Companies as People. People as Companies

In the future, it will be difficult to distinguish between companies and people. That is not to predict the demise of the corporation or the end of formalized employment. But the lines are blurring, and fast. Just as companies are essentially networks of people working towards a common goal (typically profit), people with shared interests can efficiently form networks to achieve a common goal, from profit to social change. As companies act like people, and people act like companies, the economic impact will be massive, particularly for those who welcome the change.

Companies as people.

When companies authentically act like people, it’s good business. In 1999, The Cluetrain Manifesto posited with near revolutionary force that markets are full of human beings, people, who are having conversations. The authors predicted that either companies must start acting and talking like real people, or they will bust. This was 1999, 5 years before the launch of Facebook, 7 years before Twitter turned on the lights — two companies which have made the prediction an inevitability, forcing companies to engage in conversation in a level playing field.

Many companies have embraced this shift, weaving an approachable, human, and personal tone into their brand identity. The standouts are obvious, publicly praised for their great customer experience and personal touch: Zappos (a customer service rep invited me to come hang in their Vegas HQ and go on an tour), Warby Parker (responding to some tweets with mini videos from its team), Southwest (encouraging its staff to be as quirky as possible, with one pilot greeting passengers on the harmonica). These companies acknowledge that there are no more Chinese walls between work and life, tore down not only by 24/7 connectivity but also the reality that work helps form identity. They encourage their employees to act as humans, not corporate entities, and their customers take note in positive tweets and with dollars.

Not only are companies increasingly walking and talking like real people, but many are also letting customers take the reigns. Customers and fans form the team, become the face of the business, solve problems, and fuel growth. That’s the philosophy behind many community-led businesses, whether they let people manage and create content (StackExchange, Wikipedia, Soundcloud) to create and sell physical goods (Etsy, eBay, Shapeways — where I work).  That shift in operations often provides scale, differentiation, and in some cases, defensibility.

Those companies who waited to start acting like people or treating customers like people often missed big wins, if they even survived. In 2008, I started working with ad agencies and brands on what we dubbed a “digital transformation,” essentially helping turn around soon to be obsolete businesses. One company in particular stood out — the archetypal luxury brand. The luxury brand was built on creating distance between the customer and the company, creating desire, aspiration, lust. But along came social media, and whether companies liked it or not, people could talk about them or at them. They lost control of the message. Those who opened up the conversation and talked back, like Burberry, saw the returns.

People as companies.

Just as companies are becoming more human, individuals are becoming more like companies. This is particularly true for entrepreneurs and opportunists, and will extend in the years to come.

A core aspect of building a good business is developing trust and reputation. With the rise of the sharing economy, the same trust required of a company to make a transaction is now required of individuals. What kind of host are you? (Airbnb) Are you reliable and on time? (Uber, Lyft) How good are your product design skills? (Shapeways) Are you good with pets? (DogVacay)

That trust and identity is what most dub a “personal brand,” formed across a host of platforms, interactions and experiences. The Internet makes it nearly impossible to hide, or pick up the breadcrumbs of past decisions and indiscretions. I recently hosted someone on Airbnb, but she didn’t have any reviews on the site. So I looked her up on Facebook to make sure she was the nice, clean foreign exchange student she said she was.

Well before the sharing economy, the tools of brand building were democratized. A Pepsi builds its brand with stories in the form of commercials, articles, ads, events. Same for the 19 year old comedian, with pipe dreams of getting on SNL. She creates shorts for YouTube, writes daily quips on her blog and twitter, and organizes impromptu pillow fights at the local park to get her name out there. The same is true of those who might not want the spotlight; for a recent open hire we had on my team, more than half the candidates sent links instead of resumes and cover letters.

People are not only acting as companies, but they’re increasingly starting companies or making transactions as if they were, using tools like Venmo and Square. They don’ t always perceive themselves as starting businesses — no LLCs are formed and often no taxes are paid on the revenue earned. But these individuals are upending traditional industries, posting a real competitive threat in the collective. (There were more reservations on Airbnb in 2012 than in Hilton hotels.)

 

As people get better at rapidly joining and dissolving forces, we’ll likely see a growth in the creative destruction wielded by startups on sleeping giants. The next wave of economic growth will come from people, and if companies embrace the change and join them, they’ll hang on for a wild ride.

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