What I Learned About Business From Reviewing Old Maps

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It’s a fair statement to say that I’m probably weird when it comes to ancient history. I don’t start history at World War II, with the Civil War, or even with the Renaissance.

I don’t even really start at the Bronze Age.

If the truth be told, I actually start from there and go back to the development of homo sapiens wandering out of West Africa as as they emerged from the multiple failed hominids that didn’t quite make it.

It’s a strange hobby, I know, but apparently it appears to really be my hobby . . .  after all.

I didn’t really think about it as a hobby until one day when I was pontificating endlessly driving with my wife, Janet, and our three sweethearts.  After a ten minute diatribe on the development of intelligence in hominids, she turned to me and said, literally after eighteen years of marriage, “Wow, you really do need a hobby, don’t you?”

Since I really don’t know the stats on the most recent football scores, even though I still follow Notre Dame regardless of its inability to cleanly win a game, or what teams played in the World Series, or even what season of sports it actually is, I realized in that conversastion that early anthropological development actually was my hobby . . . as lame as that must sound.

In any event, and back to the subject of this blog, I happened to be reviewing an ancient map of the Aegean Sea for no particular reason except to simply connect the dots between modern cities and how they evolved some 3000 years ago.

Something occurred to me in the process.

If you take a look at some of the most historical spots in the development of human history, they tend to be strategically positioned in incredible ways, the implications of which become obvious almost immediately.

• Babylon sat at the nexus between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Mesopotamian Peninsula, labeled today the “fertile crescent” in what was then Babylon (now Iraq), bordering Persia (now Iran).
• Alexandria, home to Egyptian civilization and allegedly to the largest library in the ancient world, surrounded the shores of the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea.
• For Carthage, in the promontory of North Africa’s Tunis, no boat would dare traverse the distance between it and Sicily without paying an ancient Seafarer’s Toll, what would clearly be considered today “protection money.”
• Rome, centrally located on the Mediterranean and an equal distance between North and South Italy — well, not much more needs to be said about Rome.
• Athens sat at the base of the Greek peninsula with full access to the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas.
• Troy guarded the entry point from the Aegean Sea to the hellspont with its access to the Sea of Marmara and ultimately through to the Black Sea.
• Byzantium’s “Constantinople” a/k/a Istanbul guarded the Black Sea itself and became the gatekeeper from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and ultimately . . . to the Eastern world.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.

It’s not as if I didn’t study ancient history in school, as I’m sure you all did. It’s just that it hadn’t been quite so clear to me until I saw the ancient map through my eyes today. Every one of the metropolitan cities I just described had life cycles not of ten years, fifty years, or even of one hundred years. The shortest of all of them was centuries more than that.

As I thought about the map of Antiquities, I considered historical perspective interesting, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there was any application to modern business theory. As I thought about it some more, however, the obvious became more obvious.

Were you to take a look at the region around Babylon, Alexandria, Carthage, Rome, Athens, Troy, or Byzantium, you would see a massive list of cities, townships and regions whose names none of us know. And the reason is very simple: they don’t exist anymore. Most have perished, and those that exist are “also rans.”

On the other hand, when you track the empires built around the cities I just mentioned, the shortest length of time in which that particular city influenced the world was 600 years – that’s the least amount of time – and the largest has survived to the present time, of course, including Istanbul, Rome and Athens.  And that’s just in the region, although the same holds true on a World Map of Antiquities for other regions of the world.

That simple observation, whether it is profound or obvious or, frankly, just plain wrong, flies in the face of anything that I’ve ever said about business.

In my first published book, Finding Your Niche, I wrote that a mediocre business concept, effectively executed, trumps a brilliant concept poorly executed, every time. As I now take a look at a map of Antiquities, I have to question that fundamental assumption, which by the way, I now also have to question based upon my personal experiences and observations over the past two years.

Each of the cities I just described was tumultuous. They had ups and downs. They were captured. They regained their independence. They got captured again. They regained their independence again. They were devastated by internal corruption.  They were destroyed by natural events.  They were raised to the ground . . . more than once  And so forth and so on. But, at the end of the day, they all survived and they stayed relevant and meaningful.

On the other hand, when each of the other cities within their sphere of influence got hit by any of the above, they were gone. Simply gone. They became nothing more interesting than artifacts from digs orchestrated by modern archeologists. The reason, it appears to me, is that while they might have been effectively executed at one point in time, they simply were not brilliantly positioned to withstand the test of time.

That same rule applies to business today.

There is no question that there are businesses that sit in a strategic position and, because of that, will continue to endure, no matter what. Is General Electric one of those? Probably.

Is AT&T one of those? I suspect so.

Microsoft? Yes.

Apple? Probably.

But when we take a look at AOL, or Yahoo, or Blackberry (RIM), or Sears, or Netflix, or candidly the most recent of our IPO’s — Groupon — which went public two weeks ago, or hundreds of others, my thought is that it is unlikely.  They might surf trends, or be effectively executed . . . but brilliantly positioned?  I doubt it.

Strategic positioning doesn’t span years, or decades. It spans centuries, if not millennia. While for profit companies like the East India Trading Corporation or Wells Fargo might not have survived a millennium based on their current positions, they clearly survived centuries based on their strategic positioning.

I remain committed to tactical effectiveness and consistent, if not compelling, execution; but, in reviewing these Old Maps, I have a new found respect for the turf a company has homesteaded for itself: the turf which we callstrategic positioning.