The Secret is That There is No Secret


The Worst Buzzword in Business

My least favourite business buzzword right now is “secret sauce.”

Why? Because there really aren’t any secrets.

Case 1: The Cloakroom

I was reminded of this last week when I was talking with my friend Louis Ialenti at The Cloakroom.  As we discussed how their business is going, he said:

The thing I like about our business model is that we’re getting very good at doing things that no one else is willing to do.

During a period of time that has been very flat for retail, they’ve been doing exceptionally well for quite a while now.  And their secret isn’t secret – it’s mostly that they do the hard work that others are unwilling to do.

Case 2: Saddleback Leather

When I wanted to celebrate my promotion a couple of years ago, after a fair bit of research I settled on getting myself  a briefcase from Saddleback Leather.  Why?  Because their point of difference is also based on doing what others won’t.

Check out this video from the founder, Dave Munson – explaining how to make a proper bootleg version of their briefcases (h/t DK):

He just gave away all of their secrets!  Why would he do that?

Munson is willing to give away the secrets because he knows that no one else is willing to do the work.

Their website also includes links to others making similar bags.  Why? Because:

Do you think that our competitors would actually put a link to our website on theirs?  I’m so confident that you’ll find our classic look and over-engineered durability so hard to resist that I want you to shop around.  Go ahead… the more you shop, the better we look.

Case 3: Hugh MacLeod

Here is Hugh MacLeod, from his great first book Ignore Everybody:

I get asked a lot, “Your business card format is very simple. Aren’t you worried about somebody ripping it off?”

Standard Answer: Only if they can draw more of them than me, better than me. What gives the work its edge is the simple fact that I’ve spent years drawing them. I’ve drawn thousands. Tens of thousands of man hours.

So if somebody wants to rip my idea off, go ahead. If somebody wants to overtake me in the business card doodle wars, go ahead. You’ve got many long years in front of you. And unlike me, you won’t be doing it for the joy of it. You’ll be doing it for some self-loathing, ill-informed, lame-ass mercenary reason. So the years will be even longer and far, far more painful. Lucky you.

If somebody in your industry is more successful than you, it’s probably because he works harder at it than you do. Sure, maybe he’s more inherently talented, more adept at networking etc, but I don’t consider that an excuse. Over time, that advantage counts for less and less. Which is why the world is full of highly talented, network-savvy, failed mediocrities.

Low hanging fruit

Case 4: Ben Horowitz

And finally, here’s Ben Horowitz from his new book The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say, “I didn’t quit.

The Secret is That There Are No Secrets

The Cloakroom and Saddleback Leather are selling quality.  But the same is true if your point of difference is being the lowest cost option – you still have to pursue that end fanatically, doing more than anyone else is willing to do to cut costs.

The secret to being different is that you have to do the work that others are unwilling to do.

When it comes to innovation, there aren’t many secrets here either.  It’s a bit like losing weight.  If you want to lose weight, you need to do some combination of taking in fewer calories while burning more.  In other words, eat less and exercise more.

If someone tries to sell you a diet that involves anything other than those two things, it’s a sham.

It’s the same with innovation.  If you want to innovate, you have to try more stuff.  This sounds simple (just like “eat less” sounds simple), but it’s not easy.

You have to do the work.  In the case of innovation, the work involves engaging the people you work with, experimenting, and figuring out how to scale what works, while learning from what doesn’t.

That’s The Innovation Loop:



If you actually think about how to do this within your organisation, you’ll realise that it leads to profound changes.  That is why people look for a shortcut.

Or a secret.

I’ll give you the secret: there are no secrets.

You just have to do the work.

(the cartoon is from Hugh MacLeod’s Daily Newsletter – subscribing to it is worthwhile)

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

9 thoughts on “The Secret is That There is No Secret

  1. Excellent analysis Tim. As I continue to argue, this willingness to do what others won’t, ability to think what others can’t, and do things better than anyone else understands – this is the magic – rather than a secret – of competitive innovation.

    It’s magic because the natural desire to go to places that others fear to tread is automatically an advantage.

    You may do the dirty, difficult jobs that other people try to avoid, or you may see the value in solving a problem that others cannot see from their safe jobs and big titles.

    They are busy trying to manage their careers, stay focused and maintain growth but you, the innovator, you want to solve something that matters, and you’re willing to create a better solution and do work others won’t.

  2. Great commentary Tim. How many ‘overnight successes’ have been plugging away and the same innovation for years, only to be hailed when they come into the spotlight? And how many need the persistence that underpins being reborn after failure the first or second time around? This is one of the objections I have to the liberal use of ‘disruptive’ when talking about innovation. While truly disruptive innovation is possible, it is usually only seen to be disruptive after the event and implies an easy way to unseat the powerhouse incumbent players. The truth is that disruptive innovation takes years of persistence to achieve, not a magical idea that makes all that hard work unnecessary…

    Bravo. Great message.

    • You’ve made a couple of great points TIm. First off, the 10 year overnight success is definitely more common than most people realise. And second, you’re absolutely right that disruptive innovations are necessarily obviously so at the outset. Of course, I know you’re speaking from experience there too!

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