According to the Birthday Paradox, in a room of 23 people, there is a 50/50 chance that two people will share the same birthday. It becomes a near certainty with 70 people.
How is that possible? The birthday paradox is strange, counter-intuitive, and completely true. It’s only a “paradox” because our brains can’t handle the compounding power of exponents. We expect probabilities to be linear and only consider the scenarios we’re involved in.
Through the lens of mathematics, the Birthday Paradox demonstrates how the number of comparisons increase success, and not just through the shear number of options. If we apply that same principle to working with and finding the best people to work with, our odds for success may be increased exponentially.
By the numbers
We often hear the complaint about how hard it is to find a good supplier. Although it does require a well thought out plan to work with the right kind of people, is it as simple as increasing the number of businesses you engage with to find the right fit?
I use several different lumber suppliers even though many of them carry the same product and offer the same services. One of the advantages of working in a large metropolitan area is an array of suppliers eager to gain your business. Although logic tells us it will increase the odds of finding a good fit, it can also muddy the water because of the number of options available. Too many choices can make us lazy in figuring out what our company really needs.
Having more suppliers to choose from typically means you can “specialize” your material choices by selecting the best supplier for each type of product. The reason you want to specialize material choices is because you’ll find each supplier has a specific niche which helps the small business owner make the most profitable decisions. This can include better pricing, material quality, return policies and additional services.
But what if you work in a small rural community with only one lumber yard? One thing is certain, the math will tell you there’s a 100 percent chance that the one-trick pony is going to be the main supplier for your shop, even if they don’t supply the specific product you prefer.
Regardless of how many choices we have before us, we should never feel like we’re stuck in Mayberry with Andy and Barney. Instead, we should apply the principle of the Birthday Paradox to working with people. What this means is to consider the peripheral intangibles that the human element brings, not just relying on more options to find the best solution.
Getting the right fit
I say it so many times that I feel like a song stuck in repeat mode. Finding clients that fit your business personality is the key to success.
I work with a lot of subcontractors, including several from the same trade. I like to use my favorites as often as possible. But often my favorite subs may not be the best fit for a job. If a client is very fragile and sensitive to their surroundings, a boisterous individual can upset the apple cart. When a client is very budget driven, the top of the line, most expensive subcontractor can prevent the job from completion because their piece of the pie may gobble up too much of the budget. It’s not a bad thing to pick and choose and/or play favorites, it just simply makes for good business sense.
We worked on a kitchen remodel several years ago that had a very difficult client with high expectations. As a result, I set the bar very high in the beginning with a generous budget for the project. Pricing wasn’t the issue, it was more about quality and control.
During the course of the project our journey encountered many bumps and potholes. It wasn’t an easy trip, but we made regular progress and even found ways to make the job more tolerable. As we came closer to the time of painting, I began to contemplate which sub to use. My number one choice is a medium-sized union shop. All the painters are highly qualified, professional and do impeccable work. One of the things I like about this particular subcontractor is that I never have to babysit. They are one of the few contractors I can comfortably send to a job without worry. They take care of everything and are so responsible that they could run the project themselves. The single biggest consideration about using this company is they are the most expensive in town. But for a client who wants quality and is willing to pay, they are the no-brainer choice. By all outward appearances, they were the best choice for this project.
Option two is also a very competent, union trained painter. He’s a one-man show who does good work for a fair price. The downside is he requires adult supervision and needs to be reminded of the quality that is expected.
I chose option two after studying the personalities of the two parties. The second painter has a very quirky personality, which meshed with the quirky nature of the clients. It was amazing to see the two of them together during the first meeting. He had her smiling and communicating agreement in the first ten minutes, something I never came close to cracking during the course of five weeks on the job.
Suffice it to say, a paradox can appear senseless and illogical. The thing I like about the Birthday Paradox, is that it shows by the logic of math things are not always what they appear to be. Whether it’s looking for a good supplier, subcontractor or client, the obvious choice may not always be the best.
The secret in the paradox is listening to your inner voice that transcends the logic. Although the Birthday Paradox shows the probability of shared birthdays in smaller groups than you would typically imagine, it relies 100 percent on the accuracy of mathematics. Similarly, running a business requires gut instinct because you are dealing with the unpredictability of human behavior.
David Getts is a certified kitchen designer and owner of David Getts Designer Builder Inc. in Seattle.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.