Robert Reffkin And Mom

Be Humble Enough to Learn from Everyone

May 11, 2021
Most innovation is integration, not invention.

Main photo: Compass CEO Robert Reffkin and his mom, Ruth.

Entrepreneurs need to be scrappy problem-solvers to figure out how to compete with larger, better-funded organizations. And entrepreneurs need to be excellent listeners to figure out what their potential customers really want and need.

For both of those reasons, entrepreneurs should constantly study what well-established companies have done before—and what competing companies are doing right now. It is, quite clearly, the fastest way to learn.

Yet, when I share this philosophy, people often don’t like it. They say something along the lines of “But I don’t want to copy, I want to innovate.” I have two responses to that.

1. Most innovation is integration—not invention. Take something like the iPod, a game-changing product from the company consistently rated the most innovative in the world. But Apple didn’t invent the idea of a portable MP3 player. Apple didn’t invent the tiny hard drive inside. Apple didn’t invent the idea of downloading individual songs instead of albums. It didn’t invent the idea of white earbud headphones. But it did combine them all in an entirely new way to deliver an exceptional experience for hundreds of millions of consumers. When integration is done right, as Apple has demonstrated, it feels much more revolutionary than something “new” that fails to amaze and delight customers.

2. Pure invention is important — but only if it’s truly necessary. Entrepreneurs, especially in the start-up world, often want to start from scratch. A blank page. First principles. Inspiration-and-caffeine-powered late-night coding sessions to turn an idea into a prototype. We all know the stories of when that has worked and a single person’s spark lit the world on fire. But you hear less about the hundreds of thousands of solo efforts that go nowhere. The truth is, trying to create from whole cloth like that is incredibly risky and highly unlikely to work.

And yet I talk to people every week who choose to disregard everything that came before and completely dismiss the work of their competitors.

Even if you believe legacy companies are doing it wrong and need to be disrupted, and even if you believe you’re going to solve the problem so much better than any of your competitors, don’t you still want to know what they’re doing so you can learn from it?

To arrive at the conclusion that you have nothing to learn from anyone, you have to think that so many other people at so many other companies are doing absolutely everything wrong. But is every software engineer at a rival firm misguided? Of course not. Are the millions of customers visiting a competitor’s website delusional? Not a chance. Is every CEO who makes a different strategic decision than you clueless? Nope.

I don’t like to say anything negative about anyone, but I can’t help but feel that this is a terribly arrogant line of thinking. You’re putting your own ego—I am the only one smart enough to do anything right—over the needs of your customers, many of whom are also actively using these rival services.

I strongly believe in Compass’s mission, vision, and strategy. I think we’ve got the best approach and the highest chances of success. But that being said, I also think we have really worthy and intelligent competitors who are making reasonable choices and doing tons of things right. We can all learn from one another.

I find it useful to look at what our competitors are building and ask myself, What problems are they prioritizing and why? What must they be hearing from their customers? What can we learn from how they’re approaching these issues that will help us serve our agents, buyers, and sellers better?

I ask all employees to start any project by studying everything else that’s out there by not only seeing what the trends are or what’s popular but also asking themselves why they think those ideas might have been good ideas. If we want to build something differently, we should ask ourselves why we think our way is better than the current solution that’s already being used by millions of people.

It all comes from a simple philosophy.

  • Start from humility, not grandiosity
  • Learn everything you can from everyone you can
  • Integrate the best existing ideas to serve your customers, not your ego
  • And then — and only then — look for gaps and opportunities to innovate

Having done everything you can the easy way, you’ll have saved your energy, brilliance, creativity, and resources for when the only way to solve a problem for your customers is by creating something brand-new.

Robert Reffkin is founder and CEO of Compass, the largest independent real estate brokerage in the U.S. He is the author of No One Succeeds Alone, a book that chronicles the business and life lessons he learned from his mom (a tenacious and tough single mother), marriage and fatherhood, and CEO mentors.

Credit: Excerpted from No One Succeeds Alone: Learn Everything You Can from Everyone You Can by Robert Reffkin. Copyright © 2021 by Robert Reffkin. Available May 4, 2021 from HMH Books & Media.

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