Apr 14, 2020

Staying Grounded

Excerpt from Do the KIND Thing

My maternal grandfather, Don Marquitos Americus, used to say in Spanish: “Un hombre demasiado digno para agacharse a recoger un quinto, no vale un quinto.” “He who is too proud to pick up a nickel from the ground is not worth a nickel.” Born Marcos Merikansky, he immigrated to Mexico from Lithuania early in the twentieth century to escape a pogrom. He started out selling religious trinkets like figurines of the Virgin Mary and eventually became a respected cattle rancher. (After being conscripted into the Cossack Army, he had become an excellent horseback rider.) He was about five feet tall but strong and tough; he seemed to be built of steel, even when I knew him in his seventies.

What I best remember is his humility and kindness, how he always helped the farmers who worked with him, how he sat, ate, and slept next to them and treated them as family. If my grandmother bought him a new shirt, she might soon find one of his ranchmen wearing it: He gifted what he had. What I learned from my grandfather— and from my mom and her siblings, who were influenced by his values as well— was the importance of modesty in business and life. He did not attribute his attainments to his own genius or even his own talent. He seemed to understand that hard work and skill are essential, but that success is greatly a function of luck and circumstance. My relatives had fled persecution; they worked enormously hard, but they considered themselves lucky (not entitled) to have survived and flourished.

No matter how great and innovative your ideas are, and how hard you work, some will succeed and others won’t. You can’t control exogenous events— recessions, stock market crashes or bubbles, wars, fads, the luck of good timing— nor should you take credit for them when they benefit you. This isn’t just because humility makes you more agreeable (although, of course, being nice is its own reward). If you don’t take anything for granted, you are more likely to prevent catastrophic failures, and you are less likely to just coast when things are good. I try to remember, at all times, that my company is just steps away from failure. For me it is easy because I vividly recall the situations when we did almost go under.

The quest for survival is a powerful driver to keep one motivated. In some ways, the laurels of success can threaten one’s clear judgment more than the thorns of failure. One must consciously practice restraint to stay grounded and resist the temptation to become arrogant. As I reflected about what it means to stay grounded as a human being, I also started studying what it means for products with human adjectives like KIND to stay grounded to nature. That led me to an insight that would set KIND on a very special course a decade before others had appreciated the latent need to reform manufacturing to deliver food products whose “ingredients you can see and pronounce.”

Innovation: Your Secret Weapon

No matter your business, you want to make sure you have a product or a service that distinguishes you from the crowd. A central part of American culture is celebrating original products and ideas that make this world a little better. In the consumer products world, there is a pejorative term for items that are not innovative: me- too items. Me- too items proliferate a few years after a trend takes hold and/or one company puts out an innovative and winning product. You see this again and again if you look at any recent food- industry trend: the coconut- water craze, the low- carb craze, the gluten- free craze. But you also see it across other industries, from apparel to digital apps. From the retail buyer’s perspective, why should they give shelf space to a derivative item? The me- too item is not doing anything for the category or bringing in new shoppers. Without offering consumers something new, it’s just going to cannibalize sales in the category. The whole idea of blindly copying a product is also bad for the company doing the copying. Consumers don’t really go for the umpteenth brand of coconut water or gluten- free granola and supermarkets don’t have the shelf space to hold them all. Consumers don’t have any reason to trust the #5 or the #20 brand, unless they provide a differentiating proposition. Lower-performing brands eventually get discontinued from the shelves. If you’re not playing to win, my theory is, don’t even play. Pick a different game where you have a chance to lead. The AND philosophy thrusts innovation and creativity. Innovation is what makes our world go round. It’s the key to a venture’s success. And it’s an equalizing factor. You don’t need to be the largest company out there. If you are the most creative, you can level the playing field (or, as I once said to my team in my semi- intelligible Mex- English, “The leveling field is your creativity”). This is why start- ups and entrepreneurial companies— innovative by design— often win against big corporations.

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