Losing and finding Branson’s virginity
Richard Branson, the business icon and entrepreneur extraordinaire is back on the bookshelves with another autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” which, um, bookends a shelf of previous autobiographies like, “Like a Virgin,” The Virgin Way,” and “Losing my Virginity.” Branson’s appropriation of virginity was mildly shocking once but in these times, it serves well to describe a man who admittedly knew very little about many of the endeavors he embarked upon but who also proved to be a remarkably quick study on the way to amassing a fortune estimated at $6 billion at one point.
“You can only lose your virginity once.” he writes in the prologue. “But in every aspect of my life—building businesses, raising my family, embarking upon adventures—I try to do things for the first time every day.” In other words, he is a serial virginity loser, which helps explain his success.
Branson’s daring, impulsivity and ability to take a hit and keep on functioning have made him a legend, a fortune, and at least once saved his life but as is often true of the great ones it’s the failures that tell much more. For instance, there was a New Yorker article a few years back that described his death defying attempts (yes there was more than one) to circumnavigate the earth in a helium balloon. The first attempts ended in oceans and with introductions to some very nice navy and coast guard types but the attempt that sticks is the one that made it, naturally.
But there was a more harrowing experience in which Branson and his wife were sailing in the Caribbean with another couple when the boat’s mast broke. They were by Branson’s estimate miles from land and the foursome had to decide whether to stay with the wreck or swim. Branson and his wife didn’t think twice and made a swim for it. The other couple was never heard from again. It could have easily gone the other way, but it didn’t.
Closer to the present, I started following Branson’s career in earnest about ten years ago when he offered a prize of $25 million of his own money for a method that in prototype could absorb one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year for ten successive years and keep it out. Branson’s thinking was that such a demonstration would likely scale up to a level sufficient to help ease the planet’s problem with carbon pollution. As an owner of airlines he felt some responsibility for finding a solution.
Naturally, there was news coverage. In my book, “The Age of Sustainability” I quote headlines in the New York Times including, “A Cool $25 Million for a Climate Backup Plan,” in the Science Times section on February 13, 2007, above a story by John Tierney. Referring to global warming at that announcement, Branson said, “Man created the problem, therefore man should solve the problem.”
No matter that what Branson wanted was a way to un-smoke a cigarette, he compared his Virgin Earth Challenge to the quest to discover a method for determining longitude at sea which was inspired by the 1714 Longitude Act of the British Parliament.
But four years later another Times story, “Cash Prize for Environmental Help Goes Unawarded,” told a very different tale. Branson and his team had reviewed more than 2,600 challenge submissions and found none of them worthy. What happened in the intervening four years is a lesson in large-scale research, development, international cooperation, invention, and expectation setting. In short, Branson’s discovery that at least some of the solutions required tampering with earth’s natural systems, and violated various international treaties poured cold water on the effort. Then too, many of the solutions simply didn’t work for various reasons. Solving the problem would require international cooperation at the level of nation states, an area where Branson’s expertise was, and still is, virginal.
Today the Virgin Earth Challenge is in a state of suspended animation, no prize has been awarded but people are definitely working on projects and no one is very concerned. After all, solving the longitude problem took up most of the 18th century and the productive lives of those who chased the dream which culminated when a self-taught clock maker, John Harrison, produced the first true marine chronometer which enabled mariners to compare the time at a home port (later the prime meridian at Greenwich, UK) with the local time derived from celestial observations. After that, a simple calculation could tell you where you were.
In all of this Branson has played the role of catalyst providing capital but also, and more importantly, vision and encouragement derived from a belief that problems have solutions. In essence this divides the world into two camps engineers who can figure out solutions to problems, and those who dream quixotically of doing the impossible, like repealing the law of gravity. Branson is many things but he is not, contrary to the image, quixotic.
The future of work in an automation era
Automation has a habit of killing jobs and this has been true since the Industrial Revolution though it seems like we’re discovering this truth all over again. We easily forget when we only focus on the job creation aspects of automation and that usually gets us in trouble.
Since the IR there have been five distinct economic waves lasting between 50 and 60 years. These waves have been named after the late Russian economist Nicolai Kondratiev and are now referred to as K-waves or the Kondratiev Cycle. With an economic cycle this long very few people alive and working remember the last transition so of course it feels new.
The first Industrial Revolution revolved around water wheels and later steam power, iron, and textiles; it gave way to an age of steel and heavy engineering; then petroleum, electricity, cars, and mass production; today we live in an era of information and telecommunications. I estimate this era began around 1970 so it’s getting long in the tooth.
