“Be careful what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear and you will produce weeds that choke the life from your dreams. Water them with optimism and solutions and you will cultivate success. Always be on the lookout for ways to turn a problem into an opportunity for success. Always be on the lookout for ways to nurture your dream”
Lao Tzu – Chinese Taoist Philosopher
The difference between an executive and an entrepreneur is the level of risk they are willing to accept. Cautious types like me are always pointing at the risk coefficient as justification for discarding new ideas. Our vision for the future is shortsighted.
Metaphorically, it’s like twin brothers, one is an optimist and the other a pessimist, receiving two very different presents on the same day. The optimist gets horse excrement and jumps with joy, believing that his present must surely be a horse. The pessimist gets a bicycle, looks at the bicycle and gets depressed, because all he can see is the possibility of accidents in the future.
I don’t place myself in any of these extremes, but I am always amazed at the unexpected success of ventures that seem so unreachable at first.
Back in 1995, if anyone had invited me to start a free newspaper in Scandinavia, my reaction would have been pragmatic. To market yet another paper — and free of charge — in a region that boasts newspaper readership rates as high as 2.2 newspapers per home, as in the case of Norway, and the highest per capita income in the planet, would have seemed like marketing refrigerators to Eskimos.
My attention, however, should not have been on those household readership numbers, but on the length of time that urban transit passengers spent doing nothing while traveling to work. After leaving their newspapers at home for their families to read, those commuters had free time in their hands and idle eyeballs — a perfect combination for consumption of information. This variable opened the way for the success of free newspapers such as Metro and 20 Minutes.
As free newspapers grew in popularity and sophistication, publishers of traditional products spawned competing products as the merits of the new model took hold. Young people are spending more and more time with electronic media and moving away from newspapers. They are embracing this new media because of the daily avalanche of news and information they are exposed to each day and because it fits their lives better than traditional media. Yet the most significant driver of free newspapers’ appeal is not their young readers or their lower or non-existent cover prices, it’s that they can reach readers during empty time slots in their day.
This leads me to believe that any risk assessment of free newspapers must take into consideration subjective and inestimable factors and I can’t see this happening at this time of continued growth of this successful model.
There is a formula, but formulas still need to be adapted to the circumstances of each market and adopt an eminently local focus. For example: in South America, any attempt to obtain distribution exclusivity with city transit authorities is a waste of money with no benefits whatsoever unless you’re wanting to give people something to hide under on a rainy day. Any smart competitor who decides to start handing out a free paper before the big staircase leading to the train platforms will “clog” the distribution channel, because the public will not have time or willingness to read two papers. In their search for targets, hawkers have access to pedestrians on sidewalks and they are trained to spot people whose physical features pigeonhole them as members of the A and B segments.
Still, with little adjustments here and there, the success of this model is absolutely unquestionable and the future — as far as we can see — is one of continued growth.
Point for the Scandinavians; zero points for me.
Another incident involves two boys and a garage. I would really like to know what was in the heads of the parents of Brin and Page when these guys started the 30-year adventure which became their US$100 billion corporation. That’s larger than Coca-Cola and General Motors. When the bubble burst, I felt as removed from this whole thing as I am from Mars. Internet? I didn’t even entertain the idea.
It so happens that this young duo has just disembarked in Brasil, coming from Davos, Switzerland, dressed in Brazilian national soccer team jerseys to find out what was going on with their branch in Belo Horizonte. I’ll bet none of my readers knows where Belo Horizonte is located. These guys do. They went there learn why the operation was not growing at the levels they intended. From there they went on to visit an alcohol plant. Alcohol? Well, those keeping an eye on America’s addiction to gasoline know that alternative fuels are a smart investment.
What I find fantastic is the time those two guys made in order to come check on their small Brazilian branch and write essays about the fuel crisis — a subject completely out of alignment with their primary business. I, on the other hand, had to rearrange my whole calendar just to write this column…
Point for Brin and Page; no points for me.
Last but not least, the Rolling Stones came to Rio. When I heard about the plans for the concert, I thought, “our Mayor needed to be hospitalized.” A million and a half people gathering on Copacabana Beach to listen to rock’n’roll?
This is a recipe for disaster. I could see the first page of the New York Times the following day: “Musical tsunami leaves Rio de Janeiro in ruins. Waiting for exact numbers of dead and injured.” Mick Jagger jumping up and down? Heavy music? Booze? Drugs? Almost two million delirious lunatics singing and … doing whatever it is that they do. This will be a complete fiasco, for sure. Again, my mistake. The hordes of people, young and not so young, behaved like a truly British audience (ex-hooligans). A little theft here, a punch on the face over there, of course…but that would happen in any city. Still, I couldn’t believe it. Two million people singing and drinking on the beach. That’s larger than most Brasilian, European, or American cities entire populations. And my predictions were wrong. It was a fantastic box office hit — if it the show hadn’t been free. This is unfathomable.
I need to look ahead to the future in a different way or resign to my old age status, which is already here. I have started to look at the world through Scandinavian eyes, especially as far as newspapers are concerned.
But I’ve lost. Three to zero.