The typewriter industry died when it was supplanted by the personal computer. But the typewriter company that realized they were actually experts in selling business machines is now a multi-billion dollar global behemoth. The internet and e-mail destroyed the market for postage meters, but Pitney Bowes is still around because the internet also created new commercial opportunities for an expert in tracking and moving physical goods. It’s been decades since telegrams were meaningful, but Western Union realized that the trust required to transmit messages across borders also worked for transmitting money.
These companies were all in a dying industry. Then they realized that their industry was more than their product.
Many of the people I work with lament that they’re in a dying industry, but this is a tautology. All industries are dying. The solution is to broaden your perspective and continuously reinvent yourself.
Many professionals were lured into the field by promises of stability. Companies will always need lawyers or accountants. But stability makes you stagnant. Even the most staid professional services now have to confront a market demanding dynamism. Companies are litigating less and arbitrating more. TV advertising is getting supplanted by digital, and public relations by content marketing.
All industries are dying. The solution is continuous reinvention.
To reinvent yourself, you have to understand the core of what you do and evolve the way you think about delivering it. Are you a litigator or an expert in resolving disputes? An expert in media relations or an expert in getting content in front of an audience? An expert in preparing tax returns or in minimizing tax costs?
Reinventing is about more than rethinking. You actually have to change how you do business.
It’s not enough to think about your business differently, you have to actually act differently. You need to hire different types of people, think of new ways to market and sell your services, and most importantly, deploy new methods for delivery.
Clients will always demand great service, but their expectations about what that means are changing. Responsiveness and sound advice still matter, but so does effective use of technology, defined and disciplined processes, and comfort making decisions based on data.
My neighbor runs a small public relations business. I once told him that at its core, public relations is about creating content and getting it seen by the right people. We argued a bit at the time, but recently the CEO at one of the firms he partners with told him that “PR is going away, but content is here to stay.”
What holds true for firms holds true for professionals as well. As you think about your career, focus on the core of what you deliver and always look for new opportunities to add value. Look to technology as an exciting tool to be used and not a competitor to be feared. Add in adjacent skills, take advantage of opportunities to work in new areas, and continuously innovate in how you deliver value.
In some ways, firms of the future will resemble the firms of today. But in others, they’ll be as different from each other as IBM the services business is from IBM the mainframe business is from IBM the typewriter business.