Originally published on AltMBA.com, July 10, 2015
Missed opportunities are so clear in hindsight. Clearly Pete Best should have stayed with the Beatles, Kodak should have gotten behind the digital camera, Tavern on the Green should have focused on food instead of decor to keep it’s NY fan base, Blackberry should have had better technology and maintained its market share over the iPhone, you get the idea.
We can talk about business mistakes, but people run businesses. There’s no such thing as a business mistake. Until the robots take over – it’s always personal.
It comes down to:
1) Leadership not truly understanding the business they’re in, not understanding the real problem they’re solving for the customer. Hollywood didn’t understand that it was in the content business, ignored tv, fought the video rental industry and streaming video business tooth and nail, and now is reduced to struggling to stay alive by producing endless sequels – having lost all creativity along the way.
2) External factors beyond one’s control. It’s easy to say that railroads missed the boat on opportunities, but reality is that they were so heavily regulated that their hands were tied. They couldn’t adjust fares as the airlines freely do now to match demand. The government was pushing the development of the highway system and thought rail would take care of itself. Wrong. Otherwise, perhaps they’d still be flourishing and be developing hyperloop.
3) Lack of external awareness – not seeing or understanding the changes in the market place. One could argue that Kodak failed because they didn’t realize they were in the ‘preserve memories’ business – which is why they ignored the digital camera. But the executives there also didn’t have any grasp of Moore’s law. All they saw, from their own lab was a grainy image that was no match for film. They didn’t understand that technology goes through a deceptive phase where the incremental changes are tiny – until they’re not and it becomes disruptive. They had no vision to see how the resolution would grow – and ultimately lead to their demise – giving new meaning to the term ‘having a Kodak moment’
This particular problem is magnifying today as the rate of change in technology increases.
Utility companies face major disruption as Tesla’s revolutionary battery system just offered consumers and businesses independence from the utility grid. Car companies and dealerships haven’t accepted that their sales will soon fall dramatically due to rideshare services and ultimately driverless cars. Why own an automobile when you can get one on demand and not have to garage, maintain or insure it? Real estate agents will soon be superfluous when we can take immersive virtual reality tours of any property in the comfort of our pajamas. Blockchain technology is poised to disrupt the financial derivatives and foreign exchange markets, eliminate the need for lawyers for many contracts and property transfer – think car leases and real estate for example.
4) But here’s the kicker. What if it isn’t any of those things?
What if it’s … fear?
I got started in the video business right out of college. The industry was booming, and it was easy to make lots of money supplying the video stores that were popping up all over the place. Blockbuster’s warehouse would basically eat what ever I could feed them. Chains were buying each other up and there was unreasonable competition to have the largest collection. I even tried talking clients out of buying more than they clearly needed, but they would have none of it.
So I shut up and kept shipping. I had started my business as a casual fling – but it was very seductive and so I stayed. I was making lots of money, taking two month vacations to Europe in while my friends were working 80 hours a week. Sweet. But then, sadly, the relationship became dysfunctional, little by little. You know the kind where you have those great times followed by periods of hell? Yeah, thats what it was like.
The video business was starting to go through huge upheaval. There was consolidation among the major players, draconian policies from the movie studios which affected distribution, and massively increasing competition. My casual fling had become a demanding, whiny mistress who needed constant attention.
I started to hate getting up in the morning and going in to the company that I owned. I’d wake up and say “Thats it, I’m going shut this sucker down today.” And then miraculously the phone would ring with a huge order out of the blue. Seriously, I can’t count how many times that happened. I used to say that anytime we are having a bad month all I needed to do was decide I was out.
But each of those deals didn’t change the reality of the industry. Independent shops were closing up all over. Big chains were cutting deals directly with studios. And everyone in the business knew that streaming video would soon put us all out of business. So why did I stay as long as I did?
I’d become comfortable with my identity as the owner of this company. I walked around my warehouse and it was a cool funky space – it felt like home. I was involved with organizations of business owners and owning this business had gotten me accepted to the club. I was in the club of entrepreneurs who had ‘made it’, had built a successful company, and, if I left, I had no idea what I would do next. I went in to denial about how much I hated the business, the reality of the technology around the corner, and the opportunities of other new exciting fields that were developing. So I stayed – way past my expiration date.
