I had opportunity this week to trot out one of my favorites from Nathan Myhrvold: “Among modern occupations, only cult leaders and TV weathermen rival the technological visionary’s ability to retain credibility despite all evidence to the contrary.” (It’s funny because it’s true).
And it IS true. But, before we step away, let’s also step back to acknowledge human nature’s own contribution to all this nonsense. Roy S. Durstine called it in 1945: “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” That, of course, goes well for pundits, but I’d also like to suggest it goes double for the audience which solicits the ideological solipsism in the first place.
Let’s face it—we, the audience, are quickest to lap up punditry of the purest theoretical and tech-religious sort (“theory” and “theology” sharing the same etymological roots, after all), and that’s the stuff most likely to end up as an “oops”. And I get it—Mac vs Windows is much more fun without digressions into broader navel gazes like Apple vs Microsoft. To use another big word, you could say folks prefer to argue merits without regard to provenance, and we resist thinking about things in wider dimensions because that’s where it gets most confusing.
My CV shares multiple companies and an alma mater in common with a very smart guy, John Landry, whose own CV adds titles like CTO, CEO, and Chairman of some very impressive industry names like Cullinet, Lotus Development Corp, and IBM. A discussion he once shared, which I’ve never forgotten, is his recipe for evaluating technology that coincidentally has a far better long-term success rate than cult leaders, TV weathermen, AND technological visionaries combined. His five-part approach, badly paraphrased here, starts off with the obvious:
1. Is it new? Is it different?
Consumer goods brands touting “New and Improved” are the classic moot case in point. Nah, laundry detergent is, ultimately, just laundry detergent. But some things truly are new and different, and those are the things that carry potential for something greater. Remember when word processors showed up? When was the last time you saw an IBM Selectric typewriter?
2 Is it valuable?
Yeah—word processors kick typewriters’ asses in productivity and accuracy. They also significantly curtailed the market for Wite-Out. Collateral damage is absolutely a thing in tech.
3. What is the migration path?
This is a tricky question, and it has everything to do with what’s already being used. In the case of word processors, there really was no migration path on the hardware side. You threw out your typewriter, your ink ribbons, and your Wite-Out, and if your word processor wasn’t worth doing all that, you wouldn’t have bought it in the first place. But, remember, on the wetware side: you know the QWERTY keyboard was no coincidence. Then, remember when word processing software became available for the general-purpose PC’s people were already using? That easy hardware migration path (just insert the floppy disk and type “INSTALL”) virtually erased Wang Computers from the face of the earth. It’s an innovator-eat-innovator world out there.
Context really matters.
And here, after the first three dimensions on John’s list, is where most tech punditry, and tech punditry readers, prefer the story to end. Sadly, in practice, this is never where it really ends. History is littered with examples of technological better-thans that were obliterated by a lot of comparative nonsense. So how can we think about and anticipate those situations?
John’s approach was to add even more context to manage the confusion, and, sadly for those of you who hate both numbers and accounting, it involves a lot of both. For lack of better words, as I recall, he chose “vendor” for the formal presentation of these, which I’ll repeat out of respect to the author, but he happily substituted whatever entity or consortium suited any given discussion at work, and I think we can too:
4. How strong is the vendor?
I’m still fuming about Coca Cola’s 1994 legal weight-throw to muzzle Polar Beverages’ polar bear mascot, Orson. Orson, as long-time New Englanders will emotionally know and remember, has been the face of Polar Beverages since 1902. Yet, just a solitary year after one of their advertising jockeys put a polar bear in one of their commercials, Coca Cola’s massive legal weight came crashing down on Orson and prohibited him from pointing out that Polar sparkling water was a heck of a lot purer than Coke’s corn syrup and flavor-chemical cola concoction. Should Polar have sued back in ’93 to constrain Coke from advertising with a polar bear in the first place to get ahead of the future vulnerability? You’d have to compare legal budgets before deciding whether that would have been a good idea. Size matters.
5. How persistent is the vendor?
In this one, we’ll also need to expand on the euphemism “persistent”. Persistent can mean many things, but mostly, in my embrace of John’s lexicon, it stands for how much energy an entity cares to throw at something they may or may not consider important. (Just because someone or something is big, it doesn’t mean they’re going to punch that way). History is full of stories of successful Davids taking on complacent Goliaths who just weren’t all that bothered to swat them away while they still could. Snapple broad-daylight-barged their way into the soda aisle long before Coca Cola too late realized they needed to add Gold Peak and Honest Tea to their portfolio. Or, to use a more “tech” example, consider how the Sears Catalogue people really didn’t pay any attention to what Amazon was doing back in the day. One might argue that the economic might of Sears at that time could have squashed Bezos like a bug before he even got himself beyond the online book business, had they been seeing the remote shopping forest for the seemingly innocuous online book purchase trees. Sears had the product line… They had the warehouses… They had the geographic reach… Web programmers and a clue? Ah, irony…
But beware of “Trojan indifference”. IBM, back to Selectrics for a moment, found it expedient to ignore bespoke word processing machines, and to get back at Wang by building word-processing-capable PC’s instead. IBM wasn’t interested to fight a typewriter vs word processor battle—they knew Wang was confused in their thinking that they were replacing typewriters. IBM knew the game was about office automation. INSTALL. And we all know it’s true: “He who laughs last laughs best”.
Context is king.
This is all a long-winded way of reminding folks to “look at the books!” before jumping too enthusiastically on any particular bandwagon. WeWork was arguably a great idea—and, even setting aside the bad behavior involved, it just wasn’t capitalized the way it needed to be in order to survive. If you’d like to have some fun, look back and read all the pundit praise WeWork was getting right before the ship went down in 2019. (“The startup-focused press in particular acted more as cheerleader than watchdog”). And then recall this Buzzword piece from 2015. The information was all there—folks just didn’t like wading into the financial weeds to see it.
To be clear, weak-financing asterisks never merit ignoring the truly awesome. We all know that folks putting their business on the last dollar of their personal credit card is a time-honored rite of passage. New, different, valuable, and easy to migrate in the absence of attentive competition is really all you need to sail along until the sales growth trade winds carry you away to business paradise. But money matters. I wish I knew to whom to attribute the first utterance, but:
“You can lose money for years, but you only run out of cash once”.