Post-pandemic Wealth Management (#20)

Post-pandemic Wealth Management,
w/ Anna ZAKRZEWSKI, Christine SCHMID, Laurence MANDRILE-AGUIRRE

Your host, Ben Robinson, sits down with Anna Zakrzewski who leads Wealth Management globally, for Boston Consulting GroupChristine Schmid who heads up Strategy at additiv, and Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre — who heads up Switzerland & Monaco for Citi Private Bank. We cover the opportunities around Digital Wealth Management and what that truly means, how ready are wealth managers to take advantage of the shift to Assets under Intelligence, where new entrants fit into the market and what the future of wealth management will be.

Resources mentioned in this podcast:

  1. For Wealth Managers, COVID-19 Is a Wake-up Call” — Boston Consulting Group
  2. Post-pandemic Wealth Management Opportunities” — additiv
  3. What society needs from the financial sector — now more than ever before” — additiv

Full podcast transcript:

 

There is no way that we’re going to go back to a less-digitized world post-COVID19. It will have a lasting impact in that respect, on the client experience, on the way relationship managers and investment advisors interact, but it will also have a lasting impact in terms of how you onboard, how you run KYC, what your future compliance model is going to look like — Anna Zakrzewski

[00:01:57.09] Ben: Anna, thank you very much for coming on the podcast! I want to start with the white paper that you recently issued, called “For Wealth Managers, COVID-19 is a Wake-Up Call”. It begins with the following line:

“Outsiders might think that wealth management, after a 10-year bull market should be in good shape to weather the storm. But this is not what we find.”

Anna, have wealth managers been complacent and failed to prepare for the future while times were good?

Anna: I would say a lot of the topics that we see that wealth managers have to focus on today, they should have already been doing the last two to three years — and I would say they haven’t really done too well in implementing them. Whether they fail to make the world shine, I would say they never really had the huge pressure on which they had to act because margins were still quite okay. On the other side, a lot of them had such a thin profit margin, that right now, with the crisis and with COVID-19, there will be not that much leftover.

[00:02:55.26] Ben: Do you think that they now realize the severity of the situation — i.e. that what we’re facing is a downturn, of course, which will affect assets, but the fact that it’s more than that, that it’s also going to catalyze some bigger structural changes?

Anna: Well, I think what they are realizing is two, three things. The first one that they are realizing is that the topics that they have to act on now, the actions that they have to take on now, are not all necessarily new — with very few exceptions — but they have to accelerate and they actually have to really implement them well. For example, structural cost changes; for example, rethinking how they deliver advice, and actually enabling and embracing the opportunity to work remotely, to work digitally — at the moment, it’s the only way for wealth managers to interact with their clients. And before that, it used to be a threat. So, I think that’s the one bucket.

Anna: The second one, in terms of major structural changes, in the past, most wealth managers have not really embraced and adapted their complete operating model. It’s always been relatively a good business — 10 years of a bull market, a high volume of transactions — which means basically, their long-term view on profits hasn’t really been distracted. So, that also means that they never really had to make more cuts than just little salami slices on their cost and on their operating model — so you have a lot of duplications, you have a lot of complexity, you have a lot of processes that are not necessarily scalable, and most of these structural topics haven’t really been implemented well so far.

the banks that have invested in digitization, they were within a few days able to completely shift 80% of their workforce to working from home, even in functions you wouldn’t have imagined before. They were able to contact, reach out, and provide advice in a digitized, faster way to their clients, far more personalized than anybody else — Anna Zakrzewski

Anna: I think the other catalyst that we see is that after COVID-19, there will be a lasting impact in terms of interactions and also servicing. There is no way that we’re going to go back to a less-digitized world post-COVID. It will have a very lasting impact in that respect, and it will have a lasting impact on the client experience, on the way relationship managers and investment advisors interact, but it will also have a lasting impact in terms of how you onboard, how you run KYC, what your future compliance model is going to look like. These are the three big blocks where we definitely see strong acceleration. And lastly, if you look at the smaller banks and the smaller players in the market, who on average have really high cost:income ratios, the question is, if they will not focus right now, how many of them will really survive? And we actually do expect, as an acceleration, also industry consolidation to start happening.

[00:05:38.20] Ben: What you lay out there is quite a clear blueprint in terms of how wealth managers should be responding. How do you see them responding so far, especially the speed with which they’re now tackling what they arguably should have done a while back?

Anna: What they have been doing quite well — not all of them, but most of them — is the short-term actions directly linked to the COVID crisis: ensuring working from home, ensuring some acceleration on digitization, upgrading a little bit some client experience piece, start to run some scenarios, managed liquidity. I would say those short-term actions — keeping their own people safe and engaged — all of that, I would say that that has been done quite well. The part where they have also, at least some of them, become quite creative, I would say — and some have definitely surprised us — was also how they onboard clients, how they now run KYC, how they now manage compliance and enable work from home, especially in an environment and in a business, where confidentiality and also regulatory elements are very strict. So far, they haven’t been able to even onboard a client remotely, and now, in COVID, some have really been creative. They optimized digital signatures, they were able to do client identification through video calls. Before COVID, nobody really thought video calls, especially around Europe, would be something the clients would want. At the moment, it’s actually one way of getting onboarded. So I think some of these reaction times have been surprisingly quick and surprisingly agile. The thing that hasn’t really gone so well, for some of them, was really the decline in communication. So, some of them where weaker content that was not necessarily personalized it was talking about the crisis, but partially not individualized enough or solution-based — and that is an angle which should have been an opportunity for wealth managers to do really well. And I would say, on average, that part hasn’t been the strongest.

[00:08:05.00] Ben: In your report, you definitely identify that — as you said — is one area where digitization should be able to deliver a much better experience at scale. Do you think now that we’ve had this acceleration and digitalization, that wealth managers appreciate that, and they’re starting to make those kinds of investments? And then, how difficult is it to make longer-term investments in an environment where there’s such a focus on guarding liquidity and managing communication — things that seem so much more pressing?

Anna: There is one major shift in terms of how investments are being done, and also how levers are being prioritized in terms of where the focus and the action of the wealth managers are moving towards. So, to give you one example, one bank actually had a quite broad and ambitious digital roadmap before the crisis — most of the topics and most of the angles were completely focused purely on the front experience, the client experience, and that part. And there was quite a big budget behind it. They have revisited it, not cutting on that client experience piece, but adding a component in the whole digital roadmap, which actually allows them to reduce costs, to unlock some flexibility in the processes, to help them partially in an end-to-end view become more scalable, and through that actually leading to an efficiency increase of up to 20%. And that actually funds the partial investment also into the front and into the client experience piece. So, you see a much stronger balancing of complexity reduction and front client impact. And before COVID, it was mostly focused purely on the front and just on the client — and I think that is just one of the examples that we see in terms of a mindset shift.

Anna: Another one that is very interesting is, how do you ensure that you have a stable and continuous revenue flow mid to long term. And it’s about really thinking how you make your clients more sticky, how you make your clients stay with you and invest more money with you by truly tailoring on the one-hand side, and on the other side, also making parts of the portfolios in a short term — and it’s not easy — a bit less volatile to potential upcoming future shake-ups. But that’s, I think, one of the big notions. And in terms of reassuring — and, I guess, it also goes in that way — is, in times of crisis or COVID right now, with everybody working from home, you also have quite a large part of your employees in marketing and events or in the client front-facing angle, not necessarily being able to do what they’ve been doing before. So, some players have actually done a creative approach in rethinking and re-skilling some of their employees to now help where you have the big bulk of the work happening, driven by COVID, and allow them a more flexible engagement across the organization, and it actually puts them in a nice position to now experiment what their future working models could look like.

if you actually look at wealth managers today, they are still very strongly vertically integrated and it will require quite a change of mindset to let go of what is not core, in terms of, you know, “We do our own products”, “We build our own app”, “We have our own reporting”, instead of actually leveraging some of the players that are out there in the market — Anna Zakrzewski

[00:11:33.29] Ben: Going into the pandemic, we’re already starting to see a growing differential in performance between those wealth managers that have made big investments in digitalization — I think you call them ‘digital leaders’ in your report — and on the other side, those that hadn’t yet made those type of big investments in digitization. Presumably, that differential in performance is getting magnified during the pandemic, do we already have any evidence that that’s happening, or is it too early to see that divergence in performance?

Anna: You already have seen that divergence in performance before the crisis — and that’s a fundamental difference in performance. So, we have looked at 150 wealth managers last year, across the globe, in all business models, in all shapes and sizes, and we have also looked at the top performers in terms of profitability. There are two major differences that really make the top performers, top performers. First of all, they absolutely excel in the revenue margin because they already, through digitization, are able to deliver better to the client, cross-sell better, they have the right tools, and they really focus their front to deliver. Plus, they have also redefined their pricing model. And the difference, globally, I mean, we’re talking about a delta of approximately — depending on the regions — 15 to 18 basis points. So, it’s really significant. And these top performers, they also invest double and have invested double the amounts in digitization over the course of the last two to three years. So, there is a direct correlation already, before the crisis.

Anna: And thirdly, what was a very insightful angle for us was, we also looked at the cost difference — is the cost over assets of those top performers significantly different than the one of the average? And the third proof point here is that, actually, the difference globally-seen is something like three or four basis points, so it’s not as significant as on the revenue side. But the reason for that is that these top performers have already started to invest: they have invested into the changes in operating model, they have invested into the new talent, into the new and accelerated ways of working and, like I said, double the amount in digitization, not just in the front, but across the value chain.

[00:13:59.29] Ben: Is it too early to have any data points from the pandemic?

Anna: I wouldn’t say it’s too early. One thing that you already see is that the banks that have invested in digitization, they were within a few days able to completely shift 80% of their workforce working from home, even in functions you wouldn’t have imagined before. They were able to contact, reach out, and provide advice in a digitized faster way to their clients, far more personalized than anybody else because they could just review the portfolios. So yes, they were clearly at an advantage when the pandemic hit the market.

[00:14:39.24] Ben: But we don’t yet have data points on financial performance, right?

Anna: No. On financial performance, we don’t have it yet. However, in terms of onboarding clients, in terms of winning new business, in terms of maintaining clients, and in terms of tailored communication, this is what we see, these were the players that have been able to do that better than the others.

Let’s not forget that the customer acquisition cost is quite high. So, I wouldn’t necessarily see the digital players being the consolidators in the market. I would see some of the bigger players trying to acquire the capabilities of the digital players or even more, a partnership model where some of the traditional players have great access to clients and they do have the client relationships, to actually tap into the digital capabilities of the other players, to have it as an integrated service model and as an integrated offering towards these clients — Anna Zakrzewski

[00:15:02.11] Ben: We talked a bit about what digital servicing looks like. What about analytics and the capabilities that wealth managers are using there, in order to build more tailored products for customers? How strong would you say the data analytical capabilities were of wealth managers? And do you think this might be one area where they’re at risk from some of the digitally-native new entrants?

Anna: So, it’s maybe a bold statement, but I don’t think wealth managers yet are really very advanced and reaping the full benefits of the power of analytics today. So, I think that’s where they are, compared to other financial services places. With a few that can already do it, a lot of the times it’s still a bit of analytics here and a bit of analytics there, but very few have a truly centralized data lake, which allows them to on one-hand side, fully personalize their client interface, fully personalize their offering and the value proposition to each one of the clients, and thirdly, also, leverage analytics to allow them to scale up their processes and operating model. So, what we hear more is that the analytics capabilities will significantly accelerate now, in terms of enabling cross-sell, enabling pricing, taking into account client price sensitivities when we’re thinking value proposition design, etc. It’s going to really be a big focus now, and before the pandemic, I would say it’s been there — it’s been a great buzzword — but in very few cases it has been truly implemented, end to end. In Asia, I would say, yes, it’s been there, and it’s been definitely in the tech fins and in the more technology-averse digital wealth managers, it’s been playing to their complete advantage. In Europe, we’re still quite far away from that.

[00:17:10.10] Ben: One other aspect of the report I wanted to pick up on, was that I think you said this also, “in addition to changing operating models and servicing models, banks should also look at their sourcing models. But rather than just try to source things that are cheaper, they should also tap an ecosystem of partners to help deliver improving quality at scale.” I totally agree with what you’re saying, but it’s such a difficult area to get buy-in from banks because this is something that potentially threatens to cannibalize existing revenue streams. And so, I guess the question is, do you think that, culturally, banks and wealth managers are ready to look at changing their sourcing models in that kind of way, to actually insource even parts of their asset management?

Anna: When you mean sourcing, like outsource parts of their asset management? That’s what you mean, right?

Ben: Yes, outsource functions to India because they’re low cost. What about finding somebody who could offer a better-automated investment service than the one the bank has, for example.

Anna: I guess what wealth managers are facing today is a true definition of what their core competencies are and it is not like a process or your technology is going to be a key differentiator for you to win in the future. And we already see today that some wealth managers and private banking players are actually setting a primary focus on client servicing and investment servicing while some of the rest in the value chain, in terms of the middle back office, etc, is already quite radically and can be even more radically outsourced to third-party providers. On the other side, if you actually look at wealth managers today, they are still very strongly vertically integrated and it will require quite a change of mindset to let go of what is not core, in terms of, you know, “We do our own products”, “We build our own app”, “We have our own reporting”, instead of actually leveraging some of the players that are out there in the market. So, I would expect going forward, to also accelerate some of the changes that need to happen and accelerate some of the digitization elements that have to happen, that actually FinTechs — who are very focused on individual capabilities — will be a great source to pool and a great source to actually integrate to deliver some of these capabilities required.

The large wealth managers will clearly gain in market share, but they will only be able to do that if they do the right investments and the right level of personalization and client experience, and they will also act quite fast. The broad middle play, they will only survive if they stop being a big-bang, but they will also really refocus and turn around the operating model — Anna Zakrzewski

Anna: And then, the question is, in the future, what will wealth managers be? Will they be the ones that focus on wealth management, financial wellness, client experience? Will they be the players that will have everything in-house across the value chain? And then, the challenge is how do they get to scale in terms of the number of clients, etc. to really put the volume on their platform. And then you will have the players that actually are purely driven by technology — which are the tech fin and the digital wealth managers who actually are already having the digitized business model and don’t yet have the direct access to the customers.

[00:20:30.25] Ben: You said earlier on that you expect consolidation in this market because what COVID and then subsequently what an acceleration digitalization will do, is it will clearly separate the winners from those that are less strong and less able to adapt. How soon do you think that phase of consolidation will happen? And is it just the question of the large consuming the small or is it more nuanced? And then, if you allow me a third question, do digital leaders really need to buy assets? Because won’t superior value add just see them win those customers anyway, from those that aren’t able to provide that kind of value add?

Anna: Let me take one question at a time and try to bundle it. Today, nearly half of all wealth managers have a cost:income ratio of over 80% and some are close to 100, which means they’re already not very profitable today. The degree and the speed of consolidation, in our view, will depend on the severity of the crisis and also on how long the crisis will last. What we see is that size and profitability are definitely correlated, although, also here we see some examples of small boutique banks that are very successful and they are very focused.

Anna: So in terms of the speed at which consolidation will happen, comparing it to the previous crisis from 2008–2009, we have seen the big shift in terms of reduction, in terms of the number of wealth managers, approximately 18–24 months post the crisis. Now, in times of COVID, I would partially expect an even earlier kick-in of the M&A and consolidation wave driven by two drivers. The first one is, already today, a lot of wealth managers that were strong before the crisis are thinking and seeing this as an opportunity how in a relatively short period of time, they can acquire scale and acquire capability to make them stronger post-COVID — And typically, you will have 15 to 20% of players that come out stronger after the crisis. So, they will be the consolidation drivers and they have already started to screen and look for these opportunities, partially, today. And then, you will have the ones that will be so severely hit because they’ve already been in such a poor position before the crisis, that it’s going to be more a matter of decision, when do they sell to still get good value compared to how long can they last to somehow keep their business afloat. And this balance, I think, is going to drive the speed at which the consolidation wave will start.

Anna: On your other question, we already see today that some of the large wealth managers have significantly grown in the share of the market that they owned in the past few years. So, yes, it’s definitely going to be the mid-sized and larger players acquiring some of the smaller ones, which on average, are, today more unprofitable than some of the larger players, of course, because of the scalability of their business. But, like I said before, we will always have a few small boutique plays and niche plays that will continue to be very successful, already like we have today. But they are very focused.

[00:24:09.13] Ben: And then, the last question was around whether it’s actually necessary. So, the really successful digital leaders in this space, do they need to buy up the frail competition, or can they just take their customers through better execution anyway?

Anna: Okay. So, a lot of the pure digital players that we have in the market today, they have simple and nice, pragmatic client experience. They are very customer-oriented and friendly, but what they do not have is access to the clients. And let’s not forget that the customer acquisition cost is quite high. So, I wouldn’t necessarily see the digital players being the consolidators in the market. I don’t see that. I would rather see some of the bigger players trying to acquire the capabilities of the digital players or even more a partnership model where some of the more traditional players have great access to clients and they do have the client relationships, to actually tap into the digital capabilities of the other players, to have it as an integrated service model and as an integrated offering towards these clients. I don’t believe that the entrants such as robot advisors are actually going to be acquiring the smaller chunks of the clients that we see in the wealth managers today that may be up for sale at some point in time.

[00:25:36.23] Ben: What do you think the end state is? Does the middle just disappear? And what’s the final number of wealth managers you think we’ll have, once this consolidation phase is over?

Anna: Once we will definitely see in the future that the long tail of small wealth managers will actually disappear and only a few boutique plays will remain. The large wealth managers will clearly gain in market share, but they will only be able to do that if they do the right investments and the right level of personalization and client experience, and they will also act quite fast. The broad middle play, they will only survive if they stop to be a big bang, but they will also just really refocus and turn around the operating model — be it outsourced or be it really focused on a few segments and a few real credible value propositions.


The digital entrants focus on the younger population, most of them. I haven’t seen a digital entrant that focuses on retired persons yet — Christine Schmid

[00:26:33.27] Ben: Christine, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Let’s maybe start by asking you, what is additiv?

Christine: Thanks a lot, Ben! Additiv is a technology company. It was established in ’98 and it helps the leading financial institutions to capitalize on digitization. The most known product is the Digital Finance Suite — that’s an orchestration engine for wealth management in particular. Newly, we have launched the KickStarter campaign that’s even a faster enablement for wealth managers to digitize. Additionally, it provides some expert systems, basically data analytics, but also credit tools. I would say it is global, excluding the US — this has some regulatory reasons — the US is a beast of its own. So, it is doing business out of Zurich, Singapore, Nairobi, and Frankfurt.

[00:27:25.17] Ben: And what’s it like trying to sell technology to banks and wealth managers at the moment during a global pandemic?

Christine: I think it’s the right time. For the ones that haven’t set up a servicing model through digital channels — i.e. where their advisors could serve their client through digital means — they’re doomed.

[00:27:47.16] Ben: So you’re saying almost counter-intuitively that this has actually risen to the top of their corporate agenda because, quite simply, they can’t service their customers in this environment without better technology?

Christine: I would say so, for the ones that are very still more towards the old dine & wine, that’s really over.

[00:28:05.02] Ben: Okay. Let’s assume they have the motivation to implement new technology and they have the budget even in the pandemic to implement new technology. How can they do it practically, if the IT staff are working remotely?

Christine: Working remotely doesn’t harm work. It just shifted. And, if you look for the wealth managers, they were used, I would say, on the IT staff side to work out of different locations — that’s common standard. So, just to give you an example, we were able with a large Swiss bank and it’s public with post finance to launch their new digital wealth advice during the pandemic. So, that’s no limitation at all, in particular, if you talk to IT staff on their side.

[00:28:55.11] Ben: So, Christine, before working at additiv, you used to work in the industry, right? You were in the wealth management industry. What’s your view on how bad a financial correction we’re looking at and how that will affect the wealth management industry?

Christine: So, yes, we will have a negative correction. We don’t know if it’s a V or a U or a W in the end, but it looks definitely like a correction. The numbers that are coming out from either the banks, on their estimate, but also from the IMF, are simply staggering. So, how does that affect wealth management? Certainly, we will have to refocus back on trust in quality, and people will focus more on the preservation of capital. But the line with what I would call stability and service at a fair level, at a fair price, a second thing is what we would expect and we see that also on the government side, is a refocus towards more sustainable investing again. It is already growing like there is no tomorrow but it will continue. So, if you look on the government side, they link their lending, often these days, to a greener approach of doing business. The same will happen on the investment side — this will continue. And on the retail side, I think we need tools in wealth management that allow for saving, that combine it with budgeting, and that have it in a transparent and fairly-priced way. I think the term that is often used and coming out of the UK where I hear it from often, is financial well-being. It’s really, on the retail side, how helping to save, but also helping to fund through a more difficult time on the economic side for every retail client.

I think that’s the ‘new’ normal model we see throughout various countries in Europe, in particular as well, Switzerland. They team up. It has become a ‘together’ and not only an ‘against’ — Christine Schmid

[00:30:51.03] Ben: You recently published a report on post-pandemic wealth management, and I think we’ve seen a number of these types of reports come out, where people try to anticipate what the future holds. And so, there’s a bit of that in your report. But the other thing I really liked about it is, you actually explain what you mean by digital wealth management — because I think a lot of times people either just assume we know what is meant by digitization or they — for me — minimize what it is and just assume it’s about, as you say, servicing clients through digital channels. So, can we start by having you explain what you think and what additiv thinks is digital wealth management?

Christine: Let me explain it from two views — first of all, from the view of a bank for wealth management, and secondly, then, from a client view. From the view of a bank, it transforms its business model. We always say, at additiv, it changes the operating model, it changes the servicing model, and it changes the sourcing model. So, operating model, it allows a cheaper production on wealth management. It allows on the servicing side an easier, simpler interaction with advisors to the clients, even taking all the regulatory means we have out there into account. And, on the sourcing side, it allows that you benefit from an engine in between, an orchestration engine in between, that already sources either the best partners for solutions or the best investments for solutions — and you can build upon that. So, you don’t have to do it on your own. And these three layers together, it’s not only wealth management; for the banks, it makes the risk management easier, it makes the compliance side easier, but also the audit side easier. So, it’s really various layers where it helps — coming back to where it all had begun — to transform the business model. That’s from a bank’s point of view.

Christine: From a client point of view, digitization in wealth management is partially about democratizing. It’s, from an exclusive offering, open to a broader number of clients. Honestly, it allows, as well, to produce cheaper, it allows as well to have lower fees in and lower costs. It can be personalized. So, in the past, you had a fantastic product and this fantastic product had to fit for a majority of your customers. You know more about the customers by combining different data sources and you can start to personalize that, you can start to personalize the offering, the information you provide. It’s not only that it has to be included within the e-banking but also it can be banking as a service. So, it has to be of becoming even more seamless to include it, for example, in a super app where you do all the transactions as a client, but you have banking services as well, aligned. This is how we break it up. But it will always be about trust, it will always be about a safe way to store your wealth. What is newly added — it has to be convenient. So, where the clients do their transaction they expect, as well, banking — and it has to provide a value add. I think that’s where digitization or digital wealth management really changes from the old world.

[00:34:21.24] Ben: Essentially, the trade-off that used to exist between quality on the one hand and scale on the other has sort of disappeared. We can provide better quality at better scale or higher scale. Would you say that’s fair?

Christine: And to lower assets under management levels. So, to lower levels of wealth per end client.

If you look in the Western world, pensions had quite a decent level of cost of living covered. The risk is, with the demographic pattern we have, with the lack of reforms we have seen, but also with the low interest rate level, you face a pension gap in which your targeted cost of living will not be covered by your pension anymore, and thus, you have to find a way to decumulate your wealth during the retirement period in a most efficient way, by not giving up completely on risk, by having the right investment products, which then allows you to live a life free of financial concerns. That’s a huge opportunity— Christine Schmid

[00:34:40.03] Ben: And in that kind of world, it would suggest that we can provide wealth management to a much larger population of customers? And so, how much bigger do you think we could grow the addressable market? Because I guess, most of what we talked about up until now is how we’re talking about a crisis in reduction in assets. But, on the flip side, if this accelerates the push to digitalization, then it also accelerates the opening up of a much bigger market for those wealth managers that can capitalize on that shift.

Christine: It’s a huge opportunity. It allows the scale — be it either self-serve with call center or with an advisor behind. At the moment, the only small amount is really advised of the assets out there. If you take the growth we are expecting in Southeast Asia but also partially the growth we are expecting in Africa, it’s really a super, super multiplier. So, from today’s around 50 million of people that really are fully advised, certainly at a lower scale of complexity, up to nicely into the 1.7 billion number of people — if you can scale it properly.

Ben: So, I’m not going to try to do the maths but that’s, as you say, it’s a big multiplier.

Christine: It will come at a different price tag and it will come obviously for way lower assets on the management per client, but there is where digitization helps to open their client groups.

[00:36:09.15] Ben: And what’s the share of your business that’s coming from existing wealth managers versus new entrants? You’ve got kind of all the right ingredients for new entrants here because you’ve got a large profit pool, fast-changing technology, fast-changing customer needs, which would suggest that there’s a once-in-a-generation kind of opening for new entrants. To what extent are you working with new entrants? And to what extent do you think they can enter the market successfully and build trust?

Christine: We are working with both sides. With new entrants, in particular on the pension side, it is not that simple because it is a highly regulated area. But they’re faster in terms of the platforms and the offerings. And normally, the new entrants then offer their model as a white label for the incumbents, so they follow fast behind. I think that’s the normal model we see throughout various countries in Europe, in particular as well, Switzerland. So they team up. It has become a ‘together’ and not only an ‘against’. Payment was different. On the payment side in particular, if you look at the case of Revolut, this was different because it really heated into a highly profitable area of foreign exchange. But here, it’s more a collaboration and a service model in the interest of the end clients.

[00:37:34.24] Ben: You’re saying that so far new entrants are more friend than foe, but how hard would it be either for banks to replicate these kinds of simple digital services that new entrants have provided? And also, how hard would it be for these new entrants to move up the value chain towards larger, higher net worth customers?

Christine: For the bank, if they start on a greenfield, it is doable. For the bank, if they integrated into their existing systems, it is rather expensive and a long-term project. So, it really depends on the incumbent side how willing they are to start businesses from scratch and maybe even cannibalize some of their still attractive earnings streams. How easy is it for the new entrants to scale up? We are seeing most of the digital banks, really, at the boundaries of wealth, I would say. They started with payment. They had a lot of success by cannibalizing into high-profit areas like foreign exchange. Now, they are really at the border of wealth management.

Ben: Barbarians are at the gate, as it were.

Christine: At the gate, exactly! They’re at the gate of wealth management. And what we see is they’re not growing as they were originally expecting, and this has really to do with the trust where you store your wealth. If you have a chatbot on the other side that sends you in circles, or if you at least can call a call center, or can call your advisor, that’s different. That’s really a difference. So there are some limitations in Europe. In the US, we have seen a completely different picture. If you look at the aims of Acorns, for example, they’ve entered in particular the 401k business quite successfully, and they’re growing nicely there.

[00:39:27.17] Ben: What you’re saying is, to be truly digital requires a business model change, and to some extent, is going to involve cannibalizing existing revenue streams. But, what you’re also saying about the additiv system, if I understand it correctly, is this can be introduced in a much more phased fashion, right? So in other words, you can both help banks to deal with the immediate need to service customers better, but also provide a simpler route to fundamentally changing their operating and sourcing model over time. Would you say that’s fair? So you can either, for those that are really progressive, they can immediately switch to a new business model with a new operation, a new business venture. But for those that are a bit more conservative, they can do it in a phased fashion using additiv’s orchestration engine.

Christine: Absolutely. So, the beauty is that they can transform their business model in steps if they want to, or they can even become more aggressive. The way it is built, if you look at the hybrid wealth management, it’s really tailored to a new servicing model. New servicing model by allowing working from home and serve the client as best as possible, and certainly better than through a simple phone call. At the same time, you could go fully towards accumulation robo, even being more aggressive out there, in the wealth management side, combining with other sourced options. So, it allows both.

[00:40:56.16] Ben: Decumulation versus accumulation. Why is that decumulation opportunity A so big and B, as you wrote in your report, so overlooked up until now?

Christine: Accumulation is growing wealth. So, you start to save preferably as early as possible, at the age of 25, and you grow your wealth through savings and obviously through smart investing over time, towards where you start to live partially from the wealth you have accumulated. It also can be that you grow your wealth at a young age and then start to decumulate because you start your own venture — for example, startup — or you go traveling around the globe for 12 months and you have saved 20K and you want to live off that for a year. Things like that are possible. That wealth will be decumulating — a reduction of wealth. Why is decumulation these days such a large opportunity? Why has it been neglected till now? If you look in the Western world, pension had quite a decent level of cost of living covered. The risk is, with the demographic pattern we have, with the lack of reforms we have seen, but also with the low interest rate level — which we now had for quite some years — you face a pension gap so that your targeted cost of living will not be covered by your pension anymore, and thus, you have to find a way to decumulate your wealth during the retirement period in a most efficient way, by not giving up completely on risk, by having the right investment products, which then allows you to live a life free of concern or free of financial concerns. That’s a huge opportunity. If you look into numbers, the gap is estimated up to 400, I think it’s trillions — a staggering number — which will be needed to close the gaps, either through savings, but also through smart investment offerings.

The paradigm we worked alongside was optimizing for return. Well, the problem was that not all the costs were internalized. That was really the problem — the costs that were taken by society and, in particular, by the planet. And if all the costs would have been taken in properly, certainly then, the financial market would have priced it differently. And therefore, it’s really the goal of the financial industry to start to not only recommend sustainable investments, but also to lend on the corporate lending side, according to the rules that take this cost into account— Christine Schmid

[00:43:04.01] Ben: If you look at all the FinTech entrants into Wealth Management, they seem to be mostly focused on accumulation — people like wealth from betterment. Why so few people focus on decumulation?

Christine: I think it’s a natural pattern. The digital entrants focus on the younger population, most of them. I haven’t seen a digital entrant that focuses on retired persons yet — maybe that’ll come, but I haven’t seen that yet. So, obviously, if you focus on a client group — 20 to 40 years old — you do not look into decumulation into pension savings, yet; you look into accumulation. You want these fun products, these easy to use, you want to cover traveling — or you wanted, in the past, to cover traveling — and foreign exchange, payments made easy; it’s the lifestyle that covers to that age group. Therefore, obviously, the ones entering that market were not focused on the needs of the elderly population. But also we all become older at some point. And, if you look at the age of 55 into your pension, it’s too late to cover the gap. You have to start earlier. We believe this is a huge trend and wouldn’t be surprised if market entrants not only start to look into accumulation but also on the way to build up into retirement. The best example will be Acorns, with its 401k plans. They do that. It’s still in the accumulation phase, but at some point, their clients will be retired. It might take a bit longer if they’re 25 years old today, but they will be retired, so it will become a normal business for them.

Assets under intelligence, how we call it, or return on intelligence, it’s not using only an investment product per se, but using multiple data sets, combining them and then giving even more personalized advice, optimized risk advice, and therefore, as well as optimized returns. So, it’s not the product per se that’s in focus. It’s really the whole construction within wealth management, but also other data sets around, that are more important to advise the clients going forward — Christine Schmid

[00:44:49.21] Ben: One of the concepts that I really, really liked in the report — in fact, it goes as far as to say I loved it — is this pivot in value proposition from being about return on assets to being about return on intelligence. Can you just go into slightly more detail about what that fundamental shift is in the value proposition of wealth managers?

Christine: In terms of the return on assets, you look at your assets under management, and you look at the profitability of the investment products that could have been sold within that group of assets under management. And obviously, therefore, the focus was on the best products to source. The best advice, then, to give to the clients that the level of sales, with hopefully, the best product was the highest. We expect this to change. Assets under intelligence, how we call it, or return on intelligence, it’s not using only an investment product per se, but it’s using multiple data sets. It’s combining it and it’s giving even more personalized advice, it can give even optimized risk advice, and therefore, as well as optimized returns. So, it’s not the product per se that’s in focus. It’s really the whole construction within wealth management, but also other data sets around, that are more important to advise the clients going forward than simply the pure investment product focus.

[00:46:28.18] Ben: You don’t see that many wealth managers yet ready to cannibalize their business. How ready do you see wealth managers are to take advantage of this move to return on intelligence, which presupposes that they’re ready to take this role as a kind of concierge and act to introduce customers to all sorts of different products and services?

Christine: The shift towards return on intelligence, that’s something they’re very keen on doing. It is linked, obviously — and we briefly touched upon base — before it was well linked to the whole area of sustainable investing. Sustainable investing has a lot of intelligence behind to select the right investments, but also the willingness if an investment wasn’t or hasn’t proven as sustainable to shift the transparency therein, I think the banks are really willing to go that extra route, as well to unbundle. At the moment, we have a clear shift towards ETFs and index products, but we don’t know what’s really in there — the detailed level of know-how we have per index is limited. And therefore, there will be another layer of intelligence that you could add, but really looking into the portfolio, unbundling all the ETFs, unbundling all the indices and adding it up then, again, on investment level. And guess what? You might be surprised by some concentration risk that’s in a client portfolio. And you might advise the client differently. That’s another level of adding intelligence to advice or combining it with payment data. If you know the client’s behavior on the consumer side, on the consumption side, you might know products a client would like, so you can, again, use this intelligence and provide it in a better way. Or, last but not least — and I think the industry has discussed that for quite a long time — you bring the intelligence of various clients — clients behaving the same — together and leveraging that for every single client.

[00:48:42.04] Ben: Last question. So, we’ve talked, I think, reasonably narrowly about wealth management. But I wanted to, if you’re okay with it, to zoom out and talk about another paper that you recently issued, which was about the changing needs of society when it comes to financial services. Financial services haven’t provided the insight that it needs to, and have those needs become more urgent in light of the pandemic?

