Many take for granted the convenience of placing orders online and receiving them at your doorstep right away. This is why running an Amazon business these days can bring you huge profitable opportunities. But most people are doing it wrong, and they end up selling their hours and exhausting every bit of resource. Dr. Diane Hamilton sits down with Shaahin Cheyene, the Willy Wonka of Generation X, to break down his secrets in building a successful business through Amazon. Looking back on how he started dealing ecstasy illegally, Shaahin was able to correct his ways to become a business mogul, author, and inventor of the purely legal Herbal Ecstasy. He discusses the four facets of foundational wealth, the essential roadmap to become a savvy entrepreneur with a thriving Amazon shop.
I’m so glad you joined us because we have Shaahin Cheyene here. Shaahin has been called the Willy Wonka of X Generation by the London Observer and Newsweek. He has written a book called Billion about his success in the herbal market. Now, he is working and helping people accelerate their Amazon business. He is going to be a fascinating guy.
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Accelerating Your Amazon Business Success With Shaahin Cheyene
I am here with Shaahin Cheyene, who is considered one of the leading global minds on what’s next in eCommerce, Amazon and the internet. He is described as the Willy Wonka of Generation X. He has a book I’m very excited to talk to him about titled Billion: How I Became King of the Thrill Pill Cult. This is going to be interesting. I’m looking forward to it. Welcome.
Thanks so much. I’m excited to be on.
This will be fun. You are used to this. You have your own podcast. It’s always interesting to have people from different industries and have done different things on the show. I was looking forward to this because I don’t get a lot of people who have done the things that you have done. I want to get a backstory on you because I know it started pretty early in your life that you were successful but you left home with nothing, as I read. I want to know how that came to be.
I started when I was fifteen years old. I left home. We were immigrants from Iran. We were political refugees when we came to this country in 1979 roughly. My folks were solid middle-class in Iran. My dad worked for a big accounting firm. My mom worked for Lockheed as a secretary and we were doing pretty well in Iran.
We had to leave during the revolution and come to the United States with effectively the clothes on our back, realizing very quickly that we were not only poor with my dad having to work at dry cleaners and pizza shops to make ends meet but we were third-class citizens in this country. I was growing up during Reaganomics, Iran-Contra and all that stuff that was going on.
By the time I was fifteen, I began to realize that, “There’s all this wealth around me. All these people are making money. I want a piece of that. I want to have the Porsche, nice houses, fabulous lifestyles and going out on the boats.” My folks managed to get lucky. One of the few correct financial decisions that my father ever made was that they bought a house in an area that happened to be up-and-coming. After we bought that house, all this wealth started coming up around us.
I remember walking into my parents’ room and being like, “I want to be rich.” Imagine a fifteen-year-old kid, “How do you do that?” My folks were like, “Look at Mr. Tehrani down there. That man is a doctor. The only way is to be a doctor. You have to be a doctor.” To any immigrant family in that era, the pinnacle of success was for your son or daughter to be a doctor, mainly for yourself. I said, “Let’s do that. I want all that stuff. How long does that take?” They said, “It’s 8 or 10 years. Why don’t you go talk to that guy?”
I walked across the street to look at that guy and I was like, “That guy is fat. The wife is fat. The kids are fat. They are not happy. The house is nice but the bank owns the house. He’s got a nice Benz but the bank owns the Benz. What’s worse is the dad looks miserable. He wakes up and the wife yells at him in the morning. He leaves at 5:00 AM. He comes back at 8:00 PM. He doesn’t own his hours. The whole family is miserable.”
I was like, “I don’t want that. I want that guy going down the Pacific Coast Highway with the top-down in a Porsche, blasting some great music out of the thing and living a carefree life but there was no path to that.” I knew from that time from a very early age, from almost ten years old, I started reading Napoleon Hill, Og Mandino, the old and original Anthony Robbins stuff, Wayne Dyer, all those great personal development, self-help, old-timey guys. I knew that there was a path to wealth and success. I just didn’t know what it was.
I packed my bags and left on my own. I had no friends and family. I cut ties with everybody. I effectively burned my ships. I knew that I would have to go out there and seek my fame and fortune. That’s what I did. At that time, there was a big building boom in Los Angeles and they were building faster than they could keep up with all these luxury condominiums. I learned very quickly that if you could make nice with the brokers like look clean enough to go view one of these things, you could catch them putting in the code into the lockbox and get the keys.
I would slip in at night after everybody was done and I would leave early in the morning. I would get to sleep in these luxury apartment buildings. Maybe sometimes they didn’t have power or water. It didn’t matter. I threw a sleeping bag down. It was great. I would hang around in the community college. There was plenty of food always being served at the community college. I managed how to sneak into the professors’ lounge or the students’ lounge. There would always be food there. I had that part figured out and I managed to get myself a mentor at that time.
I wrote a book about this called Billion: How I Became King of the Thrill Pill Cult. I managed to get a mentor who was an exceptional individual. Through him, I discovered the rave underground EDM electronic dance music scene at that time, which was going crazy. It was the beginning of the mass electronic music movement, particularly in Los Angeles in most Metropolitan areas. Hanging out in that scene, I began to notice that the people who were making money in these events would be these warehouses. There would be tens of thousands of people partying to all hours of the night.
It was not a drinking environment, so people didn’t drink alcohol. The only people making money were the drug dealers. I thought to myself, “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I need. These guys have nice cars. They’ve got beautiful women and big houses. They’ve got all that stuff. That’s all I’ve got to do. What are they selling?” Everybody was selling the drug called ecstasy. Everybody was taking MDMA, which was the big party drug at that time. I thought to myself, “I’m going to do that.” I thought back to my adolescence. I will tell you why it wasn’t a good idea.
