A message from the firm’s President, Nicholas de Wolff:
I have been struggling these past days with how I, a middle-aged white man (albeit of Hispanic ancestry), might express my present despair, disappointment, frustration, and solidarity in a constructive and meaningful way. Reading and sharing the words of a Person of Color, a Woman, an individual more intelligent and eloquent than I, proved to be the most constructive thing I could do. Recognizing that her words are far better than mine might ever be, I append here below a letter written by the Head of School of one of our nation’s most impressive High Schools, which happens to be exclusively for Girls, and happens also to be one of the most inclusive I have ever come across. Dr. Meera Viswanathan is a cultural warrior, and I hope her words affect you as they do me:
Dear Walker’s Students and Walker’s Community,
We have been dealing with a crisis for the last few months in the form of a pandemic beyond our control that has threatened the stability of our nation and our world. Now we are confronting another that is even more serious and tragic because it is one over which we do have control — systemic racism that has resulted in a pattern of killing Black people across the nation because they are Black. This is not new, but it has been exacerbated by the pandemic at hand, as so many inequalities have been.
In times of crisis, people often reach back to their traditions, their ideals, their values. At Walker’s we have our mission, our vision and our meditation as a guide. Our school meditation concludes, as every student knows, with the line “In love lies the key to life.” The philosopher and activist Dr. Cornel West, reminds us that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” If we are to be true to our values at Walker’s, we must be committed to justice because that too is the key to our lives as a society. If some of us have the right to jog, walk home at the end of the day, sleep in our beds without worry that harm may come to us, then all of us must share that same right, that same freedom equally. Again, our meditation enjoins, “Help us to look beyond ourselves and recognize the needs of others.”
Many members of our community, Black and Brown, worry daily about their safety and well-being; they worry especially about their parents and caretakers, their siblings, their relatives and their communities, wondering how to keep them safe and worrying that some day they may be targeted for what has been termed, “living while Black.” Former First Lady Michelle Obama described this as “a heartbreak that never seems to stop.” This cannot continue. All of us need to ask ourselves if the ideals to which we aspire are simply fairy tales which we tell ourselves to go to sleep at night. Or, are they ideals that we are determined to achieve, working every day to get closer to realizing them? This is not about politics; this is about who we are and what we believe in as human beings in terms of justice for all.
It is not enough to be saddened or angry by all that has happened, because those emotions usually dissipate after a week or two as people return to the status quo ante. Now we must ask ourselves something very different — how have these recent events altered how we see the world and ourselves within it? Can we commit ourselves to justice as the embodiment of our love for our Walker’s community? Are we courageous enough to be willing to see our own blind spots, those places of bias within us? Remember again our meditation, “Let us never be afraid to follow where the truth may lead us.”
These killings have engendered protests and uprisings that have resulted in more unrest. It is not enough to condemn the unrest, we must ask ourselves why people en masse are so compelled to abandon the rule of law. The answer can only be because they have felt abandoned by the rule of law. Violence in any form cannot be glorified; it must be abjured. Again our meditation offers guidance, “May we have insight to understand each other, And wisdom to know why we are sometimes misunderstood.”
To the memory of Emmett Till, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all those countless others who have lost their lives simply because someone did not like the color of their skin. Or where they were from. Or their religion. Or their political affiliation. Or…
In addition to the indomitable nature of the human spirit, history has also borne witness to the ways in which moments of crisis present opportunities for innovation, reinvention, improvement, and transformation – at the personal, enterprise, and community level.
Along with the more obvious (and worthy of support) Nonprofit relief organizations putting their shoulders to the wheel during this challenging period in world history, a number of commercial enterprises and other private ventures, less accustomed to tackling this sort of circumstance, are rising to the test and inspiring their peers and partners to seek out new models in collaboration, community, and constructive social action.
Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, and others are doing the admirable work for which they were founded: providing services and support to the neediest among us, while also offering vital research and data to help enlightened nations accelerate their journey toward community, social, and fiscal health. Other entities are meanwhile also studying and leveraging their unforeseen circumstances in a noteworthy fashion. As we continue to travel along this unpaved path, possessing only a folkloric sense of our destination, and with no knowledge of the distance or time that we will be traveling, the responsiveness and visibility of many brands and entities will become case studies in corporate social responsibility, stewardship, brand positioning, sustainability, customer relations, and even profitability.
Sometimes a small risk is worth it, if the intent is good, and the initiative is thoughtfully manifest.
The simple yet important early actions taken by numerous grocery brands ( Trader Joe’s, Giant Food, Costco, Target, Whole Foods, to name but a few) to accommodate the higher risk members of our population by establishing special “seniors and immune-system compromised citizens” shopping hours set a tone of thoughtful accommodation that deserves mention. The goodwill garnered was a great bonus, in addition to any maintained or even increased sales volumes. While many questions were still being formed as to transmission, safety, and other considerations, many brands made decisions to welcome, accommodate, and protect those at higher risk, rather than wait and see. Of course, hindsight being what it is, emerging data might have shown the actions to have been somewhat dangerous or foolhardy, but that was not the case this time. Solid protective measures were taken (social distancing, masks, wipedowns, etc), and it was a win-win for all. Sometimes a small risk is worth it, if the intent is good, and the initiative is thoughtfully manifest.
In the absence of clear and timely support action from the Federal Administration, commercial brands such as Crocs, Starbucks, Garnet Hill, and The Company Store are donating their products to frontline workers, while brands including New Balance, Fanatics, Hanes, Razer, and others have shifted production to making masks for frontline workers. Numerous other companies have donated funds to the cause. This is the best of corporate social responsibility, but it has been necessitated largely because of national government failure to proactively and persistently address a crisis that was foreseen years ago.
As and when nations begin the laborious climb out of the present quagmire, it will be important to watch and learn from those infrastructures initiating methodologies that prove most successful at lifting up the social and fiscal health of their citizenry.
Innovation is often manifest at times of highest urgency, and always best realized at moments of purest intent.
Educational systems have meanwhile not been idle. While public and private schools alike scramble to find new models to minimize the disruption to student curriculums in 2020 (and beyond?), some standouts deserve mention: Logitech is giving k-12 teachers free webcams and headsets as they transition to virtual teaching. Audible is making hundreds of their audiobook titles available to students for free. Google, Zoom, and Microsoft are all offering their online meeting and communications tools for free. This is perhaps where we can best see how stewardship and social responsibility can convert fluidly into opportunity. The move by Zoom to take the lead in offering free online learning and meeting facilities to K-12 institutions, notwithstanding privacy and security concerns that they aggressively addressed, skyrocketed the company’s valuation, and it remains strong. At the same time, competitor brands were inspired to not only step up and offer the same deal, but their go-to-market strategies for feature and function improvements were also accelerated and improved. The challenge laid down encouraged a whole fleet of online communication brands to rise together. Innovation is often manifest at times of highest urgency, and always best realized at moments of purest intent.
Schools are scrambling to develop new lesson plans, leverage heretofore peripheral toolsets, and accommodate previously negligible considerations, as they seek to shepherd their students through this challenging period, and give them the best education possible, under the circumstances. Very recently, some school districts have given up on the experiment, citing overwhelming logistical challenges for both teachers and parents.
Meanwhile, around the world, institutions and programs are refusing to let this crisis compromise their commitment to the highest standards in education they are capable of offering. In “better” times, many institutions struggled somewhat passively under the edicts of bureaucratic regional, State, and even national governments. Today, teachers and administrators alike are demanding the best possible support for their students, and many parents are stepping up to help in ways not seen before. Organizations such as Girls With Impact and Coursera are offering their curricula free of charge, and educators are collaborating with impressive transparency and a commitment to high standards in learning and social health alike. Faculty at my daughter’s school, The Ethel Walker School, have been internally sharing best practices and discoveries with enthusiasm and impressive thoughtfulness, and I suspect many other institutions are doing likewise.
