Survival Mode is Nothing New
Updated: Sep 11
with Joseph Jaffe, Author
Corporations are destined to fail when they lose their ability to change, says author Joseph Jaffe in his 2018 book, Built to Suck. And 2020 is proving him right. In this episode, Susan Tatum picks Joseph’s brain on business survival, growth, the entrepreneurial advantage and how to be ready to move fast as the economy opens up - or doesn’t.
Transcribed by AI Susan Tatum Welcome back to stop the noise. I’m Susan Tatum and today I’m talking with Joseph Jaffe, who’s co founder and Admiral at HMS Beagle, which is a strategic consulting firm. He is also author, speaker, host of CoronaTV and general troublemaker, which is probably why I like him. Welcome, Joseph.
Joseph Jaffe Thank you for having me. Good to chat with you today.
Susan Tatum Nice to have you here. Before we dig too deeply into this, you’ve been talking about and writing about change and businesses needing to plan to survive since well before COVID. What got you into that? Tell us a little bit about your background and how your thinking has evolved. Joseph Jaffe I started my career on the client side working for a fast food chicken company. So I kind of cut my teeth on the brand marketing side. Then came over to the US; worked for a number of Madison Avenue agencies and I’ve been on my own, as I said, was the last time someone actually willingly paid me full time for a job was back in 2002. And, and I’ve been consulting and became an entrepreneur. And I’ve been very fortunate and privileged to write five books.
And, and one of the things that has really troubled me is the fact that these large legacy corporations, for the most part, have stopped growing. They’re stagnating, and they’re declining. And for me, it was obvious to see, even – it’s funny because, Built to Suck came out in March of 2019. So obviously, I was writing it about a year prior. So imagine circa 2018. The cover of Built to Suck features JC Penney and Sears amongst the likes of Blockbuster and Kodak, and blackberry and then there’s also P&G and GE and GM and Sony and McDonald’s.
And this apocalyptic scenario, representing the demise of the corporation, to me was fairly obvious. Why? Because, the inspiration behind the book, Jay Chiat, once said, “Let’s see how big we get before we suck, before we go bad”. And there’s been so much research and data and thought leadership, Malcolm Gladwell spoken about the law of 100, that at some point, companies lose that edge; they forget where they come from. They lose that entrepreneurial, scrappy spirit that got them started and helped them grow. I mean, just this weekend, we saw that Hertz has filed for bankruptcy and in the book, I talk about it and I say, please tell me how on earth car rental companies are still in business. So there you go.
Susan Tatum You know, if you read Built to Suck now during COVID, which I did, it is really, really, really hard to believe that you wrote it that long ago – that well, so that you were working on it two years ago because it sounds so much like what’s happening now.
Joseph Jaffe It’s uncanny. And you know, I’m very explicit about it. I take no joy, in seeing JC Penney or J. Crew or Neiman Marcus, faltering and falling. I say in the book, I am no ageist except when it comes to inanimate corporations. But, the subhead of the book says “the inevitable demise of the corporation, dot, dot, dot and how to save it” with a question mark, because I just don’t know that that the company can be saved. I don’t know that they can get out of their own way and change quick enough.
And you know, when you strip all of this away, what are we really talking about? We’re talking about change. We’re talking about growth. So so one of the big themes in this book is that we’re all in the survival business today, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, and we need to be survivalists. We need to earn the right to survive. And once we can actually establish that survival plan, we can then hopefully build a growth plan on top of that, but it takes work and it takes introspection and it takes catharsis. You probably are familiar when you read the book that when we look at how GE faulted and it’s almost remarkable this thing called Success Theater in GE, when no one was allowed to bring bad news to the chairman. Well, no longer the chairman. It’s insane to think about running a company, a country, anything without being able to take the bad news and also deliver the bad news in a transparent, direct and honest way.
Susan Tatum Yeah, that’s gotta be vital for anytime in any size of company. I found, although you talk about large corporations, nearly all of what you’re saying is applicable to entrepreneurs and small and mid sized businesses as well.
