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The Anthropology of Business Part 5: Products That Change the World

Forward by Joanna Killen of Momentum:

We want to sincerely thank Matt George for the 5th part in the series 'Anthropology of Business'. It has been a great pleasure to read and reflect on Matt's thoughts on business in our current era. Take a look at the past blogs on Money , Why We Should Care,

Listening in the Current Era of Value and The Ties That Bind.

If you'd like more information on Matt George check out his website here. Now, onto the final part of Matt's series.

One of the best questions I’ve ever asked is ‘where were you when?’

Everyone has one: an event that was so monumental in their lives that there is a before that event and an after that event.

In some cases, events shake the entire world.

The beauty of the question is that every group of people, of every age, from every place, have an immediate answer to where were you when.

For some, it was the death of Princess Diana.

For others, it was the assassination of JFK.

For others, it’s landing on the moon.

And for almost every single person my age it’s 9/11. We all remember exactly where we were when we found out the towers fell and how. Everything changed. There is a world before 9/11 and there is the world after 9/11.

We all understand how events change the world. It’s easy to understand because we feel it.

But how is it possible that a product can change the world?

There are a few ways:

  1. Everybody wants it

  2. Everybody uses it

  3. It’s so radically disruptive that the market changes forever

I recently read a mind-bending book called The Four by Scott Galloway. He looks at the DNA of the world’s most impactful businesses; Facebook, Amazon, Google & Apple. We all know them, we all use them and, try as we might, we all need them. We may not like the place we’ve come to but we’re here.

Everybody wants it.

In the product world there is the business landscape before the iPod and business after the iPod. Parallel to the event that changed the lives of everyone in my generation, the iPod was also launched in 2001; only about a month after the towers came down. In what is now the most iconic product launch of all time, Steve Jobs took to the stage and said what is now the most famous value proposition in modern business history; ‘1,000 songs in my pocket.’ In its simplicity and elegance it’s down right beautiful. The fact that October 2001 was the launch date is not lost on me. Yes, it may have been the plan all along, but all of a sudden it meant so much more. It meant that America would not cower. It meant that America would continue to lead the world in innovation and it would push forward right on schedule.

It just so happens that everyone also wanted it. The iPod changed music forever. It defines the current generation of music listeners and streamers. It was the forefather of the iPhone and it made Apple one of history's most iconic brands. Perhaps the iconic American brand.

There is music before iPod and there is music after the iPod.

The iPod changed the world.

Everybody uses it.

When asked why Amazon was likely to become one of the hegemons with a $1 Trillion valuation, Jeff Bezos responded with something like, ‘Because nobody will ever want their packages later.’ He is absolutely correct. We’re suckers for convenience. One-click shopping and two hour delivery in some jurisdictions is game, set, match for humans that are terrible at emotional regulation. The second Trillion dollar company in American history is a glorified logistics company. We all want our products cheap and we want them quickly without the hassle of driving to the store. Physical retail is circling the drain as companies that outsourced their online fulfillment to Amazon are now being killed by them. Bad move Toys R Us.

There was retail before Amazon and there is the retail world after Amazon.

Amazon changed the world.

It is so radically disruptive that the market changes forever

There are brands that become so iconic that they actually become a verb. You know we’re in the era of the hegemons when you can name so many. The one we all know, and use by default, is Google. Consider this: the search engine of the entire world, for the entire internet is a private company. What did we do before we Googled things? How have we come to a place where we ask a private company who collects our data questions we wouldn’t even ask our spouse?

The entire landscape of information has been radically altered by the private company that has become the 21st-Century’s most iconic verb.

There is life before Google and there is life after Google.

Google changed the world.

Facebook, in my mind, is the strangest and most insidious example. We didn’t know we wanted a social network. We didn’t know we needed a social network. We’re now at 2 billion users and counting and, as fate would have it, we’re now publicly thinking about how to kill it (or at least regulate it). What’s on the line? The democratic process, consensus and independent government, to name only a few.

The reality is that Facebook is so incredibly disruptive that 2 billion humans use something everyday that they didn’t know they wanted. So much so, that the social media space is dominated by one person who is buying up all of the competition. What does it say about the current era of innovation where the entire play is based around being acquired by one of The Four?

Connection and human interaction was honed and adapted over millennia, Facebook has made good work of killing it in a decade.

There was life before The Social Network and there is life after The Social Network.

Facebook changed the world.