The Opposite of Extinct


Posted on January 1, 1970 by Blake Leath

I’m on an airplane now, straddling three cities in two days, and just wanted to share a few thoughts before they broke free like so many logs trapped in a tide pool.

In the early 90s, I had the great fortune to serve as one of several facilitators for a War Game hosted by Kodak in New York.  In attendance were executives from Hallmark, Wal-Mart, Apple, Sandia National Laboratories and, of course, Kodak.  Former PepsiCo CEO (then Apple CEO) John Sculley was there, along with other key industry leaders and thinkers. 

The topic was futuring, and I remember like it was yesterday – the CEO of Kodak stood before this group of eighty luminaries and commented, almost offhandedly, “I can’t envision the day when consumers won’t want to hold a photograph in their hands.”


I was stupefied.  Even little ‘ol me could see how wrongheaded this was, and I was a green outsider with nary three years’ experience.  Granted, the digital era was just upon us – cell phones were still the size of shoe boxes and Polaroid photos were cool at parties, but nonetheless, the outlines of the future were clear enough – hence, the War Game.

Fast-forward a decade.

Down from 57,000 to 10,000 employees or so – with the photography market primarily digitized now – Kodak failed to realize they were in the ‘memories’ business.  They mistakenly believed they were in the ‘photograph’ business.  The 2009 demise of Kodachrome color film (a seventy-four year success) is representative of their tragic and disappointing fall.

And the Ray-Ban that was once owned by Bausch & Lomb failed to realize they were in the ‘fashion’ business, mistakenly believing they were in the ‘highly engineered eyewear’ business.  That’s why today, the Ray-Ban we all grew up with is now owned by Italian behemoth, Luxottica.  (Oakley and the like cleaned RB’s clock in the late 90s and Luxottica gobbled up B&L’s namesake for a song.  But hey, maybe that’s okay; it’s easier to profit from salt-water solutions than try and manage unnecessarily complex, multinational eyewear manufacturing sites.)  To add insult to injury, Luxottica has now purchased Oakley, too, making the Italian manufacturer the largest eyewear company in the world.   

By the way, Avon and Mary Kay are not in the ‘cosmetics’ business, they are in the ‘hope’ business.  As long as they remember this, all the better. 

I see at the magazine stand the latest Fast Company issue noting that Nokia (who entirely upended Motorola by providing digital phones when analog was all the rage) is realizing they should be a ‘media’ company, not a cellular phone manufacturer.

Bingo.  Welcome to the epiphany, guys.  Enjoy competing with Apple, who realized this long ago.  And with NBC/Universal/Hulu and Google and Microsoft/Yahoo! and so many others who also populate the field.  It will be tough slogging for all players.  But it’s a game worth playing and one that must be played in order to survive.

I wonder who – which company – ‘known’ or ‘unknown’ will upend the media market for the next decade....

There are few, if any sanctuaries from the battles; no tide pools for organizations who want a breather.

So on and on it goes – organizations realizing more and more what business they should be in, or actually are in.

I wonder where Amtrak would be if, decades ago, they had thought to be in the ‘transportation’ business rather than the ‘railroad’ business.   

Whether you are the Girl Scouts of America, the University of Michigan, NASCAR, or the Catholic Church – you better know what ‘business’ you’re in1.  What do you produce?  Whom do you serve?  What do you provide?  What (gag me with a spoon) is your ‘value proposition?’ 

Whether we like the jargon or not, we avoid the question(s) at our own peril.

(And don’t bother being the world’s best buggy-whip maker.  That market’s taken, and it’s a limited one.)

So how shall you proceed?

As usual, start with the simplest question: “If we went away, who loses what?”

Whether your organization is a synagogue, a national park, or the world’s best widget manufacturer, all must ‘serve some purpose’ and ‘answer some calling’ and ‘provide some value.’   Consider the market, unmet or unarticulated consumer/client/customer needs, and what benefit(s) you can provide in effective, efficient, unique, meaningful, or advantageously sustainable ways.

Because remember, the day will come when people won’t need to hold a photograph in their hands and, when it does, it’d be nice to know you’re still in the picture.

1Relax – I don’t mean this ‘literally’ as in – “Business” with a capital B and ‘for profit’ and all that.  I just mean – know what you’re doing and why and for whom.