The Chaos Theory of Marketing

Last week, I wrote why marketers are struggling with job security. In an effort to provide career counseling to an industry, I would offer this suggestion: start learning about the behaviors of non-linear dynamic systems. You’re going to have to get comfortable with the special conditions that accompany complexity.

Markets are always complex, but there’s a phenomenon that gives them the illusion of predictability. This phenomenon is potential. Potential, in this instance, means the gap between the current market state and a possible future state. The presence of potential creates market demand. Every time a new product is introduced, a new potential gap is created. Supply and demand are knocked out of balance. Until balance is regained, the market becomes more predictable.

Here’s an analogy that makes it a little easier to understand how this potential can impact the behaviors of a complex market. A model that’s often used to explain complexity is to imagine a pool table filled with balls. The twist is that each of these balls is self propelled and can move in any direction at random. Imagine how difficult it would be to predict where any single ball might go.

Now, imagine taking this same pool table and lifting one of the corner legs up 6 inches, introducing the force of gravity as a variable. Individual predictions are still difficult, but you’d be pretty safe in saying that the pocket that was diagonally opposite to the raised leg would eventually collect more than it’s fair share of balls. In this example, gravity plays the role of market potential. The market still behaves in a complex manner but there is a consistent force – the force of gravity – that exerts its influence on that complexity and makes it more predictable.

Marketing is built on exploiting potential – on capitalizing on (or creating) gaps between what we have and what we want. These gaps have always been around, but the nature of them has changed. While this potential was aimed further down Maslow’s hierarchy, it was pretty easy to predict purchasing behaviors. When it comes to the basics – meeting our need of food, water, shelter, safety – humans are all pretty much alike. But when it comes to purchases higher up the hierarchy – at the levels of self-esteem or self-actualization – things become tougher to predict.

Collectively, the western world has moved up Maslow’s hierarchy. A 2011 study from Heritage.org showed that even those living below the poverty line have a standard of life that exceeds those at all but the highest income levels just a few decades before. In 2005, 98.7% of homes had a TV, 84% had air conditioning, 79% has satellite or cable TV and 68% had a personal computer.

But it’s not only the diversification of consumer demand that’s increasing the complexity of markets. The more connected that markets become, the more unpredictable they become. Let’s go back to our overly simplified pool ball analogy. Let’s imagine that not only are our pool balls self-propelled, but they also tend to randomly change direction every time they collide with another ball. The more connected the market, the greater the number of collisions and subsequent direction changes. In marketing, those “collisions” could be a tweet, a review, a Facebook post, a Google search – well – you get the idea. It’s complex.

These two factors; the fragmentation of consumer demand and the complexity of a highly interconnected market, makes predicting consumer behavior a mug’s game. The challenge here is that marketing – in a laudable attempt to become more scientific – is following in science’s footsteps by taking a reductionist path. Our marketing mantra is to reduce everything down to testable variables and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I’ve said it myself on many occasions. But, as with science, we must realize that when we’re dealing with dynamic complexity, the whole can be much greater than the sum of its testable parts. There are patterns that can be perceived only at a macro scale. Here there be “black swans.” It’s the old issue of ignoring the global maxima or minima by focusing too closely on the local.

Reduction and testing tends to lead to a feeling of control and predictability. And, in some cases (such as a market that has a common potential) things seem to go pretty much according to plan. But sooner or later, complexity rears its head and those best laid plans blow up in your face.

 

 

How Vision and Strategy Can Kill a Marketer’s Job Security

“Apparently, marketers today are losing confidence in their ability to meet key goals, like reaching the right customers with their marketing efforts, or being able to understand or evaluate the ROI of their marketing plans.”

Dave Morgan – Why Are Marketing Losing Confidence in Their Ability to Do Their Jobs?

“I think marketing is going to be getting much, much easier over the next couple of years.”

Cory Treffiletti – CMOs’ Vision Crucial to their Success

A couple of weeks ago, my fellow Spinners offered these two seemingly contradictory prognoses of the future of marketing. The contradiction, I believe, is in the conflation of the ideas of media buying and marketing. Yes, media buying is going to get easier (or, at least, more automated). And I agree with Cory’s prediction of consolidation in the industry. But that doesn’t do much to ease the crisis of confidence mentioned by Dave Morgan. That’s still very real.

