Sometimes you have to gamble everything

Feb 14 2011 by Max McKeown Print This Article

To cross a canyon you have to jump. You can't take two steps. Some innovations need all your commitment. Some breakthroughs demand all you have. Give any less than everything and they have no hope of working. 'All or nothing' is a tough decision. But it's the only choice for obsessive people who love their ideas.

'All or nothing' is also the only choice when faced with challenges that incremental changes can't solve. It's the only option when lukewarm commitment isn't be enough. Or when the situation is too urgent to wait. The revolution in Egypt is exactly the kind of gamble that couldn't wait. It requires full commitment because incremental changes are insufficient. Their dreams compelled the Egyptian people to gamble.

You've probably heard the FedEx story. A wealthy student at Yale wrote a paper on benefits of a national overnight delivery service. His sceptical professor give the paper a 'C'. The idea revolutionized the delivery industry and FedEx became a multi-billion dollar corporation.

What you may not know is that its founder gambled his $4 million inheritance on his idea. At one point, the company was so desperate for cash that he flew to Las Vegas to play blackjack and wired back his $27,000 winnings.

If FedEx hadn't happened, another company would probably have figured it out. Technology, regulation and customer demand all pointed in that direction. However that wasn't obvious in 1973. FedEx had to build a network and a market at the same time. For the innovation to work, its founder had to gamble everything he had - and commit another $80 million from fellow gamblers.

If you don't want to gamble, you could just forget about your idea. You could just wait in the hope that someone else will take the gamble and that you will be able to benefit from their guts and investment. You could put your dreams to one side – and spend your life in less risky, less rewarding work. Why not play safely - and regret it until your last dying day?

Malcolm McLean was a self-made millionaire who built the second-largest trucking company in the USA. He noticed that when they were unloading ships, dockworkers had to individually load every box into a sling, raise them, lower them, remove the sling, and store them away. He realized that it would be better to use large containers and not open them until the final destination.

Regulations meant that McLean could not both operate as a trucker and a shipping company. Nothing happened with his idea for twenty years until he sold his company for $25 million and gambled it all on building a system - and a market - for containers.

Today over 18 million containers make 200 million journeys a year. Hand loading cost $5.86 a ton. Containers cost only 16 cents a ton. The container made it possible for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought customers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the world.

On the morning of McLean's funeral in 2001, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor. His gamble had paid off.

For established companies, the biggest gamble is to do nothing. Continuing in the same direction is still a choice. Assuming that the future will be the same as the past is still a wager. Why gamble everything on a lack of change? Isn't it more likely that the world will be different?

The new CEO at General Electric (GE) recently gambled billions of dollars on green technologies. Eco-imagination, as he calls it, aims to make healthy profits by solving tough environmental problems. He hasn't bet everything, but he is still spending more researching alternative fuels than the US government. More importantly, he has gambled by changing the focus and culture of the company.

GE People will have to move from a conservative-by-the-numbers machine to a creative community focused on breakthrough innovation.

Being one of the first high rollers to place his bets has given GE some valuable advantages. GE in at the center of the 'green is green' corporate fraternity. By just associating itself with environmental innovation, GE will reap benefits as the planet seeks solutions.

Leading the charge to greener technologies brings the company valuable, patentable knowledge and difficult-to-copy know how. It also allows GE to influence emerging standards, policy, and public opinion to its advantage. Getting ahead of rivals makes it more attractive to insist on the most demanding emissions and efficiency regulations. It also delivers high performance products that customers want.

For GE, FedEx, and Malcolm Mclean, high stakes gambles bought their places at the table. Their investments were big enough to deliver their innovations. They gambled enough to change the world. And that's something revolutionaries everywhere – including the brave, freedom-loving protestors in Egypt - understand. Is it time you gambled big on your dreams?

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.