Solving Problems Thinking Outside the Box

Thinking outside the box isn’t as unique as you might assume. All sorts of people do things all the time, that are outside the normal limits they are supposed to follow. That’s a shame, but what’s worse is they don’t apply their ability to think outside the box to solve problems. That’s the rare version of outside the box thinking.


I can recall two specific times thinking outside the box enabled me to achieve results beyond anyone’s expectations. The first occurred in 1981 when one of the software authors I worked with at Digital Marketing, invented a box that would run business software on an Atari game computer. A group of us wanted to manufacture the box and sell it to Atari owners and broaden our distribution of business software by roughly 20,000 users. Everyone loved the idea including Dave Gangola who had constructed the gizmo in his garage.

Thinking outside the box, I suggested we contact Don Kingsborough who was, at the time, responsible for Atari’s marketing.  Kingsborough also introduced a talking teddy bear named Teddy Ruxpin and built a giant marketing firm around it. Everyone liked the idea and we proceeded to contact Atari to setup10170-Atari-800 a meeting to discuss our proposal. In this process, we found out that Atari was attempting to construct the very same device Dave had invented all by himself and the project was code-named “Sweet Pea.”

In exchange for $250,000, and with the help of Peter Moss, who had come to us from Charles Schwab, Bob Baker and I met with Atari several times and negotiated a contract to provide the schematic design, manufacturing rights for 20,000 units, and 5 prototypes in time for the Comdex trade show in Chicago that year. I met Nolan Bushnell and Alan Alda, who was Atari’s official spokesman.

We were higher than a kite that winter but ran into a bit of reality when the low-end of the computer market fell apart. We spun off two companies, Add-On Computers and Add-On Software with the proceeds from Atari but our trip on cloud 9 was short-lived. Nonetheless, outside the box thinking produced a giant leap from thinking we would manufacture these boxes ourselves and try to sell them one at a time.

The second outside the box thinking, had to do with saving lots of money in inventory when I worked for Al Pease at Independent Business Systems in Livermore, California. IBS was a manufacturer of multi-user computer systems, which came in two basic flavors. One ran a proprietary  operating system based on UCSD Pascal, and the other on a niche operating system called Turbo-DOS. Both flavors came in a variety of configurations based on the size of the hard drive(s) requiring the stocking of multiple hard drives for all the supported configurations. One day, it occurred to me that by using a variety of hard disk controllers, we could use fewer hard drives and supply the same configurations in our price list. Al told me, “You earned your paycheck this month,” when I shared my bright idea. The reduction in inventory was significant and gave us the feeling we were fleet of foot, when it came to computer manufacturing.


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