In 2002, Torsten Hvidt and four friends began a journey along a road that was uphill, full of obstacles and quite narrow.
At least that's what it may have looked like from the outside. The five of them wanted to provide strategic consultancy for the largest companies in Scandinavia in direct competition with top global consulting empires, whose intellectual capital, track record and number of dinner engagements with Fortune 500 CEOs can send shivers down the spine of any independent strategy consultant with ambitions to do more than feed themselves and their family.
But Torsten and friends had a secret weapon. They were different. Not more intelligent, diligent or ambitious than their competitors (that's hardly possible) - but different. Inside Torsten's company, an expression to describe this characteristic is "man bites dog", which is also a monthly prize awarded to the team, who has delivered the most notable "bite". This focus has helped them to grow relatively quickly to a team of 150 successful strategy consultants in offices spread out across Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo. On their list of loyal customers are Carlsberg, Maersk, Novo, LEGO and Vestas, Danish companies that have all gone truly global. Customer relationships are so strong that some of these customers have agreed to let the consulting firm's meeting rooms bear their names and are decorated with items from the clients' daily life. So be ready to play with LEGO or not to topple over the large model of a can of beer if you one day go to a meeting at Quartz & Co.
Torsten has a wife and four children, to whom he comes home (on most days) at six in the evening. He enjoys frequent vacations with family and friends, and heated discussions about both literature and football. Torsten doesn't like stereotypes and simplified perspectives on life, so I'll refrain from declaring that his life is "complete" or "perfect", and shall restrict myself to noting that he has managed to create a greatly successful business, while still having time for family, friends and himself.
But what kind of man would bite a dog? That's precisely the question. Imagine you saw a newspaper headline that read "Dog Bites Man". Would you buy the newspaper? Hardly. If on the other hand it said "Man Bites Dog", then it would be far more likely to catch your eye. It is this insight Torsten and his colleagues have refined and effectively brought into play.
"There has to be an element of "man bites dog" about each assignment we solve," Torsten explains. "We expect all our consultants to think creatively, stand out, and create the extraordinary, as opposed to the ordinary. We'll go to great lengths to avoid death by powerpoint. We're willing to take chances; we've done quite remarkable things in relation to our presentations and task deliveries."
Torsten tells me of the time they were pitching for a job against the global competitors that dominate the industry. It was about optimization of logistics, and the project manager had the idea of putting the presentation up on the walls all around the conference room rather than showing it on a screen - as a physical illustration of the points he raised throughout the presentation. "It was a chance we took; we could have been met with shaking heads. We moved a lot of stuff around in the client's meeting room, and that was even before we'd won the job. But the client accepted the terms, was thrilled, and chose us, in part, because of "the extraordinary". Our fundamental idea is that we must be on par with the best in the world with regards to the content of our problem solving - but better in form and energy," Torsten says.
Quartz & Co. takes their own medicine, and are different on the inside as well. For example, they have no titles in their company. "Our hierarchies are situational; the leader is the one who has followership in that specific situation. We're all leaders sometimes and followers other times; we call it lead and be lead," says Torsten. Also, there's no one in Quartz & Co. who has their own office or parking space. Not even the owners.
The reward for idiosyncrasies is easy to spot: Quartz & Co. is a talent magnet. "We've never used traditional job postings. People have come to us, because they are attracted to the way we are," Torsten says.
The idea of being different is not new. In 2002, Seth Godin wrote the bestseller "Purple Cow" to make us understand that a purple cow, and everything else that is strange, has a better chance of attracting attention in marketing - and the idea has probably existed ever since the first Neanderthal suddenly started trimming his hair, greatly shocking or amusing his more conventional friends.
In many ways, however, we are still far too similar. When Derek Sivers got the idea to write a funny "thank you for your order" e-mail to customers in his web-shop CD Baby, he was one of the first to do it, and for it he received a lot of attention and goodwill. But why had no one thought of it before? Why had thousands of online shops copied and pasted the same boring and humourless standard e-mails into their system? Probably, because we humans are gregarious and most often follow the crowd. That's how we survive, and in many ways it's a fine quality. But it also means that you have enormous opportunities to make your company stand out in a business landscape that is basically eerily conformist.
- Why are there tables and chairs in all meeting rooms?
- Why are all physical books (including this one) rectangular and printed on paper?
- Why do all stores put up their Christmas decorations in December?
- Why do all men in the financial sector wear a tie?
- Why do no entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley wear a tie?
- When was the last time you did something that was so different it made other people stop and notice it?