The X Factor: Survive, Adapt, Repeat
February 4, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
If you are like me and you have been working for at least 30 years, you are supposed to be rich by now. Isn’t that the American dream? To be an entrepreneur, to cut your own swath through the business world, to find your niche and expand it, to be safe. So it is with us personally, so it goes for most of the millions of companies that are trying to stay in business in the world. Isn’t this supposed to be a lot easier than it is? What on earth is wrong with the economy–I mean the global one that we can’t escape–that it can create and destroy jobs and wealth so quickly?
Don’t look at me for answers. At least not yet. But I am thinking about these issues a lot these days.
I have been involved in the newsletter publishing business in one form or another for more than two decades, and I have buried more than my share of publishers, and have managed to keep essentially the same IT editor job, through many incarnations, for so long that I am quite honestly not sure if I can do anything else. One of my jobs–because in this modern economy, don’t we all need to have two to make ends meet–over at Computerwire survived at least four different owners until in January 2008 the work that I did for that online newsletter was finally outsourced to a new bureau the company set up in India. I bear the Indian writers no malice, but I must tell you, after precisely 18.5 years on that job, I feel a bit adrift. I survived the three founders of Computerwire by five years at their own company–one of them, Tim Palmer, died a decade ago, forever changing the publication and its business arc in my opinion, and not for the better. I sometimes feel like the last dinosaur, but the fact is, only some of the dinosaurs adapted when the meteors were flying, and they are today called birds. This is a tricky business, this surviving. And it is a lot harder than I expected.
Even in the midst of the dot-com bubble bursting, when I lost yet another job that led directly to the creation of the third incarnation of The Four Hundred, I remained naive and hopeful. The first incarnation of The Four Hundred was on paper from 1989 through 1996, followed by my first run at the Web from 1996 through 1998 (when I folded my company after failing miserably at transitioning from subscription-based paper newsletters to advertising-supported Web newsletters), then a stint from 1998 through 2001 at Midrange Computing writing its Monday Morning AS/400 Update, and then MC went bust and I started what was called Midrange Server and rekindled The Four Hundred, eventually changing the domain to IT Jungle in 2003. And here we are in 2008, and I must tell you, some Mondays, when I start rolling that IT news and analysis rock up the hill, as I do every week, I am amazed that I am still doing this, that I have the energy to get it done.
So far, so good. And I have an excellent, top-notch, motivated, and underpaid team who push their own rocks up the hill every week at IT Jungle. I am amazed that they put up with all of this, too, but we do get some perks, like working from home and a certain amount of flex time. The work is rewarding, too, and we take pride in what we do. Even though we are a small team by comparison with CNET, TechTarget, Computerworld, and the other big IT trade rags, if you look at output per employee and the quality of the work product, we put them all to shame. And we know it, too. And that is the only way I figure we are still in business. If I had any plan to be in this racket at all when I started with $500 and a dream in 2001, it is simply this: Put every God-blessed, hard-earned dollar into content. This is not how traditional publishers work, of course. So that’s their problem. Maybe they should pay attention.
If I am amazed at still being in business, I am absolutely flabbergasted, stymied, and perplexed about how hard it is to expand a business. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the companies that have survived decade after decade as the world changes around them and competitors and other market forces try to crush them out of existence. For my part, when I started my second publishing company in July 2001, after losing my job the week my second child was coming into the world, despite all of the red ink I saw in the IT market and in IT publishing, I remained optimistic about the prospects for my company. A year into this Guild Companies experiment–the name so chosen because I like the idea of trade guilds because of the intense connection of small teams, and the maneuverability they have compared to monolithic corporations–I was pretty well convinced that my basic model of carving up the IT industry by platforms and providing four newsletters–one for strategy and tactics, one for products, one for tech tips and longer tech articles, and one providing a weekly summary with a calendar of events–was going to allow me to grow from four newsletters to maybe 20, and to do so in maybe two years.
I am going to get a beer now as I think about the next sentence. Hey, it is 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in America, and I have been doing household and company business throughout the day; my wife is still at work downtown. I am allowed to have a beer, since I am helping to raise the average productivity of the American worker by putting in my zillionth weekend in a row.
Suffice it to say, building out the IT Jungle newsletter stack has proven a lot more difficult than I expected, and one of the reasons why is that I engaged in a bit of linear thinking. The IT recession hit harder than anyone expected, competition is fierce in all IT publishing, content costs keep rising, and so on. But the issue is even larger than that. You can see the linear thinking in the IT Jungle up there in the top right corner of every page–“Survive, Adapt, Thrive.” It’s a one-two-three step process and, wham! Success.
The fact that I can and do laugh about the limits of my own linear thinking, and how it has affected this little enterprise I am the captain of, is just another proof point that I love what I do, no matter the immense grief and stomach churning that comes with meeting a payroll. (Haven’t missed one yet, knock on wood.) To my amazement, I like employing people. I like knowing that I treat them as well as I treat myself. It is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I will tell you, it cuts against some pretty heavily reptilian parts of the human brain to do that. But when you love your employees, you can wrestle that alligator, tie him up, and put him in the corner. Greed, Gecko, is most definitely not good. Natural, perhaps. But that’s why we have higher order functions in our brains, right? It’s why we write down laws and commandments, too.
