How to Kill Your Successful Business In Five Easy Steps: Step 1

Recently, I posted about the fact that someone needn’t come to Korea to experience being held at arm’s length in a group, regardless of what one does to assimilate or join. Working in a family business is a great way to experience this.

Also, sometimes people ask me what I did before I came to Korea. If it seems like an idle question, then I just say, I went to grad school, and taught at Concordia University while I was studying there. Also, some tech writing. And I leave it at that.

The fact of the matter is, whatever I felt about it then, or feel about it now, that tech-writing job is something from which I learned a lot. Yes, yes, a little about writing, but much more about human nature, and about business. And having just run across a business card from the ergonomist, a wonderful individual who was on maternity leave for the whole final inglorious collapse of the company, I figured I’d post about it. But I figured I’d also use the format I used constantly while working on that job — the step-by-step tutorial.

I figured I might as well make this a post series, so that’s what I’m going to do, starting with Part 1, today:

Step 1: Don’t Research Your Market

My last job in Canada was with a family-based tech business, and we produced tutorials for the blind and visually impaired. The tutorials were basically guided audio how-to guides for using things like Windows OS, basic Microsoft Internet software, the MS Office suite, things like that. My first job with the company was really just proofreading and updating a translation of their how-to for Windows OS, I think it was, from Win98 to WinMe. After that, I graduated and needed a job, and they hired me on as their English tech writer.

I spent a lot of time proofreading, updating, testing, and not as much time writing new guides that had originally been written in French, to be honest, but it was still a learning experience. I learned how to write step-by-step guides, for one thing. I learned a lot about considering one’s audience, which, when one’s audience has a specific disability that one himself does not have, is a tricky thing. Sometimes, I’d turn on a screenreader — a program that blind or visually disabled computer users implement to have the contents of their screen read aloud to them — and it struck me, then, just how visual computing is. It made me wonder what the Internet would have been like if it’d been invented by blind people. Or cinema, or TV, or anything, for that matter.

The company did quite well for itself, for a while.

For a while.

Now, before I go on, I want to say that the demise of the company is something I didn’t have full access to information about. Maybe there were factors I didn’t know about. Maybe there were things I didn’t understand. Probably. I’m telling this story from my own point of view.

I came in during about the last couple of years of the company’s life, and left only a few months before its demise. But the experience, coupled with my father’s experience working for a family business, have reinforced in my thinking something interesting. I mentioned, recently, how no matter what one does, in some groups in a Korea, a westerner will never really truly be a member no matter how much he assimilates and follows local cultural expectations. I also noted it’s something we can see outside Korea, too, in different contexts. Well, the last few months of this company are a great example of that.

About three months before I quit, we’d finished a few major projects — updating the tutorial for internet software to WinMe, and polishing off the text for the WinXP OS software. I’d written a complete voice tutorial for some alternative browser developed specifically for blind users. Around that time, WinXP hadn’t quite been released — there were developer copies floating around, but the software wasn’t on the market. Still, my boss was very excited to get something onto the market for WinXP as soon as possible.

This baffled me. The company employed a number of visually-impaired individuals — not just because it was appropriate to the business, I think, but because their wages were subsidized by the government — but they were not, in general, asked what they thought were needed products. Or this is what it seemed to me. The main product tester laughed when he heard of the plans for XP-related products, and the woman in PR brought me up to speed on the computer-using habits of the blind and visually impaired. One very interesting example of note is that they are, by and large, likelier to be more conservative than the average computer user once they have a system that works for them. Not only that, they are less likely to upgrade to a new PC, and thus to new hardware, for longer. (And in her case, the hardware and software alike being provided by the national institute for the blind — if I remember right — it wasn’t as if she had much say in the matter.) All of that was anecdotal, mind you, but it was a starting point.

So I looked at our website stats, and then on to whatever I could find about user stats on the internet generally. What I saw suggested that, basically, not only did we not need a new tutorial for Windows XP, but wouldn’t need one for some time. Indeed, the numbers made me wonder whether even the WinME tutorials we’d put out would enjoy any market demand. And here I was, being asked to write a tutorial to MS Office XP? Really?

I wrote up the research, passed it on to my “supervisor” — who was the daughter of the CEO — and was later called in to answer one question.

She leaned forward over her desk and asked, “When did you do this research?”

“Um… on my lunch breaks?” I said. “It didn’t take long, and they’re only rough numbers, but…”

“Good. It’s good you didn’t do this when you were supposed to be working.”

“Well,” I paused, thinking. “I imagine this might actually help the company, even if I had to give up a few lunch breaks to do it. Oh, and I wrote it up at home, by the way. In case you’re questioning my motives.”

“Well… good. Good,” she said. As in, You’re not in trouble for now.

My evaluation came a little while later, and the only thing I heard back about the report was the CFO saying, very vaguely, “Very interesting. Very, very interesting.” When I asked what kind of research the CEO had done to figure out we needed XP-related products, she simply said, “I asked suppliers what they thought would be good. They said, ‘XP stuff! XP stuff!'”

Pretty stunning market research, that. I was a bit baffled, to be honest, and began wondering how long the company would keep afloat if it was run that way.

If you want to kill a business, I propose you ignore your market, fail to carry out any sort of systematic research, and propose and carry out projects without any clear idea of whether they’re needed out there. A company might grow up around a niche that previously has never been filled, but if you want it to stay afloat, you need to know and understand that niche. This is purely, simply, straightforwardly obvious, of course.

Or you’d think it would be. It seems to me that a lot of people, especially older people, don’t quite get it about technology — that it works in a vaguely Darwinian way. Like how most people didn’t shift to Windows Millennium willingly, but held out for XP. This seems baffling to so many people. For them, the boosterism somehow is supposed to reflect actual shifts in the market, rather than just the desire for sales by the megacompany.

Understanding the niche and the market in which it exists is a crucial thing. If you want to kill your company, the first and best step is to falter in this knowledge and understanding.

On to Step 2, tomorrow!

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