How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Rick Smolan fuses the work of hundreds of the world’s best writers, photographers, filmmakers, designers, & techies (art & design, multiple technologies, and business)
“Why did I ever buy you that stupid camera?”
“You know why, Dad. You said I couldn’t spend any more time sending Morse code on my ham radio in the basement.”
“Fine. It got you out of the house, with other 14-year-olds, but it isn’t your life.”
“Yes it is! I’m photographing football games, science club, cheerleaders, chess group — everyone doing everything. Other kids only fit into one group of friends. Who else but me gets invited by all these different groups to everything they do?”
“That doesn’t make it a career — you’re dreaming! You never finish anything. I had to put you in four high schools because you kept flunking out. You even forged my signature and went on exchange to Spain!”
“I’m going to be a photographer, Dad. I’m going to work for National Geographic, Time, and Life.”
“Oh no you’re not. You’re going to college — one without a photography program. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, whatever — just choose something that’ll earn you a living — not taking stupid pictures of babies and weddings.”
Young Rick Smolan did go to college, after lifting his grades from D- to straight-A in an experimental program for gifted, “non-performing” students.
He met with an art professor, and within a week had created his own photography major, basically teaching himself since there was no formal program or faculty. Dad, of course, was furious, and their fights continued until graduation, when Rick went with yearbook in-hand to interview for his dream job.
Time Magazine took one look at his work and hired him on the spot.
His second job was National Geographic.
“I’ve been so lucky. I always seem to meet the right person at the right time, usually while I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing, and then things work out for me in a way that defies all logic and I have to pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming.”
Rick sold everything he owned and lived in a Volkswagen van. Editors would call with assignments saying things like, “Where are you now? We have an assignment in South Dakota.” He’d reply from Florida, “Oh, yes, I’m nearby” (only a 28-hour drive away).
The answer was always “Yes.” He would drive anywhere, fly anywhere, and do any assignment, traveling on his own money, not caring how much it cost or that he hadn’t trained for specialist sub-fields like conflict photography. He hadn’t actually trained for anything.
With each assignment, the euphoria of getting the gig would soon transform into terror. In his mind, he’d already failed terribly (before even beginning) and used that sense of anticipated defeat as the motivation to turn a potential catastrophe into something great. His creations were fuelled with anxious energy. To this day, he never knows if his creations will be well-received or not and is surprised and thrilled when they are.
Rick then talked his way into a job at (of course) his third dream — Life Magazine.
In 1974, Life did an issue on “A Day in the Life of America” — the worst-selling issue ever — a disaster (although not Rick’s disaster). Six years later, long-haired, jeans-clad, ginger-ale-sipping Rick was in a bar listening to a well-groomed group of older, wiser, professional photographers. As usual, he was the baby of the group (by about 10 years), and the hard-drinking photojournalists were disgruntled, because editors often used their photographs to sell advertising instead of publishing stories that brought to life issues the photographers believed the world needed to see.
Rick said, “Hey, guys, why don’t we take that day-in-the-life idea and do it in Australia, where I’m living? Unlike the first time, we’ll only put the best pictures in, whether everyone gets a photo in or not.” They said, “Yeah, yeah, kid, you organize it and we’ll come,” and went back to their drinks thinking nothing of it. Rick flew to the US — full of hope that the world’s best photographers would scour a nation for a day and come up with the most brilliant, entertaining, thought-provoking images.
He was turned down by 35 publishers. The typical response was,
“Who on earth would pay USD 40 for a book of pictures taken by your friends in some God-forsaken country where nothing happens?”
While turning down the project, they gave loads of suggestions for toning it down and making it safe and cheap — use stock photos, print in black & white, make it smaller, etc.
So, Rick went to Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, whom he’d met and photographed many times — himself a shy amateur photographer who’d hosted Rick in his home with his family on weekends. Rick had been one of 6 journalists invited as part of a national marketing effort to tour Australia for two weeks. So, Rick thought they might sponsor the book. Unfortunately, Malcolm didn’t have a budget to cover the cost to fly 100 photographers to Australia.
Instead, he introduced Rick to a young guy named Steve Jobs who was starting a computer company, as well as the CEO’s of Kodak-Australia, Qantas Airlines, Hertz, and more. Rick thought the Prime Minister was suggesting sponsorship as a way of turning him down but then Malcolm suggested that Rick approach these companies to donate computers, equipment & supplies, flights, cars, etc.
The idea he gave Rick that day was a business model no one had ever used in publishing before — editorially-independent book sponsorship.
When Rick finally pulled together all the sponsorships, 100 photographers from 30 countries joined in, and they barely had enough money to do the project while camping in sleeping bags on friends’ floors and traveling on the cheap.
