Almost forty years ago, in 1979, I had a long stay in London and happened to listen to Bob Dylan, the current Nobel prize winner. He was singing the lyrics of the title on his newly published long play ‘Slow train coming’.
I teach business planning, internationalization and digitalization strategies at TAMK International Business degree program. The world is changing and there are fewer employment opportunities in the big companies. To make unemployment figures lower, citizens are encouraged to establish new businesses or at least employ themselves.
This means that teaching cannot follow the old rules anymore and we have to adapt to this new situation. There will be fewer and fewer jobs requiring competences, which used to be needed in the large enterprises. Founding of a thriving business is difficult in practice. This is a well-known fact also to professional investors, who look for at least one success story among many failures they invest. The new Nobel prize winner is right – the gate is narrow. Especially so if you want to establish a successful business.
It is so easy to take the wide roads, which lie on both sides of the narrow gate. Recently I read the book by the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel. In his book ‘Zero to one’ (Thiel 2014) he describes early stages of PayPal and analyses the problems of failed businesses and reasons for success in successful companies. There are many analogies to the narrow gate, which businesses need to go through in order to become successful. For example, good companies should have secrets, which is the narrow gate between the wide roads of conventions and mysteries.
It is no wonder that only few entrepreneurs are able to establish a successful growth business.
Why did the dotcom companies fail? This may be an easy question to answer with hindsight, but many investors were blind at the time. If the company only spends money and there are no future profits in your radar, then it is not possibly worth investing. Several years later same kind of problems were faced by the ‘cleantech’ enterprises, which were only good at raising government funding.
Peter Thiel (2014) presents seven questions, to which successful companies need to be able to give good answers. Questions include technology, timing, markets, people, distribution, durability and the secret. Cleantech companies failed all the seven questions. However, an opposite example is Tesla, who have good answers for all of these questions. Let’s have look at those.
- Your technology should be ten times better than that of the competitors in order to substitute existing solutions, incremental improvements are not enough.
- Being the first in the market may make sense in some cases, but generally speaking it is better to be the last in the market.
- Clear definition of your market is important. You should start with a monopoly-like position in a small and well-defined market, instead of a small share of a big market.
- You should have people who are good at the core technologies of your company, not only sales. As Peter Thiel puts it: “There is nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he looks like a salesman, he is probably bad at sales and worse with tech”.
- However, Thiel continues “selling and delivering a product is at least as important as the product itself”. Distribution is something that you might neglect, but it important even for a startup.
- Even though a ‘sustainable competitive advantage’ hardly exists in today’s business, durability is important to consider. Can you stay in the market when global competitors enter your field of business?
- And finally, you should have company secrets where your unique offering is based on. If you describe you offering with broad conventions which everyone agrees on, your future may not be as bright you’d like it to be.
It is no wonder that only a few entrepreneurs are able to establish a successful growth business. If establishing new business is so difficult, what could we possibly do here in TAMK to help our students to become wanted professionals in the future workplace? Of course, we can’t stick to the old practices and curricula, but need to renew ourselves and stay alert with the world around us. However, because the world is unexpected and changing so fast, we can’t provide the students with 100% future proof skills and competences, either. Even if we could teach the latest technologies and business trends, it would not make sense. According to a Finnish proverb ‘the water brought to the well doesn’t stay in there’. Maybe the best we can do is to help our students to become the wells themselves. This is the narrow gate in teaching, which can be achieved by coaching, I believe. The wide road means sticking to the old practices or renewing for the sake of renewal. This year International Business degree program switched to coaching based curriculum and I believe this is the right direction.
Thiel, P. 2014. Zero to one: notes on startups, or how to build the future. New York. Crown Publishing Group.
About the author
Mr. Matti Karlsson, Lic.Sc.(Tech), is a lecturer of business, management and digitalization at Tampere University of Applied Sciences. Degree Programme in International Business. Mr. Karlsson comes with over 30 years of versatile professional work experience in the ICT industry, including management and specialist positions, mainly in research and development. His experience includes leading groups of specialists and managing projects in international environment.