As we came to this country, I realized that I had to do something to differentiate myself aside from getting my butt whooped every single day at school for being a foreigner or not being from this country, barely speaking English. I did not get along. I gathered together all the misfits and kids that didn’t belong. There was something wrong with every single one of us. We created a little gang and started selling illicit products in school as an adolescent in grade school.
We had a little Greek kid. I remember him clearly, very mischievous. He was cute because he was a small person. He was able to sneak under the old metal detectors that they had in the stores in the ’80s. We would go to the liquor stores and the little stores around the neighborhood. He would sneak in. Nobody would suspect anything. We would create some distraction with more theatrics than anything. He would stuff his baggy clothes filled with little liquor, nudie magazines, glue, any gum candy, whatever it was at that time that we weren’t allowed to have and we would sell it.
What I learned in those days was that we were good at selling stuff and making money but horrible criminals. I remember thinking to myself, sitting in detention like, “Crime is not something you should be doing. You are bad at crime because you always get caught.” There was not a single time we didn’t get caught. It was part of being in detention. We started selling stuff in detention. We would get busted in detention because we were bad at crimes. I’m fifteen years old in the club, sitting and thinking that I’m going to be a drug dealer and I realized, “I’m bad at crime. I self-realized enough to know that crime will not be the thing I will be doing.”
At that moment, I had an epiphany. It occurred to me that if I could create a version of this ecstasy that was legal, natural, herbal, and didn’t have any side effects that the government couldn’t get on me about, that we could legally produce and sell to make some money, I can make a lot of money. I’ve got excited. I somehow, in my broke state, managed to get myself a girlfriend that I met in the rave scene. She didn’t seem to care that I was broke. Her father was some superintendent of some school district, three-piece suit and tie and all that stuff. I managed to convince her to sneak me in through the back door as he left through the front door to go to work.
In her kitchen, I would cook up the prototypes of this product. Every day, I would be in there cooking something up, making a prototype, mixing the herbs until finally, one day, we’ve got a formula and it worked. We had all the neighborhood derelicts and kids over at her house. Her dad would probably have a heart attack if he knew that’s what was going on in his beautifully, perfectly-oriented home. We tested it and it was miraculous. The formula works. It was incredible.
Once again, I was now faced with the problem of how I was going to sell this but I had already concluded that I was going to go to the club and recruit the drug dealers to sell it easily. I showed up at the club that night. I had these baggies full of pills. I didn’t have enough money to buy the machine that puts the herbs in the capsule. We had to roll them with honey into these little balls to look like capsules and put them in bags. I had these goo-filled, pillow-looking things in a baggie. We had a little card inside and I was like, “That’s it. This guy is going to sell it.”
When I looked at the drug dealers at the club, I was like, “This is a serious guy. This guy doesn’t smile. He had tattoos on his face. He is a very mean-looking guy.” I remember walking up to him and him saying, “What do you want? I don’t have any more product.” Mind you, it’s a great example of me being at the right place at the right time. At this time, the global supply of real ecstasy, the real drug, completely dried up. These guys were left with unlimited demand but no supply.
He said, “What are you, a cop?” I said, “No. I’m definitely not a cop. Look at me. I’m a teenager. Do I look like a cop? I’m not old enough to be a cop.” He said, “What do you want?” I said, “You are going to sell this.” He looked at me, “What is this stuff?” It was at that moment I came up with the name. I said, “Herbal ecstasy.” He said, “What? You better not be messing with me.” I said, “I don’t think I’m messing with you, but I will tell you what. You don’t have very many options. Now, you can go out of business, go to jail or sell my stuff.”
At that moment, a couple of people walked up to him. I heard some negotiating going on. They are handing him money. He is handing the money back. He is getting noticeably more frustrated until finally, one of his bodyguards’ motions over to me. I come over there and hand him a single baggy. He grabs my entire backpack filled with pills and he says, “Come back in two hours. You better not be messing with me or I will kill you.”
It was the longest two hours of my life. Inside that club, being a teenager, I was sweating bullets. My palms were sweaty. I was noticeably nervous, walking around. I’m an atheist. I was at that time as well but I remember praying to multiple gods, thinking, “If you can get me out of this, I will be good, go home, study and become a doctor. I will do whatever you want. Just get me out of this one. I will do anything.”
Two hours passed and it was a very long two hours. He motioned for me to come forward and I thought to myself all the excuses I was going to use for this man not to kill me. I thought I would work for him for free, polish his car, shine his shoes or whatever it took. He did not have very much emotion on his face. He motioned me to come forward and I was ready to make peace with my maker. He looks at me, stares me down, and out of his mouth come the words, “How soon can you get me more?” That was it.
It went from one guy to 10,000 guys to thousands and thousands of guys all over the world. We were selling in 30,000 stores. We shifted to brick-and-mortar. Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, sold it throughout all the adult and sex stores across the country. We were in old and new age bookstores, keeping a lot of those bookstores alive. As people stopped reading books, people were going into those bookstores and record stores. Warehouse Records and Tower Records were buying our product. We were making hundreds of millions of dollars.
We went on tour with the Beastie Boys at Lollapalooza. We did all the great concerts and shows. I was on TV almost every day. I remember I had an exotic car collection. I would sleep in my cars. I had a Lamborghini at that time and an Acura NSX and all those fancy Ferraris and Porsches. I had the boats. We were flying around in private planes. We were doing all that stuff. I remember one morning, I had fallen asleep on the passenger seat of my Lamborghini. It was not a good look. I was drooling on this beautiful leather seat of this car.
