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Here’s What We Can Learn From The Bankruptcy At Toys “R” Us

2017 September 24
by Greg Satell

The recent bankruptcy filing at Toys “R” Us has roiled the toy industry. Yet, struggles at the company are not new. The firm was taken private in a $6.6 billion leveraged private equity buyout in 2005 with the aim of turning the chain around, but the resulting debt has proved to be unserviceable.

The news is part of a larger trend of closings that some are calling the retail apocalypse. The rise of e-commerce, combined with a shift in consumer preference towards dining out over shopping and years of overbuilding, has made for distinctly unattractive economics in traditional retail.

Take a closer look, however, and the prevailing narrative isn’t quite right. Amazon has made a big push into physical retail, capped off by its $13.7 billion  purchase of Whole Foods. Others, ranging from Apple to Warby Parker, also opened physical stores. So clearly the problem isn’t with retail itself, but the inability for legacy firms to adapt to a new model.

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The Quantum Age Is Almost Upon Us We And Need To Start Taking It Seriously

2017 September 20
by Greg Satell

Every new technology has the capacity to inspire wonder and fear. One Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, warned in the 1500’s that the data overload from the printing press would be “confusing and harmful” to the mind. Similar concerns have been voiced about every conceivable advancement, from the train and car to computers and social media.

The truth is that technology transforms human experience and that always comes with tradeoffs. Information technology reduces our ability to retain information and do arithmetic  in our head. Automobiles cause pollution and thousands of deaths every year. Still, I don’t see many people willing to give them up.

We’ll soon be entering the quantum era and the sensationalism has already begun. A recent Forbes article, for example, warns of the ability of quantum computers to crack even the most secure encryption. That sounds like a scary problem, and it is, but it’s also a very solvable problem. What the quantum era needs now is not fear-mongering, but understanding.

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Building A Network To Solve Education

2017 September 17
by Greg Satell

Talia Milgrom-Elcott went to Harvard Law School with the idea of making the world a better place. An early role model was Charles Nesson, a professor at Harvard who devoted his career to defending the downtrodden. One of his cases, involving a famous lawsuit, even became the subject of a hit feature film, A Civil Action.

Yet after she graduated, she decided that she could make a bigger impact outside practicing law. Today, Milgrom-Elcott is the Executive Director for 100Kin10, which is spearheading the effort to train 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years. So far, it has raised more than $100 million and is on track to meet its goal.

What makes 100Kin10 so effective is its unique approach. Rather than coming to the table with yet another program and yet another strategy to improve education, Milgrom-Elcott saw that far more could be achieved by helping existing programs to connect and learn from each other. It’s a model that has the potential to solve other complex social problems as well.

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How To Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Retail Apocalypse

2017 September 13
by Greg Satell

The hit 80s movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High recently turned 35 years old. For anybody who grew up during that period, it evokes memories that are both nostalgic and quaint. Back then, social life revolved around, of all things, a shopping mall, where kids would go to shop, gossip and work.

Today, of course, you won’t find many kids hanging out at at mall. Why would they? They can shop, gossip and work online. Go to a shopping mall today and you’re more likely to find liquidation sales and empty stores. The ones that remain open tend to be understaffed and poorly trafficked.

Welcome to the retail apocalypse. The rise of e-commerce, combined with a shift in consumer preference towards dining out over shopping and years of overbuilding, has resulted in unprecedented retail closings. That’s clearly bad news for the affected retailers, but it might prove to be a boon to everyone else. Here’s how you can win from the downfall of retail.

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Don’t Worry About People Stealing Your ideas

2017 September 10
by Greg Satell

Chester Carlson worked on his idea for years. It was tough, messy work and when his wife tired of the putrid smells, sulfur fires and occasional explosions emanating from the kitchen, his experiments were exiled to a second floor apartment in a house his mother-in-law owned. It took years, but he came finally up with a working prototype.

He tried to sell his machine to the great corporations of the day, including GE, RCA and IBM, but to no avail. Eventually, he teamed up with the Haloid Corporation, which eventually changed its name to Xerox and in 1959, more than 20 years after Carlson began his quest, it launched the 914 copier and became one of America’s leading corporations.

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas,” said the computing pioneer Howard Aiken. “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” The truth is that innovation needs combination and few ideas can make much of an impact alone. So if you want your ideas to amount to anything, you’re usually better off sharing them.

