Sometimes a single brainstorm can change the course of a career. Here are 3 people who turned brilliant ideas into big career moves—and the pitches they used to close the deal.
Microsoft Xbox: Beating Sony at Its Own Game
The Product: Electronic gaming platform
The Genius: Game Programmer Seamus Blackley
The Story: In early 1999, Microsoft hired Blackley to work on software that would make games easier to implement on PCs. At the time, industry analysts were calling the then-new Sony Playstation an “alternative computing platform” and saying it represented a long-term threat to Microsoft’s software dominance. Microsoft had recently bought the WebTV set-top box, which was proving to be a huge flop in the market. Blackley took advantage of management’s paranoia about WebTV’s failure and the threat from Sony and co-wrote a proposal suggesting that Microsoft regain the initiative by producing its own gaming console. Executives bit, and the Xbox is now the mainstay of Microsoft’s $4.6 billion a year Entertainment and Devices division Blackley later left Microsoft and today represents video game developers at the Creative Artists Agency.
Basic Sell: “If you don’t buy this idea, we’ll eventually get screwed.”
Advantage: Fear is a wonderful motivator.
Disadvantage: There’s a fine line between “out of the box” thinking and “out of your mind” thinking. (Hint: If you suspect your idea isn’t being bought because of a conspiracy against you, you’re probably out of your mind.)
MTV’s The Real World: Reinventing the Sitcom
The Product: Reality television
The Geniuses: Daytime soap producer Mary-Ellis Bunim, TV newsman Jonathan Murray
The Story: In the early 1990s, Bunim (Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns) and Murray (WXIA-TV, Atlanta) observed that production costs for situation comedies and drama were rising, yet the expansion of cable channels meant they were also generating less advertising revenue. MTV was changing formats at the time, moving away from its mainstay music videos. Since the network’s more successful VJs had the look and feel of actual college students, Bunim and Murray pitched the idea that young viewers would prefer to watch the dating exploits of real-life peers rather than professional actors.
The combination of low production costs and conceptual similarity to MTV’s existing “personality” lowered the risk for MTV execs. The network debuted The Real World in 1992, creating a new genre—reality TV—which has become a massive cash-cow for the network television industry. Bunim and Murray went on to a string of hits, including Road Rules and The Simple Life, creating a franchise that generates around $30 million in yearly revenue, according to Hoovers.
Basic Sell: “This idea will simultaneously reduce costs and increase revenue.”
Advantage: Appeals to both visionaries and bean-counters.
Disadvantage: Cheaper and faster doesn’t always mean better.
Tom Peters: Redefining Management
The Product: Books and speaking engagements
The Genius: McKinsey consultant Tom Peters
The Story: In the 1970s and earlier, most business books were dry tomes written with the academic market in mind. In 1981, Peters co-wrote a book that changed all of that. In Search of Excellence expressed Peters’ observation that successful corporations had eliminated hierarchical decision-making processes in favor of “empowering” decision-making at lower levels of the corporate structure. The idea of a more democratic workplace resonated with the ex-hippie Baby Boomers who were just then entering the executive ranks. When sales of the book spiked, Peters flogged the concept mercilessly, and it was later turned into a series of PBS television specials. In the process, Peters became arguably the world’s most popular management guru. Twenty-five years later he still commands speaking fees in the high five figures.
Basic Sell: “Your intuition and experience tell you that this idea makes sense.”
Advantage: Buyers are already emotionally inclined to your idea.
Disadvantage: You must be a living example of your idea. For example, if you’re selling ideas for financial success, you’d better know how to look and act successful.