Christine: The big question mark, is it the financial services who haven’t provided it, or is it the general economic, academic rules we are all behaving alongside? The paradigm we worked alongside was optimizing of return. Well, the problem was that not all the costs were internalized. That was really the problem — not all the costs that were taken by society and, in particular, by the planet. And if all the costs would have been taken properly, certainly then, the financial market would have priced it differently. And therefore, it’s really the goal of the financial industry to start to not only recommend sustainable investments but also to lend on the corporate lending side, according to the rules that take the cost into account. For the society to live on this planet — and I believe we just have one; there is no alternative, no planet B — the financial sector has a key role because it’s still the engine that keeps the funding alive. So, from savings, deposits into lending, into economic growth, into job creation. And obviously, this cycle has to be profitable, yes, but at the same time it has to take the costs for society and has to take the costs for the planet — climate change is a big topic — into account.

[00:50:45.17] Ben: So that was my last question, but as it turns out, it was actually my penultimate question because, how do we do that? How do we take those externalities and bake them into the price of assets and transactions?

Christine: How do you do that? That’s the question this industry is looking into, for the last 20 years. If you use the market to do it, then you would need to take the majority funding for each corporate. And the majority of funding for a corporate normally is bonds, and not equity. So I’m a big believer in the international capital market — the ICMA — rules for green bonds and for social bonds. These are rule sets that are not only legally enforceable but also international. So, if a corporation can issue a bond under a green bond ruleset the requirements have to be clear and they have to fulfill that. And the market, then, can price a green bond more attractive than a normal bond from the same company.

Christine: So, let’s take, for example, Volkswagen. They want to fund a new plant where they build the new e-cars. The new plant has to be according to certain standards — the buildings are done — but also about alternative energy use, so solar panels on the roof — all that set. They get cheaper funding than if they built a plain vanilla plant next to a nuclear power plant, for example. It’s a very basic example but you start to shift the funding towards greener, towards more social — by social I mean, for example, if you have to fund the bond for Inditex — and obviously, they have to fulfill certain rules in the way their clothing is produced, even if it comes from Bangladesh. And only if these rules are fulfilled, they are controlled, then they can issue the bond under these standards and they can issue cheaper. And the more the companies shift toward that standard, the more the rest in the old style will become expensive. That’s a way of market mechanism starting to include the pricing and using the market to do the pricing. Because what’s not working out there, if we’re trying to find out who is doing what and externalize the price into, this won’t be of thrive, this is not working. And through the bond side and through the debt side, you could use the market mechanism to start a pricing mechanism. That’s important.


If anything, this crisis has indeed accelerated the way we look at the digital world — Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre

[00:53:33.02] Ben: So, Laurence, I wanted to start off by just asking, what, so far, as we’re living through this pandemic, has been the hardest thing for you to manage in your job?

Laurence: Coordinating everything. We had to adjust to a lot of changes. Usually, when we need to adjust to change, it’s about your manager is changing or something is changing — but one element. In this case, we had to adjust to how we deal with clients, how we ensure continuity in the way we service our clients, how we deal with our people, understand their personal circumstances, how we communicate among each other internally. So, it’s more of making sure that we had everything under control to ensure continuity of business. And I must say that on the technology aspect, it took us a few days, but because we are a global bank, and we are used to having people traveling all over the world and working from a laptop, we were pretty well set up. The challenge was more coordination with the clients and the people.

[00:54:48.18] Ben: Because, I suppose it was not only with the normal channels of communication disrupted, but at that very time, you probably needed to speak more often with customers and with employees or with coworkers than normal because they needed reassurance and so on. Is that true? Would you say that’s a fair statement that, at the very time you needed to speak most and communicate most, the mechanisms you would ordinarily use for communication were disrupted?

Laurence: Absolutely! I mean, in a very short period of time, we had to get used to a lot of technology-related jargon — how to connect, which system to use, are we on the cloud, are we on the network, are we inside our own safe environment at work, terms of network. And the same for clients. Our clients are ultra-high net worth. They are global citizens, they travel a lot. They were not necessarily used to dialing to Zoom. They were used to go to a meeting and meet actual people, so we had to revisit entirely how we communicate among each other internally — it’s important as well — because we needed to be mindful of the bandwidth that we were using; audio/video had consequences on the network. And with customers as well. But, I must say that it took about a week or two to get used to this, and it’s almost common practice now.

I think digital is the way forward, and it was clear to the wealth management community even before this crisis. But it’s also a world that is constantly evolving. There are new technologies all the time. Things are being tested — whether it’s blockchain or artificial intelligence to see how we can use our clients’ preferences or behaviors to deliver a better tools to service them more efficiently. But definitely, I don’t think clients would want us to go back after this crisis and be less digital — Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre

[00:56:35.10] Ben: Yeah. I was reading somewhere that it takes something like 60 days for people to form new habits. Would you say that your customers and your team members have formed new habits? And to some extent, even if we could get back to normal, we won’t go back to the way things were exactly before the crisis.

Laurence: We have completely reorganized the way we communicate. So, we have large forums internally where we like to communicate the important features and the decisions that we are taking for the Private Bank. And, at the same time, we have smaller forums where everybody can voice their own concerns and ask their own questions. And I think we are going to keep that for a while because, obviously, in Switzerland, the economy has reopened. But, at the same time, we have not sent anybody back to the office. We are thinking about the safety of employees. So, we will need to continue communicating that way, definitely, for a longer period of time. And even when we will be able to go back to the office — we’re trying not to say ‘go back to work’ because we feel we are efficiently working — but when we go back to the office, because of the distancing and the security measures, I don’t think we will be able to do large meetings anyway and it will be from our desks, and therefore, phones and videos will continue to be the way forward.

[00:58:21.15] Ben: Looking back on this, you can argue whether this was a black swan or a white swan, whether we should have anticipated or not, or whether we couldn’t have anticipated this crisis. So, we’ll leave that question aside for a second. But, I guess, if we could just argue that what the pandemic is doing in some form is just accelerating the pace of digitization, right? So, we’re moving much quicker than was the case before the crisis in terms of remote work and digital interactions. Do you think that the wealth management community could have been better prepared, and maybe should have made more investments in this digital future while the times were good and ahead of this crisis?

for large banks, I would say — and Citi is focusing on the ultra-high net worth, what we are trying to do is to focus on keeping the full-service offering. That’s very important to us. Therefore, when we look at technology and outperformance, it’s under a more strategic long-term basis. — Laurence Mandrile-Aguirre

Laurence: Well, what I would say is that for sure, there was a strong level of awareness of the disruptive technologies — the need to become digital. We were all exploring our options. I would say that the smaller players could benefit from adding some new digital tools quite easily and for larger wealth managers it had to be compatible with a broader network and system. But I think we’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the options that were around us, how we could become more digital, how we could use AI in the way we improve client’s experience, the tools that we make available internally to our bankers. And we actually created a group called the Investment Innovation Lab, dedicated to that. So that’s what they were doing all the time — talking to FinTech companies, technology companies, looking at the new options, and what could take us forward. If anything, this COVID-19 crisis has indeed accelerated the way we look at the digital world. Just to give you an example, we had started to onboard clients digitally, but we still had a few hurdles to overcome. Most of the time, it was around regulatory requirements that we couldn’t fulfill completely easily. So the fact that we had to work from home triggered a lot of conversation to solve these points and basically, we managed to be 100% digital in onboarding and opening new clients in a week, while if we had not had this crisis, we would be probably still trying to work on the hurdles. So it has accelerated, definitely.

[01:01:20.02] Ben: So clearly, the most pressing problems that the bank is solving very quickly, like, how do we onboard a customer completely digitally? But, do you think you now prioritize more digital spending, particularly for things that are deeper down the technology stack, or for things that affect not just client servicing, but also the operating model and the sourcing model of the bank? So, do you think now there’s an appetite to make bigger investments in digital beyond the stuff that you absolutely had to do because you couldn’t function as normal without it?

Laurence: Absolutely. I think digital, anyway, is the way forward, and it was clear to the wealth management community, I’m pretty sure, even before this crisis. So, all this has just been an accelerator, and I’m pretty sure we will lock in what we’ve managed to achieve in that field. But it’s also a world that is constantly evolving. There are new technologies all the time. Things are being tested — whether it’s blockchain, which is a technology we use a lot at Citi — or artificial intelligence to see how we can use our clients’ preferences or behaviors to deliver a better system or better tools to service them more efficiently. But definitely, I don’t think clients would want us to go back and be less digital, especially the new generation and the millennials that are used to connect and access everything — and making information available efficiently and quickly is very important.

[01:03:12.24] Ben: Would you say that you’re clear on what the next big priority is in the digital journey for your bank?

Laurence: It’s clear we have a full team dedicated to exploring our options and are talking to technology companies all the time. If anything, a big portion of our budget, I know, goes to technology and anything digital. So, I have no doubt that we will continue to lead in that field. Absolutely.

[01:03:47.19] Ben: So, pre-crisis, I think it was clear that we were starting to see the big banks operating at a massive scale. We’re starting to outperform smaller wealth managers. What do you think happens post-crisis? And do you think this acceleration in digitalization also creates the potential entry point for new players? Maybe more FinTech-oriented players.

Laurence: I think indeed there is an opportunity for smaller banks or FinTech players, to enter the industry and be extremely good at one particular thing — for example, online payments or robot advisory. In one particular field, if you start from scratch and you don’t have the legacy of a large database and a full network, it’s, by definition, an opportunity to be very competitive and very good in one particular line or segment. But, for large banks, I would say — and Citi is focusing on the ultra-high net worth, what we are trying to do is to focus on keeping the full-service offering. That’s very important to us. We’re not trying to be extremely good in one area, but we are trying to continue to provide the full breadth of service. Therefore, when we look at technology and outperformance it’s under a more strategic long-term basis.

[01:05:31.26] Ben: Do you think that we’ll see consolidation as a result of this crisis? I.e., if what we’re seeing in other industries happens in wealth management, there’s a bigger separation in performance between the winners and those that are left behind. Do you think that will lead to consolidation?

Laurence: There should be opportunities as well in that field, and it’s been a trend anywhere, especially in Switzerland, for several years now. If you count the number of small banks, mid banks, and large banks, clearly there is a trend for consolidation. So, I guess that should continue. Whether it creates opportunities because of the current situation? Probably. We can see that, for example, access to lending is still available, but it’s becoming a bit more restrictive. So, I guess, at some point, there will be some difficulties for smaller banks to continue to provide certain services and therefore they could be open to merging. But it also triggers the questions on, when we think about consolidation and we try to merge two teams, two systems, two client database, there is a culture element to it. So, it’s also complicated. So, I guess the M&A activity will continue because the trend had started before, but it’s not that simple to buy a smaller bank and integrate culturally with the systems and the client base. It’s not that simple.

[01:07:25.14] Ben: What are you telling your clients? What advice are you giving your clients about how to position their portfolios and their assets in response to COVID-19? Are you advising them to sit tight, try not to worry too much about the volatility and just hold for the long term, or are you actively getting them to reposition to more defensive assets?

Laurence: So, that’s an interesting question because obviously, the market’s reaction has been quite sudden in March, and we had very limited time to review our recommendations. So, we had just finished our outlook for 2020, for example, which was quite promising — so, we had to do a lot of groundwork trying to understand when we had been in previous situations, if markets tended to recover quickly, if we were in a situation completely new that needed to be reassessed completely. So it took us about two weeks just to reassess the situation, take a bit of perspective. And we are taking always a strategic long-term view when we issue recommendations to our clients and guide them to manage their wealth. For example, advising to remain invested. We feel that trying to time the market in this environment is very tricky, and if you missed the best 10 days of the market over the last years, you could significantly miss out. So, we are telling clients to remain invested, but we’ve increased the quality of the underlying investments. Diversification, which is a very common concept, has never mattered that much than today. But we are also taking a thematic view — I give you an example: investing in private equity today, putting new money at work, giving money to a manager who would be able to invest post-COVID and deploy the money as the opportunity arise, I think could be a good recommendation to look at this space. To try to generate some returns that are less correlated to the traditional markets, I think it’s very good thematic investing. We were very engaged before this crisis in technology, healthcare, digital disruptions — the key themes that we believe will have superior growth going forward because they have their own trends. We continue to focus on, and we commit to invest in them.

Laurence: At the same time, what we are telling clients is that it’s very important to measure the impact of this crisis on the EPS earnings, and I think EPS growth has been revised downwards quite significantly, but it’s not clear yet how much it will hurt in Europe and in the US or Asia because the crisis is evolving at a different pace and economies will reopen at a different timing, and we don’t know whether there will be a second wave, etc. So, what we are telling our clients is to be careful about the equity markets, to invest in high-quality, high-dividend paying stocks and thematic investments, but to be ready to deploy more money along the way, because we might see market lower before it actually turns back. We’ve also advised our clients to explore opportunities in the capital market area — volatility has increased, our clients are trading a lot and by selling volatility, at least short-term is a good way to enter the market at a lower level. So, we are trying to be cautious but and remain invested, but there are some opportunities around volatility and private equity that we are recommending to capture.

Seeing Around Corners (#19)

Seeing Around Corners,
w/ Rita Gunther McGRATH

On this week’s Structural Shifts podcast, we talk to the brilliant Rita Gunther McGrath, author of “The End of Competitive Advantage”. In this bestseller, she talks about how the world is moving from one dominated by organizational systems and hierarchies to one of individual superstars where a stable career means a series of gigs. Hosted by Ben Robinson, they discuss strategy, the benefits / limitations of network effects, Facebook’s failures, and more.

Full podcast transcript:

 

 

I think the more confusing things are, the more you need a strategy because it orients you, it gives everybody the potential to be aligned around a common future. It pulls you into the future — Rita McGrath

[00:01:34.18] Ben: I wanted to start, Rita, talking about your book called, “Seeing Around Corners”. Probably the key concept in the book is this idea of an inflection point. I wanted to start by asking you, what is an inflection point?

Today, we’re living in the mother of all inflection points, and everybody’s assumptions have really changed.

Rita: So, an inflection point is some change, typically in the external environment, that creates what Andy Grove used to call a 10x shift in the circumstances under which your business operates. And what that does is it has the effect of changing the assumptions that you’ve been making about your business. So, of course, today, we’re living in the mother of all inflection points, and everybody’s assumptions have really changed. I mean, the idea that we would be comfortable in the company of strangers has been with humanity forever, and now that’s been abended.

Once you have credentialing based on a skill, rather than a degree, the whole edifice of higher education collapses. It’s a bit like when the music industry began selling songs by the song rather than the album — Rita McGrath

[00:07:34.14] Ben: And you also talk about the 6-months, the 12-month, and the 18-month metrics that would indicate which of these boxes, these quadrants we’re moving into. So, for example, if we were going to get to this new Great Society 2.0, what might be the sort of metrics that will indicate that? I suppose Joe Biden being nominated President might be one.

The whole notion that we compete in an industry is a bit narrow. And what we’ve seen certainly over the last 10–15 years is industries competing with industries. What industry is Facebook? Is it a media company? Is it a publisher? What is it? And yet, it’s soaking up much of the advertising revenue that provided the oxygen for many news businesses and entertainment businesses and so forth. So, in defining yourself very narrowly as an industry player, I think can create blind spots

Rita: And I think what a lot of people don’t understand is the inside higher ed — and I’ll just stick to higher ed for a minute because I think at lower levels it’s different than this. Inside higher education, the faculty all jockey to have their courses included as part of the required courses. Well, why do you do that? Is it because “Oh, the student must have this in their blood”? That’s the cover. But the real story is, if you have required courses, you have to deliver, and that means you have to hire faculty to teach those courses, and that means you get more faculty allocation than you would if you didn’t have a required course. So, a lot of the structure of what we’re teaching is designed for the faculty, it’s designed for the benefit of the institution, not for the benefit of the students. And so, to me, that’s very vulnerable. If you’re ultimately doing something that’s in your own interest and not in the interest of your customers, then, I think that puts you in a vulnerable place. Once we can have credentialing by the skill, once we can have credentials at a level lower than the degree, the whole kind of edifice of higher education really, is challenged.

if you take the sustainable competitive advantage world, you needed an innovation once every five years, and then the rest of it was all about execution. When you have shorter-lived competitive advantages, you really need innovation that’s more continuous because you need to be continually replacing your competitive advantages as the old ones expire.

[00:19:16.07] Ben: Also, I guess, that agility in supply chains might be harder to achieve post-pandemic?

The ease with which you can get into a digital business I think, actually, demonstrates the strength of one of the traditional concepts in strategy, which is you need to have entry barriers.

Rita: Well, I think what you see is when events move more quickly — if you think about the typical picture of a sustainable competitive advantage, it’s an advantage that goes on for a really long period — and if you have competitive advantages that last for shorter periods of time, that means you need innovation on an ongoing basis. So if you take the sustainable competitive advantage world, you needed an innovation once every five years, and then the rest of it was all about execution. When you have shorter-lived competitive advantages, you really need innovation that’s more continuous because you need to be continually replacing your competitive advantages as the old ones expire.

If you think about the relationship between employees and employers, back in the day the unspoken negotiation was, you gave me stability and security — and I gave you loyalty. But what that meant was that you had people who were prepared to invest literally decades in your organization. What we’ve got now is what many people have called “the tour of duty” economy. And so, you’ve got people who are migrants from company to company to company, and they are essentially free market operators. It therefore doesn’t give you any advantage that lasts because they’re always open to the next bidder when their contracts come up.

Rita: Now, why I think that’s so interesting is, it was much user-friendlier on the part of the customer, but when that digital request hit the company, there was no change required. You just responded to the digital request the same way you would have responded to a faxed request. So, the thing I think is interesting is you digitized something without perturbing the incumbent organization at the time. And then, once you’ve got that going, then you say, “Well if we’re sending digital orders, wouldn’t it be easier if we digitized the inventory? And that way, the incoming order would know what it was looking for, without a person having to go and look it up. Okay, that makes sense.” So you talk about antibodies — if he’d gone in there guns blazing and said, “We’re going to take this whole thing and digitize it all”, you would have come smack into the antibodies, and things would have gotten screwed up; I mean, things always get screwed up in a digital implementation and then it would have been, “See? It doesn’t work! I told you it wouldn’t work! The orders are all messed up, the inventory is all wrong.” Instead, what they did was they took it piece by piece and they said, “Let’s fix the fax problem. And then, once we’ve got the fax problem fixed, let’s fix the inventory-naming problem, and then once we’ve got that fixed, let’s maybe make an online store where we take out the need of a person to go pick this inventory — a customer can just pick it themselves.” But I think it’s that step by step solving of consecutive problems rather than announcing you’re going to turn the whole organization inside out — I think that’s really where it makes a difference.

if everybody you interact with is just like you, there’s a lot of overlap. So, they may be very comfortable, it may be very fun, but you’re not going to learn a whole lot

Rita: The second thing to worry about with network effects is they can increase but they can also fall away. So, a network can peel away even if it holds users in. I think Facebook is a super interesting example of that. So, what you’ve seen up until the recent pandemic is for younger people, they’ve been leaving the core Facebook product in droves. Now, they’ve been going to Instagram and other networks to do their exchanging — Tik Tok is the latest one — but you’ve got a diminished network effect, almost, there. So I think that’s the first thing.

don’t judge the quality of a strategy only by whether it delivered the results that you were looking for because that’s not always a predictable metric

Rita: Well, I think you continually have to be thinking about learning. One of the things I do at Columbia Business School is I direct a number of our executive education programs, and they’re very much about, your business education doesn’t stop at the age of 28. So, even if you have an advanced degree, even if you have a Master’s or an equivalent, I think it’s really important to keep coming back to get refreshed, to add some new tools to the toolkit, make new friends, make new network connections — all of those things are really important. And so, in the book — I think it’s the last chapter in “End of Advantage” — I really spend a lot of time on that. So, there’s a one-page quiz you can take which says, “How prepared are you?” It’s things like, “I’ve learned a new skill even if it wasn’t directly relevant to my job”, or “If I lost my job, suddenly, I know 10 people I could call that would help me find the next one.” It’s those kinds of things I think we need to be thinking about.

we have this cultural myth, almost, of the hero CEO who is going to come down and tell you what to do, and everything’s going to be fine, rather than the organization having to figure it out. I think we’re slowly realizing that the organization figuring it out is actually more of the norm.

Rita: I think it’s crucial. If you think about it, if everybody you interact with is just like you, there’s a lot of overlap. So, they may be very comfortable, it may be very fun, but you’re not going to learn a whole lot. It’s different than what you already knew.

crescive leaders are much more about discovering the organization’s capabilities, shaping decision-making, shaping decision premises, and a lot of those practices are actually much more closely associated with women’s styles of leading, for whatever reason, than they have typically been with men’s. And so, I think it’s very interesting now, as we look across the world, which countries have done well, in the midst of this pandemic? And overwhelmingly, they’ve been countries that have had female leaders.

Rita: One of the things that I find super frustrating as a person who studies organizations is you can make stupid, ill-informed, poorly advised, really dumb decisions and have a great outcome because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, you got lucky, whatever. And you can make well-considerate, very smart, strategically substantive decisions and end up with a bad outcome. So, take a company like Disney — here they are, launching their streaming service and hitting success on every possible dimension, and COVID-19 comes along, and now nobody’s going to theme parks. Well, that wasn’t their fault. And so, I think one of the things I really encourage people, really, to differentiate is don’t judge the quality of a strategy only by whether it delivered the results that you were looking for because that’s not always a predictable metric.

when your fundamental business model relies on your customers being ignorant of what you’re doing, I just think that’s a fundamental weakness

Rita: I think so. So the word “crescive leadership” was actually coined in the 1980s by my friend, Jay Bourgeois, and a co-author of his. They were cataloging leadership styles and they had four that they felt pretty comfortable with: so there was the command and control leader, and then there was the coalition builder — so four archetypal leadership. And then they ran across this fifth style, they could not figure out what to do with it. And finally, they said, “Alright, we’ll make it its own category.” And they didn’t spend much time on it, but they called it crescive, which I think is Latin for growth leader. And, you know, crescive leaders are much more about discovering the organization’s capabilities, shaping decision-making, shaping decision premises, and a lot of those practices are actually much more closely associated with women’s styles of leading, for whatever reason, than they have typically been with men’s. And so, I think it’s very interesting now, as we look across the world, which countries have done well, in the midst of this pandemic? And overwhelmingly, they’ve been countries that have had female leaders. I mean, if you look at Angela Merkel or the Prime Minister of New Zealand — calm, factual, not fear-mongering, but just matter of fact, and “Here’s what we need to do. Let’s take it step by step. And here’s why. And this is what I know, and this is what I don’t know — and I’m going to be very transparent about those things.” And it engenders trust, it engenders a willingness to cooperate, it engenders a feeling that someone capable is manning the helm — unlike the rather chaotic response of a lot of other countries.

it’s very hard to have multiple visionaries in one company. I mean, the only way I’ve ever seen that work is if you’ve got a strong divisional structure — so each visionary has their own swim lane, as it were — but at the top of the company, it’s really hard because by definition, if you talk about culture, visionaries are people who believe in let’s create the future, and if I’ve got two visionaries with two different dreams of what the future could be, it’s going to be really, really hard.

Rita: So, I have no personal vendetta against Facebook; I just think when your business model requires that your customers are basically ignorant and you contribute to that — you’re not transparent, you’re not honest about what you’re doing with the data. And then, Cambridge analytic was just this bit of the surface. And if you look at the way bad actors are using the platform, if you look at how they’re sort of washing their hands, “Oh, no, we’re not publishers. But yet, we derive a huge percentage of our revenue from the ability to reproduce news that’s created by other organizations that have to get paid for it somehow.” I don’t think their outcome in a political social sense is very positive and I think we haven’t yet quite accounted for the imbalances they’ve created in our system of interacting with each other, getting news, advertising, getting paid — that’s all kind of not come together yet. So, the reason I think they may be up for an inflection point now — it could be five years from now could be 10 years from now, but at some point, people are going to say, “This is not legitimate” and businesses, in the long run, that are regarded as not legitimate, fate has not been kind to them. So, take tobacco companies as a case in point. Once you begin to be seen as a provider of something dangerous — and in the case of Facebook, I think a lot of what Facebook is creating is social pollution. It’s just disinformation — and it’s sucked all the revenue out of legitimate news organizations. So I think at some point there’s going to be a rebalancing.

Previewing post-Pandemic Finance (#18)

Previewing post-Pandemic Finance,
w/ David GALBRAITH, Thierry ZOIS, Martin McCANN

We have another special episode for you on how post-pandemic finance would look like. We are bringing back two of our favorite guests: David Galbraith — Partner at AnthemisMartin McCann— CEO of Trade Ledger; and a new guest Thierry Zois — VC at Finch Capital.

Full podcast transcript:

 

[00:02:02.17] Ben: Dave, welcome back to the Structural Shifts podcast. You’re a deep thinker anyway, and I can imagine that since you’ve been in isolation, since your role is to look at future investment opportunities, you’ve been thinking about the pandemic and the post-pandemic world a lot. So, we wanted to pick your brain and have you share some of your thinking. What’s the right place to start? As we look at the post-pandemic world, what’s the right prism through which to look at future opportunities?

the landscape of everything has changed and therefore there are new products and new opportunities. There’s a switch toward adaptability, but it doesn’t mean that all the insurance changes. It just means that the market for insurance has increased.

David: So, I think there might be lots of them. People were worried about automation and losing jobs and we’re now seeing a bunch of very underpaid people, like delivery workers or nurses, suddenly becoming proven to be utterly critical. So, I think you will see the relative importance of the premium pay for social proximity i.e. human caring professionals. So, then this will be part of the backlash — the value of human interaction will be at a premium. And so, how that plays out online in terms of online investment is that ordinary social media has remained largely flat but real-time social media — and that includes things like Peloton, and that includes Houseparty, and that includes people doing concerts live, that includes virtual busking by musicians — has increased by up to 75% because people will crave real-time experiences. And I think we’ll look back at this period when people were watching Netflix programs on their own, asynchronously, when no one else was watching the same thing and realize there’s been quite a lonely period of media, and so, I think that is something that’s highly investible in the future, is real-time shared experience.

Part of this whole acceleration of change that’s happening now, is that people can make decisions and not have to do six months of PowerPoint presentations to the rest of the company to make a decision to actually say, “We’re going to switch to Zoom video.” They can decide overnight — we’re doing this and this is the way it is. — David Galbraith

[00:10:43.03] Ben: Yeah, and I think one of the things that’s interesting is it introduces social network effects into businesses that we never thought had them, like Netflix. Netflix was a business that had some sort of data network effects in the sense that if they understood you better, they could make better recommendations, but had very few other network effects. But if we think that it really matters to watch Netflix at the same time as your friends and comment on it, then it brings a whole new level of value to it, a new level of locking in.

the number of people going to visit a doctor is suddenly going to reduce because doctors shouldn’t be exposed to lots of sick people at the moment — it’s actually dangerous for them — and so, telemedicine will increase massively at the general practitioner level, for that first interaction with healthcare services. A lot of that will go online. — David Galbraith

[00:14:15.25] Ben: So do you see more B2B than B2C opportunities then, in all those B2B FinTech companies that can help the incumbents to become more efficient and deliver a better digital experience — that might be where a lot of the action is?

The delivery of electricity is going to look more internet-like than it currently does. — David Galbraith

David: So, obviously, this is one of these areas where it requires expert knowledge to look at pure healthcare services. But, if you were to look at the business of healthcare or the structural changes it took, you can have a view and one of the possible views is that it decentralizes. There are two aspects of healthcare that might change. One is, the number of people going to visit a doctor is suddenly going to reduce because doctors shouldn’t be exposed to lots of sick people at the moment — it’s actually dangerous for them — and so, telemedicine will increase massively at the general practitioner level, for that first interaction with healthcare services. A lot of that will go online. And that sounds trivial, but I recently, during this process, went to the pharmacy to get a Ventolin inhaler for hay fever. I was told that I had to phone the emergency services because they wouldn’t fill the prescription and the emergency services in France told me that I had to see a doctor in person and when I told them I would just go on the internet, they said that wasn’t possible, but when I hung up the phone and I did go on the internet, within 15 minutes, I had the prescription and went back and filled it. So it helps the healthcare service to accelerate these changes, to decentralize.

the markets are irrational at the moment, not because things are going to be terrible or things are going to bounce back; it’s because we don’t know and therefore that isn’t priced in. — David Galbraith

[00:19:43.08] Ben: I just want to revisit something you said at the start, which is, there’s no consensus among experts about what this means or what the right response necessarily is. So, as you said, people have been making a big cause of shutting down the economy. I suppose implicit, in all the actions that have taken place so far is there’s a binary choice between human life on the one side and the economy on the other. I think the Italians have, in a way, set the precedent by standing up and saying, “We’ll put human life ahead of the economy.” But it’s not as black and white, is it? I just wondered if you had thoughts about the morality of the response we’ve seen so far in terms of shutting down the economy?


we have seen in the market that a lot of corporate VC pulled out on investments due to the whole uncertainty. — Thierry Zois

[00:25:01.11] Ben: Thierry, what we wanted to discuss was the report that you put out a few weeks back, which is entitled “The Future of Disruptive and Enabling Financial Technology post CV-19”. We’ll share the link to it for the listeners, but in essence, it’s a 26-slide presentation, jam-packed with interesting data predicting what might be some of the near and medium-term impacts of COVID-19. One conclusion that seems to jump out from the report is that there’s this clear dichotomy between consumer-facing FinTech companies that face lower volume, shrinking assets, etc. and the B2B FinTech companies whose technology is now in really strong demand because financial services see that they basically have little choice but to become more digital more quickly. Would you say that’s fair, that that’s this overarching conclusion?

We also expect that the road to IPO is going to be so much more difficult. It’s going to be really tough for companies to go all the way down that road, given that there is not, anymore, this hungriness as there used to be in terms of capital providers — Thierry Zois

Thierry: Now, if we look on the B2B side, I think it’s a very hard time if you’re planning on signing on new clients. The main reason is because they’re very old-fashioned type of sales and very long, so there are a lot of procedures in place and a lot of face-to-face is actually quite necessary, in order to build a certain trust; given that it is such a big animal, they really want to make sure that any technology or any person that they onboard is the right technology for them and the right cultural fit, so to speak. Therefore, in the current crisis, to sign up new clients at the moment is quite difficult, I must say. However, everybody’s working from home, like you and me, and also the ones that work at the incumbents, they work from home. And well, they will be working on existing portfolios or existing openings that they still have. If you had started already your sales a couple of months back, then the likelihood that you will close them is still quite high — it just obviously will delay a bit, but the funnel will come to it.


I’m not sure that the pandemic is the only driver in the change of global trade. I think there’s been a shift in the ethos of global trade now for a couple of years. — Martin McCann

[00:45:22.03] Ben: Martin, I just wanted to start by talking about trade finance. I think one of the things that the pandemic has demonstrated to us is that our supply chains are probably much more fragile than we thought. And, for example, I think something like 80% of PPE comes from China. And so, what a lot of people are saying is that this is going to lead to acceleration and reshoring of production. Do you agree with that statement? And if so, how will that affect global trade finance?

cost should not be the only factor in determining how you structure a supply chain. So, the security of supply chains is actually becoming front and center in the way that supply chains are being designed, and that’s most definitely going to change a lot of trade in the next one to five years. But also, the lack of transparency has come front and center as well — Martin McCann

Martin: I think what this pandemic has done is two things — which build on that emerging trend — and you can see it in the numbers. It’s shown that cost should not be the only factor in determining how you structure a supply chain. So, the security of supply chains is actually becoming front and center in the way that supply chains are being designed, and that’s most definitely going to change a lot of trade in the next one to five years. But also, the lack of transparency has come front and center as well. The fact of the matter is, most people didn’t know that most PP equipment came from China. Most people who buy PP equipment didn’t know that it came from China. They’re just buying equipment without any visibility into the further reaches of the supply chain. But I’d say this is something that has been happening for a while. If you look at the numbers in terms of trade, effectively, at the highest level, trade looks like it stalled in terms of growth, but when you unpack that look within it, actually, it’s not really stalled in terms of growth; the way that we track trade is really aligned to physical logistics chains, where actually, what’s happening is a rebalancing of global trade as the economy moves on to a new phase globally. So, with more and more of the former low-cost production countries not consuming more of those goods — that’s not showing up in the trade figures, obviously — they are now producing a lot more services-based exports than they were previously.

there’s actually a very, very rapid rise in global services export across borders, which is very, very hard to track by traditional methods and there’s less of a focus on the traditional logistics networks, which tracked physical trade previously. The main change that we’re going to see from this pandemic is there’ll be more of an insistence that supply chains are visible all the way through. So, I think what we’re seeing is just a natural evolution of trade. — Martin McCann

Martin: So, there’s actually a very, very rapid rise in global services export across borders, which is very, very hard to track by traditional methods and there’s less of a focus on the traditional logistics networks, which tracked physical trade previously. So, I think what we’re seeing is just a natural evolution of trade. I think trade volumes include services as well — more complex services particularly — and the gig economy is definitely increasing, just not easily trackable. And for me, the main change that we’re going to see from this pandemic is there’ll be more of an insistence that supply chains are visible all the way through, and that there’ll be proactive decisions made as to what products need to have more strategic owners in terms of understanding the complexity, globally, of how to get the final products shipped, versus things which are much more of a commodity where it doesn’t really matter whether or not they’re disrupted.

