Lessons from Scott Norton

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lessonsfrom / Monday

Welcome to Week 7 of A Summer of Learning! It’s been great to see the increase in readers this week. To the old readers: Thanks for being with me since the start – your support kept me going on days when I just didn’t want to write anything. To the new readers: Welcome! I hope you get something out of these posts. On to the week’s first post:

Scott Norton is the cofounder of Sir Kensington, a food company that brings “character to condiments.” Recently, he did a podcast episode on Khe Hy’s Rad Awakenings about his journey and his struggles. It was a wide-ranging conversation – everything from folding bicycles in East Asia to how to spend more time with your family was covered. It can be hard to navigate these conversations and pick out the nuggets of wisdom, so I wanted to pick apart 3 lessons that stood out to me:

The battle between contentment and exploration

This was the main underlying theme throughout the conversation. Scott and Khe have both achieved a certain level of “success”. Yet they want more. In many cases, this is driven by true curiosity. As Scott mentions, it’s things like “Going to a dinner party where there will be many interesting people from varying backgrounds.” It’s very genuine, not fueled by vanity.

This is something that I’ve thought about a lot – how do you remain content where you are yet remain driven to keep moving forward? They seem completely in conflict with each other.

To be very fair, I have no idea how to resolve this. I hope that being cognizant of this trade-off enables me to make decisions about my time commitment on a case-by-case basis. There is no general playbook to be written about this.

Life as an adventure

Scott Norton decided to live his life in the image of a hero in an adventure novel. This reminds me of one of the first posts I wrote on this blog mentioned Jeff Bezos’ regret minimization framework for decision-making. Basically, whatever decision you make, make the least boring, regret-inducing one.

There are few ways that you can think through this without being reckless. The biggest one is to make sure that any mistakes you are making has limited downside risk.

For example, let’s say I start a company after I graduate from Northwestern. I spend two years on it and it ends up being a failure. Now, this seems like a huge failure but in reality, it’s a very small setback. I’ll still be 24 years old with an engineering degree from a good school with decades to reach my idea of “success”. The lessons I learn during those two years might even help me achieve a higher level of success than my average peer.

Life as an adventure is also a great way to leave room for serendipity and whimsy. I need to think more like that.

Driving growth through acquisitions

This last lessons moves away from Scott and looks at the broader landscape of business. Usually, large corporations do not have the nimbleness to be truly innovative. There are too many processes in place, too many layers of middle-management, too much to loose in the short-term.

Startups don’t face this. Almost by definition, a valuable startup is providing a good or service not present in the market or at least delivering it in a different, better way. They are usually small teams where decisions happen around a single table, not on conference calls across multiple skyscrapers around the globe.

Yet when customer preference change, and they almost also do, what is a large corporation supposed to do?

Acquisitions of startups in their industry play to their strengths. There are two startups that I was following closely that were acquired by corporations – RXBAR by Kellogg’s and Sir Kensington by Unilever.

My tone can come across as being preferential towards startups but that is not the case. I think good acquisitions are like a pieces of a puzzle. One piece rounds and fills the edges of the other.

Paper.Paper Tools.24

For the corporation, you’re using your strength (considerable financial strength) to get what you need (an innovative brand in your business).  For the startup, you’re using your strength (innovation and brand name) to get what you need (sales resources, financial stability, a break from the insanity of putting our fires everyday).

During his live How I Built This interview in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, Peter Rahal of RXBAR mentioned how one of the big reasons for him to sell the company to Kellogg’s was to leverage Kellogg’s resources to sell internationally. Scott Norton mentioned how he now gets to think about how Sir Kensington “can thrive instead of worrying about if it’s going to survive.”

It’s a win-win if done currently. Thanks for indulging me with that last lesson – I’ve been thinking about it a lot and it feels to write it out into coherent statements.



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