The Essence of Achievement: Unveiling ‘Business Incognita’ with Jaroslav Kaplan

In the last three decades, we have seen the world change and shift into new ways of working, living, communicating, trading, and doing business. How can one succeed in a business environment where changes are so drastic? In 2007, Blockbuster was a billion-dollar business with nearly 10,000 stores around the globe, but where was it three years after that? Where is it now?

These interesting questions were approached by Jaroslav Kaplan in his book Business Incognita: how to Expand the Boundaries of Entrepreneurial Thinking, which he wrote after six years of research and three decades of experience in business and consultancy. 

Today, in this interview, we get to know Jaroslav and his work. What is the essence behind Business Incognita and how can it help readers change their perspective? 

Jaroslav, can you please tell readers about yourself?

With pleasure! I started to invest and conduct business in the 90s. During my career, I transitioned from running retail and distribution businesses to providing consulting services. During this period, I came across a dilemma: why do some businesses grow successfully, and others don’t?  Is it a matter of budget, strategy, or mere luck? Moreover, some examples that I analyzed back then (like the case of Blockbuster) seemed to be counterintuitive. So, this is how my journey began. 

You’ve created some interesting literature on business growth, proposing an innovative approach to the subject. Can you please tell me the essence of your business philosophy?

Sure! From my point of view, it’s time to start seeing entrepreneurship from a new perspective that understands business beyond money and resources. 

The main problem of business activities is the lack of connection between a product and its buyer/customer.  Moreover, most entrepreneurs still think under the same old paradigms when they should be open to seeing business from a more human-based perspective. In other words, modern companies should be focused on understanding how people think, live, and behave. 

When one thinks of an entrepreneurial spirit, immediately, words like “power”, “success”, and “money” come to mind. However, I believe that the essence of a successful business lies in the value of the offered products or services, most importantly, on how valuable they are to the targeted audience. 

There’s no such thing as an absolute value: the key element is the value a user sees in the product. The same bottle of water will be perceived with different values whether it’s found in a supermarket, a restaurant, an airport, or in the middle of the desert. Here we can understand how its value is perceived not only for what it is (a bottle of water) but because of the context where it is found. This is the essence of the question.

When a business is not successful it’s usually because the users don’t see the product as valuable. The problem is not in the product but in the user’s context. Following the previous example, the person will pay any price for that bottle of water if he/she is in the middle of the desert even if the package is not attractive at all.

To sum up, the secret is to show people the value of the product one is trying to sell. Take oil as an example. Until people finally understood its value, they would pay workers to remove and clean it as if it were dirt. 

That’s an interesting approach! Is this point of view reflected in your book Business Incognita: how to expand the boundaries of entrepreneurial thinking? What will readers find in it?

That’s exactly what readers will find: my point of view on modern entrepreneurship, a point of view based on years of research. The main idea is that a person can’t change his/her approach to business without changing the way they think. 

It makes no sense to change one’s actions without changing one’s mindset. Imagine an alcoholic who gets a new liver but continues to drink. It’s simply a waste of time and resources. 

Moreover, this book stands out from the rest because of what it intends to accomplish. While other books on business simply try to teach how to make money or how to create an audience, Business Incognita goes way beyond this. Through my book, I analyze the core problems of modern entrepreneurship and the reasons why so many companies are failing. In my point of view, these issues can only be solved by changing the way we understand business. 

Now, let’s move on to another one of your writing works. Can you tell readers what is “The Fabulous Fable of Goshio the Fish”?

It’s a short story that I wrote to depict my thoughts on modern businesses. Actually, I prefer to use this story in seminars because it illustrates the real challenges that entrepreneurs face in our days. 

I think that a company must establish the value of the product considering the context and the surroundings of the buyers/users. Let’s take a product to illustrate this point. If you sell flowers, some customers will buy them to give their wives on their anniversary. Others may need it to decorate a salon and others for a funeral. In all these cases the context varies and so does the product’s value. Nonetheless, the product in itself hasn’t changed. 

What drove you to write about business in such a unique format (a fable)?

It’s easier for people to understand a concept if presented with a metaphor. Thus, I decided to compare entrepreneurial activities with the life of a fish in an aquarium. When the aquarium is stable, so is the fish. It is happy, it can do whatever it wants, in other words, it feels like the master of its destiny. However, the aquarium eventually shakes or moves, and this affects those living in it. In the story, this happens when Goshio wants to swim south, but suddenly the aquarium is leaning to the north. Like many companies, Goshio doesn’t have a happy ending as he swims against the tie and ends up dying in the icy Arctic. 

That’s certainly a good way to put it! You say that, in Business Incognita: How to Expand the Boundaries of Entrepreneurial Thinking, you present an innovative approach. It must have been a real challenge for you to write such a book! Is that why it took you 6 years to write it? 

In part, yes, but mainly it took so long because I conducted thorough research. One of my main goals was to show entrepreneurs that their struggles are not always where they think they are. Therefore, if they don’t know where the problem begins, they can’t solve it. My theory is that if a businessperson can understand the rules of entrepreneurship in depth, he/she would be able to understand the current market trends and predict possible outcomes. In other words, they can know in advance which way the aquarium will lean next time. 

Hence, I spent a good part of these six years researching and found nearly 1,000 patterns of entrepreneurial activities of whom I included 167 in Business Incognita

What do you mean by “entrepreneurial activities”?

I use this concept to describe an activity that can only be conducted in a particular context. It encompasses many aspects including management, teaching a product’s value to an audience, and the entrepreneurs’ desire to use their resources wisely and reach their goals. 

Based on all this research, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?

I would invite them to see that there can be two completely different points of view regarding a product’s value: the entrepreneur’s and the user’s. From my perspective, in most cases, these two find themselves so separate from each other that they are like two stars located in faraway galaxies. This fact is the main reason why 7 out of 10 entrepreneurs fail before their businesses reach their fifth business anniversary. In general, the issue is very simple: the entrepreneur sees value in his/her product while the user doesn’t.

Then I would recommend listening to John Archibald Wheeler’s advice: break the glass and step outside, where your audience works and lives. From this new position, we must analyze how an average user from our targeted audience understands our product’s value.

There’s an old American saying that goes “what would you do in my shoes?” These words hold the key. We must put ourselves in an average user’s shoes and see what they see. The first thing we’ll notice is whether our message is reaching this person or not, and the answer lies not only in the product but also in the context of the entire activity.

Finally, my third recommendation: an entrepreneur’s uniqueness and personality matter, therefore, make sure to be yourself and fully committed to your personal development.