It’s mind-boggling to think that in 2020 — we’re talking about 15 years after the advent of the Internet — we’re still using the same documents and finance mechanisms as have been around for hundreds of years. So, I think what we’re about to see is a rapid product innovation cycle for trade finance, which is more suited to clients who’ve got less tangible assets, and to more of a gig and services driven economy where those services are being delivered across borders. — Martin McCann

Martin: Yes. So services finance is slightly different in two respects. One is the term for which you need financing for is probably shorter because it has more to do with the payment terms of your contracts. Whereas with physical trade, it has to do with, the manufacturer and the shipping generally are the longest period of the credit terms which are required. It also means that the types of products are different, whereas when you’re looking at physical logistics, you have goods or components of goods, physical goods, which can be taken as security or at least assignment of those goods and the control of those goods can be used as a securitization mechanism. Whereas with services that’s not really the case. What you need to do is really look at the class of open-account trade finance products, really looking at the inflows and outflows from the companies that you’re providing credit to, and looking the less tangible assets that are available for securitization, mainly things like receivables, and looking at the other creditworthiness factors of those companies, as opposed to the physical goods required for securitization in more traditional trade.

demand will always determine the shape of the market and in times of stress, you need to see rapid innovation in order to meet the changing demands of the marketplace — and if you don’t see that, you’re going to ultimately see a decline in your business and you’re going to see yourself replaced by nimbler, faster-moving, more digital innovation propositions. — Martin McCann

Martin: So, I use the UK example again: it’s 80% guaranteed, so the government’s taking 80% of the risk and the bank’s taking 20%. The bank is still going to do the same credit assessment as it always does, not 20% of the risk. The problem of technology is quite interesting. What we’re hearing from all of the banks that we talk to is consistent — none of the banks actually have the ability to do straight-through processing on applications for SMEs. All of the banks have paper in the system. In fact, we know of a bank — our own bank — who told us that they can’t put an overdraft facility in place which we’d agreed before the crisis because of a lockdown on one of their operations centers overseas, which means that nobody can go into the office and print out a physical piece of paper required to approve the overdraft. And that’s sort of symptomatic of where the banks are. I mean, they’ve moved from legacy systems, they’re moving at pace, but they’re not able to respond in a matter of weeks in order to deal with this unprecedented demand of credit applications.

I think there’s just going to be extreme pain by the SME sector, despite the goodwill and all the effort by the governments because they just don’t know how to deal with these problems and they’re using peacetime governance processes to try and deal with wartime situation. — Martin McCann

Martin: Whereas, if you look at new cloud-based infrastructure, it can actually respond. So, the consistent feedback that we’re getting is that overall, the banks don’t have the workflow orchestration and automation capabilities; they don’t have standard technical capabilities and automation capabilities such as centralized task management, role-based user management on all of their systems so that across different teams, people can see when stuff needs to be passed off. There’s not a dropping of the applications between relationship managers and credit managers and documentation. There’s no standard way of actually triaging documents and information through the entire system — stuff needs to be printed off from one system and then re-entered in another system, then documents need to be taken from one place and stored in a central place and then accessed from somewhere else. And in the meantime, they’re going back to the customer and asking them for the same information multiple times in many cases or asking them for information, which they’re not being precise about the requests and getting the information in a format which doesn’t suit the processing of the application automatically. So, these are the capabilities, which, you know, they’re not rocket science, but these are the capabilities the banks don’t have, because of the legacy of how the systems have grown up.

There are going to be winners and losers, just as in every other business situation. The winners are going to be the people who actually realize what the new reality is going to look like — it’s fully digital when you talk about lending, there is no paper, there’s no relationship bias — and if you don’t use this scenario, as a way to accelerate your adoption to fully digital lending processes based on new modern infrastructure and technology, you’re going to be one of the losers. It’s that simple. — Martin McCann

Martin: A couple of points around the FinTech sector. I mean one is, the FinTech sector is unusual. It falls outside the funding schemes of most governments because it’s high-growth and massively loss-making. So it’s not a good credit risk if you just look at the numbers and the inflows and the outflows. So, it hasn’t been addressed, for the most part, by the schemes that are already in place. So you need to have a separate scheme to deal with FinTech. I do think that there needs to be a role for FinTech to solve the problem. What I talk about is the national interest to create that distribution infrastructure capability. But how do you do it without choosing winners and losers? So, I think there’s been wide criticism of how governments tried to do that before and one example I’ll use is the British Competition Remedies Fund set up in the UK last year, where 450 million was distributed because it was deemed to be illegal stated to the RBS during 2008. This was set up as an independent body, which in theory sounds like a good thing, but practically what happened was, the BCR basically made winners out of thin air, and massively disadvantaged the rest of the industry, and the process was done in a very, very unusual way, which has been open to massive amounts of criticism. And today, 100 million of that has already been returned. But now that 100 million is sitting there, it’s like, well, there’s a pot of money, which could be distributed much more quickly to help FinTechs that can provide part of the solution, but there’s no mechanism in place for government or this independent body to actually do that.

Previewing the post-Pandemic World (#17)

Previewing the post-Pandemic world, w/ Nicolas COLIN, Laetitia VITAUD, Ian Charles STEWART

Previewing the post-Pandemic World,
w/ Nicolas COLIN, Laetitia VITAUD and Ian STEWART

Today, we have a special episode for you on how the post-pandemic world would look like. We are bringing back three of our favorite guests: Nicolas Colin — Co-founder and Director of The Family, which is a platform for European entrepreneurs; Laetitia Vitaud— renowned writer and speaker on The Future of Work; and Ian Stewart — Executive in Residence at IMD Business School (an co-founder of WIRED). 

Ben Robinson interviews them separately, beginning with Nicolas, who talks about why this pandemic is so different from other crises like terrorist attacks and recessions. He also goes into why the stock market is currently doing okay — at least as of this recording — even though the unemployment rate has skyrocketed, and he and Ben talk about what a safety net could look like for the entrepreneurial age.

Laetitia continues the safety net conversation going into how much are we going to continue to value and appreciate proximity workers into the future? We love them now — are we going to continue to show them the love after this pandemic? And what about new protections for freelancers? What are we going to see in that space? Laetitia, who taught American Studies and English for 10 years, also goes into a really interesting discussion on Roosevelt and how his New Deal helped pull the US out of the Great Depression and what the chances are of something similar happening in the US, today. I’ll give you a spoiler — spoiler alert — things are not looking good! Laetitia ends by talking about how companies need to act today if they want to succeed today, but then also in the future after the crisis ends.

Ian picks up the leadership question, answering Ben’s question, “Is this a time to be brave and contrarian or is it time to just keep everything going as normal as possible?” Is China a safe haven for investors? How is the pandemic affecting US-China relations? And the perpetual question, when will China become the largest economy in the world? And is that even the right question to be asking? At the very end, we will circle back to Nicolas for his closing snapshot vision of how the pandemic will accelerate the transition to digital entrepreneurship. Enjoy the show!

Full podcast transcript:

 

[00:02:42.19] Ben: Nicolas, would you say, one of the biggest differences between the Corona crisis and some of the other major crises over recent years — the major difference is that there is no global leader? The United States led the response to the financial crisis and the United States led the response to 9/11, and you see very much that we’ve had this sort of balkanization of responses, right? Because, the UK was going for herd immunity, Italy was in lockdown, the United States, at least initially, wasn’t taking this very seriously — and we’ve lacked that sort of coordinated global response.

Nicolas: So, the US is a country that I’ve studied for a very long time and I’m passionate about it. I’ve traveled there a lot and I read a lot of books about its history, especially. What I find is different this time. So, one thing that’s different is that they have Trump and he’s a very unusual kind of leader to have in these difficult times. But another thing that’s very different is that the US is used to respond to crises by doing two things: one is, send troops abroad to invade Afghanistan or to invade Iraq and topple the regime there or Vietnam — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but sending troops is easy for them because they have the mightiest military in the world. The other thing that they do, usually, is that they close their borders, which is easily done when you’re the US because they’re isolated at the other end of the world, they have two oceans bordering them, they only have two borders to close, effectively — one with Mexico and the other with Canada. And so, basically, on 9/11 they did both things: they sent troops to Afghanistan, and then they closed the borders to prevent anyone from entering the territory.

Nicolas: For the financial crisis, well, they gathered a small group of politicians and experts and economists in the Treasury building in Washington, DC — that was basically all you had to do to solve the crisis. You had to take big difficult decisions, but in material terms, organizing to respond to the crisis was quite easy. This time, none of these works. Sending troops will not solve the problem; closing the borders won’t solve the problem because you have sick people at home on your territory, on US soil; and simply gathering experts in a building won’t solve the problem because, after two weeks, we know what should be done, but it’s all a matter of implementation now — and implementation on US soil, at that scale, with so much disruption for the way people live in the US is unprecedented. I don’t see a precedent of the US being confronted with such a crisis at home and they are not equipped as a government and as a country to respond to that.

[00:05:59.25] Ben: So you could argue that it is unprecedented and would be difficult for any US institution to manage. But, in addition to that, you’ve also said the fact that Donald Trump has been gutting the institutions that would be most able to respond. So, I read “The Fifth Risk” by Michael Lewis — I read it when it came out, and I think what am I going to do is reread it because it was so sort of prescient in highlighting the fact that what was happening was almost going unnoticed, and would go unnoticed, until all the institutions were suddenly needed, which is exactly where we are now is it not?

Nicolas: I’m French and you’re British, so we both come from countries with a very long tradition of strong and respected civil service. The reason why we used to have — maybe we don’t have them anymore — very efficient and effective civil servants is because we were countries confronted with many threats and we had a colonial empire to manage. Both France and the UK had a Global Empire to manage, which requires a lot of skills and a lot of capacities — you really need that to manage such an empire. In comparison to the French and the British, the Americans never had very effective governance when it comes to implementing policy at home. They’ve had for quite some time a very effective military, but when it comes to implementing policy at home, the US government is already lagging far behind those of other Western countries or China or Singapore, for that matter. And they’re used to it and they don’t really care because most of their government is done at the local or state level and most of the problems that Americans have on a day-to-day basis are solved by the private sector or by lawyers.

Nicolas: But, a striking example is that you can’t really manage your taxes without relying on a tax advisor in the US because the government won’t help you do that. They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the people to be able to respond to every question that every individual taxpayer has. So, that’s their tradition. Their tradition is that of a limited government and a government that nobody really needs in normal times, so no one cares about the government being underfunded or too small for this very big and large country to manage. And it’s only when such a crisis happens, that they realize, “Oh, maybe we should have the same kind of government that the French or the British or Singapore has.” But you can’t catch up in two weeks on doing that — it’s a whole tradition and a whole cultural matter.

[00:09:28.21] Ben: Donald Trump underestimated the threat and then he’s had some very public disagreements with governors. It doesn’t really seem to be affecting his poll ratings too much. Do you think Donald Trump will still be reelected in November or do you think this has materially changed the odds?

Nicolas: He’s been polling at 40% approval ratings forever and whatever he does, it never goes down. And so, people say, “Oh, he’s still popular because he was that popular when he won the election four years ago”, and so, he could do it again with such a low approval rating as a person and as a leader. But what I’ve been interested in is how low is polling in other ground states like Michigan, or basically the Rust Belt where he made a lot of promises about jobs coming back, factories reopening, supporting people, etc., and those promises have not been kept and people are feeling the pain. And so, they’ve probably already decided for many of them that they won’t vote again for Donald Trump this year, which will make a huge difference because he won Michigan with 10,000 votes, I think, in 2016. And so, it doesn’t take much for him to lose Michigan and then lose the presidency — even though he’s faring well in southern states and other conservative states.

[00:11:05.14] Ben: One of the things I wanted to ask you was — you know, this isn’t just from a US perspective — how bad do you think the economic consequences of this pandemic will be? I guess it’s a really difficult question to answer because we have no idea how long it’s going to last and so on, but, would you say that people are still underestimating how profound the impacts will be?

Nicolas: I think we’re underestimating it clearly. I’m not really sure what people are expecting in terms of impact, but clearly, after two weeks, people will look around and say, “Oh, life seems to go on. I’m stuck at home. In many cases, I still have my job. I still get my pay every week or every month and probably life will go back to normal.” But what’s normal? If you reflect on the 10 years that we’ve gone through after the financial crisis, yes, most of us did get back a job and recovered on a reasonable standard of living, but everything has changed, in a way — politically, economically, financially, it’s the rise of China, it’s Brexit, it’s Trump. So, we might have to expect radical consequences to the crisis we’re currently going through. We just don’t know what it will be about.

[00:12:39.26] Ben: Why is the stock market not more materially affected. The initial reaction was quite severe, but actually, it’s been ticking back up. And if you take the NASDAQ, for example, I just looked — I’d better timestamp this, just so we’re not completely wrong. So, it’s the 9th of April and the NASDAQ is down about 18% versus its peak. In a world where we’re potentially facing 30% unemployment, how do you reconcile those two statements?

Nicolas: I wrote a long piece about the stock market to try and explain why it was faring so well whilst many people think that the economy is going in the wrong direction. I think there’s a decoupling between stock market investors and most people. We’re way past the time when everyone was investing in stocks. That’s not true anymore. Most of the money that’s invested in the stock market is invested by large institutional investors and the main reason why it’s faring so well, even in the presence of such problems, is that those people simply don’t know where to invest their cash.

Ben: Yes.

Nicolas: They’re afraid of investing it in tech companies because they don’t understand innovation and entrepreneurship in an economy that’s driven by increasing returns to scale; they’re afraid of investing it in bonds because bonds bear no interest rate economy; they’re afraid of investing it in commodities and they’re afraid of investing it in emerging markets or any market that’s not the US because they prefer to invest at home. And so, what are you left with, when you want to invest in stocks in the US? Well, it’s a lot of investors chasing the same stocks. And what do you do? If you have too many investors willing to buy the same stocks, prices go up regardless of the fundamentals and the context. I think that’s what’s happening now.

[00:14:58.01] Ben: They have the quantitative easing taking place as well.

Nicolas: Yes, yes! It has brought so much money in the hands of so many large investors that they don’t really know what to do with all that money. And we should bear in mind, as well, that because the government and the central banks are pumping up so much money in the economy as of now, many people expect it to trigger inflation. And so, you don’t want to hold cash if inflation is coming around the corner; you would rather have that cash invested in stocks and count on an upside with stocks, as opposed to cash.

[00:15:41.15] Ben: But what is true of the stock market is not true of venture capital at the moment, right? We are seeing capital exiting from venture capital and it’s making it harder, particularly to invest in early-stage companies. So, what do you see is the short to medium term prognosis for venture capital?

Nicolas: In venture capital, at the moment, is very difficult to invest at the late-stage because at the late-stage, valuations are extremely dependent on the state of the economy — and now the economy’s in very bad shape, so you can’t really put a price on a late-stage startup. And so, that prevents late-stage investors from deploying capital and because late-stage investors don’t deploy capital, early-stage investors prefer to hold on their cash and keep it to further fund the startups they are already a shareholder of. And so, if you’re a new startup and you try to pitch an early-stage investor, they’ll probably respond, “Okay, but because no late-stage investor is investing at the moment, I won’t invest in your startup. I’ll keep my capital to deploy in my existing portfolio.” So, until the economy goes back on its feet in terms of predictability, we won’t probably see the engine starting again.

Nicolas: But, on the other hand, we’re already in a period where venture capital is diversifying in terms of how it deploys capital. More and more players are learning to design debt instruments to finance tech companies that are in fact part tech companies — part traditional companies. And so, what I expect is that it will probably put traditional venture capital to a halt, but then create room for designing hybrid instruments that mix venture capital with more traditional business financing.

[00:18:04.14] Ben: Do you think the government could take a bigger role in funding startups, at least in the interim period where funding has dried up?

Nicolas: The new generation of tech companies that were born right after the financial crisis 12 years ago, the two flagship companies of that generation are Uber and Airbnb. And so, there are a lot of discussions about what explains their success. Is it the macro context or the technological wave that was the iPhone and smartphones in general, or exceptional founders that were made grittier by the crisis? I don’t know. I think the three factors come into play, which would lead investors these days to look at companies that not only benefit from the macro context, but also surf a wave of technological change, and then are led by exceptional founders that are even more ambitious by the current context. What we’re seeing is radical change already happening, because of the lockdown, in education, healthcare, real estate, housing. I think people will reconsider their choices. I think fringe options when it comes to educating your children will become more mainstream — like homeschooling or part-time homeschooling.

[00:19:41.09] Ben: You don’t think people have been put-off homeschooling by having done it for a few weeks and trying to juggle it with everything else?

Nicolas: I think some people will be put off but others will realize that it provides them with more freedom.

[00:19:56.09] Ben: It is quite liberating to be unfettered from a curriculum. Like, one day, your children express an interest in something and you can spend the rest of the day researching that particular subject that’s much freer, more interesting for the kids than sticking to a rigid curriculum. But, it is thought to be very, very tiring for the

parents.

Nicolas: But what will be happening in those spaces? I don’t predict that every kid will be homeschooled soon or right after the crisis. What I predict is that the period that we’re going through, which will last for weeks or months or more, will provide an opportunity for parents to reconsider educating their children, will provide an opportunity for teachers to reflect on their own job, opportunities for entrepreneurs to make their case that they can provide a different approach to educating children. And then, when the crisis is over, most of those will go back to normal but some people will keep in mind what they’ve learned during this period and investments will have been made in new infrastructures, new products, and those investments will lead to higher productivity which will make it possible to lower the prices and to make the value propositions more attractive. So, we have a virtual circle that will lead everyone to reconsider, and the entire school system will reach a new stage, probably with more customization, flexibility, more of an online experience and so on. That will happen in education, obviously in health care — because the health care system will be profoundly transformed by the current crisis, with telemedicine becoming more of the norm, as opposed to being the exception — and also housing I think will be disrupted because people will reconsider where they live, and how they live and the kind of home or apartment they inhabit.

[00:22:18.05] Ben: You’re saying, almost like, what people were predicting about this post autonomous vehicle world is now going to crystallize because if we work from home, we might as well work in the most attractive surroundings we can because we don’t need to be very close to other people because there is a much less sense of office work.

Nicolas: Exactly! I’m sure many people are experiencing working from home, and realizing both that working from home makes them more productive, more creative, and realize that if they work from home most of the time or part of the time, they don’t need to live as close to the workplace as before. So, maybe that’s the unexpected event that will contribute to solving the housing crisis in large, dense cities.

[00:23:10.22] Ben: I don’t think we can have a podcast with you and not talk about the safety net. You’ve written extensively about creating a new safety net for the entrepreneurial age and your book was extremely prescient in spotting the need for this new safety net. And if the pandemic has done one thing it’s once again highlighted the absolute need for a safety net for digital workers because they’re so much more precarious. Are you more confident post-pandemic or during the pandemic that we’ll now take the steps to introduce the safety net?

Nicolas: I think there are several changes on the way — some countries, and we, as a society, will probably reconsider what it’s about to work in proximity services. Basically, those proximity workers are the only ones whose job hasn’t changed much because the nurses are still in hospitals, delivery workers still have a job. And also, for those who don’t work anymore, like in restaurants — restaurants are a powerful lobby, they have quite of a political clout. And so, I don’t know of a government that isn’t helping the restaurant industry as a whole because we expect them to reopen when the crisis is over, and so we don’t want all the companies to go down. But, in exchange for all that government money that will make it possible for restaurant owners to cope with the crisis, we’ll probably ask about how much are you paying your employees and what kind of safety net do they benefit from? Maybe we could make some progress on that form because those people were left on their own during the crisis. So, I think for the first time we’re reconsidering the safety net or the social contract for proximity workers. For the first time, some governments have been deploying mechanisms to help support self-employed people, self-employed workers, freelancers and platform workers and so on — which is a first — and then many, many startups will be lifted up by the crisis and will come up with innovative financial products or innovative approaches to managing benefits or innovative real estate products that will all contribute to revealing the new safety net.


[00:26:06.27] Ben: There’s no automatic reason why we should rebuild the safety net or create new institutions post-crisis. But that definitely could be one outcome, right? Because certainly, you see that many of the politicians right now have extra political capital and whenever we have this kind of shared experience, we start to have more empathy for various sections of society. So, it does seem like an opportunity to make some quite radical changes, post-crisis.

Laetitia: Yeah! It really does! Like, thinking about new collective bargaining institutions, if you think of the supermarket workers in France, they very rapidly obtained visibility and then there was this pressure on supermarket chains to pay them more and create new protections for them, so they built all those window panes to protect the cashiers from people’s droplets and then they decided they’d pay them 1000 euros more every month — which is not so bad. And once the crisis is over how can you go back to saying, “Okay, well, you’re actually worthless. Let’s just cut all this and go back to whatever it was before. I think that’s not going to be possible because they are united, they went through something so terrible that they think in terms of “We’re in this together — I mean the workers — and we’ll necessarily have more bargaining power and think collectively.”

Laetitia: So, it was this pressure. Carrefour in France, and Leclerc and Auchan — all those supermarket chains — one after the other, they added this special premium for workers so that they can get paid extra. This hasn’t happened in other countries, yet — or maybe in a few others that I don’t know of — but at least it’s a sign, that in terms of bargaining, something’s really happening.

Laetitia: And the second thing is that we’re understanding the rule of public services and how crucial they are and how completely helpless we are without those public services. If you think of the NHS, how, in normal times, it doesn’t have enough resources and how in spectacular times this lack of resources will cost so many thousands and thousands of lives, there is no politician in the UK tomorrow who will be able to attack the NHS — even Johnson, who is now at the mercy of the NHS, literally speaking. And so, the fact that in times of crisis we suddenly saw the possibility of boosting those public services and their critical role is something that will have a political legacy beyond the crisis.

[00:29:12.09] Ben: Do you think that plays out in the United States? Do you think there’ll be more pressure in the United States to create some form of public health care?

Laetitia: Well, the United States is such a mess! Such a mess! I’m not optimistic about the US. What I think will happen is a moment of reckoning with this epidemic. Everything, all their incentives are wrong, all their system is wrong. The fact that there is absolutely no safety net encourages people with no alternative to continue to work even after they’ve had the first symptoms of the disease, so the spread will be worse. And then, lots of people who cannot even go to a doctor — there will be more deaths than in any other developed nation. And then, the economic crisis will also be worse because there is nothing to cushion the impact of the crisis. And so, even with a $2 trillion package rescue plan, which seems like a lot, but if that rescue package is meant to compensate for the lack of anything pre-existing, it won’t be enough. It won’t be enough to cushion the country from something so deadly, that it will be a moment of reckoning. I’m very, very pessimistic about their ability to do anything before the worst happens.

[00:30:50.15] Ben: The way I see it is this juncture where the US could either turn left, metaphorically speaking, and kind of push towards creating a proper safety net to prop up the population at large, or it could double-down on individualism. And it’s not clear which way it will go. I think if they had potentially a different president, maybe we might be more confident.

Laetitia: Yeah. I’m unsure that anything massive or anything radical can be done in the current political context. Number one, the candidate, the official Democratic candidate now is Joe Biden — and Joe Biden is not a radical thinker. Number two, there are a lot of things that are completely deadlocked. There’s the Supreme Court that is durably conservative and that will strike down whatever ambitious proposal comes out of Congress — and that is if Congress is majoritarian in the hands of Democrats after the next election, which is absolutely not sure because the Senate is also likely to remain conservative. So, I don’t think anything can be done in the American political context today that will be radical enough or ambitious enough to make a difference.

[00:32:12.21] Ben: What were the political conditions at the time of the New Deal? Because this does feel like this could be analogous to the time that led up to the New Deal.

Laetitia: Yes. It’s interesting! This comparison is very interesting because Roosevelt had difficulties with the Supreme Court of his time.

Ben: He did, yeah! I remember that!

Laetitia: He did, and he came up with a plan that came to be known as the Court Packing Plan, and the idea was to nominate lots of new justices to the Supreme Court because there is nothing in the Constitution that says that you have to stick to nine — which it’s just tradition, it’s an unwritten rule or tradition. And he said, “Okay, they’re all old and conservative. Let’s appoint lots of new justices and pack the Court with friendly justices.” And that, of course, was very controversial and lots of Americans attacked Roosevelt for being so shockingly radical — and this Court Packing Plan probably wouldn’t have been accepted and wouldn’t have passed. But, luckily for Roosevelt, one of these old judges died and he could appoint a new one, and at some point, there was a turn and because they had felt so much pressure, some of the other judges sort of changed their minds and started being more flexible, and more liberal. And so, they eventually let the New Deal unfold, but it was a couple of years of very, very, very difficult institutional moment and a true battle between those two branches of power. And today that’s not going to happen because I don’t see how in a few years, the Supreme Court will change. It was designed by the conservatives to be made durably, durably conservative.

[00:34:22.07] Ben: So when the lockdown is finished, we won’t just go backwards to the way it was; one reason is because, first of all, millions of people aren’t literally going to be able to get back to work because they don’t have work. We’re going to have a much bigger appreciation for the proximity workers and appreciate how important they are in our day-to-day lives.

Laetitia: Including teachers!

[00:34:41.17] Ben: Including teachers! Oh, yes! Those of us that are homeschooling appreciate teachers. And a lot of those proximity workers will have more bargaining power and the same applies to many of the public services that we’ve maybe had underappreciated in the run-up to the crisis. What other ways do you think we won’t go back to normal and we’ll move to some kind of new normal?

Laetitia: Well, when it comes to remote work, and the digital transition of large organizations that suddenly overnight had to manage differently, choose different tools to work remotely, there’s no going back to before in terms of the flexibility of work, and the fact that you don’t need to prove to your manager that you’re perfectly able to do things without being watched constantly and without being physically present at the office. So, I think that’s something that will change. A lot more work will be done at home, and in co-working spaces — and that’s a small revolution in a way because when we think of workplaces, we usually don’t think of the home as a workplace, so I think that’s a big change. And the fact that we think of home as workplace has an impact of how we view housing and how we consider housing policies and housing inequalities; it has an impact for companies on how they think of the workspace in general and ergonomic solutions, and it has an impact on how you protect workers because a lot of the workers who work from home already and who’ve worked from home before were not necessarily considered in a lot of the institutions that were created for office workers or factory workers or field workers.

Laetitia: We talked a lot about American politics, but for example, Roosevelt’s 1935 Social Security Act did not include domestic workers, because these domestic workers were the descendants of slaves and for political reasons, it was safe not to include them so as to have the support of Southern Democrats who were racists. And that’s just one example of how domestic workers were never included in the institutions that were created to protect workers. And that’s something that’s going to change because these institutions include medical supervision, ergonomics, social protection, obviously, etc. And so, now, the home will fully enter the realm of the workspaces and it’ll have a number of consequences.

[00:37:43.08] Ben: If everybody can work from home or have more flexibility post-crisis, do you think this changes the relative attractiveness of being a full-time employee versus being a freelancer?

Laetitia: I’m certain that it does and it’s an interesting development that’s happened over the last few weeks. In the UK, as well as in France, for the first time ever, there’s been talk of creating new protections for the freelance workers who will lose all their gigs, and all their revenues because of the crisis. It’s millions of new freelancers who suddenly will find themselves without any revenue. It’s more than 5 million in the UK, and something like that in France — a little less, I think — and these are workers who could have been salaried workers under different circumstances. The French government in the Rescue Package that was created, created a new unemployment insurance — a crisis unemployment insurance — for freelance workers. That’s a first! And then, the British Chancellor did the same which is even more surprising in the British context that’s less protective of workers than the French tradition. The Chancellor announced that a new protection will be created for all freelancers, up to 2500 pounds a month on the basis of whatever you earned, on average, before that — and that will create a form of precedent.

Laetitia: What’s obvious is that there is a misalignment between workers and companies now, because companies faced with this unprecedented crisis realize they want most of their costs to be variable. They want fewer long-term salaried workers — for example in France where you can’t lay off people easily — they want fewer offices with fixed costs that can actually kill them and burn all the cash that they have left. Whereas workers, on the other hand, want as many protections as it’s possible, they will want to return to more traditional forms of employment that provide more protections, that come with a better bundle. They want unemployment benefits, they want health benefits, etc, etc. And because this misalignment is going to be a bigger problem than ever before, in the context of this crisis, new institutions in between will have to be created, so that the model will look more like Sweden — companies must be able to lay-off people whenever they need to, but people must be protected and helped to find other jobs in the future. And so, in between is a better safety net that makes it possible to have a better alignment of interests between companies and people.

[00:40:59.26] Ben: Do you think it’ll be necessarily the state that creates those new institutions? I suspect it might be a combination of both because if you think about the present context, people are firing their freelancers because they can, because they’re those that have the least protection, the shortest contracts. But, many of the best people are freelancers. Therefore, for anybody who’s willing to take a risk at this present time and be slightly contrarian, this is the time to go in and find those freelancers and create some sort of organization that arbitrages that risk between employers and freelancers.

Laetitia: That’s true! But it’s too many people right now. It’s a little bit like, you know, when you’re an insurance company, it’s fine to handle normal risks, but once you have a risk that’s as big as a natural disaster where you have either the entire country or an entire region that’s completely destroyed, that’s not something that one insurance company can handle. It’s too big. Only the state is big enough to handle a risk of that size. However, you’re right. In most cases, it’s a combination of the two that will be most effective. So, you’ll have lots of players handling smaller risks and the biggest of them all, the natural disaster, the huge crisis — that’s something for the state.

[00:42:34.15] Ben: So just to return to this, we’re in a situation where a small minority of people work from home in the crisis. Now, I don’t know what the statistics are, but probably it’s a small majority of people who are working from home.

Laetitia: It’s about half and half actually; or one third — one third — one third: roughly, one third of people are unemployed, one third of all people are working outside, in hospitals or in supermarkets or working in the supply chain, and one third work remotely. Depending on the country, the figures are different, but you get the idea. It’s roughly something like that.

[00:43:08.13] Ben: So we’ve got a situation where a small minority was working remotely, and now a third of the working population is working remotely. So, a massive increase from one day to the next. How do you think people are coping? What do you think are some of the unseen ramifications of that, in terms of gender inequalities, for example? And then, what are your tips? Because you’re somebody who’s been working remotely for a long period of time. And it’s difficult, right? For example, we find it’s difficult to know when to stop work, for example, in the evening because you could theoretically go on until bedtime and you can start as soon as you wake up. And so, how do you create new parameters for remote work?

Laetitia: Well, it’s an excellent question because the tips that are usually given to remote workers are not necessarily valid in today’s period when parents have their children at home, or they have other family members at home that makes it so much harder to find the focus or even just the physical space to do their work in normal conditions. So, these are very un-normal times for the tips for remote workers to figure out how to work. So, it’s more a crisis time and you do whatever works best for you; parents may need more flexibility because they will work early in the morning or late in the evening if they have young children or they will work in shifts. If there are two remote workers in the household, and the two of them need to work then the mornings will be for the mother and the afternoons will be for the second parent or vice-versa. They will have to find a system and unlike in normal times, it’s a system that works for the household. So, there is this merger, if you will, of the private sphere and the professional sphere in a way that we’ve never experienced before because in normal times you have other institutions, like daycare and schools and nannies and you have this organization where you fit your household with lots of other players and a lot more extra outside help.

Laetitia: So this is very, very different and I’m a bit irritated sometimes by the productivity pieces that we see today about remote work as if it was a normal time, as if it was business as usual. Also, we know that in terms of, as you said, you’ve mentioned gender inequalities and in some households it’s like going back to the 1950s because all the chores, all the workload that was more evenly distributed between a woman and the outside world — nanny, cleaning woman, whoever else came for help — is now reinternalized. And when you reinternalize it, it’s rarely evenly split. So, that’s a disaster for feminism — that was the title of an Atlantic piece that was very good; it was, “Coronavirus is a disaster for feminism.”

Laetitia: So that’s one thing. But another is that in normal times, no one would champion lockdown. No one would say, “It’s best when you work not to see anyone ever.” So we know that in terms of mental health, we are going to have to cope with extremely difficult moments and it’s not about being productive. It’s about surviving. So, I would say, the usual things that I write about managing scattered teams and how companies with no office, like GET Lab or Buffer or Basecamp have found solutions to help us do without an office — those things do not apply today because it’s so different from anything we’ve ever experienced before.

[00:47:30.26] Ben: But in a way, that’s another thing that won’t get back to normal, right? Because, I don’t know how much you saw this, but a lot of companies, when they first were forced to let people work from home, they tried to impose normal office hours, and then they figured that, as you said, people were managing multiple different priorities at home, and so, they had to be more flexible. So, that’s another way in which companies have had to seed more and more control.

Laetitia: Yes! And that’s a positive thing that may happen out of this — is that if they make flexibility the new default, and if there is actually more trust in their management, then it will benefit everyone, even in new normal times because parents still need flexibility and they still need to be able to handle the workload the way they see fit and incorporate all the constraints that they have. So, that’s something positive that could come out of this.

Laetitia: If you’re a pessimistic, you may see that a lot of the companies that are forced to work remotely overnight, are replicating the managerial culture that was theirs before and so they basically continue to watch their people and there’s this software to take pictures of your worker’s screen and verify what they’re doing. And then, you have lots of managers who want to be on Zoom all the time — and if you’re on Zoom all the time, when exactly are you supposed to do your work? Or how much flexibility do you have when you’re supposed to be in meetings all day on Zoom? And so, I think that there’s a big gap between the companies that have a more flexible managerial culture, more horizontal managerial culture, and those that are still very conservative and basically replicating online the culture, the managerial system that they had at the office.


[00:49:49.13] Ben: Ian, I wanted to ask you how business leaders should be responding to this crisis? Is this a time to be brave and contrarian or is this a time to make sure that you steward your company through a difficult time?

Ian: So, I’m afraid I’m going to give you a boring answer, and the boring answer — which I think is the right answer — is only if the evidence supports to be brave and contrarian. The trick with most difficult situations, whether you’re a kid in the playground faced with someone larger than you or a business leader trying to deal with the fact that 95% of your revenues have just died as is the case for friends of mine around the world today, is to try to look at things relatively unemotionally — it’s hard to be completely without emotion when people you know are dying — but to try and be relatively unemotional and work out what you can do. It’s clarity, its analysis, but it’s also the ability to make a decision relatively quickly. And in that sense, that’s brave. When you have to make a decision when the information isn’t clear because you have no choice because your business goes under if you don’t, that’s the bravery that’s necessary. It’s just making hard decisions when you have to, quickly. I think you don’t do one thing. I think the efforts to try and make sure that people don’t lose their jobs have been admirable in certain areas, but obviously impossible in an airline or a hotel industry where suddenly you have no customers at all.

