My grandparents always called their refrigerator “the ice box.” I found this curious, because in my parent’s house, we called it “the refrigerator,” or “the fridge” for short. When I asked my grandmother about the difference, she smiled and explained that when she was a little girl, there were no such things as refrigerators. They hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, folks used wooden boxes to hold a large block of ice, which in turn kept their perishable foods cool.
I remember asking her, “If there were no refrigerators, where did you get the ice?”
She then told me about the iceman, a businessman who would harvest ice from a local pond during the winter. The ice would be stored in a barn and then, using hay, would be insulated in such a way that it could keep for many months. As long as ice remained in that barn, the iceman could to deliver it to a customer’s house.
The iceman had a very nice business — well, until the invention of the refrigerator, when some of his “early adopter” customers stopped ordering ice from him.
At first, I’m sure he pooh-poohed these early refrigeration devices. I bet that the technology’s reliability was poor. Compressors probably wore out; the electricity supply wasn’t as reliable as today; and its whirling mechanical parts obviously made more noise than a passive icebox. When asked his opinion on the refrigerator, he probably mocked the device, calling it a fad. Looking at the investments that he had in land, water rights, ice-cutting saws, conveyors, barns, hay, and ice-carrying vehicles, he might have chosen to “wait-it-out,” expecting his customers to come to eventually return to the world’s oldest and most reliable form of refrigeration: the icebox.
And he’s still waiting. The technology of refrigeration improved, iceboxes were relugated to museum pieces, and the iceman went out of business.
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Last week, Tim Windsor of the Zero Percent Idle Blog wrote a post illustrating how the total, inflation-adjusted newspaper revenues had fallen below 1982 levels. The traditional press is suffering layoffs of unprecedented proportions as they attempt to tighten their belts and balance their budgets, which got me to thinking again about the iceman.
Every industry, every company, every individual will have ups and downs. It’s life. When significant advances in technology affect change in consumption habits, revenues will drop. And therefore, if a business is to survive, it must make adjustments. But which ones?
I suggest that a business or individual in the the traditional media industry ask a very simple question:
What business are we in?
The need to keep perishables cold never went away. Likewise, society has never stopped requiring information, news, and commentary. In both cases however, the marketplace demanded more economical ways to deliver both services.
What business are you in?
The iceman who believed he was in the “ice business” went out of business, because society no longer had a need for pond-harvested ice. The iceman who chose to be in the “refrigeration business,” opened himself to a world of opportunity. For example, refrigerators needed to be designed, manufactured, sold, delivered, and maintained. Any one of these activities could have kept him gainfully employed in the refrigeration business.
Traditional media outlets must think long and hard about answering the question themselves. They need to study their customer’s new informational habits and needs – from both a content-creation and a content-consumption point of view.
So, what business are you in?
Take a lesson from the iceman and choose wisely.