Amplification beats disruption

Disrupting markets have for years been a formula for success for startups. Be nimbler, nicer looking and cheaper than the incumbents in your market, grow at a blistering pace whatever the costs associated with it and you will be on to doing great things taking your idea from it’s inception into potentially a unicorn scale-up.

While these startups have been blasting the competition to the roadside, there are a couple of things, we haven’t really discussed. One is the obvious fact that the expansion has only been possible due to a presence of excessive funding, sometimes with very little prospects for developing a viable business model going forward (Uber comes to mind as the poster example of this). The other is the more important one; that in the quest for disruption, more value has been destroyed than has been accrued by the startup.

Of course there is no rule anywhere in the capitalist world that suggests that challengers should be mindful of not destroying more than they create, and you could also very well argue that for customers that are left with a better service at a cheaper price, it’s a pure win. But in terms of the prospects of economic growth on the longer term, I would still suggest that the business of disrupting things just for the sake of disrupting it runs counter to what should be our common interests.

The challenge with disruption is that in the absence of real innovation, disruption doesn’t create anything. To put it in other terms the size of the pie stays the same, as there is no real growth anywhere. Now, you could argue that customers being able to get more for less increases the overall economic activity and make the individual better off, because he gets access to more, but we need to ask ourselves whether we really do think that improving our economic prospects by going cheap is really sustainable?

Just ask the American middle class. Think about how much of their economic growth is really down to the availability of ever more cheap products and services – aka crap IMHO – than, say, an ongoing positive development in their disposable income? It’s a lot more of the former than the latter, and it’s actually quite a systemic problem that we have done preciously little to try and fix but will need to fix sooner rather than later. If not for anything else then for ensuring social stability in society.

It might be a small detour to take, but in essence my point is this: The things we celebrate as being innovations and creating value are really the opposite. A lot of it is piggy backing on extracting value that already exists other places while creating nothing meaningful new, and the end result is that while it undoubtedly leaves a few better off, it leaves more worse off. That’s not a winning recipe long term. It is a race to a bottom, you don’t want to reach.

So the question then really becomes how we might work to change this dynamic? How do we get from celebrating the gold calf into innovating in a way that is not only positive in itself but net positive for economic growth and with that society itself?

We need to get back on the track where innovation is about creating breakthroughs that unlock new kinds of value instead of sucking existing markets dry. We need to come up with technologies that create new markets that can in essence function as amplifiers of new markets.

For startups this means that instead of looking to disrupt someone already there and try to get their slice of the cake, the focus should be on how to ensure that the cake itself gets bigger, and whatever is added to said cake the startup in question will be well positioned to grab its significant share off.

Doing that will surely require a vision above and beyond 99,99 % of all vision statements ever presented by startups or corporates. But think about the opportunity? Think about being the innovators edition of Christopher Columbus setting sail to find something that no-one has found before only to end up with far more than what you were able to imagine, you would ever find?

We need that kind of imagination to replace the fighting for scraps in areas we already know really well. We need this to get a situation, where innovation is a net positive of a more significant nature than used as a cover up for ideas that could in essence very well be net negatives for all.

I’ll be curious to see who sets the standard first, and what kind of vision could emerge from this.

(Photo by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash)

Dangerous cuts

There is an element of truth to the argument that when asked to make something better it is just as viable to remove something as it is to add more. Albeit harder.

Having said that you need to be careful when you remove something and perhaps even cut back in the process:

First of all you’re relying on your teams ability to change habits and remove the same processes or elements as you suggest. Habits are a tough thing to change so don’t count on it being super easy.

Second, you’re banking on an increased ability to focus on what matters while leaving everything else aside. It is a bit tied to the above, but it still says something about the mental state of your team once you have made the change. It needs to be the right one and persist.

Third, by cutting you’re also in a way removing future options. You’re banking on making the right cuts in order to where you need to go from here. What if the underlying assumptions are wrong and you need to move in a different direction again? Will you be able to?

