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Cathy Waters joined her passion for books with her interest in IT to co-found the former Abebooks used-book database, later acquired by Amazon. (ARNOLD LIM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Cathy Waters joined her passion for books with her interest in IT to co-found the former Abebooks used-book database, later acquired by Amazon. (ARNOLD LIM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Creativity Gap

How outsiders solve problems that stump experts Add to ...

The Idea

One evening, Ms. Waters complained about her problem during dinner with her husband Keith and friends Rick and Vivian Pura, who were computer consultants. The light bulb of an idea flickered. Why not build an online database of used books, like the databases Keith was in the midst of building for the government? During lunch breaks, boring meetings and evenings, the two couples poured their energy into the task of creating a website that would connect customers looking for hard-to-find titles with booksellers. In 1996, they launched Advanced Book Exchange, which later came to be called Abebooks.

Thinking Like a Newcomer

Like most good ideas, listing books online now seems painfully obvious (Amazon, ahem). Nevertheless, Ms. Waters and her partners initially faced an uphill battle in convincing bookstores to sign on to Abebooks. “Booksellers are a different breed,” she says, laughing. “They are highly intelligent people but many are resistant to technology and change. I got into IT in the early '80s and Keith had a computer science degree. So we knew there was a technological solution.”

Abebooks initially signed up five booksellers with inventories totalling 5000 books, but after a year of travelling from book fair to book fair, their inventory grew to one million books. Soon they had 1,000 booksellers and 12 million books. Abebooks was acquired by Amazon in 2008 for an undisclosed amount.

What makes Abebooks remarkable isn't that it solved the irritating problem of relying on print advertising and snail mail to connect buyers and sellers. Ms. Waters' more valuable revelation – only possible at the intersection of her interests – was to anticipate the huge challenges the Internet was about to pose to independent book stores. Abebooks made it possible for used bookstores to find their own small corner of the book market dominated by ebooks and Indigo. Why was Ms. Waters able to identify a solution other booksellers didn't see? “We were newcomers,” she says. “We had a totally different perspective.”

Brian Scudamore, the entrepreneurial dropout

The Problem

After disappointing his parents by dropping out of high school, Vancouver native Brian Scudamore needed to earn some cash while he sorted his life out. One afternoon in 1989, while eating at a McDonald's, he spotted an old beat-up truck in the drive-through, “Mark's Hauling” written on its side. He then spent his remaining savings on a truck.

The truck generated income and he soon started college, but Mr. Scudamore quickly became bored. Perhaps because of his attention deficit disorder he wasn't satisfied with a simple junk removal business. He looked into franchising. “Eleven different franchise experts I talked to said, ‘Don't franchise this business; it won't work,’ ” Mr. Scudamore says. “There are too few barriers to entry in the business, they said. Anyone can go out and buy a truck and start hauling junk.” Mr. Scudamore knew the experts were right: His business in its current state offered nothing unique that would justify franchising.

The Idea

After long contemplation, Mr. Scudamore hit upon an idea. The problem with home services like junk hauling, he thought, was a lack of professionalism. “Nobody ever shows up on time. You've got to call ten times to get your plumber back. It's ridiculous,” he says. Despite the experts' advice that his area of business wasn't a good candidate for franchising, he realized that the goal would be within reach if he brought a whole new level of competency. He started by developing a central call centre, where customers could book appointments and discuss jobs in detail rather than having to call a hurried truck driver on his cell. Then he set his sights on building a national brand: 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

The Benefit of Not Fitting In

Because Mr. Scudamore was able to imagine how to franchise a business that everyone thought was impossible, 1-800-GOT-JUNK now has 200 locations in three countries. “The key to being creative is taking the road less travelled,” he says. “All my life, I've been an outsider. I didn't fit into the school system. I didn't finish college. The fact that I lack business training meant I had to find new ways to do things.”

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