They ran short of funds, and Rick got barely enough from BP-Australia to keep going. An anniversary was coming up at about that time for Fairfax Media group, one of the largest media and publishing groups in the nation. The whole company was getting ready to celebrate.
Since the publishing world was so sceptical, Rick came up with a second innovation. Rather than sell books in bookstores, he approached Australia’s Fairfax Media Group, whom he had heard was looking for a unique way to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
They agreed to buy 50,000 copies of the book sight-unseen (back then 5,000 was considered a best-seller) — but only on the condition that Rick would not allow it to be sold in any bookstore, for the first 6 months. Rick likens this to the story of Br’er rabbit (“PLEASE don’t fling me in the briar-patch”) since at that point no book store was interested in carrying the book.
Fairfax ran TV ads, full-page colour newspaper ads, and more, and the only way to buy A Day In the Life of Australia was to go to a Fairfax Media Newspaper office (such as a Sydney Morning Herald newspaper office). Rick was worried that making the book so hard to buy would be the kiss of death, but it had the opposite effect.
Fairfax sold 50,000 copies in a few days, setting a world record.
The book itself became an item of news, when one of the Pulitzer-Prize-wnning photographers contributed a picture of a girl, not knowing she’d been missing for two years. Her family had been desperately searching for her, and they were reunited on-camera.
It became the #1 book in Australia and sold 250,000 copies, breaking every record in Australian publishing history. People would line up for blocks to buy it. After sample copies were repeatedly stolen, Fairfax drilled a hole in each sample and tied it to the desk. When someone actually cut the rope securing the book and stole the book with a hole drilled through it, Rick realized the book had become a nationwide phenomenon.
It took two years for Rick to pay off all the debt incurred in putting A Day in the Life together (over USD 150,000). He had no idea how to pay it all off and figured he’d go to jail if the book didn’t become a best-seller. But the book did sell, and Rick did pay all his debts. Years later, he found out that one of the projects sponsors (BP Australia) and the Prime Minister had put together a plan to bail out the project because its failure would have reflected badly on the nation. But Rick and the team had done it anyway, and the secret bailout fund was never used.
Since he’d already assumed he’d be going to jail for spending so much money he didn’t have, he decided to do it in style and produce a one-hour TV documentary about the project while creating the book.
Then Hawaii’s Governor saw the book in a hotel, loved it, and had his office call Rick, asking if he’d do it again for Hawaii’s anniversary of statehood. American Express called to sponsor a book on Japan as a show of good faith during some tricky negotiations. Gorbachev’s office called. The king of Spain’s office called, since Spain and France were vying to host Disneyland-Europe. After having been an exchange student in Barcelona for a year, never dreaming what would unfold in the future, Rick again had to pinch himself as he rode in a royal helicopter piloted by King Juan Carlos and later taught the King how to use a Macintosh computer.
A dozen Day in the Life projects later, Rupert Murdoch bought the company, including the “Day in the Life” brand. After 7 years producing the series, it was getting too comfortable, and Rick and his business partner were increasingly unhappy with each other. They decided to split up and completed the sale just before Day in the Life of America became the USA’s #1 book.
On his own again, Rick’s Dad — a pharmaceutical marketer (with whom he’d reconciled) — said, “Why not do A Day in the Life of Medicine?” Rick reminded him that the Day in the Life brand had been sold, and his Dad said,
“No one will care what you call it. I don’t think the Day in the Life brand is the value in what you do. I think it’s you pulling together all these creative people and then curating and assembling it. I think that’s where the magic is.”
Rick doesn’t do solo projects. He co-creates — with writers, designers, programmers, administrators, and other photographers and videographers. He pulls the pieces together, and the newly-integrated creation always reveals something new beyond the pieces alone.
He wasn’t convinced there would be a market for a book full of people lying in hospital beds, however. His Dad said,
“No, no, not like that. There’s so much transformation happening now in medicine that a book about how the human race is learning to heal itself would be engaging. It could include new technologies and the amazing scientific advances we’re making every year. I could introduce you to the head of every drug company in America.”
They raised several million dollars in three weeks, making everything he’d raised for every other project he’d ever done pale by comparison. Instead of selling the book, the sponsors wanted to give it away for free, to one out of every three doctors in America.
Newsweek put them on the cover, and The Power to Heal was a runaway success.
An astute marketer, Rick’s Dad then said, “Why not form a company and work on cool emerging topics — an omnimedia company with books, movies, TV shows, exhibits, and more?”
Against All Odds Productions was born.
Rick and his team did projects on how the human race is learning to heal itself (The Power to Heal); a crowd-sourced national family album (America 24/7, which became a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah Winfrey favourite); and a project looking at the impact of the Internet the first year it began to impact civilization (24 Hours In Cyberspace). America 24/7 became the first mass-customized New York Times best seller by enabling readers to put themselves on the cover.
