In the early 1990s, most large industrial facilities and warehouses in Dallas were hot, literally. They didn’t have air conditioning and left the engineers and workers inside drenched in sweat. Carey Smith, an entrepreneur who had grown up in unairconditioned homes, spotted a business problem he could solve. Throughout his childhood, his family would spray water on the roof to cool down the inside of their home. He and his father decided to apply the method to mitigate the heat in industrial warehouses. They founded Sprinkle, a company that would spray water on the exterior of the facilities to cool off the interior.
That company ultimately failed—it was a difficult sale; many facilities managers were hesitant to let someone water their roof. But in the meantime, Smith learned a significant amount about industrial facilities and the people who run them. His sales conversations at Sprinkle led him to get to know his customers’ pain points, and he recognized that he needed to sell something else that customers understood.
He came across an advertisement in a trade magazine that showed large fans being used to cool down dairy farms. It became clear to him that large indoor fans could work just as well in warehouses. He called the company and designed a partnership where he would sell the fans. As part of the agreement, if he sold a certain number of fans, he would have the right to buy intellectual property.
In 1999, he bought the IP and started The HVLS (High-Volume, Low-Speed) Fan Company to manufacture the fans.
One day, Smith picked up a call, and the customer on the other end asked, “Hey, are you the people that make those big-ass fans?”
A new company was born.
Big Ass Fans
From his time in industrial facilities, Smith recognized warehouses had a big-ass problem. Managers and supervisors needed to cool down a lot of employees working in unairconditioned spaces. Handing out small, personal fans was expensive and inefficient. Smith saw the opportunity—move air over a larger space more efficiently with a bigger fan and a bigger motor.
True innovation often happens by accident. The new company name, “Big Ass Fans,” was a happy accident. The shift from outdoor misting to large interior fans was another accidental win.
Imagine a chef coming up with a new recipe. She combines different spices, ingredients, and techniques until she finds the perfect medley for success. Along the way, there will be some total failures. She’ll throw them out and start fresh. Coming up with your business model is a similar process—you’ll never be sure of exactly the right ingredients until you try.
Big Ass Fans experimented across a few different dimensions:
- Product: Most people make the mistake of starting with a single product, which limits their minds to the confines of that product category and industry. Instead, Smith started by listening to customers. Start with a customer problem then look across industries to determine how you might address it.
- Positioning: The power of positioning sets you apart in your customers’ minds. Before introducing fans, Smith already understood his customers. They were busy maintenance guys with a sense of humor. He thought, “I want to make this interesting enough to capture their attention.” The name Big Ass Fans got right to the point and spoke their language.
- Pricing: Smith knew across the board, maintenance supervisors had a purchasing budget of $5000. He decided to price the fans just under $5000 to fit within their budgets. This made it a no-brainer for the people who had the problem to affordably solve that problem.
- Physical experience: In a bustling warehouse, the fans needed to be easy to install and maintain. Even though it required a greater investment upfront, Big Ass Fans went the extra distance to make sure workers could install the fans safely, including extra blister packs for bolts because people on the floor would lose them or take them away and end up using faulty replacements.
- People: After a failed attempt using local sales reps in new geographies like Australia, Big Ass Fans learned to use their own internal sellers. In about five years they were selling more fans per capita in Australia than anywhere else in the world. They also made the decision to pay salespeople very well (about 50% more than the market average), so that the sellers recognized their job was extremely important.
Key takeaways to increase your chance of success
The story of Big Ass Fans shows you can improve your likelihood of innovative success by taking a strategic approach. Carey Smith didn’t set out to reinvent industrial fans. He was simply trying to solve a problem for his customers—overheated warehouses. His journey from outdoor misting to giant fan blades was full of twists and turns over the years. But Smith pursued innovation systematically, eventually selling Big Ass Fans for $500 million in 2017 and starting the investment firm Unorthodox Ventures.
Use these key takeaways to increase your chances of landing on a big-ass success:
- Listen deeply: Smith spent time on-site, talking to customers in their own environment. He learned their pain points and language, gaining true empathy. This allowed him to uncover the real problem to solve. Talk to your customers and let those conversations lead the way.
- Explore broadly: Developing a business model is like walking down a hallway lined with doors—to find the right idea, you need to open and quickly walk through a great number of doors. Big Ass Fans didn’t start with fans right away. Smith found inspiration outside his industry. An open mindset expands your solution space. Use your customer pain points and consider different dimensions of a business model—product, positioning, price, promotion, placement, physical experience, processes, and people—to come up with a long list (we recommend up to 200) of potential ideas you might try.
- Test rapidly: Smith pivoted from misting to fans after seeing what worked. He changed sales models when international expansion faltered. By prototyping and piloting ideas quickly, failures become learning opportunities.
- Pivot nimbly: Start testing your ideas. Some might be total failures—that is normal. Even after finding product-market fit, Smith kept innovating. He optimized pricing, sales, and installation based on continuous customer feedback. Your product might change, your pricing strategy will most likely change, and your entire business could look completely different. Don’t be afraid to abandon your original concept if your customer conversations point you in a different direction.
As strategists and innovators, we often want to map everything out upfront. But real innovation often relies on accidental discovery. By taking a structured approach to listening, exploring, testing and pivoting, you raise your chances of stumbling upon unexpected insights and game-changing ideas.
Embrace the accidental but pursue it with purpose. Let your customers’ language and environment guide you. Draw inspiration widely. Fail fast and adapt. Stay open to surprise pivots. This is how innovative strategies—and names like Big Ass Fans—are born.