Archive for December, 2006

The founding myth of the napkin’s business model

Posted on December 27, 2006. Filed under: English |

Have you noticed how many companies claim their birth certificate to be a napkin ? The thought came back to me reading an article in the last issue of Wired. I even worked during some time for such a company (Transora, now called 1Sync since its fusion with UCCnet in Aug. 2005) when I was designing the B2C and B2E ebusiness strategy and initiatives of Sara Lee's apparel business in Europe. It was early March 2000 (the beginning of the hype for online marketplaces), and Judy Sprieser (then an Executive VP at Sara Lee Corp and its CFO), together with a small group of top-notch managers, met in a trendy restaurant in NYC TriBeCa and draw a few sketches on paper napkins : Transora was born ! The "it all started with a napkin" story was really the founding legend of Transora, giving it a taste of start-up (even though it was funded by 49 of the largest packaged-goods companies in the world) and humanity (like the founding fathers drafting the future of America !). Let's look at the ingredients :

  • a cosy place : definitely not a work environment, lively and open, to encourage brainstorming and sharing of ideas
  • some early leaders with a vision : an in-depth understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their industry with an acute sense of the revolution coming
  • a common ground : the tables in the middle of them with the available drawing material : a pen and napkins

Napkin BP

The role played by that Campbell Soup manager taking notes on napkins is similar to that of a "graphic facilitator". The diagrams that were used in the numerous presentations afterwards were derived from that initial burst : how vertical (industry) and horizontal (functionality) market strands interleave, the dramatic reduction in electronic links that a central hub allowed in lieu of 1-to-1 EDI links, the electronic marketplace landscape with / Transora in the middle, … When an organization is gaining momentum (adding employees and customers, building infrastructure) it needs to rely on those early visions, those of the "founders". In my experience those sketches very often remain untouched by those who use them, or only very marginally, because :

  • Such is the power of drawings that they almost belong to "works of art"
  • It needs the pupils to gain expertise and confidence to beat the masters 😉
  • Many people in the business environment lack drawing skills and are not comfortable changing it
  • A drawing, better than words, can express a vision that is shared by many persons of different cultures (business, …)


The typical expression "back of a napkin" describe a stituation that is casual enough to express the spontaneity, yet material enough to provide some kind of a proof of birth for the idea. Other supports for similar situations are the white board (giant ones like in the Googleplex) or the notepad (of which Dave Gray of XPlane makes a fairly large use), but none seems as powerful as the napkin 😉 as they are either too personal, or too formal, or can be erased by error and not easily taken away after the meeting.

And you, what was sketched on your napkin ? 

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