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Purple cows and business 2.0.1
11-12-2007
by Randall C Willis  |  Email the author
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I recently received the latest issue of one of my favorite business magazines, Business2.0, in the mail and was dismayed to see that it was also going to be my last. After several years of bringing me interesting stories about organizations approaching typical problems in unusual ways, the magazine was being shut down by its parent company, ostensibly because of a lack of advertising.
 
Aside from being a sad story about yet another magazine going under—BTW, if I haven't thanked DDN's advertisers recently, let me do so now—I wonder if this isn't also a sign of the times; an indication that in times of tightening budgets and shrinking profit margins, businesses are ill-disposed to taking unusual approaches to their problems. "Stick to your knitting" goes the adage…but wasn't it the "knitting" that got you into this mess?
 
As you may have guessed from my many editorials and bylines, I have a soft spot for the oddball, the unusual, the extraordinary. While no one can deny the majesty of the big players…they had to get big somehow…there is just something special about the little companies that could. These are the people who see the challenges ahead and attack them from a totally obtuse angle.
 
Four times in my life, I have accomplished things that any sane person would have thought impossible: one technical, one publishing, and two marketing-related. I don't recount this to plug my resume, as I don't think that my efforts were all that amazing…it just never occurred to me that I would fail. I saw an opportunity and I took advantage of it.
 
Marketing specialist Seth Godin talks about the purple cow. In a world filled with brown cows—so many so that you eventually stop seeing them as you travel down the highway—a purple cow would stand out and grab your attention. Godin was mostly applying the metaphor to marketing, but I think it holds true for all aspects of a business. As I see it, brown cow R&D brings you brown cow results whereas a purple cow effort can achieve something startling.
 
But purple cow initiatives require a certain degree of bravery and fortitude, particularly when economic times are tough. Which brings me to another book I have been reading recently: Be Unreasonable by Paul Lemberg.
 
In the introduction, Lemberg explains his manifesto: "Being reasonable kills potentially great ideas with arguments about what used to work and what someone else thought made sense at some time deep in the past. Being reasonable is designed for survival. It is about getting by. Being reasonable may keep you in business, but at the same time, it keeps your business from soaring. Be unreasonable and all those false barriers drop away."
 
Less a traditional business book—10 tips to being your wackiest—Be Unreasonable is almost a self-help book, offering advice on how to change the way you think about and approach a challenge. As I read through the book, I found myself thinking, "Oh sure, but try to apply this stuff in the real world," only to realize that this was his whole point. Being unreasonable is in-and-of-itself unreasonable.
 
But as Godin and Lemberg are (and I guess, I am) trying to point out, being unreasonable, being a purple cow is how you differentiate yourself and your business from everyone else's. It is how you keep from falling into the same traps or hitting the same walls as everyone else.
 
If everyone else is focused on keeping the virus from replicating in the host (e.g., antiretroviral cocktails), you work on a way to keep it from infecting people in the first place (e.g., condoms and antiviral foams). If everyone else is struggling to identify a safe next-generation therapy, maybe you should look at a first- or second-generation drug that has fallen out of use over time (e.g., paramomycin for visceral leishmaniasis).
 
It isn't so much that the purple cows are more capable than the majority, but rather that they are less incapable than the rest…or perhaps I should suggest they are less incapacitated that the rest. The purple cows have fewer barriers—both mental and organizational—than the rest of the herd to the exploration of the truly new and unusual—dare I say, innovative.
 
So go ahead, be unreasonable and unleash the purple cow within you. You'll feel better for it. I know I have…and did.

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