Book Review: Stretch by Scott Sonenshein

June 30, 2017

y648In 1985, the American beer market was dominated by three companies, Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Stroh’s. The third may elicit the response, “Oh yeah, whatever happened to them?”

What happened, according to Rice University professor Scott Sonenshein, is that Stroh’s was a “chaser.” As Sonenshein explains in a new book, Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, a chaser is a person or company that is constantly chasing more and more resources. In the case of Stroh’s, chasing meant growing ever larger through serial acquisitions, until the company finally crumbled under its own weight.

The opposite of chasing is “stretching”: those who know how to do more with less. During the same period that Stroh’s was on its growth binge, a small company named Yuengling, which had a fraction of the resources that Stroh’s had, was using its limited resources to carefully and incrementally increase its capacity and its market reach. Eventually, the former beer giant Stroh’s would be liquidated, while Yuengling would become America’s largest domestically owned beer company.

According to Sonenshein, stretchers have a completely different mindset and different behaviors than chasers. Instead of constantly undervaluing or squandering their resources, stretchers recognize the value of what they have and act accordingly. For example, Sonenshein tells the story of a store manager stuck with a shipment of poorly made dresses that were not selling. Instead of putting them in the trash, the manager, Ethan Peters, cut off the straps and sold them as “beach cover-ups.”

The beachwear example, he writes, demonstrates one of the four critical elements of a stretching mindset: psychological ownership. When people believe that they control their resources, they are more likely to find innovative ways to use them. The other three critical elements, according to Sonenshein, are

Embracing constraints. Instead of being defeated by constraints, stretchers seek ways to leverage them. Sonenshein offers the example of a neurologically damaged artist who found alternative ways to create art, leading to success as an innovator.

Frugality. The most classic element of the stretching mindset: not wasting resources unnecessarily.

Uncovering hidden value. Stretchers will recognize in resources the value that others don’t see. By turning perfectly good food headed for the trash bin, one entrepreneur launched a thriving Chutney business.

How to Become a Stretcher

Understanding the mindset of a stretcher is a beginning. For Sonenshein, however, the real challenge is learning how to change one’s mindset from chasing to stretching. Here are some of the key strategies he highlights:

Know a little about a lot. Experts are often constrained by their expertise. Outsiders with a diversity of experience, on the other hand, approach problems with a more open mind, which leads them to think about resources in less typical ways.

Manage expectations. Star college football quarterback Ryan Leaf expected to be a National Football League Hall-of-Famer. Despite his skills and the full commitment of his team, Leaf’s career lasted a handful of games. Legendary African-American entrepreneur C.J. Walker, on the other hand, could not have had fewer resources at her disposal and still became America’s first black millionaire.

Mix it up. Combine resources in unexpected ways. Bette Nesmith Graham combined her experiences as a secretary and an artist to create one of the best-selling office products of the 21st century: liquid paper, used to “paint” over typewritten mistakes.

Just do it. Don’t try to have everything perfectly in place before you act. Aspiring filmmaker Robert Rodriguez wanted to make a movie, so he used all the resources he had in the most innovative ways possible to produce a film for only $7,000. Considering that most movie trailers cost $20,000 to $30,000 to make, Rodriguez may be the most compelling stretcher in this entertaining, thought-provoking and inspiring book.