Success is nearly impossible to repeat. No one wins all the time. It’s often the case that a company’s hit product is followed up by a mediocre one. Don’t feel bad. We see this every day.
Paul couldn’t get those words out of his head. As he sat at the corner of the bar in the San Francisco International Airport executive lounge popping pretzels into his mouth, his fate was all but sealed. He had enjoyed an amazing three years. He was on his game, on top of the world. Now it seemed there was only one place to go. He didn’t want to go there, but all at once he realized the odds were against him.
With the announcement that his flight home to Los Angeles would be delayed another two hours after the last two-hour delay, Paul ordered another glass of the house red. He knew he had blown it booking a corridor flight out of SFO on a summer Friday with the normal fog and weekend exit rush, but that was the price for not wanting to sit in traffic on the Bay Bridge to Oakland. Another bad decision, he thought, however small. He wondered how many other bad decisions he had recently made without knowing it, and when he would find out. The wine should have been improving his mood, but it never quite worked the way he wanted it. Like sales figures, the impact of a glass of wine was impossible to predict. A lot depended on timing.
It had been an eye-opening few days for him. He had come to San Francisco at company expense to preview his team’s new product for the industry press. The public relations department had booked a non-stop lineup of interviews to demo the new work in advance of its planned release a few short weeks in the future. Product sales from his prior release were still skyrocketing and showed no signs of cresting. That groundbreaker, launched a full three years ago, had changed his career forever. He had been promoted to VP of Product Development following glowing accolades from peers and competitors. He had been celebrated widely as a rising star to be watched, and catapulted to a high-profile series of public speaking appearances in rooms filled with talented job seekers all wanting to join his team.
Problem was, all those conference talks ended with the same question: What are you going to launch next?
Paul had just delivered the answer to that question in the form of his next big thing, admittedly in beta, but far enough along to illustrate its full spectrum of features and benefits. The press had yawned. This was not what Paul had expected. No, not at all.
Had the last one been lightning in a bottle, he wondered. Were the accolades all behind him, a modest footnote of triumph turned ancient history? He had seen enough brazen colleagues come and go in a single product cycle to know every product required a new commitment—that being able to start over without hesitation separated the real winners from the forgettables. Next up he would have to show the product to the retail accounts for presales, and he knew the flat buzz from this press tour would inescapably precede him. He didn’t know where to go from here, and that was a scary place to be.
Paul barely noticed when a woman, apparently in her mid-sixties, took the other corner seat beside him. His face was buried in his mobile phone, scrolling through alternative flights to connect through other cities, none of which were likely to get him home sooner. She was well dressed and trim, her shoulder-length hair in perfect order but, at twice his age, a bit imperial. For all he knew, she was just another executive at the bar ordering a drink. Her taste was Scotch.
“What’s the matter?” she asked without invitation. “The look on your face tells me it’s something more than the delayed flight.”
“It’s the delayed flight,” he said, scowling at the mobile screen that offered no more news than the flight to LAX was now TBD. That would be the last flight of the night. If it went, it went. If it didn’t, the next one would be in the morning.
“I checked with the gate agent. They’re saying fifty/fifty for LAX,” she said.
“How did you know I was going to LA?” he asked.
“Lucky guess,” she said. “I’m pretty good at reading people. My name is Daphne.”
“I’m Paul Beckett. They told you fifty/fifty? Sounds more like seventy-five/twenty-five against.”
“You’re not much of an optimist, are you, Paul?” replied Daphne. “The equipment is at the gate, but they wouldn’t say what was wrong with it. They offered me the chance to rebook to an early morning flight with hotel on the house. I’m sure they’d offer you the same.”
“I’ll take my chances until they cancel,” said Paul. “I need to get home.”
“Family commitment?” asked Daphne.
“No, I’m not married. Maybe someday. I have to rescue this new project I botched before we release it. I’m not sure how we’re going to fix it.”
“I’ve been to that launch party,” relayed Daphne. “Are you having a bad year?”
Paul wasn’t sure why she was asking him so many questions. He hadn’t been in the mood to talk, but suddenly he found the words emptying out of him.
“No, actually I’ve been having a stellar year,” answered Paul. “Three good years to tell you the truth. Three amazing years. We created this new videogame three years ago. It’s stayed in the top ten since its first week on the charts, which doesn’t happen often.”
“That sounds tremendously exciting,” said Daphne. “I don’t know anything about videogames, but I do know when they are hits, they make a lot of money for the people who produce them.”