Rick also worked with famed film director Ridley Scott on Life In A Day, produced to celebrate YouTube’s 5th anniversary. The film was the world’s first feature-length, user-generated, single-day-shot documentary, and Rick’s team dispatched more than 1,000 video cameras to people in remote regions of the world to ensure that the voices of people not on the web were represented.
Andy Grove (CEO of Intel) approached Rick at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to create One Digital Day — a book capturing the impact of how — in only 30 years — the microprocessor had infused nearly every product used by everyone.
Fortune Magazine featured the book on the cover and in the largest book excerpt in the magazine’s history. Intel gave away 120,000 copies — 50,000 to key influencers around the globe, and 70,000 to Intel employees.
Marissa Mayer — Google employee #20, former CEO of Yahoo!, and key supporter of Against All Odds (providing office space and adverts) — reconnected with Rick at a TED conference. She asked Rick what he was up to these days and if there was anything she could help with. Rick shared that he wasn’t finding an engaging topic that grabbed his imagination.
She said, “Have you thought about big data?” He said, “What’s that?” She explained that we may be watching the planet evolve a nervous system. With sensors everywhere, data covering every aspect of our lives is being amassed and analysed real-time in a way that may actually produce emergent intelligence.
Rick spent a year knocking on doors, met with senior executives at IBM and even Sergey Brin at Google, but their reaction was that there was no way to do a photographic book about something as esoteric as Big Data. Then, while having a catch-up lunch with Akamai CEO Paul Sagan, Rick shared his frustration that he had been striking out in finding a sponsor for the project. Paul was on the board of EMC, the world’s then-largest provider of data-storage systems (since purchased by Dell for USD 67 Billion — the largest-ever tech-industry acquisition).
Rick had already had a hundred meetings about it but agreed to try one more.
EMC’s new Chief Marketing Officer Jeremy Burton agreed to meet Rick at a Pete’s Coffee near SFO airport, intending for his secretary to call him after 20 minutes to say there’s an emergency — sorry, gotta go. (He had agreed to meet Rick out of politeness, not interest.) But after seeing what Rick had in mind and that so many of his previous projects had been featured on the covers of Time Magazine, TV specials, etc., the CMO said he wanted the whole thing — no co-sponsorship with anyone else (although later, Cisco, SAP, and others did join in).
The more Rick talked about the wonders and dangers of big data, the more worried he became that it’s only big businesses and governments that are concerned about this powerful new intelligence. He became anxious that soon there will be things set in stone that ordinary people can’t change, like who owns data about each one of us, who analyses and makes decisions about us, algorithms that discriminate against people because that’s the way things have always been, potential dangers by governments or terrorists, and more.
He didn’t just want to raise an issue. He wanted to start a conversation.
With EMC’s OK, Rick met with Rob Carter, FedEx’s Chief Technology Officer. He shared a fantasy that this book be shipped simultaneously to every world leader, every Fortune-500 CEO, every major media company CEO, winners of Pulitzer Prizes, Oscars, Olympics, and more — to start a global conversation about humanity and big data. The CTO got approval from the CEO, and told Rick the next day the project was approved.
Next, he went to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, whom he’s known for a long time, and said, “FedEx has agreed to deliver the books — could you help with the packing and materials and warehousing?” Jeff agreed to do it.
“I keep waiting for my luck to run out, ’cause I’ve used up more than 100 people should have. I’m reasonably smart and work very hard and I try to be persistent without being obnoxious, but I can’t explain why things always seem to come together for me. But I don’t count on it, and I don’t ever take it for granted. I am always amazed each time things actually work out.“
Rick approached publishers, but despite his track record, and despite the illustrious corporate support … no one wanted it.
So, he went back to self-publishing. He thought no one would want to buy a book about data and was thankful EMC agreed to give away 10,000 copies. Once again, he was in for a shock.
Amazon can’t keep it in stock. They’ve sold 55,000 copies, and Rick and his brother Sandy (a film producer) made an award-winning, emotionally-touching Human Face Of Big Data PBS Documentary. It won the “Best Cinematography” award at the Boston Film Festival, and the US Government screens it at consulates around the world. The book is integrated with Aurasma software, which enables readers to download a smartphone app, point to a picture in the book, and automatically jump to a TED talk by the person in the photo, or their website, etc. The team crafted a website for the book and made an iPad app which won the Webby for best educational app of the year.
His journey with Against All Odds has been going on for 28 years, now, and his “luck” isn’t over yet. His Dad was right. The real power of Rick and the company is in fusing together a broad variety of people, technology, & experiences in an emotionally-compelling way — a unique fusion of art & design, technology, and business. Each piece needs all the others.
