Editor’s Note: This article was first published by Inc. here.
Warren Buffett and his business partner, Charlie Munger, are famous for many reasons – most notably, their billion-dollar bank accounts. But they’re so much more than savvy business people.
Their genius lies in their ability to look at problems differently than the way you or I look at them. According to Buffett, their success is derived from the fact that they’ve not learned how to solve difficult business problems, but instead how to avoid them in the first place.
And as Munger said in Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger:
Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead – through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self-defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.
This mental model, known as inversion, is one of my favorites, especially when decisions seem very complicated. The idea, inspired by mathematician Carl Jacobi, is to simply take an idea and flip the starting point.
Inversion works for even the simplest of problems, like figuring out how to get to the gym. If your goal is to go to the gym five days a week, don’t just assume you’ll get there. Invert. Think about all the obstacles that stand in your way of getting to the gym every day and then pick them off one by one in order to avoid them.
My co-founder Elias Torres and I followed Munger’s advice when we started Drift. We were faced with the question: How would we stand out as the 6,830th product in the MarTech space?
So we considered the problem. We looked for a common trait among all the products laid out across the MarTech landscape and found they all helped companies sell more.
The vast majority were started in a time where the seller (the company) had all the control. They could focus inward on helping their own customers, also companies, sell more. They didn’t have to focus on helping would-be buyers.
But Drift was built in 2014 – a time when the power was shifting from sellers to buyers. These 7,000 some-odd products were built for a world that no longer exists. They were still focusing on the seller – not the buyer.
We recognized that B2C companies were seeing success because they were focused on the customer – so we tried to replicate that in the B2B space. We got rid of all forms on our site, so those looking to buy wouldn’t have to wait for a response from a salesperson. We implemented a chatbot that could help customers buy 24/7/365.
We inverted. We flipped a problem on its head, and that became our solution.
Like Munger and Buffet before us, we didn’t look for success directly, but instead figured out how to avoid failure. We imagined the worst-case scenario and how that might happen, and then did everything in our power to avoid it. Doing so helped us identify the obstacles facing us and solve for what wasn’t being addressed.
It has worked for us. In the four years since starting Drift, we’ve raised $107 million from Sequoia, General Catalyst, and CRV. The company has gone from zero to eight figures in revenue in less than two years. We have over 150,000 customers who rely on us to help their customers buy.
So how can you use this in practice?
- Find role models of your own. Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger are just two of mine. I encourage everyone to find three role models: a positive role model, a reverse role model and an anti-role model. These are people you can learn from – both what to do and not to do.
- Don’t be afraid to be the 7,000th product in an industry. It’s almost impossible to be “the first” any more. And that’s OK. When you’re starting a company, take a look at what’s out there, figure out what’s changing and what you can do better. Identify how you can invert to solve a problem no one else sees.
- Identify your end goal, then imagine all the ways you won’t be able to get there. Acknowledge likely obstacles to success head on so you can address each as it comes up. Then do everything in your power to overcome that obstacle and reach your end goal.
Want more mental models, tools and habits like inversion? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter, The One Thing, here.