Robert Pasin’s family business was making and selling the iconic Radio Flyer wagon. The wood, the steel, the red – they designed and manufactured a piece of American history. In the 1990s, just as he was taking over the business, the competition launched an aggressive campaign with very similar plastic wagons that started to steal serious market share. The times were changing and Radio Flyer had to change too. What they did can directly help us as our industries and jobs inevitably change as well. We need to ask: how do we distinguish between the core elements that define our brand (or companies or practices) versus the very traditions that are holding us back?
Reid Hoffman says every successful business has to forget how to be a unicorn and learn to be a phoenix. Unicorns are magical and rare.
Phoenixes get burned up and then rise from
the ashes, renewed in life. The act of succeeding is special, but the act of surviving requires constant reinvention.
Pasin’s first move was to recognize consumer tastes had changed. He asked, “what is our company best at?” The answer was simply “Radio Flyer.” People loved the idea of Radio Flyer so much they even misremembered other toys belonging to the brand (some poor company made a red tricycle that kept coming up – how’s that for brand power?). When they probed deeper, people described the feeling they had as children and how the wagons (and tricycles!) were “a vehicle for imagination.” Radio Flyer wasn’t just a toy wagon company, they were a shiny, red, vehicle for imagination company.
Pasin ended up leading the company through a massive product refresh, introducing everything from tricycles to Teslas over the past few decades. They now make anything that will jump-start a child’s imagination, and it’s always shiny and red. Radio Flyer saw a jump in sales and took back market share. Had they just pursued their own plastic wagon or merely pressed forward stubbornly, they wouldn’t have expanded their lines. Had they not spent the time understanding what made them who they are to their customers, they could have stumbled off-brand. This is the power of being a phoenix. This is what we can focus on.
We all build unique and special businesses to start. We may not have unicorn valuations, but we have that unicorn magic that makes our business ours. Over time, we find the problems of growing at scale and delivering our best experience to a greater number of people. Life, time, and money can get in the way. This is where being a phoenix comes in. When we hit these points, it’s time to reconnect and reconsider what makes us who we are. It’s time to reinvent ourselves and rise anew.
Like Radio Flyer, our products and services have a soul we want to be in tune with. If our mission is to deliver an excellent customer experienced, then everything we do should support that mission. It’s all too easy to lose our way and get distracted by profits, problems, and everything else. However, if we keep ourselves focused on the essence of the kind of business we aspire to create, we can keep making forward progress.
When we keep our essence front and center, we can’t lose.