What Business Are You Really In?

 

He started as a book salesman in the late 1880s. To entice people to buy his books, David H. McConnell gave away free perfume samples. Those proved so popular, he abandoned the books and founded the California Perfume Company in 1886. That company eventually changed its name to Avon in honor of Shakespeare’s hometown. Last year, Avon’s revenue was $1.6 billion.

That’s just one example of successful companies that were founded with one business model, then pivoted to a different business. They thought they were in one business, but the market led them to change their business, either by choice or because their potential for increasing market share vanished.

Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland.

Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland.

Twitter is an example of a forced pivot. It started as Odeo, a network for people to find podcasts. It was a bad day for Odeo when iTunes announced it would include a built-in platform for podcasts in every one of its iPods, pretty much obliterating their business overnight. So, the company got to work, hosting hackathons to come up with a new idea. The concept for a microblogging platform was hatched, and Twitter was created in 2006. It’s now worth over $10 billion.

One of my favorite pivot stories is about the American food company Wrigley. William Wrigley Jr’s father was a soap manufacturer, so as a teenager William became a soap salesman. To encourage shop owners to stock his soap on their shelves, William offered free gifts. Baking powder was the most popular, so he dropped selling the soap to focus on that. In 1892, as an incentive, he began offering two packages of free chewing gum with each can of baking powder. Once again, the giveaway was more popular than the actual product he was selling, and he moved to selling chewing gum. Wrigley sold to Mars in 2008 for $23 billion.

Did you know Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland in 1865? It moved to creating rubber goods and telecommunications devices, and a mobile phone in 1992. That year the company sold off all its other divisions to focus on mobile devices. Sadly, it failed to make a successful transition to the smartphone industry, and sold its devices and services division to Microsoft in 2013.

We associate the name Nintendo with Super Mario Bros, Game Boy and Wii. The company was founded in 1889 in Japan by Fusajiro Yamauchi to sell playing cards. Unsuccessful expansion attempts by his great-grandson in the 1960s included getting in the taxi business and “love hotels.” Then one of their engineers began developing electronic toys, which led to video game development, and its large market share of the mobile gaming space. While profits had been in decline, Nintendo seems to be on the upswing based on the potential of the value of its intellectual property.

In addition to knowing how to maximize profits for your company, knowing what business you are actually in allows you to expand and grow in the right direction.

When you aren’t clear what business you are in, efforts to innovate and expand can go astray. As Ty Montague writes in inc.com, “The lion’s share of innovation mistakes still come from companies funneling their efforts into extending the life of some existing platform, instead of spending time getting clear on what business they are really in and then constantly looking for opportunities to apply that definition to new technologies and new markets. Companies that do this will grow robust businesses that can be hard to describe in conventional terms.”

An example he gives is Tesla, which he says isn’t in the car business, but rather in the electric mobility business, so in addition to building cars, it builds infrastructure to support the mobility of electric vehicles.

Every business goes through a metamorphosis of product lines in response to marketplace pressure and technology, and a smart CEO needs to continue to monitor that so he can remain in business by moving forward.

Take a step back and think about your own business. What business are you really in?

 

Unethical Tech Workers Pose Danger to Your Business

Fraud and embezzlement are two dangers to every company. I’ve written a lot about instituting policies and steps to take to help make your company safe from employee theft. These tips primarily focus on those employees who have access to your financial accounts.

But they aren’t the only employees you need to worry about. Your IT employees may also be capable of potentially causing massive damage to your company, as pointed out in a recent article in Fortune magazine, “How much do you really know about the tech worker you just hired?”

We have all read the headlines about companies like Sony, Target and Anthem/Blue Cross being hacked by outsiders. What is less common knowledge are the problems that can come from within the company. Yes, your own IT employees could be a threat. They have access to valuable information, and if they desire, can threaten to make it public if you don’t pay up. It’s the new age of blackmail.

There is really no way to know how often this happens, because like with many cases of fraud or embezzlement, the corporation often keeps it quiet so it won’t draw unwanted publicity.

And even if an employee leaves, he or she can still potentially blackmail you. It’s been reported that Nokia regularly deals with security issues, including being blackmailed by a former employee who obtained classified information. According to an article in the Helsinki Times, in 2007 a blackmailer asked for millions of euros to protect an encryption key of Symbian phones. The release of that information could have caused millions of dollars in damage.

At least he’s a charitable blackmailer — he asked for half of the money in cash and for the other half to go to charity. Nokia made the donation and paid the ransom, delivering half of it in an ice hockey equipment bag. The blackmailer took the money and ran. The crime is still under investigation.

So how do you protect your company? Your tech employees most likely have access to potentially damaging information about your business. And it can be a whole lot more difficult and complicated to prevent tech blackmailers than it is to set up checks and balances on your financial accounts.

How to prevent problems with tech employees

The key is to start with your hiring practices. Companies desperate to hire qualified tech workers have been guilty of skipping over crucial steps when selecting new employees. Ken Springer, a former FBI agent and founder of Corporate Resolutions, suggested these steps in the Fortune article: Verify everything on the resume, ask your current IT people to check their references, let prospective employees know you will do a thorough background check and reward employees for referring good tech people to hire.

In addition to these tips, I would add some of my previously recommended tips on fraud prevention that can apply here as well, including:

  • Conduct credit checks. Exercise caution in considering any employee in a dire financial situation.
  • Always prosecute fraud. Make it clear you have a no-tolerance policy.
  • Train your managers to pay close attention to their employees’ behavior and for any changes in that behavior. See More Red Flags of Fraud and The Red Flags of Fraud.

Sadly, threats to the wellbeing of your company can come from both internal and external sources. It’s worth the time and expense to make sure you are hiring ethical and honest tech employees.