When the time and circumstances came that I finally exited, I looked back, as one does, and thought “Why the hell did I stay so long, and what opportunities did I miss along the way?”
I’ll never know. I can only hope that I’ll recognize that demon in the future. It sounds like “What in the world will I do if I don’t do this? I can’t leave until I have something else figured out, I don’t know what (if anything) else I’m qualified to do.”
And not knowing and understanding the technology that may disrupt our businesses? Well, sometimes thats truly not having access to materials, or not being smart enough to put the pieces together, but often its fear of change. We often bury our head in the sand because it’s comfortable and a lot less scary than facing the prospect of change – of the unknown. What if we have to reinvent our business models – and disrupt ourselves?
And now? Stiletto Spy School was built on a live event model. I love the live experience. It’s dynamic, and hugely impactful. It’s also a really challenging model, and limits the reach that I can have. I know that it needs to expand but am not sure how to do that. Is it larger classes with a lower cost, is it online classes, licensing to be able to expand, key note talks, workshops for corporations? I don’t know. But I do know that up until now, I’ve thought that none of these things could work. What I’ve learned is that’s another manifestation of fear, ‘What if the model I came up with isn’t the best one?’ So, now I’m opening it up, and trying to see what’s in front of me that I’m missing. The only thing I do know – is that I don’t know what I don’t know.
PS This is an early PS – I’ll gladly amend after even more feedback – but this was burning.
I misstated it when I said I don’t know why I stayed in the video business for so many years. I definitely do.
It was a) Ego. My identity was tied up in this way more than I realized. While I always said that the business didn’t define me – being a ‘successful’ entrepreneur did. It was part of my position in my community of peers. I had staff that looked up to me. I had the golden sticker that said ’20 Years in Business’ that went out on all of our correspondence and the kudos that came with that. At industry events, everyone knew me and I was a popular ‘veteran of the industry’. Who would I be if I left all of that?
b) Complacency. It was ‘good enough’. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I could have a nice life, travel and do what I wanted. I wasn’t getting rich or changing the world, but I also didn’t have to challenge myself. Not stretching had become comfortable. Everyone I knew in the industry was in the same little cocoon.
What I don’t know is what the opportunity costs were – and I shudder to even think of them. I saw all the tech coming, right from the start I knew about it. I love, love, love reading about tech and yet I never stepped in to any of it. I felt like I didn’t know how to approach it. Who knows what that could have turned in to if I’d tried? I had a client – really smart who liked my business and wanted to invest a large sum – and I turned him down saying I didn’t need it. He had so much more business experience than I did and who knows what I could have done with that investment and maybe that collaboration? Who knows what could have been had I been willing to dream bigger?
As for my businesses now, it’s not technology that could disrupt them – it’s (still) me. What I’ve learned to see more clearly is when the lizard brain acts up. I’ve already caught it twice in the past half hour. I read Carla’s note about this being an online course and I thought “Yes, but we teach hard skills, I can’t do that on line”. And then I thought of a guy I know who has learning products around hand to hand combat skills and I thought “Yes, but he’s a subject matter expert in that field.”
Duh, at Stiletto Spy School we teach more than just hard skills. I’m a subject matter expert in lots of fields. And who conveys that title anyway?
So, what I need to be on the alert for isn’t any looming changes in my industry. It’s “Yes, but…” or this “That wouldn’t work because…”. It’s settling for what’s working instead of stepping into what could be. It’s all the bullshit ways that the lizard brain shows up and says “Stay inside, don’t go out there, it’s safe and warm in here”. I live a life, which on the outside, seems bold and full of challenges and risk. But I know there’s so much more.
I’d love to say “Fuck you lizard brain. I’ve got your number and you’re done.” But I know it’s never done. The lizard brain is a creative sneaky creature. And, to be fair, it thinks it’s doing me a service by protecting me from danger. It’ll keep showing up in new and unexpected ways. But, I now recognize the greater danger is in the opportunity costs of ego and complacency. Not stretching seems far more dangerous now than ever before.