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Brandwave-logo-6.png |Scenario Planning | jan '20
15.01.2020
The economic situation is very difficult as we know on everyone and on every business, mainly the local ones. This is why the first measure that every Owner/CEO/MD is taking is reducing cost and expenses: laying off employees, stopping training programs, reducing or canceling consultancy & advertising agreements etc…this is maybe understandable because Companies are in a survival mode trying to rescue what is remaining from their business. 
But if we think differently about it for a moment, these measures will fire back because if every company be it small or big, local or regional start doing the same thinking putting their company direct interest first, the result will be affecting more and more the other companies they are dealing with and it will have a ripple effect that will return to hurt them as the whole economy suffers. 

We need to acknowledge that all the pieces of an economy are interconnected and when firms cancel a not-so-urgent investment, they are reducing revenues for a number of people who in turn will not be able to purchase the company’s products or services. It is a circular economy that acts like a boomerang.
A good example is what is happening with the banking sector. Everyone knows that if we keep rushing to withdraw cash to be saved in homes, the faster the banks collapse would be. But yet each individual think for himself without admitting that he/she is part of an ecosystem that is threatening to break down on all of us!

What should be done instead is actions driven by a solidarity spirit, trying to support as much as possible each other in this difficult time by avoiding canceling contracts, reducing wages, firing people but instead re-orienting all resources towards what is needed today, changing the priorities; the strategy not the purpose. Exploring and developing innovations & new business models that the new emerging real economy mandates.

By doing that Companies will win on the mid & long-terms as they play a wiser role in reinventing themselves while supporting the smaller providers maintaining the viability of all business sectors ecosystem, vital to sustaining the Lebanese economy .

Cutting cost, although easiest step to make, must not be done without first rethinking what the near future would look like and rather explore smart & fluid reallocation of resources, Strategic Thinking and Scenario Planning should be though off to find the right solutions that may not be obvious at first. 
Solidarity is one of those key themes that could become an overarching strategic plan that can keep us all on the boat and avoiding the ship from drowning by self-inflicted holes.

This Solidarity Theme was dominant in the October Revolution on social and human levels and should be dominant as well on Business level for Lebanon’s sake. “One for all and all for one” should be our new motto.

Carole Ayoub
Partner & Senior Consultant at Brandcell
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15.01.2020
Although it is surprisingly hard to create good ones, they help you ask the right questions and prepare for the unexpected. That is hugely valuable.
Scenarios are a powerful tool in the strategist’s armory. They are particularly useful in developing strategies to navigate the kinds of extreme events we have recently seen in the world economy. Scenarios enable the strategist to steer a course between the false certainty of a single forecast and the confused paralysis that often strike in troubled times. When well executed, scenarios boast a range of advantages—but they can also set traps for the unwary.

There is a significant amount of literature on scenarios: their origins in war games, their pioneering use by Shell, how to construct them, how to move from scenarios to decisions, and so on. Rather than attempt anything encyclopedic, which would require a book rather than a short article, I have put forward my personal convictions, based on experience in building scenarios over the past 25 years, about both the power and the dangers of scenarios, and how to sidestep those dangers. I close with some rules of thumb that help me—and will, I hope, help you—get the best out of scenarios.


The power of scenarios

Scenarios have three features that make them a particularly powerful tool for understanding uncertainty and developing strategy accordingly.


Scenarios expand your thinking

You will think more broadly if you develop a range of possible outcomes, each backed by the sequence of events that would lead to them. The exercise is particularly valuable because of a human quirk that leads us to expect that the future will resemble the past and that change will occur only gradually.

By demonstrating how—and why—things could quite quickly become much better or worse, we increase our readiness for the range of possibilities the future may hold. You are obliged to ask yourself why the past might not be a helpful guide, and you may find some surprisingly compelling answers.

This quirk, along with other factors, was most powerfully illustrated in the recent meltdown.
Many financial modelers had used data going back only a few years and were therefore entirely unprepared for what we have since seen. If they had asked themselves why the recent past might not serve as a good guide to the future, they would have remembered the Asian collapse of the late 1990s, the real-estate slump of the early 1990s, the crash of October 1987, and so on. The very process of developing scenarios generates deeper insight into the underlying drivers of change. Scenarios force companies to ask, “What would have to be true for the following outcome to emerge?” As a result, they find themselves testing a wide range of hypotheses involving changes in all sorts of underlying drivers. They learn which drivers matter and which do not—and what will actually affect those that matter enough to change the scenario.