Every person, every business, is not involved in this linear progression from one state to the next–from poor to rich, from niche player to monopoly, from newbie to professional, whatever. We are actually stuck in a loop: Survive, Adapt, Repeat. This is a cyclical thing, not a linear thing. And that is a pretty tough pill to swallow, because it means you are never really safe, you are never really done. You always need to reassess where you are and what is going on around you. You always need to reconfigure the parts of your life and the world at hand and do a min-max analysis of costs and benefits and revenue potential. You have to try new things, and there is not a lot of room for error. If you screw up, you lose your job and maybe your house, your spouse, and your right to see your kids; if you run a business, you can lose for yourself and help your employees lose, too. There’s no pressure. Just throw the perfect Hail Mary pass and don’t get intercepted.
Right here, right now, I want to thank everyone who ever gave me a job. I had no idea until a few years ago how hard this really is. It is one thing to be self-employed, which I have done before, but it is quite another thing to keep other people employed. And I am grateful to all of the companies who took a chance on me and let me learn my craft. (One of my crafts, anyway. There will be others, I hope. I plan to live a long and fruitful life.) I am also grateful to my employees and our contributing authors, who keep me focused and motivated, and who work very hard every day–and often on weekends, just like me, and just like a lot of you. But it is more than that. I am in the trenches beside my employees, and there is nothing I would ever ask them to do that I wouldn’t do myself. When we are together, we are stronger, the product is better, than it could ever be if I tried to do it by myself. This is what a company, a companion, is all about, and it is also something that a corporation, some kind of legal superhuman that can’t be killed created by lawyers and other rich people, can never embody. Every day, I work hard to be worthy of their support, and they have been amazingly resilient and adaptive as we have done different things different ways in this company to keep alive.
A few years ago, when I was talking to a Wall Streeter who was starting his own hedge fund, I explained the credo I developed after I had been an employer for a few years: those who can work, must work; those who can employ, must employ. This is the engine from which civilization is spawned. Without that, the Bill of Rights is utterly meaningless. It all started with work, and we all need some to give us money and meaning. Period. It also shows how far we have to go as economies in the West, which have spent three decades moving manufacturing of real goods and then software and services overseas in the endless pursuit of profits. I want presidential candidates in the United States who have made jobs, not just money. Making money is easy–or at least easier than making jobs–so I am not impressed if you are rich. Show me your payroll and the benefits you give your employees. Show me how it has grown over the past decade, and how you have done this. Then maybe I will get envious. Impress me by the number of people you did not fire when times were tough. (I would like to give a shout out here to Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems, who told Wall Street to go stuff it and kept as much of his staff for as long as possible to rebuild the company after the dot-com downdraft. That’s hard, and you take a lot of grief for it.)
While getting rich is not all it is cracked up to be, having some profits sure is. If profits are good for anything as a business or as an individual, it is to provide the means–in terms of time and space, which all come down to money in an economy–through which a company or a person can adapt. Forget thrive. It is a short-term phenomenon to be enjoyed while it happens, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you survive and adapt, you are on Easy Street. Even monopolies have issues. Look at the machinations IBM has gone through from the late 1960s through today, moving from a systems company to a services company, or Microsoft‘s eagerness to spend $44.6 billion to acquire Yahoo just to stay relevant in a Web world it helped commercialize with the widespread adoption of Windows PCs with Internet access. As much as we all keep the feet of IBM, Microsoft, and others to the fire, IBM has been around for nine decades as a profitable company, and started out selling meat slicers, scales, time clocks, and punch card tabulating machinery. For all the genius Bill Gates is credited for having as he has grown Microsoft, IBM has done it longer and through more tough times than Microsoft will probably see. If we are lucky. But who can tell, the way the world’s economies are wired together like a big nasty spaghetti mess of legacy application code?
And inasmuch as a company owes it to its employees to adapt in order to survive, then it owes them a profit margin that is sufficient for adaptation. Beyond that, profits are just some means for an owner–be they a single proprietor, an overpaid executive, or a shareholder who benefits from a rising stock price on Wall Street–to benefit from the sweat of other people’s brows. I am no communist, mind you, and I am a capitalist in the tradition of the original Puritan work ethic–work hard, save as much as you can, do as much good as you can. So don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t think that all employees can and should be paid the same at all levels of a company. (At Guild Companies, it is pretty close to equal, but I think that is just a function of our tiny size.) But I do think that the pay gap is too large in businesses the world over today. I am with Henry Ford, who knew that if he wanted to have people buy his cars, he had to pay them a living wage that would allow them to do so and thereby become his biggest and best source of advertising for the idea of owning a Ford automobile. I think the desire for profit and growth at all companies and among all economies has to be balanced against providing jobs for workers by day and stability for citizens by night. Then, we can do our parts as employers and workers, and as citizens. And boy, do we ever have a lot of work to do on both fronts.
And with that, I would like to thank the readers of the IT Jungle for their continuing interest in our publications, and I would also like to thank the many advertisers who make it economically possible for us to put together our products every week. We are all in this IT ecosystem together, and IT Jungle is proud and grateful to be able to do our part. Personally, I am glad that I don’t have to drive a cab in New York City–not just yet, anyway. We’ll see how 2009 pans out. . . .