Several months ago, my good friend John Durham and his team at Catalyst SF gave me the chance to reflect on my working career. As little as I like to admit it, I started in the business world in the mid-1970s in high tech advertising in Palo Alto. Since they first asked me to reflect on my career, a lot has happened which has made this discussion even more acute.
John passed away in November of 2021 after a long fight against cancer. I won’t offer John’s obituary here, but I will just say that the loss of John and the resulting outpouring of love and gratitude stimulated a time of reflection.
When I first dipped my toe into the water of high technology, Silicon Valley had only been christened by on Don Hoefler two years before. Before that the geographic designation was just “the Santa Clara Valley” and the Chamber of Commerce nickname was “The Prune Capital of America”. I wrote about the improbable rise of Silicon Valley in this post from several years ago.
Choosing high technology was an eccentric career choice fifty years ago. Experienced and respected advisors suggested that I devote my energies to “real business”. An economist speaking to the Churchill Club in the late 70’s told us not to be too full of ourselves. That the technology business was only about the size of the dog food business but that if we had a couple of good years we’d catch up to pantyhose.
Since those days I have had a good run. Some highs. Some lows. Made more money than some and a LOT less than others. But it’s been a lot of fun. And I. have made a lot of great friends.
Catalyst asked me to reflect on what I had learned over time as part of their “Tried Meets True” series. It was an interesting exercise and I took it seriously. Originally my answers appeared on the CatalystSF website, but with John’s passing that’s no longer available. I will append my draft to this post. But in the end, the core question as Curley in City Slickers asks is “What’s the One Thing?” For me it was to always bet on the new thing and to believe that the world offers us new opportunities every day.
It is tempting to hang onto the current job, the current solution, what you know. But that is almost always the wrong decision. For me, the answer has always been to bet on the future. And it still is.
|Peter Horan <[email protected]>||Tue, Jul 27, 2021, 7:00 AM|
|to John, Pam, Zach|
‘Tried Meets True’ Social Series Questions:ANSWERS from PCH
1. How is your industry different now than it was when you first started?
— I am so old that I might as well have been a wagon master on the Oregon Trail. Every industry that I currently touch bears no resemblance to where I started. Media has become atomized and democratized. Authority once flowed from the masthead down to the reporter and on to the reader. Now, in many cases, it’s the reader who not only decides what’s interesting but creates the news. The definitive coverage of the George Floyd death was captured by an onlooker with an iPhone. Once brands were shaped by what they said about themselves, now they are shaped by what their consumers say about them. When I started, businesses were judged only upon their products, now consumers (especially younger consumers) judge them on their values.
2. What are the most interesting ways that business culture has changed over the years? Ex. Work attire, formality of meetings, days off etc.
— The pace of business has gotten faster every year. When I was starting out, business communications were principally conducted via physical mail and phone calls. Faxes came in shortly after–and at the time that seemed miraculous. Now people receive questions while they are walking to lunch and feel compelled to answer before they order their sandwich. We have become more responsive but I am not sure that we are smarter. One of the advantages of more asynchronous communication is time for reflection. There was more time to think before answering and, on the whole, the answers were better. People need to force themselves to take a breath and think before responding to emails and especially texts.
3. What’s been a constant factor that you’ve noticed has made businesses successful, compared to businesses that have failed?
— I have actually made a study of this and talked about it in a preso that I titled, “You’re About to Get Hit by a Meteor”. One of my favorite slides is headed “Great to Gone In One Generation”. Companies that went from being household names and on every main street and mall to gone in only twenty years. The trap into which these businesses fell was being overly focused on their core customers and core competitors. What? Isn’t focus good? Not always! When businesses are too focused on the center of their market frame, they miss the disruption that begins with smaller competitors selling to customers that have been marginalized by the top players. Every case of major industrial decline begins with some executive saying “Our customers would never do that.” Because they almost surely will.
4. What advice would you give to someone in your industry that’s the same age as you when you first started?
— Follow the new thing. The world creates opportunities every day. The greatest rewards go to those who get in early. Mark Cuban became a billionaire by building and selling Broadcast.com to Yahoo long before others realized that the internet could be a broadcast medium. On the other hand, the folks that stayed too long in traditional ad businesses, media businesses, retails businesses were severely disadvantaged. Yes, you have to occasionally take your lumps but in the long run you will succeed if you bet on the future.
5. What’s one aspect of your business that you wish you valued more when younger, and what’s one aspect that you placed too much value on?
— Valuing equity as well as salary. Salary pays the bills. Equity builds your wealth. It’s very hard to save enough to build a nest egg. The equity in your home is good but you can really only take advantage of it when you quit and leave town.
6. If you had the chance, would you go back in time and do anything differently, as it pertains to your ascent in the business world?
— The obvious thing would have been to study China rather than Japan forty years ago. In 1980, we thought that Japan was the major economic competitor to the US. However, even though it now seems quaint or even misguided to have spent so much time studying Japanese business and culture, I still find Japan more interesting than China and have valued my understanding of that culture.
7. If you weren’t in the industry that you’re in now, what other job/career would you have liked to do instead?
My next career will be as a professional photographer. I am just about ready to pull the plug on my activities in technology, media and venture capital.