Philip Pfeffer of Borders bites the dust. Eckhard Pfeiffer of Compaq is tossed out.
All over the place, CEOs who lacked foresight on digital impact are dropping like flies. These are people with years of experience, proven business expertise, and a lifetime of achievement behind them, not a bunch of failures barely holding on. But each failed to realize the momentous effect of the web on their businesses, and they’re out.
I’ve got to admit, I feel sorry for them. And they aren’t alone. In my business I come into contact with plenty of people like them. People who’ve got more business experience in their little finger than a whole room of 20-something cyber-entrepreneurs, but somehow had a major blind spot when it comes to taking the business into the next century. They’re scared. They’re intimidated by technology. And their days are numbered .
Unless they can adapt, And they can.
I’d like to help. If you’re a CEO who’s been brought to the edge by the web, here are 10 tips that just might help you keep your job.
The days of being able to craft five-year plans and grand expansion strategies based on gradual change are over. Done with. Today, business moves at the speed of the Net, and if you’re not making fast decisions, taking advantage of new opportunities, and moving into expanding markets, you’re missing out. Do something.
There’s an old adage in the computer book business that the first book on any new technology always sells twice as much as any book that comes after it. Having been in that world, I know it’s true.
And as Barnes and Noble discovered when they went up against Amazon.com, being first is a huge asset. Being the first out the door with a product, a service, or a new concept means staking out the high ground before your competitors get there. Look at eBay — while there are plenty of folks looking to get into the online auction biz, they’ve got a lot of catching up to do against eBay’s brand equity. If your company’s got a good idea, don’t sit around and play the “but nobody’s ever done that before” game — do it.
In the same way, don’t be afraid to try stuff. The barriers to entry on the web are still pretty low and, being digital, nothing has to be permanent. Experiment. Test concepts. Try new things. If one ad’s not working, try a new one. If people seem to be missing stuff on your web site, try re-arranging things. It’s not like you’ve got to recall thousands of printed brochures if you make a mistake — the delete key should become an integral part of your strategy. Think continuous improvement. Live in the land of the prototype. Once you consider a product finished, it’s dead.
The web ain’t TV. The web ain’t print advertising. It’s a two-way medium that gives you an unprecedented opportunity to get immediate feedback on your efforts. Leave the lines of communication open. Solicit comments. Let your customers contact your workers directly. Forget about the corporate communications gatekeepers and educate your employees to work directly with customers at all levels. Open up.
These days, there’s probably some other company out there that does one aspect of your business better than you do. Make friends with them. Become partners. Swap services. If you’re a small company who rules your niche, find other companies with complementary services and partner.
This strategy’s been working in the software world for years, and consortiums and partner networks are becoming de facto companies themselves. In today’s networked economy, no one is an island, and no one could be if they wanted to be. Put out feelers and then shake the hands that reach out to you.
Listen carefully — the web is a global network. Unless you’re in a business that provides local services only, if you’re on the web, you’ve got to consider the fact that your country’s not the only one online. Europe, Asia, and South/Central America are gaining ground fast on the US when it comes to Internet usage. Hire a translation service. Look for opportunities in other countries. Make sure that there are several clocks in your office set to different time zones.
Many of your most loyal customers probably know more about your products than you do. They know more about why your products or services are better than your marketing folks. Read the email that comes in. Respond promptly. Form virtual review boards of your most insightful customers and give them incentives to participate. Use beta release programs with your customers rather than formalized market research. The Open Source movement and the ubiquity of the “permanent beta release” versions of software on the web show that better products come out of hearing what your customers have to say. Listen up.
Forget corp-speak. People online have very finely tuned BS detectors. They know when they’re being marketed to and they don’t like it. People aren’t looking for commercials — they’re looking for detailed information to assist them in their buying decisions. I once had a person in a focus group point out (rightly) that “every click on your site seems to get me halfway to the truth.” We changed the site. Speak the language of clarity and truth.
If you’re a CEO with years of experience growing a company, you know a lot. Don’t be intimidated by technology or (even for a moment) think that everything you know must be thrown out the window. It doesn’t. You’ve learned a lot of hard lessons on the way to the top and a lot of those lessons work as well now as they ever did — they might just have to molded into a new context.
Sure, the web and the Internet represent a whole new territory and a whole new set of rules, but the principles that got you where you are now probably still work if you can re-package them in the wrappings of the new economy.
Finally, think big. Dream. Let your imagination run free. We live in a world of unprecedented opportunity and potential where just about anything you dream up can be realized in one form or another. But it takes vision. It takes the courage to try the crazy idea and keep working at it. Five years ago many people were still thinking that the web was going to be the CB radio of the ’90s. Others had the vision to take the potential they saw and shape a new economy. Look forward with imagination.
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