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Why Great Ideas Take Time

Don't let the quick path to IPOs or acquisitions fool you. Slow growth is usually smart growth.
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You couldn't be blamed for crying about the passing of Daniel Keyes, most famously the author of Flowers for Algernon. That tear-jerker of a tale has been a staple of middle-school and junior-high curricula since the late 60s. 

Though Keyes wrote eight other books, he's best remembered for Algernon, which debuted as a short story in 1959. Here's the thing: Keyes first came up with the idea nearly 15 years earlier. The New York Times describes how it happened:

The premise underlying Mr. Keyes's best-known novel struck him while he waited for an elevated train to take him from Brooklyn to New York University in 1945. "I thought: My education is driving a wedge between me and the people I love," he wrote in his memoir, Algernon, Charlie and I (1999). "And then I wondered: What would happen if it were possible to increase a person's intelligence?" After 15 years that thought grew into the novella Flowers for Algernon, which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959 and won the Hugo Award for best short fiction in 1960.

Keyes' 15-year wait was just the beginning. Algernon didn't become a full-length novel until 1966. It didn't become a movie until 1968. The novel eventually sold five-million copies. Keyes' death at age 86 reminds us that sometimes, bestselling ideas take a long time to develop. 

This shouldn't be news to enterpreneurs. The history of small business is littered with countless cases of companies whose breakthroughs required years of patience. Inc's 1985 profile of Crate & Barrel--which we reran today in homage to Twitter's "throwback Thursday"--provides a great example. Crate didn't open its third store until its sixth year of existence, in 1971. Nor did it train its first bona fide full-time manager until that same year. 

A more recent example comes from Scott Nash, founder of $100-million MOM's Organic Market. Launched in 1987, MOM's today has--wait for it--11 stores in three states.

But to Nash, that rate is not slow. It's normal. It took him three years after his initial launch in his mother's garage to open the first actual store. Thirteen years later--in 2000--he was up to a whopping three locations.

The pace might seem petty, but for Nash, it's an intentional strategy he devised by studying the one-year-at-a-time approaches of Trader Joe's, Costco, and Apple. "Strategic growth includes an element of scarcity," he told Inc earlier this year. "The key for us has been setting the speed at which we're able to grow structurally while also protecting our scarcity--the mysteriousness of the MOM's brand."

For today's entrepreneurs and aspirants, it's important to keep the growth stories of Crate and MOM's in mind, especially when the business media--including Inc--can showcase startups on the fast track to IPOs or lucrative acquisitions. 

Of course, those hypergrowth companies sometimes offer lessons in patience, too. 2U, the online education tech company, went from startup to $100-million IPO in six years. Cofounder Chip Paucek told Inc's Scott Leibs about their early struggles.

Inc: You cofounded a capital-intensive tech company in 2008, when funding was scarce. What got you through those early days?

Paucek: First, although it's an overused word, passion; we believed we had a great idea and that we could build it. That said, if some of the members of the founding team weren't individually wealthy, we wouldn't have made it through. My current COO covered payroll twice with his own money. Third, we persuaded a great school, USC, to treat online students as completely equal to on-campus students, and that was not an obvious approach. Landing USC as our first client was pivotal.

As 2U's tale points out, the journey is seldom quick and easy for anyone--even fast-track startups.

So don't be fooled into thinking that speed is everything. Yes, this is an era where failing fast is expected and often honored. But Keyes' life--and the real-life histories of Crate and MOM's and even 2U--serve as reminders that the best ideas rarely blossom overnight. 




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