Colored Perceptions

I will freely admit up-front that I know little, if anything about businesses, startups or even management – except for the kinds of work environments and management styles I prefer to be an employee of/in/for.

Having said that, Bob Lewis’ recent article on the Phoenix principal (http://www.weblog.keepthejointrunning.com/wordpress/?p=2972) reminded me of Crayola.

In my mind, when thinking about how successful a company can be in the future, the starting point is “what do they do?” – well, “everyone knows” Crayola makes crayons. Everyone knows that.

[note: when reading over this, my wife quickly pointed out that “everyone” is obviously people who don’t spend a lot of time being with or shopping for kids. Because what I discovered below is pretty common knowledge in her circle of associates. As always, YMMV.]

As far as product diversity, my assumption was that their product line would include different sized boxes of crayons, and that they’ve branched out into washable markers. I figured they probably get some revenue from supplying those small 3- or 4-crayon packs to restaurants. After that, there’s not much to say, right?

Take one look at their web site though, and the whole theory is blown out of the water. This isn’t a crayon company. This isn’t even an art-supply company.

From what I can see, Crayola sells artistic inspiration, and it’s target consumer group is one which universally – to the last person – believes they are imminently talented artists. Kids.

The Crayola web site is completely focused on encouraging visitors to be artistic. There are coloring pages. Lesson plans for teachers. An e-card creator. An online calendar that lists events like National Wildflower week (May 4-8), International Museum day (May 18) and the Dragon Boat festival in china (May 28).

This point was driven home (hah!) when my wife showed me a sidewalk paint foam sprayer she bought for my son’s birthday.

A Sprayer. For paint. That foams. On your driveway.

That’s about as far from waxy crayons as you can get and still be in the same solar system.

Maybe I’m lionizing them and this is just good business (again, I’m not a business guy so I could be overly impressed by nothing). But it seems to be that this is a company that is thinking hard about their essential mission, and choosing not to be stopped by artificial boundaries with regard to “this is what we make”.

Someone once told me that Cisco bills itself (internally at least) as a software company. Not hardware, that’s just a means to an end, which is delivering the IOS (among other things) to customers. I have a few friends in Cisco now, and I’m not sure that’s really the case. But at the time it struck me as a novel way for them to look at themselves.

This realization has, in turn, made me think hard about what my mission is – in life, in business, in my usual work day. Do I really just fix computer problems? Is there (or could there be) something more noble to this, a higher purpose which would inform my choices?

I’m sure a lot of people may see this as a cynical exercise in re-branding – doing the same thing but calling it something different. But this has to be more than billing myself as “a sanitation engineer” instead of a garbage collector. This needs to be a change in focus and philosophy, or else it will be easily detected for what it is – a cheap marketing ploy.

So that’s it, my big idea for the week. I think I’m going to go crack open that package of glow-in-the-dark finger paints and see what kind of mess I can make.