But We’ve Always…

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things:

  • We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals.
  • In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones.

That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends:

  • Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics.
  • We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction.

How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position?

It all begins with three wretched words:

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before:

I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day.

I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.”

I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon.

I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins.

I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget.

Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for doing what’s right.

Earlier this year I attended the third-annual ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas. It had grown 50% over 2017 with more than 8400 attendees. Ecommerce remains an escalating magic buzz word. There were two types of presentations:

  • “People may think our proud, established, vastly well capitalized legacy brand can’t adapt to new technology, but we’ve always been a customer favorite and there’s no reason anyone should bet against us.”
  • “We’re a new brand and will lose our jobs if we don’t succeed, but our investors are betting that if we brainstorm new experiments and focus on customer behavior, the results will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Which bet would you place with your own money?

Let me restate the choice:

  • “We’ve been around more than fifty years, we know exactly what we’re doing having coined a business model for hard-won success, we’re a household name, and we’ll still be a household name fifty years from now.”
  • “We have no idea if we’re going to be around in two years, but we’ll take whatever runway we have to figure out how to do what’s never worked successfully before.”

Don’t bother answeringit’s a trick question. The truth is you need some of both to win the long game, some of the newbies and some of the dinosaurs. Yet too many people convince themselves there’s little downside to a buy-and-hold strategy with “forever” companies like GE or GM. They won’t invest in a risky start-up with a funny name and an unproven business model like Amazon or Apple until it’s a fully valued blue chip.

No one knows what companies are going to win in the future, whether cemented or emerging. They all have unpredictable choices to make. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s how new companies are born and old companies die, or old companies are reborn through reinvention. It’s called creative destruction.

My point has nothing to do with improving your stock portfolio. My point has everything to do with recognizing the death knell of an established brand and bringing life or invigoration to a challenger brand.

It can be a fair fight. An established brand can be a challenger brand when it acts like an underdogwhen it stomps out the status quo and humbly looks to customers for confirmation or rejection of any working thesis.

I am willing to bet few employees at Amazon or Apple wander the halls uttering the words “but we’ve always” as a response to why they aren’t trying something new. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they are becoming slow, cynical, and comfortable that they know what they are doing. I doubt it, but if they are, an opportunity for a challenger brand is out there for the taking.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Sears.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Toys ‘R’ Us.

When was the last time you said it? Still feeling good about that?

This year’s holiday shopping strategy is already behind us. There’s nothing we can do with history except study and learn from it.

The new year awaits all big ideas, particularly those focused on truly delighting customers with a sustainable business model and a resonating brand promise.

My advice going forward in whatever you are doing?

Eliminate the phrase BUT WE’VE ALWAYS from your company’s vocabulary before it eliminates you.

Erase those three words entirely from all conversation.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS is defensive, uninspiring, and telling.

Try something instead that hasn’t worked, something that you think might work because you have reason to believe in a thesis. Measure the results. If there’s promise, hone it with precision. If it starts to work, stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Question the potential interpretation of every collected data point. Remember that every successful idea has a life cycle, and a bad idea yesterday might be reformed under changing market forces as a good idea tomorrow.

When an idea works dependably and someone questions it in a future review, just don’t say BUT WE’VE ALWAYS done it that way. You haven’t always done it that way. It had a beginning. It can have an end. What can’t end is innovation.

_______________

Image: Pixabay

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Thoughts About Steve

Steve Jobs 1955- 2011Everyone who has worked around technology the past few decades has a Steve Jobs story. Some have observed Jobs at a distance and felt the impact of his creativity and decisiveness, others have worked with him directly and more explicitly experienced his creativity and decisiveness. No meeting with Jobs is forgettable. Most meetings with him begin with a non-disclosure agreement, and since no one is quite sure of the statute of limitations he expects, I shall tread carefully through this post while still sharing some of my own observations.

