We are living in historic times. People power has overthrown a 30 year old repressive government in the Arab world’s most populous country.The events that unfolded in Tahrir Square in Cairo over 18 days, starting Jan 25, could be this decade’s equivalent of the fall of Berlin Wall.
As Egypt settles down and starts to limp back to normalcy there is going to be plenty of analysis and reporting in the media. However unless you have some kind of personal or professional stake in the situation in Egypt all these pixels and newspaper columns are probably going to be of little interest.
But why pass up the chance to learn something useful from an important event in history?After all, an ancient Chinese treatise on war is recommended reading for many execs and there is no reason a pizzeria or an ad agency can't find anything useful out of Tahrir.
Presenting below, in no particular order, five lessons businesses and entrepreneurs better take to heart if they don’t want to end up like Mubarak(figuratively).
1. Listen to your core constituency
Mubarak knew that his government was highly unpopular. He didn’t need his intelligence services or secret police to tell him that- a simple Facebook search would have thrown up pages like “We are all Khaled Said” where there was no love lost for the authorities. A search on Twitter or Youtube would have also given the same message- people were pissed off and were desperate for change.
Replace the Egyptian government with many major companies and you would see the same story repeating over and over again, maybe at a lower scale or intensity. Too often, market leaders become complacent and do something which infuriates their users. And when their user base migrates to a nimbler competitor why is the overwhelming response of the companies similar to a man in a car blindsided by a truck?
Case in point: Commodore International and Commodore Plus/4, and not making this new line of computers backwards compatible with the wildly popular Commodore 64s, despite a customer uproar. Commodore slowly lost market share and filed for bankruptcy in 94.
2. Can’t predict the future? Pack your bags
Egyptians were angry and they needed answers to unemployment, poverty, widespread corruption and brutal repression. When they saw their neighbours in Tunisia who were facing the same problems collectively kick out their own President-for-life it was hard not to imagine a collective A-ha moment rolling all over the land of the Pharaohs.
Too bad people who are paid to do this kind of navel gazing fumbled with the ball and seemed to have little idea of where the train of events in Egypt was headed.
The CIA got off with a verbal whack for their failure. For Mubarak it was a lot more serious- he was fired from his job.
Similarly, for businesses that can’t anticipate changes in their operating environment and adapt accordingly, the results might be a lot more serious. I am talking everything from cutting jobs to filing for bankruptcy or being the target of a hostile takeover.
Case in point: the inability of Palm to offer their customers the app-store experience which was a big draw for iPhone and Android phones. Despite having a great combination of software and hardware customers deserted Palm and adopted the competition.
3. Don’t try to fight gravity
So you didn’t listen to your country/stakeholders/customers and now fecal matter has hit the revolving machine on the ceiling. And of course you have no idea what’s going to happen next. You have lost the initiative and the only thing left to do is react to others. In such cases even though things will never be the same again you still might have some leverage and might be able to salvage part of the situation.
Mubarak was in a similar position and he chose the worst option out of the limited ones available. Instead of sitting down with the people to talk about their genuine demands he went apeshit, pulling the plug on internet and mobile services and dispatching thousands of armed thugs to rob, murder, mow down and beat unarmed, peaceful protestors.
Big mistake. That sure gave him some much needed goodwill and popularity.
Sometimes business environments change so that companies feel like they are a sapling in the path of a Category 5 storm.They can bend and survive or stand up to the storm and be uprooted. Smart entrepreneurs and companies know when to give in and go with the flow, lay low,adjust and consolidate until the situation has improved.
Case in point: Detroit continued making huge gas guzzlers despite customer demand for fuel efficient cars. When the oil shocks of the 70s struck customers migrated en masse to better Japanese and European imports, and American auto industry was never the same again.
4. Know when your time is up
When there is no way out of a crisis there is something attractive about going out with a bang, all guns blazing. Hollywood loves that shit. But in real life, especially when customers or a country is concerned it’s often best not to prolong the farce and bow to the inevitable as soon as possible.
In the 18 days that Mubarak hung on, more than 300 people died in Tahrir Square. If he had seen the signs and resigned in the early days each of those 300 families would not be missing and mourning for their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters
For companies and individuals this is the familiar throwing-good-money-after-bad effect. You buy a battered second hand car or start a project .You hope to repair the car or make a product that would be the best since sliced bread . But the whole gig sours quickly, sucking in even more resources than you anticipated. The logical reaction would be to cut losses and drop the thing as quickly as a hot potato.
But you won’t do that, as you are human and not a Vulcan. You will instead throw in even more time/money/people at the problem until you either have to file for bankruptcy or get an earful from your angry wife for taking money out of the kids’ college account.
Case in point: Microsoft quickly found out that Vista was an awful product and it was a regression over their wildly popular XP.But they continued pushing the pile of crap that Vista was, pouring even more money into it.When Windows 7 came out, Vista was mourned by no one.
5. Get all members of your team on the same page
Many analysts believe that despite the widespread and mass movements Mubarak would still be the president had the Egyptian army sided with him actively. But the army turned out to be more than a neutral observer, promising not to fire on protestors and sometimes going as far as to protect the activists from police and pro-Mubarak thugs. And there is also talk that it was actually a military coup that forced Mubarak out.
Funny thing is, Field Marshal Tantawi, the boss man of the Egyptian military was Mubarak’s defence minister.
Like governance, business is a team effort. Even in the case of solo entrepreneurs, a supportive team working towards a shared goal is crucial for business success. And when you scale up, success becomes less and less about the abilities of the CEO or the top management and more about how good the employees down the totem pole are.
You are only as good as the people whom you surround yourself with.
Case in point: Richard Branson credits his success with businesses as disparate as music and airlines, despite knowing zilch about them, to surrounding himself with smart people and taking their advice.
Any other business lessons that come to mind on this one?Comments are open.