Turning Asperger’s From a Social Handicap to an Entrepreneur’s Edge
By Andreas Souvaliotis, a YPO member since 2006
Ever since I was a little kid I knew I was a misfit, and I figured my brain just worked differently from everyone else’s. I had a deep fascination with music, numbers and, of all things, the weather. I could play classical piano, identify complex number patterns and bore you with the most recent weather statistics from Mongolia — all in the same afternoon. This is nothing unusual for someone with Asperger’s. And, yes, those quirks could perhaps make for charming party tricks for some grown-ups, but they sure didn’t make life easy for a kid who already felt different and isolated.
I grew up to become a very reluctant leader in business; full of ideas but afraid to stand out and terrified of failing. It wasn’t until my first completely accidental plunge into entrepreneurship, only after repeated nudges by my YPO forum and deep into my 40s, that I realized how I was uniquely able to harness all the “misfit” elements of my brain and turn them into competitive advantages. I blended all my quirky passions into a completely new business idea and built the world’s first eco-rewards loyalty program, just when climate change was becoming an important preoccupation for millions. Eventually the long road of innovation and reinvention brought me to create Carrot Rewards, one of the most unusual social ventures in the world and, as it turns out, one of the most successful and popular in Canada.
My Asperger’s — punctuated by my ability to think differently — actually has given me a unique edge in building my businesses, mostly by hindering my ability to recognize my limitations. This isn’t false modesty: There were so many times in my career when I genuinely didn’t understand the impact of my words, couldn’t calculate the social risks, didn’t interpret the verbal signs, or didn’t even think about the emotional tolerance of those around me. My colleagues, my friends, my forum-mates and, above all, my spouse would say I still suffer from this and I admit that it’s quite common for interactions with me to take bizarre or awkward turns.
Not recognizing limitations has led me to push others to set unreasonable objectives in pursuit of audacious goals or to take weird and unexpected approaches to solving problems. Where some might see endless challenges and intimidating complexity, I often see fascinating and “logical” patterns that simply needed to be followed to achieve a desired result.
While it certainly hasn’t always been positive, when I think back over the unusual turns, jagged patterns and colorful highs of my career, there are a few very specific areas where I feel the uniqueness of my mind made a real difference.
Al Gore’s seminal environmental film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” had a profound impact on me a decade ago. I was struck by the enormity of the challenge and urgency of the message but also by how leading brands and marketers had been almost entirely oblivious to the coming change in consumer attitudes. I saw the very beginning of a megatrend that would fundamentally and permanently influence the appetites of billions of consumers around the world.
Instead of sticking to conventional patterns and seeing all the “green” fever of that time as just another opportunity for another tweak to what we marketers did and said, I saw an emerging public hunger for radically different thinking and solutions. For the first time in my career I felt I had a real and useful edge over my peers, because it seemed nobody else was paying attention to the new business weather forecast.
And that’s how my first radical venture came to be — Green Rewards, the first loyalty points program in the world that only rewarded responsible behaviors and only allowed people to redeem their points for responsible rewards. It disrupted a booming industry in Canada and it ultimately led to a beautiful (and personally very meaningful) exit.
I was that extreme math geek kid on national TV who would quickly calculate, in front of a live audience, that in the year 2032, 23 March would fall on a Tuesday! To me, it was all about spotting simple, repeatable patterns and following the most obvious logical threads. Complexity never has intimidated me because, frankly, I don’t even understand it; my mind naturally seeks the most direct path to solutions, instead of relying on more typical and more learned problem-analysis skills.
One of the most unusual aspects of my most recent venture is the complexity and diversity of the organizational partnership ecosystem we had to build around us. Carrot is now a successful social venture that rewards millions of people for taking tiny steps in their everyday lives toward living healthier. It’s all done through a very popular mobile app that generates profits by buying whatever popular loyalty points rewards a user chooses to earn (frequent flier miles, grocery points, gas points, movie points, etc.) and reselling those points to a government health agency the moment that user actually earned those points by doing what we asked them to do.
To get this thing off the ground, we had to pull together the most unusual coalition of the most unlikely of bedfellows — fiercely competitive providers of some of the most popular loyalty points programs in Canada, national health nongovernmental organizations with completely divergent causes, government agencies with absolutely no jurisdictional overlaps, and so much more.
Does any of it sound complicated or daunting to you? It sure felt that way to all my colleagues, investors, clients and coalition partners, and yet none of it ever intimidated me, at any stage of creating our proud venture. Once the idea was etched in my mind, once I could see how it could all work together as a logical (no matter how complex) ecosystem, the rest just looked like a totally straight line to me.
The payoff from surviving all this complexity has been superb: Not only is our platform now so popular and effective, but the competitive moat around it is also impenetrable — nobody can copy or dislodge us, precisely because our secret sauce is so intimidatingly complex.
Saying it like it is
“Aspies” like me have a very difficult time with conventional diplomacy. We can’t fake happiness (or unhappiness); we’re challenged by nuances and incomplete expressions of anything; and we certainly can’t fake love.
Building a social venture with a crisp objective to simply make the world a healthier place was enormously energizing and perfectly appropriate for someone like me, precisely because of my binary communication style. I couldn’t fake it. Carrot had to be the real thing and I had to be able to survive any tough interview without the slightest twitch of doubt or agony. Numbers, my lifelong best friend, had to be there to support my proud proclamations of changing behaviors on a mass scale. And it all had to make simple, transparent, honest sense.
Interestingly, my uncompromising communication style also has turned out to be a bit infectious. The leaders of some of the national partner organizations around Carrot seem to enjoy finding cover behind my binary directness and, increasingly, we see them speaking up publicly in proudly blunt tones one wouldn’t expect of senior public servants or prominent corporate CEOs. Add to this the fact that journalists obviously love interviewing uncompromisingly authentic subjects, and you can see how all the media attention on us continues to mushroom.
Growing up insecure and marginalized left me with an intense and permanent need for approval. It’s tricky being this way, because it’s almost impossible for me to accomplish anything significant in isolation. I instinctively surround myself with critical, trusted minds who understand my quirks, tolerate my solution-seeking approaches and somehow normalize my communication patterns. My colleagues are my coaches, my confidantes and my stabilizers. They often mop up my messes and they know how to turn the stark contrasts between our minds into powerful advantages for our dream venture. We thrive precisely because we have the world’s most unconventional leadership team built around a most unconventional founder — not by choice, but by wonderful necessity.
Every day I go to work, I feel like I’m going home. And it sure feels like redemption for all those lonely childhood years.
YPO member Andreas Souvaliotis is the Founder and CEO of Toronto-based Carrot Rewards. He has been recognized globally for his social change achievements and for his bestselling memoir, “Misfit — Changemaker with an Edge.” Connect with him on Twitter @souvaliotis.