Scenarios uncover inevitable or near-inevitable futures

A sufficiently broad scenario-building effort yields another valuable result. As the analysis underlying each scenario proceeds, you often identify some particularly powerful drivers of change. These drivers result in outcomes that are the inevitable consequence of events that have already happened, or of trends that are already well developed. Shell, the pioneer in scenario planning, described these as “predetermined outcomes” and captured the essence of this idea with the saying, “It has rained in the mountains, so it will flood in the plains.” In developing scenarios, companies should search for predetermined outcomes—particularly unexpected ones, which are often the most powerful source of new insight uncovered in the scenario-development process.

Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of predetermined outcomes: demographic trends, economic action and reaction, the reversal of unsustainable trends, and scheduled events (which may be beyond the typical planning horizon).

    •    Demography is destiny. Changes in population size and structure are among the few highly predictable aspects of the future. Some uncertainties exist (potential increases in longevity, for example), but only at the margin. Sometimes, the effects of these trends are far off—as with Social Security in the United States today—so they are generally ignored. When these trends grow near, however, their effects can be powerful indeed, as when the baby boom generation is on the brink of leaving the workforce.

    •    “You canna change the laws of economics!” Just as Scotty the engineer could not change the laws of physics when Captain Kirk1 demanded more warp speed, so business leaders cannot assume away the laws of economics. If demand shoots up, prices will too—which will limit demand and drive increasing supply—with the result that demand, prices, or both will drop. Nothing increases in price forever, in real terms. We recently saw oil prices more than double and then sink back again by an equal amount. Price changes of this scale inevitably drive supply and demand reactions in every relevant value chain. As in physics, every economic action has a predetermined reaction. These reactions are often ignored in business strategy. If uncovered through scenario planning, however, they can generate powerful insights.

    •    “Trees don’t grow to the sky.” Business plans often extrapolate into the future trends that are clearly unsustainable. Economies are fundamentally cyclical, so beware of politicians bearing tales about the end of boom and bust. Equally, do not build a strategy based on the claim that the business cycle has been tamed. Often, optimistic projections are accompanied by bold claims of a new paradigm. Strategists need to be very cautious about alleged new paradigms. The appearance of even a genuine new paradigm almost always results in a speculative bubble. The “new economy” was a good example. More recently, securitization proved to be another sound idea that resulted in a speculative bubble. And in the past, many new, innovative technologies—railroads and radio, for example—were hailed as “new paradigms” and then promptly led to investment bubbles. A useful test is to project a trend at least 25 years out. Then ask how long can this trend really be sustained. Challenge yourself to try and prove why the shape of the future should be so fundamentally different from the more cyclical past. Chances are you won’t be able to, and this will open your eyes to the possibility of a break in the trend.

    •    Scheduled events may fall beyond typical planning horizons. There is also a simpler kind of predetermined outcome that does not involve any unalterable laws: scenarios must take into account scheduled events just beyond corporate planning horizons. A recent example, the results of which we have already seen, is reset dates on adjustable-rate mortgages. Well before the event, one could have predicted a spike in resets as mortgages sold in 2005 and 2006—the peak years—completed their low, three-year introductory rates. Something bad was going to happen to the economy in 2008. Right now, there is another important “timetable” to watch: the wave of large bond issues that has resulted from banks having to refinance hundreds of billions of dollars of maturing debt. Although these types of scheduled events ought to be common knowledge, they tend to be overlooked in planning exercises because they fall beyond the next 12 to 18 months. Scenarios should account for scheduled events that could have a big impact in the 24–60 month time frame.

While some errors can be avoided by recalling certain fundamental economic and demographic facts or scheduled events, problems of timing will continue to exist. Your company’s strategic planners may know that a massive dollar value of mortgages is about to reset. But when will the market actually wake up to this reality? Financial services cannot grow as a percentage of GDP forever. But at what percentage will this stop? We didn’t know before, and we still don’t know today. Still, the realization that something must happen, even if it is not clear when, leads to the inclusion of at least one scenario in which, say, financial services stop growing sooner rather than later.

Scenarios protect against ‘groupthink’

Often, the power structure within companies inhibits the free flow of debate. People in meetings typically agree with whatever the most senior person in the room says. In particularly hierarchical companies, employees will wait for the most senior executive to state an opinion before venturing their own—which then magically mirrors that of the senior person. Scenarios allow companies to break out of this trap by providing a political “safe haven” for contrarian thinking.

