Monday, July 27, 2009

Checking the Surf

If you are on a traditional career path or starting a small business today, you’ve never been in more danger of drowning and going under. Unless, you are a little bit scared, slightly paranoid, and place a much higher priority on survival as opposed to success.

Here is why.

It has been well-documented about 80% of small businesses don’t survive their first two years of operation. They crash and burn for entirely predictable reasons, most of which Michael Gerber reveals in his smashingly remarkable best-seller “The E-Myth Revisited”. (See TSB's June 25, 2009 posting: Branding in a Brilliant Disguise)

However, my spider sense is telling me the 80% mortality rate has been climbing since the year 2000. Although quantifiable research to support me on this hasn't been uncovered (yet), first-hand observations from the foxholes of small business tell me the world has become a much different place for entrepreneurs, compared to the late 90’s.

I mention late 90’s because that’s when my business begin its first shaky steps along the bumpy, winding, rocky road to success. And, as I shared with a group of would-be entrepreneurs recently, I believe it was a lot easier to follow traditional career paths or get an infant company up and walking back then.

Back in the days before the World Went Flat.

Since the year 2000, the Industrial Revolution and the companies and thinking that emerged from it, has been rapidly steamrolled and flattened by the 21st century Digital Economy. Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman contends in "The World is Flat", that traditional hierarchies and rules governing the way we lived for centuries have been "flattened" forever by technology; leveling the playing field not just for countries and corporations, but for individuals. Friedman also makes a compelling case that the year 2000 represented a “perfect storm” of change with a Triple Convergence of a new platform (the Internet), new work-flow processes that allowed for horizontal collaboration (which is why you can download your boarding pass at home) and about three billion new players (China, India, Eastern bloc etc.) entering the global marketplace, almost overnight, to compete and collaborate as never before.

Here is a short story Friedman shares to illustrate the point.

Newspapers represent one of the more glaring examples of an entire industry reeling from the aftershocks of Friedman's "flat world" and the 21st century Digital Economy.

At the end of 2008, print advertising sales in the U.S. had fallen by more than 25 percent industry wide in just three years. The first quarter of 2009 is reported to have been the worst one yet; a drop of 30 percent for many papers, with no end to this carnage in sight. As bottom lines bleed red, misguided leaders everywhere are begging for infusions of fresh capital and wage concessions from unions in attempts to save dying production facilities and jobs in businesses threatened with extinction.

Raise all the cash and roll back all the wages you want but, if fundamental, structural problems remain the patient is still going to die. That's why many men and women still working in the newspaper business are starting to feel like organisms inside a body felled by a fatal disease.

And all their doctors/leaders can do is prescribe is more poison.

I don't want the same fate to befell you.

Have you considered the implications Friedman's "flat world" has for your small business or career?

You already know business owners and shareholders are largely indifferent about where profits come from or where employment is created but, they still demand sustainable companies. Which means any job or career position needs to be justified more than ever in terms of the real value it represents and how it positively impacts results. Opportunities and threats are two sides of the same coin with respect to positions going to the best, smartest, fastest or cheapest – no matter where they reside.

Prior to the year 2000, owning a small business or setting out on the career journey was a lot like playing checkers. The patterns were predictable with few major surprises or variables. You enjoyed the benefit of a stable playing field with time to think and plan. You could actually see your opponent as both of you employed a limited number of options/tactics while operating in a confined, defined space. And even as we headed into the late ‘90’s, the world was a slower, more forgiving place with higher numbers of trusting and patient customers and employers.

But since 2000, and especially over the last 48 months, owning a small business or managing a career has become similar to riding a surfboard. The currents are more unpredictable. The recurring pattern is one of continual surprises and sudden shifts by the nano-second. The constantly shifting playing field demands you think quickly, on your feet with little or zero time to plan. There are unlimited options when it comes to your choice of equipment, who you buy it from and where you want to use it. And all of this is happening 24/7/365 in a cyberocean of unimagined space' jammed and crammed with invisible threats, and less trusting, hurried customers and employers.

Checker player or surfer?

Which one are you?

More importantly, which one do you need to be?

Sadly, there are too many people leading companies and managing careers still relying on conventional beliefs and wisdom about business based on outdated, Industrial Revolution thinking. It's even more unfortunate to see when timeless truths are revealed about how business operates in a new, flat world, many will cling desperately to mental checkerboards, hoping and praying the riptides of globally-influenced change from the Hang Ten crowd won’t wash over them. Avid surfers know that swell is generated when wind blows consistently over a large area of open water. Why would anyone expect the Sea of Commerce to react any differently to this tsunami of change?

It’s a new brand wave out there.

And only the most compelling and relevant brands will have the stamina to survive this upward pattern of economic upheaval.

Is it time you traded in one board for another?

"In surfing, coming to terms with death -- or at least the possibility -- is an ongoing crisis in big waves. The set is building outside, and it's so beautiful, aesthetically. People are watching in awe from the beach: the blue water, the stiff offshore winds, the 40-foot walls charging in from the open ocean. If you're out there with nothing but your body, your wits and a surfboard, that set can be your coffin” BRUCE JENKINS, North Shore Chronicles

Originally posted September 11, 2008

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