Friday, November 16, 2007

Majoring in History

I worked for many years for a now defunct software company called Softbridge.

Softbridge had a long legacy (by software company standards) of technical excellence, and we traded on that legacy.

In our marketing literature, we touted the fact that we were one of the few companies that was on the dais with Bill Gates (at Windows of the World at the World Trade Center) when he released the first super-duper, truly graphical version of Windows. We were there because Microsoft had used a bit of our technology - the recorder - as one of the utilities that were part of Windows.

As I recall, we got very little money for it, but we did get a mention within the product. And we got bragging rights.

Which we used.

Well after our recorder had been replaced in their product, we still hyped the fact that Great God Microsoft had used a piece of technology from little old us.

For a while, this made sense, and it certainly spoke to our technical credentials.

But the recorder was no longer in use by Microsoft, and the techies who wrote the code were long gone, and still we included this piece of our lore in every presentation, proposal, and piece of collateral.

Similarly, when I worked at Genuity, we never failed to remind people that our roots were in BBN and that we had, in fact, invented the Internet. (Sorry, Al Gore, luv' ya and absolutely acknowledge that you had something to do with getting the whole thing off the ground through your legislative work, but "we" had a lot more to do with it than you did.) One of our engineers had, in fact, come up with the use of the @ in addresses. So, "we invented the at-sign."

Having an illustrious history is wonderful. It's something that you, as an employee, can take pride in, and it is something that can help underscore your bona fides.

But in both the case of Softbridge and Genuity, I think we made too much of our history, exploiting it well beyond it's "sell by" date. It was important to us, but what did it really do for our customers?

No, while we were leading with all our yesterdays, our customers and prospects wanted to know what we could do for them today, and what we would do for them tomorrow.

I've been thinking about this because I have a client with an amazing pedigree. Their history makes Softbridge's recorder and Genuity's @ look like party favors. They make a lot out of it, and are rightfully proud of it. And it is, of course, interesting to the market.

But just how interesting is it?

How closely tied is it to the day to day work they're engaged in now? How relevant is it to their customers? Just what is the connection between their history and their customers' business needs?

I'm thinking that the answer is "not very", which is an assumption that we will soon be testing.

No, they'll never lose their interest in their history. And why should they? It's there, and it helped make them what they are today.

But I'm thinking that at some point in the not to distant future, this company will no longer be majoring in history. Minoring, maybe. But majoring, no.

1 comment:

Mark Cahill said...


My previous employer had a strong case for having:

1. Invented content management
2. Invented IM (in a rudimentary, netsend kind of way)
3. Invented email (all the basics, although they didn't have the @ symbol

I argued that we ought to at least mention in presentations. However, they always shot it down. "People know who we are."

The same sentiment echoed through many things. They felt they didn't need to do online marketing, or CPC or anything, because "Our customers know who we are and wouldn't consider a new system without talking to us."

The truth was far from that. They bought new systems in droves, without "talking to us." And we were forever hearing the Snake Plisken line "I thought you were dead..."