“Innovate or die” is an expression you hear tossed around a lot. It tells me quickly that the people using it are not really all that innovative and in most cases do not know what it takes to build a fast-growth company. When the fast growth starts to fade, as it always does, the problem is rarely innovation. More often, it’s an inability to do the things that have to follow innovation. It’s really about getting stuff done.
Getting stuff done means packaging, selling, delivering and collecting the money to increase revenue and profits. If you are best in class at getting stuff done and use creativity to reduce complexity and chaos, you just may have yourself a fast-growth business. But if you do, you will quickly learn that the biggest risk to your business is not that it will die because you stop innovating — it’s that it will die because you fail to rein in your innovating and start executing.
Here’s what often happens: Right in the middle of the selling part, someone comes up with an idea to expand the market, add a new product, add more features or offer a new service — in short, an innovation. Not only is innovation more fun than selling, it is what made you a successful start-up when you disrupted the market and created a new fast-growth niche. The organization cheers and rewards the innovators and soon enough you have innovation everywhere – but very little stuff getting done. What happens next is chaos and eventually you realize that you have very little revenue to show for your innovation, which is not good when you are in growth mode.
I remember one summer in high school I worked for my Uncle Buddy laying carpet. On the job, I wanted to talk to customers — basically about anything other than laying carpet. My uncle would look up and say, “Cliff, put tacks in the floor and lay the carpet.” The fast-growth winners are companies that have employees that step up and put tacks in the floor. The fast-growth losers talk about things like “innovate or die.”
Most successful fast-growth entrepreneurs can recall the day when they told their employees to stop innovating and start doing. No talking – just action. I remember a late-night staff meeting where we were long on excuses and short on results, and I simply could not take it anymore. I stood up and said, “Nobody else in this company can create unless it is approved by me. I want everybody to go and do what we already said we were going to do. You either do it or eliminate it. Your decision.”
I know I sound like a bureaucratic dictator, but I was running one of the fastest-growing companies in America, according to Inc. magazine, and I was totally frustrated that I could not get our product out the door. We had innovation everywhere — engineering had a new platform, programming had new features, marketing had new campaigns and the sales people wanted to hire new representatives to sell our “old” stuff so they could sell the new stuff. What helped me to say no was learning that Steve Jobs had once said, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” But saying no is hard. You are saying no to inspired people and potential revenue.
But the winners do it, like Jeff Platt, chief executive of Sky Zone, which builds indoor trampoline parks. Here is a guy who has built a business with a highly successful revenue model and has pre-sold more than 100 high-end franchises. When I heard him speak recently, he spoke with the confidence and knowledge of someone older than his 28 years. “In our world, at Sky Zone, we strive for operational excellence and to create ‘wow’ guest experiences,” he said. “At this stage of the company, we choose not to focus on bringing in new product offerings and new experiences for guests because we currently need to direct our attention on being brilliant at our core business.”
This is a guy who invented and patented the cable to tie trampolines together into an amusement park. In fact, he created a whole new industry by combining fitness and fun. Now, instead of focusing on innovation, Jeff is focused on training. One of the ways he is doing this is by investing money in e-training modules to make material available instantly to every employee across the country. He is also investing significant time in creating training courses for part-time, full-time and management positions. “We are focusing on getting stuff done,” he told me.
With an average of 10,000 to 15,000 attendees per park each month, it might be tempting for Mr. Platt to think about how to drive more revenue from each guest through new product innovations. If Sky Zone could figure out how to get $1 more out of each guest, it would be looking at more than $4 million in additional revenue each year. Or he could go back to the basics and focus on creating such a “wow” experience that those guests leave the park compelled to go out and tell everyone how great Sky Zone is.
That’s what I call getting stuff done — and that’s what I call a winner.