Four expert tips for learning to see the future
When I worked for Meg Whitman at Keds, in a quasi cool-hunter role, I took it upon myself to teach her how I spotted trends. At the time I was skilled at combining real world observations and traditional media sources to find “white space” we should attack with brand innovations. As an entrepreneur and CEO I have simply upped my game to recognizing emerging markets–which are almost always enabled by a fresh intersection of new technology and changing human behavior. Today, instead of creating products or brand initiatives, I create whole new business models. But I still use some of the same traditional observation sources, combined with more contemporary means.
Here are some of my tricks of the trade.
1. They’re not dead yet! Don’t underestimate the deep skill of traditional journalists.
In my reporting-to-Meg days, I used to come in on Monday mornings with a pile of annotated magazine tears and catalog clippings. I’d circle an editorial piece or a photo and write something like “This is the first time I have seen this XX technology commercialized.” Or “I am watching how these retro-edgy symbols are becoming cool.”
Professional journalists can save you a lot of steps if you are alert. In the days of “citizen journalism,” it’s possible to forget that the true professionals have sharp antennae formed by world-class exposure to their subject areas. They, of course, do not have the commercial responsibilities of managers or entrepreneurs, so you can’t take all their predictions and observations at face value, but journalists have access to sources that can be incredibly unique. Today, some bloggers and commentators also have that skill and access, but unless they are paid by a media company, their writing has far more subjectivity than traditional media.
And even today with my own copious online research and reading, I am still *famous* in my office for returning from any trip with a pile of magazine clippings that I distribute around to the team. I come home with bag filled like this:
2. Document your observations–don’t let them become vapor.
If you adopt an internal discipline of sharing your findings with your colleagues, you will be a much more astute and responsible observer to find the “white space.” This goes for your day-to-day travels and also for your more expensive field journeys. When working for Meg I frequently travelled for Keds, Stride Rite, and Hasbro and I would write up photographic and sociological journals of my observations from destination cities.
It would be so much easier today with Instagram, frankly. Can you imagine taking film camera photos, having them developed, and then working them into a physical document or meeting?
Although at The Grommet we don’t have the luxury of doing expensive investigative and market research projects, we do this disciplined documentation of field work as a matter of course. Team members who attend events and trade shows always come back and do a visual tour for the team. As CEO I learn a lot from these presentations, but I also want to double the ROI from these trips so the whole company can benefit. It’s also has a culture/mission side benefit: it’s a way for us to provide newer team members with insights on our values, observations, and resourceful (ie. cheap) travel practices.
Team meetings with those presentations are held here:
I also do disciplined documentation of my travels and observations, in the form of this blog, plus Twitter, YouTube, PowerPoint, Facebook, and Instagram.
On the personal side, I create visual journals of my travels. In fact, I am writing this post while on a family vacation in Maine. Here is photo of a spread from this week’s journal. It’s not at all professional, but I am recording the “trends” and history of my family. I know there are more contemporary ways to do this (using Instagram or Pinterest or a travel app) but I love to sit and draw or cut and paste when we are all together.
In the vein of field work, I’ve always actively done store visits. I talk to sales people and find out what is hot and what is bombing. I still do that, although it is less and less productive in highly consolidated large national chains. Wherever I go, I try to document with photos.
Tip: Most small businesses are fine about photos if you ask, but some chain stores do not like anyone taking pictures, because competitors are routinely scouring their shelves for new products or pricing info. So, in those cases, if you can, go with a friend, colleague or your child and “pose” them like a tourist while quietly turning the camera lens towards your real subject. Obviously I am not recommending that if you truly are a competitor, but it’s kosher for the more innocent “trend” observation work you might do.
Here is one photo I took this spring at the International Home and Housewares show in Chicago. I found it curious to see so many Amish and Mennonite people in attendance and I wanted to bring that observation back to the team. (It was not a deep thought…I just wanted to put the team on location.) It would have been rude to take a full-on photo so I asked Joanne to pose for me. I think they caught me anyway.
In a recent unexpected store visit twist, I did some field research for my son who started a company in the legalized marijuana space. It meant he asked me to interview people at four medical marijuana dispensaries while I was on an Entrepreneur in Residence gig in Telluride, Colorado. I asked the dispensary owners about his specific product concept, and the operational and marketing pain points in their businesses. People love to talk about their work and appreciate your appreciating them. It is age-old.
3. Get out of your usual reading, entertainment, cultural, hobby, or physical travels
During an ordinary work week my reading sources are not that interesting: I am just trying to catch big stories and breaking news. I use Facebook and Twitter posts to tell me the hot stories or provide comic relief, and I skim The Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal when I get home at night for more context.
But other great sources to refresh your eyes and antennae are:
- Comedians. Wit and humor usually go hand in hand with high intelligence and astute observational skills. I can pick up cultural trends from jokes before they are turned into businesses or products.