The problem here is one of complexity. Markets are now complex. Actually, they’ve always been complex, but now they’re even more complex and we marketers can no longer pretend that they’re otherwise. When things get complex, our ability to predict outcomes takes a nosedive.

At the same time, an avalanche of available data makes marketers more accountable than ever. This data, along with faster, smarter machines, offers the promise of predictability, but it’s a dangerous illusion. If anything, the data and AI is just revealing more of the complexity that lurks within those markets.

And here is the crux of the dilemma that lives between the two quotes above. Yes, marketing is becoming more powerful, but the markets themselves are becoming more unpredictable. And marketers are squarely caught on the horns of that dilemma. We sign on to deliver results and when those results are no longer predictable, we feel our job security rapidly slipping away.

Cory Treffiletti talks about vision – which also goes by the name of strategy. It sounds good, but here’s the potential problem with that. In massively complex environments, strategy in the wrong hands can become a liability. It leads to an illusion of control, which is part of a largely disproven and outdated corporate mindset. You can blindly follow a strategy right into a dead end because strategies depend on beliefs and beliefs can dramatically alter your perception of what’s real. No one can control a complex environment. The best you can do is monitor and react to that environment. Of course, those two things can – and should – become a strategy in and of themselves.

Strategy is not dead. It can still make a difference. But it needs to be balanced with two other “S’s” – Sense making and Synthesis. These are the things that make a difference in a world of complexity.

You have to make sense of the market. And this is more difficult than it sounds. This is where the “Strategy” paradox can creep up and kill you. If your “Vision” – to use Cory Treffiletti’s term – becomes more important to you than reality, you’ll simply look for things that confirm that vision and plunge ahead, unaware of the true situation. You’ll ignore the cues that are telling you a change of direction may be required. The Sense Making cycle starts with a “frame” of the world (a.k.a. “Vision”) and then looks for external data to either confirm and elaborate or refute that frame/vision. But the data we collect and the way we analyze that data depends on the frame we begin with. Belief tends to make this process a self-reinforcing loop that often leads to disaster. The stronger the “vision,” the greater the tendency for us to delude ourselves.

sensemaking2

Sensemaking: Klein, Moon and Hoffman

If you can remain objective as possible during the sense making cycle you then end up with a reasonably accurate “frame” of your market. This is when the Synthesis part of the equation takes over. Here, you look at your strategy and see how it lines up with the market. You look for new opportunities and threats. Knowing the market is unpredictable, you take the advice of Antifragile author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, minimizing your downside and maximizing your upside. You pull this together into a new iteration of strategy and execute like hell against it. Then you start all over again.

By going through this cycle, you’ll find that you create a wave-like approach to strategy, oscillating through phases of sense making, synthesis and strategic execution. The behavior and mindsets required in each of these phases are significantly – and often diametrically – different. It’s a tough act to pull off.

No wonder marketers are having a tough time right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too Many Fish in the Sea: The Search for Brand Love

I still see – in a number of MediaPost articles and in other places – a lot of talk about “brand-love.” So let’s talk about that.

My grandfather Jack, who farmed on the Canadian Prairies for most of his life, loved John Deere tractors.

And I mean L-O-V-E-D. Deep love. A love that lasted 50 some years and never – not once – did he ever consider a rival for his affection. You could have given him a brand new shiny red Massey Ferguson and it would have sat untouched behind the barn. The man bled green and yellow. He wore a John Deere ball cap everywhere. He had his grime encrusted one for every day wear and a clean one for formal occasions – things like the christening of new grandchildren and 50th wedding anniversaries. He wasn’t buried with one, but if he had his way, he would have been.

My grandpa Jack loved John Deere tractors because he loved one tractor – his tractor. And there was absolutely no logic to this love.

I’ve heard stories of Jack’s rocky road to farm equipment romance. His tractor was a mythically cantankerous beast. It often had to be patiently cajoled into turning over. It was literally held together with twine and bailing wire. At the end of its life, there was little of it that originally issued from the John Deere factory floor in Welland, Ontario. Most of it was vintage Jury-rigged Jack.

But Jack didn’t love this tractor in spite of all that. He loved it because of it. Were there better tractors than the ones John Deere made? Perhaps. Were there better tractors than this particular John Deere? Guaranteed. But that wasn’t the point. Over the years there was a lot of Jack in that tractor. It got to the point where he was the only one who was sufficiently patient to get it to run. But there was also a lot of that tractor in Jack. It made him a more patient man, more resourceful and – much to my grandmother’s never ending frustration – much more stubborn.

