A 1996 BusinessWeek Article Revisited

A self-described pack rat last week showed me something he’d discovered while sorting through a stack of magazines that should have gone into the recycling 20 years ago. There, on the cover of BusinessWeek, Sept. 23, 1996, blared this headline:

“Can you make money on the Net? Some pioneers are doing it. Here’s how.”

The special report inside included profiles of innovators like Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon website was just two years old but would eventually rise to the top of the e-commerce pyramid. Other featured “Netrepreneurs” were also flying high, and their overnight successes left the impression that these visionaries had figured out the key to prosperity on the fledgling World Wide Web.

Looking back, it’s clear that nothing was really figured out. Then, as now, a rising industry does not raise all boats. Infoseek, one of the most popular web browsers in 1996, was eventually replaced by Yahoo. CDNow, a company that rose to 400 employees by 2000, later ran into financial trouble, changed hands, and was eventually sold to – Amazon.

This was a healthy reminder to me that, as business leaders, we can never let ourselves believe that we have it all figured out, or that rosy skies today mean clear sailing ahead. We can only really address the challenges that confront us now and make educated guesses about what may come. Changing customer preferences, public perceptions, competitive forces and the technology we depend on all compel us to be constantly vigilant in responding to the marketplace in which our customers operate.

Companies like CDNow learned that lesson the hard way. And if you’re in business any length of time, those hard lessons will surely come in one form or another.

For that reason, I find myself at the start of every new year asking three questions:

  1. What are the chinks in our armor? Answering this requires an honest examination of areas that could be vulnerable to the unforeseen.
  2. What’s the worst that could happen? Considering this question doesn’t make me a pessimist; it helps me fill the chinks in our armor.
  3. What am I leaving to chance? Planning for the future requires me to always ask this question, as leaving things to chance is no plan at all.

These questions are the same ones we encourage our clients to consider as we work together on their business strategies. And, while I don’t think we’ll ever have it all figured out, we move optimistically into 2018 knowing that few others do either. And that the unpredictability of life is what often makes it worth living.

Happy New Year. May your boat rise in the year ahead.