The 4 BIG questions that resulted in my book ‘The Day After Tomorrow’
So. A life of startups it has been. I've had the extreme pleasure to be the founder of three technology startups early on in my career. And they were nothing like the hip, exciting and glamourous tales of entrepreneurship some will have you believe. Oh, there WAS excitement, and lots of it, but not the ‘safe’ kind that is offered by a rollercoaster ride or bungee jumping. The sometimes ominous kind, like a 5500 kg African Bush Elephant coming at you at 40 km per hour and there’s no way of telling if he is planning to crush you or just scare you away. Start-ups are hard. And scary. Very scary.
But I loved EVERY minute of building them. These 3 pure adrenaline experiences made me into what I am today. They also left me with 4 BIG questions that I have been chasing ever since, and which eventually led to me writing this book, trying to answer them.
Knock it off, kid
The first BIG question was triggered by my “drug addiction” and the almost simultaneous birth of the web and my first start-up. Bear with me, it’s (probably) not what you think.
Before I became an entrepreneur, I worked at Alcatel , because I realized that I did not just yet dispose of the maturity and practical experience to start on my own when I just graduated. I liked my job very much. I learned a lot about ADSL and bandwidth and we were one of the first to work on Video On Demand, about 15 years before Netflix made the concept big.
One day, a university friend called me up. He told me they had the first web-browser up and running at my alma mater and I HAD to see it. So I did. But I did not SEE it. I did not understand the magic of the Web. My friend was completely ecstatic about using the new browser to connect to a web-server somewhere in Chicago where he could check the weather report from over there. Yet I recall driving home late that night thinking: "Why the hell would I want to know about the weather tomorrow in Chicago?".
But somehow, commuting to work over the next couple of week and trying to get my head around the concept of a potential global communications platform, I got hooked. The virus had spread from my overly excited university friend to me and I started dabbling with browsers, servers, and building my own websites. At first, to comprehend the ins and outs of the technology which was clearly still in its infancy. But then I started to construct websites for friends and then for organizations. What started as a hobby became a little business, and soon I was building websites several hours per day after my actual job. I became exhausted, but I couldn’t stop.
And then my boss called me in his office to ask me if I “was on drugs”, thinking that might be the explanation why I looked so scruffy and tired. When I passionately tried to explain him about the World Wide Web and how I had started building websites, he told me this: "You know this World Wide Web thing is kid's stuff right? It's foolish, and it will never amount to anything. Knock it off, kid." I was so flabbergasted that I quit my job that same afternoon after my girlfriend (now my wife) told me "If you think you're right, then you should quit, and follow your dreams."
So I did. I took a chance on the foolish “kid’s stuff”, and I never looked back. But my boss’ reaction at Alcatel is also how I got to BIG question number one. I became fascinated by the fact that this large organization was biased towards making bets on the old, rather than making big bets on the new.
BIG QUESTION #1: "Why is it almost impossible for large organizations to spot radical new technologies quickly, and develop their potential? What explains this organizational blindness for new opportunities?"
A match made in hell
My first startup was a company that built large scale Intranets. We developed a platform that allowed companies to use web technology inside their organizations to communicate, share documents and collaborate. We contrived a version of Microsoft SharePoint years before Microsoft did. And it was fantastic. In four years’ time, the company grew to about 200 people: working in perfect harmony, building amazing products, and serving customers around the world who were doing stunning things with our products. The start-up had no structure at all and very little hierarchy but this beautiful fertile chaos worked perfectly. It was bliss.
And then we sold the company. To Alcatel, my first and only employer, where my boss thought that the World Wide Web was pure foolishness. Oh, the irony. In hindsight, it was a disaster. I should have known this would not work, but at that time it made perfect sense in my mind. They had the global sales and distribution channels and access to the fortune 1000, and we had a great team and a great product. But somehow, the combination did not work. At all. And the reason was organizational culture.
I was amazed at how hungry Alcatel had been to acquire us, how they had spared no expense to woo and acquire us. Yet the moment that our ‘honeymoon’ was over, I was even more bewildered at how quickly the corporate reflexes and bureaucratic DNA had made our fertile anarchistic startup life a living hell.
The sad pinnacle of this dissonant acquisition tale was me being fired over a tiff that had gotten completely out of hand: I threw a corporate controller from the Paris branch out of my office over a fight over the car policy. Not my proudest moment, but for me it was the last straw of 6 months of continuous pointless discussions and frustrations over rules, procedures, policies and governance. I had been driven insane and had started to act like it.