It becomes clear, the more I study the varied brands, industries, and markets impacted by this epidemic, that progress and prosperity will be realized first by those entities (professional or otherwise) that embrace a culture of service and community. Transparency and collaboration will be stepping stones that elevate us from our current difficult situation; cooperation and fact-based responsibility will be the guideposts.
Companies that find themselves in suspension can either close down or leverage their skillsets to innovate and enrich their sector and, by extension, our world. In Australia, enterprises such as Passions of Paradise, Wavelength, Ocean Freedom, Sailaway and Quicksilver Cruises are nurturing the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, during the tourism industry’s absence. SodaStream is donating to global NGO WaterAid which provides clean tap water for drinking and washing hands. The sparkling water company, based in Israel, also recently announced its commitment to eliminate the use of 67 billion single-use plastic bottles by 2025 and to switch the packaging for all of its flavors from plastic to metal bottles beginning early next year. Meanwhile, a Los Angeles company, Orly has reconfigured its factory to produce 75% alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and 10,000 bottles will be donated to the City of Los Angeles for distribution throughout the city’s at-risk homeless population. These are just a few examples amidst a growing collection of case studies in community leadership and industry innovation.
What case studies have you come across that demonstrate laudable examples in stewardship, cooperation, and creative innovation, during this time when many might otherwise trend toward apathy and surrender? Is your organization doing some interesting and inspiring work? Do you have a community-building and uplifting idea that deserves to be realized? Let us know!
Transparency and collaboration will be stepping stones that elevate us from our current difficult situation; cooperation and fact-based responsibility will be the guideposts.
Now is an ideal moment to take stock of our performance, and reorient ourselves in the direction of peace, renewal, introspection, and togetherness.
However challenging this past year may have been for you or your business, we hope that the net effect has been a positive one, not only to your bottom line, but to your and your colleagues’ personal sense of wellbeing. We work to live, and may we all live to make our world a little better – whether through art, commerce, social service, or whatever pursuit gets you out of bed at the beginning of your day!
As always, our firm’s marker for success is how much we were able to learn and grow, in any given year. 2019 was no exception, though it had some unforeseen moments!
Our recent engagements have taken us into a variety of new markets and fields, for which I am grateful. Whether working with the UN Foundation on their “Girl Up” initiative, restructuring a nationally syndicated radio talk show for the podcast era, or celebrating the opening of a new local business venture. Our company’s focus remains on people, sustainability (environmental and fiscal), and innovation.
Personal commitments prevented me from spending my usual couple of months with our London and Lisbon teams, but more time in the Los Angeles area allowed for greater participation in some local initiatives.
We continue to enjoy supporting the great work done by the film and TV industry’s Green Production Guide team, and I enjoyed spending a day at the Produced By Conference in early June, roaming the Warner Bros lot, challenging the thousands of industry professionals in attendance to rethink and upgrade their approach to sustainable production. Personal engagement remains the foundation stone upon which fruitful change is built.
Our firm continues to work with and advise a variety of political and educational initiatives and organizations, including the City of Burbank, where we are based. We are passionate about improving the transportation infrastructures and community health of this beautiful city – no small undertaking in an area so slavishly devoted to the automobile! We were thrilled to participate this year in some milestone events and initiatives, including the groundbreaking ceremonies for a bikeway we’ve been working on for a number of years, the continued development of a regional rapid transit system (BRT), and ongoing improvements to the intersections between our regional and local traffic infrastructures (more access for bicycles, pedestrians, and public transportation!). There has been a lot of success in 2019, but, as with all such projects, the movement is glacial and there remains much to be done!
