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Why 20 Million of You Can't Be Wrong
 

A long-time Inc. contributor surveys the current entrepreneurial scene and reports his findings. How do things look? Well, one answer might be "Never better, thanks!"
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Page 5 of "Why 20 Million of You Can't Be Wrong"

A really new new thing?

So growing companies will thrive in the next several years, though the marketplace may be tough. Of course, it's always tempting to look beyond the next half decade or decade and speculate. What will the prospects for growth companies be when this magazine turns 50 in 2029? To be sure, that's a time frame that can cloud anyone's crystal ball. Maybe those sensor networks will be ubiquitous, so that we know where everything (maybe everybody) is at any given moment. Maybe we will produce our energy from hydrogen, so that fossil fuels can be consigned to history's dustbin. Entrepreneurs will undoubtedly play a role in any such transformation, just because they always do.

But what if the next big thing isn't so much a technology as it is a way of thinking about business--an angle of vision that promises to create new kinds of markets entirely? At least one pair of thinkers has recently offered a 25- to 50-year, future-shock outlook that could get anybody's juices flowing, provided only that the would-be company builders can figure out how to translate a grand vision of economic change into down-to-earth business opportunities.

The pair is Shoshana Zuboff and Jim Maxmin, a married couple who make their home in backwoods Maine. Zuboff is a Harvard Business School professor; Maxmin has a Ph.D. in philosophy and real-world experience as CEO of Volvo UK and two other companies. Maybe befitting their blue-chip backgrounds, their recent book, The Support Economy, is grandly ambitious. The era of industrial capitalism is over, they claim. The business enterprise as we know it today is collapsing. Vast new markets already exist and are waiting to be opened up by innovators willing to create a new kind of company and to offer services different from anything offered in the past. "The old business model is dying, and the new one hasn't emerged," says Maxmin bluntly.

A brief summary can't do justice to their analysis, which draws on rich historical research to argue that capitalism develops in stages and that we're on the cusp of a new one. But here's a good way to get a sense of what they're saying. First, stop to think about all the ways in which your current life as a consumer is difficult and frustrating--all the ways in which it eats up your own or somebody else's time and still produces unsatisfying results. Figuring out what phone service to buy. Arranging to be at home when your new computer is delivered, and then learning how to hook it up. Finding the right camp for your kid. Making time to buy groceries and clothes. Arranging a new mortgage. Worrying about whether you have enough insurance. Any one example seems trivial, but they add up to a majority of consumers constantly feeling anxious and overburdened--and that's before you get to major stress-inducers like health care and air travel. The result of all this, argue Zuboff and Maxmin, is a rising fury on the part of consumers, and a near-total mistrust of service businesses that simply don't meet people's needs. "Only four percent of Americans trust their HMOs!" exclaims Zuboff with animation. "Only seven percent say that they trust health insurance! Only twelve percent trust telecom providers!"

But now, indulge in a flight of imagination. Think how all such matters would be handled if you were very wealthy and you had a staff devoted to them. Suddenly the inconveniences and frustrations of daily living vanish, because somebody else is handling them. Suddenly service providers like insurance companies and travel agents are at your beck and call. Suddenly the doctor comes to your home, and the hospital arranges instant admission--no paperwork necessary--to a room that looks and feels like a four-star hotel. You wouldn't have many gripes about your service providers then.

Of course, services for the rich are hugely expensive. But that's where Zuboff and Maxmin argue that we're entering a new stage of capitalism. Information technology and the Internet make it possible for service providers to offer customized services at ever lower costs. They make it possible for a single federation of companies to act as the consumer's advocate and to create and coordinate a network of specialized vendors providing unique services. "Today I need to travel, and my kid needs a summer camp, and my roof is leaking, and I need a new homeowner's policy," explains Maxmin. "Tomorrow it will be six different things." In the current environment, the consumer has to handle it all. In the Zuboff-Maxmin environment, a single advocate will coordinate the services--and the services themselves will be tailored to individual needs. Need a new computer? Don't call Dell, just call your advocate, who will help you figure out what to buy. If all this boggles the mind, Zuboff and Maxmin ask us to remember how fast technology and an economy can change. Imagine asking somebody in 1900, they suggest, whether automobiles would ever be so cheap that an average family could afford one.

One day last fall I spent a couple of hours talking with the pair, and I kept asking for real-world examples of companies that are already doing such things. I didn't get far. It hasn't happened yet, they told me. What's more, they are outlining a big picture. The people who fill in the details will not be scholars like themselves. Zuboff and Maxmin don't know the secrets. But there will be those who figure them out.

Of course. Entrepreneurs.

Contributing writer John Case, who coined the term "open-book management," has been writing for Inc. for 20 years.

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Last updated: Apr 1, 2004




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