Innovation Lessons from J. Peterman

The first thing that I ever bought from the J. Peterman catalog was the Otavalo Mountain Shirt:

I had discovered the Peterman catalog very early in its existence, and after getting a few in the mail, I finally bought the shirt. I quickly discovered that the quality of clothes from Peterman was very high, and all of them were distinctive as well. I bought things when I could afford to, and watched as the company grew incredibly quickly throughout the 90s.

I wasn’t studying innovation at the time, but it was clearly an innovative company. Here is how John Peterman describes their idiosyncratic catalog (Owner’s Manual) in his book Peterman Rides Again:

The direct-marketing expert… [said] “Your catalog hasn’t got a chance, John. There are rules in this business, you know. You’ve managed to break just about every one of them.
Guilty as charged.
The Owner’s Manual had an odd, oblong shape, 5-1/2″ x 10-1/2”, and wasn’t even identified as a catalog. “Consumers won’t understand what an ‘Owner’s Manual’ is, and they’re not sitting around waiting to solve puzzles.” Our use of artwork to show products raised eyebrows. “Consumers don’t trust drawings, they want to see photographs of what they’re buying.” Long copy instead of short, to-the-point product descriptions was risky. “Consumers don’t have time to read; besides, their attention spans are short, anyway.” And selling one item per page was suicidal to the “square-inchers”- the guys who try to calculate profit per square inch of catalog space. “You need 2.7 items on a page if you want to make any money.”
Now, there may be an element of truth to all that if you’re selling familiar, standardized stuff. But we were offering uncommon things to people who to be willing to be different – people like ourselves. So we took a deep breath and went with an approach that appealed to us.

And it worked. The company went from selling a few thousand dollars worth of their only product in the first years, a cowboy duster, to selling $75 million across a wide variety of things in less than 10 years.

They did by selling stories. Here is how the 37 Signals blog describes the copy:

Of course it’s ridiculous. But it sure does make J. Peterman stand out from the pack. And there’s a lesson in that for anyone who wants to decommoditize what they sell: The story you surround your product with is a great way to differentiate it from competitors. Banana Republic sells you a jacket. J. Peterman sells you a tale.

Then it all blew up. This report from MSNBC explains how it happened:

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The company went up to $75 million in sales, overextended and went bankrupt. As I said yesterday, being wrong is the only way to learn, and Peterman seems to have learned from his. After buying the company back (in a deal that included money from John O’Hurley – the man that played “J. Peterman” on Seinfeld!), Peterman has taken a more measured approach to growth.

I think that one of the reasons he has succeed is that he always seems to have had a balanced view of failure. He is an ex-pro baseball player and a successful entrepreneur, so Peterman is clearly driven. Yet he is pretty open about the necessity of learning from mistakes. One of his quotes in the book is “If you don’t make any mistakes, you’re probably not doing your job right.” He also included this set of quotes that he collected about failure:

A mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement. – Henry Ford
Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to success. One fails forward toward success. – C.F. Kettering
Success is 99 percent failure. – Soichiro Honda
the man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything. – W.C. Magee
The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing that you will make one. – Elbert Hubbard
Do not fear mistakes, there are none. – Miles Davis

Going bankrupt is devastating. And yet, Peterman has managed to learn from the mistakes made and bounce back. This is the kind of resilience that we need to innovate. There are a few innovation lessons in the Peterman story:

  • You don’t have to embrace failure, or even like it. But if you are able to learn from it, you are much more likely to succeed.
  • Telling a compelling story is a great way to get your idea to stand out.
  • Making mistakes is part of trying to do something different.

Oh, and there’s probably one more. I still have that first Otavalo Mountain Shirt that I bought over 20 years ago. So in addition to doing things that make your idea stand out, it’s also smart to execute the idea as well as you possibly can. Quality goes a long way towards making your new ideas work.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.