Brand Power from Wedgwood to Dell: Part Two

How do you make the jump from leading a small team in the proverbial garage to heading a multibillion-dollar business? HBS professor Nancy F. Koehn has answers. Second of two parts.
by Martha Lagace

How does an entrepreneur make the switch from inspiring a tiny group of followers in a metaphorical garage to leading what eventually becomes a multibillion-dollar business?

The ability to translate individual creativity into sustained organizational capabilities is a key success factor for entrepreneurs, says HBS professor Nancy F. Koehn.

Brand New

In Part One of a discussion about her recent book—in the April 16 issue of HBS Working Knowledge—Koehn described the brand-building savvy of three entrepreneurs in the past, as well as their clear lessons for managers today. The three were Josiah Wedgwood, the eighteenth-century pottery and china manufacturer; H.J. Heinz, who started the famous food company in 1869; and Marshall Field, the late nineteenth-century Chicago retailer.

Below, in Part Two, Koehn shares her thoughts on how three present-day entrepreneurs—Estée Lauder; Howard Schultz, of Starbucks Coffee Company; and Michael Dell—all successfully navigated the transition from "garage" to global business.


No Detail Too Small

All three of them made that transition very successfully, but my research suggests it was rarely easy.

Estée Lauder started her business in her kitchen; Howard Schultz's early office was the prep room for his first café; and Michael Dell began assembling PCs in his college dorm room. How did they go from these beginnings to creating global organizations that became industry leaders?

First, each had a huge amount of determination and commitment. Determination to make what they regarded as best-of-class offerings tailored specifically to consumers' emerging needs. They knew their products and services fit consumers' preferences because each had spent enormous time and effort thinking about such preferences.

Second, they also had the commitment to bring their offerings to large numbers of people, to make a market for prestige cosmetics, specialty coffee, and made-to-order PCs at moments when these products were new.

In starting out, each of these entrepreneurs believed—and this conviction remained strong—that their products fit well into the changing social and economic environments in which consumers live, and that their offerings enhanced people's lives in meaningful ways.

A third important factor in understanding how these entrepreneurs created such successful products, brands, and organizations is their individual knowledge of the products. Estée Lauder, Howard Schultz, and Michael Dell, like the other entrepreneurs in the book—Josiah Wedgwood, Henry Heinz, and Marshall Field—knew an extraordinary amount about the goods and services they were offering.

photo of Michael Dell
Michael Dell in 1987

For example, Estée Lauder spent more than two decades mixing and selling skin care formulas before she undertook to build a national market for her products. Howard Schultz did not grow up drinking specialty coffee, but as soon as he was introduced to the business, he learned as much about it as he could. He even trained for months to learn to roast beans—becoming one of only a small group of people in Starbucks' history to be judged qualified to do so. As a teenager, Michael Dell enjoyed taking complex computers apart, repairing or upgrading them, and putting them back together.

Because they knew so much about their offerings, no detail was too small for their attention and their stewardship. Their determination, commitment, and experience, in turn, flowed partly from their passion for what they were doing. It was—and is—part of their lifeblood. And that passion is a key part of the inspiration of getting going in the metaphorical garage and of building an institution that eventually outgrows the garage.

No one does it all alone.
—Nancy F. Koehn

An Eye For Talent

A fourth factor has to do with recognizing talent. Somewhere along the way—and there is no single defining, easily discernible, moment—each of the six entrepreneurs in Brand New also developed the ability to identify ability in others: organizational and strategic talent, as well as commercial imagination. Lauder, Schultz, and Dell—like the three entrepreneurs in the past—shared a willingness to delegate responsibility to talented people, to learn from these people, to institutionalize the capabilities they were helping to develop, and create a company from them.

Each of the six individuals—and we can see it clearly in the examples of Lauder, Schultz, and Dell—played a critical role in this process. But they understood, as Hillary Clinton once said about raising a child, that "it takes a village" to build a successful business. No one does it all alone.