Scenarios allow people to challenge conventional wisdom

In large corporations, there is typically a very strong status quo bias. After all, large sums of money, and many senior executives’ careers, have been invested in the core assumptions underpinning the current strategy—which means that challenging these assumptions can be difficult. Scenarios provide a less threatening way to lay out alternative futures in which the these assumptions underpinning today’s strategy may no longer be true.

Avoiding the common traps in using scenarios

For all these benefits, there is a downside to scenarios. Inexperienced people and companies are prone to fall into a number of traps.

Don’t become paralyzed

Creating a range of scenarios that is appropriately broad, especially in today’s uncertain climate, can paralyze a company’s leadership. The tendency to think we know what is going to happen is in some ways a survival strategy: at least it makes us confident in our choices (however misplaced that confidence may be). In the face of a wide range of possible outcomes, there is a risk of acting like the proverbial deer in the headlights: the organization becomes confused and lacking in direction, and it changes nothing in its behavior as an uncertain future bears down upon it.

The answer is to pick the scenario whose outcome seems most likely and to base a plan upon that scenario. It should be buttressed with clear contingencies if another scenario—or one that hasn’t been imagined—begins to emerge instead. Ascertain the “no regrets” moves that are sound under all scenarios or as many as possible. Ultimately, the existence of multiple possibilities should not distract a company from having a clear plan.

Don’t let scenarios muddy communications

The former CEO of a global industrial company once suggested that scenarios are an abdication of leadership. His point was that a leader has to set a vision for the future and persuade people to follow it. Great leaders do not paint four alternative views of the future and then say, “Follow me, although I admit I’m not sure where we are going.”

Leaders can use scenarios without abdicating their leadership responsibilities but should not communicate with the organization via scenarios. You cannot stand up in front of an organization and say, “Things will be good, bad, or terrible, but I am not sure which.” Winston Churchill’s remarks about British aims in World War II—“Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be”—are instructive. By insisting on only one final outcome, Churchill was not refusing to acknowledge that a wide range of conditions might exist. What he did was to set forth a goal that he regarded as what we would call “robust under different scenarios.” He was acknowledging the range of uncertainties (“however long and hard the road may be”), and he resisted overoptimism (which affected many bank CEOs early in the recent crisis).

A chief executive, a prime minister, or a president must provide clear and inspiring leadership. That doesn’t mean these leaders should not study and prepare for a number of possibilities. Understanding the range of likely events will embolden corporate leaders to feel prepared against most eventualities and allow those leaders to communicate a single, bold goal convincingly.

One additional point about communication and scenarios is worth noting. Scenarios can help leaders avoid looking stupid. A wide range of scenarios—even if not publicly discussed—can help prevent leaders from making statements that can be proven wrong if one of the more extreme scenarios unfolds. For instance, one financial regulator boldly announced, early in the financial crisis, that its banking system was, at the time, capitalized to a level that made it bulletproof under all reasonable scenarios—only to announce, a few months later, that a further recapitalization was required. Similarly, the head of a large bank confidently suggested that the downturn was in its final phases shortly before the major indexes plummeted by 25 percent and we entered a new and even more dangerous phase of the crisis. Many CEOs have given hostages to fortune; scenarios would have helped them avoid doing so.

Don’t rely on an excessively narrow set of outcomes

The astute reader will have noticed that the above-mentioned financial regulator managed to embarrass itself even though it was using scenarios. One of the more dangerous traps of using them is that they can induce a sense of complacency, of having all your bets covered. In this regard at least, they are not so different from the value-at-risk models that left bankers feeling that all was well with their businesses—and for the same reason. Those models typically gave bankers probabilistic projections of what would happen 99 percent of the time. This induced a false sense of security about the potentially catastrophic effects of an event with a 1 percent probability. Creating scenarios that do not cover the full range of possibilities can leave you exposed exactly when scenarios provide most comfort.

One investment bank in 2001, for instance, modeled a 5 percent revenue decline as its worst case, which proved far too optimistic given the downturn that followed. Even when constructing scenarios, it is easy to be trapped by the past. We are typically too optimistic going into a downturn and too pessimistic on the way out. No one is immune to this trap, including professional builders of scenarios and the companies that use them. When the economy is heading into a downturn, pessimistic scenarios should always be pushed beyond what feels comfortable. When the economy has entered the downturn, there is a need for scenarios that may seem unreasonably optimistic.