This is the stuff that love is made of. The tough stuff. The maddening stuff. The stuff that ain’t so pretty. A lot of times, love happens because you don’t have an alternative. I suspect love – true love – may be inversely correlated to choice. Jack couldn’t afford a new tractor. And by the time he could, he was too deeply in love to consider it.

This may be the dilemma for brands looking for love in today’s world. We may be attracted to a brand, we may even become infatuated with it, but will we fall in true love? What I call “Jack-love?”

Let me lay out some more evidence of this Love/Choice paradox.

If you believe the claims of online dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony, your odds of ending up in a happy relationship have never been better than when you put yourselves in the hands of their matching algorithm. This just makes sense. If you increase the prospects going in the front end and are much smarter about filtering your options, you should come out the winner in the end. But according to an article from the Association for Psychological Science, this claim doesn’t really stand up when subjected to academic rigor. “Regarding matching, no compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work— that they foster romantic outcomes that are superior to those fostered by other means of pairing partners.”

A study, by Dr. Aditi Paul, found that couples that meet through online dating sites are less likely to enter marriage than those that meet through offline channels and; if they do wed, are more likely to split up down the road. Another study (D’Angelo and Toma) showed that the greater the number of options at the beginning, the more likely it was that online daters would question and probably reverse their choice.

What dating sites have done have turned looking for love into an exercise in foraging. And the rule of thumb in foraging is: The more we believe there are options that may be better, the less time we will be willing to invest in the current choice. It may seem sacrilegious to apply something so mundane as foraging theory to romance, but the evidence is starting to mount up. And if the search for a soul mate has become an exercise in efficient foraging, it’s not a great leap to conclude that everything else that can be determined by a search and matching algorithm has suffered the same fate. This may not be a bad thing, but I’m placing a fairly large bet that we’re looking at a very different cognitive processing path here. The brain simply wouldn’t use the same mechanisms or strategies to juggle a large number of promising alternatives as it would do fall deeply in love, like Jack and his John Deere (or my grandmother, for that matter).

The point is this. Infatuation happens quickly and can fade just as quickly. Love develops over time and it requires shared experiences. That’s something that’s pretty tough for an algorithm to predict. As the authors of the APS article said, “these sites are in a poor position to know how the two partners will grow and mature over time, what life circumstances they will confront and coping responses they will exhibit in the future, and how the dynamics of their interaction will ultimately promote or undermine romantic attraction and long-term relationship well-being.”

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the phrase “brand-love” but I think it did provide a convenient and mostly accurate label for some brand relationships. I’m not so sure this is still true today. As I said in a previous column, branding is still aiming to engender love by latching on to our emotions but I suspect they may just be sparking infatuation.

Why Can’t Markets be Moral?

Last week, I said there was an emerging market for morality. I painted that particular picture in a somewhat negative light. Andrew Goodman, a fellow Canadian who I have always admired for both his intellect and morality, called me on it (via my Facebook feed): Nice post, but I was hoping for a little more from this.” I paraphrase Andrew’s eloquent and lengthy reply by boiling it down to essentially this: extreme circumstances call for extreme measures and if that has to come from corporations and their advertising, then so be it.

It’s fair to say the last week has done nothing to dispel Goodman’s assessment of the extremity of the situation. Insanity seems to be accelerating at an alarming rate.

But on further reflection, I feel some further clarification needed here. I ascribed morality to markets, not necessarily corporations. There’s an important difference here. Corporations are agents within markets and will follow where markets lead. And increasingly, it looks like there is a market movement towards morality. Morality is becoming more profitable. So let’s look specifically at the morality of the market.

On one hand you could take the position of British economic historian Robert Skidelsky, who said in 2008 that there is an inherent dilemma when one looks for morality in economic markets. This was essentially the point I raised last week:

It has often been claimed that capitalism rewards the qualities of self-restraint, hard work, inventiveness, thrift, and prudence. On the other hand, it crowds out virtues that have no economic utility, like heroism, honour, generosity, and pity.

