On business models

Earlier this fall, I was working on an engagement in Chicago, and I spent one evening watching the Minnesota Twins best the Detroit Tigers, 6-5 in the 163rd game of the AL Central season. Prospective clients take note: my version of a fancy restaurant has a television tuned to sports.

After the game, the coverage switched to a Tuesday-night college football game between the Troy Trojans and Middle Tennessee State. I immediately thought of John Diefenbach.

John was a high-school football star in my home town. We went to different high schools and to different colleges, and as I watched the game I was struck that more than three decades later, I still remembered his: Middle Tennessee State.

The reasons for remembering are simple and complicated, and through them I’m reminded how greatly we are shaped by our experiences. Positive or otherwise, memories fade, but there is power and prejudice in that which remains.

In work, much as in life. Surely, we know how publishers succeed. We can point it out and explain it (often at great length). We talk earnestly about truths that are self-evident, at least to us: the trade model; the advertising model; and the subscription model, to name a few.

But the world is complicated and evolving, and we often need some shortcuts to get our arms around it. Unfortunately, shortcuts are like snapshots: true of the moment from which they were taken. In building (or maintaining) a business model around them, you assume a risk that likely grows in size over time.

That risk seems particularly evident among the most established brands in our industry. When I first drafted this post in October, BusinessWeek was for sale but had not been acquired, and NBC Universal was barely rumored to be on the block. Now, both are owned or controlled by other companies. It’s hard to believe that either was acquired with the idea of defending “the model”.

Like the world, companies are complicated beasts. Whether with business models or the echoes of Middle Tennessee State, inherited legacies leave us walking the planet with a mixture of pride, and prejudice, and zombies. Sometimes it takes a change in control to help us understand the differences.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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