Zipcar – idealism and the realpolitik of scaling a business

Very interesting article about Zipcar’s turnaround strategy on Inc. Worth reading for the insights on growing a business by the numbers, but also the story of a company founded on strong ideals, that had to change leadership to get beyond being a good concept with laudable values.

Zipcar was one a pioneer in what some now call “collaborative consumption”, started by a pair of idealists who wanted to cut carbon emissions through car sharing.

Now Zipcar is fulfilling the dream of the founders to the tune of US$100 million dollars a year. The cost to them – only one member of the original team still works with the company, and itsn’t either of them. The hard-nosed, metrics-focused CEO who took over the company when it was making a a loss, took up the challenge from one of the board members to “turn a political movement into a business”. He succeeded.

The article emphasises the things the founders got right (a lot, especially branding and positioning). But they couldn’t turn it into a profitable, fast-growing company. Scaling Zipcar required someone with more of an operational view of how the world works.

Sometimes activists make good entrepreneurs. They get things started, they have same will to power and vision that drives good entrepreneurs. To truly scale sometimes takes the business equivalent of engineers, though – business-first people.

We don’t just read novels, we live them

A neuroscience research project suggests that when we read novels we create a connection with the protagonist, a change that is visible in fMRI brain scans and that persists for five days.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Read with all the usual caveats – a single study, filtered by journalists etc. – but I like the idea, any reader would agree: a good book changes your mind, puts you in an altered state. What's interesting about the study of course, is how long the effects seem to last.

I'd love to see a similar study for watching a good film.

Image: A profile of Jack Reacher by Lee Child, his creator, on the Mysterious Bookshop imprint.


Change: we’ve been here before

In his book about the start of the First World War, Max Hastings discusses the incredible rate of change – new technologies, ideas, social forces – that were in play in the opening decades of the last century. Reflecting, in 1930, on how dramatic the changes in the world were Winston Churchill said:

Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent or vital has lasted. Everything I was sure – or taught to be sure – was impossible, has happened.

Whether for useful perspective or rhetorical symmetry, many are drawing parallels between 2014 and 1914 – rising superpowers, faltering hegemonies, world order in flux, communications technology muddling old certainties about the relationships between creaking elites and restless populaces.

Regardless of how similar today is to that terrible year, it is clear that there’s nothing very new about rapid, disruptive, global change. We need to be looking back as well as forward as we face our own challenges and opportunities.

Critical sharing

Sharing without pausing for thought risks making fools of us – as individuals and as communities.

Critical consumption in internet use (crap detection as Howard Rheingold puts it) is a skill, or literacy, citizens of the web have been honing for years. We have build good habits – wondering about the provenance of data in a blog post, who is behind a campaigning website, checking the edit history of a Wikipedia article before we trust its accuracy.

Take the case of Kim Stafford. An act of fancy dress satire leads to online mob-bullying of a student by people who take her lampooning of Tea Party types.

People think they know what they are seeing, think that the context is the conversation. The thing about mobs is if you’re not alert to your actions and intentions, you don’t necessarily know you are part of one.

Uncritical sharing, guileless passing on of memes and stories online doesn’t just matter in extreme cases like this – it’s an everyday affair.

We see the image, and pass judgement and share before we really know what is going on. News organisations have struggled with with the tension between immediacy and truth as news breaks for years – increasingly it also a matter of individual responsibility and perhaps reputation.

People – friends, colleagues and connections alike – think less of someone, pay less attention to them, turn down the volume if their judgement is continually off the mark in what they say and share online.

We have all felt that pang of embarrassment, mixed in with surprise and a little annoyance, when someone we thought was intelligent re-posts a dismal listicle, urban myth or ridiculous scare story. Sometimes a little gentle mocking in reply, or a discreet correction will help them realise their error.

You are what you share?

When the future happens to you


Reading The Everything Store at the moment, and came across this quote from Jeff Bezos…

Amazon isn’t happening to the book business. The future is happening to the book business.

Makes me think that that may be the simplest non-jargonised way of describing disruption in the digital age – the future is happening to you.

You might say that Jeff Bezos is happening to the future, more than the future is happening to him.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Brilliant Noise in The Observer

photo (5)On Sunday Brilliant Noise was featured in a lovely article in The Observer about Brighton’s leading tech start-ups.

It was great to be featured, especially alongside friends like Storystream, Brandwatch, Project Fuse, 3DIFY, Crunch and Brilliant Noise non-exec, Arjo Ghosh (fittingly pictured seated above the throng, like a kind of start-up deity).


Music business in flux (still)

When the web touches an industry it disrupts and then absorbs it, to paraphrase Kevin Kelly. One of the first it touched, disrupted and absorbed was the music industry, so it is interesting to return to it from time to time to find out how it has adapted.

A recent In Business podcast did just this.

  • Musicians are diversifying their activities, according to Moby. They need to know how to write, promote, score movies and build live followings to stand the best chance of success.
  • Brighton-and-Buenos Aires act Yossarian say that building an audience is no easier than before, but you can now look to global markets for your audience (and band mates).
  • Billy Bragg talked about how the direct relationship with fans means not relying on the music press as an intermediary, but even when you own the means of production it is still a struggle to make a living.
  • Thom Yorke was cited on his antipathy toward Spotify – painting it as a battle for the future of the music industry, the “last fart of a dying corpse”, I think he said.

All in all, not a lot I hadn’t heard before. But twenty years into the Great Disruption in that industry, the most useful insight for other industries – other than don’t sue your own customers – is that things have not settled down.

There’s optimism that there is a future for the music industry. Well, more that there are futures for the music industry – there is no consensus about what shape it will take. And the waves of disruption, like powerful aftershocks following the main seismic event of the web’s arrival, continue to be felt.

: : Bonus link: There’s more from the podcast in this BBC article