The 100 year company

There’s been this series of intersecting ideas coming at me lately centered around business strategy and the planning time-horizon.

  • Recently, Evernote announced that their latest round of funding was not an exit strategy for its founders but a foundation for building a “100 year company”
  • I read Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh that describes how Zappos was built and their philosophy to business.
  • I’ve been revisiting Good to Great  and Built to Last by Jim Collins
  • We’ve reenergized our own focus on culture and values at my company with great effect

Normally, my business planning horizon is 6 months, 12 months, 2 years and 5 years.  I have a solid plan for the next 6 months and 12 months and then have a vision and top line goals for 2 years and 5 years out.  I’ve always worked this way.  It allows me to stay agile in the short term but set course for what I have always considered to be a long-term horizon.

But recently I have had this paradigm shift and I’m not sure if it was serendipity or confirmation bias.. but it seems evident that for a business to stand the test of time it has to rise above the products and services that it offers now and look for what makes it different regardless of what it sells.

For Tony Hsieh and Zappos it was Customer Service / Experience.  They sell shoes, but they seem themselves as a company that provides unrivaled levels of customer service.. the shoes are just the way to make that happen.

For Steve Jobs and Apple it is about innovation and design – Apple could sell cars and you know that they would be beautiful and amazing (and expensive), but Apple is no longer just a computer company.

Its hard to have a long-term product strategy if you are in an industry that changes quickly and continuously such as anything in Tech.  If you don’t innovate and reinvent yourself you will simply fall by the wayside.  IBM has done it (reinvented themselves).  Google are trying to do it.  Microsoft needs to start doing it.  You can plan your product lifecycles in the short and possibly medium-term but anything more than five years out becomes more challenging in any but the most static of industries.

So in order to plan long-term as a business you need to rise above your products and services. The products you sell or the services you offer today won’t be the same in 50, 60 or 70 years from now, so what does your business stand for in the long-term?  Is it your company culture and value-driven business approach?  Is it your innovation?  Your total focus to the customer experience?  This is such a great mental exercise – think about how you can differentiate your business today in a way that is detached from what you actually sell but will stand the test of the time.

Start asking yourself how your business can become a 100-year company – the result will likely be a stronger business in the short-term too.


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