The above is not so say that it’s a bad idea to innovate by cutting. You just need to be fully aware that if you go down that right, the decision to do the cutting will be by far the easiest part of the transition.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Learn from Poor Charlie

Every once in a while I look to recommend a great book, if you’re looking to expand your horizon a bit.

This is such a time. But the book isn’t new. Far from it. I have had it for more than 10 years, but I have only gotten around to reading it now.

The book in question is “Poor Charlie’s Almanack”, a whopping coffee table book about legendary investor Warren Buffets sidekick and second-in-command, Charlie Munger, at Berkshire Hathaway.

In the book he spills the beans on his wisdom. And let me say it straight away: Much of it is common sense. But still you have got to give the man credit that when you live and act by a core belief system of common sense, you can do rather well for yourself.

Furthermore there is an incredible wit about Charlie, who turned 97 as we moved into 2021. While Warren Buffett has always been the one in the spotlight, Charlies wry comments and crystal clear ways of calling them like he sees them is amazing.

For that reason I highly recommend you look up Berkshire Hathaway AGM’s on YouTube and feast yourself in the two investors asking questions from their audience of shareholders. It’s priceless.

But Charlie Munger is also the story about something else that I personally hold very dear; the (wo)man behind the (wo)man.

While aspirational leaders and entrepreneurs have always fascinated me, I have tended to be more fascinated by their enablers; those who actually get the wheels into motion, do the nitty gritty stuff, aka work the engine room so the captain can be on the bridge setting the course.

I have a great personal liking for those. Most probably because it fits my own comfort zone best; being the one a step being doing the heavy lifting, making things gel and gently apply my contribution to things.

One thing is for sure: Charlie Munger has been exceptionally great at doing precisely that. And few people are more deserving of a coffee table-sized book than him.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Liar in Chief

Today marks the end of the 45th presidency in the United States of America, when the 46th president, Joseph R. Biden is sworn in.

The (hopefully) peaceful transition of power will be the end of the Liar in Chief; the leader who operates by endless lies and endless bullying, destroys more than he builds and seem relentlessly focused on stoking division rather than unite and heal for the common good.

It’s been a crazy 4 years. But it has also been quite interesting;

It has been the most obvious, well-broadcast example of why that way of self-serving egomaniac ‘leadership’ (he hasn’t really been leading, but you know what I mean) leads absolutely nowhere and should be sent to the dumping lot.

Sadly, not everybody who needs to will reflect on this, so let me try to clarify a bit for you.

For aspiring, self-serving Liars in Chief out there – in politics as well as all walks of business – note this based on the clusterf***, we have all seen unfold in the US:

You may think you’re winning for a while. But while you’re busy lying and bullying, your relationships and – with that – your opportunities to actually succeed in anything erode. And do so quickly.

You may succeed in getting a following and create a court of devoted cronies around you. But in the end it will prove to be all the wrong people.

You may start feeling sorry for yourself, when the shit hits the fan, but you will find out that there are no-one left who wants to help you out.

End ultimately you will be a failure.

Consider yourself kindly warned. And then just don’t go there.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Good enough?

One of the greatest personal strengths and weaknesses is the ability to doubt yourself.

It is a strength when you use it to be ambitious about your work and not just release anything for the world or just the people around you to see, just because you can but show – also in delivery – that you truly care.

And it is a strength when you don’t ever consider yourself the smartest person in the room but actively seeks the input and opinions of great minds around you and make it a true team effort.

But it is a weakness when you’re afraid that what you put out there will, despite your best efforts and intentions, not be considered ‘good enough’ by those who see it.

And it is a weakness when you’re hesitant of making a decision for the fear of making the wrong one and look totally stupid.

In both the latter cases chances are that you will not get the reaction that you fear. That you are your own worst enemy. Which probably is the biggest weakness about the ability to doubt yourself;

Your own ability.

