It’s trendy for companies to say they’re thinking long term. Unfortunately, for many businesses “long term” equates to “next quarter’s earnings.” And then there’s Danny Hillis.
Hillis is best-known as an inventor and entrepreneur (he was a pioneer in commercial parallel supercomputers and artificial intelligence). He’s co-chairman of Applied Minds, a research and development company that led to entities like Metaweb (a semantic web innovator) and Applied Proteomics (developed a new way of measuring protein in blood). Previously, among many other things, Hillis was an executive for Walt Disney Imagineering and founded the MIT spinoff Thinking Machines. In his free time, he’s done things like build a computer out of Tinkertoys.
The recent exits of chief executives at General Electric, Ford, and U.S. Steel are the latest indications that “the American era of the baronial chief executive” is over, writes Nelson Schwartz in The New York Times. That’s the result of massive changes in both the nature of the businesses these leaders run and the shape of the jobs that investors, employees, and the public expect them to tackle.
The landscape is full of new forces that make long-term, high-profile tenures like that of Jeffrey Immelt at GE less and less common. One of them is the rise of “activist investors,” who buy up chunks of stock and then make demands for higher profitability that often put a CEO’s strategy and job in jeopardy. Another is the speed of technological change, with advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, and processing beginning to collapse the boundaries between businesses.
The Founder of Dollar Shave Club on Why He Sold His NewCo to a BigCo — and What’s Next
One of my favorite people in the startup world is Michael Dubin. He’s earnest, he’s smart, and he’s wickedly funny, as anyone who’s seen his famous Dollar Shave Club commercials can attest. So when Dubin sold Dollar Shave for a cool billion to Unilever, one of the largest consumer packaged goods companies on the planet, I was a bit worried. Would Dollar Shave lose its sense of humor to a soulless corporate overlord? So far, the answer is no, as this short interview with Dubin, held at the NewCo Shift Forum, readily proves. Below is the full interview and a transcript, edited for clarity.
We’re pleased to bring you the NewCo Shift Podcast, where we talk to the people on the front lines of the biggest shift in business since the industrial revolution. Join us weekly for discussions with guests like Lori Goler, VP of People at Facebook, Seth Sternberg, CEO of Honor and Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland. (And, be the first to get the interviews to your in-box with the NewCo Weekly newsletter.)
We’re deep in the middle of NewCo’s Shift Forum in San Francisco. The theme is “capitalism at a crossroads.” That intersection looks pretty dangerous right now. Virtually every speaker here seems to share the view that this is a moment of great risk: Profound new technologies are scaling up quickly, while political and social change roils. Old certainties are vanishing before our eyes, while new ones contend for adoption by a deeply divided public.
In each of the past 50 years, you could say all of that, too. But this time around, we’re feeling it, in our hearts and our guts. Many of the easy problems that technology can solve have been dealt with. The remaining challenges — in areas like government, education, healthcare, and international trade — involve gnarly knots that tech alone can’t untie. We’re going to need every skill and every field to pitch in.
Despite scattered pleas to “keep politics out of the Super Bowl,” there was no chance of that. Viewers weren’t going to read yesterday’s big game, the big half-time show, and, most of all, the big ads for beer and other Americana in any other light (The Nation). Trump supporters delighted in the come-from-behind victory by the president’s favorite Patriots and associated it with his own electoral win. But they might have found less cheer in the rest of the messaging surrounding the game: from Hamilton’s Schuyler Sisters amending “America the Beautiful” by adding “sisterhood” to “brotherhood”; to Lady Gaga pumping out her omnisexual identity anthem “Born This Way”; to one diversity-welcoming commercial after another.
Budweiser’s big spot celebrated the life and trials of its 19th-century immigrant founder. Not too long ago (like, maybe, when it was approved and planned), such an ad would have been seen as a simple message of non-partisan patriotism. Today, it won plaudits from viewers who oppose the Trump immigration ban, but inspired calls for a Bud boycott among some Trump supporters.
Alexa, the personal assistant that powers Amazon’s Echo speaker, makes it easy to play music, turn on the lights, tell us a joke, or order takeout. “It’s almost like casting a spell,” The Economistsaid, “say a few words into the air, and a nearby device will grant your wish.”
I joined NewCo a little under a year ago to help tell the story of capitalism at a crossroads. The role of business in society is being redefined by innovative, missi0n-driven companies that are measuring their success by more than just profit. We think this is the biggest shift in business and culture since the Industrial Revolution, and we connect and celebrate these purpose-led companies through both our media and our festivals across the world.
Next week, we’re hosting our largest event yet: the Bay Area Festival, from Feb 6th to 9th. I’m really exited to actually experience the story myself for the first time, and visit the companies on the front lines of this shift towards purpose-driven business. There couldn’t be a better moment: businesses are transforming faster than ever before, industries are being reshaped, and we’re all trying to stay ahead of the curve and chart a better course forward. Our festival offers the one-of-a-kind event that lets attendees personalize their experience and visit the companies they’re most inspired by. Here are companies on my list:
Monday, February 6 — Masterclasses at the St. Regis in San Francisco
The Dow hit 20,000 this week! Does anyone care? Our new president has taken credit for the “Trump bounce,” and indeed the latest market run-up started with the election results. Since its March 2009 bottom under 7000, the Dow index has roughly tripled.
At moments like this, it’s worth putting the champagne on hold to review the sober facts about the stock market (handily collected by Helaine Olen in Slate). The Dow Jones Industrial Average is fun to track but not a very good proxy for the overall economy’s health. Stock investments have been pumped up by years of zero interest rates that drove investors to seek higher returns in riskier markets. And whether the index stays aloft or returns to earth, you are unlikely to benefit from its ebullience, unless you’re already seriously rich.
The World Economic Forum gathers economists, businesspeople, and world leaders in Davos, Switzerland every January to hobnob about the state of the world from the side of a snowtopped Alp. When the event hit prime time in the ’90s, people started using the term “Davos Man” as shorthand for the global business elite.
Each year on the eve of the conference, the WEF releases a Global Risks Report that surveys its community about the dangers ahead. This year, economic performance trails far behind bigger worries like climate change, populist-fueled political instability, and inequality (CNBC). For the first time in 2017, “extreme weather events” tops the list of the most likely risks, followed by “large-scale involuntary migration,” “major natural disasters,” “terrorist attacks” and “data fraud/theft.”