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Every Great Business Is An Argument (from 2008)

By - September 15, 2012

Completely through happenstance, I came upon this post I wrote for American Express more than four years ago. I think it still stands up today. I never posted it on Searchblog, and I’d like my writing to be collected here. So call this a lightly edited blast from the archives….

Every Great Business Is An Argument

OK, so maybe that title is meant to provoke a response, but is that so wrong? This post is about arguments, after all. Or put another way: I’d like to argue that the best businesses are, in essence, arguments.

There are many definitions of the word “argument,” but the one I want to focus on is the one that comes up first when you type define:argument into Google: “A fact or assertion offered as evidence that something is true; (as in) ‘it was a strong argument that his hypothesis was true.’”

In my experience starting businesses, and in my study of other businesses that have succeeded wildly (like Apple, Google, or eBay), every great business is founded in a thesis, a statement of what should be true. It’s then the business’s job to go prove that thesis – in essence, the business becomes the argument that proves the thesis.

Wired, for example, was founded on the thesis that digital technologies were forever changing the face of human society – from culture to politics, business to pleasure. We then made a business out of proving that thesis. Every single issue of Wired, every page of HotWired, every book we published and every deal we did was an argument proving that thesis.

The Industry Standard was founded on the thesis that a new class of entrepreneurs and executives were leveraging the Internet to change the economy as we knew it. We then started a site, a magazine, a conference series, and 14 international editions as arguments in proof of that thesis. (OK, the argument failed after five years, but I do still believe the thesis!)

The Web 2.0 conference series also had a thesis: That the web post-crash (after 2001-2) was radically different than the web of the late 1990s, and that a new breed of company, leader, and philosophy had taken hold across the industry. The Web 2 Summit and its Expo businesses, again, were arguments proving that thesis.

And Federated Media was founded in a thesis as well: That the economics of content creation and consumption have shifted significantly in the past decade, creating a new class of conversational media in need of a new business model. FM is the argument in proof of that thesis.

Well that’s all well and fine, you may say, but those are all media companies. This thesis/argument stuff won’t scale to other kinds of businesses.

I disagree. Consider a dry cleaning business, for example. One of the most successful new businesses in my neighborhood is a small company called Alex’s Dry Cleaning Valet. This business has a strong thesis: That it’s possible to provide high-end dry cleaning services and also lead the industry in using renewable, green, and sustainable technologies. Put another way, Alex’s thesis is even more simple: Dry cleaning doesn’t have to suck. It doesn’t have to ruin the environment, and you should be able to talk to someone who knows who you are and will respond to whatever issues you have (a broken button, a rush delivery, a question about a bill).

Alex’s is an argument for the thesis that a dry cleaner can be both green and conversational (for more on what I mean by conversational business, see here and here). When I sent an email to their site asking about pricing, I got an answer from Alex himself, and we argued (literally, but in a very nice way) back and forth over whether what he charges was fair for value given. Alex clearly is passionate about his business, his value proposition, and his thesis. And that makes his business a great argument for a thesis I, as a customer, am happy to buy into.

So the question to all of you who run or are thinking of running your own business: What’s your thesis? What differentiates your business from all the others in your market? Once you get that thesis, the rest is pretty easy. Everyone loves a good argument, after all!

 

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7 thoughts on “Every Great Business Is An Argument (from 2008)

  1. Dick Davies says:

    Four years later, how is Alex doing?

    • johnbattelle says:

      his business seems to be thriving, I think he’s expanded into San Francisco. He seems a bit more “corporate” now, but the service level remains high. Alas, so are the prices.

  2. Ken Hittel says:

    Would never “argue” w/ your thesis. I find it ironic, however, that in most big businesses, in the corporate world at least, “argument” is itself a very dirty word.

  3. Marty Levine says:

    John, that is a refreshing way for businesses to test their value as well as their place in time. To take it to heart, we founded Prosyna with the thesis that companies who use social media need to measure the effectiveness of their communication and ultimately need to drive their audience to action. We believe that, just like Wired, we’re in the right place at the right time. Thanks for giving us another way to look at what we do.

  4. joey89924 says:

    believe that just like Wired, we’re in the right place at the right
    time.
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