Thoughts on the Financial Crisis

The other day, we received a blistering email from a Radar reader complaining about our silence on the subject of the economic meltdown. I wrote back:

There are a lot of people bloviating about the financial crisis. It’s outside of our area of expertise, so there didn’t seem to be a lot of urgency to add to the hot air. Even professional economists and financial experts disagree on where this is going. I’ve been reading a lot, and sharing the best links via my twitter feed, but frankly, I’m feeling that we’re in the middle of a wave that no one completely understands.

Meanwhile, I did in fact spend my NY Web Expo talk on the idea that “I sense a storm coming” (Rilke quote), and the idea that companies and individuals need robust strategies (ones that can work even in uncertain times), with one robust strategy being to “work on stuff that matters.”

That Rilke quote, from the poem The Man Watching, translated by Robert Bly, has this great line about letting ourselves be washed over by events greater than ourselves:

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after

so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes

that a storm is coming…

What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights us is so great!

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too, and not need names.

I’ve been feeling a lot like that. Watchful. Listening. Learning. Not rushing about fighting the small things of the moment but letting the storm wash in. It will change us.
That can be good. And as the storm washes through, it will become clear what we have to do.

I’ve been quoting that poem in my talks since Why I Love Hackers at ETech in March. It ends with a ringing invocation to work on challenging problems, problems that stretch us, as the wrestlers of the Old Testament were challenged by wrestling with the angel. That seems to me to be the heart of what we need to do now.

I hadn’t thought to do this earlier, but it occurs to me that I might also share here the message that I sent out to all O’Reilly employees by email a week or so ago (edited slightly to remove a few company-specific details):

Many of you have no doubt been alarmed by the developments of the last couple of weeks in financial markets, so I wanted to put a few thoughts out to all of you before disappearing on a combination of vacation and business travel for the next 3+ weeks.

…at the last company meeting, I talked about a theme that I’ve expanded on in public talks like the one I did at Ignite Boston and at Web 2.0 Expo in New York the week before last: the idea that robust strategies are ones you’d adopt in good times and in bad. And I argued that we probably end up with more robust strategies if we assume the worst rather than the best.

We could be in for a long, rough time in the economy. I’m not going to say otherwise.

But I also want to point out that rough times are often the best times for creativity, opportunity and change. We transformed ourselves from a technical writing consulting company into a book publishing company as a result of the huge economic downturn of the mid-80s. After the dotcom bust in 2001, we launched Safari Books Online, Missing Manuals, the Web 2.0 conferences, Foo Camp, Make: magazine, the O’Reilly School of Technology, and a host of other initiatives that have fueled our growth and that define the company today. We diversified and invested in new ideas.

It was a painful period but one that made us better and stronger as a company.

And if you look at history, you see that this has always and everywhere been true. It’s not an accident that economist Joseph Schumpeter talked about the “creative destruction” inherent in capitalism. Great problems are also great opportunities for those who know how to solve them. And looking ahead, I can see great opportunities.

The energy crisis (both global warming and the oil price shock) is helping people to focus on how technology can transform the energy sector. The financial crisis has demonstrated just how out-of-whack an unregulated, proprietary, black-box approach can get. This will lead to an emphasis on regulation, but I hope, above all, on transparency. This is of course analogous to what happened with open source software. Meanwhile, the mobile revolution will continue, regardless of the state of the economy. If it can prosper in Africa, it can prosper even in an American downturn. And all the stuff we’re exploring with Make: new materials, new approaches to manufacturing, and the “open source” approach applied to hardware, will take us in unexpected directions. And all of these areas can benefit from what we do best: capturing and spreading the knowledge of innovators.

We don’t know yet how problems in the overall economy will affect our business. But what we can do now are the things we ought to be doing anyway:

  • Work on stuff that matters: Assuming that the world does go to hell in a handbasket, what would we still want to be working on? What will people need to know? (Chances are good that they need to know these things in a world where we all continue to muddle along as well.)
  • Exert visionary leadership in our markets. In tough times, people look for inspiration and vision. The big ideas we care about will still matter, perhaps even more when people are looking for a way forward. (Remember how Web 2.0 gave hope and a story line to an industry struggling its way out of the dotcom bust.)
  • Be prudent in what we spend money on. Get rid of the “nice to do” things, and focus on the “must do” things to accelerate them.

    These are all things we should be doing every day anyway. Sometimes, though, a crisis can provide an unexpected gift, a reminder that nobody promised us tomorrow, so we need to make what we do today count.

This seems like good advice for Radar readers as well. I will try to write further on the theme of “work on stuff that matters” in the days ahead.

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