October 11, 2015

Looking Back In Time

One television show I enjoy watching is Mad Men, which takes viewers back to the world of the early 1960’s advertising agency.  Through the series, we get reminded how far we have come on reducing gender discrimination and sexual harassment and smoking.

We also realize that life was a great deal slower then and that there was an element of unreality and unsustainability in how people lived then.  There was no hint of global competition or even of the brutal competition that would characterize the American business world even two decades later.

As I move toward stepping down as Executive Chairman of Pitney Bowes and look at some of the older files in my office area, which include Company newspapers from the 1990’s, I have a similar feeling about how unreal the world seemed then:

  • The most unreal time was 1999 and 2000, during the height of the dot-com bubble when people were wildly and stupidly investing in companies that had no revenue, no profits, and no viable business model, but claimed to have many people visiting their web site.  We actually had start-up competitors whose sole investor value proposition was the number of “eyeballs” visiting their web site.
  • I could see then, as I saw in the 1980’s in New York City, that many ordinary investors who put too much faith in what they were hearing on CNBC and the other popular business news channels of the time were going to lose everything, although they did not believe so at the time.
  • I recalled one employee who questioned why we were not as well-respected a company as Enron, which had finished second in the “Most Admired Companies” survey in one of those years.  As a general rule, the most-favored companies of any given time seem to take a bigger fall at a later time than those, like Pitney Bowes, which do not tend to be on the cover of major business periodicals.  I call it “the Sports Illustrated jinx,” since it is widely believed by many sports fans that athletes or teams that get cover stories in Sports Illustrated seem to have a disproportionate number of problems after the cover story appears.
  • Innovation was assumed to take place only in new companies.  The idea of a breakthrough innovation in a long-established company seemed inconceivable.  I remember when we sued two start-up dot-com companies for patent infringement in 1999 being confronted by a young reporter who told me that we could not possibly be an inventor since we were a 79-year-old company.
  • Perhaps the most destructive aspect of the last half of the 1990’s, as was the case in the late 1960’s, was the belief that wisdom gained from experience did not count.  So-called experts and media proclaimed that young people were better able to deal with the new economy because they were untainted by experience.  On the contrary, every successful organization and every societal problem needs an optimal mix of learning from experience and new thinking.  The late 1990’s were a time when the value of learning from history and experience was not appreciated.  Thank goodness these times are behind us.

I am an avid student of history, and I will continue to draw upon the lessons of other times, but I strongly believe that it would benefit decision makers of all ages to take a series of trips back to the past and see what these trips teach them.