“Yes, barrels of cash delivered without delay to the front door,” said Paul. “I got a big bonus, stock options, and they promoted me to vice president. A year before the release, I was a lowly product manager living in a small apartment and driving a ten-year-old junk heap. Six months later I bought a condo with a view and a cool new hybrid.”
“A bounty of treasure, yet you’re staring at your sour reflection in a glass of cheap red wine,” commented Daphne. “It doesn’t add up.”
“Do you always offer barstool psychotherapy to strangers in airport clubs?” Paul wasn’t quite sure how this conversation had begun or how she had gotten him to open up so quickly, but Daphne had an impressive presence and seemed to know a bit about business.
“I’ve figured out that flight delays go a lot more quickly with good conversation,” laughed Daphne. “Long flights, too.”
“What do you do?” inquired Paul.
“I’m with an electronics component company here in the Bay Area,” replied Daphne. “We manufacture the less visible elements of circuit boards. I came in with the turnaround team about a decade ago—a few years after the company went public and then got crushed by overpromising Wall Street. I wasn’t sure we could resuscitate this one, but I saw pockets of strength hiding in the shadows and I was up for the challenge. We got most of the things that matter aligned and the stock recovered nicely.”
“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” said Paul. “I wish I had your confidence.”
“I’ve had my ups and downs, like everyone in business,” offered Daphne. “I’ve learned a few things along the way, and it certainly hasn’t been a cakewalk. In this last job, a lot went right for me, but I think it might be time to do something else. Follow-ups are hard, but reinvention keeps your thinking fresh. Change is always on my mind, certainly at the moment.”
“I can’t imagine giving up my job, not willingly,” gasped Paul. “You really are confident.”
“A job is never yours to give up,” said Daphne. “It’s a box on an organization chart you fill for a while, until someone else fills it, or until the company goes away. It ends when it’s time.”
“I don’t get it—how is it not my job?” asked Paul doubtingly.
“If you don’t own the company, it’s their job, not yours. They lease it to you for a while for the value you create beyond what you cost. At the end of the lease, if you paid off the tab and have more valuable knowledge and skills than you had when you signed on, it’s a good deal for everyone. If you take their money but don’t get better at what you do, you got burned.”
“That’s a scary way of looking at the business world,” stated Paul.
“The alternative is to go out on your own, but of course that comes with its own set of costs. There’s no easy way to stay in the game. If you’re looking for certainty or shortcuts, forget it.”
Paul looked Daphne in the eye and tried to make sense of what she was saying. She seemed to know something he didn’t know, but did it matter? The few extra decades of experience she had on him had brought some wisdom, yet their conversation was a bit circular and it was making him uncomfortable. As she suddenly pushed back her barstool and began to step away, he saw the exit opportunity he needed to make the coming hours more productive. At the same time he felt like he might be losing the answer he needed before he even asked the question. If only he knew what the question was.
“This flight is outbound for me, another weekend on the road,” said Daphne. “I need to step away for a moment. Okay if I leave my drink here and we continue our conversation in a few moments?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” blurted out Paul.
They both laughed at that. As Daphne walked off toward the restroom, Paul felt a sense of calm. Perhaps he hadn’t driven her to a more curious conversation elsewhere in the waiting room. He returned his gaze to his smartphone, just as the bartender interrupted him with a probing glance. He was a burly, ageless attendant in need of a diet and a shave, the worn vest and angled bow tie affixed to his frame awarded him home-field confidence and authority.
“You do know who you’re schmoozing with there?” prompted the bartender. “Daphne Lonner?”
“A rather interesting lady,” replied Paul, looking for the absent nametag where it should have been on the bartender’s lapel. “She’s smart and kind, very open. Good enough way to pass a little time. Is she a regular here?”
“Google her,” directed the bartender, as if Paul had missed the point entirely.
Paul ran a quick query on his smartphone: Daphne Lonner. His eyes practically popped out his skull as he looked up from the small screen.
“She’s like a billionaire,” said Paul. “She’s taken four companies public and has sixty-eight technology patents in her own name. She has about forty thousand people working for her at this very moment.”
“Maybe not a billionaire yet, but I’ll bet you a year’s worth of tips she’ll retire one,” said the bartender. “Maybe you should pay closer attention when she talks. I guess that’s up to you.”
“Not taking that bet, but thanks for the heads up,” responded Paul.