The breadth of a scenario set can be tested by identifying extreme events—low-probability, high-impact outcomes—from the past 30 or 40 years and seeing whether the scenario set contains anything comparable. Obviously, such an event would never be a core scenario. But businesses ought to know what they would do, say, if some more virulent strain of avian flu were to emerge or if an unexpected geopolitical conflict exploded. Remember too that it would not take a pandemic or a terrorist attack to threaten the survival of many businesses. Sudden spikes in raw-material costs, unexpected price drops, major technological breakthroughs—any of these might take down many large businesses. Companies can’t build all possible events into their scenarios and should not spend too much time on the low-probability ones. But they must be sure of surviving high-severity outcomes, so such possibilities must be identified and kept on a watch list.

Don’t chop the tails off the distribution

In our experience, when people who are running businesses are presented with a range of scenarios, they tend to choose one or two immediately to the right and left of reality as they experience it at the time. They regard the extreme scenarios as a waste because “they won’t happen” or, if they do happen, “all bets are off.” By ignoring the outer scenarios and spending their energy on moderate improvements or deteriorations from the present, leaders leave themselves exposed to dramatic changes—particularly on the downside.

So strategists must include “stretch” scenarios while acknowledging their low probability. Remember, risk and probability are not the same thing. Because the risk of an event is equal to its probability times its magnitude, a low-probability event can still be disastrous if its effects are large enough.

Don’t discard scenarios too quickly

Sometimes the most interesting and insightful scenarios are the ones that initially seem the most unlikely. This raises the question of how long companies should hold on to a scenario. Scenarios ought to be treated dynamically. Depending on the level of detail they aspire to, some might have a shelf life numbered only in months. Others may be kept and reused over a period of years. To retain some relevance, a scenario must be a living thing. Companies don’t get a scenario “right”—they keep it useful. Scenarios get better if revised over time. It is useful to add one scenario for each that is discarded; a suite of roughly the same number of scenarios should be maintained at all times.

Remember when to avoid scenarios altogether

Finally, bear in mind the one instance in which strategists will not want to use scenarios: when uncertainty is so great that they cannot be built reliably at any level of detail.2 Just as scenarios help to avoid groupthink, they can also generate a groupthink of their own. If everyone in an organization thinks the world can be categorized into four boxes on a quadrant, it may convince itself that only four outcomes or kinds of outcomes can happen. That’s very dangerous. Strategists should not think that they have all reasonable scenarios when there are quite different possibilities out there.

Don’t use a single variable

The future is multivariate, and there are elements strategists will miss. They should therefore avoid scenarios that fall on a single spectrum (“very good,” “good,” “not so good,” “very bad”). At least two variables should be used to construct scenarios—and the variables must not be dependent, or in reality there will be just one spectrum.

Some rules of thumb

Obviously, some general principles can be assembled from the points above: look for events that are certain or nearly certain to happen; make sure scenarios cover a broad range of outcomes; don’t ignore extremes; don’t discard scenarios too quickly just because short-term reality appears to refute them and never be embarrassed by a seemingly too pessimistic or optimistic scenario; understand when not enough is known to sketch out a scenario; and so on. But there are some additional rules of thumb that I have found particularly useful.

Always develop at least four scenarios

A scenario set should always contain at least four alternatives. Show three and people always pick the middle one. Four forces them to discover which way they truly lean—an important input into the discussion. Two is always too few unless there is only one big swing factor affecting the situation.
Technically, of course, many scenarios can be sketched out in almost any situation. All possible combinations of just three uncertainties will create 27 scenarios. But many of them will be impossible because the variables are rarely completely independent. Usually, the possibilities can be boiled down to four or five major possible futures.

“Crunch” the quadrants

Often people use a two-by-two matrix when presenting scenarios. But it is not routinely the case that there are just two major variables. In developing scenarios, it would be typical to identify three to five critical uncertainties. How to resolve this tension? One approach is to create multiple two-by-twos using all possible combinations of the four or five critical uncertainties. It will quickly become clear that some uncertainties are highly correlated and so can be combined—and that others are not principal drivers of the various scenarios. At minimum, this will allow for simplification. Sometimes, however, it is possible to uncover a real insight when trying to describe a quadrant created by an unusual combination of uncertainties.

There should always be a base or central case

This point goes back to the chief executive, mentioned above, who claimed that scenarios were an abdication of responsibility. It is fine to put forward scenarios—it is, in fact, the responsible thing to do. But those who must weigh scenarios and reach decisions based on them expect and deserve to get a specific point of view about the future. The scenario that is highest in probability should always be identified, and that ought to become the base case. If that proves impossible, it should at least be feasible to fashion a “central” case—but there must be crystal clarity about the degree of certainty attached to it, the alternatives, and the resilience of any strategy to those alternatives.