- Movies. I hate to admit it, but New York and L.A. are always ahead of the curve and even with the long lead time of film, they can show a path to a new mainstream behavior. For instance, the film “Chef” might take food trucks beyond the urban hipster haunts into true Middle America. In fact my son who is interning in D.C. tells me the Mall is completely surrounded by food trucks so perhaps Chef is just going to reinforce the inevitable.
- Kids. Kids. Kids. I had the benefit of having little kids when I worked at Stride Rite and Hasbro. It gave me great edge when assessing product trends. But kids (I mean that more figuratively and include anyone under 25) are sometimes faster than everyone else. They have more free time. Their brain cells are not clogged. They are open and optimistic. We have deliberately populated The Grommet team with a smart, large, younger cohort to make sure we stay competitive and we can establish our own way of doing things without importing conventional thinking. Here’s an example of why those team members diversify our perspectives: Glori Blatt, a young woman on our team, has been occasionally raising a fashion “problem-solver” proposal in our weekly “Ideas” meeting. I am not sure how much traction it has, internally or externally. She might be alone on our team in appreciating this idea: bodysuits. Yet, in this week’s vacation’s reading pile (WSJ Off Duty section) I found an article on bodysuits. I will bring this piece back to the office to give the team further context for Glori’s insights.
- Read magazines and books you would not ordinarily read. When I started at Keds, a young Marketing women told me to start reading teen fashion magazines. I thought she was kidding. She was not. It became essential for me, in order to understand our younger customer. At The Grommet, I don’t usually read business books in my free time, because I read business crap all day long. I would rather read biography, fiction, design, and food books when I am off duty. But these readings often lead to true business insights, or personal leadership growth for me. Right now I am reading One More Thing by B.J. Novak. He’s one of the actors/producers of “The Office” so this hits the creative/comic theme, above. But because I don’t like short stories or jokey books much, this is a stretch for me to read. I am doing it because I think Novak is a good observer of modern life.
- Import mind-expanding internal visitors. When I have cool people visiting me at The Grommet, I try not to keep them to myself. We have an all-hands “Fireside Chat” series with experienced leadership people who are groundbreakers. If you work in a company with an open-minded management team, institute these kinds of sessions for the benefit of all. For example, our three most recent visitors are:
- Alexandro Velez. Co-founder of Grommet Maker company Back to the Roots.
- Karen Gordon-Mills. Recently head of the SBA on the Obama administration, co-founder of the private equity firm Solera Capital, and a manufacturing/supply chain entrepreneur.
- (Upcoming) Paul English, Co-founder of Kayak.com and Blade (consumer tech incubator)
- Read SomeEcards. I used to look at paper greeting cards for trend ideas. It sounds odd, but they were one of the easiest/fastest print media out there so I could sense trends in imagery or sentiment. I hate to admit it, but those SomeEcards all over Facebook are also good for capturing real-time contemporary sentiment.
- Instagram and Pinterest. They aren’t just for gathering recipes and home decorating tips. If you are judicious and open-minded about who you follow you can pick up a lot of ideas FAST. After all, photos are processed 60,000 times faster than words and it is like having a global staff of trend-spotters at your fingertips.
- Change your scenery. Steve Jobs was famous for this: “At various times, Jobs… found inspiration in a phone book, Zen meditation, visiting India, the fine details of a Mercedes-Benz, a food processor at Macy’s, or The Four Seasons hotel chain. Jobs [didn’t] ‘steal’ ideas as much as he [used] ideas from other industries to inspire his own creativity.”
4. Don’t hide behind your computer screen–go meet your customer. They won’t bite.
Back in my big company days, I ran many big-budget market research projects to identify consumer sentiments and trends. This entailed investing long hours observing focus groups all over the world, and one-on-one interviews from behind-the-one-way-mirror. I would update Meg with my theories/findings in rather raw form to give her a sense of my process to a conclusion or recommendation. These recommendations were going to drive multi-million dollar investments so I took the work very seriously. I remember being really pissed off when the eternally-hip head of our ad agency spent one of those research observation sessions taking snide potshots at the people being interviewed, rather than listening. This particular ad guy just did not think that mere mortals could teach him anything. And he was surrounded by ad agency sycophants who laughed at his jokes instead of questioning him.
It IS really hard to sit in the dark for hour after hour, but I found that if you had decent trust of your own instincts you could draw excellent conclusions extremely efficiently. You only had to hear something novel, or heartfelt, or deep, said by just two or three regular people to realize you were catching some brilliance.
I still do this in a more efficient way by investing in and observing three or four video transcripts of ordinary people navigating our site on UserTesting.com or by phoning potential or active customers. You do not need to hear something 20 times to realize you’ve hit a problem or a solution. Our team also assembles plenty of trend data based on the community interactions with our prolific social media content output as well.
