One. Stupid. Thing.

Look, you might be very smart, but that’s not going to help you.

The truth is that everyone’s smart.  Everyone who you’re in competition with anyway.

In the founder game, and the strategy game, intelligence isn’t an edge: it’s a commodity.  It’s like being a footballer who’s fit, or an author who can write: sure there might be marginal gains to be made by being that little bit fitter or that little bit better at stringing a sentence together.  But in the grand scheme of things they’re meaningless.  They’re just the price of admission.

Now because everyone’s smart, that in turn means that everyone is going to make smart decisions.  They’re going to do what, on balance, is probably the “right” thing.  They’re certainly not going to do anything idiotic, that’s for sure.

And you know what happens when you get a collection of smart people all doing the right thing in unison?

That’s right – you get commodification.  You get clustering.  You get sameness.  You get a race to the bottom.  You get all the things that we, as founders, don’t want.

So what’s the antidote for this?

Being so smart, you probably guessed it:


In the land of the intelligent, the idiot is king, for it is only the idiot who is going to make a divergent and unpredictable choice.  Thus, it is only the idiot who has the potential to gain leverage.

When we step back from it, we can see that ultimately this is all strategy really is: the process of making apparently “stupid” decisions.

The process of doing the thing that nobody else would do, because they are too “smart” to do something so “dumb”.

All truly great strategic brands are built on this; they’re built on One Stupid Thing.

One thing which only they do because it is, on the face of it, totally counter productive.

  • Enterprise rent-a-car have their locations on inconvenient industrial estates, totally inaccessible for the primary car rental market
  • IKEA have no shop-floor staff to help you
  • Ford scrapped their best selling vehicles
  • Tony’s make chocolate it’s hard to break without making a mess

In some cases – the cases of the truly elite like Apple, IKEA, Southwest Airlines etc – we aren’t taking One Stupid Thing.  We’re talking myriad stupid things.  A parade of decisions which, taken in isolation appear idiotic and harmful.

In fact, I would go so far as to say this:

The greatness of a business directly correlates with the number of stupid things it does.

  • No stupid things? Mediocre business.
  • One Stupid Thing? Great business.
  • Many Stupid Things? Legendary household-name business.

Now of course, we have to make an important caveat here: not all stupid things are equal.

There are hypothetically a million different stupid things you could do, and 999,999 of them would be counter-productive.  The best definition of stupidity I’ve seen is “an action which hurts both you and others” – and if that’s going to be the result then yeah, best to play it safe and just be blandly smart.

However there is that one remaining stupid thing that wouldn’t be harmful; that would, in fact, create huge leverage and allow you to deliver extraordinary value to thousands of people.

And it is strategy’s job to discern which one that is.

Because naturally the One Stupid Thing that gives you the edge only appears stupid.  It appears stupid to your competitors, hence they would never do it.  But in your case you know it’s actually anything but, because you have some “secret knowledge” to explain why the apparently idiocy is in fact genius.

How we develop that strategy isn’t our concern in this essay today however.  We’ve covered that often enough elsewhere.

No, the simple purpose here is to ask this basic question:

Are you, then, doing something stupid?

Is there one meaningful decision in how you run your business which your competitors would never ever take?  One thing which seems at first glance indefensible?

Remember. this isn’t the same as saying “is there one thing you do which they don’t”.  That’s not enough.  The fact that your packaging is recyclable and there’s isn’t doesn’t qualify as a stupid decision – it’s a perfectly rational one which they just had a different point of view on.

No, stupid is stupid.  Stupid is dangerous.  Stupid is harmful.

If you don’t have one thing that falls into this category then that is a massive clue that you are not, in fact, strategic, and that you are not set up for outlandish success.

A good strategy will give you permission to do something stupid.

A great strategy will force you to do it.

But a mediocre one will be sensible and sober all the way down.

So use this to hold yourself to account.  Don’t rest until you can pass this test.  Imagine some stupid moves, and then ask “under what conditions would this not, in fact, be stupid?”.

And then, eventually, perhaps you’ll stumble across the genuinely smart thing.

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