Obsolescence Makes VCR Manufacturers Press Stop

Photo credit: Adam Wilt, Provideo Coaltion
Photo credit: Adam Wilt, Provideo Coaltion

The news that the world’s last manufacturer of Videocassette Recorders (“VCR”) will manufacture its last VCR has gone around the world. 40 years after the first VHS video cassette recorder was manufactured, Japanese consumer electronics company Funai Electric – the last known company making the devices – is ceasing production of its VCR products. The company cited declining sales and difficulty in obtaining the necessary parts as reasons to cease production. At its peak, the company sold 15 million VCRs per year, which has since dwindled down to 750,000 units in 2015 (Frankly, still an astonishing number! Who knew that three-quarters of a million people still bought brand new VCRs?!).

The news caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

Recorded Nostalgia

First of all, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. When I was growing up, we had limited screen time (television, not tablet). My mother would record our TV shows during the week and we’d watch them during the weekend; after homework and revision, of course. Or that time when my friends discussed the first time they saw what was on the tapes dad had hidden away. 😉

I also remembered the “accessories” industry that sprouted around the VCR and VHS tapes. Who didn’t have some sort of VHS tape rewinder placed near their TV stand?

Remember these?!

Fast Forward To The End

Secondly, I was impacted by the fact that obsolescence has claimed yet another victim. Very specifically, it reminded me about the following clip from the movie, Other People’s Money, starring Danny Devito.

The bit when “Larry the Liquidator”, talked about obsolescence with the example of “the last company around […] that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw” is especially powerful for me.

This company is dead.

I didn’t kill it. Don’t blame me.

It was dead when I got here. […]

You know why?

Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence.

We’re dead, all right. We’re just not broke.

And do you know the surest way to go broke?

Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.

You know, at one time there must have been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw.

I turn to this scene time and time again whenever I think about my career or the brands I am working with (see: “Brands Will Last Forever… Right?” and “A truly innovative agenda and prepping for jobs that do not yet exist“).

Sometimes, it’s not just about product excellence or an endearing (even enduring) brand. Or, if you think about it from a career perspective – it’s not about your productivity or your personality.

It’s about whether you can successfully adapt to defend your place in this world.

Or, as General Eric Shinseki, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff puts it: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

News sources:

A truly innovative agenda and prepping for jobs that do not yet exist

I had a great discussion over lunch with a colleague recently who shared with me about a particular Malaysian conglomerate’s expansive innovation agenda. The conglomerate in question maintained businesses in several large, complex industries. Traditionally, conglomerates like this are not always seen as the most innovative – as they are normally regarded as lumbering business stalwarts whose main business agenda is to keep things going as they were to maximize profit.

With this conglomerate, however, their Chief Innovation Officer recently shared some of the ideas that they had already started exploring. They are already exploring the applications of cutting edge technology in what we’d consider very traditional industries. For example, the use of remote-control drones in agriculture; smart home technologies in real estate development; wearables in healthcare; and the implications of driverless cars for automotive manufacturing.

Our discussion led me to several thoughts, namely:

Jobs that are in demand today did not exist as recently as a few years ago.

Think about it: today, some companies like the conglomerate I referenced, has a Chief Innovation Officer. It’s not exactly the Chief Technology Officer or the more traditional “Chief IT Officer” – but someone specifically mandated by the company to help them move towards adapting and adopting tomorrow’s innovations today (or at least, as soon as possible). It’s a role that is both strategic and tactical, combining the skillsets of a “mad scientist” and an “entrepreneur”, and blending together both business and technical insight (or even foresight!).

This position didn’t always exist. It is a C-level, leadership position that – in a large conglomerate – would typically require at least 8-10 years of experience. The problem is that 8-10 years ago – there wasn’t exactly a career path towards becoming a “Chief Innovation Officer”. What courses 8-10 years ago would you have taken to reach this career path? IT? Business studies? Computer science?

This fact was further brought home when we talked about the kind of jobs the conglomerate said they were hiring for at the moment: Data Scientists, startup incubators, developers, and such. 3-5 years ago (i.e. when you started college), how many places did you know provided the basic training to pursue these opportunities as careers?

Prepare for tomorrow’s opportunities today – even, or especially, if they don’t exist yet.

In light of my first point, how do you build a “track record” for jobs that are in demand today but which did not exist previously? How do you “future-proof” your career path and avoid obsolescence? One of the best examples about career obsolescence comes from Danny Devito’s monologue towards the end of the movie “Other People’s Money”, redactions and emphases mine:

This company is dead.

I didn’t kill it. Don’t blame me.

It was dead when I got here. […]

You know why?

Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence.

We’re dead, all right. We’re just not broke.

And do you know the surest way to go broke?

Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.

You know, at one time there must have been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw.

The key takeaway lesson for me as I think about this has been truly inspired by Tom Peter’s seminal, “The Brand Called You.” You are your own brand and company – be mindful of the PESTs around you so that you can prepare and pivot accordingly to avoid obsolescence. (In fact, this is part of the reason why I’ve made the career choices I did – but more about that on another day).

Innovation is one of today’s most sought after transferable skills.

Innovation isn’t just doing something in a new way. It’s about creating impact in a way that leads to sustainable results. In a way, it’s the “proper” answer to definition of insanity, popularly attributed to Einstein: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So, how do you become more innovative? Well, I’ve come across two quotes about creativity – one from the illustrious Steve Jobs and another by Colin Gottlieb, EMEA CEO of Omnicom Media Group – which I think applies to innovation as well. Both quotes highlight the fact that creativity is ultimately about making connections between two things that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate. Think about the conglomerate’s example I mentioned: remote-control drones in agriculture.

Besides building on your “innovation” as a skill, one also needs to demonstrate it as a “track record” along with the impact achieved. Be mindful of the opportunities you pursue within your current positions, find out more about what it means to be an “intrapreneur“, and always look at how you can quantify your innovation impact in a way that demonstrates value to the business.

All these thoughts, to me, are most starkly depicted in this video, Shift Happens which I first discovered in 2009, which has since been updated for 2014. Much of what it posits are turning out to be true.