Rebirth is Good. Not Dying in The First Place is Better

If business didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.

Because, social and economic impact aside, it satisfies some very raw human needs to strive and overcome. And the greater the obstacle the more compelling we find the story.

David and Goliath. Jack and the Beanstalk. Rocky. Good versus bad. Black versus white.

But in the real world, defining the challenge in such sharp relief is frustratingly rare. And subject to the vagaries of media coverage. If David versus Goliath was being staged next week, I for one would be paying more attention to the line in Vegas. And regardless of who wins, Goliath +10 takes some of the underdog romance out of it.

Owning a business gives us the chance to be our own hero. To do the right thing. To be brave and noble. To prove nice guys don’t have to finish last. And to find out whether we’ve got what it takes to withstand the tough times.

After all, the stories we admire most are those of the hero who - overwhelmed by adversity - rises again, phoenix-like, from the ashes. To fail, strive and ultimately succeed puts you among the pantheon of the greats.

Apple, Inc. for instance. Changed the world. Died. Reborn. Iconic. All in less than a quarter of a century. But while we celebrate their genius, we angst about what happens when their heroic figure is no longer with us. As a business model it’s worryingly biblical.

It seems to me that companies that are able to reinvent themselves following their apparent demise usually exhibit similar qualities. Innovation. Absolutely. Determination. Unquestionably. Self-preservation. Evidently. But a study of their original DNA finds little evidence of self-awareness.

I like to tell the story of Kodak. Since 1888 they have been a film company. That’s what they sold. That’s what we bought. Everyone knew, so no one asked, but if any one did they said, ‘we’re a film company.’

Except they weren’t.

Kodak was an image capture company. As it turned out, we didn’t care which medium they used to capture the image - we just cared about the image. And once someone showed us we didn’t have to drop it off to get it processed and could have the results immediately, we all decided we preferred that approach. And since Kodak didn’t do that we went and found people that could. Like Canon. And Nikon. And Fuji. And Sony.

Kodak - who had defined ‘pictures’ for all of us - were left wondering what happened.

To give Kodak credit, they’ve worked really, really hard at reinventing themselves. And ultimately perhaps they’ll succeed. Today, they define themselves as an ‘imaging innovator’. They’ve invested heavily in developing and acquiring printing and scanning technology. They manage digital workflows. They sell ink and software, and they’ve developed revolutionary anti-counterfeiting technology which embeds invisible markers into ink and glue which can be used on any packaging, and seen only through Kodak scanners. They also still sell 35mm film to movie and commercial producers. A boutique business in a digital world.

But they’re not a film company. They never were. And it took the death of an industry to make them realize it. And 100 years of industry dominance to pay for it.

As an example of rebirth, Kodak’s story is one to admire.

As a reminder that you need to know why you’re in business to begin with, it’s even better.