The Game of Pickaxes




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Published on Jul 20, 2012

Hello Lean-gelenos ----- Those of you doing a startup, ask yourself one simple question: Are you a miner or are you selling pick-axes to miners?

Business sage Peter Drucker once said that there are only two basic functions in business: marketing and innovation; everything else is a cost. Together these two functions turn risk into new wealth, a process we call creative destruction. In our time, we understand these functions in terms of specific organizational forms and specialists who work within those forms: startups, big company R&D labs, university departments and government funding agencies and programs.

This way of thinking about fundamental risk in the economy is relatively recent. It only became widespread after World War II. But there was a time when a more fundamental model prevailed. A time when risk could not so easily be pigeonholed and predictably managed by a narrow group of specialists to deliver 8% growth for the comfortable middle-class world to enjoy.

Instead, this was a world that began with the mythical Sinbad the Sailor, who sailed to strange lands in search of riches, and ended with the oil-crazed wildcatters of the 1880s. A world defined by a no-holds-barred everybody-against-everybody game of hustling and hedging, and best defined by the colorful phrase, when there is a gold rush on, you should sell pickaxes to miners. A world where risk was not raw material for predictable wealth generation by specialists but a set of environmental conditions defining a game that you had to play if you wanted to improve your lot in life. A world before paychecks and pensions.

As industrial-era institutions start to crumble around the world, we are all being unceremoniously dumped into the same kind of frontier world. The game of pickaxes is restarting. In this talk, we will explore the the historical evolution of the game and what it takes to play it in today's new frontier: the Internet that is poised to devour everything.

One of our favorite people, Venkatesh Rao who writes the popular, ribbonfarm.com blog, and is the author of Tempo (2011), a book about narrative-driven decision-making will delivering this talk.

Venkat also writes about technology and management at Forbesand Information Week. He has over a decade of experience in startup, academic and corporate environments. Most recently, he was senior researcher and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Xerox Innovation Group. Since 2011 he has been a full-time consultant, independent researcher and writer. He holds a PhD in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan.


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