The first half of a wave is wonderful. A new technology takes hold and drives the economy, jobs are abundant even for the unskilled, inflation kicks up a notch or two and things seem pretty good. Inevitably though the second half kicks in and some of the earlier gains evaporate. The focus now is on gaining efficiencies from earlier innovations and product line extensions.
In the second half over-qualified people have a hard time finding a job, wages are flat, and capital reaps significant returns on investments made much earlier in the cycle. Sound familiar? But the good news is that if you know where and how to look you can see the next wave forming just as sure as a surfer can spot the next big one. That’s the nexus on my friend Vinnie Mirchandani’s new book, Silicon Collar—Dear reader please be aware that I am quoted extensively in the book but that I’d be writing this piece regardless.
In Silicon Collar, Mirchandani gives us a surfer’s-eye view of the next wave or at least the candidates for next wave. At this point there are many pretenders competing for the mantle and often the winner is hard to predict. Our current era, Information and Telecommunications has roots in the Space Program and the race to the moon. If you were alive then you would have bet anything that the next big K-wave would have had something to do with flying cars and many people predicted this but they were wrong.
IT and Telco were still embryonic in the 1960s and nothing like what they’ve become. Telco was a sleepy oligopoly, a regulated monopoly, printing money and delivering so-so service. Computers were things that required climate controlled rooms and lots of paper to perform really trivial tasks. Few people predicted that the miniaturization required to place a guidance computer on a space ship would have such far reaching effects, but it did.
That’s my look backward but Mirchandani tries to peer into the future. In this meticulously researched and reported book, he interviews leaders in about 50 new companies/industries and lets them tell their tales of the future. It’s an optimistic look at a future that far too many have glanced at with fear and suspicion rather than optimism and curiosity. You can’t blame them for their insecurities. We do live in interesting times. But our strength and the strength of Silicon Collar is its hopefulness and inquisitive nature. It’s worth reading even if you think you already know what the future will look like.
It might surprise you because you might find some backwater idea that only has a low power proof of concept that you think couldn’t possibly go anywhere.
Oracle-Siebel First Reaction
What does this deal mean for the future of the CRM industry?
I think it’s important to take a deep breath and understand that although ownership has changed, that is largely a financial matter the financial economy is not the ‘real’ economy where products and services are bought and sold so that companies can do useful work. That said, I think it opens up a lot of opportunity it puts more substance behind CRM and Siebel. Oracle had been a #3 or #4 player in CRM and I don’t think acquiring Peoplesoft was the knockout punch that Oracle needed to become dominant in the space. But now with Siebel in the stable they have the #1 CRM provider with a great deal of overlap into the same enterprise customers Oracle has always sold to and the Oracle-Siebel Peoplesoft combination gives that combination the critical mass it needs to compete with SAP on the high end and others like Salesforce.com on the low end. Nevertheless, There is also plenty of risk inherent in this combination. Oracle
now has a combination of some very good products that don’t automatically work well
together. It’s sort of like having a Porsche engine disassembled on your garage
floor. Putting it all together is going to be critical. Meanwhile none of the
competition is standing still.
Is this a smart move for Oracle?
No, it’s stupid, frankly.
I have previously said that Oracle had lost its ability to innovate when it bought Peoplesoft. It would be better, I think, for a company like Oracle to invent something than try to take the Lego route. But obviously, Oracle decided that it was more expedient to buy the Legos and put something really big together. This is all too reminescent of the Comoputer Associates era when CA bought up mainframe software companies and milked their maintenance streams. Long term this is bad for Oracle and bad for Siebel but probably great for Salesforce.com, RightNow and many other on demand CRM vendors.
What does this mean for existing Siebel customers?
Not much. Part of taking a deep breath is to remember that the software these customers have still works, it’s didn’t expire at mid-night. Since many of these companies already have relationships with Oracle it might be greeted with a major yawn. The biggest question I have is what about IBM? Siebel is a partner with IBM in the on demand space. IBM sells Siebel CRM OnDemand and hosts it. How will this event affect that relationship?
Will there be any real choice left in enterprise CRM?
I think this leaves plenty of ‘choice’ in Enterprise CRM — Siebel continues to be a strong product and brand, SAP has new strength and companies like Salesforce.com have moved up in the pecking order. Salesforce has been making great strides in the enterprise and it wouldn’t surprise me if this event lends more clarity to the enterprise decision — to host or not to host becomes the biggest question. If that logic prevails, might it mean that CRM becomes more likely to be the application that enterprises host? And therefore might Salesforce.com be considered on a completely equal footing with the traditional vendors? This is a major positive for Salesforce.com.