Why a seemingly pitch-black outlook can be a good thing; are brighter days just off the horizon?
The pace of economic change makes it feel like the world is ending. Occupy Wall Street, the perpetual potential collapse of the Euro, China’s strength, persistent unemployment and the growing income gap in the U.S. — taken individually each is troublesome — collectively, it is dizzying. But there is a silver lining: The same factors driving these changes also create a world of incredible opportunity.
Technology is perhaps the biggest driver of the recent changes. The productivity gains of the PC revolution gave way to the communication gains of the Internet, which paved the way for social networking — and the complete consumerization of information.
It is estimated there are 10 times the number of cell phones in the world than there are cars. For many people, particularly those in the Third World, their first experience with computing is a phone, and it is fully connected to the Internet. What does that mean for you and me? The market for software (apps, websites, e-commerce) is exploding and anyone with a good idea can find his or her way directly to the marketplace.
Businesses that relied on being the middleman or knowing something that no one else knew are threatened with extinction (if they still exist). Industries that made a living by selling the delivery mechanism (books, records) rather than the thing itself (a story or a song) are doomed. What survives is the raw creativity.
The art of each individual remains unique, and, in today’s world, a creator is uniquely able to distribute that art to tens of millions of people — with nearly zero production or distribution costs. The biggest challenge is finding your audience.
True, the demise of the middleman now requires entrepreneurs to find the market themselves, but social networking has made that challenge less daunting. It doesn’t take an army of followers to pay the bills. A thousand people, willing to pay you $5 a month for what you provide, can give you a good start on making a living.
Low-cost production is another driver of change. What information technology does for the digital world, low cost production does for the physical world. There is global overcapacity for producing most goods. A product idea can be dreamed up in one corner of the world, designed in another, produced in a third and shipped to the fourth — all in less time than it used to take to prototype most industrial products. Competition is fierce and costs are driven down.
The challenge with this trend comes in finding a way to sell your product (if you can’t do it online) or, if you own a factory, figuring out what makes you special. On the sales side, modern retailing relies on research and trend analysis; much the same can be said for producing.
It is no longer enough to come up with a mediocre product. Like the case with the aforementioned creator, those producers who understand their audience, connect with their customers and produce items in a specific segment will survive.
Wealth creation is a third change engine. Global GDP keeps growing, with the largest gains from previously underdeveloped countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC countries). The wealth created in those countries has spawned an internal demand from their rising middle class. More importantly, it has set off a tidal wave of demand for U.S. financial assets. The suddenly ultra-rich in those countries need a place to put their money, and the U.S. remains the safest and most attractive place in which to invest for the newly rich.
Wall Street saw the demand in the early 2000s and devised reams of synthetic financial assets (bundled derivatives) to soak up that demand. And, even when that went bust, demand remained strong for U.S. Treasuries, and as the air has cleared, the financial houses are back at it, meeting demand.
In a world of high technology and low barriers to entry, white-shoe banks don’t have a monopoly on absorbing investment demand. With a good idea, the right licensing and a solid plan, the doors are available to access that capital.
Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes from individuals finding new opportunities with the tools around them. If you are stuck for ideas, spend some time learning new skills or playing with new technologies. Read about challenges that people like you are having and think of ways to solve them. Like the old saw about writing, “write what you know,” the same can be said about opportunity: Create from what you know.
Remember that while the world around us can change, we are ultimately the drivers of change. There are no guarantees of success, but it is in our hands to try.