Scenarios must have catchy names

The notion of attaching clever names to scenarios may well sound trivial. It is not. Unless scenarios become a living part of an organization, they are useless. And if they do not have snappy, memorable names, they will not enter the organization’s lexicon. Use two to four words—no more. Plays on film titles and historical events are recommended. Some names that I have used, and that appear to have stuck, are “Groundhog Day,” “the long chill,” “perfect summer,” “end of an era,” “silver age,” and “Mexican spring.”
Avoid long, descriptive titles. No one will remember “Restrengthening world economy at a lower level of overall growth.” And avoid boring “bull, bear, and base” scenarios, even though these are used by many stock analysts. If no snappy title seems to present itself (assuming that someone creative is available), the scenario is probably too diffuse and may contain elements of two different scenarios jammed together.

Learn from being totally wrong

Developing scenarios is an art rather than a science. People learn by experience. It is useful to look back at old scenarios and ask what, in retrospect, they missed. What could have been known at the time that would have made for better scenarios? Events will prove that some scenarios were too narrow or that one was thrown out too soon. The more comfortable an organization and its people are with mistakes and learning from them, the less likely it is to be mistaken again.

Listen to contrary voices

This is a good corrective to groupthink. We tend to dismiss the mavericks. Scenarios are there to make room for them. Maverick scenarios have the virtue of being surprising, which makes people think. If a company’s scenarios are all completely predictable (conventionally good, conventionally bad, and somewhere in the middle), they are not going to be valuable. The best scenarios are built on a new insight—either something predetermined that others have missed or an unobvious but critical uncertainty.

On one occasion, when oil was at $120 a barrel, we presented a scenario with oil at $70. Someone asked what would happen if oil dropped to $10 a barrel. We said that was unnecessarily radical. But we probably should not have been so dismissive, as oil promptly fell below $50 a barrel. We should have been more open to the possibility of this radical price swing—after all, oil has been at $10 a barrel well within living memory. Scenarios should not assume a short-term time series; they should go back as far as possible. If a data series going back 300 years is available, you should consider using it (they do exist for UK interest rates and UK government debt as a percentage of GDP and these long-term data series have certainly informed current debates about the possible interest rates and sustainable debt to GDP ratios). Most variables can only be supported by data going back tens of years—but even this is much more instructive than the meager data often used and helps broaden the range of possible outcomes.


Even modest environmental changes can have enormous impact

The best example of this principle is that specialist business models fail when the business environment changes. I call this the “saber-toothed tiger” problem. The saber-toothed tiger was a specialist killing machine, its big teeth perfectly evolved to capture large mammals. When the environment changed and the large mammals became extinct, saber-toothed tigers became extinct too—those large teeth were not as good for catching small, furry mammals. By contrast, the shark is a generalist killing machine—and so has remained highly successful for hundreds of millions of years.

A specialist business model can suffer the fate of the saber-toothed tiger if the environment changes. Many winning business models are highly specialized and precisely adapted to the current business environment. Therefore no one should ever assume that today’s winners will be in an advantaged position in all possible futures (or even most of them). Therefore, scenarios should be based on creative thinking about how predicted changes in the business environment will alter the competitive landscape. If the environment changes in a scenario but the competitors remain the same, that scenario may not be imaginative enough.

None of the above is rocket science. Why, then, don’t people routinely create robust sets of scenarios, create contingency plans for each of them, watch to see which scenario is emerging, and live by it? Scenarios are in fact harder than they look—harder to conceptualize, harder to build, and uncomfortably rich in shortcomings. A good one takes time to build, and so a whole set takes a correspondingly larger investment of time and energy.

Scenarios will not provide all of the answers, but they help executives ask better questions and prepare for the unexpected. And that makes them a very valuable tool indeed.



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15.01.2020
The top 6 picks for the best business strategies of all time

Best Business Strategies #1: Tesla
Playing the Long Game

Conventional business logic is that when you're starting something new, you create a 'Minimal Viable Product' or MVP. Essentially that means that you create a version of your product that is very light in terms of functionality, but just about 'gets the job done'. It also means that the first version of your product usually has to be sold at a fairly low starting price, both to compensate for its lack of features, and to generate interest in a new launch.