Ian: Now, I say impossible. It’s not entirely impossible. Mark Greeven, a professor at IMD recently gave us a case study about the car company BYD in China, which overnight, within 24 hours, because they had to find something to do with their employees — they didn’t want to let everybody off — became the biggest producer of face masks in the world. This is a known case study now, but it’s only two months old. Then, there’s another company in China that I follow, that switched from being a 90% — 10% offline retailer with thousands of stores to online retailer — so they were 10% online and 90% offline — switched to 80/20 online/offline within 30 days and didn’t suffer either the employment losses or the revenue losses that people expected. So I think the bravery is in making tricky decisions in tricky times. Contrarian — only if the evidence supports. And try to look at things based on data, not based on just gut feel.

[00:52:26.25] Ben: And where do you see that there might be room to be contrarian? So, where do you see the opportunities that good leaders, prepared to make quick decisions, might capitalize on?

Ian: So that’s a very general question. It depends on the sector you’re in and the industry you’re in. So, at the moment, the problem isn’t so much decision-making because the decision-making is fairly clear. Right now, the issue is data. If you’re looking at markets, people are talking about the difference between a V-recovery, a U-recovery, an L-recovery, underlying that are estimates of when we go back to work, when customers start buying things again. I would suggest that one of the things that managers of retail businesses or managers of consumer business should be doing is trying to work out how much of consumer behavior changes over the next three to six months. Short-term shocks tend not to impact consumer behavior; consumers tend to go back to doing what they did before. Longer-term shocks, things that last longer, people get used to doing new things in new ways; maybe they don’t go back to doing things the way they did before. And trying to work out now, trying to pass that now and work out what people will do or won’t do, how much they will change, how much they won’t change — is a very interesting question. So, I think, at the moment, it’s more about trying to understand what data there is and what it’s telling us before we get decisions. Everybody, at the moment, is just trying to scramble — spend less money, find new customers, keep as many of the employees as you can because it’s hard to rebuild teams. It’s doing what they can in difficult environments. The tricky bit is what happens next, and when next is.

[00:54:05.26] Ben: Is China now a safe haven for investors?

Ian: China has never been a safe haven for investors. It’s always been tough. And this isn’t against foreigners or outsiders — it’s tough for everyone in China, local Chinese included. It’s probably the most competitive business environment in the world, and there’s a lot of money from lots of different sources aiming at the same projects. So, prices have gone up. It’s never been safe. Right now, in addition to that, we have a very clear anti-foreigner sentiment, partly exacerbated by the last couple of years, but it’s been there, frankly, pretty much since the arrival of Xi Jinping. So no, it’s not a great time for investors in China.

[00:54:44.06] Ben: Do you think more investors from outside China are looking for a safe haven for their money? Because China was first into the pandemic, is first out, and the economy is kind of getting back to normal. Is this a time for people to look at China with fresh eyes, from an investment point of view?

Ian: So, a lot of the conditions that make China a complicated place to invest in are still there. It’s still an environment where we aren’t terribly sure if they respect the requirements for reporting that we do in the West. We’re still not very sure about how much of actual activity is being reported in the books, what isn’t on the books, what’s slightly off-book, or what’s on a separate set of books. And even with public companies, this has been the subject of some debate amongst analysts. So I think those conditions have always been there. The second question, I guess, is whether or not China really is coming out of the cycle. I don’t believe that the COVID-19 cycle ends until there’s a vaccine. We’re already seeing second waves in different parts of Asia, in China as well. The Chinese government of course, is blaming us on people coming back to China — either foreigners or Chinese — but it seems likely that there’s been underreporting, so it seems likely there’ll be other waves. People forget that actually the whole question of this COVID-19 cycle, the only reason we’re getting flattening of the curves is because we’re all locked indoors wearing masks and staying away from each other. Any form of return to normalcy will involve greater human interaction, which will involve an increase in infection rates. So, I don’t think we’re out of China yet.

[00:56:25.02] Ben: In other words, there’s almost no safe haven until we have a vaccine.

Ian: So, two different things. One is, what’s safe for humans who want to live in a particular place? And the second is investment. I didn’t quite get to answer your question because I was creating my usual precursors, pre-conditions for answering. The answer is yes, I’ve been looking at companies like Tencent and Baba for investment, but that’s principally companies that are quoted overseas, so I’m reasonably sure about being able to trade, and it’s large companies where we have enough access to understanding what they do and how they do it — so it’s relatively easy to judge them or even then, I would suggest that we don’t really know anything about those companies. So yes, I started to look at investment in those areas. And if you look at how they’ve done, their shares, actually, haven’t come down in terms of public market shares — they actually haven’t come down as much as you might expect. If you look at the falls in some of the American stocks, the Chinese stocks, the top Chinese stocks simply haven’t fallen as much. So, again, your question, why the government isn’t above buying shares to support its own market and its own company? So, there is this element of lack of transparency in both private and public markets for investment in China. And so, it’s always going to be tough. So, therefore, the short answer to your question is no, it’s not safe.

[00:57:40.19] Ben: Do you think that China will suffer less, economically, than some other countries because it got on top of this quickly?

Ian: Because it depends to a degree upon foreign consumption, and because the manner in which it has dealt with the crisis affects people’s perceptions of China, that foreign consumption may change. It’s one of the questions we all have about what happens when we get out of this. What are people’s attitudes to China going to be? Because they tried to shift a lot of the consumption — their internal consumption — that makes them relatively speaking, less dependent upon foreigner views of Chinese production. So, that side of the economy should do better. Yes, they’re harsher on crackdowns, and there’s been some criticism of the fact that everybody has to carry this little app, which tracks them where they go and tracks who they meet, so the government knows whether they’ve done anything high-risk, which are elements which actually are starting to be talked about in the West but are generally presumed to be not acceptable to Western cultures. The harshness of the treatment of the areas that came under the virus notwithstanding, yes, I think China’s probably going to do a better job of managing the infections and therefore probably do okay coming out. But, as I said, we’re 18 months away minimum from a vaccine. That means nothing goes back to normal. It has to change. Economies and companies and ecosystems that want to keep transacting have to adjust the way they transact, which may not be a bad thing. A lot of people started talking about how this has become a big push for those companies not already online to try and do so. And so, that side it’s not a bad thing.

[00:59:19.13] Ben: So, I don’t know when the vaccine comes, but do you think in the period up to the vaccination or the availability of a vaccine, China is better able to manage in this unstable interim period?

Ian: So, I’d separate our period from China’s ability to manage. The Chinese companies are extraordinarily competitive and extraordinarily able and extraordinarily nimble. So, when it comes to adjusting business models or adjusting supply chains or adjusting customer interaction processes, there’s no business culture on the planet currently faster than the Chinese and better at adjusting. So, from that perspective, they’ll weather almost any shop better than most Western companies. This didn’t use to be the case. The Americans used to be the best of this, let’s say a generation ago, but the Chinese are definitely stronger at that now. So yes, I think they’ll probably do fine in many respects.

Ian: One of the reasons that I was excited by China in the North-East in the early 2000s, was the degree of innovation I saw in places like the Western provinces for telecommunications, because there was so little money out there, and yet the companies were trying to create an infrastructure and an ecosystem for transactions on the telephone. So, they had to produce systems that worked on very, very little. And innovation in early telecommunications technology at the time is part of what’s driven the success with Huawei and others recently. So, yeah, they will do well, they’ll do fine. The more interesting question is whether we, in the West, will trust what they produce and therefore, continue to purchase with the same alacrity as we have done in the past. That’s an open question.

[01:01:01.08] Ben: So just leaving that question for now, do you think that the pandemic will bring forward the moment at which China overtakes the US to become the largest economy in the world?

Ian: China was always going to become the largest economy in the world by dint of its sheer size. So, with 1.4 billion people, it was always going to pass a country that was 300 million people at some point. Does it speed it up? It depends on how you measure it, I guess. They’re growing, obviously, at a faster rate than anybody has — even slowing down to 6%, that’s double than anybody else’s speed by far. So, I’m not sure COVID-19 makes a material difference to that. The short-term slowdown of the West, yes, creates issues for certain sectors, but not everywhere. So I don’t think it’s material. I think China was always going to end up being the largest, relatively quickly, and I don’t think this materially changes. I would, again, add a corollary, which is, bigger isn’t necessarily best, bigger isn’t necessarily strongest. I remember, in the 1980s, people were afraid that Japan was going to be the biggest, strongest economy in the world, and it would dominate the global ecosystem. I remember books being written about the danger of Japanese dominance of the business environment at that time — and look what happened. So, let’s see how they do what they do, and I think that will, to a degree affect how everybody else receives them. But there’s no question they will be the biggest very soon, just in terms of size.

[01:02:31.06] Ben: And then, just to dive a bit into this notion of external perceptions of China, how do you think they are faring and how do you think they will change post-pandemic? Because, on the one hand, China was seen as getting on top of this very quickly, if you like, the consumer of last resort, they’ve been providing aid and PBU equipment all over the world to countries that couldn’t otherwise source them. So, that’s the positive part of the post-pandemic perception. But then, on the negative side, people see them as the source of this virus, they see them as having covered up the extent of the virus at least initially. So, where do you think we end up post-crisis in our views of China?

Ian: I think the largest problem, the largest challenge for China is its own insecurity about what other people say about them. The Chinese government representatives at almost every level are particularly thin-skinned when it comes to criticism and that tends to mean they overreact — and they overreact in ways that we might consider surprising for the biggest guy in the room. And until they, themselves, feel a sense of confidence about their place in the world and about how they can be received, I think they’ll continually misstep or misjudge important reactions, and we will, therefore, always find them slightly off-putting. So, I don’t think that’s necessarily changed, as implied in your question. We’ve seen that mix. They had the capacity to construct and build and react, they had the capacity to supply us with things we need, and although we have poor-quality goods coming out of China, we also have very high-quality goods coming out of China. It’s just a question of making sure you choose your supply correctly and manage quality control. So, you can get wonderful quality goods coming out of China.

Ian: As you said, though, we’re concerned about what we’ve been told, we’re concerned about how certain things were managed; we, in the West, have seen video reporting on Twitter, which people in China have not been able to see about what the lockdown was really like in Wuhan — and that certainly maintains our concern about the way the country is governed. So I don’t think anything’s changed from this. The same two sides — the capacity to do good and produce fabulous equipment, gear, products, and services remains, but the insecurity on the part of the governing group and their overreaction to criticism and their style of management of crisis, because it doesn’t necessarily fit with what we consider to be appropriate, will continue to encourage us to consider China with both those sets of lenses separately and empower.

[01:05:33.07] Ben: What do you think happens to US-China relations? Because they were already pretty tense in the run-up to the pandemic — they had an escalating trade war and a worsening narrative. How does the pandemic positively or negatively affect US-China relations?

Ian: Well, again, because China was the big kid entering the playground, it was always going to be some tension, right? The previous big kid, the United States, suddenly finds someone that’s twice his or her size and acting differently — not just a question of being larger, but their interaction in the playground has been different to everybody else. So, the cultural shocks are always going to create a problem. And of course, the fact that they’re bigger and the fact that they’re going to wield larger sticks means that everybody gets nervous. So this conflict was always going to happen, it isn’t just a question of the current leadership.

Ian: Having said that, leadership can make it better. On both sides, at least, when it comes to the US and China specifically, as opposed to the West and China, we have leaders who are happy to blame the other side for something, both arguably thin-skinned, both unhappy with a pint of criticism, and that doesn’t help. So, I think good leadership, leadership of the type we’ve sometimes seen in Europe, with Angela Merkel and others, I think would help others. So, let’s see what happens over the coming years. But the current situation has certainly not made it better. I’m not sure it’s made it a lot worse. I mean, even if we had a more able diplomat on either side, whether in the US or in Asia — it might have been better handled and things might be smoother, so I’m looking forward to that as leadership changes, but that isn’t going to happen immediately, and for the time being, it’s going to be awkward.

Ian: To counter that, of course, is the interdependency. The United States still manufactures a huge amount of sub-contracts or directly manufacture a huge amount in China, and even though China has done its very best to switch economic dependency onto local consumption, they still have a need for overseas customers. I think that independency is a basis for trying to create a relationship that works. It’s one of the reasons people tried to create Europe after the Second World War having an interdependent economy — it means you’re less likely to go to war with someone if you’re genuinely interdependent.

[01:07:58.10] Ben: Do you think some of those interdependencies will diminish? Because I think we all benefited from having these just-in-time supply chains, these geographically dispersed supply chains, because it meant that the cost of goods went down. But I think what we found is their supply chains are very fragile in the face of big shocks. So, do you think some of those interdependencies would just naturally be rolled back as we seek to make supply chains more resilient?

Ian: And again, the answer is in the question. You ask very good questions which provide their own answers.

Ben: Then they’re not good questions.

Ian: People are certainly beginning to realize the risks of relying upon others in difficult times and the risk of trying to get access to something when you need it in a hurry when a normal supply chain takes three weeks, and you need it in two days. So those sorts of things, those concerns are coming to the fore at a time like this. But the answer isn’t to decouple completely and roll globalization backwards as some people would prefer. The solution is to build redundancy into the supply chains. So, you need to make sure that you have more than one route to get anything that’s important. By all means, for economic reasons, we’ll still try to go to the low cost, high volume, reasonable quality producer, but we’ve got to assume on anything that’s important that we have an alternative in the event that either we have an argument with the supplier or there’s a need for a timeframe which is shorter, which means we could accept a higher cost — there have to be redundant sources for the supply chain.

Ian: Western Europe is currently slowly trying to do this with natural gas, to reduce their dependency on Russia. It’s an issue in a lot of things around the world. But yes, COVID-19, particularly on medical supplies, has made it a more acute, obvious challenge for specifically medical issues. But, remember, these trends have been happening for a while — partly that things like Trump’s bring-industry-back-home stuff, but also, in Europe, as people have realized the challenges of trying to maintain quality control in Eastern Europe, not just China. So, there has been a slight trend to think about whether we want to produce everything halfway around the planet and what happens when we can’t get it when we need it.

[01:10:11.26] Ben: So you’re involved with lots of different companies as board member, advisor, investor. What are you telling the companies that you’re speaking to every day? How do you think they should best plan and adjust for this crisis?

Ian: It depends on where. I tend to be involved in media and/or consumer tech and/or, to a lesser degree, arts and creative industries companies. So, for most of those companies, the big thing that’s happening right now is pushing to get digital faster, especially if they were traditional media companies — it’s very, very hard to get newspaper and magazine and book companies to do more online. When you have no bookstores or your distribution methods are constrained and people are stuck in their homes, then online is the only place to find them. So, that’s been a really quite interesting portion. So, resistant management teams are finally saying, “Okay, we have time to do this because our other methods of reaching out customers simply aren’t working. So, that’s a big plus, I think there’s going to be a real push in some areas to do more stuff online, and therefore, to understand how it is one attracts people online and keeps people online. It isn’t the same thing when you walk down a street. Once you’ve walked into the store, you tend to spend 10 minutes there because it’s hard to visit 20 stores in a day. Online, you’re a click away from changing so people are realizing that we just simply don’t have 10 minutes to grab someone’s attention. We’ve got seconds. And that changes the way people think.

Nicolas: This crisis is THE crisis that will accelerate the transition to a more mature entrepreneurial economy or digital economy or whatever you want to call it. That’s what crises do. There’s something that’s already happening, a trend that’s headed into a certain direction, but it goes at a slow pace until a crisis happens and the crisis accelerates the pace, it fastens the pace and we’re still going in the same direction, which is a more digital economy. Some countries are seizing it as an opportunity, other countries are missing the mark, and are sliding down in terms of economic development. Like everyone interested in long-term change, I’m thrilled by the acceleration that the crisis provides. I’m terrified by the consequences of the short-term and all the people suffering and dying, but I think it creates an opportunity for every nation to accelerate the transition to a new paradigm.

Jumping S-Curves and Inventing the Future, with Bill FISCHER and Ian STEWART (#16)

Jumping S-curves and Inventing the Future with Bill FISCHER and Ian STEWART

Jumping S-Curves and Inventing the Future,
w/ Bill FISCHER and Ian STEWART

How reliable will strategy be in the future? What if tactics were more important than strategy? Are firms obsolete? What about nation states? Can the future of companies be a model for the future of countries? How is the nature of competitive advantage changing? How are we redefining quality to meet the needs of consumers and the marketplace? In this episode, Ben Robinson is in conversation with Bill Fischer and Ian Stewart from the International Institute for Management Development — IMD. Bill is Professor of Innovation Management and Ian — who you may remember from a previous episode of this podcast — he co-founded WiReD and he is Executive in Residence at IMD. 

Innovation should describe the characteristics of the way we work. It should be about how we do things, rather than what we’ve done at any particular time, or who’s doing it. — Bill Fischer

Full podcast transcript:

 

[00:01:51.29] Ben: We are at IMD to interview Bill Fischer, and Ian Stewart is here to make sure I get the very best out of this podcast. So, it’s going to be a joint interview and more of a conversation than anything. Starting with teams — is team a noun or is a verb?

Bill: It’s a verb. Without a doubt! Incidentally, thank you for coming over here and thank you for inviting us to be part of this. This is great fun!

Ben: I always forget to say that. So yeah, thank you for coming on the podcast!

Bill: So, I think, when we talk about innovation, the idea is, no matter what part of innovation we’re talking about, to make it a verb, not a noun. A noun describes somebody else doing it, some of the other departments, and I think that it’s too important as a quality of life — organizational life, individual life — to be pigeonholed in somebody’s group. So, I think it’s a verb. Amy Edmondson at the Harvard Business School talks about teaming rather than teams, and I think that’s a good way to begin.

Ben: And the reason you think it’s a verb, rather than a noun, is because it can never be passive — the formation of a team, the building of the team, the management of the team.

Bill: No, I think that innovation should describe the characteristics of the way we work. It should be about how we do things, rather than what we’ve done at any particular time, or who’s doing it. I think we want everybody, ideally, to think of themselves as potentially involved in the innovation process, so it shouldn’t belong to any department or group or section or what have you. I think we ought to characterize a way of working that involves curiosity, autonomy and the ability to experiment.

[00:03:45.15] Ben: I imagine Ian had the same experience that I have. You know, sometimes you have teams that just gel and they perform amazingly well; other times, you think you put together a similar composition of skills and it just doesn’t gel. So, what is the key to team performance and the composition of team, in your experience?

Bill: So, I think teams are too casually regarded. My sense is that teams should be fit for purpose. And if you think about industry development — I know we’ll talk about industry and arenas later — if you think about industry development as an S curve, then in the middle of the S curve where you know what you’re doing, and you know how to do it, then I think teams ought to be run in one way — probably harmonious and people get together and they gel quickly and they know each other. But, when you’re trying to jump from one S curve to another, when you’re trying to invent the future, then I think teams have to be very different. And I often think that contentious teams, teams that are staffed with people who know a lot of stuff and who disagree with one another, it’s probably the better way to go.

Ben: Yeah. And you take aim at what you call “polite teams.”

Bill: Right. Polite teams get polite results. Yeah.

Ben: Yeah! It’s almost like the antithesis of polite teams — teams that are combative.

Bill: Yes, but not destructive. I mean, I think they have to be led differently. I often think of teams in the middle of an S curve being led by an orchestra conductor who stands there and everybody knows what they’re doing and his or her job is to keep the movement going in the right direction and the right speed. But crossing the S curve is more like a boxing referee: allowing contentious discussion — because I want to get every brain cell I can possibly get — allowing contentious challenge to take place without being corrosive or destructive.

[00:05:55.16] Ben: You cite the research that shows there’s an inverse correlation between the size of teams and their performance, which I think, intuitively, feels great. And also, it’s unbelievable how much research went into that report that you cited. But that, then, poses the question of, if you’re going to run a large organization, how do you avoid having large teams and thinking in terms of large teams?

Bill: Yeah, so, just to be clear, the research you were talking about was a piece of work done by three fellows from Northwestern University last year — it appeared in Nature, I think, or Science.

Ben: Nature I think.

Bill: And it’s an amazing piece of research! Wonderful data, large data sets — a really spectacular piece of work. But it’s about invention, not about innovation, and I think that’s important to clarify; it’s at the very front end of the change process. For me, the thing that was so interesting in their results was that at some team size over five, every person you bring in reduces monotonically the level of novelty and the expected outcome. That’s extraordinary! I mean, the more people, the more conservative we become. In fact, they have some interesting data that argues that it’s a functional way that larger teams work, and also, the expectations that larger teams are going to deliver different results, and so people are responding to the audience as well. What clearly comes out of that is that if you have your preference, if you’re able to do it, smaller teams are better than larger teams, and they have more autonomy as well. So, I think that rule #1 about thinking about teaming is, how small can I do this, and can it be, and how autonomous can we fashion this?

Ian: Interestingly, I found the same thing on boards, with the same parallel thoughts. The less change an organization is going through — whether it’s for-profit or non-profit — the more it can afford large boards, the more it’s involved in something which requires substantial change. I’m on the board of an NGO at the moment, which is seeing its funding sources around the world radically change as governments fund less, and private sector sources, foundations, family offices are funding more in this particular area, and they have zero experience in this space. So, trying to understand how to change the fundraising process, changing actually the management team to enable them to do it has been a struggle, and what I often find on these things is that the first thing that a good chairman does is break things down to smaller groups so that there’s only three to five people handling it. So, there was a small group of us that went out to hire the new CEO, there was another small group that had to restructure how funding works. It’s a very interesting process. I think it’s exactly the same on boards as it is in innovation teams within companies.

Bill: I’ve come away over the last couple of years thinking that end-to-end responsibility, smallness, and autonomy are really critically important characteristics for teaming. Contextually, when you want to do something big, if we want to run the day-to-day operations of an activity in a mature industry, then those rules may not apply at all.

[00:09:34.29] Ben: Yeah. So, we’re going to come back to talk about whether the structure of a firm is still as relevant as it was because the very notion of a firm is building these high-transaction costs. So, we’ll come back to that. But, if the future, if optimal performance is achieved through very small teams, does that mean that organizations just become a composite of lots and lots of small teams, then? And how easy is that to actually orchestrate?

Bill: So, I have a long-term relationship with Haier — the Chinese appliance company — and that’s the direction they’re going in. They’re going in that direction because their industry is on the verge of a major upheaval around hyper-connectivity in the kitchen, and they’ve never done this before. They’ve never produced content. They used to talk to their customer typically once every 15 years; now it’s five or 10 times a day. So, they need to be really different, and what they understand, I think, is that there’s so much opportunity to do different things, but they’ve never done this before. So, what they’re doing is they are subdividing into small groups that are autonomous, that are self-investing as well, which reduces the risk to the organization as a whole, and they’re allowing people to take chances. And I think the belief is, “We’re going to be in the right place at the right time not because we’re smarter, but because we’re taking more chances — and most of the chances aren’t going to turn out well, but a couple will, and then we’ll be uniquely positioned to move forward.”

[00:11:25.17] Ben: So, I just want to drop anchor on Haier, because I’ve been to Drucker Forum and you’ve brought them there in the past, and it’s a fascinating case study, but I think there’s several things I’m interested about, one of which is, how replicable is that in other examples of companies that are doing the same thing? But the first thing is, how do they manage consistency with that level of autonomy? Because we’re talking about home appliances, so these are not things that you would want to be breaking every day. How do they manage that?

Bill: These small teams are located on platforms that are overseen by people who are more internally focused than externally focused — so the small teams are completely externally focused. But then, that behavior in activity is mediated by the role of the platform, which is sort of a bridge between the external and the internal world and does the translation. So, that, to me is the way they go about consistency. And, on that platform, they have a number of stakeholders involved, so you’re all using the same connectivity systems, so that you’re not doing one thing. One of the interesting things about this is that all of a sudden, logistics becomes a much more important player in the conversations than they did in the past, and that is because you’re no longer buying separate pieces of home appliances, but you’re applying a suite of home appliances to talk to one another. You’re spending a lot more money, and when you walk in that kitchen as a customer, you want to push the button and everything works, which means it has got to be all delivered on time as well. So I mean, you’re seeing very different internal players participating, as well as somewhat bizarre external players.

Ian: In answering the first part of your question, Ben, I think depends on the size of the organization and the dynamism of the environment in which it works. If there’s a great deal of change going on, or a great deal of change necessary and/or there’s a level of disruption because of changes in the way either the context of the business is formed or the competitors in the environment, I think that level of change requires structures and systems that allow for it. If you’re dealing with something that is relatively static — and that’s less and less true these days; all of the indications are that the lifecycle of companies is dropping — but if you’re dealing in a sector which is relatively static, then you can afford to build a deep process, which fine-tunes, which eliminates, which molds down to a point where it’s as efficient as it can be to run one set of processes. Now, something like that — and I’m thinking of large Japanese companies, for example — doesn’t react to change terribly well, isn’t able to adjust, isn’t able to innovate. But, if you’re in an industry that doesn’t have that level of disruption yet, because they probably all will at some point, then I think it’s okay to have an order type of structure. But I think it’s very clear that the trends on company lifecycles, and industry lifecycles, and the level of change that’s taking place through the application of technology in all sorts of different levels in different companies, in all parts of the value chain, suggests that some level of management, of innovation plus reliance on core processes I think, is inevitable.

[00:14:43.13] Ben: Yeah, a tension between the exploitation tap and the exploration tap, which is, as you said, depending on where you are on the S curve, which one is taking precedence. Just going back to Haier, you talked about the rising importance of logistics and the platform that underpins it. I suppose another case study is Amazon, right? We have this idea of API first, so even the internal teams interface with other internal teams through APIs, which actually makes it possible then for those internal units to be exposed to external parties — a bit like AWS was. Is that how Haier is built? Which is, you can quickly change the interface from internal to external, the same way as if you wanted to plug out a Haier appliance, you could plug in another appliance because they have to be built on a platform that allows interoperability.

Bill: I think, actually, what happens is by creating autonomous work units to the extent that they are at least responsible for their own functions, everyone has a line of sight to the customer and as a result, they take what’s going on in the marketplace much more seriously than they might have — buried under levels of bureaucracy and really don’t see the customer at all.

[00:16:09.11] Ben: I think I’ve been to the Drucker Forum twice, maybe three times, and each year, you bring Haier back to speak. They’re great! It’s a phenomenal story, and it’s so innovative in its business model. But, the fact that you bring them back and you don’t bring other examples back is that because there aren’t that many examples, still? They’re still trailblazing?

Bill: There are a fair number of organizations that are experimenting with change, but I have not yet seen any organization that’s gone as far as Haier, for as long a period of time — this is about a 35-year continuous story, with 70,000 people. And yet, there are plenty of organizations that are really experimenting in different ways with autonomy, but not on that scale, not for that long, and I think not that comprehensively.

Ian: It’d be interesting to take a closer look at Alphabet and Amazon — they’ve not been going at it for anywhere near as long. That’s the impressive thing with Hire — the longevity of the process is really quite something. But clearly, Alphabet and Amazon, in their own ways, have approached the same problem in parallel ways, trying to work out how to be continually innovative, whilst maintaining the core business and trying to build a set of internal processes that keep it feeling and acting and operating as a single entity, a single corporation whilst creating these new services and businesses. I mean, it’s a fun area! It’s a really, really fun area! My favorite bit of business at the moment is this frontier between trying to run something and trying to build something because they’re not always the same thing.

Bill: And the boundaries between these organizations blur because, where’s your focus and where’s your allegiance and where’s the center of activity occurring? And that’s interesting. The other thing that I have always been fascinated by, at Haier, and it’s probably because I had gotten to know the chairman Zhang Ruimin so well, but he talks a lot about giving up control — not amassing control, but giving up control — because that’s the only way the organization can move responsibly fast enough; that’s interesting, to watch an organization trust its people to get on with their job.

[00:18:35.04] Ben: In terms of lessons learned, one of the fascinating things is, home appliances, this is quite a capital intensive business, and so, I can get how you can devolve down autonomy for decision-making because you want the individual units to be quite responsive to changing customer demands, but how do you devolve down capital allocation on that scale?

Bill: That’s a big problem! And it means, probably — and I’m watching some organizations try to deal with that — it means that the sizes of these organizations are arguably going to be much larger than the small groups that are interacting on the frontier of client-facing type. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it doesn’t mean that a group of people can’t run a large-asset, intensive operation within a manufacturing framework or run the manufacturing framework itself. I mean, that can be done — it’s a different size, and it’s a different degree of involvement engagement.

Ian: I think it’s also a different approach to risk. If one’s trying to allocate capital in areas that are less well-known by the existing management team… I mean, I spend my time these days often going backwards and forwards between French organizations and American organizations or whether they’re Canadian or US, and there’s a very different approach to a decision about whether to invest in either a process or a new technology. The French companies — and forgive me for French listeners, if I’m generalizing to a point that is offensive — French companies tend to go more into the reports, and details, and they want to be absolutely certain if they possibly can before they make the decision. The American companies want to be sure or more or less triangulate that this is the direction, and then they’ll throw money and people at it and see what happens. And I think that that different approach, the ability to take on investments with higher risk and less certainty, I think is fundamental to very large organizations being able to allocate capital to their internal operation. So, I’ve spent time, obviously, as an investor, as a venture capitalist, and I think that some of those attitudes, some of those approaches to being comfortable with risk and trying to judge what are the levels of risk you’re willing to accept — is it more the team? Is it more the tech? Is it more the goal? Are the processes involved appropriate, given whatever the context is for what they’re trying to do? And then deciding, “Okay, $150 million goes on this” based on less information than some companies might be willing to accept. I think that’s essential for this type of change at this type of scale in large organizations trying to stay relevant.

[00:21:13.06] Ben: So is that what will determine the winners in the future? Which is, if we think about the changing nature of competitive advantage, is that ability to deploy capital better and faster or will they be disrupted by companies that are more modular and more networked?

Bill: So here we get into the difference between industries and arenas.

Ben: Yes.

Bill: As a preface, I would say, if you reflect on the way we think about strategic thinking, it’s based on industry analysis — Michael Porter’s five forces, and things like that. Industries are asset-defined. So, all automobile companies pretty much look alike and all banks pretty much look alike and they all have the same assets and the same talent, but there’s a couple of things going on now, I think, that are really changing that. One is that we’re no longer as interested in the asset-defined rivalries as we are in the outcomes, the customer experience. So, for 100 years, when we think about strategy, we’ve been thinking about the inputs. And now, we’re thinking more about the outputs. I think that’s a function of a business model innovation, and the ability of a whole generation of entrepreneurs who have decided that they don’t have to have those assets, they don’t have to have those engineers; they can go out and play in the customer experience game and access the assets and talent that they need some other way. And they’ll differentiate themselves on something within the business model that everybody’s been aware of, for a long time, but nobody else has taken on. And so, I think that the nature of the way we categorize firms is changing.

[00:23:08.29] Ben: And so, is the right way to categorize firms as aggregators, and platforms, and long-tail, then? Is that the way to think about it? So they’re either aggregating the work of other companies and their consumer-facing, or they’re sharing network effects across their platform where they’re not necessarily customer-facing, but they are sharing between all the different tenants of the platform, or are they the long-tail suppliers to the platform?

Bill: So, we start outside-in rather than inside-out, and we start with the customer experience, and then, we think about all of the different ways that we can affect that customer experience or change the customer experience. At the present time — and I don’t know if this is because it’s in the middle or at the beginning of this transition or it’ll always be this way — there are still some assets-specific providers who do everything and well-known brands who are participating in the arenas — as Rita McGrath calls it — that characterize the creation of customer experience, but there are also some aggregators and some modular assemblers. I guess those would be aggregators who are doing the same thing with a completely different balance sheet in terms of the way in which they go to market. While I’m saying this, I’m thinking that we’ve seen modularization around for a long time. It’s not new. The missing piece, I think, has been the business model, which has really tied it together. So, Alex Osterwalder who lives just a short distance from here, really deserves a lot of credit for reminding us, calling our attention on the fact that the business model is really an important way to think about innovation, and we lost sight of that somewhere along the line, I think.

Ben: Yeah, I think the business model is the most important thing to get right. We’ll come in a second to the discussion of strategy versus innovation, but I think business model trumps both because if you get the business model right, then it allows you to innovate at scale and it allows you to execute the strategy. So, I would argue, the business model is now more important than ever has been.

Ian: I think it also depends on where you are in the value chain for an industry — or an arena, for that matter — and where your skills and competitive advantage lie. Even in the car industry, where you have a whole bunch of people facing the customer on the B2C side, with variations on a number of different themes — with SUVs dominating these days — at the back end, you’ve still got a very limited number of suppliers of, for example, gearboxes, where a few companies really dominate. They do one thing really, really well, then they customize it to the different customers, but, essentially, there are very few companies supplying to a great many B2C-facing car companies and car brands. So, I think it depends a little bit on where you are and where you sit in the system.

Ian: I wanted to address another question you asked very early on about whether Haier and its development of platforms facilitates interoperability. I think there’s a big difference between the platforms that a company creates for itself, for its own innovation, and for its range of products and services. Bill mentioned if you start to buy from a company which has its own system — and of course, we know Apple in the space, not with washing machines, but yes, with consumer objects — it becomes very hard to leave after a while because the system works very well in amongst the different objects and tools and machines that they sell. The same will be true, I’m sure, at Haier, but I’m sure, as with Apple — I’d love to hear from Bill about this — Haier probably doesn’t make great efforts to ensure that their systems interoperate with other competitors in the Chinese marketplace, because that’s a source of competitive advantage. So we see certain benefits of network effect within ecosystems that we control. We don’t necessarily want other people’s devices to be able to interoperate because then we lose our control of the customer. So I think it’s interesting to see what’s happening, and I think there are efforts to create standards to allow IoT systems to interoperate — it’ll be very interesting from a competitive landscape point of view to see how that goes.