At The Grommet we work for Makers. Thanks to the democratization of technology, anyone can now research and prototype a new product. So it is hard for me to deliberately “hang around” potential Makers. They are everywhere. They have very little commonality beyond bringing a brilliant product to market and sharing a very real problem of gaining awareness for it.
But we also have to serve the consumers who support and buy the Makers’ products and they tend to look more consistent: like well-educated people who have busy lives, who have many relationships and gift-giving needs, and who live in or operate complex households. But if you are under 30, you have to work hard to be astute to that dominant consumer powerhouse. And it is absolutely essential if you are working in consumer products and technology. Most of the failures I see in this area are due to young founders not spending enough time with that population, or older founders only solving problems for themselves. Think of your mom/uncle/neighbor and not only your friends. And be genuinely interested in their life needs and interests. You will find gold mines in those conversations.
In my big company days I made a lot of money for my employers. A LOT. Meg once told me, “Jules I am better trained than you are [she came from roles at Bain Consulting, Procter & Gamble and Disney], but you are smarter at figuring out what people really want.”
Her trust in me resulted in some really big hits and some equally big bombs.
The big hits at Keds included our scooping the license of the Warner Brothers characters before characters like Tweety Bird became ubiquitous (and then subsequently faded back into the cultural woodwork several years later.) Timing is everything with licenses. (Well, actually, your contracts are everything but that is the subject of a different post.)
This particular shoe below was my favorite. You are looking at $45M in revenue in a single year. At the time, having just left Disney, Meg’s letting me pursue this license meant a big leap of faith. To endorse edgy characters like the Tazmanian Devil and Wiley E. Coyote, who were the anti-Christ in Mickey Mouse-ville, was tantamount to treason for Meg.
This, yin-yang thing with Meg, in fact, became a pattern. I would work quietly with our designers on an idea, present it to her, she would ask me what drugs I was on, and I would know we were onto something. Well, in truth, I already knew it was a good idea, but Meg was a great internal bellwether for timing ideas. It needed to be slightly threatening to her, but not too much. Yet we needed a lot of lead time to get out a shoe or toy collection so it had to be edgy enough to not be too late.
Before Keds, I was also proud of noticing the emergence of gourmet coffee culture back in 1991. It was a time when people still made coffee from a Maxwell House can. I could see this behavior changing before my eyes on my own New England Main street, where people were enthusiastically buying their daily cuppa joe at a small local place called Coffee Connection (later bought by Starbucks) and I especially noticed how high school students were bragging about how much coffee they drank.
That seems so unremarkable 20+ years later but it was a new phenomenon. (At the time I actually telephoned Starbucks and asked if I could start a New England franchise. They were not open to the idea.) That “coffee trend” observation resulted in Keds doing this “diner” collection shoe, which was also a great example of the intersection of technology and consumer interests. The fabric was created with a cutting edge photo-real technique that had not been used on shoes before.
As an aside, it is pretty creepy to see your work featured as “rare vintage” items on eBay:
In both of these examples I had the benefit of a great VP of Product Development (my current partner Joanne Domeniconi) and a young hungry design team who could make the trends I saw (and their own fantastic observations) into brilliant footwear. (Shout out to Kim Fabio here!) These two things were critical: senior support and talented creative collaborators. I was also a good collaborator for the designers because they could use me as a mouthpiece to articulate some of their ideas that had not yet gotten traction with management. In fact, throughout my career this is a role I have actively played: being a missionary or friend for the creative team.
But we also had some stink bombs. The hardest thing about trend spotting is the timing. It is super challenging to know when “America” (or France or Egypt or Brazil) is ready for something. This “Logger” line of shoes (produced ca. 1993) was WAAAAAY ahead of its time:
So to wrap this all up and make some of this more tangible (well, at least the reading part), I took pictures of what I was consuming for the last few days of this vacation. Here is a sampling of the 10 or so magazines I read so far. I put Harvard Business Review on top to look smart. I don’t always read it, even though I write for it.
I bought this particular HBR issue for the cover story (about hiring for capability rather than experience) as it supports a bias of ours at Grommet. But I found more value in a series of three articles about how investors in many developed countries risk destroying innovation and the economy. I will take a risk by sending this clipping to the CFO of our investor Rakuten, as I bet he will relate to it. (The risk is, what if he takes offense?)
I have read every issue of Food & Wine since my student days before I even had a kitchen. When we moved to Dublin I tried to wean myself from the magazine on the theory that I should stick to local Irish publications. But I could not cut the Food & Wine habit and I still find it the most accurate source of great recipes and trend predictions in the food category. Here’s an example of my favorite kind of spreads:
I rely on the magazine for restaurant recommendations too, but I actually clipped this one, below, for the Peruvian yarn sculpture on the ceiling in this restaurant. It will help me to illustrate a sculpture idea I have in mind for our Community Experience Team office, which needs some sex appeal. I had drawn my idea up roughly, below, but this photo will close the gap in understanding.