So much has been said and written about Steve Jobs in the past week it is almost daunting to try to add to the collection without being redundant. In a recent profile on CNBC Titans, Jobs was portrayed in a balanced manner, fully celebrated as the Thomas Edison of our time, of course not without a few bumps in his long and winding road, personal and professional. The day after the announcement that Jobs would no longer be CEO of Apple, Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal expertly assessed the legacy of Steve Jobs as someone who changed the way we live. Coverage and analysis have poured onto the web from professional and citizen journalists, the very volume of which speaks to the somewhat incomparable significance of his contributions.

My personal experiences with Jobs were mostly tied to the launch of the iMac, right after he returned to Apple in 1997. We had just launched a games label at Broderbund Software called Red Orb Entertainment, and Jobs invited us to be part of his new beginning. Riven: The Sequel to Myst, developed by Cyan Worlds, and The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time, developed by Presto Studios, were both largely created on Macs by Mac devotees, so it was easy and natural for us to get onboard. Everything Jobs promised us happened, from the billboards to the print ads to inviting Cyan President Rand Miller to share in the keynote at the Macworld Expo. The iMac was unique, Jobs’s vision was unique, and he wanted unique products to be associated with its beauty. That was the beginning of Apple’s resurgence, and it was magical.

What was most impressive about the return of Jobs was how quickly he brought the core values back to the company that seemed to have evaporated with his initial departure. Meetings at Apple in the non-Jobs years had become, to say the least, painful. Apple had forgotten what was special about it, that its publishers and developers were a unique bunch, and that fully democratizing the Apple universe would serve no one customer well if the core values of Apple were not embraced. Upon Jobs’s return, those core values returned in real-time and included with stunning mandate:

• Intuitive user interface is not optional. If a customer needs a manual, something is wrong. I remember when we received very first prototype iPod, no one in the house knew what it was, but within five minutes of it landing on our doorstep we had it synched and working with iTunes. How much more intuitive does it get than getting a new high-end gadget that never previously existed and have it working flawlessly without instructions?

• Innovation is meant to leapfrog entrenched competitors. The iPod wasn’t a better MP3 player, it was a new vision of how music could be enjoyed. The iPhone wasn’t a better cell phone, it was a lifestyle device that put a computer in your pocket. The iPad wasn’t a better tablet, it was an all media delivery system that is light, fast, simple, and elegant. If Jobs was going to make incremental change, it would be on later versions of his own products. The products he introduced to market were to be leapfrog inventions.

• Think Different is much more than an advertising campaign. Think Different is an intellectual construct that begins by defying grammar and doesn’t end until we have exhausted elimination of the ordinary. It is sometime said the difference between a cult and a religion is how long a movement lasts, and for many devotees, Think Different is something of a religion. It forces us to challenge ourselves to achieve the impossible, and then when we achieve it, make it look simple to everyone else.

When I worked at Disney, I remember well the weekend we had a staff preview at our new theme park in Anaheim, Disney’s California Adventure. Disney had not yet bought Pixar, that was years away, so the relationship between the companies was quite separate. One of the attractions at the new theme park was a whimsical movie about the history of California hosted by Whoopi Goldberg that delved into what made California unique. That attraction no longer exists, but what I remember most about it was the section on Jobs, largely painting him not only as part of California’s history, but our nation’s economic advancement. The portrait was magnificent, because his contribution to the world through the Silicon Valley miracle was magnificent. It was more than California, it was more than technology, he was settling the new frontier. What felt weird to me was that what I was seeing was indeed history, but it was happening now, current events, a real man and a real life changing the lives of all of us with each new idea and grand leap forward. I never got to meet Walt Disney or Henry Ford or Sam Walton, they were more icons to me than tangible people. Steve Jobs had become part of our lore while he was still young and his legacy was unfolding in our time.