This was a great year for improving the city’s fiscal and functional health, and it’s been a pleasure to welcome new City Manager Justin Hess, while thanking outgoing City Manager Ron Davis for his service. Each person, though cut from different cloth, brings a standard of excellence and service worthy of appreciation. The inimitable Emily Gabel-Luddy, nearing the close of her term, will shortly be succeeded as the City’s Mayor by our other admirable friend Sharon Springer, and I look forward to a period wherein her infectious enthusiasm, love of community, and intelligence will continue to inspire and uplift not only City Staff, residents, and businesses, but the municipalities around us, as California continues to lead the way in facing the challenges and opportunities of our myriad communities.
A summer opportunity to travel back to Seattle, Washington allowed me to catch up with a previous client, OneRedmond, and the numerous technology and entertainment companies with whom we collaborated during our most recent project in the area. Some very interesting progress has been made, including the establishment of a very promising Public/Private partnership serving the Greater Seattle Economic Development area. This region includes not only Seattle itself, but also the wonderful cities of Redmond, Kirkland, and Bellevue. We were also able to spend a good amount of time with another cherished client, one of the Northwest’s top event and hospitality firms with whom we are developing a growth strategy, as they expand into more strategic and global ventures relating to their already impressive core capabilities.
The Northwest region remains a favorite one, and I’m excited to see its continued growth as a hub of innovation and workforce development. The area’s renowned commitment to sustainability and community makes it an excellent breeding ground for the next generation of purpose-driven enterprises.
Bungie Offices in Bellevue, WA
Harebrained Schemes HQ
Big Fish Games in Seattle, WA
Back in Los Angeles, I was recently invited to participate in a long-overdue Mobile World Congress workshop session entitled “Women4Tech”. It was inspiring to see and talk with such a diversity of women leaders in the fields of tech, marketing, engineering, government, and creative production. Some of next year’s most compelling innovations from around the world will be coming from women-led enterprises, and we can only benefit from their contributions, guidance, and insights.
At the end of last year, I was invited by Al Gore to become a Climate Reality Leader, helping to inform and inspire communities to become more actively engaged in combating the undeniable climate crisis we all face. In addition to giving presentations to schools, local governments, corporations, and community organizations, it was an honor to be asked to establish and chair one of the newest Chapters of the global Climate Reality Project. This proved a mighty and worthwhile challenge! During the course of this past year, we recruited more than 40 passionate advocates for responsible stewardship, and together we have made a marked impact on local, state, regional, and national policy and action. We look forward to helping the organization further consolidate and maximize the energy, knowledge, and commitment of these leaders.
Climate Reality Leadership Training in Los Angeles
Climate Leader Workshop
Meeting Climate Reality Leaders from all over the globe
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been a favorite organization, ever since I was a student at Duke University, helping to set up a chapter of the Center’s then-new “Teaching Tolerance” initiative. I’ve long enjoyed supporting the great work done by this laudable organization, and this year we were offered a marvelous opportunity to spend some time with co-founder Joe Levin, as we reviewed the extraordinary efforts undertaken by the SPLC, on behalf of the disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed members of our nation’s family. I remain in awe of their passionate zeal and commitment.
While 2019 provided a diversity of opportunities and discoveries, it also unhappily took away important treasures. I was greatly saddened this year to participate in memorial and funeral services for some great people, including my friend, Blake Byrne; an important mentor, David Picker; a previous boss, Michael Lynne; and former colleague and icon, Cokie Roberts. It would be pitiful to attempt here any sort of In Memoriam for such admirable people, so we will instead commit ourselves anew to conducting our professional business in a manner reflecting their integrity, passion, and service. We are sure that each of our friends, colleagues, and clients has experienced the pain of loss this year, in their own unique but equally important way, and we offer each our sympathy. Life is indeed a fleeting gift, the value of which we seem to fail to take full measure, until we find ourselves being ushered toward the exit. To borrow the latest aphorism: KonMari the year ahead, and share the joy you keep!
