As I look back on 2017, many things come to mind. My kids are getting taller, smarter, funnier, and, to my chagrin, sneakier. My work has become more challenging, but at the same time much more rewarding. But, the general sentiment of conversation, blog posts, and the news seems to be that of nervousness. Every headline feels like it’s the “death of” something. The death of democracy, the death of retail, the death of privacy, and, of course, the death of the automobile. I’ll admit I’m even guilty of it, too. But, to quote Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park (expertly played by America’s favorite sex symbol, Jeff Goldblum) “…life, um, finds a way.” The same can be said for business.
In 1964, the Surgeon General published a report that conclusively linked smoking to cancer in both men and women, as well as caused many other health-related issues. At the end of 2017, I walked into a gas station, and with my own eyes, saw around 48 cubic feet of cigarettes. A habit that’s been found to be fatal for over 50 years still makes up a $150 billion per year business, worldwide. Do fewer people smoke? Probably. Has the tobacco industry collapsed? Absolutely not.
Terrible habits aside, we tend to mourn those things we lose until something makes us forget about it. I used to covet my collection of CDs, owning elaborate hard cases to store and transport my collection between travels. Now they sit in my basement. The music industry is dying, remember? That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, the old recording empires of the past are disappearing. In their place are more hours of original music that can be listened to in a lifetime, all being uploaded to the Internet from around the world. I’m listening to Spotify’s Discover Weekly as I write this, where a playlist is built around my tastes, my previous listening history, and what my friends are listening to right now. Instead of paying 80s rockstar cocaine money on CDs, I’m paying $9 a month. The hardest of the hardcore music lovers are migrating back to vinyl records, which were allegedly killed by the cassette tape. Who remembers those?
While we’re on the subject of music, the video may have killed the radio star, only to have the Internet take revenge. When I was a kid, guys like Steve Miller could be huge artists without having to look like a rockstar. When MTV came along, less…um…attractive people had a tough time gaining popularity. It only took about four years from the time MTV stopped being cool (and became a reality TV channel; still a bummer) for YouTube to start filling the void. Today, five billion YouTube videos are watched every day. A good portion of today’s 300 million uploads a minute is music related. For free, users can listen to studio recordings, cover songs, mashups of both those things, fan-filmed live recordings, music videos for the nostalgic, and a ton original material from emerging artists. No one heard of K-Pop before PSY, that is until “Gangnam Style” hit YouTube (with over 3 billion views to date!). Everyone’s favorite Canadian Justin Bieber was 2017’s 7th highest paid artist, raking in a cool $83.5 million. Not bad for a couple dudes who decided to share their stuff online.
Despite how the omnipresent media nuggets make us feel, seldom do changes happen all at once. More importantly, those changes rarely affect all of us at the same time. Even the impact event that wiped nearly every species off the Earth 66 million years ago could not stop life from happening. Where one thing was wiped out, another grew to thrive in its place. Thankfully, we’re not being stalked by pterodactyls.
The telecommunications gives us a fine example of this evolution. I purchased my first smartphone in 2007. My mother-in-law got her first smartphone in 2017. At no point in that decade did we stop exchanging phone calls. Otherwise, my kids would’ve had to babysit themselves. The telegraph gave way to the switchboard phone, then to the dial phone, then to the touchtone phone, the brick mobile phone, the flip phone, and now to the touchscreen phone. Once the need was defined, a solution has existed for it. Tastes changed, and the market adapted, sometimes killing off a company or two. And, while mobile still seems new, it’s taken more than forty years to get to where it is today.
Businesses will continue to evolve, but the need for panic is in your head. Books may give way to e-readers, but more people will have to innovate and build more e-readers. The people who love books will produce the books in the absence of publishers. Robots may take over manufacturing jobs, but still, require humans to program and maintain them. More sophisticated robots will emerge, and more advanced humans will teach them. Malls are giving way to online retailing, but people aren’t going naked. As fashion gets faster, expertly curated websites will be there to cater to the trendiest of trendsetters. Although cryptocurrencies are all the rage in 2016, (even though they’ve been around since 2009), it’s not like gold is suddenly without value. Your dead cash still buys dead cigarettes.
As for the auto industry, we know the changes are inevitable. Ride-sharing, fractional ownership, and autonomy are all going to fundamentally alter vehicle ownership as we know it. Even though the mode of transportation may change, the way those new modes move down the road does not (horses have not gone the way of the pterodactyl). Those new vehicles will still need maintenance. New jobs will emerge to develop smart roads where none exist today, while software will need to be refined by humans to ensure that humans don’t get car sick. New dealerships will emerge, with some aggregating multiple fractional ownership plans, while other dealerships are taking charge of their destinies, starting their own on-demand plans, today. Other dealerships will act as maintenance hubs for manufacturer owned vehicles. A few will still cater to the very well-heeled who still want a bespoke vehicle, while the traditional retail model will remain intact in rural markets. Finally, we’ll see a surge in dealerships who meticulously find, refurbish, restore, retrofit, and maintain the traditional vehicles we drive today. While automotive technology ceaselessly pushes towards the new, a ’67 Mustang will perpetually be cool. People will rely on automotive transportation for the foreseeable future. Some automotive businesses will die, while other new, and utterly inconceivable, businesses will take their place. Money will be made, either way.
Let 2017 be the death of 2017. Let 2018 be the birth of something new. As you read a headline, see a tweet, or have a conversation about how something is going to hell in a handbasket, stop yourself before you blindly agree. For the briefest of moments consider the alternatives. Think about the things in your life that have grown from something that came before it. Remember how long it took for that growth to take place. Did that something really die, or did it just simply become something else, something much better? Then ask yourself to change your perspective. The question is not how to prepare yourself to survive these changes, but how to actually thrive while these changes are taking place. Many of us drive to the top of a parking ramp before we settle on a place to park. Many times a better parking place can be found on the way back down.
Happy New Year!