But let’s say for the moment that Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” is solely moved by greed. Does that mean that no good can come from it? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ran a column earlier this year stating that 2017 could be the best year ever. If you can set your cognitive dissonance aside for a moment, here were his reasons:

  • “Since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion, diarrhea treatment and more.”
  • “Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. in the early 1980s, more than 40 percent of all humans were living in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 10 percent are. By 2030 it looks as if just 3 or 4 percent will be.”
  • “While income inequality has increased within the U.S., it has declined on a global level because China and India have lifted hundreds of millions from poverty.”
  • “Some 40 countries are now on track to eliminate elephantiasis. When you’ve seen the anguish caused by elephantiasis — or leprosy, or Guinea worm, or polio, or river blindness, or blinding trachoma — it’s impossible not to feel giddy at the gains registered against all of them.”
  • “85 percent of adults are literate. And almost nothing makes more difference in a society than being able to read and write.”

All these benefits come from the “trickling down” benefits of capitalism. Globalization and the opening of new markets have unleashed a tide that has raised all boats. Kristoff shows what happens when you look at a bigger picture and rely on facts rather than personally held beliefs that come from your own limited perspective. What we forget is that the very first mention Adam Smith made of his “invisible hand” was actually in a text called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” in 1759. Here was the exact passage:

“The proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest … [Yet] the capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires … the rest he will be obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of. The rich…are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

In direct contrast to the protectionist policies of the current U.S. administration, the western world (especially the U.S.) is the landlord in this scenario. As much as we may want to rely on our beliefs rather than facts, the average American is better off now they were 50 years ago as measured by almost any empirical baseline you may want to use: lifespan, economic well being, degree of civil freedom, measure of social equality or quality of our environment. And this American free-market drive to get ahead has dragged the whole world in its wake. Again, Robert Skidelsky concedes this point:

“From the ethical point of view, consumption is a means to goodness, and the market system is the most efficient engine for lifting people out of poverty: it is doing so at a prodigious rate in China and India.”

The other potential moral windfall of markets is that there is a second kind of “trickle down” effect that also happens – the driving forward of technology. Technology is a tool that is designed to advance the interests of humans. While there is much in technology that is misapplied to the human condition, we cannot deny that technology continually and consistently makes us better than we were yesterday. As Kristof notes in his column, today 300,000 more people around the world will get electricity for the first time. This will enable access to communication networks, clean water, higher levels of hygiene and many other spin-off benefits. All this happens because corporations see potential profitability in new markets.

But there is another piece to this. If we look only at the “trickle down” effects of capital markets, we have to keep a careful eye on what’s happening at the top of the pyramid. As Skidelsky said in 2008, “But this does not tell us at what point consumption tips us into a bad life.”

 

 

 

 

A Market for Morality

Things are going to get interesting in the world of marketing. And the first indication of that was seen this past Sunday during the Super Bowl. As Bob Garfield noted, there were a lot of subtle and not so subtle undercurrents of messaging in the ads that ran in between the distracting sub-story that played out on the field. Things got downright political with a number of 167 thousand-dollar-a-second ad swipes at the current president and his policies.

I and many others here at Mediapost have been criticized over the past several months for getting political when we should have been talking about media and marketing. But as this weekend showed, we’re naïve to think those two worlds don’t overlap almost completely. And that’s about to become even more true in the future.

Advertising has to talk about what people are talking about. It has always been tied to the zeitgeist of society. And in a politically polarized nation, that means advertising’s “going to go there”. That’s normal. What’s not so normal is this weird topsy-turvy trend of for-profit companies suddenly becoming the moral gatekeepers of America. That’s supposed to be the domain of government and – if you believe in such things – religion. That’s in a normal world. But in the world of 2017 and the minds of 53.9% of America (the percentage of the electorate who didn’t vote for Trump) there is a vast, sucking moral vacuum on at least one of those fronts. It seems that Corporate America is ready to step up and fill the gap.

Suddenly, there is a market for morality. Of course, we have always had “feel-good” advertising and codes of corporate responsibility but this is different – both in volume and tone. It is more overtly political and it plays on perceived juxtaposition of the mores of the nation and the official stance of the government. Markets are built to be nimble and adaptive. Governments are seldom either of these things. Corporate America is sensing a market opportunity by taking the high road and the Super Bowl marked the beginning of what may become a stampede to higher moral ground.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Around the turn of the last century, we saw the rise of welfare capitalism. In a rapidly expanding industrial market where there was a scarcity of human resources and little legislative regulation of working conditions, corporations became paternalistic. The reasoning was that no one could better provide stability for workers than the corporation that employed them. What is different about the current situation, however, is that this moral evangelism is primarily aimed at the market, not internal operations. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

This creates an interesting dynamic. In a free market economy citizens have the right to vote with their wallets. After a deeply divisive election the debate can continue in a market suddenly divided along political lines. This is compounded by the interconnected and interactive nature of marketing today. We have realized that our market is a complex system and plays by it’s own rules, none of which are predictable. Social network effects, outriding anomalies and viral black swans are now the norm. As I said in an earlier column, branding is becoming a game of hatching “belief worms” – messages designed to bypass rationality and burrow deep into our subconscious values. Our current political climate is a rich breeding ground for said “worms.”

