My wife is famous for being a little frugal. She once routed me and our son Logan from Las Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles and finally to San Jose because she could save twenty bucks each over the nonstop fare. Kind of nuts, right? But if I’m honest I have the same mind-set in one respect: I am determined to squeeze everything I can out of any idea or opportunity that is available to me. I am diligent about looking at information and ideas that supposedly have “no value” and wondering, “Hey, maybe they do.”
What I mean by this is simple. Just because you or your business has always operated under the assumption that something—be it data, ideas, or scraps from the manufacturing process—is essentially worthless, it doesn’t mean that that assumption was ever, or still is, true. I constantly review the stuff that gets thrown away and ask myself, “Is there value here?”
One of my big breaks was becoming one of the early executives at Teligent, in 1997. Teligent provided phone service to businesses across the United States and in twelve other countries. The core products were voice and data services to businesses. There wasn’t much to differentiate us from our competitors. Basically we were all competing on the same fundamental premise: providing a good, reliable service at a cheaper price. Here’s the problem with that: If there are no significant differences between you and your competitors, you are essentially in a stalemate, until one of you finds a way to differentiate from the pack. So, even as our company continued to hum along nicely I started asking the questions about who we were, what we were doing, and how we were doing it.
I started doing some internal investigating about the information we were gathering from our customers. After a little persistence, I got hold of the complete call-detail records for our network. In the telecom industry, the network throws away any record that isn’t relevant to billing. The result was that 70 percent of the information in call-detail records was thrown away. A customer rang a business, the line was free, the call was answered, and a charge was added to the bill. Great, that’s how we make money. But looking through the full call-detail records, I noticed something interesting: The logs showed not only the calls that succeeded, but also the calls that failed. For each business there were pages and pages of incoming calls that weren’t completed, usually because the line was busy, or the calls were coming before or after business hours.
This was information that was thrown away. We didn’t bill for failed calls, so there was no need to document them or supply the information to the customer. But think about it—surely knowing that a potential customer tried and failed to make contact with you is invaluable information. Furthermore, isn’t it the kind of information you would gladly pay for?
As soon as I saw the connection between this “worthless” information and our customers’ needs, I got up, walked over to our CEO Alex Mandl’s office, and pitched him a completely new kind of service that we eventually launched as e·magine. e·magine was a game-changing concept that allowed us to take a leadership role in the market. For a monthly fee, we offered our customers detailed breakdowns of all the incoming calls that failed to get through, as well as additional services like instantaneous e-mail notifications of each missed call. We supplied the names and addresses of every incoming call, so a business owner could then send out a coupon to every caller the next day. Sound simple? Think about the small- or medium-size business owner whose margins depend on making every single sale. If that new customer doesn’t get through to you, they are simply going to ring the next number in the phone book. They have no loyalty to you, and you’ve lost a sale and a potential long-term customer. But if you get instant notification of that call, and can ring right back, you’ve got a fighting chance. You’re still in the game.
Our customers loved e·magine. By giving them the edge in their own business, we cemented their loyalty to ours. By taking something that we had historically thought had no value and creating something our customers valued out of it, we turned it into a game-changer.
Look more closely at your operations and stop worrying about the assets or attributes that you think you don’t have. Instead, try turning inward and focusing on the question What attributes do I not realize I have? Our competitors had the exact same logs and information as we did; yet they didn’t recognize their value. We saw this information had worth, and we used it to clobber them.
Think it’s a dumb idea? Zoos used to pay a small fortune to have manure hauled away. Then someone had the bright idea to package the manure and market it toward gardeners. Now gardeners buy gallons of elephant manure for up to twenty bucks a pop and do the hauling for free.