‘Success for $800, Alex’: Four Business Lessons from Jeopardy!

William Lee, Class of 2014

William Lee, Class of 2014

Last week, television history was made. I don’t mean Don Draper’s ménage à trois on Mad Men but rather the end of the toughest tournament in game show history: the Jeopardy! Battle of the Decades. Nine of the best players from the show’s 30-year history competed for a $1 million grand prize. I tuned in with especially keen interest—I am a former Jeopardy! champion. As I watched, I realized that Jeopardy! teaches us much about success in business.

Move Fast, Succeed Often

When you ask Jeopardy! contestants what is most important to winning, most will tell you that it isn’t knowing a ton of trivia—it’s being the first to buzz in. It turns out that on many questions more than one player knows the right answer, so the one who consistently rings in first gets the advantage. The best press the signaling button even before they know the answer. Sometimes they blank out, but more often they figure it out before their time is up.

Compare these contestants to fast-moving businesses. Many startups these days release minimum viable products in order to quickly test ideas and prove market acceptance, thus outpacing the competition. These businesses are not afraid of failure—in fact their mantra is “fail fast, fast often.” It’s better to release an inexpensive, imperfect prototype and make adjustments than to invest huge amounts of money and time in an unproven concept.

Timing Is Everything

Success on Jeopardy! depends on the categories that come up. Who knows how many contestants are brilliant during auditions but are shut out in their game because they don’t get the questions matching their expertise? Similarly, some business ideas that seem like winners reach the market at the wrong time. Look at the electric car. The EV1, General Motors’ model from the late 1990’s, flopped. Its production costs were enormous and it was introduced at a time when gasoline was just over $1. But recent developments—rising fuel prices, concerns about global warming, advancements in batteries and the mass-market adoption of hybrids—produced the right conditions for the electric car.

Double the Action

Daily Doubles—questions that enable players to double their money in one shot—are golden moments to catch the leader or pad a lead. But far too often contestants who are losing badly make a small wager on a Daily Double, keeping them out of contention even if they respond correctly. Once in a while a player realizes the true value of Daily Doubles and uses them effectively. This happened in the tournament when a savvy contestant bet $10,000 on one and effectively sealed the outcome halfway through. He determined that if he had missed, there would have been enough time to recapture the lead, but there might not be another chance to put the game out of reach. Managers and entrepreneurs must identify the Daily Doubles for their businesses, the growth opportunities that seldom arise (sales channels, acquisitions), and seize them if the reward outweighs the risk.

The author with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek

The author with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek

A Little Luck Never Hurt

Jeopardy! champions often benefit from lucky breaks. I’ve seen a few come from behind in Final Jeopardy because the leader messed up the math and made the wrong wager. During my own run, fortune smiled on me in a big way. Trailing badly in the second round, I got a Daily Double and bet everything. The question: “Edmund Spenser coined the term prothalamion for a poem that celebrates the impending one of these events.” I froze—I had no idea. Desperate, I blurted out the first word that came to mind: “wedding.” Correct! I let out a huge breath and steamed ahead with the next question. Just like Jeopardy! contestants, businesses have to get strategy right but sometimes they need to get lucky, too.

The best Jeopardy! champions appear at the right time, are quick on the trigger, pounce on rare opportunities and have good fortune. The same is true for successful businesses.

The author, William Lee, made two true Daily Doubles over his two wins on Jeopardy!