The tale of the tortoise and the hare is one of the most misunderstood fables in literature, but it holds a great lesson for employees, businesses and business leaders.
The story was written by evidently armless Greek fabulist Aesop, who was once described as “of loathsome aspect … potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity.”
It tells of a race between, not so shockingly, a tortoise and a hare in which the smart-aleck rabbit busts out to a tremendous lead and then proceeds to chill before reaching the finish line while the morose by determined turtle plods his way to victory.
The moral of the fable is supposed to be that slow-and-steady wins the race, which is both patently false and an incorrect interpretation — at least in the real and modern world. The Tokyo Olympics have begun, and I guarantee you that a runner subscribing to this philosophy will not be hearing his or her national anthem while a medal of any metal is draped around his or her neck.
The lesson Aesop really was trying to teach us was about the dangers of arrogance and overconfidence. Let’s face it: Had the hare been blessed with a helping of humility and humbleness rather than hubris, his raw athletic ability would have led to a rousing victory celebration at the finish line and unhappy longshot bettors with lighter pockets.
The fact is, slow and steady doesn’t win any race of consequence, whether it’s in athletics or modern business. Slow and steady will lead to you appearing on ESPN while Stephen A. Smith mocks you — or to the scrapheap of failed company executives. And when you’re slow and arrogant, well, you’re doomed.
I have been part of slow-and-steady companies and in slow-and-steady industries. Each time I have butted up against leadership who thought the wiser course of action was to stick with an existing business model that was either cracking or crumbling at its foundation and causing massive brain drain that eliminated any chance of recovery. That’s arrogance that crosses the border into stupidity.
Let’s take a look at the newspaper industry.
For years and years and years, the newspaper was where people turned to find out about stuff and sell things. Those on the editorial side, as I was, loved to tout the integrity and grand mission of a newspaper to seek truth and publish. Noble, yes, and true to a point.
But my salary to feed my family while I pursued truth was based on a business model predicated on having a thing that drew enough consumer eyes to allow its ad salespeople to say, “Hey look! People see what you’re selling!” The instances where truth took a back seat to the demands of a powerful advertiser (read: big spender) are as numerous as they are hidden.
Enter the internet. In 1997, at the oh-so-wise age of 22, I became editor of a weekly paper no one else wanted to lead because it was god-awful. Suddenly, I found myself in management meeting with people at least twice my age from the same newspaper group who had been in the business longer than I’d been alive. When the topic of the internet came up — and it rarely did — these grizzled veteran framed it as a fad and talked about how to “keep it at bay.”
“What if we use it to our advantage?” I once asked, dreaming of offering exclusive content, interactive advertising and a whole host of things that subscribers and advertisers might actually pay for.
All eyes turned to me in my little corner at the end of the grandiose boardroom table that I imagined weighed more than a fully loaded dump truck rolling down the highway. “John … Seriously? Why would we invest time or money in something that is going to disappear in a few years?”
So instead they invested $100 million into a massive printing plant they opened in 1999, closed in 2017 and put on the market for $8.1 million.
While the internet hasn’t exactly disappeared, something else did: Newspaper advertisers and readers.
First, classified ads disappeared, as people realized they could sell their cars and Realtors figured out they could sell homes without sinking their money into newsprint. Then, readers started to disappear, as fast-acting hares such as Google and Yahoo grew into monster jackalopes that became one-stop shops for articles newspapers were paying reporters to write and put on their own websites — which offered nothing more than a regurgitation of what was in that day’s paper.
The First Amendment largely keeps the government out of the newspaper business, but that doesn’t mean newspapers are free from regulations. Even those in privately held companies are required to give an honest accounting of their circulation numbers, and those in publicly traded newspaper companies are even more closely monitored by a variety of constituencies. Smart advertisers started to notice an absolute freefall in readers. They rightly asked “Why should I pay you the same rate you were charging me for a circulation of 500,000 when now it’s only 350,000?”
Newspaper companies logically responded to this by … raising their ad rates! They literally told very smart ad buyers: “You have to pay more for less.” These ad buyers, of course, told them where they could stick their higher ad rates.
Newspapers started to shrink. With fewer ads to support daily production, your morning fish-wrapper not only had fewer pages but actually was physically smaller in its dimensions as newspaper companies reconfigured their presses to put out their product using less paper.
The rationalizations were mind-numbing.