Bill: Yeah, I agree. I was trying to think about how that would work, and my sense is that, certainly, Haier does have its own system of connectivity and within the domestic Chinese market, that’s the one that is in use and I think has been probably the market leader. Outside of the Chinese system, the reality is that you have other organizations like Amazon, Google, and Apple who have a head start with their systems — particularly Amazon Echo and the like, because they’ve been around for a longer time. So, I think it would behoove Haier moving into the domestic North American market to make sure that their equipment works with the standards — how many of these devices do I want to talk to so that they’re a system? What I don’t know, and an interesting question is, would they have a special microenterprise that would take responsibility for that system, or would the existing microenterprise adapt to fit both systems? I don’t know how that works and I don’t know who would make that choice. I think the way the choice will be made is who moves the fastest within Haier?

[00:29:04.20] Ben: I’m really pleased that you raised this, so I think it’s worth delving into this a bit more. Isn’t that notion of switching costs — which is really what you’re talking about, which is, you make things proprietary so that it’s difficult for your suppliers, your customers to switch up — isn’t that a very Industrial Age concept that will gradually disappear? Because the nature of competitive advantage is changing. I mean, you’ve said everything has to be customer-first, ecosystem first, such that the most successful companies will be those that generate the highest level of network effects and those that externalize those network effects with their ecosystem, such that the idea of introducing heavy switching costs is almost the antithesis of how you increasingly create and sustain competitive advantage?

Bill: If I can just make a quick observation: I used to do a lot of work in the telecom industry, and I remember how major telecom companies would be afraid to become the dumb pipe. Nobody wanted to be the dumb pipe. I now hear automobile companies say that because in autonomous drive vehicles, if the audio connectivity is done through an existing system like Amazon or like Google or whoever, then who actually owns the customer? And if I have an Amazon Echo on in my home, and I then go out into my garage, do I really want to change systems? And how interoperable do I want to be? So, it’s not in Amazon’s interest to make it easier for anybody.

[00:30:46.05] Ben: But, in a way, isn’t that Canute-like to resist that? Because, almost necessarily, we’ll prefer some channels to other channels, and we won’t want to have different proprietary channels for our car, for our bank, so we’ll probably necessarily move to horizontal channels. Isn’t the trick to make yourself desirable even if you don’t interface directly to the customer — i.e. to be the car that people choose even though they might interface through Echo, the bank that people might choose even though they might interface through WhatsApp?

Ian: I think that’s the crux of a competitive question. If you think that there is going to be the potential for a horizontal network effect, integrated system across multiple brands, then you target that. But, if you think you’re going to add enough value — remember, it’s not about optimum value, it’s about enough value — to your customers to keep them loyal and keep them within your system as much as possible, then the rent you can charge for that, the amount of margin you can generate from that is going to be enough to sustain you for a great many years, even if ultimately you think you’re going to get knocked out, as you say, “Canute against the waves.” I’m not sure. I think this is a classic problem that every company in every industry faces at some point, open or shut, and I don’t think it’s a given that everything’s going to be open. I really don’t.

Bill: So, it’s an interesting exercise of legacy thinking: what’s legacy thinking and what isn’t? And it also calls into question the enduring power of brands. Is there enduring power of brands, or will brands fade, in what Charles Fine would call “fast clock speed industries” where there’s a lot of turnover? Brands that have prospered in slow-change industries would they also prosper in fast? Can you make them do that? And if you can’t, then how fast you move to get out of that constraint? I think those are really interesting questions. So, the way I see platforms working is, if I’m doing a proprietary system that allows my products to be connected, whether they’re home appliances or not, do I encourage another internal microenterprise to try to do ones with a broader set of connectivity — maybe common standards, among others — and see how the market reacts?

[00:33:24.04] Ben: But I think what’s interesting about Haier, is they’ve built an organizational business model, let’s call it that, that allows for very fast innovation. So, arguably, that’s a business model where they can keep up with changing customer expectations. But most companies can’t; I guess they need to insource innovation from other people. And so, I don’t know if Haier can innovate fast enough, particularly as it expands into a larger arena. But, isn’t that the question: How your need for the work of others depends on how fast your own market moves? And, to talk about something else that you mentioned, you think this is sort of the New Age of Edison. Are there slow-moving industries anymore? I mean, you could argue that electricity was a slow-moving industry, but that’s undergoing massive change, right? So, what is a slow moving-industry and can anybody afford not to adopt an ecosystem model?

Bill: So, I think there are industries that wish they were slow. But my sense is, if you say there are no slow-moving industries anymore — which I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we’re in the not-too-distant future — and we’re moving into unknown areas of rivalry where we have broad arenas with many different types of approaches, I think that strategy no longer becomes reliable, dependable.

Ben: Not enough time!

Bill: And that strategy becomes the ex-post rationalization of successful or unsuccessful tactics.

Ian: As it sometimes already is.

Ben: Every successful entrepreneur post rationalizes the story of the firm and the fact that everything was pre-planned and not down to luck.

Ian: And every country writes its own history. You’d only have to compare the English, the British, and the Chinese histories of certain parts of Southeast Asia to see.

Bill: What if we managed as if tactics were more important than strategy? I think that, in a sense, we’re doing that.

Ian: I agree.

Bill: I think Haier certainly uses it. And I think that changes the way in which we approach things. To go back to teaming, if we take a look at the last hundred years of industrial history, most organizations, and most generations of managers have remained on the same S curve. And now, all of a sudden, we have this acceleration of change. For me, the most important piece of that is that the ruptures between S curves become a larger part of my managerial career — and in those ruptures, I have to act differently. So, if I move quickly from a world where strategy was worthwhile because I had a long expectation of harvesting that strategy, to a point where I have to continually move from one S curve to another, I think I need to act differently. And every one of those S curves is the unknown, it’s no longer the uncertain, right? Strategy is the province of the uncertain. We sort of know the way the game is played, we know who our customers are, we know who our rivals are, we know how to do this. But if I’m going into the unknown, if I’m going to brand new industries and brand new customer experiences, then all that decision-making becomes unreliable.

Ben: Yeah.

Ian: There’s not much point in having a three-year or five-year strategy plan if you have to adjust it every 18 or 12 months.

Bill: Right!

Ben: Or three months.

Bill: Yeah. I had dinner a couple of years ago with Tim Brown from IDEO, and he said one of the things that is changing in his business — which is the design business — is that they’re losing the middle of projects. So, they have beginnings and ends but there’s less and less time in the middle to do things because of customer pressure and time to market. That changes the way in which you do everything about a project.

[00:37:32.10] Ben: So, taking that same idea of losing the middle, is that now what’s happening to strategy, which is bifurcating between, on the one hand, setting the company vision and mission and trying to manage the company culture, to put in place the right business model — which is just stuff that doesn’t change very often — versus the polar opposite, which is, the rest of the strategy is introducing as few constraints as possible and allowing the company to be as innovative as possible?

Bill: Oh, yes! So, my view is that change is continuous and accelerating, but in corporate life, organizational life, is episodic and remains episodic — so they’re always going to be out of sync. The problem is, how do we speed up the nature of organizational life, so that it’s more in tune with the change in the outside world? And this is not unique. Another lesson from Haier is we have to resist linearity and sequentiality in the way in which we work.

Ian: This is a parenthesis, which takes us out to a different field, but I would argue the same is true for country governance as it is for corporate governance. I think a country like China, that still does five-year plans, struggles when things change very, very quickly in large ways.

[00:38:57.19] Ben: How repeatable a process can innovation be? I mean, you wrote a book called “Idea Hunter”.

Bill: It’s a great book!

Ben: It’s a great book and it cannot be simplified in a simple line, but this idea that there is a formula for continually coming up with good ideas, which by extension means that the same company or the same individual could continue to be innovative.

[00:39:46.25] Bill: Right! Design Thinking, Lean startup — things of this nature — are procedural, and I think what they are is procedural in a way that reduces the linearity in the innovation process. So, the old innovation funnel, right? The old innovation funnel was completely inside out — it was all about our numbers rather than the customer experience. It was completely inside out, was completely linear in the way in which the stage-gating processes worked. And, for me, the biggest cost was that learning took place at the end. And what I think we’re doing with Lean Startup and Design Thinking, and the variants thereof, is we’re trying to move to a slightly less linear process where we do more testing along the way, pretotyping, prototyping, and so, the learning is moved forward. We don’t have to wait until the end of the experiment. So, my sense is that, in the face of increased unknowns — which is the shorter S curves, more ruptures between — we are moving to a more experimental model of decision-making, and that experimental model involves much more testing, faster testing, and quicker learning — and then, the application of that, as we go along, but it’s still a process.

[00:41:08.00] Ben: Recently, we interviewed Marc Gruber, for the podcast, and his argument is that the toolset that you’re referring to — Design Thinking, Lean startup — is missing one tool, which is the where-to-play framework. Do you also agree that it’s really important, ex-ante, to decide where you’re going to play?

Bill: So I think prototyping is, can we do pretotyping? Does anyone care if we do it?

Ben: What’s that term?

Bill: Pretotype. It’s the minimal viable representation of the idea tested in a marketplace. So, it’s an attempt to try to see if anyone cares about this and, in a sense, that’s some insights into whether or not there’s a market for this, whether we should be playing in this space. And the beauty of pretotyping or prototyping is that it gives you better feedback because you’re talking about something tangible, rather than something abstract. So, my sense is that all of these things, moving from abstraction to tangibility — quick testing and all that — are attempts to reduce the impact of legacy, linearity, and sequentiality.

Ian: I have this worry sometimes, as we lose the middle, as we’re constantly working on customer value innovation, and we’re constantly trying to catch up with production to meet those new expectations of our customers, whether that lack of middle and lack of longevity of process reduces quality and reduces the longevity of the product and the service.

[00:42:55.20] Ben: There is a clear trend in place where customers don’t want mass-produced products; they want things that are more locally-sourced, higher quality. Almost like the end of the end-consumer brings with it the end of the mass-produced customers.

Bill: I don’t see any reason inherent in that process where quality should be reduced. It’s not as if we’re doing it in a half-baked fashion. We’re still trying to build the right quality but the interesting thing that comes out of this is that, what if the customer decides the quality is not an important issue in their purchase decision? What if, in fact, the quality that we’re producing is unnecessary?

Ian: The best example is in fashion. Fast-fashion over the last 15 years, people have been happy to have things that fall apart in three months because then they get something new because it costs them nothing.

Bill: Yes! Yes! Actually, I spoke with a firm that makes fast-fashion and whose largest market is in the city, in London, because they have wealthy, well-paid typically men who have no domestic skills, who buy a shirt once and throw it away, because it’s so affordable. So, I think that we have a definition of quality, a legacy definition of quality that needs to be re-examined. Listen, I’m not advocating bad quality.

Ben: Fast throwing away shirts after single-use.

Bill: What I am advocating is rethinking the nature of quality and what’s required. We see a movement away from long-term — particularly in North America — two-year MBA programs to shorter MBA programs. Is that a reduction in quality? We don’t think so. We think that we’re redefining the nature of this experience, in many ways. And you see a growing rise in certificate programs. I think that quality, like anything else, is constantly up for redefinition.

[00:45:17.15] Ben: I’m so pleased you brought up the topic of MBAs because, in a world where innovation matters more than strategy and where experimentation matters more than knowledge, is it worth people taking two years of their life to study in a classroom?

Bill: I don’t know what the right time period is, but I’m a great believer that knowing more is better than knowing less.

Ian: It makes sense to me.

Ben: Even if you continually write in your articles that the experimentation trumps knowledge?

Ian: Experimentation also leads to knowledge.

Ben: Touché!

Bill: Yes! So, last year, I took 95 MBAs to Shenzhen — a colleague and I did — and it was a great experience! We spent five days there. It was about learning, not knowing. So, I think more and more of education is about how do you engender the curiosity to seek things out? And then, how do you learn? What do you do to learn more? Because going back to the rapidity of change in the S curves, in the future, what you know will be less valuable than how you learn.

[00:46:35.22] Ben: And is that what you are increasingly teaching that — how to learn?

Bill: Yes, I think so. I think what we’re providing is frameworks and vocabularies that make it easier to learn and make it easier to share learning — scalable learning — but I think that more and more those frameworks have change at the center, rather than stability at the center.

[00:47:00.02] Ben: So, I’m looking around at your bookshelf here. We’re in Bill’s office, and as you can imagine, you would expect of a professor’s office to be full of books. I’m just trying to count how many of these books have the word “firm” in them. And my question to you is, is the firm still a relevant concept or is it obsolete? Because the firm was all about grouping people under one entity because transaction costs were high and because it was about systemizing production — so you needed to organize work into repeatable tasks, with formal hierarchies — and everything we’ve talked about so far suggests that every notion I just mentioned there, is obsolete. So, is the firm obsolete?

Bill: That’s a good question!

Ben: You’re going to have to throw many books if it is.

Bill: I think in the spirit of how we started this conversation, organizing is not obsolete. Teaming is not obsolete. The construct of a firm may, in fact, need to be re-examined. Earlier you talked about how we think about organizational size and how that’s changing, and I think that’s really true — and that’s probably true in the nature of the firm as well: the motivation for the firm, the corporate nature that tends to be associated instinctively with the firm. All of those things probably need to be rethought and redefined and re-examined, questioned, but I’m not sure that organizing itself is a bad idea.

[00:48:37.01] Ben: So, we’ve nearly got to the point where we delved into the Chinese question — we’ve constantly held ourselves back, but I think we’re ready now. But maybe let’s start through the prism of the idea of the nation state, which is, if the firm needs radical overhaul, does the nation state require the same?

Bill: Ian?

Ian: So, I guess, referring back to my earlier comment about the difficulty of having five-year plans in a world that changes every three to 12 months, I think the general answer is yes, to a degree. I think a lot of the things that still glue people together — culture, attitude, and history — remain and will remain important. I think what’s interesting, today, is that the nature of citizens’ relationship to their country is changing, and it depends on where they are. I’ve said in public before that I think that the relationship between capital cities of a lot of the world, certainly Western nations, but including places like Beijing and Tokyo, less so Jakarta, bear more resemblance to each other. These places bear more resemblance to each other often than they do to their own hinterlands, and I think, therefore, that the term nation state is interesting because I think there’s a difference between how large capital cities, large busy cities, whether they’re officially the capital or not, are very, very different to the countryside from whence they came. You only have to look at the Swiss referendums to see how different the voting is between cantons in the center of the country and the cantons that touch the outside world. But also, if you look at the voting for Brexit, if you look at the voting for many major cultural and/or country changes over the last 10 years — I think of the US, as well as the UK, but also Venezuela and Brazil, and elsewhere — we have a dichotomy taking place. We have a dichotomy appearing very strongly between big cities and the rest of the country. So, I think that’s one dynamics which requires change in governance with the countries concerned, but it’s also about the relations between countries across the board. I haven’t been for a long time a big fan of things like the United Nations, but the purpose of the original League of Nations made sense. I wonder now, within the context of the changes that are taking place inside countries, whether we need better relationships across countries.

[00:51:00.00] Ben: If Haier is the future of the firm — large autonomous independent units that are brought together through logistics and data — is that the future of countries? Because, in some ways, in Switzerland, the model for a modern country because that’s really what Switzerland seems to do quite well, which is this thin federal layer that kind of coordinates activities, and then a lot of power and responsibility and autonomy devolve down to communes — and if that’s the case, it would seem we’re moving in the opposite direction: states become more insular and I don’t know. That’s just as a thought. If the Haier corporate model is the model for nation states, how does that play out on a global scale?

Bill: You know, it’s hard for me to answer this question. When I was much younger, I thought that the nation state would fade and that multinational corporations would become — I mean that was 100 years ago — multinational corporations would become the real powers that move the world, but they failed. They failed because of inefficiency, they failed because of greed, they failed, because they did not take the interests of everyone into account.

Ian: I wonder if it’s changing with a move to stakeholder focus rather than shareholder but yes, I agree with you.

Bill: Great! And I certainly don’t see any change coming out of Silicon Valley with these new-age sorts of organizations. The biggest problem I think that we have, in so many countries, is the income disparity that exists and the inability for some people to have futures. So, what I do think is interesting in the example of Haier, is that, first of all, they trust the people — and I think Switzerland does that as well with the way in which the voting takes place on everything. So, there’s a great deal of trust in people to be effective participants in a political process, and there’s a very clear focus on what they want to achieve. And there’s been 35 years of consistent trust in the workforce and a belief in the talent of the people there. I think that over time, what that’s done is that has led to the ability of people to advance their own situations. People who normally would have been in a traditional organization, would have been on the margins of society because they lacked the educational credentials or because they lacked the connections. The ability to be autonomous and to start things on a small investment has allowed smart, hardworking people to succeed. So that’s a good outcome.

Ian: I’m generally a great believer in the notion that smaller is better for structures, not just in times of innovation, but also because of the nature of the way people treat each other in small structures versus big structures. I think smaller structures are healthier in interpersonal relationships, whether they’re in organizations or societies. I’m going to take a twist on your question, Ben. I am not sure that there is an optimum model visible yet for country governance because I think it’s context-related. In the same way, I think that the optimal model for company governance is also context-related partly speed, partly size, partly environment. I think I’m going to twist it and say that my faith, both looking at history and looking around me — but I’m slightly biased in this because as someone who starts companies, I believe in the power of the individual — I’m going to say that I think it depends a great deal on leadership. Just because one country has a leader that people are unhappy with, it doesn’t mean the structure of the country or the systems within it are wrong.

Ian: Similarly, I think because a country is successful, I think one has to look terribly closely at who’s driving the success currently, to understand whether it’s the individuals that are within that structure that are making something unwieldy work, or is it the structure itself, which is predisposed towards producing good leadership and therefore good results. I’m more a believer in good leadership, whether it’s corporate environments or in-country governance, than I am in the structures because I’ve seen bad structures work and I’ve seen good structures fail, both in corporates and in countries. So, I care a great deal about leadership. One of the reasons I spend so much time at the school, one of the reasons that I like coming back here and something I very much enjoyed about my time when I was here was, it’s about leadership, it’s about creating good, global, citizen leaders. I think that’s crucial. I think I wouldn’t put my faith in structures; I would put my faith in individuals.

Bill: I agree with that. I think that we need to look at the role of people to be able to play a leadership role, not only at the top of the organization but throughout the organization. And my sense is that when we work with organizations who aspire to be like Haier, one of the problems we run into almost always is that they’re unprepared to give autonomy to their people, and the people are unprepared to accept the autonomy if it’s given to them — and that’s largely because the perception is that leadership doesn’t take place throughout the organization. And I think what I’ve learned from Zhang Ruimin is he says, “We’re an organization of leaders.” These people are all running small businesses, some of which are not so small, many of which are quite successful, and that needs to be reinforced. And then, I go back to the IDEO example, and one of the things Dave Kelly used to say was his job as CEO, as the leader, was to reinforce the confidence of the people in the organization to make the right decisions.

Ian: But I think you’re also reinforcing my point about the fact that if you don’t have a leader like that, it’s not going to happen in the organization.

Bill: That’s right!

Ian: It is important for the leader to be aware that they need leadership at all levels of the organization.

Bill: So, if we go back to the broader innovation question, for me, I’m a big believer in top-down leadership. Not dictatorial, not oppressive, but if you don’t have strong top-down leaders, then you cannot allow bottom-up to occur because the leaders become intimidated or threatened by the suggestions. So, you need people at the top who are secure in their own confidence and who are enthusiasts for autonomy. And so, that’s going to determine how organization boundaries get set and how they operate.

[00:58:24.28] Ben: Is that how you would define the leadership in China?

Bill: Well, that’s a very different level of complexity. It’s a political leadership. I don’t think that’s the role of political leadership in any country that I know of.

Ben: But leadership at a country level is just as important, isn’t it?

Bill: Oh, yeah, I think so, too.

Ian: I think Bill’s referring to the systems underneath. The complexity of politics in any country is such that you can’t necessarily assume that everybody is united on a particular goal or vision because there are many visions and many goals — you have competing parties, you have competing people within parties, you have systems within the systems, you have autonomous bits that fight with each other. It’s not so easy.

Ben: This is what business people that become politicians always underestimate, isn’t it?

Bill: Yeah, right.

Ian: Absolutely! I think there are certain types of people who run businesses, who have the capacity for this openness and this ability to deal with complexity underneath them that might survive in that environment. But it was the reason why not to have generals running countries, too. If you’re used to a certain type of hierarchy and an assumption about how the orders would flow down and follow what was required by the top, then that doesn’t work in almost any political system that I’m aware of.

[00:59:47.15] Ben: Other than the fact that you both work at IMD, another thing that unites you both is that you lived for a long period in China and you witnessed the economic miracle that has taken place over the last 30–40 years. Is the economic miracle stalling? And if so, why?

Bill: So, I think there are some structural issues that everybody has known about for a long time — it starts with the demographics of the country. You have an aging population. I think that that’s not going to go away in the short run. I also think that you have an economy that was built originally — the modern economy — starting in 1979–1980, built with an export orientation. It’s harder to build a domestic market. It takes more time and the like, than anyone thought. It’s happening now, but it’s been a while. And the other thing is, if you build an export-oriented economy, you sort of hope that your customers are going to grow — and the rest of the world is not growing either. So, I think that there are important what I would call, structural and demographic reasons for the present slump.

Ian: To add to that, there’s also a natural cycle. They’ve gone through an extraordinary expansion with all the funding coming in from overseas and the growth in population and the extraordinary improvements internally to allow both. I’m not going to say the defeat of poverty, but there was a huge reduction in the number of people surviving on very little. So, I think the governance of the country is in a place that’s so large and so complex — it has been really quite extraordinary over many years — but we’re now at a cycle stage in their own cycle, where there are other things to be sorted out — a slightly less capital available, there are concerns overseas in terms of how the country is perceived. Internally, there are questions about the way the country is governed, the way that certain decisions are made, which partly happens when things slow down and there isn’t this sense that everybody can do fine and it doesn’t matter what the government’s doing, because we’re all going to be better off than we were before. I think all of these things lead to a natural slowdown. I don’t think it’s something I would worry about from a global perspective. There is the issue of the internal debt problem and the possibility that the non-performing loans in some of the larger regional banks are never actually going to be paid back because the developments have been made. But I think those are structural issues, which again, people are aware of, both in China and abroad.

Bill: And it is not the first time.

Ian: And it’s not the first time. And actually, if you look at history, their history is a lot better than, say, Argentina, so I’m not worried yet about China.

Bill: I first moved to China in 1980, I’ve been there every year since. If you look at China through that period of time, what has happened today would have been unimaginable in 1980. Absolutely unimaginable!

Ben: Quite extraordinary!

Bill: Right! And so, I think one of the great headlines of the late 20th century, early 21st century, but certainly late 20th century was the movement of China, the development of China into a modern nation state. And modern nation state, I don’t think it could have happened if it was just individual provinces working in an autonomous fashion. So, I think they needed that galvanizing force. Since the onset of the One-Child Family Policy in 1980, you could forecast that there was going to be a plateauing of growth in the economy, due to the reduction of people consuming and producing age. We’re there now. I have also learned never to underestimate what the Chinese people can do, and my sense is that China will come out of this fine, I think. I would not short China in any point.

[01:03:45.24] Ben: Do you think China is ready to overtake the US?

Bill: I don’t think that’s important. First of all, what numbers are we going to use? We could argue it forever. I think the fact is that China has modernized to a point where it’s a global, geopolitical, economic, technological power. And I think that’s the accomplishment.

[01:04:04.27] Ben: But in a way, the US — and you could argue whether this is a trend that will be sustained — right now is becoming more insular. It’s not rejected globalization, but is retreating from international organizations, they’re retreating from globalization. Does that mean that China steps in and becomes a global superpower? Because you said, it doesn’t matter. But if that mattered.

Bill: I think China is a global superpower.

Ben: Preeminent. Voilà!

Ian: Again, it depends on what preeminent means.

Bill: Yeah.

Ian: Hearts and minds versus economy and dollars, I think are very different things.

Ben: Yeah. China is much more interested in the latter, right? The Belt and Road Initiative is about creating markets for exports.

Ian: There’s also a sense of history in the Belt and Road Initiative. There are different things going on there. And again, I don’t think either of us is here, ready to speak for China, but what we can see is a concern at different levels of government for how the company is viewed — even though they pretend it’s not so important — how it builds its own systems internally, how it helps its own people, and logically, so given how recent and massive the changes have been, it’s obviously more concern with ensuring that things are fine within China than without. And so, I haven’t seen any politician attempting to create a global leader role, either as a politician or for the country, because there’s always been this sense that we worry about our problems, we don’t interfere with other people’s problems, we don’t want other people to interfere with our problems. I don’t think there is this wish to have this role of leading global adjudicator over other people’s issues. Yes, perhaps the US did play that role for a while, and yes, elements of US society wish to be less involved in other people’s issues for a while, but I think Bill’s right, I think it’s the wrong question. I think what’s interesting now is to try and work out what the new world looks like with a few large stakeholders, a few smaller stakeholders, and very different ways of measuring impact and influence in the world today, partly because of the difference between network effect and military effect and partly because it is about ideas and concepts as much as it is about the ability to control a seaway.

Bill: I think we’d all be better off if the US and China were in an amicable relationship. Everyone would benefit as a result of that. At the present time, fear is an insidious, corrosive power.

Ian: Often used by politicians.

Bill: Yeah. Often used by politicians and at the moment, at least, in North America, in the US, it’s on the rise. Actually, if you look at the US, the US has never really been a whole-hearted embracer of a global community except for the period between the First World War and recently, so it’s a return, I think, to some of the inherent conservatism of people in the center of the country who are not as cosmopolitan as they probably should be.

[01:07:32.08] Ben: And where does that leave Europe? So, if the Belt and Road Initiative is about creating a stronger economic alliance in Asia, in Africa, United States is a large domestic market and they’re happy to subsist with being themselves and they don’t have somebody difficult neighboring countries to deal with and they’ve got a large domestic market, where does that leave Europe? Where is Europe set in this two-polar world?

Bill: So, I’ve always been enthusiastic about Europe playing a larger role in the world than it is at present. I would like it to be more relevant. I think that it has historically been a source of values and reflection that the other two great powers have not been interested in. But I worry about Europe playing that role because I don’t know where Europe is any longer and I don’t know where it stands. It seems to be perpetually stuck between aspiring to be a great power and not being able to execute.

Ian: One of the strengths of Europe is exactly what causes that issue. It’s not one country, it’s not a superpower, it’s not a nation state, per se. I think it’s one of the charms and values of Europe. I think one of the things that’s great about this part of the world is the multitude of languages, approaches, cultures, and ways of thinking and doing things. I think that’s what creates the richness of Europe, and the richness of the experience of being here. Now, it does make it difficult to make a decision in one place, and it does make it difficult to have a European viewpoint. I’m not 100% sure the world needs it. I like the fact that every now and then you do get a European point of view because there are certain things that many of certainly the Western European states, sometimes less so the Central European states agree on. I think I quite like the variety of discussions that take place about any points that are in Europe. I like that diversity of opinion — I think it’s what is the charm of Europe. I also think that being smaller makes it easy to manage, if you think of the Haier model, this multitude of different approaches to problem-solving and different products that occur.

[01:09:58.16] Ben: Doesn’t that require a thin federal layer? Which is kind of developing as we speak.

Ian: We kind of have a thin federal layer. The question is how thin it gets? I think there are structural issues. There’s the obvious structural issue of having a united currency and a disunited fiscal system. So, I think there are lots of things about Europe that don’t make sense, in the way it’s structured. And also, there are different goals from different European leaders, and it changes when the leaders change, about what Europe should be. The vision from the 1950s was relatively loose. The vision from some, now, macro-leaders amongst them is the United States of Europe, and not everybody shares that view — some of the newer members, even less than some of the older members. So, I think there are structural issues that make it very unlikely that Europe becomes this single voice, single cultural place that some people would like, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I quite like the diversity.

[01:10:51.05 Ben: But the problem with Europe, I guess, is, in the absence of having these new Digital Age giant businesses, it’s a risk of becoming a tourist destination for Chinese people over time?

Ian: It is a tourist destination for Chinese people.

Ben: But that is being the only engine of growth.

Bill: Incidentally, I think that’s not a bad thing because I think that we all…

Ben: It’s not that is a bad thing, but it’s difficult to find nations that rely solely on tourism that are really prosperous.

Bill: I think one of the things we talked about needing to expose people in the center of America with what’s going on in the world around them. We also need to expose people in every country to what’s going on around them.

Ian: Yeah. Everybody should travel!

Bill: And I think that the fact that we have a lot of tourists coming from China today is a victory. It’s a huge achievement! You would never have thought of that when the reforms began, so it’s a sign of success. I think that Europe plays or could play an important role in moderating the excesses of the other superpowers, and I think that that would be a healthy outcome, in particular at the moment with what’s going on in the US. I think that there needs to be a broader view of how we work together.

[01:12:20.10] Ben: So, I’m going to attempt badly to summarize some of the things we’ve talked about. So, team size matters — smaller teams, in general, perform better than larger teams for many reasons under certain contexts. Definitely, the nature of competition is changing much more to arenas than industries; innovation is rising in importance vis-a-vis strategy, and innovation can be a repeatable process. Business models matter so much more than they did in the past. China is at a point where it’s slowing down, but, as you said, you can never underestimate it and it will necessarily start to exercise greater geopolitical influence. My last question to you, both, is that I think you could argue that we’re at a point in history, which is almost like pre-reformation. I mean, China is almost the equivalent of the discovery of the New World; as a symptom, you’ve got massive change in information flow with the internet and so on. I want you to be bullish for a second and say, what’s positive with the world change from this point on? Starting with you, Ian.

Ian: I’m generally very optimistic. I’m generally very positive. I said, on the previous podcast, that it’s not technologies that create problems; it’s the people who use them and the way they use them. I refuse to be a new Luddite and say that we live in a world where all of these things are scary. I wish Elon Musk wouldn’t keep saying that AI is going to harm us all. I think because of our ability to see more, know more, understand more, I’m totally in agreement with Bill that knowledge is helpful and that experimentation leads to more knowledge. We simply are better able and better equipped than we ever have been to understand complexity and come up with solutions for it. And so, even if individual leadership or geopolitical regional issues or changes in demographics create challenges for both countries and the world as a whole for the next 20 to 50 years, I am totally a believer that we now are better equipped than ever before to face those challenges and come up with solutions. I’m very excited to see what happens. My daughters are now at an age where they’re entering the sphere at 26 and 28 — one is in private equity and one is running her own company — and I love the way they talk and think about the world, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what that generation comes up with. So I am absolutely an optimist.

Bill: I think we’re on the eve of an age where there’s technological revolution, a series of technological revolutions that will change everything — change the way we live, change the way we interact. The level of change will be unprecedented, both because of connectivity and hypermobility and also the genomics revolution. All these things taking place at the same time, I think will provide the potential for huge landscape change. But, what I would hope is that our organizations are up to the challenge and that leadership is able to recognize the opportunities and move fast enough — and this is why the teaming issues that we talked about are so important. And I think that we have to provide opportunities for our entire population, not just the winners of the past economic era. And if we can do that, I think we’ll have unprecedented success. So, I’m bullish.

Ben: Ian, Bill — thank you very much for coming on the podcast!

Bill: Our pleasure! Thank you!

Ian: Thank you for having us!

Smart Focus or Pivot Later?, with Marc GRUBER (#15)

Smart Focus of Pivot Later?,
w/ Marc GRUBER

According to our guest, Dr. Marc Gruber, Vice President for Innovation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology — EPFL — you can’t win if you don’t know where to play. Instead of a just-do-it mentality and pivot later if it doesn’t work, Marc speaks with our host, Ben Robinson, about how true entrepreneurs and innovators are reflective and flexible and how they think about what they’re doing and in what market to play in. By the end of this episode, you are also going to understand what’s a good market to be in and you will learn about the Attractiveness Matrix and the Social Identity Theory of three kinds of entrepreneurs.

Marc holds the Chair of Entrepreneurship and Technology Commercialization at EPFL, and he is a world-leading researcher in this area. He is also a Deputy Editor for the number one empirical research journal in management, the Academy of Management Journal — so a very talented fellow. We are very happy to have him on this podcast. Now, onto our conversation with Ben and Marc!

Full podcast transcript:

 

Ben: We are at EPFL and we are with Marc Gruber. I think where we wanted to start with you, Marc, was to talk a bit about Switzerland. So, anybody who listens to this podcast probably knows that Switzerland tops lots and lots of innovation league tables. And so, as a nation, it’s really good at coming up with innovation, but it doesn’t really have any sort of leading top-of-the-food-chain tech companies. Do you think that Switzerland is good enough at commercializing its tech?

Marc: First, let me say I’m very pleased to be here. Thank you for inviting me to the show! It’s a true pleasure to discuss with you all the topics around innovation and entrepreneurship. There’s some exciting stuff, I think, we can get to discuss and it starts with your first question. I think it’s a very pertinent question. If you look at the tables, we are extremely good at generating invention, and we see this in all the patent tables per capita. We’re extremely good on these fronts. Where we still have a lot of room for improvement is the commercialization side.

So, if you look at the definitions, innovation is invention plus commercialization. Moving them from the invention phase to the innovation phase where you have a commercialized product or service, this requires very different skills. This requires skills about understanding customers, understanding markets, figuring out good markets, about testing your products, about understanding whether the customer likes the features of the product. This is very different in terms of the activities — it’s the inventive phase. You might be inspired, as an inventor, by some real-world problem, and that’s often the case, but it’s still something different to test it with human beings, to understand what the response of a human being means — and not only one, but multiple or hundreds or thousands, if you want to do serious market testing.

So, everything that has to do with invention, and then everything that has to do with the innovation step, the commercialization step requires distinct capabilities, activities that engage with this, and from that perspective it’s quite normal to expect that in the league tables we can be good in one dimension — like in the inventive dimension, with patents — and we might not be so good at the other ones.

Ben: So you are saying that Switzerland should be top of the league table for invention, but somewhere way lower down the list for commercialization, then?

Marc: Ideally, we should be high on both. The invention is fantastic! That’s a great outcome, that’s intellectual effort, but the financial returns, the ecological returns, the sustainability returns — if we talk maybe later on in the show, about the broadening of our concept of returns — if we look at all these returns in society, those come up only in the next step, the commercialization step, where you create the impact, where you scale it up. If we are not good at the second step, the impact remains more limited.

