“How do I become a business strategist?”

I was recently asked for some career advice, specifically on how to move from a technical role to a more business strategy role, within a corporate environment. Like a lot of the questions I receive regarding career development (especially on LinkedIn….), the initial question was quite broad, a little bit vague, so I needed to frame it before responding.

At the outset, I should stress that I am neither a qualified career counselor (although I have done some related coaching work), nor an organisational behaviorist/industrial psychologist (but I have some formal experience of using personality profiling tools, and trained as a counselor very early in my career). Plus I have had a varied career path and some in-depth corporate experience to draw on!

I have never worked in a full-time Business Strategy role – rather, Business Strategy has been integral to the whole of my corporate and consulting career, whether I have been working in product management, market expansion, business development or start-up roles. So while Business Strategy can be defined (and practiced) as a specific discipline, from my experience it’s just another management component or business tool everyone needs to understand and apply, especially on a practical level.

First, my exposure to business strategy really began when I was in a product management role. So I it was part technical (requiring some formal qualification and subject matter expertise), part production (understanding the design and manufacturing processes), part strategic (managing the commercial, financial and market dynamics). That framework continues to inform my approach to business strategy, even in my consulting work – and helps in understanding my clients’ business.

Second, business and management tools come and go; some are mere passing fads, others are the result of changing technology or market conditions – so there is little point in trying to grapple with each and every one, or whatever happens to be in current fashion. Rather, I believe that we should each identify some core models and frameworks that work for us, which can also be adapted to different situations either organically or by analogy. For example, even the over-used Johari window and SWOT analysis can be useful techniques for mapping out markets, customer segments, or growth options. And having some basic accounting, legal and risk management ability is really useful!

Third, a key personal skill is being curious, and remaining open to possibilities. Simply asking the right questions (Q “Why do we do it this way?” A “Because we’ve always done it this way”) can uncover opportunities for improvement or alternative solutions. Without being a perpetual rebel, it is possible to constructively challenge the status quo, to find ways to do things better, more efficiently, more ethically, more environmentally friendly etc.

Fourth, if there was one thing I had understood better before entering the corporate world and management roles, it is the function of teams, the role of team dynamics, and the importance of open communications, pro-active stakeholder engagement, and bringing people on the journey with you. Never underestimate how stubborn, stupid, wilful or malicious some people can be – but often, they are acting out of a position of fear, ignorance or weakness. It’s rarely personal (it’s just business, right?), but it can feel that way. So, whether you are managing up, down or sideways, be prepared to overcome objections, present solutions (not just problems), and get buy-in early on. Making the team collectively and individually responsible for decisions means that they are personally invested in the outcomes. It’s also a way of empowering people.

Fifth, this leads me to the whole issue of decision-making. Companies will always make some poor decisions – but worse is sub-optimal decision-making. Partly this comes from not having appropriate systems and oversight (proper matrix processes, clearly delegated authorities, well-defined mandates, strong governance frameworks, transparent and accessible policies, and documented audit trails, etc). Partly this is a lack of cognitive skills (empathy, self-awareness, communication). And partly it is an absence of informed decision-making (e.g., understanding any inter-dependencies), and the misalignment of goals and incentives.

As a follow-up question, I was asked about some of the tools I have found useful for being successful in my strategy roles. Personally, I think the jury is still out on the value of an MBA vs gaining hands-on experience, or learning as you grow into a role. MBAs have their place, but they are not the Be all and End all of a corporate career.

I’ve also been dipping into a few of the “leading” business text books of their day, that were recommended to me over the past 15-20 years or so (Blue Ocean Strategy, the Long Tail of markets, defining Metanational companies, etc.). While they all provide some insights, and even some practical examples, they feel very dated in terms of current technology, business models, and market environment. Hence my comment above on passing fads…

Even though I worked for major multinationals for over 20 years, I think I’ve learned a lot more from working with and for startups and entrepreneurs over the past 10 years – and to me, that’s where a lot of the more interesting stuff is happening, notwithstanding the challenges of founding a new business. But I realize it’s not for everyone as a career choice.

Finally, no doubt there will be huge lessons for business and corporate strategy as we come out of lock down and it’s how we apply those lessons that will determine the next generation of success stories.

Next week: “There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

 

Fitting your own oxygen mask first

Before I get into this week’s article, I want to stress that my reason for posting it is not intended to be self-serving, or self-aggrandising – I’m fully aware of such pitfalls, as captured wonderfully in The State of LinkedIn on Twitter. Instead, I hope it’s received as an example of paying it forward. And all starts with some advice I heard a number of years ago.

My erstwhile colleague, Dale Simpson, likes to use the following analogy when coaching his clients on career development, leadership and directorship:

“Be sure to fit your own oxygen mask first”

The reason being, how can you help others if you don’t take care of your own needs first? It’s not about being selfish, but about being present and able to serve others. It also recognises that in order to be useful, we need to work from a position of stability and resilience ourselves.

Dale also likes to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his work. Both Maslow and the oxygen mask have clearly entered my own vernacular. A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a neighbour at my co-working space talking about the work he was trying to do to help others become more resilient and overcome trauma. As the conversation went on, it was clear that his own circumstances were challenging, due to insecure accommodation, erratic income and other factors. He had also had to overcome a great deal of adversity and other challenges in his life.

