When offering sage career or life advice to angst-filled youngsters pondering their future, there's a line experienced elders like to quote - "follow your bliss" - it's a term that was coined in the 70s by the late Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, writer and lecturer - the popular interpretation being that if you do what you love, success, fame and fortune will follow.
But, according to Richard Mulholland author, public speaker and entrepreneur, this is the biggest fallacy we can feed our children. Success lies, not in doing what you love, he says, but in finding a solution to the things that frustrate you. Because the odds are that, if something is annoying you, it’s probably annoying someone else too.
“We fall in love with the solution when what we really need to do is to rekindle our love for the problem,” Mulholland believes. “It’s not about the solution. [We all have] solutions to other people’s problems.” The real lesson for businesses is to constantly reassess whether their reason for being (the solution they offer) is still relevant and if it isn’t, to immediately course correct.
Speaking at Ads24’s recent Food for Thought – an annual media industry event that invites progressive learning and debate around the economic, political, environmental and technological forces shaping the future of business – Mulholland drew on the idea that given the galactic pace at which technology is advancing, problem solving is the panacea to all that ails stagnating businesses. At the same time, legacy thinking is the greatest enemy of business, now and in the future.
To illustrate his point he quoted the late futurist Alvin Toffler, who famously said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” This quote summed up the premise behind much of Mulholland’s talk which drew on case studies and learnings from his own and other businesses.
“I’m 44 years old and 22 years ago I started a company, and initially I couldn’t see [how things worked] but slowly and surely I started figuring it out and I had a real sense of how the world worked. And my challenge then was that I couldn’t un-see what I’d seen... The biggest and most limiting factor that got in the way of our business was that once I’d solved a problem by doing solution A, I felt that solution A was the only way to solve it,” he says.
How legacy thinking destroyed Blackberry
It’s a common phenomenon, even among massive corporations. Take Blackberry, the one-time, must–have device, which in its heyday sold 52-million handsets in one year, driving its share price to CAN0, with a net income of about a billion US dollars; followed by a rapid crash.
The reason, Mulholland surmises, “comes down to a certain assumption they made and the assumption was basically that Blackberry thought they were an alternative to an iPhone”. What Blackberry failed to recognise is that their strength was not their handset but, in fact, BBM, an app that suddenly made it socially acceptable to conduct business via short message.
“They changed the game; they changed the way we communicated in business. They had created BBM, this killer app; that’s what everybody wanted... Blackberry thought they were a solution to the iPhone or [at least] a competitor but what they really were, was an alternative to email. But they didn’t realise that it was their superpower and so they held it back from the masses, saying if you want to use this technology you must buy our device.”
Enter Brian Acton, a tech-savvy entrepreneur, who after failing to land his desired job at twitter or Facebook, went on to start his own company – WhatsApp, which he sold to Facebook four years later for bn.
“And here’s the thing, WhatsApp became the company that Blackberry could have become. In fact, I would go so far as to say that WhatsApp became the company that Blackberry should have become... all they had to do was to open up their platform... to every operating system.” If they had done this, Mulholland believes, they would have become the company that WhatsApp is today.
South Africa – the land of innovation
Despite an ailing economy and political instability, Mulholland believes that South Africa is a hotbed for innovation and entrepreneurship.
“The upside of down is that when things are stagnating it forces entrepreneurs to find better ways of doing things. What South Africa has always done is provide an opportunity for entrepreneurs to recreate. It’s made South Africa a great place to thrive. I’ve done a lot of travelling this year and what it made me realise is that we live in the greatest most entrepreneurial place in the world.”
The key for established businesses, however, is that, “innovation does not happen when you start doing something new. If you are an established business, innovation happens when you stop doing something old. We have to be willing to sacrifice the things that got us here in order to get somewhere else.”
Food for thought
Now in its third year Food for Thought is an annual opportunity for leaders in the media industry to come together.
“We believe that for our industry to thrive we need to constantly adjust the way in which we look at, not only business, but the world. Food for Thought allows us to step outside our day-to-day to learn and debate and to leave with a new lens on the way we do things,” says Marise van der Lith, Brand Manager for Ads24. “Last year we focused on the road to 2019 to apply out-of-the-box thinking to potential scenarios on the road to the presidential elections. This year we explored the concept of humans vs robots and how we can, not only retain our humanity but, actually, use tech to evolve and become better at ‘humaning’.”
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