Yet of all the emblematic impact of Steve Jobs, what resonates most with me is what he means to the notion of reinvention. Here is a guy who was driven out of the very company he founded by the very fellow he had invited to help him run it. Had he done nothing else after that event he would have forever been part of the Silicon Valley story. Then he founds another company, then Apple falls on almost unrecoverable hard times because it has lost its way and he returns, embracing that new-new thing called the Internet and helping chart its hockey-stick future. As a sideline, he buys a small computer graphics company from George Lucas and helps guide it to become one of the most successful entertainment production studios of all time.

Like so many others, I am trying hard not to write a tribute, but instead capture the spirit of what the contributions of Steve Jobs can mean to every one of us, whether or not a devotee. The point is that reinvention is possible no matter how hard we fall on our face, and that is a lesson always worth re-learning. Reinvention is not the stuff of storybook fables and pep talks, but the stuff of necessary and vital resilience. We need concrete examples to see that reinvention is possible, that lives and devices and ideas can be reinvented if we have the will and commitment to Think Different.

For me, that is the legacy of Steve Jobs. All that he has accomplished in a lifetime is astonishing, but like his very small peer group of great visionaries who have led our economy forward, it is the abstract notion of reinvention that I see and feel whenever he is present, nearby, referenced, or invoked. No matter how many English teachers correct us, I hope we will never stop saying the words Think Different, attributing them appropriately, and giving all we can to reinvent the legacy.

Innovation Finds a Way

If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.  — Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park, 1993

When not engaging in polite conversation over the past few weeks that involved either unsound journalistic ethics at News Corporation or the pending apocalypse of the U.S. debt ceiling, the most popular question I tended to encounter was, “Do you think we’re in a stock bubble?”  Truth be told, that has been a raging topic all year.  The cover story in the current issue of Fortune is “Tech Bubble 2.0” with a reasonably balanced assessment of Is It or Isn’t It.   My assessment?  Got me.

Here’s what I know.

It’s sure not 2000.  The internet is real now and so are an incredible number of businesses being launched of late.  This new wave of entrepreneurial enterprises sits upon real business models either with real revenues and real profits or real revenues and reasonably predictable profits at scale.  The business models are new, unexpected, but sound.  Some are working wildly well and bringing buckets of cash to their corporate bank accounts with pleased and well served customers, employees, and shareholders.  Others hold promise to do the same, aren’t quite there yet, but don’t take a lot of imagination to understand how they will scale to profitability because their models make sense.

Corporate earnings appear for the most part to be sound, albeit with heavy cost controls in place that aren’t doing much for the unemployed.  If you are buying the major indices across the board — domestic and international, large and small, growth and value — fully diversified along with fixed income to your own level of acceptable risk, you probably aren’t having trouble sleeping at night (except, of course, when you think about resolution to the debt ceiling).  Are the markets volatile?  They are, but they always are.  Are the fundamentals and multiples reasonable?  Well, I’m not an economist or a trader, but the Dow looks pretty understandable to me.

So how about that bubble?  Major players in venture capital have issued their opinions and are easy to search on other blogs, I am hardly qualified to comment.  Is it likely that some valuations are products of hope, optimism, or hyperbole?  Tell me anytime when that’s not the case.  Have you ever heard a Realtor tell you it’s not a good time to buy a house?  It’s always a good time, if it’s the right house at the right price.  My sense is, same with equities, preferred and common, private and public.  Bubble is a broad and complicated idea, always easy to assess in hindsight, virtually impossible in the crystal ball.

That’s what I know.  Sorry if I disappointed.

Here’s one thing else I know: the innovation all around us is astounding.  I can’t remember a time when there was so much happening so quickly and so much of it actually looked like true value creation.  Here is small sampling of the mind-blowing advances all around us:

Apple — the iPhone was a game changer, the iPad is a life changer.  I think the iPad will change everything about media for a generation.

Netflix — another game changer, first movies by mail, then movies on demand, easy and affordable, changing entertainment distribution paradigms at every turn.

Zynga — will people buy virtual goods?  They will.  Can a tiny segment of your audience underwrite the ability for everyone else to play free and still create profits?  Indeed.

Pandora — here’s technology that lets you create your own radio station that not only plays the songs you already like, but introduces you to new music you probably will like.

