Ep. 121 | Does Your Business Suck?

This week, we chat with Joseph Jaffe about his new book, Built to Suck, and how corporations are dying and whether they can be saved.

Is the business model of business broken? Do you need a product? Do you need an office space and all that includes? 51 percent of the Fortune 500 companies over the three years have had declining revenues.

As Jaffe says, “With success comes suckage. The key to success is to suck less.”

Nathan: Joseph, welcome to the show. Can you tell me more about yourself and what you do out there?

Joseph: I would probably call myself now a serial entrepreneur and a writer. I’ve written five books. Of course, we’re here to talk about the newest one, which is still in pre-sales on Amazon. I’m also running my third small business, my third startup called the HMS Beagle. I would say my common thread is talking about change and innovation, and really the intersection between, I think, technology, marketing, and strategy.

Picture of Joseph Jaffe for the Rethink Marketing podcast where he talks about his book, Built to Suck

What is the book Built to Suck about? 

Nathan: Can you talk about what Built to Suck’s premise is?

Joseph: The premise of Built to Suck, as the subhead suggests, is the inevitable demise of the corporation and how to save it with a question mark, because this isn’t a fairy tale. There is no happy ending. There isn’t necessarily a happy ending because I’m not sure the corporations can be saved. I’m not sure that they can save themselves. Even giving them the keys to the kingdom, they still might not be able to get out of their own way, but the idea behind it is that corporations today are too big. They’re too political. They’re too siloed. They’re too dysfunctional. They’re too risk-averse. They’re essentially slowing down when the world is speeding up.

As I write about, I think, the business model of business is broken, which is large corporations, these fortune 500 companies, these blue chip multinational corporations of old, they got to where they got to through size, through scale, through economies of scale, through efficiencies that came from being global, but today, that same size and scale is the albatross around its neck that’s suffocating them. Because today, as I think we’ve all seen, you don’t need overhead. You don’t even necessarily need product.

I mean, look at Uber. Look at Airbnb. Look at Facebook to a degree. Look at Alibaba. They have no product. We are the product, right? They just facilitate our ability to drive each other around and rent out our children’s rooms to strangers, et cetera. All you need to get fundraising is to go to the Kickstarters of the world, and all you need to actually promote is Instagram. Ultimately, this is this incredible world of direct to consumer where brands have risen up and mushroomed overnight without spending a dime on paid media. We can see all the companies that are growing, and then we can see all the companies that are not.

51 percent of the fortune 500 companies over the last three years have had declining revenues. I have in this book a collection of empirical and anecdotal data to suggest that we’re at that moment in time. We’re at this moment of truth where corporations are in big trouble. That has obviously major repercussions on all of our lives on many different levels, and so I thought it was time to actually take this fight to the front lines and say, “This is the situation. Now, what are we going to do about it?”

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What types of corporations are dying? 

Nathan: I think some companies or people that are working within corporations right now who are listening to this are thinking, “Well, he’s only talking about Sears or somebody like that.” What kind of corporations are having this happen to them? Who’s on your death watch list?

Joseph: Well, the newest addition is Payless, although I’m not sure that they’re on death watch anymore because I think they’re actually now technically dead. I’m going to have to replace them with someone. Let me think. Oh, I know. How about WeightWatchers? That slimmed down to WW, which I guess snarkily … Well, I say snarkily. It stands for something about wellness and something else with a W. WeightWatchers becoming WW was like Kentucky Fried Chicken becoming KFC. This is a company that has almost jettisoned or discarded their entire equity and legacy in search of becoming something that they just aren’t and never will be in an incredibly crowded space.

But I think the reality is that everyone is in the survival business, everyone, from the smallest startup to the largest corporation. Startups get this. Startups actually naturally, they recognize that they’re here today and gone tomorrow based on a patent failing, based on Facebook issuing a cease and desist, based on an investor pulling out. In the corporate world, it’s what I call death by a thousand budget cuts. They don’t even notice they’re dying until one day they’re dead.

Nathan: Until one day the employees show up to work and they have a key card, and the key card doesn’t work anymore at the door.

Joseph: Look, it’s sad. As I said, they are major implications from an economic standpoint, from a social standpoint in terms of employment, but at the same time, what we’re witnessing is that young talents today, Millennials and younger, they’re motivated by different factors. They’re choosing to live their lives by different rules, and so whether it’s the gig economy or the startup world, what I call the entrepreneurial revolution, the fifth industrial revolution, these are the times we’re living in right now. There are two forces, right?

In fact, one of the things I write about is this idea of ban the employee. We should stop using the word employee, employer, employee. People that work for us should be thought of as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. They should be thought of as partners. We need to tap into their collective, innovative, creative resources from someone who works in the mail room to an executive. By treating them like they are inmates or treating them like they’re punching in and punching out, it not only doesn’t take advantage of this tremendous resource, but it neglects them in the process.

That’s one, I think, key issue. It’s not just that people are sitting waiting for that inevitable pink slip. They’re going to start leaving if they aren’t already and in an increasing droves, and more importantly not choosing to join one of these lethargic, legacy corporations. A, because they know what’s coming, and B, because it’s just not doing it for them anymore.

Image quote from Joseph Jaffe about his new book Built to Suck and how corporations are dying

Who should read Built to Suck?

Nathan: Well, I think that might be a good point to leave it. I’m wondering who should read this book?

Joseph: I always say author should never say everyone, because as the old saying goes, if you try and be all things to everyone, you end up being nothing to nobody. I wanted to write a book that was a general business book as opposed to a marketing book. Some of my previous books have been vertical and narrow and focused, like Flip the Funnel, focusing on customer experience. I also wanted to write a book that was interesting to the general public.

I actually had my wife edit the book. I had her copyedit the book, which by the way, if you want to test a marriage, that’s one way to test it.

She came back to me with even more criticism than she normally gives me. Unfortunately for me, she was right about everything, but the lens that I gave her was if this book seems esoteric, if this book has terms you don’t understand, if this book seems to be too narrow, tell me because I do think this book is talking about a snapshot, a particular time in history where we’re witnessing all of this change but also correctly identifying it as it’s happening.

There’s that old saying, “There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happening, and those who say, what happened?”

In this case, we’re watching it happen, and the choice is do we want to make it happen? Do we want to be on the right side of history or do we want to just turn around and say what happened? That would be the cover of the book that shows this apocalyptic corporate graveyard in a sense.

I’d like to believe that if you are a small business, the book is relevant. Why? Because if you’re trying to take down the corporation, this tells you how, but also, it’s resisting the urge because one day too, you will suck. Of course, if you are a large corporation or workforce, then this book is hopefully a dire warning that time is running out if you don’t change your ways.