All Articles Leadership Strategy Leadership by fools

Leadership by fools

The failure of Brandless shouldn't obscure the larger strategy lesson: If you’re going to do something groundbreaking, you must be willing to at first be thought a fool.

5 min read


Leadership by fools

SmartBrief illustration

After a brief run of fewer than three years, Brandless has bitten the dust. The SoftBank-backed startup was conceived on the proposition that it could make consumer staples more affordable by selling them online and unbranded, streamlining the supply chain and avoiding the expensive “brand tax” consumer products manufacturers spend to build marketplace trust.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, this is not the first time reports of the death of branding have been greatly exaggerated.

Brandless attributed its failure to aggressive competition and the crowded e-commerce market, only underscoring why it was a flawed concept that fooled investors to the tune of more than $100 million.

When I first heard about the concept — building a brand on the idea that people don’t like brands — it seemed odd to me, and doing so under the brand name Brandless made it even more ironic. I predicted that it wouldn’t be long for this world.

It’s easy, of course, to Monday-morning quarterback ideas that fail. Lest I be tempted to glory in my prescience, I confess that in 1999 I took Amazon to task for trying to extend its brand beyond books. Brandless didn’t make sense and I saw it; Amazon did, and I missed it. (Oh, if I had only invested back then.)

There is, however, a larger point that both examples underscore: If you’re going to do something groundbreaking, you must be willing to at first be thought a fool.

It may only be for 10 minutes, until you can explain the rationale behind your crazy idea to your team. It may be for 10 months, until you can get an minimum viable product into the marketplace and demonstrate traction. It may be for 10 years (the jury was out on Amazon for a long time). Or it may be a lifetime or more before people recognize you were correct. At least we’re not burning heretics at the stake anymore.

Copernicus. Kepler. Galileo. Newton. Luther. Wilberforce. Einstein. All were willing to be considered fools in their pursuit of truth. Light bulbs. Bicycles. Airplanes. Personal computers. All ridiculed, at first. Absolut Vodka. Southwest Airlines. PayPal. Instagram. Amazon. All were supposed to fail.

Few people took the ideas of Sam Walton, Herb Kelleher or Fred Smith seriously when they first shared them with the world. But the world is better off because they were willing to be thought fools. It takes guts to lead.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of foolish ideas in business. They no doubt outnumber the good ones (mine certainly have). It’s a rare talent to be able to discern between inspiration and impossibility. Most of us are at best hit and miss at it, because no one can see around corners.

And it’s not just knowing what’s possible that’s a challenge; it’s when as well. “Power Branding” Principle #74 says, “Pedal too far ahead and your team may give up the chase.” Sometimes ideas arise before the world is ready for them.

Many people thought President John F. Kennedy foolish when he said we were going to send a man to the moon within the decade, but he timed it just right. By contrast, JC Penney wasn’t ready for the transformation former CEO Ron Johnson tried to ordain, which I have long thought was smart but poorly timed.

So how do you know? How can you determine whether an idea under consideration is foolish or farsighted? There’s no way to tell for sure, but here’s one test: If you’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes to gain power, influence or wealth, you’re likely to eventually be exposed as a fool.

But if you’re convinced that the math works, the tech can be developed or marketplace acceptance will come, your foolishness may one day be credited as vision. You just have to be honest with yourself and realistic about the possibilities.

Ignore universal truths about human nature, the limits of science or the length of your financial runway, and your idea will end up in the dustbin. That’s what happened to Brandless. But know something others don’t about the frontiers of knowledge, the possibilities of computer processing or an untapped human need, and you may just be ahead of the game.

If you’re willing for a time to be thought a fool, you’ll end up with the last laugh.

No one wants to be a scoffed at, but if you’re going to lead you have to risk it, because one thing is always foolish: Assuming that the status quo will continue as it has. Change is continuous and accelerating. Business models will be usurped. New ideas must be tried.

Ironically enough, having the courage to be occasionally thought a fool may be the best way to avoid becoming one.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

SmartBrief offers more than 200 free newsletters, including SmartBrief on Leadership and Business Transformation SmartBrief.