Some organizations (including many tech startups) take this concept even further and launch the first version of their product completely free of charge, with a plan to 'monetize' later on once they've added more features and feel confident that people will be willing to pay money for what they're offering.

Tesla on the other hand, did things completely the other way around. It's been known for a long time that Tesla's long term goal is to be the biggest car company in the world. They know that in order to become the biggest by volume, they're going to have to kill in the lower-end consumer car space - that is cars costing less than around US$30,000 to buy.

Rather than start with this market though, and create a cheap low-featured version of their electric car to achieve scale quickly (and therefore benefit from economies of scalein addition to reaching their growth goals) - Tesla instead created the absolute most luxurious, expensive, fully-featured sports car that they could muster. That car was the Tesla Roadster, and for context, the newest generation of the Roadster will retail from upwards of US$200,000 for the base model. And this was the first car that they ever produced - knowing that they couldn't achieve the necessary scale or efficiency to turn a profit (even at such a high price).

Fast-forward to today, Tesla just recently beat General Motors in becoming the most valuable car company in the world. So their unconventional strategy certainly seems to be working, but why?

Capture-1

What can we learn from Tesla?

The first thing to note is that Tesla have in-fact made incredible progress towards their goal of mass-produced affordable electric cars. They've even made a genuine annual profit for the first time in their history. The second thing to note is that much of Tesla's business strategy was actually forced upon it. In reality there was no way that they could have created a cost-effective mass-market electric car without economies of scale. And as a startup, they weren't even close to having those economies of scale. Furthermore, because what they were building was so unique they couldn't rely on outsourcing or partnerships to gain those economies of scale.

Actually, Tesla's supply chain strategy is one of the most brilliant moves they've made. They knew early on that batteries would present not only the biggest technological hurdle to their car, but also the biggest bottleneck to production. Rather than let this derail them however, they took complete control of their supply chain by investing in factories that made batteries themselves. This had the additional benefit of allowing them to use those same batteries in parallel business ventures such as their Powerwall.

Of course, all of these strategies required vast quantities of capital and outside fundraising (Elon is rich, but not quite rich enough to fund it all himself!). And that's where the marketing genius of Tesla kicks in. Except that for the most part, their marketing efforts are only partially about the cars themselves. It's Elon Musk's personal brand that had more sway on whether or not they got the investment they needed. He's smart, divisive, wild and ambitious. But whatever you think about Elon Musk, you'd be hard pressed to traverse more than a couple of consecutive news cycles without seeing him on the front page. And that's a fantastic recipe for getting the attention of investors.


Best Business Strategies #2: AirBnb
Forgetting all about Scalability

I love the story of Airbnb. We know them today as one of the fastest growing tech companies, valued at over US$38bn, who have changed the way we travel probably forever. But did you know that they started out about as low tech as you can get?

The first Airbnb rental that ever took place, was the renting out of 3 air mattresses on the floor of co-founders Brian and Joe's apartment. They made $80 per guest. It seemed like a great idea for a startup, so they put up a website and started inviting other people to list their own mattresses for hire.

They got a few bookings here and there - but for the most part, things didn't go well. So much so, that in 2008, they resorted to selling cereal to make some extra cash.

They had plenty of listings on the site, and plenty of site traffic - but too few people were actually making bookings. They were frustrated about the lack of effort they perceived in the listings people were making. So they took matters into their own hands.

The co-founders grabbed their camera, and went to knock on the doors of each and every one of their NYC listings. When someone answered the door, they would persuade the owner to let them in, and then take a ton of photographs of the inside.They touched up the photos a bit and uploaded them to the website in place of the old photos the owners had taken. Within a month of starting this strategy - sales doubled. Then tripled. Then....well, the rest is history.

best business strategies

What can we learn from Airbnb?

The thing I love the most about this story, is that it confounds one of the most commonly stated principles of building a tech startup - that you must make everything scalable. What Brian & Joe did was anything but scalable. But it got them enough traction to prove that their concept could work. Later, they did find a way to make this solution scalable, by hiring young photographers in major locations and paying them to take professional photos of owner's listings (at no charge to the owner).


Best Business Strategies #3: Toyota
Humility can be the Best Business Strategy

In the year 1973, the 'Big Three' car makers in the USA had over 82% of the market share. Today they have less than 50%. The main reason for this, is the aggressive (and unexpected) entry of Japanese car makers, led by Toyota into the US market in the 1970's.