I asked him if he had heard of Maslow – he hadn’t. I suggested that he consider what his own needs were, so that he would be better able to help others. A little while later, I went back to my desk and found the above note he had left for me.

I’m sure once he manages to sort out his own circumstances, he will be a fine coach and excellent mentor, because he was very certain of his purpose – he just needed to adjust his own oxygen mask first.

Next week: Steam Radio in the Digital Age

30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

Startup Victoria – Best of the Startup State Pitch Night

In support of Victoria’s reputation as “Australia’s Startup State”, last week’s Startup Victoria pitch night was designed to showcase four of the best local startups. Hosted by Stone & Chalk, the judges were drawn from Mentorloop, Brosa, Giant Leap Fund, Rampersand and Vinomofo.

The pitches in order of presentation were (website links embedded in the titles):

Code Like A Girl

Founded four years ago, Code Like A Girl’s stated mission is to bring greater gender diversity to the ICT sector (information and communications technology), within both the industry and education spheres. To do this, the founders say we need more female coders, which they plan to achieve via coding camps, internships, and community events. Positioning itself as a social impact enterprise, the business is active in four States, and 75% of interns are placed into full time roles.

To support the ongoing development of its “role ready” value chain and to prepare for possible overseas expansion, Code Like A Girl is seeking $1.5m in seed funding. Currently piloting the training model via education providers (RTOs, boot camps, universities, online code schools), the business takes a 10% commission on courses sold (held twice a year), plus it charges placement fees of $2k per person.

But the model is difficult to scale, especially as Code Like A Girl does not own or create the actual training content – it is acting as a sales channel for third party courseware, and providing platform for advocacy, engagement and influence. Its key metrics are based on things like social impact scores – such as 30% of kids return to boot camps. The panel felt that the community platform is a huge cost centre, and it might be preferable to try a TedX model, where Code Like A Girl provides branding and foundational support to build more of a network effect – but without its own curriculum, the business will still struggle to scale.

Seer Medical

The business claims to make epilepsy diagnosis easier, and is currently raising $14m for European expansion (UK & Germany). To improve current diagnosis, the model needs to capture time series data to distinguish epilepsy from other conditions, but do so faster, cheaper and more efficiently than current processes. Founded in 2017, Seer has already serviced more than 1500 patients via 200 clinicians.

Using the Seer Cloud infrastructure,  it can achieve diagnostic outcomes 10x faster than traditional methods, and the platform is using machine learning to train its algorithms. The service is subject to Medicare reimbursement, which has no doubt assisted adoption.

Asked by the judges if the platform could be used to diagnose other conditions, the founders mentioned cardio, sleep and other health domains. As for competition, this comes mainly from the status quo – i.e., hospital based services. With advocacy from neurologists, giving them access to customers, the founders have a strong track record in the research field, which helps to open doors with clinicians. Along with research partnerships, plus the public health cost reimbursement, data is the fuel of the business –  Seer even have access to some third party data on which to train their diagnostic.

Liven

A dining rewards app, Liven is also bringing a behavioral gamification layer to a real world use case. Currently, there is a poor linkage between loyalty programmes and gamification. So, Liven has launched a universal reward token (the LVN token) for use in a digital/real world context.  The details were scant, and the status of the LVN token sale is unclear, but it seems users can earn LVN tokens from completing certain “missions”. The token (using a standard ERC 20 token format on the Ethereum blockchain), is designed to be interoperable and fungible (but Liven does not yet appear to use blockchain in its end user app or merchant point of sale solution).

The said merchants pay a 10-25% commission on app-based sales, of which upto 40% is paid back to the end user in the form of LVN tokens – if I got the maths right, Liven itself is securing $15 profit on every $100 of sales. Currently only available in Melbourne and Sydney, the judges wanted to know what the appeal is to merchants. According to the founders, users typically spend more in an average transaction when they use the app. It also seems that the app only works in brick and mortar restaurants, cafes and bars. The path to scaling will be via channel partners such as PoS systems.

Although not yet deployed, in future, it was suggested that users will be able to pay in any crypto – which raises all sorts of questions about the tokenomics of the LVN token, and whether LVN will be subject to exchange rate volatility (and even token speculation) or act as a stable coin; if the latter, what will it be backed by or pegged to?

Phoria

Phoria is in the business of extended reality technology (XR). Started in 2014, Phoria was an entrant to the Melbourne Accelerator Programme (MAP), with the stated goal of moving VR into a mobile experience (“democratize VR”).  Having gained some clinical VR research experience, Phoria has since worked on commercial projects such as “Captured” (turning a 3D scan of a building or structure into a Digital Twin), “Rewild Our Planet” (a Singapore-based AR experience), and various art installations museum exhibits.

Phoria is commissioned by tech and media brands to create XR content. It has developed a SaaS model, whereby it can turn real space into virtual space (“virtualising internal space”).

The judges wondered where we are along the cycle of mass adoption vs peak hype. In response, the founders mentioned that the first wireless headsets are now available, although consumer-facing mixed reality hardware is still 3-5 years away. With a growing customer base in engineering and architecture applications, Phoria’s main focus is on spatial information.

After the votes were counted, the People’s choice was Seer Medical, who also won the overall prize.

Next week: 30 years in publishing