Big Tippers

The factors that push businesses over the edge and into the type of growth there's no coming back from

Market research and competitive intelligence have always been a minor part of the services provided by Steve Rice, a Florham Park, New Jersey, environmental management consultant. However, after reading a book about a concept called the tipping point, the 48-year-old former corporate environmental executive plans to revamp his strategy, pushing a little harder to pitch competitive intelligence and thinking more about whom to pitch to in hopes that these offerings may lead to a growth surge for his business. "The tipping point got me to thinking," Rice says, "whether this could be a bigger part, if not the biggest part, of my business."

The basic idea behind the tipping point is that things can happen fast. The tipping point is the point at which a situation that may have seemed stable or only very slowly changing suddenly goes through a massive, rapid shift. "It's the boiling point. It's the moment when the line starts to shoot straight upwards," explains , author of The Tipping Point (Little, Brown), a book that explains the concept of the tipping point and ways it can be used in business and in life.

Gladwell chronicles numerous examples of tipping points, ranging from the effect of Paul Revere's midnight ride on American history to the way Hush Puppies shoes suddenly went from out of fashion to very chic. In each case, he shows why and how the situation quickly and dramatically changed due to the effects of some powerful tipping-point activators.

Rice's hopes for increasing business from what had previously been merely a sideline service aren't so farfetched when you consider the possible effect of hitting the tipping point. And there are many other benefits of understanding it, according to Arlyn J. Melcher, a management professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, who has used the tipping point to impart management concepts in his classes.

"It's particularly relevant for entrepreneurial firms," says Melcher. The tipping point idea helps entrepreneurs understand why they don't always get the hoped-for results immediately with a new marketing campaign or management policy, and it encourages them to continue their efforts until, with luck, they reach their tipping points and suddenly experience rapid progress toward their goals, he adds.

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This article was originally published in the December 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Big Tippers.

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