When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, it meant the end of one of America’s great publishing dynasties. For 80 years, the Graham family ran the paper with dignity, grace and a commitment to public service. However, time had passed them by.
Some of the great old publishing empires remain, such as the Sulzbergers of The New York Times, the Newhouses of Conde Nast and, of course, the Forbes family. Yet they are now the exception rather than the rule.
Meanwhile, publishing itself is thriving—creating new fortunes in record time. Bleacher Report sold for almost $175 million after only 5 years; Huffington Post reaped $315 million in 6 years and these juggernauts were founded by people with scant experience in the industry. Clearly publishers have lost their way. Here’s how they can get back on track.
For most of his career, John Antioco had produced nothing but success. Starting out as a trainee working in a 7-11 stockroom, he had risen to the upper echelon of corporate America. When he pulled off impressive turnarounds of Circle K and Taco Bell, many considered him to be a retail genius.
Yet today, Antioco is widely assailed as a fool, a bungler and worse. As CEO of Blockbuster Video, his decades of retail experience led him to dismiss Netflix as a niche business. In due time, Antioco was fired and Blockbuster went bankrupt.
It’s easy to write off Antioco as a buffoon and leave it at that. However, it can happen to anyone. As Moisés Naím put it in The End of Power, “Power is easier to get, but harder to use or keep.” The truth is that now everybody gets disrupted sooner or later. The old playbooks are dead. We need new principles to adapt to an increasingly uncertain age.
When the oil tycoon John Paul Getty was asked about his rules for success, he reportedly said, “Rise early, work hard, strike oil.”
It’s a funny line, but it seems positively quaint now. It’s hard to imagine young entrepreneurs these days looking to find their fortune in resource extraction. The days of wildcat wells have long been replaced by an industry that’s dominated by geologists, geopolitics and an unruly band of petro-dictators.
Every age has its great opportunity. At the turn of the century, automobiles attracted a flurry of startups. The consumer culture drove the post-war period and, more recently, finance was hot. The killer technology of our time is undeniably big data and building a data science capability is crucial for every enterprise. Here’s what you need to know:
When we think of great strategists in history, from Sun Tzu to Alexander the Great to Clausewitz, we think of master chess players, leaders who personify timeless principles and can think two or three moves ahead.
Strategy has always been the sexy part of business, where boring Word documents and endless Excel spreadsheets give way to glorious PowerPoint decks. Here drudgery ended and modern day corporate generals could sit back and formulate plans for world domination.
For better or worse, those days are over. As Rita Gunther McGrath explains in her new book, The End of Competitive Advantage, strategy is now a game that looks more like World of Warcraft then the game of kings. You never win, but are always questing, gaining new skills and resources along the way and continually seeking the next challenge.
Recently, the latest Edward Snowden disclosures came to light in a joint article by ProPublica, The Guardian and The New York Times. These newest revelations, if true, are startling.
I should note here that I’m among those who regard Edward Snowden to be traitor rather than a hero. As someone who has spent the bulk of my adult life in some rough places, I believe his actions have put us in danger and that he should go to jail.
Also, as I’ve written before, I believe that the NSA has acted responsibly and that in some ways their methods reflect the least intrusive possible way to keep us safe. There is every indication that the NSA has followed the laws under which it operates. However, this new disclosure is notable not for what it says about the NSA’s actions, but about it’s capabilities.
Every manager and entrepreneur wants to grow their business. Get bigger and more powerful, the thinking goes, and you’ll have it made. The added heft will give you the upper hand in negotiations with suppliers and the doors of customers will swing wide open.
That used to be true to a certain extent, but not so much anymore. Digital technology has markedly evened out the playing field. Startups become billion dollar companies overnight while venerable brands like Kodak and Blockbuster hit the skids.
This turn of events presents considerable challenges for managers. While there are still some advantages to scale, the disadvantages often outweigh them. Big firms lots of customers, a large workforce and stodgy institutional investors to keep happy, which often results in strategic rigidity. To compete in the new economy, we need a new playbook.
The media business, in many ways, is much like the restaurant business. Everyone is a consumer and therefore everyone is a potential expert. From the outside looking in, it often looks like a lot of excitement and fun. Nobody ever sees the drudgery behind the scenes.
That’s why, when people become wealthy, media and restaurants are attractive vanity projects. After all, who wouldn’t like to hang out with celebrities and go to fancy awards dinners? Edgar Bronfman Jr. squandered much of his family fortune this way.
So when Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million (which, in relative terms, is about the same as a prosperous dentist buying into a restaurant), many were skeptical. However, now that Bezos has shared his first public thoughts on his plans for the paper, it appears that he will not only be a boon for WaPo, but for media too.
Michael Jordan is considered to be the best basketball player ever. With 6 NBA titles, 5 MVP awards and 15 All-Star game appearances, it’s hard to argue that anybody has ever dominated a sport like he did.
Yet he wasn’t always so great. He didn’t make his high school varsity team as a sophomore and wasn’t the first player picked in the NBA draft (he was third). He showed promise as a young player, but then again so do a lot of people who never amount to much.
We often have to make decisions about things like a young Michael Jordan. Many new innovations, opportunities and employees show great potential, but we can only pick a few. So we need to use data in order to make predictions about the future. How we do that can mean the difference between success and failure, so we better get it right.
I don’t consider myself an early adopter of technology. I still prefer books on paper and I don’t feel the need to try out every device or app that comes on the market. At best, I’m a reasonably fast follower.
Nevertheless, when Google came out with Chromecast, I ordered it within a few days (which still made me too late to get one before the first batch sold out). It came last week and so I’ve had some time to put it through its paces.
So far, I like it a lot. It was easy to set up and I like the way I can control my TV from my tablet. With my Apple TV, I would always search for what I wanted on another device before I would start fiddling with the clunky remote. Yet what really excites me is not what the Chromecast is, but what it’s going to be and how that will change my life.
In 1960, Harvard professor Theodore Levitt published a landmark paper in Harvard Business Review that urged executives to ask, “What business are you really in?” Even today, a half century later, his challenge still resonates.
By pointing out that no industry grows forever, he gave rise to many concepts we still recognize, such as the customer centered business, Porter’s 5 Forces and value chains. Many executives who seek to be modern are often merely repeating Levitt’s insights.
Nevertheless, a lot can happen in 50 years and just as we recognize many of Levitt’s concepts as still valid, others have been thoroughly debunked, perhaps none more so than the central question he presented. In today’s semantic economy, it serves little purpose to ask what business we’re in. Instead, we must ask why we’re in business in the first place.