Great Business Ideas: The tipping point

Great Small Business Ideas to Start: The tipping point

The spread of products or ideas and the decline of others are rarely understood. Writer Malcolm Gladwell has developed the idea of the “tipping point”: a compelling theory about how an idea becomes an epidemic. The “tipping point” is the dramatic moment when everything changes simultaneously because a threshold has been crossed—although the situation might have been building for some time.

The idea

Malcolm Gladwell likens rapid growth, decline, and coincidence to epidemics. Ideas are “infectious,” fashions represent “outbreaks,” and new ideas and products are “viruses.” Gladwell explains how a factor “tips”—when a critical mass “catches” the infection, and passes it on. This is when a shoe becomes a “fashion craze,” social smoking becomes “addiction,” and crime becomes a “wave.” Advertising is a way of infecting others.

Several factors are significant in making sure that an idea “tips”:

1. The law of the few.

Epidemics only need a small number of people to infect many others. This is apparent with the spread of disease: it is the few people who socialize and travel the most that make the difference between a local outbreak and a global pandemic.

Similarly, word of mouth is a critical form of communication: those who speak the most (and the best) create epidemics of ideas. There are three types of people: connectors, mavens, and salespeople. – Connectors bring people together, using their social skills to make connections. They are key agents in the spread

of epidemics, as they communicate throughout different “networks” of people. Masters of the “weak tie” (a friendly, superficial connection) can spread ideas far. – Mavens—information specialists—also connect with people, but focus on the needs of others rather than on their own needs, and have the most to say. Examples of mavens include teachers. – Salespeople concentrate on the relationship, not the message. Their “sales” skills, with mastery of non-verbal communication and “motor mimicry” (imitating the person’s emotions and behavior to gain trust), afford them a pivotal role in persuading others.

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2. The stickiness factor.

With products or ideas, how attractive they are matters as much as how they are communicated in determining whether they spread. To reach a tipping point, ideas have to be compelling and “sticky.” (If something is unattractive, it will be rejected irrespective of how it is transmitted.) The information age has created a stickiness problem—the “clutter” of messages we face leads to products and ideas being ignored. To create epidemics, it is essential to make sure the message is not lost in this clutter, and to ensure the message is “sticky.”

3. The power of context.

Changes in the context of a message can tip an epidemic. Given that people’s circumstances, or context, matter as much as their character, a tipping point can be controlled by altering the environment they live in. This has many implications for businesses, from employee performance to generating sales.

An example of the tipping point is “broken windows theory.” One person, seeing a single broken window, may believe there is an absence of control and authority, making them more likely to commit crimes. In this way, small crimes invite more serious crimes, spawning a crime wave. This theory was used in New York City in the 1990s by the chief of police, William Braxton. The “zero tolerance” approach that targeted minor crime (eg fare-dodging and vandalism) led to a dramatic fall in crime overall. Although other factors may have contributed to the crime reduction, this example highlights the power of context.

In practice

  • Choose a compelling, attractive proposition or idea to spread. Understand what will make it appealing and emphasize these factors to key contacts.
  • Identify and develop links with key contacts—people with connections (“connectors” or networkers); people with knowledge and influence (“mavens” such as teachers or journalists), and people with influence (“salespeople” such as celebrities).
  • Choose the right time to spread the idea, making sure that the environment is receptive and that the idea is relevant and timely.
  • Read T he Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
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