Change 101: Putting a Dent in the Universe

I hail from a long line of entrepreneurs. If we haven't always read the crystal ball correctly, it hasn't been for lack of trying.

A hundred years ago, my great-grandfather Max Helfstein owned the biggest stable of hacks in New York City -- you know, the horses that pulled taxis and delivery trucks all over the city.  (Interestingly, as fellow New Yorkers know, licenses to operate cabs here are still referred to as "hack licenses," even though the horses they refer to are obviously long gone.)

Anyway, back to Great Grandpa Max (my namesake, in fact). A colleague of his arrived one day in 1915 with what he claimed was the latest and greatest new invention, one he said would revolutionize the transportation industry: the automobile.

Skeptical, Gramps took the thing out for a spin, and promptly crashed it into a farm then located on 23th Street. "This thing will never work," he famously declared.  Horses were more responsive, according to Max: "You tug on them, and they follow."

So he stuck with his 2,000 horses, kept doing what he loved to do, and off he rode into the sunset.

Lesson learned. A hundred years later, we Liebermans are using a different kind of horsepower -- in my case, by pursuing a career that's been defined by a series of efforts to bring about change in the media industry.

Back in 1994, I started Sarnoff Real Time Corporation, which morphed into DIVA, the first commercially viable video on demand (VOD) company. We positioned our offering as a replacement for Blockbuster; little did we know that it would take another decade for VOD to hit critical mass and a few more years for Blockbuster to hit the wall.

Now, I'm working in my small way to effect change in the media industry again, by helping advertisers, networks, and stations target the right programs being watched by the right audience.

If there's one thing I've learned from these experiences, it's that being a change agent is not for everyone. It's not easy. No matter what industry you're in, you need patience, tenacity, a willingness to tolerate and learn from mistakes, and an uncommon level of risk-tolerance.

You also have to be in it for more than the financial reward, which rarely goes to the first entrant in any game. After all, look at the lifecycle of CEOs: a company usually has a founding CEO, a growth CEO, and a long-term CEO. With a few notable exceptions, they're rarely one person. (Steve Jobs, of course, is one of those notable exceptions, but he did have to leave Apple in order to return and lead it to world domination.)

Still sound good? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Take an evolutionary approach. Change is hard for many people and many organizations.  Whether you're looking to change a team's workflow or convince customers to approach a problem in a whole new way, you'll fail if you're too disruptive. Case in point: Jack Griffin's exciting but brief tenure at Time Inc.

Respect the status quo. Make like Aretha, and always show respect: for the people you work with, the organization you're a part of, the customers you service, and the entire industry in which you operate. Always be respectful of the context you're operating in, even if your ultimate goal is to upend the status quo completely.

Inspiration is good; aspiration is better; perspiration is a must. As Steve Jobs said, "We're here to put a dent in the universe." I love this statement, because it embodies the aspiration to invoke change on a large scale, while acknowledging with some modesty that nobody can do everything at once. If each of us makes just a dent, we'll change the world for the better.

Give it time. Organizations, markets, and industries are all organic ecosystems that need to evolve over time. So do vendors, customers, employees, and investors. Introduce change gradually, and you won't trigger an allergic reaction.

Partner with the "venturesome customer." As James Surowiecki reported in last week's New Yorker, "innovative consumption" is an important driver of change.  Although the TV measurement business has not yet modeled (or espoused, or practiced) a philosophy of innovation, now might just be the right time.

Follow these few guidelines and you'll find the way to your dent in the universe. Will it be easy? Nah. But it will be a great ride, and I for one wouldn't have it any other way.  My guess is, neither would Great Grandpa Max.

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2 comments about "Change 101: Putting a Dent in the Universe".
  1. Rick Monihan from None , May 16, 2011 at 12:49 p.m.

    Excellent article. We should all, in some way, be entrepreneurs of a sort. Always seeking to improve whatever job we do, making it better, faster, more productive.
    Too often we all fall into the trap of "this is the way it's always been done" and fail to see that small changes that require a bit of extra work today can lead to massive gains tomorrow.

    It's not entrepreneurial behavior on the level you're discussing - but it's just as important.

  2. Charlie Deane from Ooyala, Inc. , May 16, 2011 at 5:22 p.m.

    I feel so identified with your article that I couldn't agree more. My grandfather brought sugar cubes to Buenos Aires, Argentina from France, and made a little fortune by having close to a monopoly of that for half a century or more. Then came asparthame, but he would say that people liked squares much more than dust... a thus his business became dust.

    In my case, I created a company called MediaInternet a long time back, too early for its time. Meanwhile, the company that we set out to beat continued to do its thing in the same old fashioned way, was acquired by WPP a couple of years ago and no one complains about it.

    The balance between make or break hangs from a very thin line.