Take Off Those Seven-League Boots

In this super-fast age of microwavable MINUTE Rice, instant messaging, and real-time stock quotes, I believe we’re seeing a new phenomenon: the Minute Company. These organizations spend precious little time building a strong foundation and much more time chasing venture dollars and issuing press releases in an attempt to build a huge business — yesterday.

The “get big fast” mentality entrenched in the online management culture belies what seems to be a business fact of life — miracles rarely happen overnight. Witness the ripe old age of U.S. corporate giants: GE was founded in 1892, IBM in 1911 (as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company). Even Microsoft was started in 1975, and Oracle in 1977. This is not to say that you can’t make a successful business tomorrow from a company you started yesterday. It’s just in how you go about it.

The seven-league boots are among my favorite items from fairy tales. Seven-league boots are, well, boots that allow the wearer to travel seven leagues (around 22 miles) at a single step — and they also make the wearer quite tired.

I would hazard a guess that along with growing fatigued when you’re wearing seven-league boots, you don’t get much of a chance to stop and smell the roses. Similarly, businesses wearing seven-league boots probably don’t get much of a chance to stop and think about what their customers need or want. Who’s got time to do usability testing on your flagship product when you’ve already issued the press release?

Pierre Morin, a London-based venture capitalist, has been quoted as saying, “Two years ago, entrepreneurs were PR agencies… I think we’ve learned that it takes time to build a company, and it takes time to make it successful.” It’s just like grandma always said: “If you’re busy talking, you’re not busy listening.” CEOs were expected to swagger along in their seven-league boots, talking a mile a minute about 2005 pro forma earnings, but no one was stopping to listen to the user, who was expected to contribute to those earnings.

It’s not that being successful is impossible. ActivMedia Research found that 57 percent of small businesses are profitable and 23 percent expect to be so in the next year. You just have to take off the seven-league boots, study what the customer wants, and take small steps until you deliver that. Or you can go too fast, overpromise, and underdeliver — and watch your stock price zoom down to the X axis.

One fine example is the rise and fall of the :CueCat. This, if you didn’t know, is the product that allows you to scan a bar code on a newspaper ad and have the correct Web site automatically appear on your computer. The company, Digital:Convergence, raised about $180 million. It plans to roll out 30 million :CueCats and has actually given away about 4 million. Its Web site touts 1.4 million registered users, but a media partner characterizes 2,000 to 6,000 “swipes” on a piece as a “lot of swipes.” I would guess that one of the primary reasons behind the low utilization is, aside from a long set-up process and serious privacy concerns, people don’t normally read newspapers and magazines while sitting in front of dialed-in PCs. I would think this to be obvious, but, sometimes, when companies start selling, they stop thinking about their customers.

Take off your seven-league boots, and listen to your customers. Maybe you won’t be an overnight success, but it’s certainly better than being an overnight failure.

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