Eddie Yoon is the founder of EddieWouldGrow, LLC, a think tank and advisory firm on growth strategy. He is one of the world’s leading experts on finding and monetizing superconsumers to grow and create new categories. Yoon is the author of the book, Superconsumers: A Simple, Speedy and Sustainable Path to Superior Growth, which was named as one of the Best Business Books of 2017 by Strategy & Business.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I came from an immigrant family from Korea but grew up in Hawaii with a lot of Asians. On the one hand, I was part of the majority, but Hawaii has many more Japanese and Chinese folks and so I also felt like the minority too. The ability to have empathy for both majority and minorities has been very helpful for me to understand consumers, clients and investors.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I had started journaling earlier. I did it off and on to capture my thoughts about books I was reading in my 20’s, but really did it more in my 30’s and now I do it most days.
I write about personal things, but I started writing about professional items when I got chastised by a client, the Chief Marketing Officer of a $4 billion-dollar company. He told me one of my recommendations didn’t work and that I should feel bad, or at least that is the way it felt. I was crushed and considered quitting my profession entirely, but I then retroactively journaled every project I ever worked on. I saw patterns that were immensely helpful to me in my career. My journal was the foundation of my writing career, which has led to 100+ articles on the Harvard Business Review and other outlets and my book Superconsumers published by the Harvard Business Press. My writing enabled me to appear on CNBC and MSNBC to talk about my business ideas. Both enabled me to achieve my “personal IPO”, where I went out on my own where I have tremendous freedom and autonomy while doing the best work of my career.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
It’s not quite a ‘bad recommendation’, but rather something to watch out for. Don’t confuse pedigree and promotions with outcomes and impact.
The world is and will always be obsessed with pedigree (e.g., where did you go to school, what firms did you work for, what was your title). Anyone excessively proud of where they went to college as an adult is telling you that they peaked in life at the age of 17 when they applied to college and have not done anything superior since. Pedigree is about potential. Outcomes are about results realized.
The same is true for folks who say, “I was promoted to XYZ” or “my title was ABC”. Titles are a personal accomplishment, but it doesn’t tell you what impact you had on your customers, your partners, your company, or your investors. I wrote in HBR that I wish LinkedIn was built less around your company and title, and more about what you accomplished in your career. Are you an “innovation expert”? No one really cares. What did you innovate? Would it have happened without you? Would the others on the team vouch for your impact? What value did it create? For whom?
The reality is you are only as good as the very last thing you did. Everything in life has a half-life. Your college degree, regardless of where you went to school, likely decreases in value each year. The same is true of your professional accomplishments.
The people I really admire have an impact and drive outcomes consistently over their careers.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I referenced my being chastised by the CMO above. It really shook me to my core. In my journaling, I thought hard about outcomes and impact. I realized in 100% of my projects I consistently found a killer insight that changed the way my client way the world, which made me feel good. But I felt less good that 2/3 of the time my client implemented a growth strategy based on my work and 1/3 of the time it had a marketplace impact that was exponentially more valuable than what they paid us. Good enough for baseball, but not for my career. Those insights from my journaling formed the basis of key patterns I saw that helped me achieve regular and consistent strategy and impact outcomes. This is how I became a senior partner at The Cambridge Group and how I was able to go out successfully on my own.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Luck and providence for sure. Did I work hard? Yes. Did my journaling and reflection help? Of course. Was my diligence in writing and client work critical? Absolutely. But I don’t learn the things I learn in the first place without serendipity helping me meet the right clients, on the right business at the right time.
If I play my career out of 10, who knows how often it comes up the same or better.
What is your morning routine?
I’m up usually around 4-5 am. I make coffee while I listen to a Tim Keller podcast that reminds me of my purpose and place in life but also overturns conventional wisdom of what I believe. I prepare meals for my three kids. I can’t control whether or not they eat junk food, but I can at least ensure they get fresh vegetables, fruits, and a hot meal. I then work or write for a few hours. Then I go to the beach and dive and exercise. Then I cook dinner.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I go to bed around 8 pm to try to get a full 8 hours of sleep. For some reason, I cannot sleep in late. And since my most productive time is in the early AM, by definition I need to sleep early. Sleeping early also reduces the risk of eating too late, which helps my overall health. I used to nap (which I enjoyed), but it prevented me from going to bed early.
I’ve also realized how much I enjoy being in the ocean or at least swimming. I’ve made that a priority as it gives me energy and replenishes my soul.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I save my best time for my most important work that I care about. Once I churn through my precious morning hours, in general, I let whatever I didn’t get done wait until my next AM. It means I often don’t get to everything on my list. But I’ve realized the world doesn’t end when I don’t finish my list. As long as I prioritize the things I care about the most upfront, then the rest takes care of itself.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Why Not, by Barry Nalebuff was a ‘world-view affirming’ book for me. It’s a great example of using analogy as a problem-solving method. It asks questions like, “what would Croesus do?” (an incredibly wealthy king in Greek history), which opens up new solutions to problems if resources were unconstrained. Or “would flipping it work?”, basically reversing value-chains and solutions, like bundling auto-insurance at the gas pump as a way to solve for uninsured drivers.
This taps into my belief that there are several distinct styles of problem-solving, just like in the classic Kung Fu movies where someone fights with ‘Tiger-style’ or ‘Crane-style’.
Benchmarking is the most common problem-solving style, taught in all business schools and consulting firms. The basic premise is there is a ‘best practice’ and if you can identify where your company is, you can do a gap analysis to close it. It is popular because it is formulaic and easy to learn. The challenge is it is backward-looking. It assumes the current ‘best in class’ is in fact the best vs. an entirely different perspective. It also neglects the fact that if everyone follows the leader, no one will be differentiated.
Why Not taps into other problem-solving styles of visionary where you imagine a future unconstrained, often using key insights from super consumers (the most profitable, powerful, and insightful consumers in the category) and build a strategy to get there. A close cousin of this is an analogy, where you take a solution from another category and apply it. This approach is not necessarily harder to do than benchmarking, but it does require more emotional risk to look stupid with a crazy idea.
Why Not is incredibly optimistic and has an abundance mentality, which are core beliefs I hold dear personally and professionally.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
‘More than one thing to can be true’ is a family go-to quote. Superconsumers of cream-cheese buy both the super-premium brands and cheap private labels. How is that true? When they use cream-cheese as a star actor (e.g., on a bagel) it is super-premium. When they use cream-cheese as a supporting actor ingredient (e.g., in baking), they use a private label. Becoming the market-share leader can be the worst thing to happen, as companies lose their edge, and tolerance for risk is another example.
It forces you to be less close-minded, which is an ever-increasing risk as one becomes more successful. It incentivizes learning and curiosity. It allows you to embrace paradox, which is incredibly important when creating breakthrough growth strategies and creating new categories.