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Build For The Few And Not The Many

2017 September 6
by Greg Satell

When Google first announced its Glass prototype, complete with a snazzy video, it generated a lot of excitement. Through augmented reality projected onto the lenses, users could seamlessly navigate an urban landscape, send and receive messages and take photos and videos. It was a completely new way to interact with technology.

Yet criticism quickly erupted. Many were horrified that hordes of wandering techno-hipsters could be surreptitiously recording us. Others had safety concerns about everything from people being distracted while driving to the devices being hacked. Soon there was a brewing revolt against “Google Glassholes.”

Now, however, Wired reports that Google Glass is taking on a new life and gaining traction as an industrial tool. From factory floors to operating rooms, augmented reality is proving effective at improving productivity, safety and documenting procedures. There’s a lesson in all of this. When your idea is truly new and different, target the few, not the many.

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Designing Workspaces To Solve Problems

2017 September 3
by Greg Satell

Apple’s new campus, Apple Park opened in April to both adulation and criticism. The Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic, upon seeing the original design, called it a “retrograde cocoon.” USA Today pointed out that opening up a glitzy new headquarters is often a signal of impending decline. Wired isn’t sure if it’s insanely great or just insane.

One thing that everyone can agree on is that the new campus is quintessentially Steve Jobs. Everything is designed — to excruciating detail — for not only aesthetic beauty, but for function and the end user. A new pizza box was even specifically designed so that the crust won’t get soggy as employees take a pie back to their office.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Jennifer Magnolfi, who researches hi-tech workspaces, explains how the new Apple headquarters acts as a functional workspace that supports the company’s style of innovation. This becomes even more clear when we compare the new campus to how other innovative organizations design their offices.

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This Company Is Combining Big Data and Materials Science to Revolutionize Manufacturing

2017 August 30
by Greg Satell

Greg Mulholland didn’t take the typical route to getting his MBA. He had no background in banking or consulting and hadn’t even taken a business course as an undergraduate. After earning an Engineering degree from NC State and then a Masters Degree in Physics from Cambridge, he went to work as a materials scientist.

Yet after working at a small semiconductor company in North Carolina for a few years, he began to notice a strange disconnect. While it was crucial for companies to identify new materials that could lead to better products, very few executives were able to effectively interface with scientists like him. He saw an opportunity to become that nexus.

As it turned out, during  Stanford MBA program’s “Admit Weekend,” he found a kindred spirit in Bryce Meredig, a newly minted PhD in Materials Science. Like Greg, Bryce thought that, with materials science heating up, there were opportunities to be unlocked. Today, their company, Citrine Informatics, hopes to revolutionize how we develop new products.

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The Physics of Change

2017 August 27
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by Greg Satell

The liberal activist Saul Alinsky observed that every revolution inspires a counterrevolution and, as if to prove his point, conservative Tea Party activists adopted his 1971 handbook, Rules for Radicals as a standard text. To extend the irony further still, Alinsky is rarely discussed in liberal movements today.

We’ve seen something similar unfold in recent weeks. An innocent woman, Heather Heyer, was killed at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, then a similar protest took place in Boston under the guise of “Free Speech. This time, the chants of the limited number of alt-right activists were drowned out by 40,000 counter-protesters.

This is the physics of change. Every action provokes a reaction. In my research of social movements throughout the world this pattern is remarkably consistent and the tennis match of ideologies can go on for years or even decades. What is also remarkably consistent is what it takes to end the cycle —  the forging of a new agenda based on shared values.

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Innovation Is Never 1 Thing (Actually It’s 3 Things)

2017 August 23
by Greg Satell

Every entrepreneur dreams of having that single moment of epiphany where everything falls into place. Many search for their entire careers for that one big idea that will make the difference between incredible success and frustrating mediocrity. Few ever find it and many that do end up crashing and burning along the way.

The truth is that innovation is never a single event and the “eureka moment” is largely a myth. Innovation always involves combinations, so it’s less a matter of coming up with a big idea than it is putting the right ideas together in order to solve a meaningful problem. That’s a process, not a moment.

That’s why instead of starting with an idea, it’s best to start by finding a good problem. Innovation is far more complex than most people give it credit for. It takes more than an idea to change the world. In fact, it often takes decades after an initial breakthrough for its impact to become clear. Innovation is an integrated process of exploration, iteration and execution.

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