Over the last few years, I’ve made plenty of predictions that have come right. In 2000, I was interviewed by Josie Vidal for The Evening Post (as it then was) and I said we should expect a war in Iraq if George W. Bush were elected (this was during the day of the election). I was pretty forceful in getting the Audi A4 Avant chosen as Lucire’s Car to Be Seen in for 2001 because I envisaged a fuel crisis and that it would be irresponsible to have a gas guzzler. Most of the environmental and social responsibility initiatives I’ve been involved in, you probably know about. In 2006 it was easy to predict petrol hitting $2 a litre in New Zealand, though for different reasons; later that year I told someone about the ‘Ipodphone’, which may have been an open secret to those in the know, but not to non-techie civilians like me.
But some these were predictable things, and a few were cyclical. I do not employ crystal balls or complex mathematical models. There is also some wisdom to say if you do make predictions that are cyclical, then sooner or later you will be right. A stopped clock, they say, is right twice a day.
In most cases I was a few years too early: the green movement within Lucire and the quest to make the magazine carbon-neutral at a time when no one had heard of that term. It reminded me of the beginning of the magazine when hardly anyone in New Zealand was on email and wondered why I would even do an online title.
I discovered I can’t be put on the spot to make a prediction, though quite a few of the above have been on the record. The key, I guess, is to record as many of these as possible, then check your batting average. I’m not likely to remember the bad predictions.
I am hardly 100 per cent accurate, and I can be way wrong. In 1990 I saw no future for the internet, I was quite happy ﬁddling around with bulletin boards, and thought it was nuts that some upstart called Paradise BBS would charge its members for this newfangled thing called ‘internet access’. It took me till 1993 to change my tune. Ironically, I also criticized blogging in 2003 prior to the Beyond Branding Blog being set up.
And unlike the Psychic Twins, I never saw 9-11 coming, not by a long shot.
So what does this all mean? Well, it probably points at the folly of forecasting too deeply and the curse of the business plan.
The majority of the US’s fastest-growing new businesses do not have business plans, and you could have once included folks such as Google and Yahoo! in their nascent stages. They just plain did it, but investors love seeing optimistic projections that dragged them into doomed ventures such as Pets.com and Boo.com.
Of course the projections are optimistic. Few business plans are going to tell an investor, ‘I really don’t know. I do not have crystal balls. All I know is I will work hard, but ultimately, it’s still going to be a gamble for you.’ Why else would an entrepreneur be in business if it were not for some misguided desire to reject convention?
I do not use the term misguided negatively. If you were to follow conventional thought, you’d probably wouldn’t have a very exciting business, or you wouldn’t have started it anyway. Something drives entrepreneurs, and perhaps the question any savvy investor should be asking is: what is this entrepreneur’s gut instinct like and what is driving her or him?
There are certain things you can put aside straight away. No great venture has a head in it for the glory. We already know celebrity CEOs don’t possess too many skills other than being good inspirational vehicles for the team, investors and for the media, but the hard yards tend to be done by the quiet ones, building up a venture over decades.
Sir Richard Branson is brilliant not just for his vision and his ability to inspire but he knows what he is talking about. He may well be the ﬁrst to say he is not the best orator in the world. Did he attempt all those records because he wanted to get noticed? Probably not: he attempted them to get the Virgin brand noticed. All the while there was a real desire to get on with the job. It just proved more economical on a worldwide media coverage basis to pose as an adventurer, just as it was for Phil Knight to back brilliant sports personalities so Nike could appear on Sports Illustrated’s cover—at a time when it couldn’t afford to buy an ad.
There’s no glory-seeking with Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang, Elizabeth Arden, Max Factor or even Rupert Murdoch, who is a great speaker to defend his family interests, but ultimately he is a “roll up your sleeves” kind of guy. Many editors dislike him for that reason.
If the entrepreneur is someone who wants to get on with the task at hand, but happens to have good oratory skills, then all the better. If the idea is left-ﬁeld or grand enough, resting on or just beyond the fringe, then it might just work.
The predictions, such as the ones I have made, can come in handy just as a rough guideline, which is what we must always take them to be. It was easy to say that there would be a fuel crisis because some of the patterns of the 1960s and 1970s were being played out at the turn of the century. If I had to point to any method, I would probably say that my accuracy came partly from consumer behaviour and analysing the brands involved, and nothing to do with any fancy-pants Wall Street model.
However, my pushing this company head-ﬁrst into CSR was not due to any clever forecast, but from an internal desire and sense it was the right thing to do at the turn of the century. Nine-eleven helped somewhat, because I wanted to set some of the agenda in the period immediately afterwards. There was no predicting here: I just happened to have acted more quickly than most other people.
And the Ipodphone, as I called it, was just a lucky guess borne from not understanding the cellular, mobile world.
I plain got lucky, and this knowledge only advises me in a general sense on where I would like to take my organization through the next 10 years.
So we have cycles and luck making me look like some amazing CEO.
If I had to write a business plan, I would still set milestones, but set them in a general sense that they are accomplishable without being dependent on economic cycles. There seems little point in a privately held company to spew out exact proﬁt ﬁgures.
I managed to accomplish what I wanted this company to achieve through the 1990s by having a four-page plan—hardly an MBA-style business plan—that set such general milestones. No numbers were included. The internet was not even factored in. And we did all right.
It’s probably more sensible writing a branding or marketing strategy, bringing in how one should manage perceptions, because it’s through these that customers and audiences will decide whether to bring you any business. Then ﬁnd ways of backing that up, all while knowing there a general long-term target lies for the organization. And being prepared to roll up one’s sleeves to get there.
I argue that this was the Virgin way. No record company could have wisely put in an airline diversiﬁcation into an early business plan and expect to be taken seriously. Yahoo! built itself up using this method, too, managing its brand, perhaps unconsciously, as a friendly, open online community. Google certainly did and was probably more conscious when an employee coined the ‘Don’t be evil’ ideal—which has become a corporate mission of sorts. It even breaks long-held brand views by playing with its logo and parodying it whenever possible.
Business plans, for all of these folks, came later, only when they discovered they needed them to play the legitimacy game and to give some good BS. When they started taking such plans too seriously, their edge is lost. Yahoo! is the perfect example. Somehow, I think Sir Richard, as a leader, stays above it all, without getting into the minutiæ of next quarter’s proﬁts. He is, instead, managing and sometimes personifying the Virgin brand.
PS.: Free prediction for today: cellphones and Blackberrys will get voice recognition that will spell out text messages in varying brevity. Posted by Jack Yan, 09:42
Very good thoughts. And the third rousing call to entrepreneurial action that I've read tonight. So I'd best get some sleep so I can make the most of the opportunities tomorrow.Post a Comment
Thanks for the inspiration!
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