I usually would get about two hours of sleep. I woke up, I stumbled into my office. My secretary was there. She was pale like a ghost and everybody didn’t know how to approach me. I said, “What’s going on here?” She said, “Shaahin, the limo outside is Sam Donaldson with Nightline. He wants to interview you today. Montel Williams is sending you to New York tomorrow. Newsweek and London Observer are outside. Details Magazine wants to do a cover piece with you and Chris Cornell.” I said, “What’s different today than yesterday?” They said, “The news broke that you have made over $1 billion in revenue.” This is pre-internet.
What year was this?The biggest crime on any entrepreneur is that they have to sell their hours. Click To Tweet
It was probably early mid-’90s when the news broke. This was before mobile phones, social media, Facebook, Myspace, TikTok, Silicon Valley and the internet were a thing. We had broken $1 billion in revenue and it was nuts. I remember thinking to myself at that moment, “Holy what.” I don’t know how much $1 billion is literally and I had a panic attack. I was like, “Is it $100 million? I don’t know.” It put me in the attack. That led to a crazy wild ride of a teenager running one of the biggest and most notorious companies of that era. That was me.
This is an interesting story, images of Breaking Bad combined with maybe Leonardo DiCaprio playing you. I’m trying to envision it in my mind. I have had Scott Harrison on the show who went from clubs and taking serious amounts of substances and alcohol to creating Charity Water and doing something wonderful. How did you feel about the product you were selling? Did you think that this was something that people needed? Was it to get wealth? How do you get around FDA? I’m curious about that aspect.
I was focused on what I was doing at that time, which was succeeding in the world of business but also making my mark on the world. Walter Isaacson wrote about Steve Jobs in his great book, his biography of Steve Jobs, “I wanted to make a dent in the universe.” That was my goal. I wasn’t money motivated, although we were printing it at that time. I was buying the stuff for $0.25. That was our total cost of goods. We were selling it for $20 all day long, hundreds of millions of dollars. It was a lot of cash.
I had duffel bags and briefcases filled with cash. It’s literal piles of cash everywhere. We could not make the stuff as quick as we could sell it. I had production facilities set up all over the country and we were making this very quickly. FDA, at that time, did not regulate supplements. There was no formal regulation. As long as your ingredients were generally recognized as safe, you were able to sell pretty much whatever you wanted, much to their dismay.
What about competition? Why wouldn’t anybody imitate what you were doing?
They did and people tried. The fact is, when you are first to market, it’s much like Coca-Cola, it’s like, “Why can’t you make Coca-Cola? It’s just sugar water. If you get some sugar water and add caramel flavor or whatever.” There are plenty of drinks out there that taste every bit as good, in my opinion, as Coca-Cola but they are nowhere near the profitability of Coca-Cola. Why? There are a couple of reasons. 1) First to market and 2) Most importantly, distribution.
I had the distribution. I created this industry and niche, and then we dominated. There were knockoff products. Some of my employees who stole from me, and then went out there, created their own brand, and tried to compete with us quickly realized that they could never come close to what we are doing. By doing that, you can get a small piece of the pie but you can’t become the first mover in a market. It’s very difficult to do.
If somebody now wanted to come and surpass Coca-Cola, it would be near-impossible. A) Because you wouldn’t have off-the-bat financial resources to do it. B) You wouldn’t have the distribution. C) You wouldn’t have loyal fans. That stuff takes time to build. You can’t do that overnight. You can start a different cola company and be successful but a knockoff of a company like Coca-Cola certainly isn’t going to be that. We were Coca-Cola.
You had a market for this. You wrote about this in your book, Billion. I noticed Chris Voss wrote your foreword, the introduction to your book. He was on my show. He is a great FBI hostage negotiator. He wrote Never Split the Difference. I know you have been on a lot of shows like Adam Carolla’s and others. What is your focus now? Are you still in the supplement type of industry? I know you’re doing a lot with Amazon. What made you get away from that if you have? What are you doing at this point?
He is the author of Never Split the Difference and The Black Swan Group. He is a good friend of mine and we see eye-to-eye on a lot of those things. This is what happened after. After the ecstasy thing, it started slowing down. The government started clamping down on that. I moved on to solving a different problem, the problem of vaporization and smoking. People have been smoking for thousands of years and creating smoke, tar and carbon monoxide. Nobody had found a solution.
I went on to develop the first digital portable vaporizer. I had all the patents in that. I wrote a book on it. All that you are seeing now, the eCigs, vapes and whatnot, rose out of technology that we built and developed many years before their popularization. I exited that company in 2006. They went public on the public markets. It’s still a publicly-traded company now, although I don’t have any involvement in it. From there, I decided, “I want to start doing supplements again. I specifically want to get into the nootropic space.”
Nootropics are supplements that help protect and accelerate mental performance. I’m a father now. I’ve got a kid. I thought, “I’ve got to get on top of my mental game if I’m going to be keeping up with a lot of these younger guys that are out there doing excellent work.” I developed this brain supplement. It was fantastic. It worked well. It took me a couple of years to build it and I thought, “This is going to be the winner but I’ve got to figure out a way to sell it because real supplements are very expensive to produce.”
What most people don’t know is, most supplements out there, put a bunch of ingredients on the label so people will buy it and they will show up in a search on the internet. They don’t have very much efficacy, for most. Some do. I developed an efficacious product and one that worked that did what it promised but it was very expensive. At that time, it was about $120. People can still get it on Amazon but we are not here to pitch that.
I developed Excelerol. It was $120. Excelerol Focus+ was what it was called. I decided, “I am going to list this on wherever I can.” This was back in the day where Bezos wasn’t the richest man in the world. In fact, he was struggling to get by because his company was pre-revenue. They didn’t have any money. You can get him by email. He would answer phone calls from time to time. He wouldn’t be a difficult, inaccessible person. He was very accessible.
