Attackers & Defenders

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Case -- the original founder of AOL and current CEO of Revolution. He was considering an investment in our company and I was lucky enough to be able to pitch him our business. In the short time that I spent with him I could tell that we were dealing with an extremely savvy investor. He got right to the key issues surrounding our growth and his questions were extremely challenging and relevant.

I came across an interview that he did recently with Adam Bryant from the New York Times. In talking about different types of businesses, he said this:

...I realized the world of business really separates into these two groups. The attackers are the entrepreneurs who are disrupting the status quo, trying to change the world, take the hill, anything is possible, and have nothing to lose in most cases. They’re driven by passion and the idea and intensity. Large organizations — and it’s true of Fortune 500s and it’s also true of governments and other large organizations — are defenders. These guys aren’t trying to pursue the art of the possible, how to maximize opportunity. They actually are trying to minimize the downside, and hedge risk. They’re trying to de-risk situations. Entrepreneurs can’t even think this way. It’s not even a concept they understand.

For the traditional executives running these large companies, of course they want to grow, of course they want to innovate, of course they’d rather have revenue grow faster than slower, but they mostly don’t want to lose what they’ve got. But entrepreneurs are deathly afraid that they won’t be able to change the world, and that somebody else will. Again, these generalizations are a little unfair, but corporate executives are all too often deathly afraid that the business they inherit will be less valuable when they leave than when they started.

This is so true and exactly why no company will last forever. Even the best eventually flame out. The cycle of disrupt >> succeed >> defend is unavoidable and, frankly, perfectly logical. When companies reach a certain level of success, innovation becomes too risky and the smarter, rational move is to protect your turf.

This is why companies like Apple are so impressive and so rare. They somehow continue to attack and innovate despite their immense success.