An Edge over Normal

An Edge Over Normal


The sound, obviously emanating from a bovine of relatively young age, stopped me in my tracks.  Gina and I were strolling through Garmish, Germany, completely engulfed in the beauty of the town framed by mountains in the background when our ears picked up the familiar bellow.

“Did you hear that?” I asked, excited.  “Where did it come from?  We’re in the middle of a neighborhood!”

A jaunt down the block revealed what I suspected: there, in a vacant lot nestled between two houses, were three calves lounging on a beautiful mix of grass and clover turf.  They were contained by solar powered electric fence and had access to portable mineral feeders and a water bucket in one corner of their temporary residence.  One calf wore a bell on her neck, and the gentle clanging as she moved about enhanced the glorious sight of agriculture and community blended together in perfect accord.

Finding calves in town was just one of many examples I noted of urban and rural life coexisting on our trip through the German Alps.  Had I never observed the harmony created by small farming in big towns, I would have regarded the concept as a thing of fantasy, but, having viewed the situation first hand, I now cannot get the image out of my head.  I want to implement the idea at home.

There is a tendency for people to believe the way we grew up doing things is without question the best option, and that perspective eliminates a vast majority of the potential variety we can enjoy in our lives.  Compounding the problem is our desire to emulate those around us whom we perceive to be successful.  If someone wants to raise and sell chickens, for example, they will go and look at an established chicken operation, then come home and try to replicate precisely what they saw in an attempt to generate success through similarity.  The result of nearly everyone drawing inspiration from the same well is a relatively myopic and uninspiring business climate.

For a small business to truly separate itself from the competition, Tony Collins, a business advisor from Aileron, admonishes entrepreneurs to stop looking at their competition.  “Don’t look like them.  Don’t match everything they do,” he says.

Travel is crucial for idea development.  People who have scoured the Earth looking for something different possess a unique perspective that practically everyone around them lacks.  One major key to success lies in actively seeking unusual inspiration rather than subconsciously gravitating towards what we already know and understand.  For example, I have had the distinct pleasure and privilege to travel twice to Brazil, and both occasions I spent time observing large scale, modern row cropping operations.  What a waste!  I visited a different country to see something I can see in Ohio.  Lesson learned: while on the road, stay away from everything that looks like home!

Most of the time truly unique inspiration for one business originates in the workings of another, completely separate industry.  I’ve cancelled all of my traditional farming subscriptions except for the most unusual because there is never any truly new and attractive information generated within such a limited topic.  I instead read, explore, and record everything except farming subject matter when I’m looking to strategize for the future.  Our whole society is geared towards knowing everything possible about one specific area of study (known, appropriately, as siloing); if I need a question answered about seeding rates, there are techs aplenty that can generate the answer.  I see little reason to consume myself with mastering the same skills they already possess.

Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once stated “(Mental) models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.”  Travel is the best way to acquire new and interesting information, and when gadabouts are viewed as a learning experience to strengthen your brain rather than a vacation to liquefy it the adventures become much more gratifying.

The more you travel to learn, the more your perspective of the world will change and the more you will react to prosaic small talk as though it were torture.  My offbeat intrigues often generate reactions of skepticism from peers while we’re interacting within the agricultural industry.  To be frank, I would rather run over my leg with a grain drill than spend a minute discussing how to calibrate it, and most farmers just stare when I want to talk about a bowl of soup served in Moldova or a cacao tree in Puerto Rico or a miniature wheeled milk tank in Germany.  To be sure, I’m not much good as a farmer when measured against the status quo.

While discussions can be lonely when it seems your cows are the only creatures listening, it is this separation from normal that can give a small business its edge over the rest.  Bo Burlingahm refers to a business’s standout characteristic as Mojo.  Mojo – and its appeal to customers - can be found directly in the space between what those in the business know and competitors don’t.  I encourage everyone, business owner or not, to join me in enthusiastically seeking such an edge over normal.  Travel, friends, with this question in mind: What can I learn that most people don’t know?  The answers might surprise you.