We learned through the grapevine that he had opened up this platform. I thought, “Let me list Excelerol Focus+ on there and we will see.” It took fifteen minutes. It was very easy. I opened up a seller account. I was like, “Great.” He opened up his platform to third parties to sell things. Before, it was only you are buying it from Amazon. Subsequently, he was like, “We are going to let third-party sellers sell on there.” I was like, “I will sell my pill.” I went to sleep and woke up with thousands of orders. I was like, “It’s happening again.”
Is it because people knew you from your other product or because of some other reason?
No, because it’s the magic of Bezos and Amazon. This platform had opened up. They were pumping money into getting eyeballs on there. People loved the idea of being able to buy a supplement online. It’s not like it is now. We take for granted the fact that we click an Add to Cart button or a Buy Now button and 24 hours later, we’ve got Prime shipment in our door. Now, because of COVID, it’s a little slower. It’s 2 or 3 days later, the package is at our door. It wasn’t like this years ago. This is a fairly new development but now, we expect it as the norm.
The fact that people could get this seamless ordering process and excellent Amazon customer service, all the stuff was amazing and there wasn’t very much competition. We were probably the first supplement on there. Waking up, I was like, “Look at this. We’ve got thousands of orders at $120 apiece. That’s a significant stash of money. Let me look into this Jeff Bezos character. I think he is interesting.” I started looking into him and I was like, “This guy is not a chump. He is not just this little Silicon Valley nerd, sitting in his office with a spray-painted Amazon sign behind him. This guy comes from a very well-crafted pedigree. He comes from Wall Street. He knows how to take cheap money from Wall Street and pump it into Silicon Valley.”
This isn’t an experiment. This guy is going to take over and disrupt retail through eCommerce. I knew that at that time. I said, “All bets are off. I’m putting all my eggs in the Bezos basket.” That’s what I did. I spent all my time hiring the best people. When you had a build on Amazon, the best storytellers and we became experts at selling on Amazon. Subsequently, what happened is people started coming to us. Big corporations, Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 said, “We don’t understand this but this is the biggest thing to happen. Can you get our products on there? Can you do what you do?” We said, “Sure.”
Our rates kept going up. We started charging some ridiculous things. People kept paying it until I started noticing more individuals coming to me saying, “Shaahin, I wanted to start an Amazon business. How do I do it? I’ve got a guy who is an oil engineer working for one of the big oil companies.” He was like, “I’ve got to get something on the side. I’m not going to drive Uber. Can you find something for me to do? I’ve got $5,000 or $10,000 I can invest now. Can you find something for me to help duplicate and multiply my money?” I said, “Yes, sure, but you are never going to be able to afford me. My rates are too high.”
I built an Amazon course. Now, what I do is teach, train and coach people. We’ve got a mastermind. We’ve got people from all over the world. I train them how to start these Amazon businesses, “How do you find products? How do you get reviews? How do you get in there, dominate that niche and create this predictable recurring revenue?” At the end of the day, for me, I made my money. I had my success. I’m good. I’m a family guy. We travel the world. We’ve got our cars and houses. We do all that stuff. We’ve got our vacations and trips. What it’s about for me now is being able to inspire others to create wealth.
I talk about foundational wealth. There are four areas to that that everybody has to have. One is cashflow positive real estate. We also teach that through our course how you can take the money you make from Amazon and put it in cashflow positive real estate. It’s very important. Everybody should do that. Have some real estate that’s creating recurring predictable revenue. The second is compound interest. The reason why Warren Buffett is one of the wealthiest guys and the most successful investors in the world is because of the sheer length of time he has been compounding for.
The third area is you need to have something that brings you predictable revenue. It could be your career or job. It keeps diapers on the kids, food on the table, and you from having to stress out. Eventually, we want to get you out of that. We want to get you into a place where you are not selling your hours. The biggest crime on any entrepreneur is the fact that they have to sell their hours. I have been looking for years but I have not been able to find more than 24. I know if you want to live an unlimited life, you don’t want to limit yourself by the number of hours you have in a day, which is why the products business is so great.
It leads me to the fourth pillar, which is physical products, specifically through an eCommerce platform and the best one out there. More millionaires and billionaires have been created and will be created in the next 10 to 20 years through Jeff Bezos and his company, Amazon. You see Bezos and people are like, “Look at that guy. He is a trillionaire. He is shooting that massive penis up into space. He is wasteful.”
The fact is, people are short-sighted. They see his houses, yachts, girlfriend and all this stuff. They were like, “This guy has it all.” What they were neglecting is one of the reasons why he is so successful is the fact that he is inspiring other people. He is creating the opportunity for anybody to go in there and create wealth by becoming an Amazon seller.
That’s what we teach through our FBA Seller Course. I know we talked about it like, “I don’t like selling things.” I don’t like selling things on my podcast either. I’ve got a one-hour course. It’s normally $200. Anybody reading this, I will give it to them for free. You don’t need to buy anything or spend any money. I will share my one-hour course, everything from A to Z, how to create an Amazon product, get reviews and find financing.
Whatever you need to get your product up there, that’s free and they can get that. I give my email away and respond to all emails directly. It’s Darkzess@Gmail.com or go to FBASellerCourse.com. I will give you guys the one-hour course absolutely for free. If I can inspire people to do some level of what I have done to stop selling their hours, then I feel that my job is worthwhile.
