In Lab - Archive

I-FACTOR • The entrepreneur's gene

Franco Marzo - Coaching e business development -

The perception of reality

 Asking an entrepreneur about the senses he uses the most is rather difficult. Senses are normally used without thinking, they are spontaneous means we use to relate to the surrounding world, and if anyone asks you which is the “sense” you use the most, you will probably have some difficulty in answering. Of course we are talking about touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste, even though Cristina Calori bypassed the complexity of the topic saying "common sense": not bad! Our senses help us to perceive reality and the more we use them, the more complete our perception of reality becomes, in all its different facets. Ernesto Colnago, a true icon of racing bicycles, was the first to use Carbon fibre. He wanted to make the lightest bicycle in the world to set a new hour record. In his museum there is a 4.4 kg bike that cannot be used. The minimum weight allowed by the UCI for professionals is 6.8 kg. During the i-factor interview he surprised me: "Look! These are two pieces of carbon fibre, one is Italian and the other is Chinese. Same weight but different structure, which makes the one more robust than the other. Feel it ..." then he takes both pieces and throws them to the ground. The Chinese piece of carbon emits a cacophonic glang-glang..., the Italian one a beautiful: den-den-den...! "Heard the difference? The quality is in the sound!" In truth, quality carbon was also good to look at and touch, but the real litmus test for Colnago was the sound. Better than a tuner!

Through our senses, reality will appear clearer, helping you make increasingly "sensible" decisions. After all, what is common sense?


Developing senses

It seems our ancestors survived nature’s hidden dangers thanks to their highly developed sense of smell. As they progressively gained the upright position, however, they slowly lost its use, although in love, its power is still able to provide us with useful inputs on the choice of our partner. Senses need to be trained and, to do this, different stimuli must be used to put them to the test. My generation grew up in courtyards. Relationships were tactile, olfactory, they involved taste, vision and hearing. We tasted the flowers that had a scent of lemon; we picked wild plums from the trees; we struggled, fought and rolled on the ground  with our mates, we threw stones and cut branches to build huts. Today, I am afraid, a progressive atrophy of the senses is in progress. The widespread use of computers and smartphones provides us only with images and sounds. The lack of touch, smell, and taste produces only a partial reality. A wise friend once told me, "Do you know the difference between the hunger in the world you see on TV and real hunger? The smell!" In every kind of business one or more senses can make a difference. As a boy I worked in the fur industry and I met Giorgio Cohen, an important fur dealer. Nowadays people would call him a buyer, one who, after landing in Alaska with a biplane, bought stacks of furs for many prestigious clients: they trusted him. He boasted of being able to distinguish a sable from a mink (female) with his eyes closed. How did he do it? When he was still just a boy, his father used to send him to Alaska to work in a warehouse. "Do you know how many furs I handled in my life? That's where I learned to distinguish the different furs through touch".

Ernesto Colnago conquered Fiorenzo Magni’s* confidence thanks to his ability to notice things at a glance developed over the years while assembling thousands of bicycles. During a training session Magni complained about a leg pain and Colnago immediately noticed that his pedal was slightly bent. He caught the detail that made the difference. He fixed it and found himself immediately "summoned" to the”Giro d’Italia” as a trusted mechanic.


Fear of the unknown

Exposure to different realities can be a source of anxiety, especially if one is not accustomed to it. Few are born explorers, and unless we develop that frame of mind from an early age, we may struggle later in life. Reality is in constant motion, understanding it forces us to change our thoughts and beliefs, a process that can be fun, but also tiring. Gianfranco Venturato, my boss and professional mentor at Polaroid, suggested me, time and again, to "always be in the field”. “If you want to understand how things really are, you must go and see for yourself! Visit the places where value is created: in the factory, in markets or at the client’s premises”. I still impose this on myself  as a method of work. Never be tired of going to these places; seeing, listening and touching, will allow you to discern many of those tiny critical variables that can determine the success or failure of a project. “God is in the details” according to Mies Van de Rhoe or the devil according to Goethe, but both will suggest you what or what not to do.


