The Red Queen’s Race

In Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Alice sits down to tea with the Red Queen. At some point, she becomes aware that the landscape around them has changed, and the two of them have to run full-speed to get back to where they were before. The Red Queen tells Alice, “it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.”

This little allegory speaks loudly to anyone involved in technology; things change rapidly, new skills coming into demand and old ones falling away, new platforms and methods popping up and occasionally disappearing just as quickly. One of the reasons why many tech-savvy companies don’t want to hire unemployed people is that critical work skills can become obsolete in as little as three months.

Over at Sitepoint.com (one of the sites I depend on to keep up with the latest in website development practices), there’s a very interesting article about obsolescence. One key point jumped out at me:

In the mid-nineties, when companies like AT&T and Ameritech were enjoying high profits from their Yellow Page monopolies, two Stanford University students were quietly setting up shop in a garage in Menlo Park, CA. I’m sure that the multi-billion dollar telecommunications companies never imagined that this newly-formed company named Google, with its measly $100,000 of investment capital, would ultimately be poised to challenge them as the preferred medium consumers would use to search for local business information. For over 100 years, Yellow Pages companies had been extremely successful at connecting buyers with sellers, but they were asleep at the wheel and didn’t see how the Internet could be in position to threaten their bread-and-butter print directories. With all of their capital and resources at their disposal, they could have been Google. They should have been.

Somebody once said “if the railroad companies had understood what business they were in, we’d all be flying Union Pacific Airlines now.” They thought they were in the railroad business; they weren’t. They were in the transportation business. Automobiles and airlines made trains obsolete, not transportation. The railroad people had two choices: cling to obsolete technology and look for the niche where it was still viable, or adopt the new technology in order to continue serving the market they had. They chose the former.

All businesses face this choice every once in a while; do you continue doing things the old way, or adopt the new way? The answer is easy to find. Which way accomplishes your purpose? If your niche is unique and handcrafted and sold at a premium, you don’t want to adopt automated manufacturing processes. If your purpose is to create an affordable product, maybe you do want to use those processes.

Along the same lines, what’s your marketing going to look like? If you depend heavily on advertising (newspapers, billboards, bus benches, fliers), you should include an online campaign; an informational website with contact information, promoted through banner ads, directory listings and a heavy emphasis on SEO (Search Engine Optimization; basically, ways to make your site show up better when people look for your product or service). On the other hand, if your business is driven by word-of-mouth and personal referrals, you should include an online campaign; a dynamic website with blogging capabilities, supported by an emphasis on Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp, and other outlets where your customers can talk to you and each other). It all depends on who you want to reach and how.

The web is changing every day. The Red Queen has her Nikes on. Do you?

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