Cars are big, heavy and expensive to move around. That's one of the reasons why the US market was so surprised when Toyota started selling Japanese-made cars in the US, at prices far lower than they could match. The car industry was a huge contributor to the US economy, so one of the first reactions from the government was to implement protectionist taxes on all imports of cars - thus making Japanese cars as expensive as locally made cars.

But the tactic failed. Within a few years, Toyota (and by now others too) had managed to establish production plants on US soil, thus eliminating the need to pay any of the hefty new import taxes. At first, US car makers weren't all that worried. Surely by having to move production to the US, the production costs for the Japanese car makers would rise up to be roughly the same as those of the local car makers. But that didn't happen. Toyota continued to output cars (now made locally on US soil) for significantly cheaper than US companies could.

Their finely honed production processes were so efficient and lean that they were able to beat US car makers at their own game. You've probably heard of the notion of 'continuous improvement'. In the world of manufacturing, Toyota are pretty much the grandfather of exactly this.

best business strategies

What can we learn from Toyota?

Most business success stories that you read - especially in the western world, involve bold moves and against-all-odds tales of bravery. Which is what makes this particular story so unique. Toyota spent years studying the production lines of American car makers such as Ford. They knew that the US car industry was more advanced and more efficient than the Japanese one. So they waited. They studied their competitors and tried to copy what the Americans did so well. They blended these processes with the strengths of their own, and came up with something even better.

Toyota proved that knowing their own weaknesses can be the key to success - and be one of the best business strategies you can ever deploy.

Not just that. Can you name a single famous executive at Toyota? I can't. And one of the reasons is that Toyota's number one corporate value is humility. Not even the most senior plant executives have named car spaces of their own. The humility that helped them to crack the US market runs deep in the organization, from the executives to the assembly workers.


Best Business Strategies #4: HubSpot
Creating an Industry then Dominating it

HubSpot aren't as famous as Airbnb or Toyota. But, they're worth over US$2bn, and more impressively, they've achieved that valuation in an industry that didn't even exist before they invented it themselves. That industry is known as 'inbound marketing'.

Most of the marketing that we experience is known as 'interruption' marketing. This is where adverts are pushed out to you whether you like it or not. Think tv adverts, billboards, Google Adwords, etc. In 2004, HubSpot created a software platform that aimed to turn this concept of marketing on its head. The HubSpot marketing platform helped companies to write blog posts, create eBooks and share their content on social media. The theory was that if you could produce enough good quality content to pull people to your website, then just enough of them might stick around to take a look at the product you're actually selling (behind the blog).

This was a big deal. I can tell you from personal experience, that 'interruption marketing' is really really expensive. We pay Google around $10 each time someone clicks onto one of our AdWords adverts. Remember, that's $10 per click not per sale. That adds up pretty fast. On the other hand, this blog receives approaching one million clicks per year - at a cost of zero. I've written before about how inbound marketing basically saved our business - so it's fair to say that this example is pretty close to my heart!

They coined the term 'inbound marketing' - and long story short, they're now one of the biggest SaaS companies in the world. But that's not the interesting part of the story.

best business strategies

What can we learn from HubSpot?

The interesting part of the story is this: HubSpot created a new type of marketing. They then used that type of marketing to market their own company, who's sole purpose was to sell a platform that created that new type of marketing. Head hurting yet? Mine too.

In a nut-shell, HubSpot had an idea for a cool new way of marketing. Most companies would have taken that new way of marketing, and applied it to something that they were already selling. But instead, the HubSpot guys decided to monetize the marketing strategy itself. They took a whole bunch of concepts that already existed (blogging, eBooks, etc) and packaged them into a 'new way of doing things'. Not only that, but they created an awesome narrative, and then proved how powerful this new way of marketing could be, by building a $2bn business from it. They smoked their own dope, and made themselves very very rich in the process.


Best Business Strategies #5: Apple
iPhone Launch Shows Tremendous Restraint

Ok I hear you - this is such an obvious inclusion for the 'best business strategies'. But as one of the first people to adopt smartphones when they came out in the 1990's this is something else that's pretty close to my heart. I remember using Windows Mobile (the original version) on a touchscreen phone with a stylus - and it was horrible. I loved the fact that I had access to my email and my calendar on my phone. But I hated the fact that my phone was the size of a house, and required you to press the screen with ox-like strength before any kind of input would register.

Thankfully, a few years later, BlackBerry came along and started to release phones that were not only smart, but much more usable. Sony Ericsson, Nokia, HTC and a whole host of other manufacturers all came out with reasonably solid smartphones, all well before 2007 when Apple finally released the iPhone.

