Is Your Company Built to Last or Built to Suck?

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Is your company showing its age?

Businesses are just like people. They must stay healthy and agile, or watch their enterprise arteries harden through lethargy and face an early death.

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of species that survives nor the most intelligent, but the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

The key to survival is transformation and reinvention.

So says Joseph Jaffe, the “admiral and co-founder” of The HMS Beagle, a strategic consultancy whose name is a nod to the exploratory ship Charles Darwin was on when he developed the theory of evolution. Jaffe’s HMS Beagle helps clients navigate the journey to survival because everyone is in the survival business.

Jaffe is the author of five books:

  • Built to Suck: The Inevitable Demise of the Corporation … and How to Save It? (2019)
  • Z.E.R.O.: Zero Paid Media as the New Marketing Model (2013)
  • Flip the Funnel: How to Use Existing Customers to Gain New Ones (2010)
  • Join the Conversation: How to Engage Marketing-Weary Consumers with the Power of Community, Dialogue, and Partnership (2009)
  • Life After the :30 Spot: Energize Your Brand with a Bold Mix of Alternatives to Traditional Advertising (2007)

Jaffe’s forward-looking, thoughtful, and no-nonsense perspective has been extremely influential on how I view marketing, especially as I transitioned from broadcast media to digital and content marketing. I expect you’ll find this conversation both provocative and helpful.


Built to Last or Built to Suck?

The Customer Experience Podcast is available in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. It’s also embedded in these related blog posts.

Hear the entire conversation with Joseph right here …

Listen to “4. Will You Still Be in Business in 5, 10, 25 Years? w/ Joseph Jaffe” on Spreaker.



The Harder They Fall

In his new book Built to Suck, Jaffe has a chart showing a timeline of the history of civilizations over 5,000 years. The Roman, Ottoman, and Byzantine empires have all risen and fallen. Nazi Germany rose and fell. “It’s a little controversial, but there is America, too. Every single one of those empires and civilizations has risen and fallen.”

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“Entrepreneurs get it,” says Jaffe. “They understand the power of the pivot. They understand how failure should be embraced. They understand that ‘done is better than perfect.’”

It is arrogant to believe that this corporate empire that has only been around in earnest for a hundred years or so, will somehow be able to cheat time. Like individuals, societies, and civilizations, there’s a lifespan that can’t be outrun.

In support of this, Jaffe mentions some sobering statistics:

  • 70% of Fortune 500 companies from 1990 are gone.
  • 50% of Fortune 500 companies from 2000 are gone.
  • The lifespan of the corporation has dropped from 75 to 15 years in just 50 years.
  • Over the last three years, 51% of Fortune 500 companies have had declining revenues.

But he also notes that these stats are often misused. He describes it in this video clip:


In this case, “gone” does not mean dead or bankrupt. It means not in the Fortune 500 anymore. The loss of market cap means that they’ve lost a tremendous amount of momentum and growth.

If you’re looking for a magic bullet, there isn’t one.

“This isn’t a fairy tale, so there isn’t necessarily a happy ending,” says Jaffe. “General Stanley McChrystal’s new book Team of Teams says the cracks (in our society) are evident and the demise is apparent.”

“Yogi Berra once said, ‘If you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ I say if the writing’s on the wall, read it,” Jaffe adds. “Even so, it still may be too little, too late.”

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Pimping Your Customers

A lot of companies feel the solution lies in getting to know their customers very well. Perhaps too well.

“Customer obsession for me is unhealthy,” says Jaffe. “It’s borderline being a customer stalker without breaking the law.” Here, he explains more about the importance of being obsessed:


But it comes down to this truth: if 80% of our revenue comes from returning business, why are we spending 20% or less of our total marketing dollars against that revenue contribution? You should treat your best customers better.

It infuriates Jaffe to see companies offering promotions and discounts for first-time buyers. “They are a promiscuous customer, which makes you a pimp. So just own it. Is that how you build a business that is built to last? No, that’s how you build a business that’s built to suck.”

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Putting the Custom in Customer

“If you go back to Marketing 101, we’re in the business of surprising and delighting. We’re in the business of under-promising and over-delivering. And that’s where technology can play an incredible role.”

Jaffe regrets the ongoing misuse of Twitter. “Twitter should have been for customer service. I still believe that’s Twitter’s amazing role. It’s all about treating our customers better.”

He definitely sees a role for automation, but not in lieu of the human touch. Its purpose is to transform the customer experience, not roboticize it. When computers and humans work side by side, that’s where customer experience can flourish.

Here, he describes his 3-step process of automation, augmentation, and auguration:


“I recently was at a Four Seasons Hotel. When I called to make the reservation, they said, ‘Is this a special occasion?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’m visiting colleges with my daughter.’ When I arrived, they greeted my daughter by name and said, ‘You must be so excited to be visiting colleges.’

“That’s what happens when humans and machines work together as willing bedfellows. We can figure out how to create connections and causal relationships and inferences. That’s when the magic happens.

“Put the custom in customer. There is a great quote from one of the Netflix executives which says ‘we have 33 million versions of Netflix.’ Amazon has done similar things with personalizing their homepage. That’s where technology can help.”

And to the inevitable demise of the corporation, Amazon founder, chairman, CEO, and president Jeff Bezos has told his employees that one day they’ll wake up bankrupt and that each person’s job is to delay that as long as possible.



Building (and Banking on) Trust

Creating a culture of credibility and trust can also pay off when you mess up. And you will mess up.

When Duke basketball player Zion Williamson’s Nike shoe broke, “Nike had enough goodwill to get away with it once. But if they slip up again (excuse the pun), they are dead.”

If you’ve earned their trust, customers will forgive you. If you’ve consistently demonstrated integrity, you will always have a second chance, but you may not have a third chance.

“This stuff is not rocket science,” says Jaffe. “It’s common sense. And now is the time to act because as I said, these large corporations have this false sense of security. But they are failing and there are going to fail increasingly quickly.”

The clock is ticking.


This post is based on an interview with Joseph Jaffe, the “admiral and co-founder” of The HMS Beagle.

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