We see the same four steps, over and over:
Struggle: At the beginning, no one knows what you make or why they need it. They are unaware and distrustful too. Sometimes the struggle never ends, other times the story is so compelling and the value created so in demand that it appears to go by quickly. But the struggle is always there. Most marketing (as opposed to advertising) lives in this stage, because you’re starting from zero.
Servant: As a soon-to-be-successful organisation gains traction, it has a choice. It can move to servant mode, delighting and connecting customers, exceeding expectations and performing what seems like miracles. Or it can take profits as soon as it can. The former leads to scale, the short-term approach usually results in more struggle.
Bully: As the organisation gains power (and constituents) it is under pressure to increase profits and market share and lock in. The market power leads to more market power and the ability to cause customers or partners to shift their strategy in deference. (To be clear, I define a bully as an individual or organisation that uses physical or other power to cause someone less powerful to act against their enlightened long-term self interest to satisfy their demands.) “We make the rules now.”
Utility: No organisation stays in bully mode forever. The step after this is utility, the organisation that serves a function, makes a profit, and is often taken for granted.
Bitcoin is still in the struggle stage. Microsoft clearly went through all four of these stages a decade ago. Federal Express skipped the bully step, as far as I can tell, and moved straight to utility. AT&T also followed the four steps. So did Standard Oil. Religions that last more than a few generations go through these steps too. During their hyper-growth period, AOL had the chance to become a generations-long utility, but probably worked too hard to exercise their power to gain scale before moving to the utility stage.
While the easy examples to find are the famous, international ones, this can happen on the micro level, within industries or locations or sects as well.
I’d like to believe that the goal is to figure out how to live a life in the servant stage, to create an organisation that doesn’t become a bureaucratic haven or an avarice-focused engine of profit. As markets shift faster (networks grow faster now than ever before in human history) there’s more opportunity to find a sweet spot that dances between servant and utility.
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