Your story is a fascinating one. I love that you’ve got away from the illegal stuff as a child. I teach a lot of Ethics courses in the higher-ed. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the paths people take. Yours is an interesting story. I knew that you would have a lot of insight as to what has worked, what doesn’t work, and which way you should or should not go based on what your story was. I’m glad that you shared the negatives as well as the positives of what has come from your experience. A lot of people can learn from you. I know you shared your websites. Is there anything else you would want to share before we leave?If you want to live an unlimited life, you don't want to limit yourself by the number of hours you have in a day. Click To Tweet
There are a few different ways people can get in touch with us. You can check out our podcast, which I co-host with my partner, Bart Baggett, which is Hack and Grow Rich. That’s on wherever you find podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. Look up Hack and Grow Rich. Make sure to subscribe, like or dislike, and leave a comment. You can also check us out on YouTube. We’ve got a YouTube channel where we post all the videos.
If you are interested in me or the course, that’s going to be at FBASellerCourse.com. FBA stands for Fulfillment By Amazon. Also, check out my book if you found any part of my story that inspired you. If you absolutely hate me and you would like to sue me, I’m very open to that as well. It’s Billion: How I Became King of the Thrill Pill Cult. The audiobook dropped on Amazon, exclusively on Audible. I would love to hear from you, guys. If there’s any way I can inspire, help, coach or mentor you to reach your full potential, reach out to me.
That was great that you could share all that information, Shaahin. This was so fascinating. Thank you so much for being my guest.
I’m honored to be on. Thank you so much.
You are welcome.
This show is going to be a little bit different and I’m excited about it because I’m going to be talking about curiosity. I talk on a lot of other people’s shows about what I work on but I want to talk to you about the value of building curiosity within your organization. I’m my guest. I’m Dr. Diane Hamilton. In addition to hosting this show, I’m also the creator of the Curiosity Code Index and I wrote the book Cracking The Curiosity Code. I give a lot of presentations where I talk about the importance of improving curiosity and getting out of status-quo thinking. It sometimes helps if I share a story that you might find fascinating.
A lot of organizations are held back by a culture that doesn’t embrace curiosity. They go along with the way things have always been. I like to talk about an experiment that I share on stage about a hidden camera experiment, where they looked at how quickly people go along with the group. This woman went into a doctor’s office, thinking she was getting an eye exam but not known to her, everybody in the waiting room wasn’t patients. They were actors.
Every so often, an experiment, what was going on, is they would have a bell ring. Every time that bell would ring, all of the actors around her, who she thought were patients, would stand up and sit down with no explanation. After three times hearing the bell ring and without knowing why she was doing it, the woman stood up and sat down, conforming with the group. They thought, “This is interesting. She is going along with what everybody else is doing. Let’s see what happens if we take everybody out of the room.” They called everybody back as if they were patients one at a time.
Eventually, she is alone in the room and the bell rings. What she does is she stands up and sat down. She doesn’t know why she is doing it. She is going along with what everybody else has done. They thought, “This is fascinating. Let’s add some people to the room who are patients and see how she responds to the bell ringing and see how they respond.” The bell goes off and she stands up and sits down. The gentleman next to her looks at her and says, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Everybody else was doing it. I thought I was supposed to.” The next time the bell rings, he gets up and sits down with her.
Slowly but surely, what became a random rule for one woman is now the social rule for everybody in the waiting room. It’s an internalized behavior that we call social learning. We see what other people do and we think, “That’s what I want to do because everybody else is doing it.” We reward ourselves because we don’t want to be excluded. It’s the part of how conformity can be comfortable but going along with it, sometimes you get bad habits, stunt growth and get the status-quo thinking. That can be the downfall of organizations.
When we do things just because they have always been done a certain way, we don’t progress and don’t look for other ways to find solutions. I want to go beyond that. I want to know, “Why are we doing things? Why is it important? What are we trying to accomplish?” That’s what I talked to companies about because I think they need to look at how and where are they modeling and fostering curiosity, “What action plans do they have in place to avoid status-quo thinking? Do they have all the answers? How can they take what they learn from different events and utilize that to make some changes?”
It’s important because curiosity has been the foundation behind the Model T to self-driving cars. We know that leaders believe they encourage curiosity and exploration. I’ve had Francesca Gino on the show, who has done a lot of great research in this area. We know that most of the employees don’t feel rewarded for it if they explore their curiosity. If we want organizations to generate innovative ideas, we have to help them through leaders developing that desire to explore.
My job is to be curious. I ask questions and get information for a living. I do that through the show, teaching and speaking everything I do. It’s something I want to share with other people because it’s such a huge part of what makes companies successful. I look at curiosity as the spark that ignites the process that everybody is trying to achieve. Think of it as baking a cake. If your goal is to bake a cake, you’ve got all these ingredients. You have eggs, milk, flour and whatever it takes to bake the cake. You mix it and put it in the pan and oven. What happens? If you didn’t turn on the oven, you get goo. Nothing happens.
That’s a huge problem that organizations are trying to get. Instead of cake, they are trying to get productivity or make money. They know the ingredients. They know they want motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication and all of the soft skills. They are mixing those ingredients and what they are not doing is turning on the oven. The oven or the spark is curiosity. If you don’t turn on the oven, no one gets cake. That’s what I’m trying to talk to companies about.
We know that kids are naturally curious. I love a picture from the San Francisco Museum of Art from Life Magazine in 1963. They have these two adorable little girls, looking through this break on the wall that they can see behind the air conditioning vent. They are supposed to be looking at all the artwork on the walls because it’s the San Francisco Museum of Art but what the kids do is they want to see what’s behind the vent. We were all that way. Three-year-olds ask their parents about 100 questions a day. At that age, you are curious. You want to find out how everything works. There’s some time that we eventually lose some of that.
