And the lesson for business

You may know this phrase – if you’re a writer, but probably not if you are in business.  But it has a business lesson.

The source of the phrase is the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said ‘murder your darlings’ in a lecture he gave at Cambridge University in 1916, a century ago.

The American author William Faulkner followed up many years later, advising “kill your darlings”.

Stephen King continued the theme, saying, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” in his book On Writing

But what exactly does this mean?

Basically, this phrase is referring to those parts of our manuscript that we have simply fallen in love with but are no longer needed for the story and can perhaps even be distracting to the reader.

They're all referring to what you might call your “best bits.” The “bits” you should edit out of your work.  The theory is that writing you’re particularly proud of is probably self-indulgent and will stand out.  It might be excellent writing, but is not needed there.

So what is the business lesson? 

What is “no longer needed”, and should be killed off?

Let me give you two very real case studies.

The Ford Model T was an automobile that was produced by Ford Motor Company from October 1, 1908, to May 26, 1927.  It is generally regarded as the first affordable automobile, the car that opened travel to the common middle-class American; some of this was because of Ford's efficient fabrication, including assembly line production instead of individual hand crafting.

Although automobiles had already existed for decades, they were still mostly scarce and expensive at the Model T's introduction in 1908. Positioned as reliable, easily maintained mass market transportation, it was a runaway success. In a matter of days after the release, 15,000 orders were placed. 

The first production Model T was produced on August 12, 1908 and left the factory on September 27, 1908, at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, Michigan. On May 26, 1927, Henry Ford watched the 15 millionth Model T Ford roll off the assembly line. (Source: Wikipedia)

The problem was, while the Model T was the foundation of Ford’s success, it had stayed in production far too long.  The competition had caught up with it, and passed it. 

The lead in the car industry it established vanished.

As the old saying goes, “you can be on the right track, and still get run over.”

And then there is Kodak.  

On 19th January 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection.  There are few corporate blunders as staggering as Kodak’s missed opportunities in digital photography, a technology that it invented. This strategic failure was the direct cause of Kodak’s decades-long decline as digital photography destroyed its film-based business model.

Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer, invented the first digital camera in 1975.  But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.’

Kodak management’s inability to see digital photography as a disruptive technology, even as its researchers extended the boundaries of the technology, would continue for decades. As late as 2007, a Kodak marketing video felt the need to trumpet that “Kodak is back“, and that Kodak “wasn’t going to play grab ass anymore” with digital.

They commissioned a study.  The results of the study produced both “bad” and “good” news. The “bad” news was that digital photography had the potential capability to replace Kodak’s established film based business. The “good” news was that it would take some time for that to occur and that Kodak had roughly ten years to prepare for the transition.

The problem is that, during its 10-year window of opportunity, Kodak did little to prepare for the later disruption. In fact, Kodak made exactly the mistake that George Eastman, its founder, avoided twice before, when he gave up a profitable dry-plate business to move to film, and when he invested in colour film even though it was demonstrably inferior to black and white film (which Kodak dominated).

Kodak choose to use digital to improve the quality of film.  It bought out a new camera, the Advantix Preview.  It was a digital camera. Yet it still used film and emphasized print because Kodak was in the photo film, chemical and paper business.  It failed.

You see the problem

Unless you “murder your darlings” you’ll get left behind, run over, a memory.  As I write this, Ford Australia has just closed its local operation, after approximately 90 years of manufacturing in Australia.  There were many issues, but the principal one was that it stopped making the type of car people wanted. 

They failed to move with the market, and kept on making their traditional type of car, a large six-cylinder rear wheel drive sedan.  People were no longer buying that.

On a personal note, I recall having just gone on the board of the family retailing company, which my great grandfather had started in 1862, and questioning something.  The crusty old Chairman, who had been with the company all his working life, said, “We’ve always done it this way!”  End of discussion. 

I had the melancholy duty, some years later, of taking on that role to try and save the business for the family, only to have to call in the Receivers.  The business had a number of “darlings” which it had failed to kill off.

So how to avoid this situation; how do you identify, and make the necessary decision to “murder your darlings?

That will have to wait for next week.  This blog has gone on long enough.

Do you have some “darlings” in your business?

When clients approach me for coaching, clients with businesses that are underperforming despite the crippling hours and effort the owner is putting into them, they usually have a profit leak, and often that profit leak, costing them cash and profits, is a “darling”.  It may be a product, it may be a market, it may be a process.  But its time has passed, and it needs to be killed off.

For more than 28 years I’ve been helping small business owners plug the profit leaks in their business and restoring their cash flows.

If you would like to discuss with me how you might do that, book a Strategy Consult here.

© Copyright 2016 Adam Gordon, The Profits Leak Detective 

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