You might say, “What’s wrong with Corporate America taking a moral stand? “

Well..two things.

There is no corporation I’m aware of that has as its first priority the safeguarding of morality. As economist Milt Friedman said, corporations are there to make a profit. Period. And they will always follow the path most likely to lead to that profit. For example, Silicon Valley has been very vocal in its condemnation of the Muslim travel ban not because it’s not right but because it jeopardizes the ability to travel for its employees from Muslim countries. And a century ago, welfare capitalism spread because it helped employers hang on to their employees and gave them a way to keep out unions. Even if morality and profitability happen to share the same bandwagon for a time the minute profitability veers in a new direction, corporations will follow. This is not the motivational environment you want to stake the future on.

Secondly, there is no democratic mandate behind the stated morality of a corporation. There are a lot of CEO’s that have robust ideological beliefs, but it is fair to say the moral proclivities of a corporation are necessarily tied to a very select special interest group: the employees, the customers and the shareholders of that corporation. Companies, by their very nature, should not be expected to speak for “we, the people.” Much as we would like morality to be universally defined, it is still very much a personal matter.

Take just one of these moral stakeholders – the customers. According to Blend, a millennial messaging app, their users loved the Coke, Budweiser and Airbnb ads that all had overt or thinly veiled moral messages. But there was a backlash from Trump supporters asking for boycotts of all these advertisers along with others that got political. The social storms stirred up on both sides were telling. Reaction was quick and emotionally charged. In a world where branding and beliefs are locked together at the hip, we can probably expect that morality and marketing will be similarly conjoined. That means that morality, just like marketing, will be segmented and targeted to very specific groups.

The Vanishing Value of the Truth

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views.

Dr. Who, 1977

We might be in a period of ethical crisis. Or not. It’s tough to say. It really depends on what you believe. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem.

Take this past weekend for example. Brand new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his very first address, lied about the size of the inauguration crowd. Afterwards, a very cantankerous Kellyanne Conway defended the lying when confronted by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. She said they weren’t lies…they were “Alternate Facts”.

http://www.nbcnews.com/widget/video-embed/860142147643

So, what exactly is an alternate fact? It’s something that is not a fact at all, but a narrative intended to be believed by a segment of the population, presumably to gain something from them.

To use a popular turn of phrase, it’s “Faking It til You Make It!”

And there you have the mantra of our society. We’re rewarding alternate facts on the theory that the end justifies the means. If we throw a blizzard of alternate facts out there that resonate with our audience’s beliefs, we’ll get what we want.

The Fake It Til You Make It syndrome is popping up everywhere. It’s always been a part of marketing and advertising. Arguably, the entire industry is based on alternate facts. But it’s also showing up in the development of new products and services, especially in the digital domain. While Eric Ries never espoused dishonesty in his book, The Lean Start Up, the idea of a Minimal Viable Product certainly lends itself to the principle of “faking it until you make it.” Agile development, in its purest sense, is about user feedback and rapid iteration, but humans being humans, it’s tough to resist the temptation to oversell each iteration, treading dangerously close to pitching “vaporware.” Then we hope like hell that the next development cycle will bridge some of the gap between reality and the alternate facts we sold the prospective customer.

I think we have to accept that our world may not place much value on the truth any more. It’s a slide that started about 100 years ago.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey reviewed the history of success literature in the US from the 1700’s forward. In the first 150 years of America’s history, all the success literature was about building character. Character was defined by words like integrity, kindness, virtue and honor. The most important thing was to be a good person.

Honesty was a fundamental underpinning of the Character Ethic. This coincided with the Enlightenment in Europe. Intellectually, this movement elevated truth above belief. Our modern concept of science gained its legs: “a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths.” The concepts of honor and honesty were intertwined

But Covey noticed that things changed after the First World War. Success literature became preoccupied with the concept of personality. It was important to be likeable, extroverted, and influential. The most important thing was to be successful. Somehow, being truthful got lost in the noise generated by the rush to get rich.