Joseph Jaffe I think so. And actually, you know, WeWork is in the book too. And whilst I talk glowingly about WeWork in terms of what it represented and what it brought to the table, I do call out the fact that no one lives forever, I don’t think anyone really could have anticipated what happened. to WeWork.
But I think you’re absolutely right. And I think the difference between the small business and the large business is that I think actually small businesses get this. Startups, they know that they can go from hero to zero overnight. And likewise from zero to hero overnight, they get the fact that they can be here today and gone tomorrow. If Facebook throttles traffic or Google issues a cease and desist or an investor pulls out. And I think that may be what gives the startup or the small business, the edge. They’re hungrier. They’re scrappier, and they know that the stakes are higher.
Just contrast that with a corporation. Something that I say in the book, kind of tongue in cheek, is “death by 1000 budget cuts”, as opposed to paper cuts. They’re dying every day. And maybe the analogy that comes to mind there is the boiling frog syndrome and now we’re just seeing it come to the forefront.
You know, I’ll just tell you very quickly that I was watching a segment on CNN talking about it. And they mentioned a whole bunch of things that were all related, you know, they’ve all relevant. They spoke about how, you know, a big chunk of Hertz’s revenue comes from airports, and obviously people aren’t traveling. And they touched on a whole bunch of reasons. But the one thing they didn’t say, is, to me the most obvious one, which is the rise of Uber and Lyft. It was so obvious to me that that was the beginning of the end for not just Hertz, but for this whole industry,
Susan Tatum That’s astonishing that they didn’t mention that. That would have been the first place I’d gone. Well, so you talk about, when things come back, when we get beyond the situation that we were in now, change is going to happen really, really quickly. And we have to be prepared to move and move fast.
Joseph Jaffe Change is happening all around us, right, the only constant is change. And, each wave of let’s call it disruption and it’s really kind of almost it’s distruction, each wave of technological change of innovation of the rise of different businesses and business models. Each wave is cresting and crashing with compressed and accelerated intensity. So it’s almost like before maybe every eighth wave will be a big one. Now, it’s like every wave is big, and it’s getting bigger. And the time between waves is getting shorter.
And so it’s really important. It’s why I’ve put together a presentation and a workshop called Preparing for the Next Crisis. Yes, the next one. Which you might think is like, wait a second, why are you delivering that now instead of, what everyone else is doing, which is “here are all the great tweets coming out of brands during COVID-19”. We’re all in this together or trying to figure out what to do right now and I’m like no, you need to obviously survive, but if you aren’t already preparing right now today for the next crisis you’re just setting yourselves up for a bigger fall
Susan Tatum well let’s talk about your framework that it was in your book but then you also did a Corona framework for handling this – and Survive as your first phase, right?
Joseph Jaffe So survive is obvious, right? Just stay in business. I would say personally, that should not just translate into furlough and fire your employees and cut costs. I mean, I think you have to figure out how to leave the lights on, but it can’t just be about short term. You know, if anything should be done in these companies that should be every single fat cat and board member should take zero salary. It should all begin at the top, and then trickle down as opposed to bottom up.
But anyway, I’m sure most people share that point of view. But then, you know, I’ve evolved even that thinking and that phase one, which is, we are in the big pause or the great pause. So this is a time to do three things right. The first is survive. The second is introspect, take stock, prioritize, and take a real good, hard look at the good, the bad and the ugly inside the company. Maybe that you were too blind to see, or you were too close to everything to appreciate.
And then the third one is get to do the projects that somehow were always on our to do list that never got done. And sometimes it could be as fundamental as a video strategy or CRM, or email, or content strategy, or even just fixing your website, the most basic fundamental things.
So that’s phase one. I mean, that could keep people busy for a while.
Susan Tatum Do you have any type of crystal ball? How long will that last? Or what will be the signs when it’s changing?
Joseph Jaffe I don’t think anybody knows, except for the fact that what I do know is that the continued waves of disruption, you know, the only constant is change. That’s what I know for sure. Right? Death, taxes and change. I know that for a fact. But, but which companies? I mean, if you just even think about education, probably of all the industries, that’s maybe the most fascinating one, right now. When you look at these colleges, and these, unnecessary cost structures and tenure, and student loans. If we could just focus on that and never have to worry about another thing again, and that would keep us busy, at least intellectually.
I’ve three kids, my oldest is a freshman at Wash U in St. Louis. My youngest is in middle school, and just seeing how their lives have been turned upside down; but also seeing the colleges that are doing a better job; or the schools that are doing a worse job in terms of what software and what programs.
One thing I learned, I did a course a certification program is this concept called the flipped classroom that is starting to gain popularity. And the context of the flipped classroom is instead of going to class to hear a lecture and then going back to your dorm room, to then do your homework or your assignments, etc, they’re flipping that. So now the professor can record the lesson with, if they need to state-of-the-art video production and editing and visual aid, etc, and the student has to watch that video ahead of the classroom. But then when they’re in the class now, it’s about discussion, conversation, group work, and the actual homework is now being done in the class. And I actually think that that could be the future of education.
So, going back to your question, which is, who’s going to get in on the act and who won’t, you can be sure that the Ivy League schools will resist that for as long as possible. Then you look at at the challenger schools that are embracing online or you look at Khan Academy or you look at different models, you will see some rise and you will see others fall based on their ability to adjust.
So it’s really not up to the prognosticators or the pundits, I think it’s up to the companies that say if we go back to the old way as I call it, the ruby red slippers scenario, that’s my phase two, right phase two is prepare for the end of this. And if you just are in that denial is not a river in Egypt, click your ruby red slippers, there’s no place like home there’s no place like home. You’re going to go down with the ship. And I would say you can take that to the bank.
Susan Tatum So okay, phase two is what are we going to do …
Joseph Jaffe Is to prepare for the end of this. When everything is okay, at least, what scenario are we going to deploy? Scenario one is ruby red slippers right? Scenario two is the new normal, which is not business as usual, it’s business as unusual. In that scenario, hygiene is the new security. So if you think about post 9-11 and what happened with security, TSA, now hygiene will be that permanent, most likely change in our lives. Do I think people will shake hands again? Yes, I do. But, you know, there’s going to be some permanent changes, and we’re just going to have to like deal with those.
And then the third one is no more business. So that’s where an entire business or business model has just been obliterated. And and that might be a little bit too extreme. But I think if you’re the cruise line industry, you might be or car rental industry, you might be closer to that scenario, than consumer packaged goods or food services. And I think it’s just again, the reality. That just segues into the third phase, which is pivot, which is the way I look at it is, doesn’t mean you should, completely change your business, or even your business model, but I believe that we can always benefit from having another horse in the race. Do you have an extra horse in the race – you have an exponentially higher chance of winning the race.
So a good analogy would be circa 2005. You’re Conde Nast, you’ve got Bride and Modern Bride magazine. And there’s this little pesky thing called online or digital rising. Embrace it. Have two revenue streams. Allow people to consume your content in beautiful, glossy, sexy print, but also on kind of dingy, you know, grungy digital. But at the end of the day, when digital ends up cannibalizing in part, magazines, let’s just say your market size was a base of 100. And magazines dropped to 80. But now digital is 40. Well, guess what, 80 + 40 is 120. You’ve just expanded, you know your pie or your size of the market.
And I think that’s part of the pivot. It’s like prepare for the next crisis, which is, we need to make sure that we are more elastic, more adaptable, more flexible, more agile, but also, taking into account additional approaches and all revenue streams, at a minimum, just to have that little buffer. And I think that’s the kind of the bow around this whole framework, which is the companies that came into this with a buffer with a bit of a wiggle room, those are the companies that will emerge if not unscathed, at least relatively unscathed. The companies that were on life support or skating on thin ice coming into this will most likely not survive. And so that’s what we got to do moving forward. We need that failsafe, right that that plan B because if we don’t that we’ll just get you know, the old saying, like, fool me once, shame on you fool me twice shame on me.
Susan Tatum Well, so how does that affect? I mean, let’s say a marketing firm that had put all of their focus into travel or the hospitality industry, all of their clients are in that industry would your advice be, we need to rethink how we focus so that we have the best chance of not having something pull that rug completely under our feet.
Joseph Jaffe Well, I mean, it’s an interesting question because, you know, if you’ve specialized in the travel industry, of course, you can pivot within that travel industry. These are just some examples that I became aware of so WithLocals is a service I used them actually when I was in Turkey and Greece last year. Where WithLocals, it’s almost like kind of like Uber x or Airbnb of tour guide. So it’s just a local person taking you to all the different sites and their favorite restaurants and whatever. So what they’ve done is now these guides, doing a cooking demonstrations and history lessons and, and these zoom like experiences.
So I think even within an industry, you can still use those best practices. And deliver something that is, you know, maybe complimentary or or tangential. But at the same time I think to your point, it’s like you can’t be a one trick pony here, you know, using extending the horse racing analogy.
I mean, we’ve all been forced to have to think and rethink. And, one of the things that my company HMS Beagle did is, you can imagine that it’s tough.. It’s tough being in business right now for any small business or boutique. So rather than go out there and figure out how we’re going to win a massive account, which is just not going to happen. We thought of giving away these little pro bono consulting gigs. One week, in and out, called Survival Boost. I’ll give you an example. One of these is for a company called Pet Minded. This is a travel service for pets. And, it’s an important service, right, when you think about airline travel and dealing with service animals, and specifically which hotels are pet friendly. So they were putting together itineraries and different services for people traveling with their pets. Well, guess what, they are suddenly faced with the fact that there may be no more business. People may not be traveling and even if they are, are they going to take the pets with them?
So we helped them rethink what relationships look like with pets. And what we realized is we talked about helping our pets, right, from shelters and service animals. What we realize is every pet is a service animal now, because the support that they’re giving us during this tough time is almost immeasurable. And so we spoke about different ways that pet owners could bond and interact and help and with their pets but more importantly what does travel look like in this new reality and people may not be flying, but they can be driving.
So we kind of planned and started to think about what travel look like how we could redefine it. So that’s just an example that says, you know, you don’t the way things were maybe forever change, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a scenario in which what you do and what you specialize in can still work and that’s the challenge for us all now.
Susan Tatum Great story. Thank you. So I know there are people listening to us that are gonna want to know more about you and get in touch with you. What’s the best way for them to do that?
Joseph Jaffe I’m generally JaffeJuice on every channel, and I’m very easily google-able if you were ever looking for me. When the world went to hell I started streaming daily and it’s very quickly has morphed and become something that to me is now my my baby and my pet project, my new one, which is CoronaTV. Now, just to be clear, the goal is CoronaTV to be renamed and rebranded JaffeJuice TV. I will give you two euros, I mean you can find me any other way right. HMSBeagle.com. JosephJaffe.com is my main speaker website but, you can go to CoronaTV.show or JaffeJuice.tv and you can see I’ve done about 50 of these shows now.
It’s Monday through Friday, and then I do a show on Sunday as well. And it’s authors and speakers and entrepreneurs and business leaders and I had the creator, writer and producer of Defending Jacob, which is a fantastic miniseries on Apple TV. I’ve got one of the finalists in of survivor. I had two students a freshman and a sophomore that recorded a song together and so I had them on the show just to talk about collaborating and the perspective of what a student is going through right now. So the show is become a show of hope and inspiration, but it really is a show dedicated to eventually business and marketing and entrepreneurship. It’s given me purpose. And I’m, you know, being so honest, when I tell you, I don’t know, from a mental health standpoint, I don’t know what I would have done during this period. Had I not just done it, and just started this show. I have this purpose and this zest because I know I’m connecting with people and I’m making a difference and I’m helping people and in all of that there is a message for people listening as well, which is, don’t be a victim. Don’t sit back and wait for life to happen. Go make it happen yourself.
Susan Tatum Amen to that, for sure. Well, thank you, Joseph. It’s been good talking to you. And I’ve got pages of notes here that I intend to act on. Take Care and I’ll be seeing you on CoronaTV