By Shawn Hunter
In late 1953 the Swanson brothers had a glut of turkey. They were turkey wholesalers and had overestimated the market. So now they had 235 metric tons of turkey riding around the U.S. in refrigerated rail cars and the executive team was wondering what to do. Can’t you just imagine the CFO showing charts of what it cost to have all those turkeys rolling around on refrigerated rail cars per day?
Gerry Thomas, a sales executive at Swanson, had just seen what Pan American Airlines was doing with compartmentalized in-flight food offerings. He and the executive team at Swanson coupled this notion with Clarence Birdseye’s new flash freezing technique, and then added the catchy product label “TV Dinner” that fit beautifully with the cultural explosion of television. Their great market opportunity was the eight million moms who were joining the workforce after WWII, who were also enjoying an abundance of electrical home appliances like ovens, refrigerators, freezers, and of course televisions.
Swanson prepared to sell five thousand units the first year. They sold ten million at .98 cents each. Big hit, and now you understand how the intersection of technology, inspiration, marketing and resources made it happen. But does that formula work again today in 2010? Here’s the difference now:
Resources are scarce, not abundant: From water to textiles to lumber, the availability and premium placed on the natural resources we use to create the consumer products and comestibles are in high demand and, in the case of fossil fuels and water particularly, are increasingly precious.
Talent is global, not local: Historically if you had a local workforce that was obedient, diligent, and brought expertise and skill to bear executing on top-driven strategies, you had competitive advantage. The future is most certainly now in terms of the ability to connect need with a globally-dispersed labor force – highly talented, motivated, and comparatively cheap by U.S. standards. And all connected by the cost of the internet (free). The skilled talent, regardless of source, is indeed not free, but increasingly any function that can be made routine, and reduced to if=then equations which bracket to a correct answer, can also be automated. Consider telemedicine, the in absentia health care solution to everything from fast, cheap review of MRIs, mammograms, and all manners of diagnostics. You get an X-Ray in the afternoon in Illinois and the scan is reviewed by a U.S board-certified physician in India, and returned overnight – or even immediately – over the web.
Innovation is democratized, not top-driven: No longer can firms rely on the wisdom of a handful of insightful strategists at the top of a pyramid, when meanwhile companies like Rabobank or Best Buy are doing a better job of catering to customer need by creating mechanisms to actively listen to, and incorporate the interests of customers, and know-how of line personnel.
People are creative and expressive, not compliant: Pick your muse on this but currently I’ll take Sir Ken Robinson right now, who is on a crusade to persuade people that by pursuing their passions, they will make greater contributions, build community value, and importantly find fulfillment in their endeavors. In his book, he profiles Matt Groening (created the pitch for The Simpsons on the spot in a meeting), Mick Fleetwood (bailed on high school at 16 to be a jazz drummer in London), Gillian Lynne (deemed an underachiever until enrolled in a dance school), and many others, who eschewed the proper ‘safe’ advice of elders, or were recognized by mentors for who they were, to pursue their passions to great ends.
Technology is still changing: And too rapidly to adequately understand the implications. Try this for analogy: “If you’re not shocked by quantum theory, you don’t properly understand it.” (Neils Bohr on Einstein’s new theory of relativity. ) Or to wrestle with the power of collaborative technologies, try this fun video.
The point is this: You don’t need to be up for the challenge of constantly creating magnificent products and services that the world suddenly realizes it has been missing for fulfillment (think iPad right now). The iPhone didn’t exist 5 years ago and now you need one. Think rather, what am I good at, love to do, and provides purpose and meaning in my life and the lives of others. Focus on that and you will give value and meaning to the world and to yourself.