When Daphne returned, she resumed the conversation as if there hadn’t been a single second of interlude. “I think I know what’s bothering you,” she said, taking her seat again at the bar.
Paul was silent. He couldn’t believe he was having drinks with a CEO billionaire. Once he deciphered who Daphne was, he was sure she was going to ditch him for better company. That obviously wasn’t her style. She wasn’t even flying on a private jet. He thought about what the bartender had tossed off in passing—that he should listen more closely to what she was saying. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn.
“Did Harold tell you to Google me?” asked Daphne, noting Paul’s tentativeness. Paul nodded like a school kid responding to a surprise drill. Harold-the-bartender burst out laughing and straightened his tie. Daphne looked at him pryingly and shook her head, but she didn’t seem all that bothered. She took in the moment and rolled to the next. “Paul, you think perhaps you were luckier than you were smart, and now you’re wondering if your luck has run out. Is that it?”
“I think you’re right,” confirmed Paul. “I might have gotten lucky on the hit game. The two I produced before it had sub-measurable sales. Then out of nowhere, we have a gigantic hit.”
“That’s when everyone started looking at you like you knew what you were doing, and you weren’t sure you had a clue what to do next.”
“And now I may have a duck on my hands,” added Paul. “A duck that quacks off key, just like the two bombs before it. Well, maybe not that bad. It’s an okay product, but maybe I should have pushed harder. After a hit, a B is an F.”
“Endless Encores,” remarked Daphne, again catching Paul off guard.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Paul, intrigued but not fully following.
“Do you like music?” asked Daphne. “Contemporary bands, classic rock, pop tunes from various times?”
“Sure, of course,” said Paul. “Who doesn’t have a favorite band or two?”
“Those bands that are your favorites—did they have one or two hits, or a pretty decent run over the years?”
“You mean like the Eagles? The Rolling Stones? The Beatles? Obviously they had a string of hits, sometimes one after another.”
“How hard do you think it was for them to keep trying to top themselves?” asked Daphne.
“Hard,” conveyed Paul. “Very, very hard. In my business, hardly anyone repeats.”
“More like the one-hit wonders on the pop charts from the sixties, seventies, and eighties,” noted Daphne. “‘My Sharona.’ ‘Tainted Love.’ ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’”
“You’re dating yourself a little,” chuckled Paul. “But yes, you nailed it. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I don’t want to be like Friendster or Pet Rocks or the Cabbage Patch Kids. I want to make lots of hits, like you said, an endless series of hits. I want to be that guy. How do you make hits time after time after time?”
“A lot of us ask ourselves that question,” shared Daphne. “I wish I could tell you the answer. What I can tell you is that luck is not such a bad thing. It’s okay to embrace it.”
“Yeah, but can you repeat it?” asked Paul. “Can you make it happen again and again, predict it, make it repeatable?”
“From my experience, I think the best you can do is increase your odds. To build a career that allows for Endless Encores, you can never stand on your laurels. You have to be innovating all the time, not just when the clock is ticking against you. You do a little crowd pleasing with what they know, then a little thought leading by showing them something new.”
“It would be difficult to think about Endless Encores with a limited repertoire,” noted Paul.
“The only sure path to a limited repertoire is not to push yourself beyond the familiar. Your range is only gated by your courage to pursue the unknown, despite the doubters who relish the false safety of narrowing your path. You risk, you stretch, you can’t know what’s going to stick. No matter how much you know the familiar will carry you, you navigate the balance of old and new, constantly committing to reinvention. Repeat success is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, knowing that luck will shine again, but never knowing when or how.”
“And then you fail anyway,” said Paul, motioning for the too-clever bartender to bring him another glass. “If you as the CEO don’t know how to do it, what can I do to create an endless string of hits?”
“You make sure you are always trying the untried, no matter how much your customers want what is already working for them,” answered Daphne. “Sometimes you have to give people what they don’t even know they want yet. Your fans think they only want to hear your hits, but that’s a trap. If all you give them is what they know, you never again have the chance to debut the unknown. That risk is the only way you can expand your catalogue.”
“You sound more like a music agent than a tech geek,” said Paul.
“What was the name of your hit game?” asked Daphne.
“Ethereal Gaze,” answered Paul proudly. “It’s a journey through a mirrored galaxy, where you bring peace in place of war and nurture civilizations with diplomacy instead of weaponry.”
“I’ve actually heard of that,” said Daphne. “It was a breakthrough visually if I remember, and without much shooting.”