With Burbank neighbor, Adam Schiff
With SAG-AFTRA President, Gabrielle Carteris
Some friends from the PoC Network
My old friend, the hard-working Antoine de Cazotte
The future must always be seen with optimism. We are looking forward to continuing our work with our newest client: an exciting tech & creative startup venture focused on increasing access for the visually impaired to content otherwise out of reach. We’re eager to see what other opportunities and innovations present themselves next year, in markets and industries that will assuredly teach us new lessons and show us new wonders!
My thanks go not only to my colleagues, but to clients and friends alike who have welcomed us this year into their offices and labs, as well as onto the many studio lots and sets! The opportunity to learn from and watch you invent inspires me on a regular basis!
Driving onto the Disney Lot
Wandering around Disney Studios
Driving on to the Sony Lot
Walking onto the Warner Bros Studio Lot
Wishing you the peace, renewal, and togetherness to which I alluded at the beginning of my post, I close, grateful for a year where the positives outweighed the negatives, and in the hope that this trend continues robustly in the year to come.
Following is an Interview with April Perry, Managing Consultant at Drake Beam Morin, now Adecco – the world’s leading Human Resource services consultancy.
de Wolff Advisors President, Nicholas de Wolff consulted to DBM and its Managing Consultant for more than a year, providing advisory and restructuring counsel, as the organization moved toward its successful acquisition by Adecco. The following are excerpts from an interview we conducted with the firm’s Los Angeles Director.
Q. What can you tell me about working with Nicholas de Wolff?
Nicholas always found time to help me and my staff with a variety of projects – everything from editorial rewrites on corporate documentation, to serving as an invaluable sounding board on some very high-level strategy we were exploring. As such, it is impossible for me to compare him to others, as I have yet to meet an individual so adept at wearing a diversity of strategic and tactical hats.
Q. What would you say are his greatest strengths?
Extraordinary insight, piercing intellect, and sensitivity. A marvelous sense of humor, and a degree of innovative thinking and creativity matched only by his tenacity and efficiency.
Q. What type of contributions did he make that had a definite impact on the company’s bottom line?
His ability to crystallize our messaging and positioning (and at extraordinary speed!) saved us time and money, as well as increased executive attendance at our events. He has a way of getting straight to the point, and clarifying reality, vision, and the ways to connect the two that ensure a superior degree of operational and strategic efficiency. He works at a fantastic pace, without sacrificing the quality of his contribution. I find him to be a motivational, inspirational, challenging, and charming collaborator.
Q. How responsive was he to the suggestions of others?
He is very open to input, and in fact requires it. However, he will be swift to challenge your position if it is not well-thought out.
Q. Can he communicate technical ideas to non-technical associates?
I have no doubt that, as the one-time Chief Marketing Officer of one of the world’s largest multinational technology service providers, he fulfilled this role with deceptive ease. On a personal note, I am consistently amazed at how much he knows about technology trends, and how he is able to explain them to me without making my head spin!
Q. Would fellow co-workers consider him to be a leader or follower?
Q. What would you want a prospective employer to know about him?
Don’t let this one go. Do whatever you must to get him on your team.
For more than a decade I have been railing against Unicorns, while concurrently coining the notion of Workhorse or Zebra startup mentalities. My passion for reimagining the approach that innovators and inventors take to building their business propositions is matched by my zeal for an equally aggressive repositioning at the other end of the enterprise scale.
Too many large enterprises (I’ve worked at a few) operate much as an aircraft carrier [if you’ve heard me speak on the topic, you know this analogy of mine all too well!]. They are slow to respond, costly to maintain, and require astonishing lead-times in order to effect any sort of course correction. I have long held that modern businesses need to model their operational efficiency on a “Jetski” principle: nimble, reactive, fast, and able to jump over any unexpected wave running counter to its objective. While one of the most telling characteristics of the lumbering giant enterprise is its slow response time, these sorts of megacompanies have mitigated that weakness by establishing, as best they could, de facto monopolies or regional agreements with competitors, so as to ensure themselves the lead-time necessary to implement unavoidable changes. That worked while technology and society moved at something close to the same pace as these brands. One of the most important aspects of jetski companies (as I have called them, for a while), is that – while they may not have the resources to individually manage the same volume of customers or clients as the aircraft carriers, they are able to adapt much more efficiently and effectively to sea changes.