Here’s the interesting thing about personality and character. Psychologists have found that your personality is resistant to change. Personality tends to work below the conscious surface and scripts play out without a lot of mindful intervention. You can read all the self-help books in the world and you probably won’t change your personality very much. But character can be worked on. Building character is an exercise in mindfulness. You have to make a conscious choice to be honest.

The other interesting thing about personality and character is how other people see you. We are wired to pick up on other people’s personalities almost instantly. We start picking up the subconscious cues immediately after meeting someone. But it takes a long time to determine a person’s character. You have to go through character-testing experiences before you can know if they’re really a good person. Character cuts to the core, where as personality is skin deep. But in this world of “labelability” (where we think we know people better than we actually do) we often substitute personality cues for character. If a person is outgoing, confident and fun, we believe them to be trustworthy, moral and honest.

This all adds up to some worrying consequences. If we have built a society where success is worth more than integrity, then our navigational bearings become dependent on context. Behavior becomes contingent on circumstances. Things that should be absolute become relative. Truth becomes what you believe is the most expedient and useful in a given situation.

Welcome to the world of alternate facts.

Yahoo and the Transitory World

The writing has been on the wall for some time. But where once it spelled out Yahoo, it now says Altaba.

The Yahooligans are no more, have ceased to be, bereft of life, they rest in peace. Marissa Mayer may be riding off into the Silicon Valley sunset with her golden parachute trailing behind. The parking lot attendants at 701 First Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA could soon be sandblasting her name off the CEO’s reserved parking spot. And, predictably, we Internet codgers are mourning the loss of yet another digital pioneer.

But here’s the thing. For the last 150 years the point of a corporation is to not be a permanent fixture. And, in this world, that’s truer than ever. So we’d better get use to stepping around a growing pile of corporate corpses.

The notion of a corporation has been around since Roman times. The name comes from the Latin corpus (body) and means “body of people.” The original idea was that a corporation would live on beyond the lifespan of any of its members. This has certainly been true of the Stora Kopparberg, a mining community in Sweden, the oldest corporation in the world. It started in 1347.

But things changed in 1855 with the passing of the Limited Liability act in England. This flipped the idea of the perpetuity of a corporation on its head. This legislation allowed shareholders to walk away from the wreckage of a failed corporation without assuming any personal liability. It enabled serial entrepreneurialism and lowered the threshold of tolerable risk.

In short, corporate limited liability law made it okay for business people to try and possibly fail.

In the century and a half since the passing of the limited Liability Act (and similar legislation in most US states) we somehow believed that corporations existed to build size and scale, as befits a market that’s pre-occupied with mass. Economist Ronald Coase said the reason corporations exist is that because in imperfect markets, there is less friction doing things inside an organization than outside, making corporate structures more profitable than open markets. That was true in markets that built physical things from raw materials scattered around the world and then also had to distribute those things to distant markets.

But that’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is the world of rapid iteration and Eric Ries’ “Minimum Viable Product”. Increasingly, these products are not made of physical stuff but of digital bytes, where there is very little in the way of transactional costs.

I think we have to start thinking of the Minimum Viable Company – companies that can be assembled quickly around a market need but also can be disassembled and repurposed quickly. In today’s world, that’s the purpose of an organization and it’s a transitory thing.

In their book Creative Destruction, Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan envision a new corporate structure more like a venture capital fund. A corporation should be made up of a number of transitory operating units that explore market opportunities in a Darwinian fashion. Arguably, this is closer to the model adopted by Google with Alphabet and, ironically, the new corporate structure of Altaba.

But even here, corporate hubris tends to get in the way. At some point, inevitably, the powers that be begin to believe they’re smarter than the market and build an illusion of sustainability. As economist Joseph Schumpeter said, “The problem that is usually being visualized is how capitalism administers existing structures, whereas the relevant problem is how it creates and destroys them.” Corporations have a vested interest in the status quo. Cognitive biases being what they are, we’ll always favor on the side of what we have rather than what we should build. For this reason, I think Coase’s justification for the corporation might be on its last legs.

That was definitely true of Yahoo. It was a corporation that lived beyond its time. Sooner or later, that had to catch up with it.