“No shooting at all,” qualified Paul. “When we brought it to market, people thought we were nuts. When we saw a little movement and doubled down on the advertising budget, they were certain we had lost our minds. Sales were beyond belief, almost impossible to imagine.”
“How about that, I don’t even play videogames and I’ve heard of your hit. You cut through the noise. You created a brand. What’s the name of the game you just showed to the press?”
“Ethereal Gaze 2: The Unseating,” declared Paul. “The theme is what happens when we discover that much of what we believe doesn’t fly in the face of corruption.”
“Sounds a tad derivative,” surmised Daphne. “Maybe a little battle slipped in?”
“The fans asked for combat mode in the focus tests after the first game,” replied Paul. “Our business is built on sequels, and we listen to customer feedback carefully. We try to give people what they want. Like you suggested, we think in terms of brands and brand extensions. A franchise is a property than can be replicated. Isn’t that the safest bet?”
“It’s half a bet,” explained Daphne. “How far into the unknown did you push your team? Did you break any new ground, give your customers reason to be excited about the sequel?”
“Maybe not as much as we could have,” admitted Paul. “Hence the yawn.”
“I’m not telling you to ignore your base,” said Daphne. “Sometimes people think they know what they want, but what they really want is to be surprised and delighted, and there isn’t a roadmap for that. When I go to a Rolling Stones concert, of course I want to hear ‘Satisfaction,’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash,’ and ‘Gimme Shelter.’ But if they don’t play anything new that intrigues me, I might as well stay home and listen to the recordings I already have.”
“I get it, but that new stuff is impossible to predict in a vacuum, and most of it gets ignored,” said Paul.
Daphne picked up her glass and swirled it with a grin. “You took an immense chance with Ethereal Gaze and it delivered for you. You’ve had a good long drink from the well, so you know what that’s like.”
“Right, but how do you know what to try after that, without embarrassing yourself and everyone around you? My boss thinks I know something, and I really don’t. I have him fooled completely and as soon as we bring out this game, he’ll probably find out.”
“Is he a good boss?” asked Daphne. “I mean, not perfect, but a decent fellow?”
“Well, he promoted me, so he can’t be all bad. Yeah, he’s okay. Not perfect, but okay.”
“I think you’ll be fine,” said Daphne, setting down her glass after a poised sip. “I don’t know if you can make your next game a hit, or the one after that. But I do have a few ideas that I think can help you improve your chances, if you don’t mind listening to a few war stories.”
“We have a two-hour flight delay, at least,” said Paul. “I’ve heard that good conversation can make the time fly.”
Daphne pushed back her glass and smiled again. “You see, there’s hidden opportunity in every mishap. You just have to look for it.”
Paul looked around the fluorescent-lit room. Everyone had tired eyes. He and Daphne weren’t the only ones stuck at the airport on a Friday evening. Not surprisingly, no one looked back at him. Everyone had issues of their own consuming them; so many faces buried in laptops and tablets and mobile phones. A few had taken to light conversation, and Paul wondered if anyone in the room might be having a discussion similar to the one he was having with Daphne. It was impossible to tell. It was also impossible to internalize all that Daphne was saying. He thought he might be missing the point, but most of all he wanted to stop feeling that for the rest of his career he would be walking on thin ice. Everyone in that airport lounge had notched a few wins and many losses. Were they all as afraid as he was of admitting that?
It suddenly occurred to Paul that Daphne hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know. Of course he needed a constant stream of new products to test, sequels as well as new ideas, but she hadn’t reduced his risk beyond not trying at all. That left him with no competitive advantage over anyone in that lounge or the outside world. It was an honorable enough manifesto, but not particularly actionable. Now he was on edge.
“You haven’t gone beyond the obvious,” exclaimed Paul. “Continue to launch unproven products all the time while harvesting existing successes. So what? You haven’t told me how. That’s what makes a difference, knowing how to create winners consistently. Do you have a formula for that?”
“Not a formula, but an approach, a methodology that works for me and my team,” continued Daphne. “Actually it’s more of a loose construct than a methodology, but I’ll be happy to share it with you.”
“A loose construct,” echoed Paul. “My lucky day. Bring it on.”
“Are you listening or putting up a wall?” returned Daphne.
“Sorry, that was rude,” apologized Paul. “Can you just tell me what I should be doing?”