Residential ISPs have been operating under a massively flawed business model for years now, and seem to have no interest in changing said model. AT&T, Spectrum (formerly Charter and Time-Warner), and others believe that customer churn is an acceptable cost of doing business.
So long as they can successfully seduce an equal or greater volume of new customers each month, to offset loss of customers due to their shady price hikes (or keep a sufficient volume of customers who are too lazy or ignorant to contest the price hikes), these near monopolies are happy.
Any intelligent market analyst will note, though, that inevitably accelerating changes in technology always disrupt long-established yet unchanging business models. These large behemoths are lumbering along as if their revenue streams are secure.
As 5G continues its maturation and deployment, and initiatives such as Loon point the way to yet more compelling alternatives, customers repeatedly abused by current ISP giants will be eager to explore emerging options.
In the face of these disruptions, no amount of retroactive price cuts will restore customer faith in the big brands that for so long exploited their market dominance.
No matter how faithful these brands may have been to their shareholders, if customer volume drops, so will the share price.
The painfully obvious lesson here being that in an age of accelerating technological and social disruption, the relationship a product or service brand has with its customers is the most important relationship to establish, manage, and honor.
This doesn’t mean brands should become enslaved by the vicissitudes of mercurial and sometimes manipulative shoppers: “two wrongs don’t make a right”, as our parents often said!
It does mean that transactional relationships need to be more equitable, manageable, and transparent. ISPs and other businesses incapable of upgrading their methodologies and practices will be disconnected, beached…insert analogy or metaphor of choice.
13 years ago, I gave a small talk at the Cannes Film Festival, evangelizing for more measured creative and business growth. I had been working with several startups and noticed a trend toward accelerated scaling that I found worrisome. I encouraged my audience (mostly independent filmmakers) to give themselves time to develop their properties, instead of desperately rushing to sell their idea, fearful that it would be illicitly co-opted by some unknown competitor.
In 2005, I joined a large multinational corporation and noticed that this trend was reflected in the sense of urgency with which budgets and projects were managed throughout business units, and even at the corporate level (usually in response to shareholder demands for the semblance of repetitive short term gains).
Instead of engaging in careful long-term strategic planning and consistent scaling at a manageable pace, enterprises large and small were increasingly (and often retroactively) chasing mythical goals. Business ventures want to convince investors, shareholders, and others that their offering is worth obscene valuation, yet they don’t want to “waste” time actually doing the work of conceptualizing, developing, testing, productizing, marketing, selling, and supporting any tangible offering. It takes less time to make a PowerPoint, it would seem, than it does to make a product. The collateral damage from this mentality continues to be ignored today, by too many people who ought to know better.
Permit me to jump to another topic, for reasons which will become apparent, I hope:
The C-130 Hercules remains the longest continuously produced military aircraft in history. The first flight of the YC-130 prototype was made on this day (23 August) 1954 from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California. Burbank’s relationship with Lockheed was long and proud, but the city demonstrated a painful lack of strategic planning that left it in dire straits in the early 1990s, when Lockheed left town. The job losses and economic downturn were dramatic, to say the least. Burbank had relied too heavily on one industry, even though the signs of change in that industry had been evident for years. Today, the local economy in this charming SoCal city is once again relying heavily on an admirable and powerful industry. That industry is also showing signs of dramatic change, and Burbank must work proactively – in partnership with its resident businesses from the Media & Entertainment industries – to adapt and evolve, in order to stay aloft in turbulent times, economic, technological, and social.