So the ability to identify, motivate, and retain talent—and cede authority to others—is a necessary condition of entrepreneurial success, of moving the enterprise out of the garage and into corporate headquarters.

As Howard Schultz once said, successful businesses cannot sustain themselves on exhilarating ideas alone.
—Nancy F. Koehn

Lasting Dedication

Each of the entrepreneurs in Brand New had the ambition and confidence to create not only new offerings and brands, but new institutions—and each built his or her organization to last.

A fifth, related factor is that all six of these individuals also wanted to stay with their businesses. Each wanted to be part of the translation of entrepreneurial inspiration into sustained organizational capabilities.

Lauder built her company one customer at a time. And then—with her family and other colleagues' help—she created a global leader in the industry. Schultz did the same thing with Starbucks. So did Dell. And each stuck with the enterprise as it grew and changed. For example, Lauder was very active in the business until her later 70s and early 80s. Her son, Leonard Lauder, who has been instrumental in building and leading the company for more than 30 years, is the current chairman.

So in making the transition from the garage to company headquarters, one very important issue is dedication: the wish to see a start-up become an institution. There is also the talent for choosing other great institution builders, and the inclination and willingness to give them the power to do this.

Sharing The Vision

An additional element is the ability to translate what was initially one person's inspiration into a set of organizational functions that, over time, become integrated capabilities.

For example, when Lauder was starting out, she was the company's only salesperson. She was an extremely gifted spokesperson for her products—warm, knowledgeable, and interested in individual consumers. She built her brand by literally touching hundreds of women, offering them free makeovers, demonstrating her products, and providing a sense of the elegance and self-definition that her cosmetics offered customers.

As the brand and company grew, these qualities were translated into a trained and motivated salesforce that works to build meaningful connections with consumers, one at a time. In doing this, they use a range of tools that Lauder herself developed, such as gift-with-purchase. But their most important assets are their understanding of what customers want, their ability to help buyers enjoy purchasing cosmetics and the benefits these products provide.

Each entrepreneur stuck with the enterprise as it grew and changed.
—Nancy F. Koehn

In an analogous manner, Starbucks provides an engaging, sociable experience to the more than 12 million people a week who visit its cafes around the world. This is the translation of Schultz's vision-providing top-quality, custom-made coffee beverages and related products in an inviting, interesting environment that offers people community and comfort.

It is clear that each of these people—from Wedgwood to Dell—has been blessed with vision, commercial imagination, ambition, and other talents. But the stories in Brand New would not have been written if these entrepreneurs had not also been institution builders, if they had not figured out how to organize the production of top-quality offerings on a large scale, or the stewardship of a powerful brand, or the hiring of talented men and women. Without the ability to create a company that transcends the talents of its founder, even initially successful entrepreneurial enterprises are not likely to endure.

Lessons For Business Leaders Today

There are clear lessons for entrepreneurs in this. If you want your company to survive and prosper through the ceaseless gales of creative destruction that lie at the heart of capitalism, you must figure out how to institutionalize its core capabilities.

You must learn, as Howard Schultz once said, that successful businesses cannot sustain themselves on exhilarating ideas alone. They require a healthy balance between the forces of vision and motivating passion and those of process, structure, and efficient systems.

photo of Howard Schultz
Howard Schultz

I think there are also lessons for established businesses in Brand New in terms of the ability to translate a single person's creativity into a scalable capability and into powerful demand-side connections with consumers.

One of the most interesting lessons of the recent fallout in dot-com companies concerns the demand side. No matter how efficient the technology, if it cannot be harnessed to a business model that profitably serves customer needs, the enterprise is unlikely to endure. In moments of great change—when consumer preferences are shifting—comprehending and meeting these needs becomes a critical, potentially enduring, source of competitive advantage.

Each of the people in the book—Wedgwood, Heinz, Field, Lauder, Schultz, and Dell—understood this well. And the stories of how they developed and used such customer intimacy to build best-of-class businesses lie at the heart of Brand New.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.