The Chameleon Factor

A couple of years I was CEO of a company called Software Automation, a leading robotics company in the apparel industry. But here’s the thing. I wasn’t an expert in robotics or apparel. So why was I in an industry I knew virtually nothing about? Because I’m sort of an expert… at becoming an expert.

The company had raised $3.5 million dollars, and I needed to get up to speed on the supply chain. The good news is that I know a lot about supply chains. But not because of a degree, or my history as an entrepreneur or because it’s generally fascinating. I’m an expert, because I know how to break down how companies operate in order to be successful.

First, I learned the apparel industry supply chain:

  • Consumer
  • Retailer
  • Brands
  • Contract manufacturer
  • Resellers
  • Manufacturer

Then, I asked myself, “what’s unique about this supply chain?” I figured out that contract manufacturers make a “widget” from the retailer’s design. It goes like this: back in the “old days,” retailers made their own products. They’d come up with a cool product idea, deign it in-house, figure out how to make it, then put it into production. They controlled the chain.

Now, there is virtually no institutional knowledge about how to make clothing. That was a key learning. For example, designers at a company like Lululemon don’t actually know how their products are made. They design the products, then hand them off to contract manufacturers. That was important to realize, because we thought that ultimately we would be selling robotic apparel systems to companies like Lululemon. Nope! Not even close.

I revisited what I knew: building technology. In that supply chain, you’d think that architects own the supply chain, but they don’t. The contractors are the ones who source materials and equipment to help achieve an architect’s vision and keep projects on budgets. So, in terms of apparel, now we have an influencer — the contract manufacturer — making the key decisions about machinery that may be needed to produce garments… not the retailer or the brand.

I recently had a meeting with the large corporation’s innovation team, and they were delighted that I seemed to know so much about their business. But I came to them with what I’ve learned about big companies in general over my many years of working with them. Big companies want to do one of two things: stick to what they do best, or try something completely new. In times of big change, I’ve found that:

• Software companies think they want to be data companies and vice versa

• Product companies think they want to be service companies and vice versa

• People who sell direct want to have a channel and vice versa

So how did I become an expert so quickly? I’ve broken down some simple steps that can help virtually anyone become an expert in a new business field.

1) Do your homework. When you’re entering new business territory, start with the basics. Read blog posts, white papers, and articles. Listen to podcasts. Do the research.

2) Identify key people in the industry. Dive into their perspectives, their news feeds, their content. Know who the influencers are in the space.

3) Know the value chain. Every industry has their value chain — who is selling to whom and what is their value proposition? So ask this key question: what is in the value chain in this specific industry? Soon, you’ll start to see patterns, trends and commonalities.

4) Map what you learn against other industries you know about. Suddenly you’re discovering similarly tested and successful paths among CEOs and founders, even if they operate in completely industries.

This is what keep business exciting and relevant. There are real benefits to coming into an industry to innovate and make change without initially possessing deep knowledge. It’s like the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind.” Everything is possible.

In the end, you can really be an expert at anything if you do your homework, follow the influencers, bring your own experiences to the table and understand the value chain.