“Let me tell you something,” he said with a smile, “I’ve made a lot of money, but I never did it by being original.” As he turned and opened his car door, the sun was setting. Car engines began whirring to life around us. We chatted briefly, and soon we stood alone in the parking lot.
My gray-haired friend had just shared the story of his life in business at an event in Bradenton, Florida. He described a career full of clever twists and turns that followed opportunities in the marketplace. His ingenuity astounded me, and I’ll admit, it provoked a twinge of envy. But is the path to business success that simple? I wondered.
We said our goodbyes, and I drove into the night with his story on my mind.
Imitation without Adaptation
I’ve seen the effects of commoditization over the last 50 years. As a boy, I remember small “Mom and Pop” grocery stores around my home in Canada and my family’s ancestral home in Wakarusa, Indiana. But such stores have become rare. As larger businesses create supply chain efficiencies and exert buying power, they price small businesses out of the market. Low prices benefit me as a consumer, but price competition has decimated the once-vibrant main streets of many small towns.
Software development is also affected. Highly educated, motivated engineers from countries where the US dollar goes much further have become a disruptive force. If I can automate a system, motivated competitors will follow. The software business has become a race. Whoever launches a product first holds market dominance for a time, but competition turns their software into a commodity, profits dwindle, and the cycle continues. A software company must innovate new solutions to complex problems or die.
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville
Is there a better way? The cycle of innovation and commoditization feels inevitable because it is so familiar. It affects everything that can be systematized and automated, but not every business model must give in to the race to the bottom. Some businesses are original—inimitable, but that path is not for the faint of heart.
But Is Anyone Really Original?
I believe Frazer Computing is one such business. Its founder, Mike Frazer, created a dealer management system for small used car dealerships that could not afford the top solutions on the market. Over the years, he has solved complex problems for his customers—who he treats more like clients. For many of them, Frazer DMS is their most valuable tool. Without it, their business could not operate.
When I worked for him in 2006, he showed uncommon attention to his customers’ needs. Some even had his direct phone number and could approach him with anything that frustrated them. While other software businesses were fragmenting and creating solutions for one problem, Frazer built relationships and acted more like a valued consultant than a replaceable point solution.
Is Frazer Computing unique? It depends on your perspective. But to the customers whose support questions I answered nearly 20 years ago, Frazer DMS was irreplaceable. It solved otherwise intractable problems like accounting, printing custom forms, managing inventory, and administering buy-here-pay-here loans. But perhaps most importantly, Frazer was invaluable because a friendly and competent support staff was always a phone call away.
The Battle for Creativity
Last week, I read an article I thought was insightful. In a twist at the article’s end, the author revealed he generated it using ChatGPT, an AI-driven content creation tool. As computers begin to replicate even the most profound human skills, how should we respond? Is it time to fade into the shadows—to bow to the superior wisdom of machines?
ChatGPT is just another step in the commoditization of value. If writing mediocre content is your business, its days are limited. It’s time to look deeper. What is unique and valuable about you that a computer can’t replicate?
Though AI Tools are impressive, they still require human prompts. Perhaps the technology will reach a tipping point where less human interaction is needed. It will feel spooky, but at its best, AI will combine the human library of ideas in unique ways due to its incredible combinatorial power. It will not replace us unless we stop growing. Like computer companies must keep innovating, we must keep learning, creating new concepts, building collaborative relationships, and interacting in three-dimensional space.
When everything is a commodity, how can we stand out? If a computer can write better than you, why bother searching for the right word?
A Call to Action
Sometime this week, take a few moments to answer this question. In my work, how can I create more value than a powerful computer?
I hope your answer includes solving challenging real-world problems, building relationships, and creating works of art. Maybe you will wield AI tools and create immense value. Perhaps you will imitate my innovative friend by adding a unique spin to a business model that makes it far more compelling.
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