by Steve Strauss
25 Aug 2020
Why treading water won’t help your business survive this crisis
Which one of these companies do you think would have been more likely to survive, even thrive, during this pandemic?
- Company A began as a leader in innovation, creating new tools that literally transformed how business around the world was conducted. By the time the president of Company B visited Company A’s innovation center many years later, Company A had become a global brand and had been around for more than 50 years
- Company B was an upstart tech company, had a brash CEO, got a lot of buzz, but had few sales
Company A is the obvious answer, right?
Let me tell you why and explain why your business needs to be far more like Company B post-pandemic than Company A.
Company A began during the Great Depression when a man named Chester Carlson decided there had to be a better way to do his job. Working in a patent office, Carlson’s job was to copy tedious patent applications by hand.
Frustrated, Carlson figured there had to be some mechanical way to make copies. He went home every night to his apartment in the Astoria building in New York and studied photography, the physics of light and paper, printing, etc. He tinkered, and although it took three long years, Carlson finally hit upon the right process. On October 22, 1938, he successfully created a blurry yet legible copy that read, “10-22-38 Astoria.”
“10-22-38 Astoria” now sits in the Smithsonian.
What Carlson created that day was a lot more than a way to save some time. In the end, his Xerox machine begat nothing less than a business and workplace revolution.
Interesting yes, but did you know that Xerox also later created the first real personal computer?
So why don’t you use the Xerox PC?
That’s the point.
Now look at Company B. It began in a garage in Palo Alto in 1976 when Steve Jobs and Steve Woznick teamed up to create a makeshift home computer company. By 1978, Apple was growing fast, even if it’s best-seller, the Apple II, had few bells and whistles.
It was then that Steve Jobs, the founder of Company B, found his way to the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), created and owned by Company A, Xerox. At this lab, Xerox had invented a prototype computer called the Alto. The Alto was a revolutionary machine, for, among other things, it was the very first computer ever to use a mouse and screen, allowing users to point and click on icons. Xerox’s PARC was also responsible for the development of the laser printer, on-screen graphics, and menu commands named Cut, Copy, and Paste.
So again, why don’t you use the Xerox PC?
Because Xerox CEO David Kearns didn’t want to change, that’s why.
He was convinced that the future of the company needed to be the same as its past and so the copier was the technology to bet on. Conversely, Steve Jobs was convinced that Apple’s future had to be different than its past and so innovation and investment would be key.
And therein lies the lesson, boys and girls.
Yes, change can be challenging, and when the world and economy is scary, it is often the first instinct of business people to hunker down, try to not rock the boat, make no new investments, and cut costs.
But obviously, the lesson of Xerox and Apple (and many others) show that that is backwards thinking. Consider:
- Kodak invented digital photography, but upper management killed it, deciding it would have interfered with Kodak’s film business. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012
- Pan Am invented international travel but failed to continue to innovate. When was the last time you flew Pan Am?
- In 2000, Netflix tried to team up with Blockbuster Video, but Blockbuster’s CEO thought Netflix to be “ridiculous.” There is one Blockbuster left in the U.S. as of today
So the lesson is almost painfully obvious. Great companies – ones that succeed and grow, despite outside circumstances – are the ones that innovate and invest in their technology and their people.
We are now at a great moment of cultural, financial, and business upheaval. When things are as in flux as they are right now, one thing that is certain is that the way things are going to be will be much different than way they were. Business will be different.
Your business will need to be different.
And so you can begin to lasso the future by investing in your team today, by giving them the skills and training they need to work effectively, remotely if needed, and creatively. Indeed, a recent stat is illustrative: 50% of the CEOs surveyed in a recent poll said that skills shortages negatively affect their ability to innovate. Accordingly, by investing in reskilling your tram, by getting them ready for the brave new world on the horizon, you can set your business up for long-term success.
Indeed, training, re-training, upskilling, reskilling, and new skilling is the type of investment that can mean the difference between becoming a business that lasts or becoming one that will be a sad afterthought. Offering this type of training not only endears you to your employees, not only helps with recruitment and retention, but it gives your team the kind of skills that will become a strategic business advantage for your company.
Do that, and your business can continue to move forward, innovate, and be an original, rather than a faded copy of something that once was.