Sample of one

Personal experience can be a rich source of ideas for great brands – but beware over-reliance on one person’s insights.

When I was working for a market research agency, many years ago, my mother would occasionally ask me what I had been researching recently and what the results were.

More often than not, when I had explained my latest project and its outcome, she would look at me with an expression of disbelief. “Why did they waste their money doing that when they could have just asked me?” We talked about starting an agency of our own called SOO, or Sample of One. It became a running joke.

I was reminded of our idea when looking into the origins of many of the latest generation of brands over the last year or so – the digitally savvy, 24/7, tech- and content-based brands making our lives friction-free and more fun. My research showed that about half of these next generation brands have been based on solving a (first-world) problem – typically a problem that founders had experienced personally. In effect, they are based on sample-of-one research.

Uber was created after its founders got caught in the rain and were unable to hail a taxi. What3words was founded when Chris Sheldrick, then working as an events organizer, found that bands and their musical equipment kept turning up in the wrong place. Instinct told Sheldrick he was onto something.

Not for these founders the traditional best practice of the often slow and research-intensive ‘stages and gates’ approach to identify, refine and quantify the opportunity of their innovation. Instead, they relied on their passion, engaging presentations and an ability to persuade friends, family and angel investors that there was a business just waiting to be unleashed.

There are many success stories of these types of brands, including the so-called unicorns that are now valued at more than $1 billion. Perhaps as a result of their stories spreading, I’ve spoken to numerous innovation and marketing directors in more established companies who lament that their own brands aren’t equally agile. 

They ask what they could do to act more like these disruptive challengers. One answer would be to truly empower someone to ‘go for it’ – but that’s an unlikely solution, given the pressures that come with having shareholders, investors, and an existing business to look after. Established brands just aren’t willing or able to take the risks of a startup.

However, while there are undoubted benefits of speed and agility in a sample of one, there are dangers too. Countless brands are launched on the back of personal experiences and beliefs, but the majority of these fail or don’t grow into large businesses. One issue is that the potential – the carrot – is exaggerated: every success gets lots of media attention, but the failures often get little, if any.

That isn’t the only problem. Sample-of-one thinking can cause problems even for businesses that are at least initially successful, particularly when they are built on the back of one person’s idea. When a leader or founder has success early on, they can develop an infallibility complex, believing that they are always going to be right. They dominate all the key decisions and shape the culture in their own image, or in a way that is designed to serve them and feed their egos. This can work in the short-term if they continue to make good calls – but often they don’t.

In addition, early successes and the hope of ‘getting in early’ can encourage the development of less-than-ideal cultures, including a reliance on incredibly long working hours. Employees may tolerate that at first, but over time – as numerous companies have discovered – the result is likely to be increasing problems with recruitment and retention.

A successful SOO can be an enormous benefit, but an infallibility complex can be a recipe for disaster.  

Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers.