When I look back, I see a series of learning moments that arose sometimes incidentally but that shaped my life today. I used to be afeared of freeways and driving in general, but living in LA and having a car-loving boyfriend when I was 19 inevitably forced me to become reasonably competent behind the wheel. I learned how to manage risk by sneaking into local casinos at 17 to play California No Bust blackjack with my cousin, or sometimes the driving-distance Indian reservation with friends. My first brush with entrepreneurship was as an assistant to a flamboyant local artist and grantwriter, building her a successful at-home business on her sunny Topanga Canyon estate. I learned how to drive a forklift and run a call center at my first job after university, how to manage a team and give feedback, how to hire and fire people who were older than me. At that job, I was given a photocopy of a New York Times article about a young, relatively unknown economist at the University of Chicago, named Steven Levitt. On the basis of that article alone, I made UChicago my top-choice business school and embarked on a revelatory intellectual journey.
At my first job after business school, I asked to study markets - odd markets some of them - precision machining in aerospace, wastewater treatment equipment, health products for baby boomers, maintenance and management of clinical technology, senior living facilities, raw materials used in valve manufacturing, the future of the healthcare system, and so forth. From far away, say in business school, each market seems alike - you think in terms of patterns so you can wrap your mind around it, that one is a traditional manufacturer, this one is a capital-intensive business.
But what I've learned over the years is that each market is like a person. It has its own fingerprint, its own flavor, its own personalities. An executive at a valve manufacturer doesn't see other manufacturers as its competitors - it sees only two other companies and it knows their history and skeletons and the dust on their skeletons. There are family businesses and families working at different competing businesses. When there's a move, it's like moving a stalk in a mountain of hay.
These differences are meaningful. Did you know that there are virtually no third-party aftermarket provider of major parts in wastewater treatment equipment, and that OEMs have a vise-like grip on the market? Or that parts and services can be up to 50% of the revenue for a manufacturer? Or that the main barrier to cellulosic ethanol are the prohibitively expensive price of cellulosic enzymes that can break down tough cellulose? Or that the reason why the experience at skilled nursing facilities is so poor compared to continuing care retirement communities is because skilled nursing is subject to the vagaries of public reimbursement policies?
If you're going to be in this business, you're going to have to respect these differences. What's that old saying about how if you can't see the sucker, then the sucker is you. Business ethnography takes time and patience, and good listening skills, and even better note-taking because you're going to forget most of what you think you've learned. It also takes the ability to absorb rejection, turn hostility into chuckling, make actually pleasant small talk, to be interested in people, to drive a conversation so it's natural, and know how to come up with good questions.
It's incredibly rewarding though. As one of my business school professors used to say, if you're doing it well, it's like putting an X-ray over an entire industry and be able to put your finger on the exact spot.