How to Use the S-Curve to Your Advantage

I watched a PBS special on Ed Sullivan the other day. As the show progressed, I began to appreciate more and more the impact he had on the music revolution of the early 1960s. I’d go so far as to say: He was a master of the new music S-curve, when it was first emerging from Britain to America.

He was a crusty old conservative-looking guy that resembled Richard Nixon, and he was absolutely instrumental in introducing most of the great bands of a new, young music explosion for the baby boom generation.

I’m talking The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Doors, The Mamas and Papas, Frankie Valle and the Four Seasons, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, and on and on… and on. So many, I can’t give the full list here!

How did he do it?


Well, Malcolm Gladwell best describes the few simple principles that create long-term success and innovation. The two that best capture Ed Sullivan are “outlier” and the “tipping point.”

Outliers are people who think outside the box, and are determined enough to follow through with new innovations, no matter what it takes. They don’t care what anyone else thinks about them either. Believe me, I know what that’s like, thanks to what I do in economics.

Without a doubt, Sullivan was an outlier who recognized other up-and-coming outliers in the new pop music. More importantly, he recognized them just as the industry had reached the tipping point that would blast these new artists into the mainstream.

In the 1960’s music industry, nobody — and I mean nobody — helped launch more new promising bands into the mainstream awareness than Ed Sullivan. He had the instincts to identify new, up-and-coming bands and bet on them like a venture capitalist would. He was a genius and he made American music in the early- to mid-1960s.

But his greatest genius was a simple understanding of the S-curve… what Malcolm Gladwell would call, the tipping point. (This was also one of the earliest principles I discovered, even before unearthing the power of demographics.)

The S-curve says simply that once a new product or technology or trend has reached 10% of the potential initial market, it will accelerate rapidly into the mainstream, reaching 90% adoption in the same time it took to go from near 0% to 10%.

That 10% is the measurable tipping point that Gladwell illuminates so well.

See larger image

Most of the bands shot to the best-seller charts after Ed Sullivan introduced them at the exact right time. As a result, these artists sold albums for many years. But some, like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys, have lasted forever. That is the nature of progress, the nature of evolution, and the nature of business.

It’s the “often eccentric, tortured and determined” outliers that master their craft from more than 10,000 hours of dedication, blood, sweat, and tears… and then go on to create the most meaningful innovations that bring the most critical changes to everyone, at all levels of society.

I’ve no doubt The Beatles put in more than 10,000 hours of practice and playing time — developing new music, hopping from one English pub or stage to another — before they launched into the mainstream on the Ed Sullivan Show in the early 1960s.

The thing is, very few new innovations make it to that 10% adoption level. But those that do, those that survive from inception to creation to viability — that move from 0% to 10% — are the ones that finally move mainstream… with a vengeance.

So why am I telling you this?

Because seeing the 10% to 90% surge in any new trend or product or technology, as it starts (if not before), is the key to success in any realm.

People that seize those opportunities as they begin their acceleration mainstream, win the battle longer term. Ed Sullivan did that in spades in the 1960s and will forever be remembered for it.

And you can do it now too. You’ve just got to know where to look… and that’s where we come in.


P.S. Make a note on your calendar: I am holding a live Twitter event on Tuesday, April 8, from 4 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., to answer any questions you may have about my book, The Demographic Cliff. On April 8, use #democliff to ask your questions @harrydentjr.

Follow me on Twitter @HarryDentjr