2020 Featured Speaker, Rohit Bhargava

Rohit Bhargava

Looking Out For The Non-Obvious

When Rohit Bhargava was in high school, he wrote a play and entered it into a festival competition where the top three winners would get their plays produced. Bhargava won fourth place. Afterward, he told his father that he wanted to be a playwright. His dad, who had moved the family from India to Washington, D.C., to take a job with the World Bank when Rohit was nine years old, suggested that his son try out engineering instead. So, Bhargava went to an engineering camp for a few weeks in the summer.

“I pretty quickly realized that those weren’t my people. I didn’t speak the same language, literally, that they did,” remembers Bhargava. “At 17, it taught me something pretty awesome: that I was better at people than I was at numbers and science.”

With that understanding of himself in mind, Bhargava went on to study English literature and marketing at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also spent two years in its Goizueta Business School. Seeking adventure after he graduated, he spent several months in the Philippines, where his parents had moved, and then took a risk and moved to Australia in 1998 without knowing anybody and without a job or permanent housing lined up. Eventually, he leveraged a temp job coding HTML into a project management position at an Australian ad agency, where he worked during the dot com boom of the early 2000s.

“This brand of ‘non-obvious’ and what it puts out into the world … It needs you to think for yourself.”

His experience working in Australia was another lesson, Bhargava says. “I took the opportunity that was in front of me instead of waiting for the one that I wanted.” Although his passions lay more on the creative side, coding and, later on, project management are what helped him get started in the industry.

He spent five years living in Australia before he moved back to Washington, D.C. In 2011, frustrated by what he felt like were lists of “profoundly obvious observations of the world,” Bhargava wrote a blog post of 15 trends called “Non-Obvious Trend Report.” The post was a result of the reading and organizing he’d done over the years, identifying trends that he’d picked up on using a method that he would identify as the “Haystack Method” four years later.

Bhargava’s Haystack Method is a year-long process of gathering interesting stories and articles and organizing them into common themes, identifying connections, and validating the gathered information. Although Bhargava didn’t fully identify and name his process until 2015, it was something he’d been honing since he first started blogging in 2004. “To have this blog and to continually have something new to write on it required me to continually look for stories and just be an idea seeker.”

After his first blog post in 2011, he repeated his process over the years, updating his trend report for every new year and expanding his posts with interviews, anecdotes, and research until he published the first book version of the report, Non-Obvious, in 2015. Since then, he has published yearly editions of the book, updating it with the new year’s trends.

His latest edition, Non-Obvious Megatrends, was published on January 7 and is the final edition. Last year was a turning point for Bhargava, because he published another book, which helped him realize that he wanted to expand into other projects outside of Non-Obvious. That, coupled with 2020 being a new decade, felt like a good time to have what Bhargava calls his “Seinfeld moment — where I could walk away when people still want it.”

With the free time he’s gaining from not tracking trends throughout the year, Bhargava plans to work on expanding his business, the Non-Obvious Company, and his publishing company, Ideapress Publishing. One of the key elements of Ideapress is a series of guidebooks called the Non-Obvious Guide, written by a variety of experts from different fields.

“This brand of ‘non-obvious’ and what it puts out into the world — which is that the world needs more non-obvious and that the world needs more originality — it needs you to think for yourself,” Bhargava says. “That’s the mission of this company, this brand. I wanted that to be bigger than this one book.”

At SXSW this year, Bhargava plans to announce the next batch of guidebooks in the series, including one he has written. He’s also working on the “Non-Obvious Podcast,” in which he will share interesting tidbits of history and what they mean for the modern age. While he won’t be continuing the Non-Obvious books, it doesn’t mean he’s completely done with trend predictions. Bhargava and his team are exploring other formats and updates they may be able to make to the trend reports, including a digital magazine.

2020 may mark a lot of change for Bhargava, but some things will stay the same. This past December, he found himself beginning his now decades-old habit of gathering articles again. “I’m still collecting stories,” Bhargava admits. “Even though I am definitely not doing this book again, that process hasn’t stopped for me. I feel like I’ll find something else to do with them.”

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Rohit Bhargava will be a Featured Speaker at SXSW 2020.

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