“In a moment, but first I want you to understand that product releases only seem like endpoints. That can be deceptive, even unnerving. The products we bring to market don’t exist in isolation. They are part of the sine curve that maps your career, the overlapping highs and lows, the peaks and pits. Funny enough, only a few products will define your career. The rest you’ll forget, but you’re much more likely to remember the people who worked closely with you on all of them.”
“Sounds sensible enough,” said Paul. “Okay, keep making me a believer.”
“You said you were a product manager before. Now you’re in the executive ranks. What do you think has changed for you?”
“I guess the title means people have to listen to me now,” answered Paul.
“Forgive me, Paul, and I do get a little abrupt from time to time, but titles don’t mean a damn thing. Your boss can give you a title. Your boss can’t make people listen to you. You have to earn that. It doesn’t sound like you get that yet.”
There was an awkward stretch of silence. Daphne’s tone had shifted. Suddenly he saw the CEO in her. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear more, but she continued anyway.
“I think I may have jumped forward to the punchline,” conveyed Daphne. “We’ll come back later to what has changed for you. Instead, let me ask you as simply as I can: What do you think is the key to getting your next big hit?”
“Lots of people buying it,” quipped Paul. “Broad distribution, smart marketing, developing something that people want.”
“Yes, good marketing does help mediocre products fail faster and more spectacularly,” replied Daphne. “How about something less obvious? Tell me about your management philosophy, especially now that you’re officially part of the Dilbert brass.”
“I don’t think I have one,” uttered Paul.
“Sure you do. You might have had your one big hit to date by accident, but I don’t think you became VP by accident. What got you there?”
“I made a lot of money for my company,” asserted Paul.
“Don’t make me give up and book a ride on the train,” rebuked Daphne. “Tell me, what is it you do as a videogame maker?”
“We make stuff.”
“A clear enough answer—you said ‘we,’ which is a good sign. Who is we? Who makes the stuff?”
“Our teams do the work,” answered Paul. “The employees and contractors we hire. Our people. And they’re good at it. Really, really good.”
“There you go,” said Daphne. “Your good people make the stuff. What kind of stuff?”
“I don’t know, wacky, creative stuff,” said Paul. “Products that engage the imagination of our customers.”
“People make the products,” summarized Daphne. “Then what happens?”
Paul should have known the answer, but he didn’t. This was going to be obvious, and he couldn’t pull it out of a hat.
“If your business model is sound, your company makes money,” said Daphne. “The part you said that got you promoted. Profits.”
“I had an inkling that was what you were going to say,” replied Paul. “I thought it might be a trick question.”
“No tricks,” said Daphne. “That’s my business philosophy, and it’s simple. People, Products, Profits—in that order.”
“Shouldn’t a business figure out how it is going to make money first?” asked Paul.
“Yes, of course. I gave you the correct order to make that happen, at least for me. I’ve been at this four decades, a survivor of many trends, a lot of bombs, and just enough wins to pay the bills and start the cycle anew.”
“That little saying is what’s going to keep my career on a path to Endless Encores?”
“No, not really. You’re going to need all that luck we talked about,” said Daphne. “You want a shot at luck? You want a shot at a string of successes? My playbook tells me it’s more than a little saying.”
“People, Products, Profits—in that order?”
“Yes, and since there’s no word on our flight, let’s dig in a little, shall we?”
“Do you mind if I jot down a few notes as we go?” asked Paul. “I want to make sure I encode all this stuff for later recall.”
Paul reached for his mobile and opened up a blank page in a note-taking app. Daphne gently motioned for him to put it away, then reached in her shoulder bag and handed Paul a small spiral-bound notebook emblazoned with her company’s logo: SalientCorp. “Take this, it will give you something to remember our conversation,” said Daphne. “Perhaps it’s a little analog, but if you don’t lose it, it will never become obsolete because of technology.”
Paul closed his mobile and took the notebook. A gleaming chrome pen was attached to the spine with Velcro. He opened the cover and wrote the date on the first page. He also wrote Daphne’s name and the letters SFO. It was the best way he knew how to begin.
“Are you really planning to quit being a CEO?” asked Paul, somewhat skeptically.
“We’ll get to that soon enough,” said Daphne. “I think we can both learn a lot here. Neither of us is big on losing, and that’s a promising place to start. Let’s see where the notes take us.”
“Should I expect a test at the end?” joked Paul.
“More like a pop quiz,” affirmed Daphne. “It should come when you least expect it.”