The scene is familiar to anyone who has worked in an office: the eerie stillness of an office closed for business at the end of the day, with only the nighttime cleaning staff moving about, occasionally nodding to the straggler working late.
And then there’s SOL, a cleaning service in Finland featured in Simply Brilliant, a new book by Fast Company Founder William C. Taylor. Launched by a maverick named Liisa Joronen, SOL cleaners don’t wear the discreet, drab uniforms of other services; instead, they are dressed in hard-to-miss bright yellow-and-red jumpsuits. And they are unlikely to be missed because, in complete opposition to traditional practices, SOL cleaners only work during the day.
SOL is one of scores of surprising companies described with empathy and admiration by Taylor. For Taylor, the fact that one would not expect an innovative business model to emerge from a Scandinavian commercial cleaning company drives home the core message he wants to share: You don’t have to be some Silicon Valley, leading-edge, high-tech, millennial-targeting startup to launch revolutions in the business world. Personally visiting companies
throughout Europe and the U.S., Taylor shares the stories that prove that innovators in industries that could be considered “boring” — and often in locations that are not much more exciting — can develop and implement ideas that shake up conventional thinking (not to mention conventional biases).
What do these companies do differently? The answer is as varied as it is exciting, but Taylor helps by grouping the companies into four categories.
The first set of companies that Taylor describes involves those that break through the pack because of their original ideas (“Stop trying to be the best; strive to be the only,” Taylor declares). Joronen’s SOL is one of the companies featured in this section. Another is Pal’s Sudden Service, a drive-in-only regional fast-food chain in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia that specializes in lightning quick service (what’s faster than fast: “sudden”) and 100 percent accuracy. The company pays attention to every detail that might slow down delivery (e.g., no “Would you like a drink with that?” suggested selling).
Taylor’s second set of stories concerns companies that “challenge the logic of their field,” he writes. One fascinating story involves the Scottish bus conglomerate Stagecoach Group, which has operations around the world. One venture in China failed, leaving the company with a fleet of idle double-decker buses. The company decided to try out a point-to-point low-fare bus service from its home base of Perth, Scotland to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Before long, the new “Megabus” service expanded to England and then the United States, where it now serves one million riders every six weeks.
The Power of Compassion and Humility
In the third section of the book, Taylor describes companies that differentiate themselves through “connection and compassion.” Many of the companies Taylor describes are familiar, but the lesson of this section stays true to his contrarian theme: “In the era of brash ideas and disruptive technology,” he writes, “simple acts of connection and compassion take on outsized importance.” A personal story of a car dealership’s response to the sudden hospitalization of Taylor’s father, while he had in his possession a car they were letting him test drive over the weekend, is particularly compelling.
Taylor finishes with stories about companies led by humble CEOs who recognize that their most important task is to enable ordinary people to make extraordinary contributions. One way is to give all employees a “piece of the action.” From the Connecticut-based manufacturer of reflective material to a multibillion-dollar retail operation in the U.K., Taylor reveals the impact of employee participation in the financial success of a company.
Although Taylor has the journalist’s touch of describing the settings and the people of the companies he visits, he also digs deep into the business models and practices that make these far-from-the-spotlight companies different and successful. Readers will draw many practical lessons from these companies that are, indeed, Simply Brilliant.
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