I also read to find reinforcement for my leadership practice, and to get better. This quote below from the President of Harvard reminds me to do something I find particularly hard, and the second interview with a former Apple designer reinforces some suspicions I had about how design really “worked” under Steve Jobs at Apple.
I rarely clip articles on technology, even though I read them. They are just not visual enough to bother and I share them via links. But I do like to gather recommendations for apps by reading.
This pile below is a mishmash. In reading my high school alumni magazine I caught a new term articulated by the Cranbrook Schools President: STEAM learning. Ie. Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. I had never heard the “A” inserted. I will start to use it. There’s a little blurb about me and my son with a photo of us in Japan, but more importantly I learned that my own entrepreneurial role model went to the same high school. I will use this nugget to reconnect with Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora. (We interacted when Grommet launched Pandora Mobile a long time ago–he made a great video for us.)
Here’s another use for all these clippings. I give a lot of talks on how to build a great network for your personal and professional lives. One of my pieces of advice is about “Good-Better-Best” follow up with people you’ve met or know. Good is to follow up immediately after an introduction and to connect on LinkedIn. Better is to follow up with some updates or news about your career from time to time–to keep them up to speed. Best is to touch base periodically over the long term, with some piece of info or advice that would be specifically meaningful to that person. It shows you appreciate their business or personal interests. In that vein, I like to mail physical news clippings from time to time. It really stands out to do such a retro thing. Below is a cool piece on some foodie action in Detroit that I will send to my college buddy and fellow Detroiter Hayward Maben. I thought hard about who would most appreciate this clipping, and my mailing it, and realized it would be Hayward and his partner Domenique.
I am merciless with recycling magazines but I also will tear out some particularly clever or beautiful pieces just so I can look at them for a day or two before adding them to the bin.
On the mostly-visual side of inspiration, I loved this idea below, from Fast Company. The insight is that Richard Brendon observed how, in the UK vintage markets, there are many more teacup saucers kicking around than there are teacups. He set out to try and marry the sets but the inventory was, well, imbalanced. So he invented this simple reflective bone-china cup so that it could pair with, and match via reflection, any saucer. Here’s the deeper value behind the product: After World War II, the British ceramics industry starting shipping production overseas to cut costs, resulting in cheaper, less original designs. Brendon hopes “Reflect” will help reenergize the local ceramics industry. He says, “There are still incredible craftsmen here. And if it doesn’t get going again, those skills will be lost forever.”
Even though I have no personal ambition to own designer clothes, there was something really compelling about these expertly embellished pieces, below, in the Wall Street Journal magazine, so I had to clip them. The article was actually called “Can you Kick it?” and focussed on the trend of pairing sneakers with “confectionary” haute couture. I will tuck that idea in the back of my mind as I have seen that executed on the runway several times now.
From the same magazine I was also really taken by this attic in a renovated French chateau. I loved how the “maximalist” designer Juan Pablo Molyneux enhanced the crazy but functional beam structure by by covering the walls with 25X enlarged Piranesi engravings dating from 1750.
With this post, I am risking over-sharing my possibly uninteresting reading minutia, but it’s to make this point; a great deal of what I just read over the last few days would never make the cut in my rushed and ADD-plagued work weeks. I nearly chucked the WSJ magazine just before we left for Maine. And then I pulled it out of the recycling and decided to allow myself some time for wandering its frivolous, luxe-life voyeurism. These high-end ideas often trickle down to Main Street, and beyond the sheer pleasure of observing the excess, I will find usefulness in the ideas I slowly internalize. These seemingly random nuggets will surface somewhere: for a startup team I mentor, a site design feature at Grommet, a product idea submission I will better appreciate, or to understand a team member’s observation of a lifestyle or technology trend.
More than that, these reading travels keep my brain making creative connections and build my confidence in seeing the future. Which is the most fundamental thing I need to do as CEO of a fast growth company with an original business model. You can borrow these four tips above to form your own crystal ball. I can’t promise it will be perfect but you will be ahead of 99% of the people who go through life never dreaming they could see the future.
3 Responses to “Four expert tips for learning to see the future”
Hi Jules, I enjoyed this piece tremendously and took a lot of mental notes! I especially like the drawings in your journal of the family vacation. Thanks for sharing, Carol
Carol Fishman Cohen, Co-founder, iRelaunch
[…] caught a ton of attention in my last blog post was a casual snapshot of a family vacation journal I was in the process of making. This journal is something I always do while on a trip. Then when I […]
[…] as a person who can read cultural, technical, and business trends, I know that trust is actually very thin on the ground. It’s a huge competitive […]