Cracking the code of success

American sociologist Amy Wilkinson got 200 top global entrepreneurs to yield six key skills that helped them succeed

Amy Wilkinson is the author of The Creator's Code, in which she interviews the world's most creative entrepreneurs on what they have learnt from starting up their businesses.
Amy Wilkinson is the author of The Creator's Code, in which she interviews the world's most creative entrepreneurs on what they have learnt from starting up their businesses.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES



By Amy Wilkinson

Simon & Schuster paperback/ 228 pages/$26.96 at Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 658.421 WIL-[BIZ]

Rare is the person who gives away his keys to proven success. Rarer still is the person who, after having been privy to such keys, makes them freely available to everyone else.


    1. Merely copying something successful often does not work. Why?

    2. Why does the wisdom of crowds often not benefit a start-up?

    3. How should you prepare for and deal with failure?

    4. When should you not be obsessed with details?

    5. How can you stay a step ahead of your competitors?

But if this month's Big Read is anything to go by, American sociologist Amy Wilkinson's debut book, The Creator's Code, is quite a feat. That is because she got 200 entrepreneurs, each of whom has a business worth at least US$100 million (S$143.5 million) today, to open up about how they went from start-ups to successful businesses.

Her interviews with them yielded 10,000 pages of transcripts. She then distilled all that she learnt from them into what she calls six essential skills.

Her pithy book, in fact, is a crunching of one of the largest data sets today on high-growth businessmen worldwide. That alone makes it a should-read for anyone interested in how to create jobs. Here is a foretaste of the six skills:

1. Find the gap

This is about spotting a business opportunity that others have not, and Wilkinson's interviewees showed her three ways to do so: First, emulate something that is successful - but do not copy it wholesale. She learnt that from

Mr Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Starbucks.

He used to insist that his waiters wear bowties and serve java in porcelain cups amid blaring opera music. "But Seattle was all about grunge," recalls Wilkinson, who grew up near the rainy city, "it was Kurt Cobain, it was people wearing Gore-Tex jackets." So Mr Schultz learnt to scale down his hoity-toity concept, to much success.

Second, look for unaddressed problems. When Ms Sara Blakely could not find an undergarment that could make her figure sleeker, she cut the feet off her nylons and wore that. But the nylons rode up her legs painfully. So she designed flab-controlling Spanx and became the youngest self-made female billionaire in 2012.

  • Just a minute

  • The good

    1. American sociologist Amy Wilkinson tells a good story. In crisp, brisk prose, she manages to cut through the morass of descriptions and extract all the key points on the science and art of entrepreneurship. She is a whip-smart thinker and uses her sharp eye and ferocious intelligence to great measure for this book, crunching 10,000 pages of transcripts to about just 200 pages.

    2. You can tell she has asked the hard questions from the solid answers this book yields. That probably had a lot to do with the fact that she was once a fledgling entrepreneur herself and, indeed, she plans to return to the world of business now that she has finished the book. Her personal interest in succeeding in business has led her to dig deep into her sources for their best practices.

    3. She has had the hindsight of many perspectives in writing this book. As a sociologist, she has a keen eye for the people who power businesses and how they react or respond to challenges. As a former White House employee, she knows what the big picture is on revving up the United States economy. As a denizen of Silicon Valley for almost a decade, she is au fait with the culture of start-ups. As a sometime entrepreneur, she has learnt the hidden costs of setting up a company. All of which give her a perspective on business, and life, that few other authors have.

    The bad

    1. Life's vicissitudes cannot be compartmentalised or categorised easily; so, too, skills. More often than not, there will be overlaps of each. So her attempt to file skills for success into six distinct categories can be confusing. For example, Skill One, about spotting opportunities that others do not see, is also part of Skill Four, which is about, well, spotting such opportunities too.

    2. There is no discernible theme linking each of the skills she has identified from her 200 interviews. She calls one "driving for daylight", referring to what a race car driver does. She calls another after jargon used by fighter pilots. Then she ends off with a homely American phrase, "gifting small goods", as her sixth skill. The disconnected references would make it hard for most readers to recall all six skills easily.

    The iffy

    1. As Wilkinson acknowledged in a recent interview with me, most readers are familiar with most of these skills already, or at least have heard of them. In this context, you might want to treat her book like how you would the late Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, which gathered the wisdom of sages through the ages and repackaged it as seven nifty habits everyone should keep to stay on top of things.

Similarly, South Africa-born polymath Elon Musk wondered if he could make a rocket from scratch much more cheaply than the United States' national space agency Nasa. He did just that and, with his company SpaceX today, has taken over contracts to supply the International Space Station.

Third, find out what people need and mash and smash existing ideas to meet that need. This is how

Mr Steve Ells founded "fast-casual" restaurant Chipotle, which offers flash-cooked fresh food, served speedily to diners.

2. Drive for daylight

This is about putting yourself in the mind of a race car driver, who does not dwell on what the road markings are or who is racing him. Rather, he focuses on the end in mind, like Stanford University dropout Elizabeth Holmes, who is today the world's youngest self-made billionaire. Her long-term mission is to change US healthcare fundamentally. To do this, her start-up Theranos processes 200 to 300 blood tests from just a few fingerpricks of blood - at cornershop pharmacies. This is how she is making it easier for everyone to catch diseases early, at a fraction of hospital costs.

3. Fly the Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act loop

This is about getting so far ahead of your competitors so quickly that you change the game. As Wilkinson learnt, the emphasis is on observation, either by spotting subtle anomalies or, as technopreneur Jeremy Stoppelman told her, looking for "counterintuitive blips of data". "Jump on these blips," she says, because what does not make sense now may actually be the clue to a business breakthrough.

4. Fail wisely

This is about running small experiments on your big idea such that while you may fail often, you will not do so catastrophically. Energy conservation company Opower wanted consumers to save energy and, at first, tried to do so by appealing to their conscience. That failed. So Opower offered them a US$55 discount to do so. That, too, failed. Then it told consumers that 77 per cent of their neighbours were doing a better job of saving energy than them. That was so effective that the energy saved soon powered the entire US state of New Hampshire.

5. Network minds

This is about collaborating with others. Wilkinson cautions, however, that this is not about ensuring that diverse people work together, but about bringing together people who each think differently.

6. Gift small goods

This is a clunky way of saying that you should share ideas with others and help them to get ahead.

If you do not do so, Wilkinson warns, data shows that you will be shut out of today's hyperconnected economy indefinitely.

The catch, she says, is that for you to go from start-up to a US$100-million business, you have to master all six skills. "You can't ignore a few of them because you don't like them," she quips.

The good news, she insists, is that everyone can master all of the six skills, even if he has not been to university and has little capital.

"Don't wait for the perfect moment," she says, adding that in a fast-changing world, there is little time for new things to be perfected.

So, it seems, success in business today is simply this: Good things come to those who do not wait.

Would you build a rocket to Mars?

That is what South Africaborn Elon Musk has done, and done so well that he now supplies equipment to the International Space Station.

This founder of multiple start-ups' business smarts are captured in The Creator's Code by American sociologist and entrepreneur Amy Wilkinson.

Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai to discuss the factors contributing to his success at The Big Read Meet on Oct 28, from 6.30pm in the Central Public Library at Basement 1, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters, 100 Victoria Street.

Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk or click on golibrary, find The Big Read Meet event and follow the steps there.

If you cannot make it on Oct 28 but would like to share your views, e-mail your thoughts on The Creator's Code in 100 words or less to We will publish the best contributions on The Big Read page.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Cracking the code of success'. Print Edition | Subscribe