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People often compare business plans with road maps. In a column last year, I wrote that these times demand something more like a GPS system, which can “recalculate” those directions whenever we get off the path or the road ahead is closed.
I’ve noticed that many good business leaders have something in common with satellite navigations systems. Like the electronic device, they gather information from sources that orbit their everyday environment and use that information to guide them to places they have never been before.
None of those sources know very much about the business owner’s current location or where he or she is going. But they have stored a great deal of important information and they share – usually for free.
But like the satellites, the information they provide must be used together in order to be useful.
I’ve noticed that the successful business leader is often the one who can “triangulate” the bits of information and other input they gather from these contacts and turn it into useful information. Just like a GPS system that combines the data received from several satellites and identifies your position, these individuals can take two or more seemingly unrelated facts, skills, contacts or experiences and combine them in a way that creates a solid plan and a thriving business.
Let me share one exciting example: Tracy Wilkins was a professor of microbiology at Virginia Tech. He owned a small but successful company that produced and marketed a patented diagnostic test that was used to identify a particularly virulent form of diarrhea. (His company’s slogan was “We are #1 in #2.”)
His circle of friends included a number of Virginia Tech professors who were experts in fields such as genetic engineering, biology and animal husbandry, as well as a seed stage venture capitalist and other entrepreneurs.
At the time, large pharmaceutical companies were beginning to experiment with using genetically altered animals to produce human proteins and other valuable biotech products. Tracy read that the Scotland based company that produced Dolly, the first cloned mammal in the world, would have preferred to clone a pig rather a sheep because the pig had a shorter gestation period and had 10-12 piglets in each litter. They had overlooked pigs because the human protein they hoped to produce would be harvested from the milk of the cloned animal and they had concluded that pigs would be impossible to milk.
Based on conversations and knowledge Tracy had picked up from his circle of friends, he concluded that he had an opportunity to start a new business to compete with Dolly. As he said to many of his friends, “If we can splice a gene taken from a human with one from a mouse, insert it in the egg of another animal and make that animal produce a human protein, we can figure out how to milk a damn pig.”
Over the next few months, Tracy combined with his business contacts, university relationships and friends to form TransPharm, Inc. Within 18 months, his company had produced the first mammal cloned in the United States. A few months later, he sold TransPharm to PPL Therapeutics, Dolly’s “parent” company, for $5 million. After we closed the deal, Tracy and I had the pleasure of traveling to Scotland and meeting the most famous sheep in the world.
Tracy’s success came from picking up seemingly unrelated information from a variety of sources and putting it together to provide a new direction. He even learned how to keep the pig relaxed while it was being milked from something he observed about his students.
The pig would stay very still as long as she was munching on Doritos.