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Who’s In Charge Here?

In the last post, I talked about using a bank machine in a foreign country as an example of cooperation among strangers. Transactions like that happen a billion times a day, and all this activity seems to take place without anyone controlling it. To me, that’s a modern miracle. To people who believe somebody needs to be in charge, it’s a nightmare. “But what if… ? What if… ?” they say.

Technology is neutral territory.

The French philosopher Jacques Ellul would have agreed with them. Ellul was one of the first to observe that technology was growing into a single, all-encompassing global system. He saw technology as a dehumanizing force, removing all the moral and ethical quality from society.

Interestingly, however, some 40-plus years after Ellul first wrote about it, this system continues to operate successfully because of countless local and personal agreements: It turns out that everybody’s taking care of their part of the game.

Instead of diminishing humanity, I’ve seen technology make it increasingly possible to take action as an individual in ways that simply weren’t available when I was born. In the forties and fifties, we lived in an age of conformity. People’s lives were directed by big systems. You couldn’t bypass General Motors or The United Auto Workers Union; they had ways of not allowing you to succeed. There weren’t the same means of innovating, marketing, finding an audience, or introducing productivity and tools into your business as there are today.

Now technology gives millions of individuals access to capabilities that were once the preserve of large organizations. As a result, the market is a much more open playing field.

Always bet on the world.

The flip side of this new reality is that anybody who’s expecting to be protected or sheltered from the big players in this game will be sadly disappointed. There are all sorts of ways of living peacefully with the Walmarts and Tescos and Targets, but you can’t compete on their ground. Writer and philosopher Albert Camus said that in any conflict between you and the world, always bet on the world.

A lot of people who misunderstand this talk about things like “the oppressive capitalist system and its technologies.” My own working definition of “the world” here is “the center of human progress” — and what constitutes human progress is always moving and changing. It isn’t a fixed point. The whole system is made up of individuals who are finding more productive and profitable ways to change their situation in a positive way and figuring out how to cooperate with other people to do it.

Gradually, this takes on big forms — and then when the big forms get too big and start to be about self-preservation rather than value creation, they crumble. Bypasses get created, and we go right back to the innovator. Smart entrepreneurs can capitalize on the opportunity created by this cycle by staying at the forefront of innovation. The key to doing this is to focus on understanding and responding to the changing needs of your best clients.

Capitalizing on your unique qualities.

Earlier this year, I was asked by a U.K. newspaper to provide business coaching to an entrepreneur whose company was facing a big challenge: He had a very successful brand of food products for people with coeliac disease (an extreme food sensitivity to wheat gluten), but now the supermarket chains who carried those products were developing their own brands, and in some cases taking his products off the shelves — even though they were bestsellers.

The standard advice he’d received went along the lines of minimizing costs, rebranding, or developing a new website. But, to me, these short-term fixes didn’t tap into his key advantage, which is the trust and relationship he’s earned with people in the community he serves. His company’s products can be commoditized, but his relationship with these people can’t.

My suggestion was that he should leverage that relationship, packaging his company’s brand, reputation, and expertise into an overall solution in which products play just a part. This would elevate him to a premium position that the supermarkets just couldn’t touch. (Read more about this in the Expert View article in the Daily Telegraph.)

Large chain stores can’t provide personal relationships — and they’re not in the business of providing them. The problem arises when I go into a Walmart, and I’m treated better than I am in a local store. That local store has one advantage: They can know me and treat me better as an individual, and they ignore that advantage at their peril. In the multiplier world, you’ve got to find out where your advantage is. That’s the place where you can take charge and create your own game that others will want to imitate (though it will likely take them some time to figure out how).

Entrepreneurs are always feeling around for where the new center is. Not only that, in today’s multiplier world, they’re also the ones who are doing the most to create the new center.