So try and talk yourself out of doing that. Remind yourself over and over again that the feeling is normal – ie you’re not an idiot – and it’s part of the game.

And then get on with exploring the positive aspects of doubting yourself.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Insecurity is ok

Some people think that being super aggressive and speak in war-like metaphors is the way to go, when it comes to showing leadership in a start up.

I would suggest it shows more of a profound insecurity that you’re trying to hide by bluster.

Trying to hide things is borderline poisonous no matter how or why you do it.

Therefore, try showing of your insecurities. Or at least abstain from trying to hide them.

Getting something good up and running and making a success of it is super hard work with a lot of moving parts, and there are a ton of things that can go wrong and most likely will.

There’s no shame in acknowledging that.

Trying to hide that fact will ultimately just reflect bad on you. In addition to that it will make it super hard for people to help you, where you need help. And you and your company may suffer as a consequence.

And that’s not what you want, is it?

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That’s so junior…

Back in the day I had a very experienced direct report who I used as a sounding board for thoughts and ideas to bring forward to executive management.

We would meet in my office (even though technically I didn’t have one), and we would go through the arguments, I had thought of making.

If I was off track, he would say in a very calm voice, while quietly shaking his head:

“Mads, that is junior behavior”.

And then he would follow it up with his interpretation of what senior behavior, aka the right sort of behavior, mingling, getting my point across needed to be successful with that particular project in that particular organization would be instead.

I listened. I better; he was usually right.

Since then I have always treasured having a sounding board and someone to lean on when things become a big hectic.

It is a nice contrast to my normal passionate, energetic ‘give-it-my-all-(alone)’-approach I often find myself (inadvertently) taking.

What I probably should become better at is making sure that I use the sounding board, when I need to and don’t leave it too long. But that too is a journey and learning experience waiting to be converted.

Into senior behavior.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Qualify for WFH

There are a lot of fallouts from Covid-19, once we have the vaccine(s) and things start heading back towards some kind of normal (whatever degree of pre-pandemic behaviour that might turn out to be).

One of the ones I am most curious about is the Working-From-Home (WFH) phenomenon. How much of that will stick, and how will it pan out, once it’s not a 100% necessity anymore?

WFH policies after the pandemic will be made difficult by two things: A plethora of ways people have administered it during the pandemic, and employers inability to dictate what employees in reality do when they’re out of sight.

It is going to be a ton of ‘fun’, and I don’t think it will be possible to go back to the old ‘command-style’ model of employment in the past, where employers could just belch out orders and employees would comply – few questions asked (but unlimited eyes rolling behind the managers back).

Personally, I have never been a big fan of top-down orders. But on the other hand I don’t think we’re suited to too much independence, if we are to achieve great things as teams, companies and society as such. So what to do?

Deutsche Bank has circulated an idea to tax WFH due to the associated decrease in costs by not using commuting services, lunch on the go etc.

I think the idea is stupid and not the way forward. Frankly, it’s the kind of idea that a bank would come up with.

What we might be looking at instead is qualifying people for WFH privileges.

Instead of just sending people home and letting them decide for themselves, we might need to make sure they have the skills and the mindset to make it on their own, before we let them. Have them spend some time in the office, delivering on their tasks, cooperating with the team etc before moving to a more flexible schedule.

The concept is not new. It’s basically the cornerstone of bringing up children. As a parent, you don’t let your kid go to school on her own, before you’re absolutely sure she can handle herself in the bustling traffic.

It’s not only about trust. It is also about having routines and the experience to ensure that you can still perform, no matter where your team is located.

I fully realize that there are a lot of companies that already operate remotely, and are very good at doing that. My point is just that there is a difference between being born this way and having to learn and adapt to it.

Most fall into the latter category (no, your company is not Automattic), and it is those it will be interesting to follow, as Covid-19 transforms back into a ‘new’ normal.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)