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Finding One-In-A-Million Solutions

Lynn Y.S. Lin, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014
The company:

The mission:
New Product Research

When he was in fifth grade, Lynn Lin won second place in a citywide speech contest in his native Taiwan. He says he learned two things from the first-place winner: Don’t read your speech, and don’t be afraid to walk around while you’re talking. It was an early lesson in how to build an audience.

This was good advice for someone who would go on to set a world standard in product-marketing research. The statistical model Lin eventually developed has in fact been used in 17 time zones to forecast consumer demand for everything from shampoo to Olympic-stadium seating.

Raised in a family that he describes as “poorer than poor,” Lin remembers a childhood in which there was never enough food, let alone money for luxuries like books; he got his very first pair of shoes for that fifth-grade speech competition. But he was brilliant and hard working, ranking first in all his undergraduate and graduate classes at National Chung-Hsing University. His interest was agricultural economics, but his passion was in creating a bridge between academic studies and the real world. In Taiwan, that meant helping farmers improve their crop production. The tool he used was statistics.

"You need statistics for everything,”
he says. “When you put everything
together and come up with the
one-in-a-million solution, it’s like
hitting the jackpot in Powerball.”

So when he came to the University of Minnesota to pursue a PhD in statistics, Lin had a slightly different perspective than that of most of his colleagues. For one thing, his background was economics, not math, which was the norm. But also, he says, “I was probably the first PhD student at the University who didn’t make teaching a career. I was more interested in applying statistics to the real world.”

“Real world” companies were definitely interested in him. They liked his work on a new statistical model that could forecast new-product sales; he in turn knew that access to their consumer-behavior research data would help complete that model. Pillsbury finally persuaded him to leave the University faculty to join the company. “I said if I didn’t like it after two years, I would go back to the University,” Lin says.

He stayed in the corporate world. First at Pillsbury and later at Booz, Allen, and Hamilton—the marketing firm that recruited him to establish its forecasting division—he developed the statistical model he called BASES. Launched in 1977, BASES (an acronym for Booz Allen Sales Estimation System) incorporated consumer response data with manufacturers’ marketing plans to predict a new product’s potential volume before it went on the market.

In the risky world of new-product launching, no model has succeeded like BASES. For decades, it has been the global leader in sales forecasting, not just for packaged goods like detergent, cell phones, and frozen yogurt, but also for durable goods and international services. With BASES, Lin forecasted traffic on Eurostar—the London-to-Paris high-speed passenger train—for example, and stadium ticket sales for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

With an entrepreneur’s eye for solving problems and a penchant for big- picture thinking, Lin started his own consulting firm in 2002, expanding his model to include financial services. And he continues to relish the challenge of statistics and its broad application.

“You need statistics for everything,” he says. “When you put everything together and come up with the one-in-a-million solution, it’s like hitting the jackpot in Powerball.”

What he says:

“I’m interested in solving real problems. I can write about a statistical theory and publish it in a profes- sional journal, where four or five people may read it. It may advance the science, but nobody would know anything about it.”

“A student once said to me, ‘Professor, all I want is a C, and I won’t see statistics for the rest of my life.’ But the real world uses statistics everywhere—from politics to pharmaceuticals.”

“To be successful, you need to be fit. I exercise every day. Sometimes I do knee bends in the elevator. Anyone looking at a security camera would say, ‘This guy is crazy.’”