It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times

Jim Blasingame

Contemplating the current economic and entrepreneurial conditions out here in Main Street America, I keep thinking about this perfectly paradoxical passage from one of the great literary masterpieces: 

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 

Perhaps you recognize the opening paragraph from, “A Tale of Two Cities,” by the immortal Charles Dickens. He was providing analysis of the disruptive state of affairs in 18th century England, as well as across the Channel, in France. If you know about the disruptive state of affairs in the 21st-century marketplace, perhaps you’ll appreciate the allegorical reference of these phrases for small businesses almost two and a half centuries later.  

 

It was the best of times: “The more high tech we have, the more high touch we will want.” The reason John Naisbitt’s 1982 words will always be prophesy is because humans will always be analog beings. There’s never been a time when the high touch leverage of a small business has been more powerful against the high tech of big competitors. 

 

It was the worst of times: Tech behemoths like Amazon, Google and Facebook are increasing digital leverage to create new customer experiences and expectations. This trend is deadly for those hidebound small businesses that won’t infuse their sublime high touch with incremental high-tech to produce irresistible, Main Street special sauce.

 

It was the age of wisdom: Unlike the 20th century, today there are few hidden rules or proprietary tools employed by big businesses that aren’t available in some form to small firms. Digital leverage and data are increasingly available in incremental and affordable forms, but you’ll have to risk what you know for what you might learn.  

 

It was the age of foolishness: In the most transparent era of management fundamentals, the keys to sustained success are lower than low-hanging fruit – they’re on the ground. And yet, innumerable small businesses are following Sears and Macy’s into the realm of irrelevance rather than adapting to new customer expectations with high-touch intangibles, relevant 21st-century practices, and affordable – many free – new tools. 

 

It was the epoch of belief:  In many ways, the path to entrepreneurship has never been easier. A sweet byproduct of democratized digital leverage is a lower capital barrier to entry. Plus, the expansion of the universe of niches (read: niches of niches) is creating unprecedented small business opportunities.

 

It was the epoch of incredulity:  It’s still easy to start a new business, but it’s never been more challenging to sustain one. New and evolving customer expectations must be served with fresh data and effort – every day. And competitive disruptions are emanating from improbable market sectors. 

 

It was the season of light:  The illumination and availability of customer data for small firms is unprecedented. Extensive information about business prospects is opening doors to the now-illusive, face-to-face appointment. And response behavior of retail prospects is available to help design and deliver a high tech/high touch marketing strategy.

 

It was the season of darkness:  At the same time, qualifying a suspect into a prospect into a customer has been disrupted by a more informed prospect base. As the selling cycle lengthens for those who fail to recognize this shift, diminishing gross profit erodes equity, burns available credit, and then – well, you know.

 

It was the spring of hope: One of the most amazing forces in the marketplace is the pathological optimism of American entrepreneurs. Against all odds, they navigate their dreams around the wreckage of peers that were sunk by the reef of disruption.

 

It was the winter of despair: I never thought I’d see conditions that would so restrict the entrepreneurial energy of America. The past decade saw anti-business political policies, unprecedented demographic shifts and behaviors, distressed economic conditions, and restricted capital and disruptive pressures combine to set back entrepreneurship in America for the first time in generations (Kauffman Index Startup Activity). 

 

The human experience is pregnant with paradoxes, and no sector more so than the marketplace. Digital leverage is at once creating the paradox of exciting opportunities and unprecedented disruptions. 

 

You would be correct to point out that humans have lamented change for millennia, but this really is different. Not change itself, but the velocity – the compression of time between changes. 

 

Past changes have occurred at the velocity of analog – the speed of sound (761 miles per hour). Today’s change is powered by digital – at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second).

 

Are you adapting to new expectations with your high touch/high tech special sauce? Or are you being disrupted on the way to – well, you know?

 

Write this on a rock … The best of times or the worst of times? The choice is yours.

 

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