LinkedIn — not long ago if you had your resume online you were job hunting, afraid of being caught by the boss; now you must have your resume online or you don’t exist.

Hulu — one new brand aggregator derives more advertising revenue from network created content than the total online revenue of all the suppliers combined; wow!

Groupon & Living Social — coupons used to be the least cool way in the world to shop; call them time sensitive Daily Deals and online drives consumers back to storefronts offline.

Twitter — people communicate in less than 140 characters and the world is connected through snippets of information that can alter public opinion and evangelize democracy.

Facebook — connect people with friends, redefine the verb like, open your platform, create the most display ad inventory imaginable, then enjoy the value of 750 million accounts.

Again, this is just a sample of very cool companies doing very interesting things, among them, creating jobs and creating wealth.  Each of these represents incredible creativity, brilliant execution, and deep levels of passion.  People are working hard, people are working smart, people are being rewarded.  With > 9% national unemployment still our challenge, it is inspiring to see there are paths out of the malaise.  There are lessons to be learned in the current Silicon Valley run-up, first among them, the key is innovation.

It is ironic this “Tale of Two Economies” comes at a time when so much of the nation’s economy is suffering, and so many job losses lead the gloomy headlines.  It’s also ironic that it comes just as we lose a much beloved company, Borders, which in its day reinvented our notion of what a bookstore could be.  When the first wave of internet companies changed the landscape, Borders leased their digital real estate to Amazon.  They never recovered.  I asked a former VP of mine her sense of this recently, to which she replied: “They just forget to keep innovating.”

Perhaps the former CEO of Intel, the incomparable Andy Grove, said it best and most succinctly in the title of his 1996 book: Only the Paranoid Survive.

While I will always be reticent to render an opinion on the fair market value of a company, I can give a resounding endorsement to so much outstanding work I see going on all around us, much of it disruptive, as it should be in an entrepreneurial landscape that favors creative destruction.

Given a choice to share an opinion on the bubble versus the landscape, I’ll take the landscape.  I like what I see.  I would like to see it spread.  The old jobs aren’t coming back, innovation and automation pretty much assure that, there is little point waiting.  Let’s hope the new business models work so that new jobs will replace them and all boats float with the rising tide.  Many companies will fail, but the direction seems right.

Creativity tempered by sound judgment is the currency of the new economy.  It remains largely an open playing field for anyone who wants to relearn on a daily basis everything they thought they knew.

Fleeting Moments in iHistory

Why don’t internet brands make comebacks?

myspaceWith the recent attention on onetime market leaders AOL, Yahoo, and MySpace to inject new creativity into their platforms, I have been talking with a number of people about why this notion isn’t business as usual, with the expectation that success is much more probable than unlikely. We are so quick in the internet age to exchange snarky remarks about last year’s fading nameplates, as if it were all but inevitable that a fallen giant cannot get up and march on. Why?

Well, aside from our gossipy predisposition to critique, there is a good reason we take a skeptical point of view about internet brands that have seen better days—in almost all cases, those were their best days. Major turnarounds don’t seem to be the norm. Sadly, they don’t seem to be out there much at all. We can point to several works in progress where noble efforts are underway, but we can’t really write a business school case study on a revamp that is making history and ripe for the textbooks.

Although this is reality, it does not make sense, certainly not good business sense.

Most traditional brands go through life cycles: they are cool for a while, then something inevitably goes wrong—operational mishaps, disruptive entrants, or market forces—then visionary management attacks the problem and turnarounds do happen, sometimes monster turnarounds. Think about what happened with the rise and fall and rise of Disney, the same but even more so at Apple, the customer win back at Coke after the public rejection of new-Coke, multiple cycles up and down at Sony, the same to a lesser extent at MTV. All of these instances gave management—often new management—a starting point for the very real consideration of turnaround plans. Management carries out the traditional SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) analysis, and the discussion centers around how probable the turnaround plan under consideration might be, not a passive discussion of should we bother. You always bother.

