I want to introduce somebody to my readers today: a London School of Economics graduate named Umair Haque. A few years after college, he left the business world and became what some call a “radical economist”. He started Bubblegeneration, which he describes as a “strategy and innovation advisory boutique”, runs the Havas Media Lab, and writes. A lot. All over the place. Something he said on Twitter caught my eye a few weeks ago, and I started to pay attention.
I’m no economist; I don’t have an opinion on whether Haque is an economist or — if he is — what kind. After following him on Twitter for the past month or two and reading his blog, however, I concluded that he sounded like I want to after having yet another useless product or pointless service shoved down my throat. (And like I do occasionally when I have PMS.) ;) So I ordered his new book, “The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business”, from Powell’s Books. Last weekend, I read it.
I’m hesitant to summarize a carefully thought out book-length argument with many carefully-thought-out examples in a few sentences, but in this case it’s possible. Haque thinks that much of the business world has become so wrapped up in competition with other businesses (i.e. war) to produce and sell more and more products and services that it has lost track of what it is there to do — produce *useful* and *meaningful* products and services. In other words, much of the business world is tying up huge quantities of resources and human effort to produce… junk.
Haque points out that this cycle is self-limiting, locked into ever diminishing returns, and will fail entirely sooner rather than later. He then names businesses that he believes are trapped in this cycle, compares them to a list of businesses that he believes have broken out of it, and concludes with a passionate appeal to business to learn from this and get back on track.
My instinctive reply to his argument sounds like my 20-year-old goddaughter’s response to anything that she views as blindingly obvious: Like, DUH! Then I had to stop and think, because I am not the audience for this book. I don’t own a business. I don’t help manage a business. I never took a college-level business class, let alone a BBA or MBA, and rarely if ever even read books on the subject. Although I am a writer by profession, I’m a technical writer who focuses on technological and scientific subjects: I simply don’t know the vocabulary or the accepted beliefs of the business world. But I do have a growing and horrible suspicion that those beliefs are exactly what Haque was addressing in his book. I’ve had too many experiences with companies that try to sell me junk as if it was valuable goods, and that appear to believe that a strong enough marketing push will cause me not to notice.
One of those companies is Border’s Books. I became a customer of theirs after they appeared in my community in the early 1990s. I’m a voracious reader who loves to browse shelves full of all kinds of books. I spend a significant amount of my disposable income on books, for years quite a bit of it at the local Borders. A couple of years ago, however, I noticed that interesting books that I had not already read were becoming difficult to find at my Borders. Instead, they were stocking large quantities of bestsellers that I had no interest in, and replacing much of the non-bestseller bookshelf space with other merchandise.
At that same time, as I was finding less and less at Borders that I wanted to buy, I also found that checking out and paying for what I did want had become an ordeal. The reason? The checkout clerks *EVERY TIME* pressured me to join something that they called a “frequent buyer’s club” and, when I declined to join, asked repeatedly for an email address that they could use to send “special offers”. This wasn’t once, or the first time that the particular clerk saw me. Clerks who knew me by name went through this litany *EVERY TIME*. When I asked why, they told me that management required it and that they could be fired if they did not.
I haven’t been inside Borders for some months now. Over the weekend I heard that they were expected to file for bankruptcy early this week.
Unfortunately Borders isn’t the only example of diminishing service combined with aggressive, meaningless, and pushy marketing. I stay out of malls these days. I don’t shop for clothes at what used to be my favorite department stores. When I shop online, I create throwaway email addresses for the transaction itself, and then close them, to avoid being spammed by companies that think it’s okay to assume that they have permission to put me on bulk email lists if I’ve ever done business with them. I don’t watch TV; the few shows that interest me I watch after the DVDs come out. I don’t listen to radio stations. And I’ve got all sorts of ad-blocking and filtering software installed on my computer’s web browser so that I’m not inundated with advertisements that scream for my attention so that they can try to sell me stuff that I almost never want. In summary, I don’t enjoy my contacts with the business world.
There are a few exceptions, however. Of those, Powell’s Books and one of my favorite grocery stores, Trader Joe’s, were the only ones that Haque did not cite as examples of innovative and good companies in his book. Since both of these companies are also U.S. based and mostly regional, I rather suspect that Haque (who is British and lives in the UK) might not know much about them. In addition, I have no disagreements with any of the companies that he did mention where I know enough about the company to have an opinion.
The New Capitalist Manifesto isn’t a complete economic or business system, nor does Haque claim that it is. However, I think that in it Haque is onto something important. I’d be interested to see how many other people agree, after reading this book.