Think about it. When did you stop wanting to look behind the vent? Did somebody say, “Stop that? Get up. You are getting dirty. Don’t look behind there?” We get that. That’s what our parents do. You have to behave but we have seen a big decline in curiosity and creativity. There are some great TED Talks about the creativity aspect, which ties in similarly to curiosity and what we see. It peaks around age five, and then it tanks as soon as you go through school about the age of 18 through 31, even. We are seeing very low levels.
Sir Ken Robinson has a great talk about how we educate people out of our creativity and competencies. George Land also has a great talk about his work with NASA. He looked at the kids. He followed them at age five and found that 98% of children were creative geniuses. By the time they were 31, only 2% were and it was a huge difference. George Land says that we have convergent and divergent thinking. He talks about it in terms of, we put on the gas and trying to come up with all these great ideas but at the same time, we over-criticize them and put on the brake.
Anybody who drives a car knows that when you put the brake on, and at the same time, you put on the gas, you don’t go very far. That’s what’s happening to our curiosity and creativity. I thought this was interesting because curiosity can translate into serious business results and CEOs get that. A lot of them are not investing in the culture of curiosity but some of them are doing some amazing things. I want to talk about the cost of lost curiosity.
There are so many aspects of what costs companies. We know that they are losing $16.8 billion due to emotional intelligence if you ask the Consortium for EI. If you look at Gallup’s numbers, they are losing $500 billion a year due to poor engagement. I have seen everything. Communication, Holmes has it at $37 billion. I have seen how much higher. It depends where you look but we are talking tens to hundreds of billions for each of these issues, emotional intelligence, communication and engagement. It’s a huge problem out there and companies know that. They are losing money but they don’t recognize the value sometimes of curiosity.
When we talk about curiosity, there’s a big innovation factor because we want to be more innovative, but we are worried about job loss and jobs being automated. We know that if we are not innovative, the majority of the Fortune 500 companies from 1995 are gone. No one wants to be Kodak and Blockbuster. We know that Netflix ate Blockbuster’s lunch. The reason those companies are not here is that they looked at things from the status-quo way that they have always done things. They didn’t want to cannibalize their product or whatever success they had. If you do that, the world keeps moving and you get stuck. That’s a huge problem.
It was interesting to me to study curiosity. There are a lot of research in curiosity but there are no great statistics I would like to see. There’s a State of Curiosity Report that Merck did in 2018. It showed that curiosity was higher in larger companies than in smaller ones. It was 37% versus 20%. Millennials were more curious than Gen Z and Boomers. The US had a higher level of curiosity compared to China but maybe they weren’t as high as Germany. That’s just one report. I would like to see a lot more research done. It’s fun to look at what experts have shared regarding the value of curiosity.
Francesca Gino did a great job with the HBR article that she wrote. I loved having her on the show. I hope you check out that show because it’s amazing. In that report, she talked about leaders recognize curiosity is important and they think that they are encouraging it but we found that most of the employees don’t believe that. Only 24% feel like they are curious about their jobs and 70% said they face barriers to staying curious and asking questions. She did some great research. If you get a chance, I would recommend reading that show and also, check out that HBR article.
I have had Daniel Goleman on the show. He was incredible. We talked about how emotional intelligence ties in. He was cute because he said he couldn’t see why I developed a measure of curiosity because I’m very curious. He was talking about an article in HBR as well by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, saying that curiosity is one of the most important competencies in the future. That’s a huge plug for curiosity coming from Daniel Goleman. He was talking about younger generations having questions of organizational missions more than older generations. We’ve got into a great discussion about that. I hope you take some time to read that.
Another great episode on the show was with Amy Edmondson, who has an incredible TED Talk. She gets into curiosity and how it ties into collaboration. She does a TED Talk about teams and teaming. She gets into how the Chilean miner disaster was able to be resolved because a lot of it was because of curiosity. She says, “You’ve got to look at what are you trying to get done, your goal. What is in your way, your concerns, worries and barriers? What resources, talent, skills, and experience do you bring?” She talks about how they did all that to get those Chilean miners out from under that rock. It’s definitely worth watching her TED Talk. All of them have TED Talks that are amazing.
A great guest as well on the show was Doug Conant, the guy who turned around Campbell Soup. He did that by asking questions. He asked employees what motivated them, and then he looked at how to build engagement by writing 10 to 20 personal notes, six days a week. He counted at 30,000-plus, which is huge. When he took over in 2002, they had a 12% engagement. By 2009, they were up to 68%. He did some amazing things by asking questions, writing comments and giving input. All that stuff comes out of curiosity.
Another great guest of the show is Zander Lurie, who is the CEO of SurveyMonkey. They are so much into curiosity. They’ve got permission to change their street address to One Curiosity Way. I was asking him some of the things that they do because they have a culture of curiosity there. They ask, “How can we make our products more productive for our customers? How can we create an environment where people do their best work?” He said that they do skip-level meetings so that they can find out what works and what doesn’t. Those are some examples of people who are on the show.
There are other examples that are fascinating. Some companies like Monopoly, Ben & Jerry’s and VanMoof bicycles, I have looked at some of them to see how they used curiosity to go a step further. Monopoly did some research because they always come out with the dogs or cats version. They didn’t want to come out with just another version.
They decided to come out with some research to find out what people did with Monopoly and what they could learn about it. They found out that over half the people cheat when they play Monopoly. They came out with the Cheaters Edition. That was their second-biggest release since the initial release of Monopoly. It was a cool thing.Many people take the convenience of seamless online ordering for granted, knowing that they can get a Prime shipment at their door around 24 hours later. Click To Tweet
Ben & Jerry’s got some interesting information in what they do in terms of not getting into the status quo of thinking. They don’t just keep flavors around forever. They research to find out what’s working. They ask questions, “What’s a good flavor? What’s no longer a good flavor?” Instead of freaking out that their flavors are no longer successful, they celebrate them and give them a burial. They even have a headstone on their website where they show, “This flavor was alive from this year to this year.” They celebrate their success and then they move on.