Ben: And why is there that discrepancy between invention and commercialization? Is it because of the size of the domestic market or is it more about the skill sets?

Marc: It starts with the skill sets. It starts with the skill sets and then, it’s something that I see in my practical life, when I work with the startups, when I work with large companies, but that’s also part of the research I do. It clearly shows the skills and the inclinations to do these things also differ between people. You have some people who like to do technology, others like to do commercialization, and few people actually like to do both or are able to do both. If you look out there, there are few great leaders of companies that can do both. Think about Steve Jobs — he was good on the tech front, and he was a fantastic marketing person; maybe even a more marketing person than a tech person. I think it’s the skills, it’s the attitude and we are extremely good on the mental front, and I think we can be better on the commercialization front.

Ben: Do you think that those skills will appear just by themselves as companies have more success?

Marc: These initial skills to invent, I think we are solid with this, with the technical universities in Switzerland, and I think the amount of money we’ve spent in educating our population over the last 30–40 years, was extremely smart because we have really, really, really good technologists. What we have been starting about 20 years ago is to get into programs that support entrepreneurship, innovations, the second step, and educate people on this front. And we see it here, at EPFL, very concretely, where we have now a multitude of programs where students don’t only learn about the concepts, but apply the concepts so that they understand what it means to bring technology to market.

I think that’s where we are investing now. What we try to teach them, which is not the easy part, is this mentality issue of going out there, being more extrovert, talking to people, being able to convince other people to buy a product. These are very interesting skills and an important skill set, but it’s something that might not be so close to the culture that we see here, in Germany, in Austria, and in neighboring countries. In the United States, Americans are much better on these fronts.

Ben: So, you could argue that they’re better just because innately they’re better, but clearly one of the differences is that there have been so many successful companies, and success begets success. If you’ve commercialized one product and you know how to do it, then the likelihood is you stand a much better chance of doing it again versus somebody who’s coming at it fresh. So, isn’t that the bit that’s missing in the Swiss ecosystem?

Marc: Yeah, we have these reference models that are now popping up — we have quite some successful unicorns now in Switzerland, we have a few very good successes, but this is why we bring the students also into other ecosystems where they see the more advanced companies. What they realize is, I think, two things: First, they are inspired, but second, they see that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. They come back and say if these guys over there can do it — and over the means students in Silicon Valley, and we send students over there for trips, for stays, for four to eight weeks, we have a desk at the Swissnex where they could go. Once they come back, they say, “Actually, we have all the ingredients here in Switzerland as well, to be successful.” Let’s take the smallest of our market, even, as an advantage because we are born in a small country that makes us much more open, if we want to conquer markets, towards other European markets by birth.” Either we are open-minded and start internationalizing early or we are staying small in the canton of Zurich. Let’s put it this way, that’s not a really strong impact you could have.

Ben: It’s almost like that maxim, which is you should be global from day one. It’s almost like, “Hey, you have no choice.”

Marc: You don’t have any choice. And what we also see, from the research side is quite interesting that there’s always this imprinting of the nationalities that you have on the management team, that foreshadows the internationalization strategy. So, if you have three nationalities on the team, the likelihood that this team will internationalize earlier is much greater than if you have only one country nationality represented on the founder team. That’s quite promising, as well, because we are a country that is quite diverse, the startups that are created here at EPFL are quite diverse in terms of the background of its founders, and that makes it more likely that they internationalize and I think that’s not only good for the country, that’s extremely important for the company.

Ben: Perfect! So, I want to talk a bit about your book, “Where to Play.” So, it’s a book and it’s a website, so you don’t have to buy the book necessarily to get access to some of the methodology.

Marc: Absolutely, no! Actually, all the tools are available for free and if you want to learn more, you can even get a free online course. If you want to buy the book, of course, buy the book! It’s a lovely book, we spent a lot of time working on it, and I think it gives you additional value, but the core of the method is out there for free.

Ben: It is a lovely book! It’s a book that I first came across thanks to Steve Blank, who wrote a very nice review, and the way he positions it — and I guess this is the way you position it as well — it’s like a very nice complement to some of the other tools, the business model canvas and so on. But the key difference being that it comes before, it’s like a precursor to doing the latest stuff, because until you’ve figured out which are your most attractive markets to operate in, then it’s premature to think about product-market fit. So, can you just explain to us a bit the concept, the importance of “Where to Play” and how people have maybe underestimated that until now?

Marc: Yeah. So it’s very correct what you say. Steve Blank wrote an extremely nice blog post about the book and the method that is behind it.

Ben: We’ll share the link to that, for the listeners.

Marc: Excellent! And what you said is, basically, the tools that were in the Lean startup up to that point were mostly focused on being successful once you know your domain — figuring product-market fit and developing a business model within that market. But these tools didn’t really help you to figure out where to start. What is a good market to be in, in the first place? And then he said that’s why he’s adopting the tool actually, for his Lean toolset, which is a wonderful badge of honor for us because it’s one of the most important, if not the most important innovation tool that was developed in the last 20 years, two decades — and to be adopted by the person at the origin of this is just a fantastic recognition.

So, me and Sharon — my co-author of the book and co-creator of the method — of course, we had big smiles when we got that badge of honor from Steve. But generally, the book is about trying the method that is underlying this, it’s trying to figure out what are good markets to be in because you could be in a very lousy domain and do all the stuff — you can develop a business model, you can do market testing — but then realize only after a while that actually, “Hey, that domain was not so great and I need to pivot to another one.” I still have to find the first venture team or corporate innovation group that likes to pivot. So, if you can somehow be a bit more foresightful — and I don’t want to say that you can predict the future, that’s not at all my thesis — but if you can be somehow a bit more foresightful and say, “Hey, there’s a better market here than there. Let’s first go into this turf before we try the other one.” I think then, you’re actually significantly more successful.

the question, “Where to play?” is always a sibling of the “How to Win?” question. If you are lousy in the “Where to play?” question, you will be inferior in the “How to win?” question because if you’re winning a super small battle in a small market, great! You have won! But you have missed out the big other alternatives, and that’s where I think they nearly need to go hand in hand.

Ben: So, I was going to ask you that. It’s almost like we’re given to believe that the pivoting is almost a natural part of the course, but what you’re saying is that actually, it doesn’t necessarily need to be because if you spend a bit more time understanding your market opportunities, then the likelihood of pivoting is decreasing. Do you have evidence to prove that those really unpleasant 180-degree pivots happen less frequently if you use that method?

Marc: I have done 15 years of research before I wrote the book. As a researcher, I said I’m going to write something where I know that all the empirical results point to some method that makes me more successful. And what it does is, I think, twofold, and let me describe this with an example. Flyability is a company that is here at EPFL, they are producing drones, and they have drones in a cage. And with this type of company, the question, really, is where do we apply this? They had the idea to say, “Okay, we go to nuclear disaster sites, atomic reactors, and the drone can go in there and get a good idea of the debris and of the casualties that might be there, as bad as it is.” But there are many other domains where they could inspect: electric landlines, pipelines, indoors, outdoors. So, it’s really about figuring out a good starting position. And if you think about it, yes, this company, once it sees more opportunities, there are some that are better, markets that are growing quicker with less competition, where the customer demand is stronger, where the development costs are smaller than other domains.

We’re living in an age where the industry boundaries are imagined boundaries

The first element that they learn is, “Well, we can actually start with a better, more fertile ground.” The second element — and that’s equally important — is that yes, but we still don’t 100% know if this works out. Once you have this wider lens, you become more sensitive to many decisions in your company and don’t dig yourself into a ditch so quickly by saying, “Hey, I’ll call my company now dronesfornucleardisastersiteinspection.com

Ben: Yeah.

Marc: They called themselves Flyability, and that gives you a lot of flexibility in case you have to pivot. Also, you have a double benefit out of applying the method. Number one, figuring out where a better market is, and number two, actually figuring out that you can be a bit more agile because you make decisions that put agility into the DNA of your business. So, even if you have to pivot, it’s much less painful than if you are just moving into one direction and see that as your one and only goal, and then realize after half a year, that this doesn’t work out. By the way, the statistics say that 73% of all companies need to pivot before they actually apply the method.

Ben: And do you know what it is now, post hoc?

Marc: No, we haven’t done that yet. But we see that the companies are created very differently. People have an opportunity set — that’s a portfolio of growth options. They go out there, pitch this portfolio of growth options to the venture capitalists and business angels, by saying, “That’s our first market. If this one works out, that’s our future growth market. If this first one doesn’t work out, this is our plan B.” And this is a super interesting storyline for any VC because a venture capitalist knows that they know the market and number two, they are de-risking the project by saying there’s a plan B, in case the first one doesn’t work out, and they have a future growth option in-store, which means more value creation; or they might even have two-three more growth options in-store. So, in that sense, all the feedback we’re getting from the financial community is they are super excited, they would wish that every company would apply that when it actually comes to their turf and seeks for funding.

Ben: So, I just want to test, slightly, the premise on which the book is built and the methodology is built. So, the premise is that every product doesn’t have just a single potential application. There are many potential customer groups and markets for any given product. And I was just reading this thing from Bain, and they basically take the same premise that you do, and they say what becomes important is not just to identify exactly where to play, but instead to focus on how to win because we’ve seen that the commercial world isn’t tightly grouped into industries anymore, but arenas — which I think this the terminology that you use as well — then what’s most important is having a sort of a competitive edge and having an execution edge to be able to win across large arenas now. How do you see that sitting alongside?

Marc: I think that this perfectly matches. I think the question is how to win, but you want to win in a good market.

Ben: Yeah, that’s right!

Marc: That’s why the question, “Where to play?” is always a sibling of the “How to Win?” question. If you are lousy in the “Where to play?” question, you will be inferior in the “How to win?” question because if you’re winning a super small battle in a small market, great! You have won! But you have missed out the big other alternatives, and that’s where I think they nearly need to go hand in hand. And what you’re saying is quite important, let me emphasize this. This question that we just started to discuss for the startups is of equal importance for the large companies.

We’re living in an age where the industry boundaries are imagined boundaries; we have the most successful companies actually moving to across industry boundaries — Rita McGrath calls this competing in arenas — and this is super important for large companies, too. Think about Daimler. Daimler is not worried about BMW’s competition. They are worried about the computer manufacturers, the Apple’s, the Google’s coming into the world of car manufacturing. If you look at Uber, Uber was born as a taxi service, but Uber moved into food delivery, Uber moved from food delivery now into tourism by offering tourism to vineyards, which is a smart idea if you’re trying to taste wine, that you actually have someone driving you. But they don’t care about the industry, they go wherever they can grow.

And look at Google, what they are doing, look at all their different businesses — they go wherever they can grow with their competencies. So what you said earlier with products, you need to look one step below and say, “We have competencies that generate these products” and if you maybe add from a large company’s perspective, AI or drones to the mix of competence, maybe you can do even something else, maybe you can offer new service.

Think about maybe one of the most traditional businesses — construction businesses. If they add drones to their mix of competences, they can offer everything from construction site inspection toward inspection of the fully-furnished site later on because they have all the knowledge about the construction process. In the second step, they will have the advantage to say, “We are actually better able than other companies to monitor the sites and to monitor the degradation of the site over time.”

And also, the logic that is out there is one where you very much now look for growth turf based on your competencies, and the initial question is actually where to play, and once you’ve figured it out, it’s how to win — and then it’s about figuring out a good business model, it’s about figuring out a good customer fit, etc.

Ben: Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm”, talks about leaving the relative safety of your first market to then get into the mainstream and how that’s almost like a trial and error type person. So, are you saying that if you employ the “Where to play?” from the very beginning, crossing the chasm is that much easier because you’ve sort of already identified the stepping stones? I think you actually used the term of building blocks. So, you’re saying that you’d almost build the tower that gets you to cross the chasm.

Marc: Exactly! And if you look at a Geoffrey Moore, he has this analogy with the pins that are falling — you focus on one and then it’s the other. But, in a way, it’s the same logic or a similar logic, where you say, okay, we need to figure out the first one to hit, and which is the most fertile ground that we can foresee, somehow. Then, when we enter there and are successful and go through the diffusion curve — we start, of course, with the people who are highly engaged in this market, there might be opinion leaders who talk about our product, so that we get into this most fertile ground, grow our tree there, to use another analogy, become strong there and then we can say, okay, now we branch out into the other domains that are related.

But what Geoffrey Moore has not explained so well in his book, but what’s basically then, in “Where to Play”, is the logic where you say, what could be this first pin? What are the other domains that we could get in? How can we structure a company or a project so that we actually have the capabilities that are more flexible, so that you can more quickly and more efficiently enter these other domains? This is in a time where everything goes much quicker. These are very important considerations. So, in that sense, I am a big fan of Geoffrey Moore’s book and I think we are perfectly complementary with the thought world.

Ben: Yeah, exactly, it’s complementary because you know that diagram where you sort of jump off one side and hope to get to the other side. You build the stepping stones.

Marc: Exactly!

Ben: Yeah. I think probably it’s natural now to talk about the attractiveness matrix that’s central to the book. So, there are two axes: one is challenges and one is potential, right? So, the first question is, could you talk us through that matrix? And then, maybe, I suppose, as a follow-on, how do you arrive at some sort of objective score for those two matrices?

Many entrepreneurs say, “Okay, yes, we have an idea about the market attractiveness and the challenges” but they typically only take one or two dimensions. They say, “Oh, it’s a big market! This must be good!” Or “Oh, we can make a quick entry. That must be good.” And they don’t see the full picture of what shapes a good market.

Marc: Absolutely! Let me briefly give you an overview, for the listeners. So, the method has three parts. The first part is about understanding the opportunity set, being creative, understanding — like in the Flyability case — where we can apply our drone to everything from inspection of bridges, up to the inspection of avalanche sites — so we have an opportunity portfolio.

When you look just at the description of a few of these examples that I’ve given with Flyability, somehow is almost obvious that not all markets are equally good entry points. Also, you need to have, in a second step, an evaluation, and that’s exactly where you can come in with the matrix. This matrix has two dimensions: it’s a challenge dimension and it’s a potential dimension. And we, Sharon and myself, we screened about 40 to 50 years of venture capital research to understand what type of features are of high importance to make sure that you are able to evaluate early-stage opportunities. And just look at a couple of these features: it’s, for instance, market size, it’s the strength of the customer needs, the ability to pay, it’s about the time that you need to develop the product, the time you need to make the sale, it’s about external risks that you cannot control, etc.

There are a couple of factors that are the main factors that you can get out of looking at these 40 to 50 years of venture capital research, and that’s, of course, not practical for the entrepreneur to go through thousands and thousands of pages. So, what we did is, within that matrix, we have two dimensions: the potential and the challenge — and behind it is a worksheet that helps you to score each opportunity. Sometimes you don’t know how to score it maybe on the market size front, so you would have to do some backup research to understand, is this a small market? How many bridges are there in Switzerland, in France, and in Germany, to understand what is the potential market size.

So, based on the worksheet that has a potential dimension, as well, and a challenge dimension to score, you come up with a summary score that you put, then, in the matrix. This matrix has four quadrants, and also, if you add the potential and challenge, we have the Moon Shot quadrant. This is high potential — high challenge. As a joke, this is the Elon Musk quadrant; everything he likes to do is in the Moon Shot quadrant.

You have low potential — low challenge: these are the Quick Wins; basically, it’s the lower-left corner. You can say, “Hey, I can go in there, I can make an easy living, I can make a first hit.” This might be the first hit that then gives you a stepping stone option towards something else.

You have the Questionable with a high challenge — low potential, where you might wonder if this is a good idea to do. If you feel suicidal, maybe you should do this, but we don’t recommend it.

And then, you have another quadrant, which is high potential — low challenge, which is the Gold Mine; those actually exist. It’s just that it’s low competitiveness, high market growth, strong customer demand, quick sales cycles, etc. And those actually exist, you have to look at them and try to rate them.

What we see with many entrepreneurs before they apply this method is that they say, “Okay, yes, we have an idea about the market attractiveness and the challenges” but they typically only take one or two dimensions. They say, “Oh, it’s a big market! This must be good!” Or “Oh, we can make a quick entry. That must be good.” And they don’t see the full picture of what shapes a good market.

Ben: Yeah. And I think, also, doing it this way removes the subjectivity because we tend to see things from our own prism. That’s a challenge I’ve seen personally.

Marc: Absolutely! You’re completely right! It’s like, either you rely completely on a gut feeling or you are subjective in scoring. But we designed the tool so that it’s a wonderful tool to work in teams with. So, you can say, “Okay, there’s Ben, there’s Marc, there’s Roger, there’s Henry and Fabiola, and we sit together and we are scoring together, and let’s see where we end up.” And at the end of the day, it brings the team together, and they say, “Hey, we did this together. We figured out this is the best point to enter” and I think, in that sense, we didn’t put this to the forefront, but when we observe the teams that apply it — it bonds the team because they discuss and decide the strategic questions together.

Ben: I think is implicit in what you said earlier on, but what you’re recommending is a portfolio approach, right? Which is to say, if there’s a Moon Shot, maybe pick a Quick Win to ally with the Moon Shot.

Marc: I think what you’re describing is very important because if you think about having a portfolio, it gives you additional abilities as a founder or innovator in a large company. Why? Because you actually can say, “Hey, I start here, here or here, and if I want to do the Moon Shot, I’m now more sensitive to the fact that I have to have much more resources, and it takes probably much more time than I expected.” So, you’re a bit more careful. That’s what we typically get as feedback from the people who say, “Okay, we have a Moon Shot, we want to do this. We thought we only needed to raise 200,000 from the VC, but we actually need 5 million.”

But we are not prescriptive at all by saying, “Hey, you need to do this or that.” We leave that up to the entrepreneur or the innovator. Sure, if you want to do a Questionable, go ahead and do a Questionable. If you want to do a Quick Win that is small, and that’s your domain, just do this. But be aware that these are the growth possibilities — and they differ — and be aware that maybe if the Moon Shot or the Quick Win or the Gold Mine should not work out, that there’s a plan B so that you don’t waste all your resources. If you’re more successful, yes, you can start in the first one, and then you’ll move to another one. An entrepreneur is a bit more of a reflective person, which is countering this can-do attitude, the just-do-it attitude — which bothers by now many people. Within the business domain, there’s this mantra of, “Oh, just do it, and then you pivot.” I think that in no part of life, we have this mantra. We tend, as human beings, to reflect a bit before we actually do it. I think, ultimately, what the book is about, is getting a bit more reflection on the whole process.

Ben: Yeah, and having worked with a lot of startups, I think that’s one of the friction points — the founding team suddenly needs to raise money, and then, the venture capitalists or whoever the external investor is, starts to ask all these kinds of questions, and it’s obvious that these were not thought about in ex-ante, right? And instead, they’re retrospectively trying to add this lens of, “This is where we’ll go next.” And so, I think is extremely helpful to have been through this process when you’re trying to raise money, for example.

Marc: Absolutely! What we see is that, from the venture capitalist side, they say, “Okay, if all the companies that apply for funding would be so explicit and so transparent of what they want to do, it would not only help us to judge the venture, but it would also signal to us that these people understand what they do.”

Ben: And you said, also, earlier on, this idea that once you appreciate that you’ve got your first market and you don’t have to do these really harsh pivots because you know where the next landing point would be if it doesn’t work out — you said that that determines things like what you call the company. But there is a whole list of things in the book about the sorts of things that you would want to be mindful of, when you start, given that you are likely to pursue multiple markets given that you’re operating in an arena.

You create a path and that path gets more fortified, stronger with each and every decision that builds on this. You go for a market, you choose your suppliers, you choose the brand name for that market, you develop the distribution network for that domain, etc. So, with each subsequent decision, you are more constrained and locking yourself in, which when you think about it, of course, it focuses you a lot, but it’s also something which with each step, it becomes more expensive, less efficient, more cumbersome to change.

Marc: Yeah. What we advocate is, as a small team, as a small venture — three or four people — to focus on one market, but if you are a large company with 50 people working in innovation, you can pursue multiple markets at once. But, especially when you’re extremely resource-constrained, what you need to do is to say, “Okay, I need to put a lot of agility into my project so that every change that I need to make is less cumbersome, not consuming a lot of resources” because your resources are not endless. And when you think about this, once you have this portfolio view of what you can potentially do, just go back to the Flyability example — once you understand that you can actually go from construction site to rescue missions in the Alps, what you are picking is a brand name that is different, that allows you to do many more things. Number two, what you’re trying, probably, to do is to say, I develop a product — the drone, in our case — which is within a few steps amenable to all these different markets, it doesn’t cost a lot to actually change the product so that it can be applied in all these different domains. So you might want to hire people who have a bit more generalist expertise to understand, “Okay, if this one is a great domain, maybe these people can also work on this other domain later on. It’s how you write your patents, the applications of your technology in there.

So, it has a range of implications that are very profound. And this goes down to the nuts and bolts of the company you create, the project you pursue, and that’s why I think this mindfulness at the beginning is then imprinted into the DNA of the company, of the project you’re creating, and I think that, over time, you’re creating a company that is more agile, has the agility in the DNA, has an outlook on growth that is quite different.

And if you think about the earlier example that I mentioned with Uber — Uber has exactly that mindset. They say, “Okay, we grow in this taxi domain, but that’s not all we do.” No one mandated Uber to just stay in this domain — they could grow in all kinds of different domains.

Now, think about the banking sector, which is quite important for Switzerland. The banking sector, they have this idea of saying, “We have financial services”, but if you move out of this logic, and say, “Actually, they could be about trust services.” And once you’re about trust services, finance is one leg that we could have and maybe there are two or three other legs that we can develop wherever trust is needed among human beings. Maybe blockchain is a key part of the skills we need to acquire and build, in order to be a viable player in trust services. This would be the Uber logic to the financial industry.

the zooming in — zooming out is a prerequisite towards seeing a portfolio of opportunities

Ben: I won’t ask you about blockchain because we’ve made that mistake on previous podcasts. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole.

Marc: They can listen to the other podcasts.

Ben: So, if you set up your company with the notion that it’s a portfolio play from the beginning, you’re saying that it’s almost in the DNA, this idea that you will be agile. So I accept that that’s true, but there’s still the temptation to always double-down on a market that’s working. And so, what else would you recommend to companies to make sure they’re agile, and they don’t become, in the Clayton Christensen sense, they don’t go so deep that they, then, become disruptors for somebody else?

Marc: Look, they can go deep as long as they are realizing that these decisions are creating these deep ditches of past — we call this, in research, “Path Creation”. You create a path and that path gets more fortified, stronger with each and every decision that builds on this. Let me give you an example. You go for a market, you choose your suppliers, you choose the brand name for that market, you develop the distribution network for that domain, etc. So, with each subsequent decision, you are more constrained and locking yourself in, which when you think about it, of course, it focuses you a lot, but it’s also something which with each step, it becomes more expensive, less efficient, more cumbersome to change.

That’s why we call the third step in our method, “The Agile Focus” because you should focus, yes, but keep in mind that once you do these decisions — like with the brand name — maybe you can make this decision in a bit more open-minded manner so that in case it doesn’t work out — and in innovation, oftentimes it doesn’t work out — in case it doesn’t work out, you are able to not fall into this big ditch that you have been shuffling, and don’t die from that.

Ben: And the other thing too, in the book, is “zooming in and zooming out.” So, we’ve come across zooming in — zooming out in the John Hagel context of having multiple time horizons for our strategic planning, but you use it more as in like, when you’re identifying target markets, you want to look at the highest level of what’s the massive group that you could target versus what’s the sub-segment of this industry that could potentially be addressable by the product. Again, what’s the repeatable methodology for doing that?

The rules of the growth game have changed and with it, the applicability of the frameworks and the need for frameworks. If we accept the idea that we are competing in arenas and no longer in industries, all the tools that would constrain you to think within an industry are not as meaningful anymore.

Marc: I think this has very deep roots because, in our research with Ian MacMillan from the Wharton School, we have continuously seen this into an entrepreneurial mindset. The true entrepreneurs and innovators are able to flexibly think about what they are doing — they’re not like a hamster in a wheel and say, “Okay, we have to run, and run.” They have this reflective capability.

Let me give you a simple example. One of the inventors here, at EPFL, one of the professors, developed a stent. This stent is basically for preventing your heart disease. But at the same time, he said, “Look, this is heart disease prevention, but we can apply this in the whole body.” Then it’s about blood flow technology. And if you zoom out one step more, it’s about flow technology — then, you think about pipelines, etc. So it’s like, you have from the very small narrow application within the heart towards everything blood flow technology, to flow technology. And that’s what a good entrepreneur should be able to say: I move out and I move in. The best application might be the heart, I don’t want to challenge that, but it’s like, “Hey, where else could we grow? What is our company about?” This a very profound definition.

And once you think about this zooming in zooming out, you can say, “Hey, that actually doesn’t cost me anything to reflect on this. This costs me a bit of time but makes me understand better what type of animal company I’m creating. So, in that sense, the zooming in — zooming out is a prerequisite towards seeing a portfolio of opportunities.

Ben: So, as I’m understanding, your value proposition is, at its most granular level, and then being able to zoom right from there to what’s the largest possible application. So as you said, with financial services, it’s understanding that we do trade finance and invoice finance, right through to which we’re about trust.

Marc: Exactly! But what I’m describing is only a cognitive process. It is purely how you allow yourself to think about it and then it relates back to what’s the makeup of the founding team or the management team. We have, since 30 or 40 years ago, a lot of super exciting research in the management domain where we see clearly that the makeup of the board, the type of experiences they have, their education is basically foreshadowing what the board will be able to do. So, if you have four people who have studied finance on the board, of course, the likelihood that this company does more finance and has that lens is much higher than them going into another domain.

If you make the same analogy now and say, “Hey, we have four people in finance, and three that have actually a blockchain experience”, guess how this company will redefine where it plays? So it’s a lot about the makeup of the founders or any management board of a company that basically, somehow is able to foreshadow what this company sees in your growth pattern. This insight is not from me. I’ve shown it empirically with my research, but from a conceptual perspective, there’s this late 1950s, Edith Penrose’s “The Theory of the Growth of the Firm” — a wonderful book; I think one of the most fascinating books that one can still read and it’s so current as probably has never been before.

Ben: One application, clearly, of the “Where to Play”, is when you’re starting out. You’re saying it’s also extremely useful for strategy teams and executives in an established company to provide answers about where to go next.

Marc: Absolutely!

Ben: That being the case, do you think it replaces some of the tools that the strategists are using today? For example, the BCG Growth Matrix. Do you think some of these things have become a bit antiquated or obsolete given the way the world has changed, both in terms of the nature of competitive advantage, i.e. that it’s more about the demand side, economy’s at scale, and also, the fact that we don’t have these narrow boundaries of what’s in an industry and what’s not?

Marc: I think that the rules of the games have changed. The rules of the growth game have changed and with it, the applicability of the frameworks and the need for frameworks. If we accept the idea that we are competing in an arena and no longer in an industry, all the tools that would constrain you to think within an industry are not as meaningful anymore. Think about Porter’s Five Forces — it’s a fabulous tool to understand the industry, but it doesn’t help you to understand the growth space beyond the industry — this arena.

That’s where, “Where to Play” comes in play because it actually gives you an idea of what is the growth turf that might be available for you, so it enlarges your perspective. And when you come to the large companies, they are in dire need of this type of perspective, and partly owing to the fact that most of the leaders running these companies were educated in the ’80s and ’90s. They know, of course, from the MBA programs that Porter’s Five Forces is the thing to do — but implicitly this constraints you to the industry. Once you come with an arena perspective, for the large companies this opens up very exciting new growth options. If you look at the interviews that Daimler is giving, the large companies are waking up to that very quickly. They have adopted not fully this mindset that there’s an arena out there, but they are starting to realize that competition comes actually from places they would never have expected.

That’s where they learn through the backdoor that actually there’s an arena, “A computer manufacturer suddenly competes with us. Whoops! We thought it would only be the car manufacturers.” So, they learn through the backdoor that actually there’s an arena to play in, and secondly, what they are realizing as well, is they have this set of competencies, “What else can we do if we now put AI to the mix?” If we put drones to the mix, like this construction company that I was referencing early on, it’s like, yes, you have your constant competence that has been around for 50 years, but now take drones into the mix. What else could you do? You can become a service business that is quite successful.

So, it’s about understanding how, as an established company, you can employ the latest technology, increase the scope of your product offering, service offering, etc. And I think there should not be a threat to any company. This is a wonderful process because it relies on creativity, imagining new frontiers where you can grow, and this is, I think, applied in the right way. It’s a truly exciting process that should energize everyone on the team. I know that the companies are worried because they see there’s competition coming from left to right.

Ben: The other thing that’s, I think, good about it, is it looks from a capability point of view, which is some of the tools that strategists use, and assume that the customer is captive, in a way; because you control distribution, you can just upsell. You know, like the Ansoff Matrix — keep the customer, the customer is fixed and you can sell them more stuff. I think that that’s been deeply challenged as distribution has opened up. And so, again, it doesn’t look at it through that distribution prism, it looks at it through capability prism.

Marc: Yeah. Or you can look at it through a distribution prism as well and say, “What other products could this customer need?” And then you evaluate these types of markets or options with a matrix tool. Our framework is, in that sense, quite flexible.

Ben: So, in other words, it sort of fits around. So, if you’ve got a matrix or a methodology you’re comfortable with, this tends to be always complementary?

Marc: So we are, in a way, highly complementary even to the Porter Frameworks, to the Ansoff Matrix, or to the BCG Matrix. You mentioned the BCG Matrix early on; the underlying question is, where do your new growth options come from? There’s no answer given in the BCG Matrix. It’s just like, “Oh, they’re rising stars!” Where were they born? Someone must have had the idea for this rising star. That’s where, “Where to Play” comes in with its method because it helps you to understand there could be a growth opportunity, a rising star, how rising and is it really a star or is it a dot, and it helps you to understand in the first place what you’re developing.

Ben: Another piece of research you wrote, which is about the characteristics of founders. You used the terms Darwinians, communitarians, and missionaries. Could you elaborate on what you mean by those terms?

The times are over where financial profit and job creation are the only two factors that matter. They are a long over. I think the companies who haven’t realized this are soon in the cemetery of companies.

Marc: With pleasure! It’s actually, one of the research studies that I learned most about entrepreneurship from, or innovation, or life — this is a big term, but I’ll explain in a minute why. We have done this study where we tried to understand entrepreneurs within one sector, to keep the heterogeneity low — it was all kinds of sports-related equipment, and there were entrepreneurs that actually were like the normal brands, very competitive. We said, “Okay, we need to develop something that gives us a lot of return.”

There were other entrepreneurs that were more the thinkers, they developed something for themselves, went on the slopes, for instance, others observed what they did and said, “Can you do this snowboard for me? Can you do this bike for me?” And then, you have a third type where you realize, “Well, these guys are not caring so much about the market, the producers, because they want to sell something, but they want to change the world to a better place.” They are about ethical production, etc.

We started off this project by interviewing these people on why do they actually have these different outlooks of what a company could be? Why would some of them give their invention for free to others, while others would patent protect it? And then, that gave us quite a lot of hard thinking to do.

And with my colleague, Emmanuelle Fauchart, at some point, we had discussions when I said, “Okay, I’ve done this study once, about identity.” And then, identity was basically the key that opened up this puzzle for us, because identity theory allows you to understand on a very deep level, why people do things. And what we did then, is to say, hey, there’s a more generalizable framework within our data, which by now has been applied by many other researchers and what we basically saw is that there are three types of entrepreneurs, pure types, and you can mix and match them at the end of the day.

The pure types would be the Darwinians who say, “I fight for my business, I’m the leader! If others in my market die that’s good because I have a better market share.” That’s one very typical way of viewing business. The others were the communitarians, who say, “Oh, we are within a community, we openly share. We are trying to make the community a better place.” And the third type was the missionaries where it’s about the whole world, “We want to make the world a better place.”

And from an identity perspective, that’s where it becomes interesting in two ways. From the identity perspective, this goes from the “me” to the “known other” to the “unknown other”. How you behave and act depends a lot if you do it for you, if you do it for known people, or if you do it for unknown others. What you expect as a return is quite different, too. If you do it for you, at the end of the day, your bank statement would be bigger. If you do it for the known others, maybe it’s love, it’s admiration, but if you do it for the unknown others, what is it that you’re getting out of there? Maybe you have a better conscience or maybe you’d like to be admired, maybe you want to be invited to talk shows. The motivators are very different, and if we are living in a world where people are soul searching and trying to understand who they are, what they want to do, these types of questions are extremely pertinent. They are relating back and that’s what we found after doing all these interviews, they are relating back to some very exciting parallels in philosophy — you have these three types described, repeatedly.

So, what we basically could show is that within entrepreneurship, we have types that have been for the last 2000 or more years discussed by philosophers as standard types of how we can think about human beings. In that sense, what I said earlier, to help you to understand entrepreneurship and innovators, but also human beings because these three types are the pure types, that are prevalent, but then you have mixes.

Ben: Yeah, what do you call it? A hybrid, right?

Marc: Yeah, the hybrids! If you think about companies nowadays that try to make profits, but also be sustainable, these are hybrids. And how their motivations might be in conflict, how they are aligned, I think identity theory can tell us a lot about this.

Ben: And would you argue that the hybrid model is becoming more prevalent, not because the makeup of the founders is changing, but there’s more constraints imposed by society to look beyond just financial returns?

Strategy and innovation are two sides of the same coin

Marc: Absolutely! I think that the times are over where financial profit and job creation are the only two factors that matter. They are a long over. I think the companies who haven’t realized this are soon in the cemetery of companies. It’s a much more pluralistic approach and it comes from the side of the founders or the managers, but it also comes as a demand by customers, but also by future employees. It’s like, if you want to have the best employees out there — I see it with the students here, at EPFL — if you are only profit-minded as a company, they will likely not choose you. They want to have this second leg, the social consciousness and the third leg, the sustainability consciousness embedded in what they do because they look for this meaning and they know that the world is breaking apart, so they want to work positively in an environment that allows you to follow these other goals.

