More than cellphones and 5G

Today’s the last day of LA’s Mobile World Congress, at the labyrinthine Los Angeles Convention Center. I had the opportunity to spend some time there earlier this week, and it was time well spent because I targeted specific gatherings. Of course, the exhibitions and keynotes featured lots of interesting discussions and demos (NVIDIA has an AI shopping experience that purports to match Alibaba Group, Amazon, and the few other players in this space. Will our retail shopping experience be disrupted and automated sooner or later?).

I had the pleasure of being invited to participate in a networking and coaching event hosted by the GSMA’s Women4Tech program, an initiative to drive more female representation in the technology industry. I met some impressive future leaders in engineering, programming, marketing, and government, and I gained invaluable insight into the aspirations of (and challenges faced by) female innovators and business execs. Sadly, this track was somewhat hidden from the main conference, which I feel was a lost opportunity for all. The big questions that invariably dominated the exhibition halls and panel stages included “how and when will 5G networks fully deploy, which standards (beyond the preliminary 5G NR) will prevail, and whose DCN will rule the roost?”. All good questions, but I would have preferred that the organizers had helped attendees expand their horizons a little more.

I do admit that the most fun for me was meeting some compelling startups in the 4YFN (4 Years from  Now) space. Many clever innovators focusing on solutions to improve health, connectivity, & community, though some of these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed founders need help with strategic planning if they seek viability beyond the first couple of years! Perhaps all they want to do is sell their idea and move on, like so many “serial entrepreneurs”, but that’s not entrepreneurism, in my opinion. It’s banking.

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.