I remember arriving at the office one day and my boss had somehow gotten his hands on one of the first iPhones to be sold in the UK. I was shocked. Normally I was the early adopter. I was the one showing people what the future looked like. And yet, here was this guy in his mid 50's, with his thick glasses, showing off a bit of technology that I'd never even seen before.

And that is the masterstroke that is the iPhone. The reason why every single smartphone I'd ever owned had sucked in comparison to the iPhone, is because there's no real market in selling phones to geeks like me. We're too few and far between - and either too poor or too stingy to drop any real cash on new tech. Apple could easily have created a phone much earlier than it did and sold it to me. But it didn't. Instead it waited until the technology was mature enough to be able to sell to my boss. Someone who is far less tech savvy than me. But also far more financially equipped.

best business strategies

What can we learn from Apple?

The big learning here is that first mover advantage is often not an advantage. A well executed 'follower' strategy will outperform a less well executed 'first mover' strategy every single time. One of the most common misconceptions in the startup world is the concept that it's the 'idea' that matters the most. The truth is, the world's most successful companies were rarely the first ones to innovate. I'm looking at you Nokia. At you Kodak. And at you too, Yahoo.

In fact, being first is probably a disadvantage more often than it's an advantage. Why?

  • Your market isn't well defined and doesn't even know your product type exists
  • If you have a market, it's probably the early adopters - by definition, that's a niche market
  • The technology will hold you back rather than power you to success
  • Every single person that comes after you will have the advantage of learning from your mistakes

People, and especially tech companies, get carried away with being first. But you need to think very seriously about whether 'first mover' or 'smart follower' are the best business strategies for you.


Best Business Strategies #6: PayPal
Daring to Challenge the Status Quo

There are certain industries that you just don't mess with. Industries like Aerospace, big Supermarkets, Semi Conductors, and Banking. Actually, banking is probably the hardest industry of all to try to disrupt, because the barriers to entry are huge. You need mountains of capital, a ton of regulatory approval, and years of building trust with your customers around their most important asset - their cash.

Banks are old. Their business models are largely unchanged in hundreds of years, and they make huge amounts of profit, without actually making a single thing. They're insanely powerful and almost impossible to displace. But for some stupid crazy reason - PayPal didn't seem to care. I can tell you from personal experience (I worked for a bank), that the name that strikes the most fear into the executives of the banks is PayPal.

Here's why:

  1. PayPal spends less money on technology than even a medium sized bank does. Yet its technology platform is far superior.
  2. Consumers trust PayPal as much if not more than they trust their bank. Even though PayPal has been around for a fraction of the time.
  3. When a customer buys with their PayPal account, the bank has no clue what the customer actually bought. The transaction appears on the bank statement as merely 'PayPal'.That gives PayPal all the power when it comes to data mining.
  4. PayPal is quicker to market with just about any kind of payment innovation going.
  5. PayPal refuses to partner directly with banks - instead opting to partner with retailers directly.

In a very small space of time, PayPal has managed to insert itself as a whole new method of payment on the internet (and offline) - giving a very real alternative to your trusty debit or credit card. But how the heck did it manage to do it? Let's take a look at why PayPal had one of the best business strategies ever.

best business strategies

What can we learn from PayPal?

There are two huge pillars of success to PayPal's story. The first is simple - stone-cold balls. They got a fairly lucky break when they accidentally became the favored payment provider for eBay transactions. This was followed a few years later by their US$1.5bn acquisition by eBay themselves. eBay were smart enough to mostly leave them alone, and their newfound sense of boldness saw them strike a series of deals with other online retailers to try and replicate the success they'd had with eBay.

This is where the second pillar of their success comes in. Partnerships. Banks had always been wary about forming partnerships directly with retailers - instead they relied on their scheme partners (Visa / MasterCard) to do that for them. They didn't want the hassle of managing so many different relationships, and were extremely confident about the fact that credit and debit cards would always be at the heart of the financial payment system. But the problem was that MasterCard themselves were already working on a partnership with PayPal. Leaving the banks out in the cold. Today, PayPal commends an amazing 20% market share of online payments in the US - and 62.7% of the eWallet space. Almost all of that growth has come from their direct relationships with merchants large and small.

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Gathering job to be done is gaining a deep understanding of what a customer is trying to achieve. The Why they are buying a certain product/service, their higher purpose.
The research was done for a Casual restaurant in order to identify opportunities for Innovation.
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Scenario planning allows companies to move away from linear thinking and better understand external change.

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