After four years of working day and night developing my company, selling it, and striving like crazy for a full year trying to make it work inside a global corporation like Alcatel, shit had finally hit the fan. It was one of the strangest moments of my life. Having cleared out my desk, and carrying the rest of my dignity in a card-board box, I was escorted out of the building by two security guards. And out I marched of the company that I had started myself, watched by scores of my employees, my friends as I left the building. Strange, eerie, bizarre, and unnatural.
I guess I will remember how I felt that moment for the rest of my life, but it also made me wonder about the Big Question #2:
BIG QUESTION #2: "Why are large corporations so eager to acquire new startups, and why are they capable of screwing them up so profoundly in such a record time?"
Addicted to strategy consulting
When they fired me, the good people at Alcatel seemed terrified that I would just walk across the street and start over, ‘stealing’ away their best people in the process. So they had me sign a non-compete clause, stipulating that I would not be active in the IT, online, digital or Telecom sector for an entire year. A year. That’s a long time.
Faced with the prospect of spending an entire year in my backyard mowing the lawn, or learning how to grow petunias, I was rescued from all that by a ringing telephone. A few days after I was fired, McKinsey - the most iconic consultancy firm in the world - called to invite me to become an 'Entrepreneur in Residence': "You might learn something from us, we might learn something from you. Just spend the year with us as a guest. We'll put you in front of some of our toughest problems with our biggest customers in the field of digital, and you will be our special guest." It sounded like heaven to me after the previous match made in hell that my company’s acquisition turned out to be. So of course, I said “yes”.
This was the almost magical period of the dot-com boom, when companies such as Yahoo, Amazon and Netscape were propelled into huge players overnight. McKinsey was flooded with questions from large global corporations to help them in their 'digital strategies'. But in March of 2000, the NASDAQ exploded, the dot-com bubble burst, and the whole fragile, nascent online industry collapsed.
Ironically, McKinsey never suffered. It was now being swamped with questions of large corporations how to divest in the quickest way possible of their now toxic and dangerous online, digital and dot-com acquisitions, partnerships, and developments.
I truly enjoyed my residency at McKinsey, where I had the pleasure to meet some of the smartest people on the planet, who were absolute virtuosos at the long-term strategy game. I also learned how difficult 'second horizon thinking' was for their large corporation customers. How hard it was for them to understand what the strategic end-games were, and how to move their organizations accordingly.
I saw how companies could easily get 'hooked' on McKinsey, and become completely dependent on their outside guidance, like a crack-cocaine addict continuously craving his next shot, unable to escape his isolated nightmare of an existence. Ok, possibly less dark, but just as obsessed. This insight gave rise to my Big Question #3:
BIG QUESTION #3: "How is it possible that large corporations - even when they understand their own challenges and the directions they need to take - are incapable of moving on their OWN, without external help and guidance."
So. We’ve finally arrived at the reason why I actually wrote this book. For the last few years I've had the pleasure to talk to audiences around the world about the fundamental changes in society that (will) occur as a result of technology. My corporate audiences tend to stare at me like rabbits into the headlights of the oncoming car. They seem unable to move, unable to adopt, act, and respond quickly enough. It’s tragic.
Even the people who ARE performing 'radical' innovation in large corporates tell me how relieved they are that I talk about the need to fundamentally address these challenges. I really feel for them, because they often are the most frustrated individuals who are constantly banging their heads against corporate inertia. Being a 'Day After Tomorrow' thinker in a large corporation is one of the loneliest jobs to have these days.
This deadly inability to move brings me to the final, Big Question I want to address in this book:
BIG QUESTION #4 "How can corporates accelerate their Day After Tomorrow thinking? Why do large organizations - who understand the fundamental challenges coming at them, because of disruptive technologies, business models or concepts - seem to be too paralyzed to move fast enough to respond? How can companies become agile in their Day After Tomorrow thinking, and be successful in developing an approach that works?"
For me that is probably the Biggest Question. One I hope to clarify and even help solve in the pages that follow, together with the others. That’s why I wrote The Day After Tomorrow. Because I believe that companies CAN change. That they CAN learn how to spot the potential of new technologies, integrate startups without killing them, kick their addiction to consulting and learn how to accelerate their Day After Tomorrow thinking. Because others did it before them.
This article is an excerpt from my new book The Day After Tomorrow that will come out on June 22 2017. Get notified here from the moment it’s available.
 Alcatel would later merge with Bell labs to become Alcatel-Lucent, and much later merged into the re-christened Nokia.