Ben: I wanted to ask you about the coexistence of “Where to Play” and some of this other research. It feels a bit like “Where to Play” was written for Darwinians, but can it be used by all founder types?

Marc: Yes! “Where to Play”, in its purest sense, is written in the business logic to say “I want to create a company, I want to be successful” which is fine. I don’t want to challenge that. That’s still a model that creates a lot of wealth, that it creates a lot of good, and a lot of tax returns. What we have done now is an add-on that is available on our website where you download worksheets that help you understand if you want to create a social and sustainability venture, how to rate these opportunities and how to understand all the trade-offs between the profit side and the social side. I think this is extremely pertinent. So, the tool is now enlarged with these types of thoughts, and I think, from all the feedback we’re getting from social and sustainability ventures, this is a very important add-on because it allows these entrepreneurs to see more clearly how they could contribute and what it means, actually, to have sustainable and social impact.

Ben: Wonderful! I think there’s one last thing I want to cover. So, in all the years I’ve worked in strategy, each year, somebody, somewhere, some commentator proclaims that there’s a strategy. One of the things that’s great about reading your book is that it’s a return to fact-based, research-led strategy, which enables you to do what is the very heart of strategy, which is to make good choices and understand your constraints. And so, not to put words in your mouth, but I guess you would say that this book and this approach very much represents the triumph of strategy over the emerging school of just pragmatism and pivoting and iteration.

Marc: Yeah, I think it helps to bring both perspectives under one roof because it basically gives you a home for saying, “Hey, that’s more the strategic thinking and that’s more the testing, the reiteration that is needed to validate what you have thought.” So, it brings together the doers with the thinkers, and I think it gives them a home. I think that’s why Steve Blank liked it so much, as well, because it says that’s a part that was missing. He probably gets a hundred of these frameworks to look at every year and has been doing that for the last 20 years, and this is the first time he ever opened his toolbox in the last 15 years or so to say, “That’s a key new tool that needs to be in there.”

But, I think if we frame it nicely, strategy evolves, and I think we are thinking very differently about strategy nowadays than just maybe 15 years ago. And strategy and innovation are two sides of the same coin. It’s just how they work together — one is a world where you have to explore, where you have to investigate, where you have to test and the other is a world where you have to be a bit more foresightful, you have to try to understand where you’re strong at, what a good market turf is. How this interacts, I think it’s nicely described in the “Where to Play” framework because you have the markets you choose, there’s more of a strategic outlook, having a portfolio and then, on top of that, you say, “In order to understand these different options, of course, I need to test! I need to go out there, I need to collect data” but it gives you a framework to think about both, and I think that’s where this addition to the Lean tool makes sense because the Lean tool is one very much where you do experimentation testing, and now this gives you an additional aspect to do strategizing with.

Ben: Perfect! So, for those people who want to check out the toolset — which, as you said earlier, is available for free — the URL is wheretoplay.co, right?

Marc: Exactly! And I invite everyone. We have videos on there, there are PowerPoint slides that you can download for free, you can listen to webinars — there’s basically a lot of opportunities; For us, this is a tool that we want to see out there because we’ve seen in the research that it works, we’ve seen with thousands of startups and large companies that applied it, that it works.

Ben: There’s no excuse, now, if you blindly enter a market and you have to do a horrible, dramatic pivot.

Marc: Yes, there’s no excuse! Maybe after the first pivot, you realize that maybe you should have read the book and you read the book, then. It’s still valuable. You can start as an established company reading the book and try to figure out the new growth turf or you can start as a startup and say, “Let’s be a bit more mindful about what we’re going to do.”

Ben: Perfect! Mark, thank you very much, again, for coming on the show! That was great. Thank you!

Marc: Thank you very much! It was my pleasure, and good luck for everyone out there!

The Case for Techno-Optimism, with Ian STEWART (#7)

The Case for Techno-Optimism, with Ian STEWART

The Case for Techno-Optimism,
w/ Ian STEWART

Our guest is Ian Stewart, known for being, among many other roles, the co-founder of WiReD Magazine. Together we discuss WiReD’s journey from zero-to-one(-to-two), the state and future of (centrist) media, China and the geopolitical consequences of its technological progress and also how the younger generation is applying entrepreneurial methods and business models to solving social problems.

Full podcast transcript:

Ben Robinson: Our guest for this podcast is Ian Stewart, who is best known for being one of the founders of WIRED, but it’s probably not an understatement to say that Ian has turned his hand to almost anything and everything. A photographer, a sailor, an Olympic volleyball player, Ian has lived all over the world including a long spell in China and has worked across a range of sectors — media of course, but also technology, fund management, the charity sector, and most recently academia. The challenge we have with interviewing Ian isn’t running out of things to say, but instead knowing where to begin. So Ian, maybe we could start you off by asking you what you like about living here in Switzerland.

Ian Stewart: Well, first of all, Ben, thank you for having me and it’s nice to be back in downtown Geneva where it reminds me of my time in Paris. The best thing about living in Switzerland is that everything works. It’s a place where obviously it’s physically beautiful and for someone who likes sports, it’s a great place to be based. It’s also central in Europe. I often say that New Zealand where I’m from is very much like Switzerland because it’s a small country with a large foreign population where there’s a lot of farmers and farms and sheep and cattle. The only difference between New Zealand and Switzerland is that Switzerland is surrounded by an ocean of people, whereas we’re actually surrounded by an ocean of water. Otherwise I find it a very comfortable place to live.

BR: Comfortable isn’t the same adjective as exciting. Do you miss the excitement of living in San Francisco or Beijing?

IS: You’re absolutely right. We tried at various attempts to get our 25 and 28 year old daughters interested in living in Switzerland, but they wouldn’t think of it. They are the big city kids that I grew up as and there is a certain lack of buzz. There are certain things happening here. The engineering and certain sectors of finance and pharma and certain areas of Med Tech are growing and booming, and that makes for an interesting environment for an investor or someone who’s an entrepreneur. But for a lot of the stuff that I do, which is consumer focused and technology focused, there isn’t much happening here, but it’s the center of Europe. It’s an hour to Paris, it’s an hour to London, and it’s an hour to Venice. It’s not hard to get around, and as a base at someone at this stage where I spend more time advising and investing, and less time actually founding or driving, it’s an okay place to be.

BR: A lot of people say that Switzerland could be the Singapore of Europe i.e. an open economy on the periphery if you like, of a large trading block that would become the sort of gateway and the concentration point for information flows into that block. Is that the government vision for Switzerland? Is that your vision for Switzerland? Is that a viable vision for Switzerland?

IS: I think there are big differences. Switzerland is not part of the EU, therefore there are constraints for trading goods and services across the border. In addition, Switzerland is comfortable and the population is not worried about anything in particular and that makes them less hungry. Singapore is the opposite. Not only is it part of the ASEAN region and has been accepted as a financial center hub for a number of years, decades now and therefore has a very clear position amongst its neighbours, it’s also worried about them all the time. Singapore is the smallest member of ASEAN. It’s a tiny physical country and it’s surrounded by very large neighbours who occasionally get into conflicts with themselves and each other. More themselves than each other. There are obviously cultural issues and religious issues that create tensions in and have created tensions in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines and that worries Singapore and I think that sense of concern helps create a nationalistic fervour and drives energy into innovation, which isn’t necessarily the case yet. People are comfortable in Switzerland. They’re happy in Switzerland. There isn’t that same drive, and again, as I said, Switzerland not being part of a clear trading block means there are barriers to using Switzerland as a base for innovation and new.

BR: Is Singapore still as hungry as it was because clearly it has found material well-being, standards of living have increased a lot. Is Singapore still as hungry as it was?

IS: The short answer is I believe so. The tension and concern about its neighbours has not dropped over the last 30 years. If you look at the incidences of problems in near neighbours, they’ve actually risen, not fallen as their time since independence for some of them has elapsed. So that tension still exists. Within Singapore itself, there are obviously tensions to do with the mixed races there, the relationship with China, the relationship with Hong Kong. Hong Kong, of course, their position has been radically changed since the handover to the Chinese and obviously more recently, and I think all of this plays into concerns about stability in the region for Singaporeans. So yes, I still think they are hungry and I still think they have this sense of I need to do things now rather than wait.

I come from a branch of economics where I believe that smaller systems work better than bigger systems, and that’s true of companies or countries. I think there are efficiencies of scale up to a certain size, but I think most things seem to grow beyond that and become lumpy and inefficient.

BR: To come back to Switzerland, two questions. Firstly, is it a mistake to not be part of the EU and to try to chart a different course? And then secondly, is it okay to be a comfortable nation? Can Switzerland as a comfortable nation continue to be as prosperous as it is?

IS: I think it’s dangerous to be comfortable. I’m all in favour of Intel who said that the appropriate attitude towards building anything is to be paranoid all the time. I think applied paranoia is a healthy attitude. So that question first it’s better not to be too comfortable because everything in life is attrition. So I wouldn’t assume that everything you have now you will have in 50 years’ time or 100 years’ time.

The first question is a political question. I come from a branch of economics where I believe that smaller systems work better than bigger systems, and that’s true of companies or countries. I think there are efficiencies of scale up to a certain size, but I think most things seem to grow beyond that and become lumpy and inefficient. So I’m not a big fan of the vision of the United States of Europe.

Europe as a loosely knit, coherent Federation of independent States makes a lot of sense to me. If there was a way to get to a point, and at some at one point at the beginning of the Brexit process, I was wondering if that would be an example so that they created a tiering system within Europe and went back to the original 1957 idea of a looser Federation of Independent countries. I thought that would be good, and then maybe being part of that made sense for smaller countries, but given the United Federalists stance of Macron and others to create a United States of Europe supposedly to compete with China and the US, I think I’d stand back and watch for a while.

I think small is good for reacting to change, and in general the fact that we’re small, the fact that we have governance systems that are devolved, the fact that tertiary education system that deals with some of the challenges we’re talking to are quite good. I think it means that Switzerland’s probably in a good place. So I’m not worried about Switzerland as a country given the changes. On the contrary, I think it’s probably well placed to do it.

BR: Given that it’s difficult to be Singapore without being part of the European Union, and given that you wouldn’t advocate for Switzerland joining the European Union, what is the economic model for Switzerland and with 8.5 million people, can it continue to be a very wealthy, prosperous, fast-growing nation? What’s the model?

IS: So Switzerland has a bunch of things going for it first of all. Central location is amazing. All right, so borders notwithstanding, being in the middle of everything makes a lot of things simple — meetings, transport exchanges are all easy from here. Its governance system works. It has this nice devolved governance for a lot of the things that make the Swiss system function, which I like. I’m not so sure that’s great for education because it’s slightly too much variation in education across cantons and communes, but in many other things it works really well. Its attitude towards taxation of foreign organizations, its attitude towards foundations and the set-up of both head offices and non-profit organizations is healthy. I don’t think Switzerland has many challenges. I guess what I’m saying to you is I don’t think Switzerland needs to be the Singapore of Europe. I don’t think it’s necessary.

I do think that there are things that we have to be aware of. I think there are things that are going to be challenges for Switzerland going forward and there is an issue both related to the EU plus what’s happening east of here, which may give Switzerland some concern at some point. Switzerland has been under a great attack from the taxation departments of a whole bunch of countries. The loss of the banking secrecy, whilst a good thing in some governance ways has been harmful in revenue ways, but I think that was always going to happen. It was just a question of time. So honestly I think Switzerland’s weathered pretty well some of the waves that have been crashing upon it over the last few years. So I’m not concerned about Switzerland.

Now if you want it to be a burgeoning, booming start-up center, that’s another question. I think as I said, there are challenges, because there’s no single home market because there aren’t many investors who’ve built successful companies to come back and become examples for the younger entrepreneurs. We don’t have that ecosystem here. The venture capital system is full of advisors and accountants and lawyers rather than entrepreneurs. I think that’s a problem, but I don’t think Switzerland as a whole will suffer because of that. There’ll just be that problem with the start-up ecosystem. That will always be a problem.

BR: I agree with you there’s very adaptive ecosystems in Switzerland, but if you believe that we’re going through a paradigm shift, are the incumbent organizations in Switzerland going to be capable of delivering the same growth and prosperity this country, or if a new generation of companies is needed? Is this Swiss environment suitable for building new companies and a sufficient number of new companies for Switzerland to prosper in the new era?

IS: If we break that question down, there’s three bits to it. One is to define what exactly the changes are, so that we know within what context we’re trying to judge the country’s ability to work within it. The second is the issue about new companies, and the third is the issue about existing companies and their ability to transition. If I deal with the first question first, the two main challenges facing forward are digital and loosely being labelled SDGs now. The SDGs are simply one way of shorthand of talking about it but concerned about environment, concern about waste, concern about the oceans and the rise in consumer populist icons that then seem to do a good job of driving activity change. Digital change plus concerns about our consumption model in general I think the two big drivers, and of course you’ve also got China and Africa and other things and immigration, but there’s a fair number of things and I think the two key things, unlike them, a lot of people think it’s China and immigration, I think digital and concerns about the consumption model I think are going to be bigger problems going forward.

Now within that context, Switzerland has a reasonable education system and has two very good tech schools. It has an awareness and appreciation for the need for adaptation to issues, and I think therefore that it’s not a better environment for people to think about these things. Actually doing them is something else. I do think there’s a problem with digital competence in the C-Suite level in Swiss large corporations. I think that’s a challenge, but that’s a challenge everywhere. That doesn’t put Switzerland at a lower standing than anyone else because of that.

I do think we originate a lot of good technology and technology ideas here. It’s just the market’s not big enough necessarily to create the companies here or run them from here, and the UK suffers from this as well. Right. The universities produce really good IP and good science, but practical implementation tends to happen in the US where a bigger home market makes it possible to try things out and make things work before they take them abroad or anywhere else. So I think Switzerland does have good science and it does have reasonably adaptable businesses. I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think it’s a bigger problem than it is for anywhere else. In terms of relative position advantages vis-a-vis the other countries, I think being small is helpful. I think being able to make decisions quickly is helpful. I think to be able to change their mind quickly is helpful.

If you look at the problems, just the mechanical problems of getting Brexit sorted out, everybody needs to agree for a change to happen. It’s very hard to do anything in that respect. We had the 30th anniversary of the world competitiveness report at IMD last week and it was pointed out that the country doing terribly well when we first issued it 30 years ago was Japan, and if you look at where Japan is now, it suffers from the same problem. It’s a small country, but it has big companies. It’s hard to change direction. Institutions are hard to change. So I think small is good for reacting to change, and in general the fact that we’re small, the fact that we have governance systems that are devolved, the fact that tertiary education system that deals with some of the challenges we’re talking to are quite good. I think it means that Switzerland’s probably in a good place. So I’m not worried about Switzerland as a country given the changes. On the contrary, I think it’s probably well placed to do it.

BR: Because it’s inherently small and adaptive.

IS: And smart and hardworking. Yeah. All of those things. The risk is political if there’s a war somewhere. Being small is not good in those circumstances, but it’s also smack in the middle of Europe so physically it’s hard to get to.

I also thoroughly enjoyed my time at business school, so it was a great year and it gave me tools that I didn’t have before, but more particularly gave me a sense of the world, which I didn’t have before. […] it was really the contextual stuff that I got out of the school, which was cool, more than the tools itself. I got a picture of the world. I came out understanding how the world worked and that was terribly useful.

BR: So if I’m not wrong, the thing that brought you to Switzerland in the first place was attending IMD, the business school in Lausanne, and I think that it was through IMD that you met Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, your two co-founders at WIRED. Is that right?

IS: Indirectly, yes. For a period of time I was a photographer from leaving university where I did Math, Particle Physics and Computer Science. I was a photographer for 10 years. In the last three or four years of that, I was in Paris and while I was in Paris, I worked for People Magazine, the American People Magazine, and photographed American celebrities in Paris and French celebrities and starlets and things, and the editor of People Magazine in Paris, Kathy Nolan was a great friend and still is. When I went off to business school to try and see if I could connect the two sides of my brain, the creative side and the logical side. It meant that for me, I was trying to find a way to marry the idea of business and business building. I’d been exposed to it from my years as a photographer with the fact that I was essentially a writer and a photographer at the time and wanted to create something, so I was already in that mind frame when I went to business school.

When I came out, Kathy contacted me. A friend of hers, Jane Metcalfe then, Ducette now had a sister who had a relatively new partner, Louis, and they had a magazine in Amsterdam at the time called Language Technology, which talked about of all things at that stage, machine translation, which isn’t a terribly sexy subject. Wasn’t a terribly sexy subject then, is more of a sexy subject now because it’s one of the facilitators for machine learning and AI, but Louis had used the technology as a way to talk about the world in ways that I hadn’t seen before. If I hadn’t been to IMD and done the MBA, I don’t think I would have been of use to them. I’m not sure Kathy would have suggested to Lane and Jane that they met me, so I think that IMD was certainly the catalyst for that. I also thoroughly enjoyed my time at business school, so it was a great year and it gave me tools that I didn’t have before, but more particularly gave me a sense of the world, which I didn’t have before.

And then as we realized that other technologies were coming along and as we became aware of the work of Marc Andreessen and his team at the National Center for Supercomputing of America in Chicago, we realized that there are a whole bunch of technologies happening and we all got very excited about how much the world might change because of that and we were really convinced that it would be changed, and I can tell you that no one else was at the time. Very few people were at the time and I think that’s what drove it.

BR: Did it succeed in fusing the right and left sides of your brain together?

IS: It helped a great deal. It allowed me to use both sides in trying to solve problems while I was at school, and I use the same attitudes of problem solving when I came out, but a lot of it was context understanding. My father was a political economic journalist at the New York Times, so we’d had discussions about how the world work when I was a kid, but in my own working life I was either just doing science or I was just taking photos and writing. IMD gave me a sense of the connections between government and society and companies and then finance and then marketing, all the rest of it. So it was really the contextual stuff that I got out of the school, which was cool, more than the tools itself. I got a picture of the world. I came out understanding how the world worked and that was terribly useful, and I think that’s what made me useful to Louis and Jane.

When we launched and through that period, Louis was always the editorial voice. He was the driver. It was his thing, and Jane was sales, front of house, advertising and more on the generating revenue side, and I was, I think my internal title was dollars and cents. I worried about money and people and processes. So I was the suit.

BR: Okay, so we know how you met Jane and Louis, and how did the idea come together? How did you know, how did you perceive that there was a gap for a magazine like WIRED?

IS: We met in 1988. That’s four and a half years before Wired launched and at that time Language Technology, as I said, was a really cool but slightly bizarre magazine talking about how machine translation would change aspects of society. So the attitude of WIRED, which was how technology impacts society rather than talking about the technology was already in Language Technology. As Louis and I talked things and we became friends instantly because we had similar attitudes and stuff, Louis, just to be clear … and I had also been an editor and Louis had also done an MBA, but in the balance of roles as it went forward, Louis was clearly the stronger editorial voice and I ended up doing more of the business stuff, at least at that stage, and I was helpful, I guess I think he said so himself in reorganizing the business model and the business plan, but Language Technology was the start. It then became something called Electric Word as desktop publishing came along and Louis realized the impact it would have on the ability of new voices to create platforms for messaging… desktop publishing was a very big deal to Louis.

And then as we realized that other technologies were coming along and as we became aware of the work of Marc Andreessen and his team at the National Center for Supercomputing of America in Chicago, we realized that there are a whole bunch of technologies happening and we all got very excited about how much the world might change because of that and we were really convinced that it would be changed, and I can tell you that no one else was at the time. Very few people were at the time and I think that’s what drove it. But we also realized together that you couldn’t do an English language magazine talking about world change from Amsterdam in the European market with all the languages that were there, and it became clear that WIRED needed to … well the new project expanded from Language Technology then Electric Word and then became a project which we called internally Millennium, needed to move to somewhere in the US and San Francisco of course was the obvious place since a lot of the work was taking place there. There was also good sources of venture capital. There was a lot of tech companies there and WIRED found its name and its home in San Francisco and we launched January 1993 with Issue 1. So that was four and a half years after Louis, Jane and I met.

there was enough demand that when it hit and because the product didn’t disappoint, we started receiving subscription checks to the tune of a thousand a week – where each check was I think $45 so that’s $45,000 a week coming in. We couldn’t rip those envelopes out fast enough, grab the checks and run down to the bank, and that’s what kept us going when we ran out of money after the first edition.

BR: So this is interesting because again, if I’m correct, I understood that you basically threw everything at the first edition, so much so that if it hadn’t actually had some decent pickup and some people subscribing to it, that you would have run out of money before you could have issued the second edition.

IS: It’s true. It’s partly true because we didn’t have very much money. Throwing everything isn’t difficult when you don’t have very much.

BR: I suppose it’s been turned into one of those sort of, you know, urban tales that — –

IS: No, but it’s largely true. It’s largely true. We had raised through basically a friends and family round, including Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab who took money out of his own pocket rather than the fund he was a GP on. I’m not sure he told his wife about that.

BR: He probably did later.

IS: I think later when it was fine. It worked out fine, but so we raised a total of 250,000 US dollars. That’s nothing.

BR: Yeah, to put into a new magazine in those days.

IS: In those days, we assumed we needed basically 4 million to launch a magazine because it usually took you two years, maybe more to get break-even. So you needed enough runway to last that long. We had $250,000 and in addition we were using an eight color press, the most expensive press in the world. A lot of people would argue that wasn’t necessary. I think Louis’ argument and I saw it work, was that the more reasons people have to talk about the magazine, the more communities get interested in it and the more people talk about it. So we had this 8-color press. We had an extremely expensive print run and cost process in spite of the fact we were doing everything in desktop publishing, which saved costs elsewhere, and that meant that most of that 250,000 disappeared in the first month, and yes, we would have gone bankrupt if certain things didn’t happen, and we didn’t actually get Issue 2 out in February. It came out in late March.

BR: So you now teach entrepreneurship at the IMD business school. Is this a launch strategy that you would advocate for others? Because arguably it’s not counter-intuitive because the new world is one where in most markets you’re trying to trigger network affects, demand side economies of scale and you need a big bang because you’re trying to solve the chicken and egg problem. So at the risk of having sort of slightly over thought it, would you advocate for big launches and throwing everything at it trying to kick-start network effects?

IS: Sometimes. I think it depends on what it is you’re doing and I think it depends how dependent you are upon the timeframe. In our case publishing timeframe meant that we’re supposed to get Issue 2 out pretty soon after Issue 1, and if you have to take time to raise money, it’s a bit difficult. I think it depends. I think sometimes it’s good to have a big bang launch and other times you need to make sure there’s enough money in the bank to pay for Issue 2, or months 2 salaries and so on. So I’d have to say in general, no, but we were lucky. The thing that saved us were subscription checks. Now it’s important to understand that in the United States people didn’t, in those days, I think it’s still true, they didn’t subscribe to magazines because there were these massive magazine stores where everything that was being published in the country you could see on the shelves. You could pick and choose and you could have different things every month.

In the UK where my magazine experience, my publishing experience had happened, the stores were tiny because real estate was expensive and so the average store didn’t carry all the titles. So the only way to be sure that a niche new title was there was to subscribe because the news agent wouldn’t necessarily carry it every month. So we were not expecting subscriptions in the US but there had been such a pent up demand for it. Louis and Jane had been walking the streets of all over the US, Madison Avenue and publishing houses and the tech companies for two years before the launch, because Electric Word, we shut that down two years before we launched WIRED, and we had developed an awareness of what was going on. So by the time we actually launched it, we also had some crazy inexpensive bus poster campaigns, which people are very excited about.

But there was enough demand that when it hit and because the product didn’t disappoint, we started receiving subscription checks, which we just hadn’t expected to the tune of a thousand a week, where each check was I think $45 so that’s $45,000 a week coming in. We couldn’t rip those envelopes out fast enough, grab the checks and run down to the bank, and that’s what kept us going when we ran out of money after the first edition long enough so that we could raise external funding to get a few more issues paid for, but we were still scrambling. I mean, even the round we did in March wasn’t anywhere near enough to get us going through the two year cycle. It was nowhere near 4 million. It was a few hundred thousand more, but it kept us going for a few more months and that was because we weren’t a technology company. We were a magazine company talking about technology, so all the venture investors we were talking to would have been delighted to support us if we’d been developing our own tech, but had no interest in someone talking about it.

Now it changed a little bit later when we started developing Hotwired our search engine and the various other digital components and then it became easier to raise money and to hire people, but when we were just a magazine, no one cared. The consumers cared, fortunately and our subscriptions and readership just shot up and we won an American Advertiser Magazine Award in our first year, which is unheard of. So the product was good. We did super well with the product, but we should have died month one.

BR: I suppose it’s difficult sometimes as an entrepreneur to attribute success in part to luck, but do you think you had luck around this whole area of subscriptions because clearly in markets where subscriptions are prevalent, there’s a barrier to enter it because you’ve got to displace other people’s subscriptions. But maybe the lucky break was that since there wasn’t a subscription model in the US and you kind of introduced it, was that the lucky break?

IS: It did exist. It just wasn’t common, as common as it is in Europe. We’re certainly lucky and I have to say I’m a big believer in admitting that luck plays a role in everything. I remember A Tipping Point, the book talks about how it was fortunate that certain people were at a certain part of San Francisco at a certain time when a certain school was doing things and Rank Xerox was doing certain things, so Xerox Labs and their Xerox Park. So I think luck does play a role in everything. Who is it who did that study, was it last year of the top venture capitalists on Sandhill Road? So the home of venture capital outside of San Francisco, and the percentage of, even the best VCs of their success rate was really small. It was 5 to 10% because there were so many things that can make a company fall over even when you’ve got the right team and the right idea and the right money, and there’s a lot of things that you have to get through to make it work, and so, yeah, luck helps. Now I love the — — is it the Gary Player story where he was being interviewed after a big tournament and the interviewer said something about, gee, that was a lucky shot on the 15th, an eagle which gave him a two point lead and he won by one, and he was a little taken aback by the comment and his retort, well-rehearsed by other people now, is that “it’s a funny thing. He said, I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get”. So luck with a bit of effort and an ability to recognize the lack is terribly important, but yes, I think luck played a part in our surviving that first year.

BR: And then the stuff that isn’t luck. Can you bottle that up? Can you teach that to entrepreneurs?

IS: We try. We try as investors. We try as some mentors. We try as teachers. I think there are things you can do to increase someone’s probability of success. I’m afraid. I do believe that there are certain characteristics of being pig-headed and, and a believer in what you’re doing and wanting to convince everybody that really are either born or learned from family. The nature-nurture argument is not one I want to get into, but it’s certainly before you get to school and before you learn it at university or business school about how to do things. So no, I think there are certain personal characteristics that make it much more likely you’re going to succeed. Having said that, there are exceptions to everything…

BR: What would you say are the personal characteristics that positively correlate with success?

IS: Pig-headedness is one.

BR: Is there a better way of putting that? Maybe…

IS: No, I don’t have a better way than saying pig-headedness. I think here’s the thing. Personal drive, salesmanship, the ability to sell something. I’ve seen good companies with reticent CEOs fail and I’ve seen not very good companies with an inferior product do really well because the guy who’s leading it can convince anybody in the room, can carry a room and can lead people from front. So I think, pig-headedness and salesmanship are two very useful characteristics. I actually think they’re more important than anything else. Now you can learn finance. You can learn marketing. You can learn management. You can learn a whole bunch of other stuff. But I think pig-headedness and salesmanship are hard to learn from scratch.

BR: Let’s get back to WIRED. I mean, it’s famous for many reasons, but I think to my mind at least it’s most famous because it was so prescient in predicting the extent to which the internet would have an impact on society and on business. I mean, you coined a lot of the language that we use about the internet today. So forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think crowdsourcing was a term you came up with, the long tail, vaporwave. I think these are all words or terms that were originated from WIRED. So my question is how were you able to foresee so well what was coming, and secondly, what was it like to be in San Francisco at the time that the new economy or the foundations of the new economic model were being built?

IS: It was tons of fun. Louis has been threatening to write a book about the beginning of WIRED for a long time and hasn’t. He wrote a fiction book called Change is Good, which I recommend people read about. I think it’s about a week and a half in the life of a company putatively like WIRED or a technology firm, but it’s fiction, but if you know the period at the time, there is a lot of real things and real people in that. I think it was a time like … the second question first. It was a time of huge energy. There are all sorts of things going on and San Francisco became a place that attracted people to it, so our being in San Francisco helped. The three of us actually had similar interests in that we all had technology in our backgrounds.

Louis and I had both done a business degree and we were both media fans. In his case it was consuming television on Saturday mornings as a kid where he says he learned more from Saturday morning television than he learned from school, and for me, my father was a journalist, my mother was a magazine fanatic and so I grew up loving print. So we were naturally disposed towards being interested in the impact of technology upon media in general and then the world as an extension came from that. But Louis was absolutely the core driving voice in that. But then once we were in San Francisco, we became this lighthouse and people came towards us. We had a fabulous team. You know, Kevin Kelly was on board pretty quickly. John Battelle became a managing editor, but also a lot of the writers in the region, both fiction and nonfiction writers were attracted to us because we were the first place that took that attitude.

Now there were other magazines around at the time. They were either more business oriented or more new era world oriented, a little bit more about lifestyle than they were about how the world worked. We were, I guess grounded in practical things, but very excited about real change and we attracted to us fantastic writers so that helped us. The core team, the core editorial team was Louis as editor, Kevin as executive editor and Jane, but John Battelle as Managing Editor and that was the core which helped us manage our environment, but we had the best writers in the world come to us. It was just fabulous. Editorial meetings were tons of fun. The stuff was either all over the wall or all on the floors, but the discussions in the rooms on the surface was just, it was amazing. I didn’t spend enough time there. I was out trying to do business deals in the UK and elsewhere, but every time I came in, the place was just tremendously exciting. So it was great fun. It was a roller coaster for all the business and other reasons and that we messed up our IPO and other things, but it was just tremendous fun. I never felt that that period was work. Never.

BR: When you look back at that period and the kind of companies that were built at that time, was it obvious that they were going to be the giants that they have become? So I guess one example right from the very beginning that was, I wouldn’t say dismissed by public markets but where the full potential of the company wasn’t immediately appreciated would be something like Amazon. Right? So back then, given the extent to which you guys understood the new world, and I’m just going to quote you from the first edition, a line that I read from the first edition, which is so, so prescient. The digital revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon written in 1993 so did you know that Amazon, for example, was going to be such a big company?

IS: Louis is really good at those lines. Louis created the best strap lines in the world. He was able to create imagery in a single sentence, which is glorious. The answer is yes and no. We could see what was going on. We could feel what was going on, but it’s never easy to pick winners even if you know what you’re doing. So I’m not sure I could have told you which of the people we met was going to be driving this forward in a massive way. But then I would qualify that by saying the same thing that every investor, every investor who’s lost and made money over a period of time says. It’s not the idea and it’s not the company. It’s the people. It’s the individuals, the drivers. Are they pig-headed and can they sell something? So I think Jeff, it was evident from the beginning that he had this drive, although selling books online wasn’t the sexiest idea around at the time. There were lots of other sexier ideas.

But if I look back and think about the people we met and the individuals concerned, it’s a bit like I think, someone said to me yesterday, he was an Italian, a successful entrepreneur and investor. He said that he can tell when things are happening, waves are happening, but he knows from personal experience it’s hard to choose which, so he just invests in all 30 in a sector and he knows that some of them will do really well and if the sector is good, most of them will do okay, but it’s very hard to choose the best even if you think you’ll know what you’re doing. I would have biased my choices if I had any money, which I didn’t in those days and invested in probably some of the better ones. But I also know now that the right thing to do would have been to invest in a whole bunch because it’s hard to tell who the winners are going to be.

Remember that Amazon has done a bunch of turns left and right and up and down since that starting point, and that ability to change direction and develop new ideas and create a culture within his company that encourages exploration and trying new things is what has enabled him to become and create what he’s done today. Jeff was kind enough to turn up at our party last year. We had a 25th anniversary party in San Francisco organized by Conde Nast, in October last year, and Jeff turned up personally with his retinue and celebrated with us, which was pretty nice.

BR: And when you think about Amazon, for example, and some of the other companies at that time that would go on to change the world, but that potential hadn’t yet been spotted by public investors. Do you think we can draw a parallel between what’s happening today, i.e. the disconnect between private valuations and public valuations and the difficulty companies are having traversing from private to public ownership?

IS: The principal difference with today’s market and the problem they create for themselves is that the private market is holding onto the companies longer. That’s partly because there’s so much money available. The cash available in the private equity space now is just extraordinary and so because they can avoid scrutiny, avoid public market scrutiny and because it’s an easier process to go through, a lot of companies choose to continue growing from private market sources. What that means though is a lot of the growth that the companies can experience both in revenue and therefore value takes place before they go public and the result is visible in the public markets in the fall of a great many of the IPOs over the last two years, because too much of the value has already been captured within the private equity space and the public debt markets simply don’t offer the upside that they used to. It’s too late in the cycle. That’s a big issue with public market appreciation of the start-ups that are coming to market today. I think they’ve been held in the private markets too long.

BR: So you think there’s the principal disconnect, which is …

IS: I think there’s too much money in the private equity sector and they’re holding on to the companies too long. In the old days, there was a limited amount of money in the venture capital sector and nobody got an exit until it went public, so there was a hunger to flip the company, if you will, give it its money, get it to a point where it was earning enough revenue, although in some cases in the 1990s of course, none of these companies had revenue and were already going public. You were only liquid when the IPO had happened and so people want to be liquid as soon as possible. I think partly there was a sense that things were a bit crazy and valuations were a bit nuts. So the sooner you got out in the public sphere, the sooner you could get out of the investment.

BR: Just to press you on that with a couple of real examples then. So we think about some of the companies that have come to market and where they haven’t seen the normal post-IPO pop like Uber for example and Lyft, those might fit into the phenomenon that you’re talking about, which is where most of the value creation happened before they went public.

