Why it’s worth taking risks

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SAN FRANCISCO – Almost 20 years ago, I signed on as director of inventory management and operational analysis at a large chain of bookstores (let’s call it C&O Books) headquartered in New Jersey. Being an IT guy, I had plenty of experience with operational analysis but virtually no knowledge of inventory management at all. It would be an interesting challenge.

At the end of my second day, my boss’s administrative assistant dumped a huge pile of spreadsheets on my desk and told me they were due at the end of each and every month. I realized that it would take almost a full month to fill in the information required, so … being an IT guy, I immediately began looking for the sources of that information. Working at night, on my own time, I wrote an application that would populate the data cells automatically.

This gave me time to concentrate on C&O’s inventory problems. I studied the stores’ buying formulas; I went to Rutgers and took a course in just-in-time inventory management. And then, over lunch one day, an idea popped into my head. I shared it with the VP of merchandising, the director of transportation, and one of the marketing directors. They all agreed that it was worth a try, so I went back to my home computer, working nights for three weeks to produce a small application to control the process. Within three weeks, working together, we opened our first just-in-time warehouse in Jersey City. This facility was reserved for those books that had a 50-50 chance of being purchased by our customers — popular titles involving 200,000 to 500,000 units.

Based on how transportation costs work in the book business, we ended up saving tons of money whether or not books in this special inventory actually sold. We started with 25 titles that grew to hundreds in a few months. Within a year of its creation, the “Speedstock” facility included thousands of titles. I became a company star.

The reason I’m telling you this story is that during the years that followed, I had similar successes at many places I worked. For instance, I reorganized the IT department at a major cosmetics firm and made it much more effective. I worked with a well-known HMO to create an application that identified drug abuse in prescription plan subscribers and saved many lives. I developed a simple reporting application that identified duplicate payments to vendors and reclaimed millions for a large shipping business where I worked.

Most important, I did almost all of these things on my own time. I asked for help where required and happily shared the credit. But basically it was me sitting at home writing code. Did I ever get in trouble for trying to implement some of these ideas? Sure I did! But most of the time, I was able to convince management to back me. The results almost always exceeded the pain, and my employers eventually benefited. And it was exciting!

So, if I have any wisdom in me, it’s this: Take a risk every now and then! Go where your heart leads you, learn to sell what you believe in, work as a team, work fast, and make your idea succeed. And if you get kicked in the butt, take a few days off and start over again. There’s nothing like getting into your car after a great day at work, closing the door, pulling out onto the highway, and yelling “YES!!” at the top of your lungs.

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