A torrent of change

On May 4, 1844, over an experimental line extending the almost 40 miles from D.C. to Baltimore, Samuel Morse sent four words. A similar message sent just days before would have taken hours to arrive. Now, it travelled the distance in an instant.

Until May 4, 1844, the United States was a thing of distance. It was a “country of vast designs and expectations,” as Emerson put it.

Communities were separated by rivers, oceans, mountains, and deserts—and by weeks of painful carriage travel or coal-coated train rides.

But on that spring day, over an experimental line extending the almost 40 miles from D.C. to Baltimore, Samuel Morse sent four words.

A similar message sent just days before would have taken hours to arrive. Now, it travelled the distance in an instant.

Using the system he’d been working on for years, he tapped out the first official message sent in Morse Code:

“What hath God wrought”

Morse did not invent the telegraph, but this is the message we remember best from that era—because it speaks to both the grandness and the devastation of change.

Modern commerce was still in its infancy, but one wonders how many entrepreneurs had had plans for the future that did not involve the telegraph. Certainly many had been helping customers solve problems that were abruptly stripped of relevance in that electromagnetic instant.

And at least some had probably chosen to “stay the course” even as they heard rumblings of this new invention.

“If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change,” Chesterton once wrote. The world keeps moving on, other people keep acting, inventing, and changing, and our only option is to change, too.

The danger is in thinking our business exists to sell the products and services we’ve already created. That our job is to keep our current products and services moving along, growing and expanding.

But our business does not exist to make products, it exists to make customers.

“The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined,” as Theodore Levitt wrote in 1960. In fact, “that grew.”

No, the railroads “let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation [or communication] business.”

We are not in the business of making the thing we’re currently selling. We are in the business of helping customers overcome a particular struggle in their life—the best way we currently know how.

But we must always be on the watch for better solutions to the problems we’re trying to solve. We must look out for inventions or technologies people could hire for the same “job to be done” in their life that we’re currently best suited for.

“If you are driving along and you see an obstacle way in advance, you can easily adjust your trajectory with a modest turn of the steering wheel,” Rita Gunther-McGrath eloquently advised. “But if you come upon an obstacle suddenly, it requires a huge, sometimes risky, turn.”

Better to change before our hand is forced than after, and better to see it coming by looking for it, than by closing our eyes and ignoring it.

There is no status quo, there is no “stay the course”—the territory is both unknown and unknowable. Because people outside of our control are constantly changing it.

There will be an invention that nullifies our value, one day. There will be a new business model, eventually, that makes ours look archaic and onerous.

Let us be the ones to make that invention, or seize upon its value. Let us be the ones to develop or enact the new business model that makes our current one irrelevant.

This does not mean chasing every flashy new object or idea. It does not mean following the pack or blindly pursuing a competitor or the latest trend.

Instead, we should look for and seize new technologies that allow more people into the market that were excluded before.

We should investigate or develop the new fulfillment methods that make it more convenient for customers to buy and use what we’re selling.

And we should focus—on what our best customers want most—and remove the unnecessary overhead in place to service only our most demanding and least profitable customers, so we can be more affordable at the same or better quality.

Because if we do not, new technologies and models will allow entrants into our market to serve more people, more conveniently, and more affordably than we can.

The status quo is a rigid picture of the past, not a vision for the future. Change is irresistible, inevitable, and painful. But so much more so when it’s forced upon us.

“It won’t do to let tomorrow take care of itself,” a 19th-century general and logistics expert once advised. “Good merchants don’t think of the ships that are in, but those that are to come in.”

“Look ahead to avoid breakers.”