Even a Fool Has One Talent: Where Bakamo Gets Its Name

馬鹿も一芸

Baka mo ichi gei

One of the questions we are repeatedly asked is what does Bakamo mean?

Our name comes from a Japanese saying that literally means "even a fool has one talent." Taken figuratively, it reminds us that everyone has merit, even if it isn't immediately obvious.

This saying has real bearing on our work.

It reminds us that there is something to learn from everyone in social media. Our business is built on understanding what people mean and what motivates them to participate in public discourse. We must therefore consider every comment, even—and perhaps especially—those that seem simple, banal, or misguided.

It also reminds us what we can learn from our colleagues. We can't hope to fully realize human understanding as a competitive advantage if we don't create a work environment that fosters it. What does this mean concretely, though?

Were we to judge by what we see in other business environments, we would conclude that a positive work environment is largely a function of quality of life benefits (like flexible hours, free lunches, gym memberships, and nice computers). While there's nothing wrong with these benefits, they are often facades that dress up an otherwise punishing corporate social system of erratic management, cowardly decision-making, lack of real growth opportunities, and plain old bad behavior. (We have the scars to prove this.)

What’s most interesting about this is that, if you ask not only the experts but also the employees, both will tell you that you don’t need to buy foosball tables or engage in radical experiments in organizational structure. You mainly need to treat people like grown-ups. People feel best and are the most dedicated and productive when their experience is respected and they have the autonomy and tools to do their work. This is a two-way street, though. Each person must constantly engage in behavior that not only works for them, but is productive and respectful of the group as well.

As a company, then, we need to do two things. First, we need to hire carefully. Frankly, not everyone is capable of acting this way. The people we work with need to be talented and have the human qualities and the maturity to succeed in our environment.

Second, we need courage that manifests itself in many ways:

  • We need courage to listen to different perspectives, even if they challenge our notions of what should be done. We don’t want robots. We shouldn’t hire “yes men.” We want people who can use their competence and good sense to reason independently and make good decisions. That’s what we’re paying them for, isn’t it.
  • We need to then let them get on with the job. Concretely, that means pushing accountability down to the right levels and giving people the authority to say both yes and no. You can’t build a high functioning company if the ability to be decisive about one’s work and one’s area of expertise regularly requires executive blessing.
  • We need to ensure that when we fail (because we will), we find the real reason for failure while living up to the principle embodied in our name. The failure can’t be because we’ve decided to treat people like adults.

At Bakamo, we have the opportunity to build a really interesting business, guided by a profound and ultimately practical principle. If we stick to the idea embodied in our name, we'll also be building a great place to work.

Reading tip: Check out Turn the Ship Around! by Captain L. David Marquet (USN Ret)  if you're curious about one of our sources of inspiration.