The interesting story is VanMoof. They make these bikes. They would send them in packages in the mail, UPS or whatever they would send. A lot of them ended up broken and they kept trying to fix these bikes. There was an issue with the packaging. They didn’t want to spend a lot more money because if you make the package twice the size, you get a lot more expenses. They are trying to figure out how to do this to make their bikes not break and yet not go over on the spending.
What they have looked at was the type of box they were using. They noticed it was similar to a flat-screen television box. They looked into how many flat screens broke and they weren’t breaking. The only real difference was the flat screens had a picture of a flat-screen on the box. They thought, “Let’s draw a picture of a flat-screen, a little bit of extra ink and see what happens.” There was a dramatic difference in the number of damaged bicycles.
Think outside of the box. Sometimes it’s asking questions. Disney did a lot of that. They did some great questioning to find out what was happening with their turnover. The Laundry Division of Disney, as glamorous as it sounds, is not. They were losing a lot of people that didn’t love working there and they couldn’t figure out why. They put out a questionnaire to their employees and said, “How can we make your job better?”
They didn’t expect to get things back that they could do anything about but they did. They’ve got back great things like, “Put an air vent over my workspace. Make my table adjustable when I’m folding things that work for my height.” Those are things like, “Yes, we can fix that,” and they did. Going to the horse’s mouth, the employee can say, “How can we make this better?” was huge for them.
Sometimes it’s not just the employee. Sometimes it’s leaders. In the book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, I gave a story about the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. They were having a lot of patients that were dying when they were being transferred from one unit to the other. Some physicians were watching a Formula 1 race car event one night and were impressed by how quickly the Formula 1 pit crew would take the car apart and put it back together in seven seconds. They were looking at this going, “They did that with no problems and we can’t transfer people from here to here.”
They thought, “Why don’t we have this Ferrari team and they can show us any improvements that we could make?” They did get some great ideas, which reduced their errors by more than 50%. We think inside of our cubicles and silos but sometimes we need to think outside of even our industry because that can be important. Some of the greatest ideas are from that. I have given you some examples. We know we came up with Velcro from a Swiss engineer hunting with his dog and came back with burrs in his fur.
He was like, “What are these things? Why are they sticking?” What he did was he stuck it under the light to look at it. He saw a hook-and-eye, the way it hooked together, and he thought, “Why don’t we try this?” In 1998, they made something $93 million in Velcro and it was sold in 40 countries. It did amazingly well. You have to build a culture of learning. To do that, it’s important to look at some companies that do a great job of it.
I know a top company I work with that does that is Novartis. Novartis does a great job because curiosity is part of their core cultural value. They encourage employees to spend 100 hours a year on employer-paid education to broaden their interests. They do everything from paying for them to watch videos to having them perform in mini-TED events, having employees be the actual speakers and things like that. It’s cool how much they do this. They have the whole month of September as their Curiosity Month and I’m one of the speakers for them. I know how much time and effort they put into this.
If you look at how much everybody talks about how they liked working at the company, 90% of the employees surveyed approved the CEO. Think of how often you see that. That’s a huge thing. I know they are doing some ongoing research with curiosity with me and I’m excited for that. One of their employees is writing her doctoral dissertation.
We are looking at curiosity and how it compares to if you intervene and give them some information about things that are holding them back. I’m anxious to share that information when it comes out because I did a lot of research for a lot of my talks and my book, Cracking the Curiosity Code. I looked at so much that’s out there.
We know that there are some great TED Talks from Daniel Pink. He wrote Drive. We’ve got a great book, Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why and all the stuff that he is talking about. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. All those are huge. I started to look at, “What is this curiosity thing?” The Max Planck Institute coined the term The Curiosity Gene. It’s in people and animals. It creates dopamine and makes us feel good. If you are a bird flying around a bush and you run out of berries, you are going to die if you don’t have the curiosity to go look at another bush.
As I was researching for the book, I wanted to write about curiosity but I was like, “Where’s the assessment that tells you what stops it? There isn’t one.” That surprised me because the assessments all told you if you were curious or not. That’s all well and good because you do want to know if somebody is highly curious or not. The Big Five Factors will tell you if you are open to experience and things like that. I want to know what stops it. Nobody had studied that, so I did. I wanted to know what holds us back and I found out what it is.
It’s FATE. It stands for Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment. I want to talk about these separately because fear is about failure, fear of embarrassment, and loss of control. Nobody wants to feel like they said something stupid in a meeting. We all want to feel like we are all prepared. We are all in the meeting and thinking, “I want to ask that but I don’t want to look dumb.” You lean next to Joe, “Joe, why don’t you ask?” It’s better for Joe to look dumb. You don’t want to look dumb.
That’s a huge problem with companies. You get a lot of yes-men and yes-women because nobody wants to shake up things or look like they are trying to confront their leaders. Leaders who haven’t modeled the value of curiosity will come across that way. I have had leaders look at me and say things like, “I have one guy. He asked me to do something.” I said, “Sure, I would be happy to do that. I have never had to. How do I do that?” He looked at me with disgust and said, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
What does that make you feel? First of all, it tells you you’re an idiot. It tells you that you should know this, lie or pretend you know things. We get a lot of leaders who will say, “Don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions.” That sounded good at the beginning because it sounded like we were going to get rid of these whiners and complainers that didn’t have any ideas but a lot of people don’t know how to solve the problem. If we say that, then we are saying, “We don’t want to know about problems.” That’s a huge issue.
