Monday, 4 July 2011

Innovation: Why Less Is More

Peter Williams, CEO of Jack Wills reminds me why creativity really does love constraints

I know this brand well because I’ve spent a fortune on it.  Jack Wills ‘preppy’ clothing is what my teenage kids cleverly open my wallet for.  And it seems I’m not alone, at over £100m of sales the purveyors of posh ‘university’ clobber are rapidly expanding both in the UK and the US.

I was delighted to meet Peter Williams, Founder and CEO last week in his Acton HQ.  He started the business at the ripe old age of 23 and now 10 years later is one of the UK’s most successful retailers.  But isn’t retail ‘detail’?  Something you need to put years of graft into learning your trade?  How does a 23 year old with no retail, clothing or fashion experience create what is on the cusp of becoming a global retail phenomena? 

I think the clue is in the story Peter tells of Jack Wills’ start up.  It goes something like this: Not having enough cash for a long lease, high profile launch he rents a traditional shop in quirky, charming and posh English town of Salcombe, Devon.  Not having enough cash he can’t use traditional research techniques to map out hot selling clothing lines so he learns how to use the new digital media (remember we’re in 1999) to generate ideas putting queries out like ‘my boyfriend says white jeans are cool, should I get buy him a pair’?  Not having enough cash he can hardly pay himself and works every job in the store himself. 

At the time ‘not having enough cash’ must have felt very tough but as with so many entrepreneurs the constraints Peter unwittingly worked within have shaped the business today.  Stylish  ‘country town’ stores, a cutting edge digital offer and confident in-house marketing are hallmarks of the business today.  

New businesses like new products have a seemingly endless series of options but focus is what entrepreneurs and innovators need.  The fewer options we have the more time we have to get things right.  The more we have to do ourselves the more we develop our judgment muscle, our confidence and ultimately innovation leadership.  Have you got too much money, too much time?  What would happen if you created tough, eye watering constraints?  Maybe things might just move faster and with more passion?