My granddaughter, Dez, and I rarely see eye to eye. But we have a relationship where we are heavily dependant upon each other
I’m a bit like film director Robert Zemeckis who co-wrote the screenplay Back to the Future. I notice those little things that have disappeared, fond memories of my chilldhood, like service stations that actually had people who provided service.
Other pieces of Americana that have disappeared include the drive-in theater. And, the barber shop is going the way of the buggy whip, too. The barber has lost business to the hair stylist, perhaps because the social setting depicted by Norman Rockwell has largely disappeared. Too, styled cuts were favored by fashion-conscious customers who were not too shy to go to a hair stylist.
I’m one of those strange guys who cuts his own hair. When my kids were little, I tended to experiment on them in the kitchen, using techniques that I had gleaned from watching hair stylists and barbers. I won’t admit to any quality complaints. Sliding my fingers through the hair, I snipped. Easy enough, right?
Truth be told, I started my hair cutting experiments to cut costs. Sure, I saved some money, but the tradeoff was that it was rather messy. Needless to say, my wife was not happy with the tiny hair fragments that landed in unwanted places in the kitchen. We persevered, though.
Later I figured out a far better solution: cutting my hair in the shower. My refusal to go to the barber shop was perplexing to some. It was never about quality or convenience. I had found a way to trim my expenses.
As a result, I am no longer dependent on hair stylists. I doubt I will ever return.
Throughout history, great businesses have sprung to life and become successful because of their ability to alter dependencies. Whenever dependent relationships are disrupted, new markets appear.
In the past, we learned to depend on telephones because they met our basic need to communicate with other people. We learned to depend on grocery stores because they offered convenience and a seemingly never-ending supply of the foods we liked best. We came to depend on electricity, water, and natural gas flowing into our homes because they provided the creature comforts symbolic of a better life.
These types of dependent relationships are morally neutral, neither good nor bad. Rather, they offer a lifestyle option that we agree is worth the money we spend on it.
Innovation is a powerful force because it alters our dependencies, and in the process, creates new markets. Craig’s List altered our dependency on newspaper classified ads. As anyone who has advertised a garage sale can tell you, this traditional revenue source for newspaper publishers can’t compete with a free service.
Meanwhile, eBay and Amazon are providing sufficient income to eliminate the need for jobs for some. Why go to work for a grocer when you can set up shop on one of these Internet services selling barbecue sauce and novelties – for a song. These entrepreneurs have altered their dependency on their employer, and again, this has altered the flow of revenue.
Transportation and communication has been altered, too. The Internet has altered our dependency on traveling to and from an office. Faxes that once figured large in the workplace: gone. A lot of the fax transmissions these days are legal papers, and this business, too, is in jeopardy.
Commerce, it seems, is in a constant state of change because superior modes of doing business are quickly replacing unwanted practices. How many people actually preferred donning a tie, jacket and slacks (or skirt) and driving miles through hellish traffic to an office filled with distractions? Teleconferencing, web conferencing, cell phones, home computers and disdain for paying for expensive laundering changed all that.
Few seem to mind these incremental innovations. But disruptive technologies have a way of turbo-charging the whole change dynamic. Just ask the Luddites, the British textile artisans who had to be suppressed by the army during a particularly harsh economic period in the early part of the 19th Century. Displaced workers can become very surly. Ever since, Luddite has become the common term used to describe anyone opposed to technological change.
Disruptive technologies radically shift our dependencies and in the process, create new markets, and radically shift revenue streams. The streams, like haircut money, may seem minor on the surface, but when multiplied by the thousands, and possibly millions, who may be attempting it, we can see a significant shift happening.
The disruption scenario is being played out in the current print media war for lost dominance. Witness the recent death of the Rocky Mountain News: The former editorial staffers appear to have taken job loss in stride and now are engaged in an experiment to make web-only news publishing work. Interestingly, the rival Denver Post claims 95 percent of the Rocky readers were retained as Post subscribers. Under a joint agreement, the Post inherited the subscriber list and immediately began delivery to these customers. Its largesse may last as long as its Boomer-aged following stubbornly supports the lone print option or fades away.
The new web-only Rocky, meanwhile, has been abandoned by its initial backers.
The vanishing newspaper reader is one of the great puzzles for those trapped in a mindset that that media, and even journalism itself, requires printing presses with editorial staffs. Like haircut money, subscription money doesn’t have to leave the pocket – not when the alternative is free.
The disruptive potential in any technology lies in its ability to radically shift our dependencies, and this in turn leads to shifting revenue streams, shifting values, and shifting structures for power and control.
By Thomas Frey and Raymond Alvarez