The assumptions that we make, that’s that voice in our head that tells us, “We are not going to be interested. I’m apathetic. It’s unnecessary. Last time I did that, they gave me more work.” Whatever it is, we all have that voice. It talks us out of stuff. Sometimes I will hold up a bottle of water at a talk that I’m giving and I will ask, “How heavy is this?” They will say 6 or 8 ounces. I will say, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it doesn’t bother me. My arm is fine. If I hold it for an hour, my arm gets tired. After a day, my arm feels paralyzed.”
That’s how our assumptions are. The voice in our head, if it’s a fleeting thought, it’s no big deal. We get past it. After an hour, we might hold on to a little more. After a day, it starts to stay with us. We have to recognize that we might be telling ourselves all of these things that we could maybe be interested in or maybe somebody would help us learn but we talk ourselves out of them. Assumptions are a big thing.
What I found interesting was technology was also a big factor. Curiosity is impacted by the over and under-utilization of technology. It could either do it for you, you are not trained in it or you are overwhelmed by it. Some people have had great experiences in their childhood where they had a lot of foundational learning in technology. Steve Wozniak is one. I love his book iWoz. He talks about his dad telling him how to connect gadgets. He would come back with all these wires and get things from work and show him how the electronics should be connected, why this wire was necessary, and how it brought electricity.
A lot of us don’t have that experience. A lot of us might be the greatest mathematicians in the world but if somebody threw us a calculator or Siri did it for you, you’re not ever going to have the foundation behind it. There’s got to be times where we have high-foundation days where we build without technology and learn behind it. There’s got to be days where we take advantage of it and learn how we can use it and not become overwhelmed by it.
The environment is a big one for a lot of people because it’s everybody from your teachers, family, friends, social media leaders, peers, past leaders, current leaders, and everybody you have ever worked with. We know that curiosity can be influenced by everybody we are around. The numbers I gave earlier about how it peaks at age five of curiosity, and then it tanks after that, a lot of that could be going into school and the teachers don’t have time because they are teaching to the test. They’ve got so many students in class. You can’t answer why all the time.
Our siblings can be brutal. If you do something that they don’t think is cool, then you can take the wrath from that. It’s challenging to look at what has impacted us. That’s one of the reasons why my research was interesting to me because I looked at these four factors of Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment, FATE. Those were the inhibitors for the Curiosity Code Index. They were pretty evenly matched. Assumptions and the environment were higher than technology, maybe but then you can have an overlap. You could have a fear of technology, for example.
It was fascinating to do the research. I studied thousands of people for years to see what inhibited them. I started by putting a thread on LinkedIn and asking people, and then I’ve got interested in that. I hired people to do all this factor analysis and ended up doing my own research because a lot of the research kept coming back in the same fashion of trying to find out if you are curious or not. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find out what inhibits us.
It was interesting to look at the difference between men and women. Men were less impacted by fear than women but they were more impacted by that voice in their heads. They were equal to women and technology but then maybe more impacted by their environment. These results are what I have seen and I would like to see more research done but it is interesting to take a look at how these different factors impact us. What I do is train people to take the Curiosity Code Index. I either do the training at companies myself or I train consultants, or HR professionals to give it. If those people get certified, they get five hours of SHRM Recertification credits. There are a lot of different versions of training that I offer.
What’s interesting is when they go through the training class that employees are training about this, they get to find out their results from the CCI and then they get to learn. It’s like taking a Myers-Briggs or DiSC. It takes ten minutes. You get the big report back on a PDF within a few minutes of taking it. It’s simple and they get to get their results. They go through this personal SWOT analysis, which is cool because they look at ways to create SMART goals to overcome some of these areas that are inhibiting them.
Not only do they do that but then we do a similar thing for the corporation as a whole, back to how they did it in Disney. You go to the horse’s mouth or employees and say, “How can we fix these things within the company? How can we help you become more curious?” If there are issues with the innovation, engagement or whatever the company issues are, the training classes are a great starting place to go to the employees and say, “How can we make you more curious so we can have this end product? How can we get a cake?”
You find out and the trainers would go back to leaders with this great report, “This is what employees would like to do to help them improve so that we can all improve and make more money.” It’s important for the future of companies that people have to try, explore, poke at and question it. It’s a huge thing that you need to ask yourself about, “How can I be vulnerable and allow this culture of learning? Maybe I don’t have all the answers.” Think about, “What are you doing to foster curiosity? What action plans do you have? How do you do this in this tumultuous time?” Thinking about this, it’s challenging for a lot of people.
I have created a free course. A lot of people can get a lot of value out of it if you are interested in taking it. If you go to DrDianeHamilton.com and scroll down to the bottom, it offers a free course. If you sign up, it’s a simple thing. They send it right to you. You can learn a lot more about curiosity and the factors, and see a lot of videos from some of the talks I have given. Some of the stuff I have talked about here is in there. A lot of the chapters from the book are in there. It’s a good foundational way to learn more about curiosity. I wanted to give you that information. I hope you check out DrDianeHamilton.com and CuriosityCode.com.
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- Cheaters Edition
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About Shaahin Cheyene
Shaahin Cheyene is considered one of the leading global minds on what’s next in e-commerce, Amazon and the internet. He is described as the “Willy Wonka Of Generation X” by the London Observer and Newsweek and is one of the most forward thinkers in business – with his Amazon Mastery Course he acutely recognizes trends and patterns early on the Amazon platform to help others understand how these shifts impact markets and consumer behavior.
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