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Built to Survive: The Darwin Approach to Business

November 11, 2011

According to evolutional theory, only the fittest survive. Here’s how it works in the business world.

Charles Darwin would have built a killer company.

He knew that it’s not necessarily the strongest or the first to arrive who are most likely to survive; it’s the most adaptable who win in the end.

The same is true in business.

I’m all for trying to best our competitors with brand new, bold innovations, as all CEOs should. But most of the time I think like Darwin: Evolution trumps revolution.

At Blinds.com (and probably at most companies), our marketers are the ones who lead the charge. They want to get new products and services “out there” pronto, earning income and generating cash. Meanwhile, the information technologists tend to drag their feet, wanting to get our technology perfect before it can see the light of day.

I appreciate their insistence on quality, but I often find myself arguing for somewhere in between.

For example, our first website in 1996 had no pricing mechanism. You had to manually fill in the product name and price, and then add up the prices to calculate your total. The IT folks (if I’d had any) never would have let the site go live. At the time, I knew two things: I wanted to be first in the market and I figured I couldn’t know exactly what would work online until I tried it.

I’m glad I started small—because I learned from every experience. On our website—and generally, in our business—it was easy enough to add features and remove bugs along the way. And it has paid off: Now we’re the world’s undisputed leader in online blinds sales. Had we waited until we had a full-featured, bug-free website, we might still be stuck in development with no sales and no money with which to innovate.

At many of the world’s most successful companies, evolution is standard strategy. Amazon launched with just books; now it sells almost anything it can ship. When Apple launched the iPhone, it couldn’t handle multiple apps simultaneously, it didn’t have Facetime, and the camera was just OK; now it does all of that—and much more, especially with Siri. Though it still isn’t compatible with Flash.

My company just launched a Blinds.com app and it has just three features: You can see how a blind will look on your own window, order color samples, and save measurements directly to the Blinds.com site. Eventually the app will allow customers to do a multitude of other things. But those will come later, after we test the existing ones more thoroughly and get feedback from our customers.

As pleased as I was to be first in the blinds market in, our timing was only part of the story. Lots of companies (Microsoft, in particular, comes to mind) succeed in rushing to market only to trip out of the starting gate because they didn’t spend enough time on quality assurance or understand customer preferences. When I see that happen I remind myself, “Evolution, Jay. Not revolution.”

Now I know that there’s no shame in arriving second—in fact, sometimes it’s better to let a competitor make most of the early mistakes for you. Just make sure that the business you build is the more evolved species.

Jay Steinfeld

Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window covering sales, representing over half of window treatments sold online and doing more than $80 million in sales annually. Blinds.com was awarded in March, 2010 the American Marketing Association’s Marketer of the Year. After starting a small chain of window coverings retail stores, Steinfeld launched his first Web site in 1993 and eventually sold his stores in 2001 to go exclusively online. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year for his leadership at Blinds.com. Blinds.com is currently ranked #236 on the Internet Retailer 500. In 2010, it was named one of Houston’s Best Places to Work by the Houston Business Journal, the Award of Excellence by the Better Business Bureau, and the honor of being the #1 E-Commerce company in Houston, TX.

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From → Management, Strategy

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