The One about Trains

In 1960, a lecturer at Harvard Business School published an article in which he asked the famous question, “What business are you really in?”.  In his article, Levitt argues that the reason the railroad industry was declining at the time was because they thought they were in the business of running trains – they failed to realise that they were actually in the business of providing transport.

It’s a great article.  I first read it early on in my business career, and I’ve come back to it many times since then.  It’s a profound truth.  Seeing, admitting, identifying, and adapting to change is an essential business process.  It keeps you relevant.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve spent a fair amount of time contemplating how our customers see us.  I suspect that we might have fallen into the same trap – of seeing ourselves as being in one business, while our customers actually see us as being in another.

We aren’t in the rail business.  We build software.  I’ve been programming since I was 12, and have been working as a programmer my entire life.  I’ve worked for several different companies, on many different projects.  Before starting my own business, I was fortunate enough to work at CapeSoft, who are the world leaders in producing code libraries for the Clarion computer language.  During this time I worked under some incredibly talented developers, and grew enormously as a programmer.  When I finally went on my own and started StrategyOnline, we had one product and five clients.  It was tough.  But over the next four years we grew that to over 20 products, used by several thousand developers in over 40 countries.

Things were going well.  We were accomplishing what we set off to do.

But then things changed.

But I’m jumping ahead.  When I was starting my company, I tried to use almost every accounting package on the market.  I knew that most small businesses fail in the first few years, and it usually comes down to cash flow, so I was determined to keep a close eye on that.  I tried all of the mainstream financial software, and gave up.  It was simply too tedious to use.  I wanted something that would import my bank statements, classify my transactions automatically, analyse everything accordingly, and show me the answers I wanted to see.  And I wanted it to do this for me with one click.  I wanted staying on top of my finances to be as easy as checking email.  So I built a solution that did exactly what I wanted, and I called it Statement Analyzer.

Over time I showed Statement Analyzer to other people – friends, colleagues, other small business owners, my accountant.  And the feedback was fantastic.  Word spread, and before long we had several hundred users – all giving me feedback, offering suggestions, using the software in different contexts.  It was the perfect test bed.  I believe that software which evolves in the field is always better than software which is built in a lab.  Always.  Statement Analyzer is a case in point.

Nedbank heard about what I was building, and we had several meetings.  They ultimately licensed Statement Analyzer in South Africa, rebranding it as “Nedbank Personal Money Manager, and making it available to their entire client base!  And the rest, as they say, is history.

That was the breakthrough we needed.  Over the past six years, Nedbank has enabled us to spend a lot more time working on Money Manager, and we now have thousands of users across South Africa.  We have also built numerous other solutions for Nedbank, ranging from interactive online demos, to mobile apps, to USSD solutions, to websites, and even design and animation projects.  Our core strength as a company has always been our deep underlying technical background.  But as opportunities have presented themselves over the past few years, we have developed new skills, or brought in new skills when necessary, to adapt to the opportunities as they have unfolded.  StrategyOnline today is a very different company to who we were when we opened our doors for business in 2006.

Yet I suspect we still see ourselves as we started – as hard core techies.  But in fact we are more than that now.  A lot more.  We need to start communicating this – to ourselves, and to our customers.

Over the coming months a lot will be changing here at StrategyOnline.  Our company is in the process of changing from a Close Corporation to a (Pty) Ltd.  We will be formalizing the fact that there are now new partners involved in the business, some as shareholders, some in other capacities – amazing people I’ve met along my journey who add massive value to the group.  We will be taking on more staff, some of whom I’ve already identified, some of whom are still just names or question marks on my whiteboard.

We are rebooting.  Our website will change.  The look and feel, the content, the focus.  The company will change.  Our social media presence will change.  The projects and clients we engage with going forward may change.  But it will all be for the better.  New focus.  New passion.  New energy.

Whoever you are, reading this first post in our “new blog“, thank you for being part of this.

Here we go…

4 Responses to “The One about Trains”

  1. Morne 9 April 2014 at 8:44 am #

    You can do it! It is a great new post

  2. Fred 9 April 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    Nicely written. Glad to see you’re blogging again.

  3. Gill Huijnen 9 April 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Nice one G …. Strongs!

  4. Fernando Eduardo Lourenço 9 April 2014 at 11:42 pm #

    Great Products. Only wish that you also continue the development of templates. And wish you the deserved success.

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