Outcome Unclear: Rooting for the Companies in the Middle
Watching everyone learn is like looking right into the future.
I see a lot of companies up close, and I probably talk to 100 or 200 organizations a year. As the last month has unfolded, I’ve started dividing places up in my head:
- Basically Fine;
- Outlook Unclear;
The “Whatevers” are the massive orgs, especially the digital ones. They can pull up the drawbridge. They’re nation-states, and they’re fine. They’ll have bad quarters but will be fine. Maybe they’ll get in trouble a year from now, as newcomers nip at their heels, and they’ll acquire the newcomers.
Postlight is a “Basically Fine.” Anxious, but with a product (digital product strategy and development services) that continues to be in demand, and a good mix of clients from different industries. Companies like ours are basically taking it a day at our time, getting our work done, paying our folks, and keeping our mouths shut (i.e. dialing down marketing spend). No one wants to hear much from us right now.
The “Oof”s are big and small enterprises that had a finely tuned business model that they optimized relentlessly — the magazine publishers who were holding on to newsstand sales to drive revenue and juice up their subscription numbers, spending money on promotions and direct mail instead of building good digital. Or the events company that was thinking about a building a big unified platform then decided just to focus on installing new trackers on its many websites so that it could market more fiercely. Anyone whose business involved people doing things in space, who was purely focused on optimization over growth — well… oof. Because there’s not much left to optimize.
Rich and I spend most of our time talking about the “outcome unclear” organizations — the places that have been forced to respond quickly in order to keep going, but that are finding new ways of working and operating. The wholesalers who have started delivering direct-to-consumer. The farmers’ markets that have banded together into one common online shopping experience — and are now, suddenly, shipping boxes of food to your house if you pay them.
A few weeks ago I helped notarize a will over Zoom. Last night my spouse jumped on a Jitsi call doing mutual aid for food distribution in the neighborhood — there’s a lot of food insecurity in this part of Brooklyn — and she was immediately welcomed for her Airtable skills (she also said she was probably the only person over 30). She described a system where people can call in to a Twilio and leave a message describing their food asks, and the audio is auto-transcribed and both audio and transcription are added to an Airtable database, at which point it enters a queue for transcription review and editing by any available volunteer. It reminds me a lot of how we all reacted after Hurricane Sandy — but things have come a long way in the last eight years.
Every commercial today is the same, and I don’t really care how Toyota cares about me. Toyota doesn’t care about me. But I love, love, love to see people hack things together. The local Vietnamese restaurant has organized a curbside pickup with a two hour order window, along with Venmo for furloughed staff — global systems, applied locally. Knowledge is starting to get out there, about doing things very quickly with Shopify, Stripe, WordPress, Google Docs, Mediawiki, Notion, Salesforce, Airtable, Netlify, Discourse, Glitch, plus millions of other open source tools and open APIs.
Silicon Valley VCs want us to “build” right now, but build what? It’s like telling someone sitting in a field of wheat that you’re ready for your pizza. We probably don’t need more blockchains or skyscrapers. We probably do need more bike lanes and nurse practitioners. But who the hell knows?
Don’t build! Because you’ll build the same damn thing you built before. Make lists of broken things. Hospitals shouldn’t have to cut salaries in a crisis; schools shouldn’t be food banks, telemedicine shouldn’t have waiting rooms. The future is right in front of us. It’s ugly as hell, and it’s being hacked together on mobile phones. Learn new tools and think how the tools could fix the broken things.
Looking at big systems and press conferences is staring firmly into a bad old past that is absolutely collapsing. Watching everyone learn, do new things, glue together new tools, introduce themselves to each other, create new products or services, sell, and cajole — it’s like looking right into the future. I wish we weren’t all here, but we are, with a lot of systems failing around us. But the people keeping it together by trying whatever comes to mind, to make it better, in public, backwards in house slippers — they have my eternal respect and gratitude, because even if someone else is going to take the credit, they’re the ones leading the way.
Paul Ford is the co-founder and CEO of Postlight. Want to talk about your business and where you want to go? Reach out at email@example.com.
Story published on Apr 29, 2020.