The five senses - hearing

Francesco Casoli** (Elica spa) listens to everything and everyone, with an extremely sensitive ear: "Damn, when I walk into the factory, from the vibration of the floor I can detect the rhythmic cadence of the steel moulding presses, I can recall all the components of all the products we make from the top of my head, from the first to the last screw, and I'm not joking. I am perfectly aware about the products and the process behind them because I like it, because I'm a true technician, since I'm not really an engineer. And as a boy, having failed my exams several times, I spent my summers feeding the painting furnace or fitting extractor hoods with very little joy; but then again, it was my fault!" And how important was this? What did you learn through this experience? "Very important! First of all you appreciate how tiring hard work can be! So you always have to respect those who work with their hands in production lines. They are intelligent and working day after day handling the same objects, they come to know more about them than anyone else. So we need to go back to learning how to listen! Everyone, even the workers (especially them) because they handle the parts you are trying to produce and promote every single day”. 


The five senses - sight

The most frequent connection that a businessman makes with his sight is vision. Unlike what many might think, this is not just a dream. It is something between a concrete and measurable goal, and a dream. A middle ground in space and time, not too far (5/7 years) and not too abstract either. Vision helps in building paths that start from real data and rise towards very ambitious and forward-looking targets. A bit like "knowing how to dream with your eyes open". Being able to see beyond the obvious, where others cannot, is in itself an art, but related to care for detail, to in-depth study and analysis. Occasionally take your time to  delve deeper. Do not be content with what appears on the surface or what others say. Few know that Steve Jobs,  before becoming the computer guru we all know, was enthusiastically interested in Font characteristics. Someone will remember that Apple owes a huge part of its success in the professional use that graphics designers and creative specialists made of it. The Macintosh offered many more expressive possibilities than any other computer. Even in this case, details made the difference.

The five senses – smell and taste

Small and taste are hardly mentioned as commonly used senses by the entrepreneurs interviewed in the i-factor series, although some have a “good nose” for bargains or a taste for challenge.  As already mentioned smell plays an important role when it comes to finding a partner for life. But are we not also always on the lookout for reliable business partners?  Smell, when it acts, does so at an unconscious level. It is difficult to capture a cause-effect relationships, even though sensory marketing, to sell and promote customer loyalty, produces real "olfactive brands". Ever been to an Abercrombie & Fitch store?

As for taste, apart from the food and catering sectors where its importance appears to be quite evident, we should remember that it can be a decisive factor for any entrepreneur. In fact, some of the most important business moments are made around a table: dinners, hiring interviews, business dinners. Use taste as a litmus test of the real feelings of your fellow diners. Test them with the unique flavours of your territory: curiosity is dynamic and stems from the desire to take care of things. Or check their coherence with a good glass of wine: “in vino veritas”.

Never neglect taste. Eating together with your customers or in company canteens will provide you with a precious "personality indicator". An businessman friend of mine, very active in China, told me how he had to learn to eat insects: "That's the only way to win the trust of local business partners! Sure, in front of some dishes ... (cockroaches....), I learned to say that I could not eat them for "religious" reasons and this was tolerated".


The five senses - touch                                                           

We mentioned this sense when talking about a fur buyer, but it also bears great significance in personal relationships with others.  Rumours have it that an important Italian entrepreneur would decide whether to hire a new employee or not on the basis of a handshake at the end of the selection process.  A sweaty hand carried a final judgment: how could someone who failed to handle such little pressure become his collaborator?

One day I asked an entrepreneur what did concreteness represent for him.  Without hesitation, he said, "Everything that you can touch with your hand".  For example "getting your hands dirty" and “having a finger in the pie” are two very common expressions. Scott Berkun when speaking of "Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts" refers to the different managerial culture expressed by those who have been successful thanks to "books" and who came from the "street". If you need concreteness, “streets" helps.



Of course, economy and business include a lot more than just tangibles. For years, finance, IT and ICT have been playing a dominant role. However, after decades of "speculation", talks now revolve around production and the fourth industrial revolution, placing "producers" and "smart manufacturing methods" at the centre of the picture along with the Factory 4.0 project.

In this context, these often neglected 5 senses will perhaps return to play an important role. Be prepared. And remember,  "touching with hands" is more convincing  than any verbal or abstract discussion, and conviction is the necessary condition for any business you want to accomplish. So, get your hands dirty! And do not let anyone tell you anything different.


back to archive