IS: Or at least a large chunk of it, which means there’s less leftover and there may be more for these companies, but at the moment the market doesn’t think so.

BR: But if we think about another example like WeWork, is that the same issue that all the value creation happened where it was private or is that just an isolated case, or is that an example of where what public investors are looking for is different from what private investors are looking for? Maybe a business model question.

IS: So I think there’s a couple of things. First of all, I do agree there’s a bit of a bubble in the venture side at the moment in general, in the same way there was through the ’90s. I think it’s more disciplined than it was. I think people are more careful. But yes, there’s the same sort of… well there’s some of the irrational euphoria that was taking place in the ’90s is also taking place now. But I think there’s more learning. They’re more smart. There’s more professionalism in the companies and we’ve learned to scale much better. If you look at some of the companies that come out, valuation aside, the ability to scale a model is stronger than it was 20 years ago. So you have to be impressed at the way Uber has grown across markets, across countries, notwithstanding challenges in China and elsewhere, but those are as much cultural business issues as they are anything else. A lot of things about how we build companies today are better.

But yes, there are issues when it comes to the discipline that is imposed by a public market and the scrutiny of the press and investors and analysts commenting everyday about how well a company is doing. In the private sector, no one comments so that’s partly why valuations can get pumped up in a closed room setting in the private markets, and why you get, I think overvaluations of companies before they become public. WeWork is a different case though. WeWork had some of the same advantages of being in the private space and therefore being able to push valuations without necessarily the analyst and/or public market scrutiny that they would have had if they’d been public earlier, and so that was a benefit of course for anybody riding that train or that rollercoaster up until the recent IPO fiasco, and I think it really is a question of how you view things.

There are questions, of course. Many people have written about how they don’t understand how WeWork could describe themselves as a technology company when it’s a real estate play. There are technology components. There is a start-up company component within the environment. There’s a lot of support for start-ups. WeWork also ends up with equity in many of the companies that they support, but in essence it’s a real estate play, and so the valuation that they were aiming for was based on all comparables in the space too high, and again within the private market space where you’re only convincing a bunch of people in to two boardrooms — in this case, Japan and Saudi Arabia — it was okay for a while. You didn’t have a whole bunch of other people questioning an IPO document for two months prior to a launch to set a price, and it was clear when they started talking to intermediaries and potential institutional investors about their model based on true numbers that there wasn’t going to be support in the public market space.

I think one of the things we didn’t talk about enough was what that would do to politics, the ability to become isolated within a political sphere because there was no longer an editorial voice deciding what was and was not appropriate within either a newspaper, a magazine or on television.

BR: To change directions slightly here because the internet has disrupted lots of businesses, a lot of industries, and clearly one of those industries that it disrupted was the industry in which you worked, the media industry, and it did so by lowering distribution costs so that anybody could publish anything and reach anybody, and the economics as a result were completely changed, and so the question I guess is did you foresee this and is that one of the reasons why you sold WIRED when you did?

IS: It didn’t have an impact on our selling. That was purely a function of problems with our IPO because we were supposed to go public and the fact that having set a spending schedule and an investment schedule, assuming that influx of money from the IPO, we suddenly found ourselves with a cash problem very, very quickly and had to take what we called vulture capital money to stop us going belly up when the IPO didn’t work.

The IPO story is another story in itself, so we actually no longer had full control of the company from that point forward. So our timing and our decisions were not entirely our own. There was a battle inside the firm for the two years following that until we eventually sold. So no, it wasn’t a question of market timing and thinking, oh, media is changing. On the contrary, we thought we had a model and we thought we had an understanding of how multi-channel communications both for readers and for advertisers and for other third parties who might get involved. We thought we had an image of how that might work that would have carried us forward through what eventually became the downturn in the beginning of 2000. But yes, on the question of what we saw and what we didn’t see. We saw some of the things. I don’t think we saw all of them.

We talked about the fact that obviously, and it was part of the original idea when desktop publishing came along, but then when online media came along and there was almost zero…certainly zero marginal cost of producing an article and almost a very low cost to actually creating a platform which you could publish. That was obviously something we talked about a great deal. We also started to talk about literally the fact that actually it put more power in the hands of the consumer than the publisher because search allows you to search for anything. So if you’re mad keen on fly fishing and you can’t get a fly fishing magazine, you can find everything you want to know about fly fishing online. I think one of the things we didn’t talk about enough was what that would do to politics, the ability to become isolated within a political sphere because there was no longer an editorial voice deciding what was and was not appropriate within either a newspaper, a magazine or on television.

The fact that anybody could publish anything meant you got extremist views — North, South, East, West — which were absent from general media, and it meant that the consumer no longer had someone editing for them. It also meant that you could read only what you liked because it was very rare. It would have been impossible for publication to only published extremist views around the world. In those days, the cost would have been prohibitive. Online you could do that. So suddenly people found themselves happily in their information ghettos only reading what they wanted to read, only conversing with people who agreed with them, and that polarization, which was one of the two big causes of polarization in the media today, I don’t think we talked about enough. The second is the advertising click-through.

BR: Yeah, I was going to say, even where you have publications that still have editors, there’s been a general move to sensationalism anyway because in an effort to attract eyeballs in an industry that’s funded by advertising, there’s the general sort of move to sensationalist and debasement of truth. So what you’re saying about the fact that anybody can publish anything leads in general to sensationalism, but also within organizations that still have editors, there’s a move to sensationalism as well.

IS: Sadly so. Even within good media and the mechanics of it, people don’t always understand, and again, in the old days, you not only had an editor decide what was worth putting in the paper, but they also decided what was on the front page and what went on the op-ed page and how the magazine was or newspaper was balanced. So whether they were left wing or right wing, whether they were a North or South paper in terms of development…

BR: What do you mean by North and South?

IS: So the North is traditionally the term was used for the developed nations versus the South developing nations, whereas left and right across the political spectrum. Whichever part of your particular spectrum you sat on, you decided what you thought was appropriate and you genuinely got rid of dross and you generally did fact checking and you generally created a reasonable quality product.

BR: Reasonably balanced.

IS: Yes. Now, some of it was entertainment oriented, so News of the World in the UK and The Post in the US and other places. There were magazines and newspapers which were particularly aimed at essentially sensationalism even before the internet came along. So they existed beforehand. What you’re talking about is the impact of click through. In the old days, the Times of London used to sell its advertising at 3,000 pounds a full page, and the Financial Times used to sell its advertising at 27,000 pounds a full page. That difference was because of the readership. We could define the readership based on who our subscribers were. Subscribers filled in a form and we knew more or less who they were. Telling the advertisers who our subscribers were was enough to justify the 27,000 pounds. That’s not enough anymore. They want to know, did they actually look at the article?

Did they click through to see the article? It’s not enough to say, give us the money for every page we put in our newspaper or online periodical because we’ve got great readers. The advertisers want to know did they look at it now. If you have to make sure that they looked at it, you want to make sure they look at it. To make sure they look at it, it’s hard to avoid tweaking the headline. It’s hard to avoid the words that are slightly more sensationalist. It’s hard to avoid if you’re ability to pay bills at the end of month is dependent upon advertisers saying yes because your readership has clicked through. It’s hard to avoid skewing and that’s unfortunately what’s happening in traditional media today.

BR: How worried are you about that as a media person, and also how do we get back? Can we set the clock back? Is the genie out of the bottle, and because I suppose if you’re an optimist, you might say that in the immediate reaction to Donald Trump’s election, you saw a big spike in the number of people subscribing to publications like the New York Times, like The Economist. Do you think its readers were starting to appreciate the importance of fact checking and started to appreciate that the truth costs money?

IS: I’m generally an optimist. I think one of the things that characterized — -one of the things at our birthday party last year with Conde Nast in San Francisco when Anna Wintour was on stage and asked us, had they done a good job of stewarding our magazine since they bought it, and was there a big difference between the magazine now and before? Louis’ response quickly was that the big difference was optimism.  When WIRED launched, we were optimistic about what the new technologies would do for our world, for our societies, about the positive things. Today, if you read articles about technology anywhere in the world in WIRED and elsewhere, there tends to be this concern — concern about privacy, concern about abuse, concern about all sorts of things. So it’s a very negative world. The two differences were optimism versus pessimism and I still remain optimistic. Everything comes in waves and there are all sorts of things that will eventually change. Certainly I start to see whether it’s on YouTube or whether it’s in certain small media, an attempt to tread a middle road, to define what really is news rather than opinion and then show what the opinions are and reflect both sides. Louis and I talked about the timing for a return to the center for whoever wanted to produce centrist media.

At the moment, the biggest market, the market you would logically launch an English language medium in would be the US because it has the biggest English language home market, but the space is still occupied by the television stations. They still garner a very big chunk — I’m not sure of the numbers anymore. I’m out of date — but they still collect a bigger chunk of the advertising revenue than the audience they attract with support. So their percentage of viewership is down to X percent and I think they’re earning one and a half to two X, whatever the numbers actually are, and the reason for that is it’s much harder to duplicate that by buying up a whole range of alternative media. It’s an easy way to get to a broader audience very quickly, and that advertising revenue is hard to attract until they go.

So if the three big broadcasters in the US fail, then I think you’ll see people jumping into the center again with alternative, both online and offline media combinations, and as I said, I already see an interest among friends and online for people to have something which isn’t so polarized. How much of that will remain, how much of this we’ll go back to the center and how many of us will prefer to sit in our left and right bubbles is too hard to say, but no, generally I’m an optimist and I see this as just waves and I see it actually as an opportunity for someone who wants to do something more balanced.

BR: And what’s the equivalent of Europe of the cable stations? Who occupies the center ground and who needs to be displaced in order to put in place sort of digitally upgraded centrist voice?

IS: The first thing to say is, of course is Europe isn’t Europe. It’s a whole series of countries and I hope it never becomes the United States of Europe because I like the difference of countries and food and cultures and attitudes and approaches and even governance. But within that environment you’ve got a whole bunch of different things. So the Swiss for example, had that vote. It was a year and a half ago about whether to keep funding central media and as someone who is interested in the idea of creating new media, you might’ve expected me to vote against it to clear the ground so that you could create something of value because it’s clearly a costly exercise to have a national news organization that transmits in three languages, but I didn’t, I voted for it because it provides national coherence. It provides a center ground basis for news that the US doesn’t have anymore, and there are other countries that are the same. The BBC is not bad. Every country in Europe has different national news stations and private organizations, so non-government supported that I think do a better job of holding middle ground than elsewhere at the moment.

BR: Is truth a public good? If we define public good as an economist would define a public good, i.e. something which is generally good for the public and if you create a bit like street lighting, whatever, it’s difficult to exclude other people from using it once created, and also it doesn’t diminish with more usage. So if it’s a public good and public goods are generally provided by government, would you advocate for the truth to be provided by governments? I can see how already framing it in that way could lead to a slippery slope, but where do you stand on that and the question of governments providing some level of public information?

IS: So governments are still collections of people and people are flawed and people have their views. I think allowing any one group — government or private or social or religious or political — to have the monopoly on truth or monopoly on the idea that they are the truth isn’t necessarily healthy for society. I also don’t think truth is easy to define. No matter what people say, everything is opinion to a degree, and I think truth is found by triangulation. So I think the right thing to do if you’re trying to have a society in which people are given information, which allows them to work out what the truth is to have multiple voices, but clear and fair and reasonable arguing the point and then we work out what’s truth in the middle. Very hard to find absolute truth, either in current media or in history, because it’s always written by someone with a point of view.

BR: Just want to go back slightly because you said that you’re an optimist, and one of the big differences between WIRED as it was and WIRED as it is now is around optimism.

IS: Optimism about the application of technology.

BR: Exactly because we would say that, I don’t think this is our term, but you’ve got this tech backlash, which is in general a lot of voices in society have said that tech is a bad thing. Tech is taking us in the wrong direction.

IS: I’m surprised people aren’t talking about the new Luddites yet.

BR: Yes. The neo-Luddites. Yeah, so my question to you is, I like you am an optimist and I think if you stopped believing that society’s getting better, then that’s when you get Donald Trump. That’s when you get Brexit, and so my question to you is, what’s the positive narrative that we should be injecting around tech? Could you make that for us in a very sort of short, pithy statement, if that’s not putting you under too much pressure?

IS: Let me do the easy stuff first. I’m of course a subscriber to the notion that tools are tools and it’s all about who uses it rather than the tool itself, and so there’s very little in technology. In fact, I can’t think of anything in technology which is normatively bad or frankly normatively good. It all depends on who ends up picking it up first and using it first, and so our perceptions about how things are affected by how someone uses it, and in the case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica having a clear and open story about one company misusing, and it’s both Cambridge and Facebook in allowing them to use the data. That one story very quickly made people worried and that worry has stayed because we haven’t seen a lot of evidence to the contrary that our data is being protected in any way.

So we are in an environment where, because it’s early, because some people on the not-so-good side, are faster at adopting something and then other people on the good side, again, — let’s define those things some time over a drink — are faster at adopting something, you have this wave of good and bad in application of technology. The reason I’m generally an optimist has nothing to do with the technology. It’s that generally I think people are good. So if you imagine it’s a wave of people going backwards and forwards, some bad people, some good people trying to make use of technology and there’s a lot of these than the only thing overarching that is if you think there are more bad people in the world, then it’s going to be generally negative. If you think there are more good people in the world, it’s going to be at some point generally positive, and because I think generally people are at heart good. I’m not worried about the technology because it’s neutral and eventually the number of good users is going to outweigh the number of bad users.

BR: Want to move to China? Because having lived there for so long, we’re very interested in hearing your perspective about China, and maybe we could start by trying to create a link between the conversation we’re having around media and China because one of the big differences we note between the Chinese internet model and the US internet model is that the US internet model is really predicated on advertising revenues and the Chinese one isn’t because the Chinese one is really built on micropayments. Which model do you think is more sustainable and don’t really want to get in the route of value judgment, but which model do you think is better?

IS: So first of all, I would question the initial premise.

BR: Ha, ha. You’re not allowed to question the question.

IS: There is advertising in China and there are micro-payments in the American system. So Amazon wouldn’t have survived if there wasn’t the ability to purchase things and some of the Chinese models wouldn’t survive if there wasn’t the availability of advertising to promote products on third party sites. So they both exist. But you are right that there are clear differences between the two models and they are as much based on cultural and economic contexts as they are in actual business model analysis. There was a great need for access to product, especially in regions outside the big cities which online suppliers provided in China. China is itself a massive market with very great differences between the poor areas and the rich areas, the areas that are more rural versus more city, because not all the rural are poor and not all the cities are rich. So that context means that certain things are more attractive to consumers than others.

Also there’s control of certain things. So much of the American, the beginning of the internet and the usage was about news and information and that’s heavily controlled in China, and so there wasn’t the space to attract news or enter information or enter entertainment oriented. There wasn’t the space allowed by the government to allow these companies to build, to DOE and some of the others notwithstanding. So it really was a transaction oriented market from the beginning, because information was controlled. So it’s the cultural and economic context and the governance context of the country which defined what business models were used first, and I don’t think either one is better. I think they’re both interesting. It does mean that the Chinese are greatly advanced on some of the eCommerce stuff compared to us because they just did that sooner and did it better and they have low tech with interesting high-tech components in it.

Now the telephone industry was fascinating when I first went there in the year 2000, 2001, 2002 when I saw very low tech telephones doing things that our smartphones weren’t doing yet, and that’s because that was the demand for transactions, for money, for payments and so on. So I don’t think you can say one is better than the other. I just think that they came at it from two different directions and there will be components of both going forward in both environments.

BR: If we believe that, again, coming from different directions, the US internet model is one where free speech is potentially under attack and the Chinese model where free speech was depressed, but where potentially there’s a big fight to open it up, how tenuous is free speech in the internet?

IS: It’s a good question. One of the reasons that we have the craziness on the internet in the United States is because it’s free speech, so people can say anything, which means you get all sorts of garbage at either end of the political spectrum, and that’s unfortunate for those people who are unable to judge whether it’s garbage or not, but it’s the fact that free speech is there that actually gives us the problems. Some would argue that the Chinese control would have never allowed that and therefore you wouldn’t get the polarization in politics that the US has if they had the Chinese model. Having said that, it’s also very clear that carefully stated and carefully presented, there is much more free speech in China now because of the internet than there was. It’s done in sometimes it’s an allegory. It’s done very carefully also. It’s very clear in spite of the increase in the monitoring of the internet that’s taking place in China and it’s constantly increasing both through applied machine learning and also people, they have also gotten looser in some areas. So it’s possible to be critical of certain things in China, which weren’t possible 15 years ago, and so there’s an interesting play. If you watch what they stamped down on and what they allow, it’s interesting and partly it’s because there are certain things that they would want to change in regions and by having the people talk about it rather than the government provides a push which is acceptable within the Chinese political sphere, which otherwise might be resisted by local governance in the region. So there are things going on which are interesting, but it is again a question of where each one started and what was allowed by the governing principles of the country at the time that defined where we’ve ended up. I’m not worried about free speech per se for the same reasons I’m not worried about the application of the internet in general because I think there are good and bad uses of it.

I do think what we need to do is provide a way for people to navigate. We talked a little bit earlier about the missing editorial role in traditional media. I think that’s starting to be played by individuals on the internet. So if I monitor, I still monitor Chinese media, both English language and Chinese language, but my Chinese language is not as strong as some, and so I have friends who have now built their businesses on monitoring Chinese media and providing external views for third parties, and I think that’s going to continue on, and those individuals act as editors because they provide a sense of what is sensible, what’s not and what the extremes are saying, and I think these independent editorial voices which allow us to navigate either languages we don’t know, but potentially subject matter or political areas where we’re a bit fuzzy on I think is a plus. And I think that’s the return of editorial guidance in the absence of a structure only possible because on the internet you can have independent revenue streams.

BR: And you think if we extend that analogy, this would be the equivalent of like having a blue tick on Twitter. These are people that have been independently verified as trusted sources.

IS: The problem with the blue tick is that Facebook decides who gets it and who doesn’t, and there are people I know who deserve one that don’t have one, and there are people I think don’t deserve when they do have ones, and Facebook’s decision about who gets the blue tick seems extraordinarily arbitrary at times, and also Facebook remember is driven largely by communities. If you read the legal text as I always do on these things, it’s community guidelines that decide as much as it is Facebook individuals, and if you get a very vocal community, whether it’s the religious community or an angry community, they can drive policy on Facebook because Facebook just simply doesn’t have enough staff to monitor it. So I don’t think it’s like the Facebook model. I think it’s more like the buyer ratings on Amazon or eBay or Taobao because the consumers themselves rate it, and it’s like book ratings. Although again, you get manipulation of book ratings, but…

BR: How would that get round this sensationalist problem, which is the things that get most read today are the most sensational? How would you get consumers to bid up sources based on their accuracy?

IS: So the sensation problem occurs when you’re going for mass numbers, absolute mass numbers. If you’re providing an editorial service, you’re not going to attract the mass people because they’re not interested. So the only people are gonna come to you are those people interested in editorial voice, and so in the first instance, you’ve naturally selected because of what you’re offering as a service. The others don’t care. They don’t want to look at it. But if you start providing a service, which is editorial, so you’re not writing, you’re not reporting, you’re just saying what’s worth reading and what’s not and why. You may be gathering the opinions around a particular area in a way that makes it understandable to people. That’s a worthwhile service and people are going to say yes, I liked it or yes, we don’t and if you offer example slightly biased towards one way or another, it’s going to be evident in the ratings very quickly. If you’re biased towards the left, the left is going to love you and the right is going to hate you. If your comments, negative and positive, are balanced, it’s a pretty good indication you’re doing a good job. I think in a subset, it’s mass media that suffers from the trolls and the noise and the inherent bias in trying to attract mass numbers. If you start to do it in a more segmented way, I think the problem is less.

BR: Do you foresee a world where everything is smaller?

IS: I do think we’re going to get segmented media. Yeah, definitely. In a sense, we already see this in consumer groups. Not in a big way yet. I expected to see more by now. I would have expected Facebook to be niched more than it has been and we still all use Facebook even though we complain about it, if nothing else as a means to review the media that we’ve signed up for. But yes, I expect more niche media to take over groups from the big mass media and that doesn’t mean they’ll die. It just means that we’ll have some niche media as well.

I, for example, one of the first media groups I look at in the morning is CNBC because it is business focused and because the headlines there are more attuned to the investments I have made and other things I want to worry about. And then I go to more general media afterwards and I have a bunch of things like that. There are even things I paid for. I’m a racing sailor and there’s not very many sources of racing sailor news available, so I subscribe and pay for the ones that are of interest to me. I think they’ll be more of that.

BR: You think there’s a future for you in the local newspaper you’re helping?

IS: I think there’s definitely a future for local news. I think there’s a future for niche news. The concept that we used to talk about in the magazine world is addiction. You want to be able to generate addiction on the part of your subscribers because they need to have that issue every month. They need to have that buzz of whatever the subject matter is that you’re talking about that they can’t get as well from anywhere else. Whether you’re able to do that depends on staffing and management and all the other things that go into building and keeping a company around, but I absolutely think there’s a market for it.

BR: Going back to China, the big news at the moment is Hong Kong, the Hong Kong riot. What’s your interpretation of the Hong Kong riots within a Chinese context? Because I suppose the simple lead for us is this is the autocracy of China under attack, but I think it’s probably much more nuanced, if you really understand that region.

IS: It’s complicated, of course. The 1987 agreement, which turned into the 1997 signature and handover between the British government and the Chinese government created a period of 50 years during which Hong Kong was supposed to have a semblance of independence, but it was always clear from the beginning that as soon as China was in control that they assumed it was going to be a transition of a time, not a 50 years on their own and then click… be part of China. The 50 years was hoped to give Hong Kong time whilst China evolved. At the time of the handover, China was much more closed than it is now post, but it was still much less the China of today, much less developed, and so there was the hope that, at the time when Hong Kong became fully part of China, that the transition will be less painful.

Clearly there are concerns. There have been concerns for some time, but they were elevated by one particular case. The notion that a Chinese citizen would be taken to China, extradited to China for prosecution that worried locals and is not an unreasonable concern, and China allows us certain leeway for certain places because they’re outside the boundaries. By the same token, they can’t be seen given it’s a big country and hard to manage to accept too much from anyone space cause they’re worried that would spread. And Hong Kong has a special case because of this arrangement and because it’s on a different side of the border and because Hong Kong’s position is clearly special within China, within Asia, but there’s a limit to what they’ll accept and the violence is, it’s a risk for Hong Kong. It’s a risk for Hong Kong’s people in general because at some point it becomes embarrassing and Chinese government doesn’t like embarrassment.

I’m surprised It looked like they were gonna come across the border with tanks a few weeks ago and it didn’t happen. So wise voices prevailed and it didn’t escalate in that way and they are patient so we’ll see what happens. It’s a tricky situation

BR: but do you think what’s at play is simply democracy in Hong Kong or do you think it’s also about wealth inequality and other issues that maybe aren’t talked about as much?

IS: All politics has all those elements mixed in. There are components that are economic based. I remember writing in my Master’s thesis about the fear that Hong Kong Chinese had during the handover talks that they weren’t gonna be able to make their money and get out before the Chinese came in. That sense of the big force across the border has always been there in Hong Kong. It’s part of what’s driven creativity and development there. Same is true in Singapore with its neighbours. I think all of these things are built into the Hong Kong question. I think it’s very hard to separate these things out, but as in anything which starts as one issue, people jump on board. Sometimes it’s noisy people who like breaking down walls. That’s not helpful and it’s dangerous for Hong Kong.

BR: Where do you stand on the question of economic growth in China? It’s clearly been an economic miracle, but some people argue that it’s a miracle that’s been sustained through a lot of cheap government debt over the last few years. Is China due or about to have a slowdown, and is it already having a slowdown that maybe isn’t being recorded as such?

IS: Suddenly the numbers that the government publishes both on its growth where we believe they understate it by the way, even at its peak and at the current level where maybe they’re overstating it need to be taken with a pinch of salt and usual external analysis and yes, clearly there is a slowdown already taking place and yes, part of the growth that took place and development took place was essentially free money, but not just from the government. It came from overseas. There’s a huge amount of foreign direct investment, which fuelled the growth that took place. There’s also a natural growth. You had hundreds of millions of people moving from farmland into the cities. You had the most Darwinian business environment you can imagine, where people who had not had the freedom to build economic models in their countries suddenly could, and there was this fierce, fierce, constantly fierce battle.

Foreign businessmen, friends of mine talked about in the nineties and later and even today about how fierce the competition is there. They were talking about how the Chinese companies treated them. But actually it’s how the Chinese companies treat each other. So it is a really quite Darwinian business environment, and I think that remains even with the slow down. Now a number of people have for some time been predicting a crash, and I, for one, am surprised that we haven’t had a bigger correction since. I’m sometimes surprised and sometimes not. They have very, very good bureaucrats, very, very good technocrats both trained in China and abroad, and they’re very, very good at managing complexity, and so maybe this, there is clearly a larger proportion of nonperforming loans within the local banks than is being declared, and the assumption has always been that the growth would eventually build within those areas to the point where the empty buildings would get filled and the empty highways would get filled and that, you know, if you’re patient enough, the holes would get filled by people moving in and growing and that the economy in general would grow and the developed population would grow, and the middle class would grow as it has done dramatically over the last 20 years. So in general, I’m not worried about Chinese growth. Yes, there’s probably going to be a correction. Will it be hard or soft? Hard to tell. Just super hard to tell.

BR: And you’re not worried that the trade war with United States is heaping an extra level of sort of exogenous pressure that will be difficult for these technocrats to manage?

IS: In a word, no. It’s a more nuanced answer than that. First of all, let’s say that I think that the complaints that the Americans and others have had about Chinese rules for engagement in China are warranted. IP control, which industries you had to have a local partner in and what they were able to do and the imposition of JV rules and so on, all of these things created a bias in favour of both China and Chinese companies, but that’s kind of what you’d expect since everybody wanted the market. So I’m not sure it’s unreasonable that they did this.

By the same token, it’s not unreasonable that people want to now reset the boundaries. China is no longer a developing country. A lot of things have happened and so to want to reset the rules I think is not unreasonable at all. The manner in which you do it as another question, and there are obviously issues about diplomacy or the lack of it, which might cause some concern, but the timing of it from the American point of view was the right thing. It’s only now with China in some sense of where growth is a little bit shaky and we are wondering about hard landing, soft landing. The US are taking advantage of that to try and get this change happening. So from the US government point of view, we’re leaving aside the manner in which it’s being done. It’s not an unreasonable approach and it’s not unreasonable timing.

From the Chinese side, I think it’s problematic only if it spreads to being a global issue. The US is one portion of its exports and exports are only one portion of the GDP of the market. I think if China decided that it didn’t care, it could probably play this long game for a long, long time and just refuse to sign anything and they’d be fine. So I don’t think at the margin the American pressure is enough to create a much bigger problem than they already have because the problem they have is significant. There’s the second question, which is the issue of the acceptance of the Chinese government amongst the Chinese population and many people have written about how people are willing to accept a lot of the things that government decides because the country is in a position where everybody can now make money. Everybody can do well. There’s an opportunity for everybody.

BR: So a tacit agreement…

IS: Yeah, so as long as opportunities remain then everybody says fine. It’s just the government. It’s the way they are. If that opportunity decreases, if people feel that they’re unhappy with governance and they can’t get out of whatever situation they’re in, they can’t do better and have their children lead better lives. Everybody in China lives for their children. Well actually they used to. That’s changing. I think that might cause issues which are as much political as they are economic.

BR: And is that the one thing that would cause China to change direction and change its relationship with the rest of the world? What do you think it might happen now with the existing pressure in the trade war?

IS: I’m not sure that any of this makes China change. The Communist party has a long history and a clear structure. Chinese governments through history have always had long memories and patience. I don’t think external factors are going to make China change. I think if China changes, it’ll be internal factors.

BR: If the future of the global economy is built on new digital network businesses and those businesses are coming out of China and the US and notably not out of Europe at least for the time being, what is the future of Europe?

IS: So it’s true. There was a chart that went around the internet had those big red balls on the left hand side, which represented all the Chinese tech companies and then the medium sized blue balls on the right hand side which represented all the American companies, second Chinese tech companies, so at 10 sentences and all the rest of it, and there’s this tiny collection of little yellow balls in the middle of which was European tech companies.

And so looking at it that way, it doesn’t look great for Europe, but that’s innovation and that’s the companies that are driving new models in the world. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff that goes on in incumbents and it’s not just development of technology that’s important, but how you use it. So since a lot of what I foresee about the application of tech in the future is thinking of it as a utility that permeates different components of your business, I think that Europe’s position isn’t necessarily disastrous because it’s not developing all the pioneering companies in this space. It will be disastrous if it’s not able to adjust its existing businesses, and so I would look closely at management, senior management in big incumbent companies to see what digital awareness there is. I do this already when I’m making investment decisions.

So public market investment decisions, I review the C-Suite in every company that I look at and I’m trying to find out if there’s anybody at that top level, that top layer so Chief Executive immediately below and then below that who is strongly digital aware for whatever reason. I look at their background, I look at their CVs, I look where they have been, I look where they studied, trying to assess whether or not, I think they have people who can make the decisions necessary when they’re made propositions either by third parties or their own staff. I think that’s one critical factor. It’s not the only factor of course, but it’s one critical factor for deciding whether I think a company is likely to succeed or not.

So it’s hard to answer your question. I don’t think it’s possible to answer your question just on the basis of where the pioneering has been done. There’s no question there’s more pioneering being done in both China and the US than in Europe, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s a function of smaller markets, lots of different languages, our approach to funding, the availability of previous entrepreneurs to feed back into the new entrepreneur community. There are lots of reasons why Europe is not leading in the space, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do well with the technology. It still has a lot of smart graduates. It still has a lot of smart business leaders. If they’re able to adjust, if business models are able to adjust, it could do fine. I do think that adjustment is easier in smaller countries than in the bigger countries, but we’ll see.

BR: I think we’re going to have to get you back for part two if you would be kind enough to come back, because there’s a whole section that we didn’t cover off around entrepreneurship in the social sector and all the great work you’ve done amongst others, WheelsPlusWings, but I’m going to ask you to finish with your assessment of the extent to which the social sector can take advantage of some of these same trends in digitalization and so on, and also the extent to which it’s realistic to think you can mesh entrepreneurship with the social sector.

IS: I’ve been a great fan of something called the Global Social Venture Capital competition and the implications of the competition for a number of years. I was a judge at London Business School in London and what it did, what the competition did, I think it’s based in the US and Wharton and North-western are the universities involved. Although I am out of touch now so I don’t know where it is at the moment, but it was the notion… It was a competition for business schools particularly to encourage MBA teams to solve social problems with the business model. I call them non-self-funding charities because the notion of social venture has so many fuzzy definitions, you have to define it every time you use it. So I think of it as self-funding charities, an organization which is totally organized around doing good, not just tangentially that happens to pay for itself.

I think that the guiding parameters of having to make sure that the thing makes money or doesn’t lose money and ennobles everybody involved in the process, which is a terribly important part. I’m a big believer in this, in the old notion of teaching a man to fish rather than giving them a fish because you teach them something which they can use to generate wealth for themselves or at least generate a living for themselves. That’s much nobler than having people rely on charity. I’m not a big fan of charity.

All the social projects that I’ve involved with over the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to make them self-funding rather than relying on the founder having to spend all their time with their hand out, begging for money to give to the right cause. I absolutely see a role. In fact, I think it’s the future of do good for people who want to try and change the world, coming from entrepreneurship background to understand how to build organizations from scratch, to understand how to lead people in a direction, to understand how to generate both funding and revenue in a marketplace that solves problem. I think it’s just a question of focus and I think we’re at a time when people are more aware. I know that the younger generation, Gen Z and the millennials are already attuned to that notion. At least a lot of them are. I have two daughters, now 28 and 25. The older one has her own sustainable food venture in London. She’s just going through her A Round.

BR: What is the company called? We’ve got to give it a shout out.

IS: Nibs etc. Nibs etc. is what it’s called. She takes fruit pulp from high quality fruit producers in and around London who would normally throw that away and turns that into really scrumptious snacks and granola and crackers and other things, so it’s a great approach to food waste, but the products themselves are actually yummy, so that’s nice. She was always a chef right from a very young age. Her problem at the moment is an interesting problem. She can sell more than she can produce. Everybody loves the product and the story is one that works well and she is someone who can sell well. The issue is production. She doesn’t have enough hours in the day with the staff she has to produce enough to sell what she can sell. She has orders coming in from companies for distribution within company buildings that she can’t fulfill. So she’s trying to find a sub-contractor at the moment, and of course the sub-contractors… she’s too small for them. So she’s at that space where she’s too big to manage with her staff so she’s hiring people, but too small for the subcontractors to produce for her, but you know, it’s a classic consumer product problem and it’s a good problem she has to face.

BR: It’s a problem that other entrepreneurs can solve for. It’s a Shopify for the consumer goods sector…

IS: Yes, and then the issue here is she needs a certain quality. Yeah. They also have to produce it a certain way. She’s very much… she’s consistent about ethics and values throughout the value chain of her business, which is the approach that I take to businesses and how I try to corrupt MBA students today is to have them think about all the components of the value chain, not just the end product nor the sourcing of funding.

So that’s Chloe and she’s doing amazingly well with this, and the second daughter is in private equity, and in a space which is a worthy space, which I won’t go into, so I think the younger generation already understands that you can apply business understanding and entrepreneurial methods to solving social problems, and I think that’s a big plus for all of us. The issue is the rest of us.

BR: I don’t even know where to begin to try to summarize this and maybe I won’t even try to summarize it other than to say, this has been brilliant. I knew it would be wide ranging. I knew it would be fascinating, but I didn’t realize I was going to be left feeling this upbeat about technology, future of the world and how younger generations are going to save us. So thank you very much, Ian. Thank you very much for your time and hopefully we can have you back on again.

IS: My pleasure. Happy to be here and yes, if you’d like more than that, I’m happy to come back.

BR: Thank you very much.