Intelligent Fanatics

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

 This was a fun, quick book. Sean Iddings and Ian Cassel tell the stories of eight intelligent fanatics who created amazing businesses – for everyone involved. This book makes the case that founder/owners, shareholders, and employees can all win together. The most striking example of this was in the story of F. Kenneth Iverson of Nucor Steel whose situation was so extreme because of the contrast to the industrial robber barons that came before him.

The end of the book nicely summarizes the lessons learned and I’ll instead focus on three internal attitudes of the intelligent fanatics and three external structures they put in place. This book is similar to William Thorndike’s The Outsiders.

In a podcast interview, Sean Iddings described an intelligent fanatic as people who  “do things ordinary mortals can’t…Intelligent fanatics see things others can’t see.”


Intelligent Fanatics (IFs) are first and foremost iconoclasts, “and this is the most basic characteristics.” Being excellent requires being different. IFs succeed because they see things in a different way and they aren’t afraid of blazing their own trail.

As we’ve seen with Ken Grossman and Jim Koch, brewers embody this attitude. We also saw in the AirBnUber post that each of those companies was founded with an irreverence for the status quo. Silicon Valley may be prototypical with their attitude to ‘move fast and break things.’

That doesn’t mean go wild though. IFs approach situations with a curious mindset. They’re humble and hungry. It’s a feeling of; I don’t know how to do this – – yet. When Danny Meyer opened his first restaurant in New York City he demonstrated this. Meyer was treading water as he figured out the details. He knew what good food should be from his time in Europe, but not how to cook it at scale. He knew where restaurants should be, but not ones in his price range. He knew what kind of service he wanted but not how to habitually hire the right people. Meyer’s most important skill was his willingness to figure things out.

Brian Grazer wrote about living a curious life:

“The quality of many ordinary experiences often pivots on curiosity. If you’re shopping for a new TV, the kind you ultimately take home and how well you like it is very much dependent on a salesperson who is curious: curious enough about the TVs to know them well; curious enough about your own needs and watching habits to figure out which TV you need. That’s a perfect example, in fact, of curiosity being camouflaged.”

The final attitude that IFs have is a certain naivete. Most of the IFs in the book had zero experience in the field they eventually came to dominate. This meant they arrived without having learned the wrong lessons about how to run a business. That was the case too for Grossman and Koch, as they became professional brewers after their first career.

People like Nassim Taleb and Daryl Morey warn against a business only mindset. The job of consultants, Morey said, was to feign total certainty about uncertain things. Rather, IFs get their hands dirty running their business and figure out the important structures as they go.


The strength of one man – and they’re all men in this book – will only expand if there are others around who can help carry the load. It’s the job of that person though to get everyone rowing in the same direction. Iddings writes:

“What the intelligent fanatic model proposes is that the only truly sustainable cometitive advantage is a company’s human capital.”

There were multiple ways to do this, but let’s look at only three;

Each of the IFs created a culture of experimentation. John Paterson of National Cash register wrote that it was hard to predict what the next thing is and so you need an adaptive mindset.

Brent Beshore said that there is no big secret to a successful business. Success only comes from figuring out (via experimentation) what works and doing more of that.  Ken Fisher said  “I’ve been prepared to operate by trial and error, you can do a huge amount of small things on a small scale, test them and see if they work, and if they work, do them on a bigger scale and if they don’t work move on to the next one.” Jeff Bezos likes to hire versatile people because conditions change. Andy Grove said that people should prepare like fireman; train for many possible outcomes.

IFs also created a culture of frugality.  Failing to do this can be fatal. Thorndike wrote, “There’s an apparent inverse correlation between the construction of elaborate new headquarter buildings and investor returns.” The Instagram founders got their first round of funding and thanks to a low overhead thought they could last for years while they worked on their product.

The final structure from IFs was a decentralized staff. They put the decision maker face to face with the customer. Sometimes this meant IFs would leave the corporate office – if they worked there at all – and hit to road to talk to customers. Other times this meant empowering the front lines staff to make decisions.

A decentralized command structure works because no one knows the situation like the person in the situation. This has worked for expanding SoulCycle, finding Saddam Hussein, and coaching professional sports.


Thanks for reading,

If this sounds interesting,  get my book suggestsions.

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