Among the lessons below: the brilliance of a “treasure hunt merchandising philosophy.”

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This article is excerpted from Entrepreneur magazine editor in chief Jason Feifer’s monthly newsletter, The Feifer Five. Each month, he sends out five insights to help you think more entrepreneurially. Subscribe here.

This month, I have five lessons for you from five unexpected sources:

1. What Sarah Michelle Gellar can teach you about confidence.

2. What Thomas Edison can teach you about stubbornness.

3. What T.J. Maxx can teach you about consumer behavior.

4. What supposedly phone-obsessed millennials can teach you about humility.

5. What a startup called Musicbed can teach you about being a thought leader.

OK! Let’s get going!

1. Don’t get down on yourself — even the pros get nervous!

I wrote Entrepreneur‘s April cover story about Foodstirs, a baking company with three co-founders, one of whom is actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. And as part of the reporting (for reasons you can learn by reading the story!), I tagged along with her as she baked treats on Harry Connick Jr.’s daytime TV show, Harry.

Here’s us backstage:

Image Credit: Sarah Michelle Gellar

Sarah killed it on the show. She was funny, on point and hammered home her company’s message about baking being family time. So afterward, back at her dressing room, I asked her how strategically she approaches segments like this. And in response, she laughed.

“They’re so fast, you can’t think anything,” she told me. “I have to ask afterwards, ‘Did get everything in? What did I miss?’ It probably seems longer to you, but for me it’s like seven seconds. You have to think about the audience because you want to play to them, you have to think about the camera that’s right there, and I’m still trying to not fuck up what I’m doing. I always think, ‘Oh, I should have said this, I spoke too quickly on this.’ All I do is take it apart. Strategic is when you do an interview. Strategic is when you do a panel. There ain’t no time for strategy on live TV.”

I asked her if she’d practiced cooking on TV before, because that seemed particularly difficult.

“No, but I should have,” she said. “My first time I had to go up there, I was so nervous. Because again, you have to be interesting, you can’t think about what you’re doing. Luckily my very first one was Rachael Ray, and she’s a longtime friend, so it was someone I knew. If she saw me get flustered, she’d help me. But no, I should have prepped. Now I tell everyone to practice. But I did not.”

Here’s why I share this now: I watched Sarah do something you’d think she’s a total pro at — going on a TV show — and then I learned that even someone like her, who has decades of experience, still carries the same worries that relative TV novices (like me) have. It’s a helpful thing for us all to be reminded of: There is no perfection. There isn’t even an expectation of perfection. The best we can do is just build from whatever level we’re at.

That’s liberating.

2. You may be smart, but that doesn’t mean you’re (always) right.

Thomas Edison is forever associated with electricity, of course. He didn’t create the lightbulb, but he did create the first commercial one — as well as the first power generator to light them up in people’s homes. But did you know that, in the full scope of electricity history, Edison was actually the big loser?

It’s a long and complicated story, and I get into it in the new episode of my podcast Pessimists Archive (find it on iTunes or any podcast platform!), but the important thing is this: Edison promoted a form of electricity called direct current. George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla promoted alternating current. And it became quickly obvious that alternating current was the superior technology — so much so that Edison’s own staff begged him to adopt it. (“It behooves us to provide ourselves with means to fight them with their own weapons,” one wrote him.)

Instead of listening, Edison launched a fearmongering campaign to make people fear alternating current. It was wild. Messy. Nasty. It led to the introduction of the electric chair, which Edison hoped people would associate with alternating current. But it ultimately didn’t work. Edison’s company faltered, and he was out. Westinghouse won.

Let us remember: We may be smart. We may have been right before. People may respect us. But when we’re going down the wrong path, we have to admit it — because nobody can fight the future for long.

3. Let insights lead you to strange places.

Here’s a game I love to play: Find something weird in the world and ask, “What’s the logic behind this?” Sure, sometimes there is no logic. But if this strange thing is in an otherwise controlled environment and produced by smart people, there often is logic. It’s just not obvious.

Recently, Bon Appetit came across a great one by investigating T.J. Maxx’s messy food shelves. Like this:

Image Credit: Laura Murray | Bon Appetit

What’s up with this thing? Why so messy? The answer, they discovered, is that the the store is following a “treasure hunt merchandising philosophy.” From the story:

“They do this to create a sense of FOMO” — that’s fear of missing out on your one-time opportunity to buy Sriracha ketchup — says Wharton marketing professor David Bell, and to put “pressure on consumers.” He says that discount retailers like Zara, Trader Joe’s and Aldi use a similar concept, citing another acronym: WIGIG for “when it’s gone it’s gone.” This establishes an urgency to buy the item cheaply but also to come back to the store, Bell says.

So clever! Almost devious! Though the biggest takeaway here is this: Whoever came up with this spent a lot of time thinking about how people think while shopping — and it led them to make surprising decisions. We have to think past the obvious.

P.S. This is also a fun game to play with science fiction, as evidenced by my favorite episode of the podcast 99% Invisible.

4. What are you guilty of? Admit it!

Our common cultural narrative: Ughhhhhhh, those lazy millennials are so obsessed with their phones! 

Know what, though? Not so true. Research by Nielsen, according to Wired, “found that Americans aged 35 to 49 used social media 40 minutes more each week than those aged 18 to 34. Gen Xers were also more likely than millennials to pull their phones out at the dinner table. (Baby boomers were even worse!)”

Here’s our collective problem: We blame others for what we ourselves are actually guilty of. Let’s stop that, and hold ourselves accountable.

5. Be bigger than the transaction.

Let’s say you sell a product or service. And let’s say you do it well, and customers come back to you for that product or service. That’s all excellent, of course. That’s a job well done. But we live in an era of constant content, where brands can take on voices, can develop relationships with consumers and can be thought of as the center of communities and movements. And that means, should you want to do this, you have an opportunity to become more than just a company that sells a product or service. You can become, dare I say it, a …


But why would you want to do that? On a recent episode of my podcast Problem Solvers (find on iTunes or any podcast platform), I talked to the founder of a music licensing company called Musicbed that did just that. His company has created hit videos, a magazine, an event, and more. Why? I love founder Daniel McCarthy’s answer to me:

“I don’t want to be a transactional brand. I don’t want them to just think about Musicbed when they when they think music licensing. I want them to think about Musicbed when they’re trying to get inspired.”

Now that’s how to build a relationship with your customer. Become more than just your transaction.

This article is excerpted from Entrepreneur magazine editor in chief Jason Feifer’s monthly newsletter, The Feifer Five. Each month, he sends out five insights to help you think more entrepreneurially. Subscribe here.

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