In 2000, Oprah Winfrey was in a giving mood. In the later phases of her incredibly popular daytime talk show, Oprah was fond of giving stuff to her studio audience members, most memorably handing out 276 Pontiacs while shouting “Everybody gets a car!” But a few years earlier, before she graduated to cars, she bought 350 pairs of UGG boots, wore some of them, and gave the rest to her staff. In 2003 she featured the boots on her “Favorite Things” list. Soon after, it seemed like everybody got UGGs.
It was no doubt a lucky break for the then little known manufacturer of Australian sheepskin boots, which had been clawing its way into the American market. Getting the company to the point where it could take advantage of such a break, however, was less a matter of luck than it was of hard work.
Brian Smith, founder of UGG, will talk about how he founded and grew his company on Wednesday, October 21, at 5:30 p.m. at the College of New Jersey on Pennington Road Tickets are free. Register at uggskeynote.eventbrite.com. For more information call 609-771-2947. His speech, titled “Managing Chaos,” is sponsored by the New Jersey Small Business Development Council.
Smith, a native of Australia, had been surfing in California for six months in 1979 when inspiration struck as he was reading a magazine. Writing in his book “The Birth of a Brand,” Smith recalls the exact moment he had the idea for his company:
In my hands was the latest issue of Surfer magazine, open to an advertisement showing two pairs of legs in front of a cozy fireplace, with the feet clad in sheepskin boots. Everything about the ad was absurdly out of place in a magazine published in Southern California and devoted to surfing: palm trees, girls in bikinis, beaches, bare legs, bare feet.
But the ad screamed at me, “You’re going to be a huge success!” I’d been in California less than six months, and here was my future staring back at me from the pages of Surfer.
My surfing and grass-skiing buddy Doug Jensen was in the room when my revelation hit. I showed him the picture.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Boots? Who wears boots?”
“Exactly,” I explained to him. And nobody did! Not in America — but in Australia, where sheep outnumber people, it seemed to me that half the population owned some sort of sheepskin footwear, and certainly no surfer would be caught dead without at least one pair of sheepskin boots.
But there were no sheepskin boots in America.
If half of all Americans — or even half of one percent of all Americans — bought sheepskin boots, and I was the only one selling them . . . My God. I’d be rich!
The voice inside me had been right all along. The problem was that I had gotten its message backwards! My destiny wasn’t to come to America, find the next big thing, and bring it back to Australia. The next big thing was already in Australia. My destiny was to bring it to America, where I would be wildly and immediately successful.
Smith also has a blog at briansmithspeaker.com, where he shares advice, such as his thoughts on the virtues of ignorance:
Ignorance is bliss. . . You see, while I cannot stress enough the importance of being prepared for the trials and tribulations that is modern entrepreneurship, I can’t help but reflect on some of my rather naive beliefs as an up-and-comer and how my blind faith in my product carried me through some rather difficult times.
No successful businessman is ever going to tell you to jump in blindly with both feet; and yet I’d dare say that they too had to have experienced moments of sheer ignorance to get them through some tough times.
Sometimes, not knowing how harsh the climb is makes the journey more palatable.
You don’t psyche yourself out with the hard, dry facts of the matter — you enable yourself to be open to remarkable possibilities and to dream the biggest dreams.
So what if the current marketplace is saturated with similar products?
So what if you’ve pitched your business idea at half a dozen conventions without a single offer?
My first rodeo with my Ugg Australia boots didn’t go smoothly either. Using the last of my $200, I was able to purchase six (yes, count ‘em!) six whole prototype Ugg Australia sheepskin boots to pitch at a New York convention — and I had zilch to show for it by the end of the day. Not a single potential buyer.
Admittedly, had I been informed of all the difficult times ahead, and just how steep the uphill struggle to breaking into a mainstream market would prove to be, I would’ve given up on the spot. I would’ve sold off my seemingly failures of a product and hit the waves.
Fortunately, my younger self was too big a dreamer to let petty things like reality get in the way.
I persevered, despite all evidence to the contrary, and I pushed my product in new ways, using what I learned from my consumer market and altering the lens by which I was trying to pitch my sheepskin wonders. So what does this mean for you? Why should you care?
Well, it’s not every day you’re going to be given the grace to be ignorant, especially when it comes to breaking into the market with a new found business idea or product.
In fact, I’m willing to bet literally every other business source out there will be crammed full of advice and tips to steer you in the opposite direction.
In my book, Birth of a Brand, I describe in visceral detail the bittersweet lessons learned from my youthful hardheadedness, and impart the wisdom to avoid the hundreds of pitfalls and traps that lay before you. Most of all, I hope I will inspire you to be bold. To be a dreamer.
And of course, to dare to be ignorant, and persevere.