Cities are growing, as populations increasingly urbanize. Too many of these cities rely on a very few large sources of tax inflow, instead of diversifying their portfolio of revenues. Given that 99.7% of businesses in the US are small businesses, and 48% of US employees are small-business employees, I continue to advocate (with increasing volume!) for municipalities to support sustainable small business incubation: providing for scalable workforce growth, complementary innovations within pre-existing business ecosystems, and more agile infrastructures, capable of adapting to the increasingly explosive nature of 21st century markets, without becoming unduly subject to that same volatility.
The window of opportunity narrows, the closer one comes to a point of inflection. Will Burbank adapt in time, so it is able to manage, rather than be subject to, dynamic market changes? Will the Media & Entertainment industries pull back (even just a little) from the precipice of quarterly performance, in deference to more long-term strategic measurements? Will business ventures invest more thoughtfully in smaller initiatives (subsidiary or autonomous), more capable of adapting to the creative, technological, and economic forces that wait around the corner?
In the words of my close personal friend, Dame Shirley:
“They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near,
But to me it seems quite clear
That’s it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”
I am a big admirer of Satya Nadella. However, when Mr. Nadella stated in a recent interview, “It always bothered me that we confused an enduring mission with a temporal goal”, he seems to be confusing and conflating the concepts of a VISION and a MISSION with the notion of VALUES. Perhaps this is an effort to distance himself and his administration from the legacy presence of the brand’s co-founder, but I fear that would be misguided strategy. Perhaps he was misquoted (it happens). Perhaps he didn’t say what he meant to say, or in quite the way he intended. Media interviews are fraught with the peril of partial clarity.
It bears reviewing that a vision statement should, if pursued properly, have an expiration date. At that point, the sitting leadership should reinvigorate the brand strategy with a new vision statement. Similarly, a mission is not well defined if it is not clearly achievable, and thus temporary. The values of a company may also change, but they can also endure.
Bill Gates’ vision of hardware ubiquity, expressed in his mission of “putting a PC in every home”, was well stated at the time, and largely accomplished, as Mr. Nadella concedes in this interview. Quite correctly, Nadella also points out the geographic and cultural limitations of that mission: a perfect opportunity to refresh the Microsoft brand, with a new more expansive Mission Statement, a new Vision Statement, and – if he and his leadership team so choose – a new Statement of Core Values (which is what I believe he is attempting to do here).
If a company accomplishes its previously stated mission, this is cause for celebration, not criticism and distancing. I hope Mr. Nadella will recognize and underscore this, going forward, and give his company the credit it justly deserves. I believe Microsoft has an exciting path ahead of itself, and how its leadership frames the past will do much to develop market and shareholder confidence in its future.
The power of live streaming is incontestable, as most recently demonstrated by the awful but important footage captured by Lavish Reynolds (warning: this video is graphic). This media innovation has the potential to revolutionize journalism, communications, storytelling…but then Twitter had that same potential, when it rose to prominence. Technological innovation will usually manifest compelling results, but many pioneering brands will stumble along the way. Is this unavoidable? Are there better ways to grow a product or solution, so it may realize its best potential more effectively, efficiently, and sustainably?
The recent Democrat “sit-in” in the US House of Representatives launched Twitter’s subsidiary Periscopeinto the spotlight (at the edges of which it had been operating for more than a year). This app has the potential to merge the functional merits of both Twitter and YouTube. Will this “Video Twitter” evolve into a long-term media platform enhancement, or is it little more than the latest social media fad? Who remembers Meerkat?
Snapchat took over from Instagram, which itself apparently supplanted Pinterest, after the latter briefly challenged Facebook. Of course, some will argue that I have one or two of the brand incursions mixed up, but that only underscores my contention: Will everyone have the Periscope app on their smartphones for the next 6 months, only to hop to the next shiny bright object, as soon as some bright young startup creates it (with a surfeit of investment from Venture Capital companies eager to reap quick cash rewards, before their latest vaporware is supplanted)? Will Periscope instead grow “too big to fail”, as Twitter seems to have done, yet – like Twitter – represent little clarity, in terms of functional positioning? Are our social platforms and channels destined to come and go with the whims of youth, or are some focusing on developing a degree of operational maturity that will more securely establish their merits and utility, both on our smartphones and in our communities? For all of Facebook’s flaws, it has consistently pursued this maturation with the degree of academic humility and professional confidence that is the hallmark of most engineers. Its relative longevity is as much a result of its willingness to adapt and iterate, as it is due to its refusal to be molded by its user base.
