Swallowing Business Lessons from a Competitive Eater

Strategy, practice and experimentation are critical for solving problems

By Pamela Babcock Oct 28, 2013

NEW YORK—Business leaders should challenge conventional thinking and the status quo with a business model from an unlikely source: Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi.

In 2001, Kobayashi shattered a world record by eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in a rookie appearance, according to the authors of the best-selling Freakonomics books.

Kobayashi’s story illustrates the importance of redefining problems, experimentation and defying artificial barriers, said Stephen J. Dubner, journalist and co-author of SuperFreakonomics (William Morrow, 2009) with Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economics professor.

The authors have a reputation for unconventional thinking and a creative approach to reimagining business models with often “freaky” revelations from simple observations.

Speaking Oct. 2, 2013, at the World Business Forum, Dubner called Kobayashi’s story “disgusting and ridiculous” but encouraged attendees to think about it when solving problems.

Game Theory and More

Kobayashi, who would go on to win six Guinness World Record titles for consuming massive quantities of hot dogs, hamburgers, meatballs, pasta and Twinkies, according to Guinness World Record News, was, at the beginning of his competitive-eating career, a college student and nearly broke.

One day he saw an advertisement for an eating contest offering a $5,000 prize. Kobayashi, a slight man, had a good appetite but “was no kind of human vacuum,” Dubner said.

He was smart and strategic, though. He had been studying economics and game theory—i.e., the idea that when competing, it pays to figure out how to proceed based on what you think opponents will do. He won his first contest and was hooked.

He took a closer look at previous contests. In general, competitors ate hot dogs like anyone else—end to end, with the bun intact—followed by big gulps of water. He decided to take a different approach.

He set his sights on “The Super Bowl” of competitive eating, Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July contest on New York’s Coney Island in 2001.

Strategy, Practice and Experimentation

Kobayashi approached it like an athletic competition: He trained, practiced and strategized.

“He begins to do what we all should do, which is experiment,” Dubner said. Kobayashi broke the wieners in half so he could alternate using his right and left hand to put pieces into his mouth. To solve the density problem of the hot dogs being firm, while the buns were soft, he separated the two. And instead of drinking water, he practiced “smushing” and dunking the buns into warm water, since it made digestion easier.

The soon-to-be frankfurter champ’s strategy didn’t stop there.

He videotaped practice sessions, experimented with pacing and did weight training, because stronger muscles helped digestion.

Finally, he worked to manipulate his whole body and developed a trademark wriggle and shake to speed digestion.

Kobayashi won the Coney Island contest by a wide margin. The previous record was 25 and 1/8 hot dogs and buns. A substantial improvement might have been 30 (a 20 percent increase), but the new title holder downed 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.

“It was mind-blowing,” Dubner said. But no fluke. Kobayashi won the contest six years in a row, and competitors have since copied his ways.

Redefine the problem. Kobayashi looked at competitors and saw big guys who tended to eat a lot. They were trying to take the ordinary act of eating every day and do it on a much greater scale or to magnify it. In Kobayashi’s mind, Dubner said, “this was a faulty parallel.”

Dubner likened it to people who think they want to run a marathon because “they know how to walk.” But the two are not the same.

In business, a firm suddenly getting beaten by a competitor may think it’s because the competitor has a great advertising campaign, without even testing that theory.

“It’s very easy to attribute effects to causes that you see right in front of you, but it may have nothing to do with that,” he said.

Don’t accept a barrier that turns out to be artificial. Kobayashi nearly doubled the previous record. But had he entered the contest thinking 25 wieners was the upper limit of human consumption, there’s no way he would have gotten to 50. The key is, he didn’t fall for a cognitive or “sort of artificial” barrier, Dubner observed. People pay too much attention and “are too obedient toward barriers that are artificial.”

He added that, when solving a problem, it pays to ask yourself whether the obstacle you think is there “is as real as you fear it is.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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