoes they would be gifting another pair to a poor child.

The most successful businesses in the world share one thing in common with TOMS: they all tell their stories well.

Storytelling isn’t just fundamental to doing business that is good, it’s good for business full stop.


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The awkward birth of the ice trade

It was in the early 1800s that Frederic Tudor first had his vision for success.  

His idea was to cut up large blocks of ice from the frozen lakes of New England and transport them by boat to tropical lands.

There, he planned to sell them at hugely inflated prices and become extremely wealthy in the process.

After developing a technique for keeping the blocks from melting during the voyage, Tudor organised a maiden trip between Boston and Martinique in the Caribbean.

However, much to his dismay, the enterprising businessman soon discovered he had overlooked one major point: the residents of Martinique had no use for his product.

They had never seen ice before and the concept of frozen water seemed entirely alien to them. They just couldn’t see the point of it. 

In short, Tudor had completely overestimated their desire for his ‘luxury’ good. He attempted to explain its uses to the local population but his sales pitch fell on deaf ears.

It was a failure and he returned to the US with significant financial losses.

His efforts were not entirely in vain though. Later in life, he found success with his ice shipping by establishing a network between New England and Rio and Bombay. 

Interestingly, for a portion of the 19th Century ice shipping became the second largest American export after cotton. It is estimated to have employed around 90,000 people at it’s height. 

Inspired by Tudor’s success, it wasn’t long before other entrepreneurs went on to find other ways of keeping things artificially cold. 

This time, however, they knew that the demand (in the form of housewives wanting to keep their food fresh as long as possible) was there from the start. 

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How an Indian vegetable company become a global IT powerhouse

In 1945, Western India Palm Refined Oils was founded in the city of Amalner in the state of Maharashtra by a man named Mr. Premji. 

The company produced a popular brand of sunflower oil amongst other vegetable based products. For the next twenty years, it continued to do just that and made solid returns.

But selling vegetables will only get you so far. 

Fortunately for the company, an entrepreneurially minded employee had ambitions beyond what had started out as little more than a market stall.

Mr. Premji’s son Azim, fresh from his stint at Stanford, recognised that if the company was to reach its full potential it would need to radically alter its approach.

Enthused by the rising importance of computers in the information age, Azim convinced the company to enter the IT products business in 1982.

It was an inspired strategic move.  

Over the next ten years, the company grew substantially in size. It’s turnover and profits soon, by many multiples, dwarfed the amount the family business had made from selling vegetables.

Fast forward to the present day and Azim is currently the second wealthiest person in India with a fortune estimated at around $20 billion.

What would the company’s future have looked like if Azim hadn’t made this momentous decision?

One of the greatest talents of an intrapreneur is their ability to think ‘outside the box’.

Radical changes are often the only way for companies to grow beyond a certain point. 

Branching out into IT at a time when it was a nascent business category must have seemed like madness at the time.

Who knew that WIPRO (now one of the world’s largest IT companies) originally started out as Western India Palm Refined Oils

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