Caution for big guys,
hope for little ones

Who will be the next giant slayer? Or the next slayed giant?

Who will be the next giant slayer?
Or the next slayed giant?

TODAY’S OBJECT LESSON begins in the mid 19th century, when a Minnesota jewelry store declined a shipment of watches.

Railroad agent Richard Sears purchased the shipment, peddled the watches, and ordered more. Knowing a good thing when he saw one, he quit the railroad and set up a mail order watch business. A year later, he moved to Chicago, partnered with Alvah Roebuck, expanded into farming equipment and supplies, and published what became a highly successful mail order catalog. That was in 1888. By the 1970s, Sears, Roebuck and Company, today simply known as Sears, had become the world’s largest retailer.

In time, Sears diversified into the financial services arena. They created Allstate Insurance Company in 1931. Later, Dean Witter and Coldwell Banker real estate fell under the Sears umbrella. Sears introduced the Discover card in 1985.

There simply was no catching Sears.

Which may come as a surprise to anyone who happens to know that things soon began going south for the once uncatchable Sears. So south that, in 2005, bankrupt Kmart was able to buy Sears outright.

Today the world’s largest retailer is a company by the name of Walmart. You may have heard of Walmart. It attained world’s-largest status in 1990.

Here I would add that there is simply no catching Walmart, except I know better. As I write, Amazon is fast catching up and may soon take over as the world’s largest retailer.

Other instances of toppled business giants abound. If you haven’t heard of WordStar, you probably weren’t doing much writing in the mid 1980s. That’s when WordStar was the dominant player in the word processing software market. There simply was no catching them. Until, that is, WordPerfect took the world by storm, and there simply was no catching them. Until, that is, Microsoft Word came along and, like many things Microsoft, took over.

Or, take Prodigy (in which Sears was a partner), which gave way to AOL, which gave way to Netscape, which gave way to Explorer, which gave way to Google, which you may also have heard of. Likewise, there was no catching Kodak, once the world’s leading film marketer and, no less, the inventor of the digital camera. They filed for bankruptcy in 2012. There once was no catching Dell, Blockbuster, and Motorola, either.

Underlying all of this is a lesson of humility and caution for giant companies and one of hope for up and coming, scrappy ones.

For the former, the lesson of caution is never assume you’re safe, that you’re uncatchable. For the latter, the lesson of hope is, who says you can’t become the next world’s largest?

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