In the late 90s I worked for a start-up. But back then, they called it a small, family-owned print shop. A brother and sister started the business together, and eventually hired 10 people. I was employee number 7. The owners thought they were building an empire and wanted to leave a giant corporate legacy. Unfortunately the business did not last more than six years, and eventually went belly-up. It might have been the way it was run, or the management’s strategic goals; personally I think the printing industry was already on the way out, even back then. Before the business went south, the brother-half of the owners – let’s call him David – shared his vision for the business with me, and gave me a copy of Built to Last by James Collins and Jerry Porras, originally published in 1994.
In Built to Last, I learned about companies like Panasonic, that was started with the idea of building a great company that would get big and live long. They pulled together a handful of engineers and strategy people, got some workspace and when assembled, said to each other: "Okay, what industry should we be in?" And only then did they decide to get into electronics. And in fact, Panasonic never had a mandate to necessarily stay in electronics; rather in order to maintain its goal of being great and big and living long, it could and would change industries if and when it needed to. And the company has lived 100 years!
I think David wanted to do the same thing with his company. He wasn’t tied to the idea of being a printing company, but when printing became a tough business to be in, he had to pay his debts before he could change industries, and it became really tough to be flexible. Without the sticky financial realities of running a small business, I think David could have built his empire based on his vision and enthusiasm alone.
Now I am reading The Fuzzy and the Techie (by Scott Hartley, published in 2017), and I am learning that the ideal is no longer to build a company that will be big and strong and last long; rather I am reading that the ideal is to start with a cause or an ideal focused on changing something in our world, and NOT on starting a company. In fact the new normal is to only start a company as and when necessary in order to fulfill the object of solving a problem. So the company is a bi-product of the overall solution, and is not a long term goal. Start-ups fill gaps, and are not built to last, and that’s okay.
Bringing together the right people with the right backgrounds, skills, education, experience, and solving problems is a wonderful ideal, and the start-up scenes in Silicon Valley, Toronto, Boston, and elsewhere are proof that it can work and be sustainable for all stakeholders. And one day, attitudes in HR, the Canadian government, and big manufacturing will catch up to this leading edge approach to business.
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