Look at what happened at the Wall Street Journal—newspapers have been pronounced on their way to the graveyard, but the brand has never been stronger and circulation is growing on multiple platforms. That is giving the New York Times hope, the Los Angeles Times as well. You always try because the asset you have is too valuable not to try. CBS, NBC, ABC, HBO, they all have good and bad seasons, but you don’t think about walking away after a bad season. Look at MSNBC, how it struggled out of the gate, now it has an identity. Sticking with an established beachhead can work, surely not all the time, but there are so many examples where the uphill effort is proven to be worth it.

Like internet brands that have enjoyed success, non-internet brands once in the limelight come to the outset of a turnaround with some remaining loyalty, mass reach, measurable unaided awareness, and some core value proposition. The fact that tastes have changed or tactics have failed doesn’t mean you have lost everything; you just have a lot less of it. You have something to work with, so you don’t walk away. Your investors would not be pleased with those kinds of write downs.

Let’s think about the dotcom bubble and all the brands it birthed, starting with the portal wars—Excite (then Excite @Home), Lycos, Looksmart, Infoseek (then Go.com)—they all had huge followings! Now they are answers to trivia questions. What about Friendster, eToys, Netscape, NeoPets, Encarta, GeoCities, Pets.com, Webvan? These were all massively attended internet destinations, great names with tremendous followings built on innovation and creativity. Was there really nothing better to do with their identities than turn away?

I started to wonder whether our relationship with brands today is somehow different from our relationship two, three, four decades ago. Were we somehow more willing to give brands a second chance then that we are not now? Is this generation of consumers somehow wired differently? Have we come to a new understanding of inertia so that once cold something must stay cold? That would have been an easy answer, but one trip to the Apple Store will change your mind quickly. Spend a little time in the store with the other customers and you will soon be reassured how much a once loved, then dismissed, then reinvented brand can be loved anew. Ask tweens about Disney Channel, which they never would have been caught dead watching a generation ago, but now it too has been reinvented to become a trendsetter.

Brand laws may evolve, but they haven’t died.

What seems most ironic to me is that when you look at the giants of brand reinvention, the core turnaround strategy is not financial engineering, but rediscovery of the company’s roots in innovation. Disney expanded its theme parks, its own hotels, rebuilt its animation efforts, created the Disney Store, and rode a wave of home video before acquiring ABC and later Pixar and Marvel. Upon the return of Steve Jobs, Apple pioneered the iMac, then iTunes, then the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad, all the while building out the Apple Stores. Microsoft from a standing start entered the entertainment world with Xbox, as Sony had done prior to that with PlayStation. Clearly these involved massive investments, but they were bets on products and services, new ideas from talent and passion within the company.

Can we imagine a day when Google, Amazon, eBay, or Facebook are no longer top of mind with consumers? What about Netflix, LinkedIn, or YouTube? If history is a guide, it is entirely likely one of these or another equally strong internet property will fall out of favor. Are we likely to see it left to harvest? I would bet 100% the answer is no. Reinvention will be the order of the day, and revitalization will follow with new products, new services, and creative marketing to support those initiatives, no different from the offline world.

Internet brands are born of talent and passion—they are the very picture of innovation. So why if they can be invented with innovation can they seldom seem to be reinvented with innovation? Is the answer to be found in independence vs. acquisition by an umbrella company, where founding talent departs and corporate bureaucracy takes over? Possibly, but that seems more like an observation to me than a fait accompli. Just because a young company is bought on the way up or down doesn’t mean it cannot survive a downtown. The question has to be what is being done to address the downturn. If the downturn is being addressed through a product strategy with talent and passion, there is every reason to believe a new vision can have success. Just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We all have reason to want it to happen, because that creates more opportunity for the industry and sends the right message to customers, that we do listen to them and change can happen when we are serious about it.

Optimism as a driving force is always good. The change that happens in the analog world will translate to the digital world. When a once adored brand is down, root for reinvention.