Therein lies the lesson.
Too many brands have relied upon the “Crowd” to manifest and elevate their identity and fortunes, simply because it was this same “Crowd” that first adopted the company’s initial value proposition. The “Crowd” is a powerful current, but while it runs most aggressively in shallow waters, it carries the greatest power in deeper seas. In much the same way, it behooves companies that operate in the Social space (which effectively includes all M&E and Communications companies, along with a host of other markets) to study more assiduously the role of their user base in the ongoing development and growth of their brand. It is not the Crowd’s responsibility to identify or define the brand, nor its value proposition. Furthermore, the longer we allow Startups to scale too quickly, simply as a means to secure larger investments, IPOs, and other Get-rich-quick objectives, the weaker our innovation pipeline will become. The vast majority of Venture-backed startups fail in their first year, and the many articles acknowledging this long-known but too often ignored fact effectively concur that the solution lies in more sustainable development, both of IP and workforce.
I have spent the past 15 years promoting this thesis: that Startup success should no longer be gauged by how fast a company sells, but rather how solidly it is able to build its value proposition; how securely it is able to hire and retain talent; how reliably it is able to integrate its offering into the physical and functional communities within which it operates. While the ROI may not be as immediately “sexy” as the silly Unicorns investors still chase, the longer-term returns generated by the far less mythical “workhorses” I have been supporting are more rewarding, both financially and otherwise. With this in mind, I look to brands such as Periscope, and I wonder: will they be seduced by the noise and sparkle of short-term ROI aspiration, which more often than not represents little more than a mirage of unattainable yearnings, or will they plot their course with thoughtful care and imagination, giving themselves, their investors, their employees, and users the best chance of hitting the mark, and driving forward into an increasingly valuable future?
Businesses all too often find themselves pulled by powerful gravitational forces into the black hole of “quarterly prosperity at all costs”. The vision becomes about paper profitability, and the true core value is lost in the mists of market competition.
A great business is, however, always tied to a great community, great innovation, and great people. Without those ingredients, the heart of a brand fails, and all the remnant frantic activity is little more than life support, performed on a gradually failing entity.
No matter the size of your venture, be it a startup or multinational, always remember your people, your vision, and your community are your core.
I have been trying for 8 years, with varying degrees of success, to encourage people to stop heeding the false prophecies of certain (not all) Get-Rich-Quick Venture Capital investment vehicles, and instead seek out the truly thoughtful innovations that have the potential to bring as much social value as fiscal value to the marketplace and communities in which we exist today.
It’s time for us all to stop playing this game of “my vaporware is shinier than yours”, and try to sincerely help inventors, innovators, and other creative business builders develop the types of sustainable business propositions that can build workforces, communities, steady revenue streams, and the types of long-term economic stability that was once the hallmark of great nations. It requires time, humility, and perseverance. It requires collaboration, vision, and generosity.
Watch this clip featuring Bernie Sanders. You need not agree with his every political position to recognize the veracity of his observations herein. It applies to our approach to so many facets of life and society:
“The truth is, at some level, that we are in this together… The truth is at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt. And when my kids hurt, you hurt. And it’s very easy to turn our backs on kids who are hungry, or veterans who are sleeping out on the street, and we can develop a psyche, a psychology which is “I don’t have to worry about them; all I’m gonna worry about is myself; I need to make another 5 billion dollars.”
So I believe that when we do the right thing, when we try to treat people with respect and dignity, when we say that that child who is hungry is my child, I think we are more human when we do that, than when we say “hey, this whole world, I need more and more, I don’t care about anyone else.”