“Defending the status quo is what kills companies.” That line comes from the excellent book More Than a Motorcycle: The Leadership Journey at Harley-Davidson written by former Harley CEO Rich Teerlink and his organizational consultant partner Lee Ozley. The book chronicles Teerlink’s and Ozley’s process to change the culture at Harley-Davidson to ensure the company was ready for the challenges to come. What I found most remarkable, though, was that they didn’t initiate this massive change when the company was troubled — they initiated massive change when the company had just completed a successful financial turnaround and the press was actively singing their praises.
They changed when conventional wisdom would have said to keep doing what they were doing.
Bankruptcy courts are littered with companies who kept doing what they were doing and failed to adapt to changing marketplaces and changing customer needs and expectations.
I spent 20 years in the music industry with Tower Records, so I’ve see one of the best examples in recent years of an entire industry that desperately clung to the past rather than embrace the future. The music industry didn’t suffer because of Napster and illegal downloads; it suffered because it turned its back on its customers in favor of short term profits.
The music industry failed to recognize the opportunity that came with the advent of the Internet and digital music formats. Rather than see their industry from their customers’ perspective, the industry fell pray to the elitism I’ve discussed previously. So a computer company took their business from them. Apple‘s iPod and iTunes took the music retailers’ business and substantially wrestled control away from the music labels.
The retailers could have created digital music stores if they weren’t so worried about protecting their current businesses. And there were other opportunities available. Seth Godin spoke to the industry last year and gave some excellent examples of opportunities to change the business model.
Now other traditional industries like newspapers, video stores and bookstores, among others, are also losing substantial market share to new, technology based upstarts. Others, like travel agencies, are mostly gone.
But some companies are embracing change even during the height of success.
A recent Forbes interview with Xerox’s retiring CEO Anne Mulcahy highlighted her strategy to focus Xerox on “paperless printing” even though the entire organization was basically built on paper-producing technology. Rather than focus on paper, Mulcahy instead said the company’s value was always about the creation, management and dispensing of information, “Democratization of information, however it happened.”
Threats to existing business models aren’t only coming in the form of digitization.
Look at the shoe business. In ten years, Zappos.com went from a germ of an idea to a $1 billion company. Their model? “In March of 2003, we made a decision to be about customer service,” say their CEO, Tony Hsieh, in a recent Fast Company profile. “We view any expense that enhances the customer experience as a marketing cost because it generates more repeat customers through word of mouth.”
Customer experience as a marketing cost. It’s a whole new way of looking at the shoe business (or retail in general), and it’s a hit worth a cool billion in a short amount of time.
I can’t believe that billion dollars was incremental business to the overall market. That share came out of somebody’s hide. And that means an existing shoe business could have done it first if the thought process and the courage to act was there. If the Zappos model works, it can be applied to anything, and it appears that’s exactly what Zappos intends to do.
And the radical ideas keep coming. Chris Anderson has a controversial new book, Free, that describes a future he believes will be centered largely around business models that give away 95% of their offerings and make money on the remaining 5%. Are Anderson’s ideas open for debate? Sure, but they and other seemingly nutty ideas should be regularly and honestlydiscussed. One of them may well be the next billion dollar idea.
It doesn’t take wholesale change in the marketplace to significantly disrupt a business model.
A drop in business of 10-15% can have massive impact, as many have clearly seen in the current economic downturn. But the economic downturn has not sunk all boats. Amazon.com reported a sales increase of 18% and a net income increase of 24% for their first quarter this year.
As e-commerce continues to be the growth vehicle in retail, and as Amazon continues to dominate e-commerce, I wonder how brick and mortar retail models will adapt. I believe there are many opportunities today to leverage both the growth and value of e-commerce and existing physical real estate.
Certainly, tying the web experience and the store experience together via cross-channel capabilities is a must. In the industry, we talk a lot today about capabilities like order online and pick up in store, and I think those are good.
But how can we take it further?
For example, I know from my experience with in-store kiosks at Borders that a lot more people than I expected still aren’t comfortable shopping online. They want someone to help them use the kiosks, and then they want to pay with cash at the register. Why not use our store POS systems to take cash payments for online orders? What if we took it a step further and took cash payments for other sites’ orders. What if the physical store essentially became an affiliate for a pure play e-commerce site and took the cash along with a commission? What type of opportunities might that open for both the pure play and the brick and mortar store? What other reasons should customers continue to shop physical stores well into the future as technology and delivery systems continue to improve?
What challenges does your business face in the coming years, or what businesses in general do you see most at risk? How could your business model change — maybe radically — to address those challenges? Or, do you think this is all hogwash? Let’s discuss.