“I was painfully shy when my father gave me that camera. I was doing Morse code on the ham radio because I couldn’t even talk to people on a radio. All of a sudden, with a camera, I could walk up to people, and it was my excuse to be there. I thought if I could watch how people interact, I could learn how. For most of my life, my family and friends have accused me of being there and not being there. I’m there, but I’m always on the outside looking in.”
Rick looks in with a great deal of empathy — understanding (and photographing) others’ perspectives, sensing (and visualizing) emotion, and reaching out with compassion, whether to chase all over New York returning a camera someone left in a taxi or chasing all over the world. He describes one of those world journeys in his TED talk, The Story of a Girl, seen by over a million people.
“I’m actually bored by my own culture. I like being in the outside world. It’s like telling a fish about water. How do you describe something that’s there all the time? But if you’re an outsider, you see it with fresh eyes. And being a photographer, you bring it to people in a brand-new light.”
More confident now, Rick goes to TED every year, constantly scanning for new ideas and connections for the next, most-intriguing project. He carries a tiny booklet in his rear pocket, and as you’re talking, you’ll notice him pulling it out, writing, and asking, “What’s the name of that book you mentioned? Who was it you said I should look up?”
Although he makes videos, he doesn’t watch much TV. Friends at TED, INK, and elsewhere forward him articles, and he’s a voracious reader and podcast-listener. He may talk to people all day long or read sites all day and look at twitter or Facebook. Sometimes people approach him and say, “Here’s something we’d fund, if you’d make a book about it.”
Big ideas emerge in conversation or when he’s bored, in the shower, or late at night. After incessant scanning, he sees trends, and then something emerges. An adrenaline-junky, Rick likes projects that are just over his head.
He attracts creative people by working on big ideas against all odds. Success seems to be more about doing what he loves and less about the odds.
“I’ve never had a job. I’ve been so spoiled, doing whatever I wanted to do, my whole life.”
Rick creates iteratively, not like a corporate production process. He’ll create something, then take it apart and recreate it 20 different ways. Most people just want to finish what they do, and most companies want to craft something once with a minimum of cost and risk, but Rick creates and recreates until he’s explored fully and crafted something truly amazing. He’ll do things for a lark and persists because he loves what he does. He pushes projects to the limit and discovers new ideas until the very last minute.
When he’s not traveling, he sits in Starbucks most mornings after dropping the kids at school. There’s something about the white noise and the lack of his own belongings (and colleagues) that frees him from distraction so he can focus and create.
Friends and colleagues describe him as extremely curious, egoless, co-creative, tireless, super-excited, always reaching out to people and tossing ideas around. He’s a great listener and noticer, open to new people and ideas — a technology nerd, an early adopter up on any trend, driven to create and synthesize ideas.
Synthesis started for Rick with being open to what he loves and open to adventure and projects others wouldn’t do. He’s confident, now, asking, “What’s that?” He’s engaging because he shares himself authentically — in a way most of us mask with professionalism and insecurity.
Openness inward prevented, then enabled him to be open outward.
He collects people, technology, experiences, and ideas, guided by what interests him, fusing them together in captivating ways. He constantly scans, sees, listens, and senses with empathy, both while sourcing new projects and while working with a team? — ?sometimes a global crowd. To fund an art/design and technology project as part of a viable business, he must offer sponsors something of value to them — sensing needs from their perspective.
His TED talk didn’t garner over a million views because he marketed it effectively afterwards. He didn’t market it at all. He shared a real story he cared about and found other people cared about it, too? — ?then shared it. His books are popular not just because they’re marketed well or beautifully crafted. Each one begins with an engaging topic people care about, pieced together (or “fused”) from what he’s been scanning? — ?what he’s actively seen and heard and discussed.
Doing what he loved turned the world upside down. A shy teen became a million-view TED speaker with friends and connections all over the world. Books no one wanted became bestsellers. Anti-photography Dad became his biggest fan. Projects are managed the opposite way to any normal company. Success (and staying out of jail) emerged from doing something no one taught him to do.
Are you doing something no one taught you to do?
Are you scanning — seeing, hearing, discussing — and piecing together something you care about?
Have you pinched yourself yet — or needed to?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Rick Smolan is Founder and CEO of Against All Odds Productions, described by Fortune Magazine as “One of the 25 Coolest Companies in America.” A former Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer, he’s best known for his best-selling “Day in the Life” book series. This New York Times best-selling author, journalist, photographer, producer, story-teller, and passionate speaker is “from” Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Spain, the USA, and Vietnam (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on his work, see: LinkedIn, Against All Odds Productions, BigThink (Can Big Data Change Who You Are?), Amazon (author page), and TED.com (The Story of a Girl,which has over 1 million views). The Human Face of Big Data is available on Amazon, as is his latest work, The Good Fight: America’s Ongoing Struggle for Justice.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you’re all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you’re the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
* ranked by Fortune Magazine
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Rick Smolan, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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