“People will love that the paper is easier to hold in their hands!” Actually, size did matter in one way: People cared less about the cumbersome nature of a broadsheet and more about the fact they were getting less news and fewer useful ads while paying higher single-copy and subscription prices — another not-so-brilliant newspaper-executive decision.
“The money we lose on print ads will be made up for increased online revenue!” The numbers quoted in subsequent quarterly meetings sounded great. Online revenue was up 100% while print advertising dropped only 10%. Ahh, but when you looked at the actual numbers, you saw the true story. Online revenue increased from $35,000 to $70,000 while print advertising decreased from $500,000 to $450,000. Do the math. Then repeat this quarter after quarter after quarter with smaller gains on the online side and larger drops on the print side.
Any online advertising boost was unsustainable because, as with their content, newspaper companies weren’t doing anything special with internet advertising. They simply slapped an ad very similar to what was in the print edition onto a webpage. And my God were the proud when they figured out how to do banner ads! Of course, there was nothing interactive and, more importantly, it wasn’t connected to any sort of data -collection process that could tell advertisers who was looking at their ads and how best to reach them. The tortoise merely plodded along using an old, slow business model that, somehow unknowingly, was on life support.
Meanwhile, the hare quickly evolved into a beast by recognizing it wasn’t a news company at all; it was an information company. The Googles, Yahoos and, later, Facebooks of the internet couldn’t care less about what you read or clicked on; what they cared about was that others cared about what you read or clicked on — others who were willing to pay a lot of money to find out.
Suddenly, these companies were able to not only give information to potential advertisers about the people who were looking at their ads, they were able to customize what people saw when they visited an internet page. No longer did an advertiser of sporting goods have to pay for the 75-to-death demographic when what they really wanted was the 18-to-45 crowd who were much more likely to buy their products. This allowed advertisers to streamline their ad buys — and newspapers had no mechanism to say, “Yeah, but look at the cool thing we can do!” They could do no cool things because they’d been slow and arrogant.
The death spiral began. As publicly traded companies such as Gannett and Scripps-Howard sought to remain good investments in the eyes of Wall Street, they had no means of creating new revenue. The only way to maintain profit levels of any sort was to cut, and cutting is never a long-term solution.
Let me introduce you to Mr. Al Dunlap. I typically have respect for the whole, “Don’t speak ill of the dead” thing, but Dunlap’s been gone since early 2019, so I think we’re good in giving a critical review of a man who once tried to stop a company from using its plane to transport […]
Copy editors were among the first to go. Reporters and photographers were next. Advertising people were untouchable because, by God, they were the ones who were going to lead us all back to sustained profitability and renewed glory!
Remaining readers were delivered (in smaller circulation areas, by the way) error-filled papers with fewer locally produced stories and photos taken by people with no training in news photography. People noticed. Circulation declines steepened. The remaining advertisers saw their ad dollars were reaching fewer eyes (and at even higher rates, because newspaper companies did not learn from their previous stupidity), so they ditched print advertising, which led to more cuts and more lost advertisers. Rinse and repeat.
The morale of those who remained plummeted. It’s not easy to watch your co-workers queue up for the march of death into the editor’s office and be escorted out of the building 10 minutes later. It’s even harder to wonder when your own march of death is going to happen. Those with above-average abilities and the intelligence to recognize a sinking ship jumped overboard and “sold out” to come ashore in more stable fields such as marketing and public relations. Those who remain at newspapers today are either those with ink in their veins or those too good to fire but not too good to warrant a higher salary. These folks have survived wave after wave of terminations, weeks of unpaid furloughs, years of zero or minimal salary increases and tons of extra work as they seek to plug the holes once stopped by now-departed colleagues.
I believe ugly-old Aesop would have laughed.
And here’s the thing: The once-nimble hare almost always becomes the arrogant tortoise. You’ve seen it happen already in this scenario. Yahoo is a shell of what it once was and never became what it could have been. AOL is basically gone. The likely reality is that, at some point, Google will become too corporate, Facebook will miss the Next Big Thing or regulators simply will get sick of how these companies brazenly and repeatedly violate data privacy rules and break them into pieces like they did to Ma Bell (another hare that ultimately became an arrogant turtle).
This is The Way for capitalism.
The lesson in this for those starting out in their career is as simple as Aesop was hideous: Find a humble hare and stay with them until you see their plodding arrogance. Then find a new hare.
The lesson for businesses and business leaders is equally simple: Be a humble hare — and stay that way as long as you can.
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