What a tale we weave

There can be little argument that 2020 has been full of surprises. Though we are dealing with our usual anxieties — interwoven with new ecological, political, and economic crises — this is not the end of the world. The only way you’ll see zombies shuffling down your street in ragged garb is if you happen to live on Wall Street.

It can be said that we live in interesting times. Those times are here to stay, and in all likelihood, will get even more interesting as time parades on. That’s not necessarily a curse for those who can deal with uncertainty, or who respond to change with agility. But for those who merely pay lip service to innovation? For those who zealously cling to their old habits? Or those who actively fight against the future?

Maybe it’s time to pull back the curtain.

The supply shocks we’ve seen in the past few months make for interesting case studies about how companies deal with adversity. The “Great Recession” heralded the demise of a 158 year old bank that was unwilling to adapt, but also marks the point when three roommates decided to rent out an air mattress and spawned the largest hospitality company on the globe.

You read that right. Airbnb is only 12 years old. And even though their logo looks like something that you probably want to keep covered, they don’t own any hotel rooms. The sweatshop that was (and is) San Francisco was able to weave together an innovation that exposed the flaws in the existing business models. Hotels and municipalities may lobby against it, but we’re not going back.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but you have to be willing to innovate.

I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety.

—Joseph Chamberlain, origin of the “Chinese Curse”, 1898

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Perhaps in this case, it should be The Enterprise’s New Clothes. After many years of marketing antics, PR campaigns, and focus-group-tested-messaging, you might be convinced that many corporations are innovative, agile, and forward thinking. You’d be wrong. Those companies have a profitable business model that they don’t want to give up because innovation requires that they disrupt themselves.

Instead, they’ve wrapped themselves in an illusory innovation garment. For example: my local airline touts their clever approach to combining plane and train travel, all while expecting 38.8% of customers to pay extra to offset their CO₂ emissions. That’s great!

Except, for a fraction of the price of a plane, KLM could have invested in ten virtual reality startups. I could potentially get to a meeting without ever setting foot in an airport. Seems a lot more sustainable, and probably more scalable, than getting another Boeing or Airbus.

As for the nay-sayers and the sycophants? The fable by Hans Christian Andersen that inspired this post provides an interesting take: they’ll try to convince you that the clothes exist, you just can’t see them. Which is surprisingly effective. Until we have a systemic shock: in his fable the young child, and in our case CoVID-19.


Made to Measure

Startups are particularly suited for these types of disruptions. Having been outsiders for so long, they are accustomed to such threadbare conditions. Most entrepreneurs don’t have the luxury of well-established and well-monetized value chains, which makes them very adept weaving through the obstacles that accompany these interesting times. It’s not a big leap of faith to believe that the next billion-dollar business model will trace its origins to today.

And for the rest? Half-measures will probably not suffice for long. It’s time to truly innovate — you’ve been exposed.

…[Y]ou did not mind kissing a swineherd for his toys; you have no one but yourself to blame!”

— Hans Christian Andersen, The Swineherd