Weird science: Why we need more weirdos

Following patterns and taking shortcuts serves a very important evolutionary function. But we wouldn't be where we are now as a species without rule breakers and weirdos who create change. And Vend's Vaughan Rowsell reckons we need more of them. 

Hi, my name is Vaughan and I’m a weirdo. 

I only just became aware of this fact, although I have suspected it for a while. I do have this habit of doing weird, unexpected things just because they seem impossible, like cycle the length of New Zealand, solo run 1,000km just for kicks, or sing on stage in front of 100 people for an hour and get them to pay for the privilege when I can’t actually sing. Stuff like that. 

I founded Vend in the middle of the global recession, because, why not? And then, I also fired myself as CEO, which was kinda weird. It was doing this that made me reflect on how weird I am, because, well, most people don’t fire themselves. 

In just five years we created one of New Zealand’s fastest growing startups, with a team of 200 across Auckland, Melbourne, San Francisco, Toronto and London. Revenues were curving up, we had global partnerships with Apple, Xero, PayPal and others. It was an amazing product that was considered the industry leader in cloud retail technology. Awards? We had a cabinet full. But we were starting to slow down. Scaling the business was taking a lot of focus and the CEO role rightfully became 100 percent focused on this. Time spent with customers and on innovation was last on the list of to-dos, but I knew if we wanted Vend to get to number one we needed to continue to innovate and do things differently. I needed to change something. So either I went all in on scaling a high-growth company, or I went all in on the product innovation and delegated the rest. So I picked innovation, because it was what I loved doing and there were people better at the other stuff. I don’t need to be the boss of the world in order to change it. 

This was not what CEOs did. “King CEO to the end, long live the king,” was the cry. But it made no sense to me to stay in a role where my skills were better used elsewhere. So I did what I knew was the best thing, and it weirded people out. “You were fired, right?” people would whisper to me over dinner. “Yeah, I fired myself,” I’d whisper back.

“Wow, you must be cashed up and going cruising around the world, you sly dog you,” others chuffed. I wish.

“Bored?” Nope.

People didn’t believe it and it annoyed me. This got me thinking about conformity and why people assume you need to follow convention all the time. Convention was that you stayed in the CEO role until you were pushed or retired.
My decision didn’t match the conventional wisdom and so it was weird.

Humans are great at being predictable. This is how we have survived on the planet for so long. Thousands of years ago, before the internet, we were just simple tribes. We surrounded ourselves with others just like us who we understood and could predict. Together we followed the rules of the group and we survived. Anyone doing different was a liability. If we all decided to go hunting and one of us was waving arms and throwing sticks, the lions would come and we would all be dead. Let’s just stick to what we know, team.

Then a weirdo would try something different. They sharpened a stick and ran at the lions. The tribe looked away in horror. Despite being ignored and shunned, the weirdo persevered, failed and tried again from up high and eventually it worked. They convinced someone else of the idea, then another, then eventually it became everyone’s idea. The lions were no longer a problem.

And this is what weirdos do. They create change.

Our brains are excellent at finding patterns and shortcuts so we don’t have to think about everything all the damn time. Find a pattern we can repeat and get the same result. That's what a good tribe member looks like. What dangerous animals look like. But just following patterns means we don’t evolve. Occasionally we need to screw up the pattern, but we just don’t like it when others do it because it forces us to think. What if they are wrong, and the lions eat us?

I started to become weird at primary school, all because I didn’t fit a pattern. I had a tribe and we did everything together. Played together, had the same sense of humour. We were peers. But the way they learned in class matched a particular pattern. They were quick with math, could spell really well. They were all identified as having some special abilities that other kids didn’t. So they were picked to be in what was called a ‘special accelerated’ class. I wasn't. This pattern matching to find the kids that were different and smart made me feel like I didn’t fit. I was six and I couldn’t understand what made me different from my friends and so from that point on I tried extra hard to be special. 

I would write book reports as poems. English assignments as cartoons. Any opportunity to do something in a new way, I did it. I was ridiculed, made to stand in front of the class. I was once called “special” by a teacher, but it was the '80s and she meant the opposite of what I hoped.

At university I cruised and just did what I needed to do. But occasionally a project would spark my interest. We had to devise an algorithm that could compress an image by 20 percent. I decided I wouldn’t leave this project to the last minute and wrote an algorithm that achieved 21 percent. Then I thought I could do better so I kept going. I became obsessed. By the time the project was due I achieved compression of up to 70 percent. I even neatly documented everything and handed it in early. Nerd. I felt really happy with myself and hoped for an A as then I would have a chance of graduating with distinction. The evening before our results were due my lecturer called me at home. She accused me of cheating. My work didn’t match the pattern of any of my other work because it was too good. So I must have cheated and she intentionally graded me one percent short so I could not achieve distinction, just because she couldn’t prove it. I was so angry I dropped out, started working in software and then building businesses. Some worked, some didn’t. I started Vend in the middle of the GFC because someone said all tech companies were doomed. If someone said I couldn’t do it, my reaction was: “fuck you, just watch.”

Today at Vend, our culture is one that celebrates diversity, creativity and doing things differently. Again, this is considered weird because we are not like other companies. But this weird culture enabled us to become New Zealand’s fastest-growing startup and the emerging leader in our field. Ironically, all because as a kid I didn’t match a pattern and wasn’t considered special.

We need more weirdos and fewer conformists in this world. It has never been safer in the history of our planet to be a weirdo. There are no lions anymore. So how do we create more weirdos? Are you born weird, dropped on the head, or is it learned?

Last year I tried to recreate some of the steps that made me a weirdo. I launched a charity called OMG tech! with Michelle Dickinson, Rab Heath and Zoe Timbrell to give 8-12 year old girls and boys from all backgrounds access to crazy future technology – like robots, drones, 3D printers and science – to play, learn and invent with. Then we let them be weird. Any kid is welcome and we help fund the kids who can’t afford to participate in inventing the future. Half of all the kids are girls, too, because you know what? Being weird isn’t a white male privilege thing. Already we have inspired thousands of kids to dream about changing the future through technology, and being a little weird along the way.

It’s never too late to start being weird. If you find yourself doing something because 'that’s the way it’s always been done' then think to yourself what feels like the right way. Then do that. Even if it feels a bit weird. 

Vaughan Rowsell is the founder and chief product officer of Vend. He stepped down from his previous role as CEO this year. In 2014, he co-founded kids technology eduction programme OMGTech