This is a story I’ve told before, but I will tell it again here. More than a decade ago, I sat across a restaurant table from a gorgeous woman in her late twenties. She had weaponized her beauty for the corporate world, wrapping her luscious figure in a beige Ann-Taylor-ish suit and pulling her hair back into a demure ponytail that let her perfectly symmetrical face shine through its light touches of makeup that cost a small fortune because it didn’t look like makeup. She was my handler/recruiter/counselor for technical assignments. Of the one hundred and ten dollars per hour paid by our client for my “engagement” onsite , forty-three and a half went to me in a grudging acknowledgement that there had to actually be a pair of boots on the ground after the post-coital euphoria of a successful sale had faded. The rest went to her and the despicable organization that she represented in much the same way that a fresh-faced and flawless carved goddess might adorn the bow of a rotting pirate ship.
As we listlessly chewed through a seventy-dollar lunch, I complained to her that the company had silently and seamlessly transitioned over the previous six years from gainfully employing two hundred four-eyed American citizen-nerds to ruthlessly exploiting a mix of approximately eighty percent overseas workers and twenty percent people like me who were still too stubborn to get the message and walk away. “It’s not sustainable,” I snapped. “What separates our company from any of the other body shops? What’s to stop some of these people from starting their own companies and undercutting us?” She considered this for a long moment, then she smiled in a way that caused a passing waiter to stumble over his own feet.
“Oh, Jack,” she laughed, the glass of sparkling water halfway to her perfect lips, “the company will be fine. You see, the talent in this business is… well, it’s like a commodity. No offense meant.”
“None taken,” I replied through a clenched jaw.
“The quality of the product isn’t that important. It’s the connections, the human factor, the long-term relationships that we maintain with our clients. That’s not something that a bunch of … overseas resources… could ever duplicate.” And I immediately thought of a bastardized couplet:
No matter what happens, we have got
The perfect white corpo-hookers, and they have not
Shortly afterwards, the company made plans to go public and thus make its two founders ultra-rich rather than merely rich. But they waited just a moment too long. Their high-end clients were swept away by IBM Global Services, whose reps were even better-looking and also had the advantage of being able to seductively whisper the long-venerated industry phrase: “No one ever got fired for choosing IBM.” On the low end, they were overwhelmed by a tide of Indian-owned-and-operated consulting firms that could speak the native language used by the “talent” and, increasingly, the managers of that talent. They are still in business today, but if you look at their website you will see that their “success stories” are old and their management team is tired and their “talent” consists of cast-offs. And the stunning young woman who told me that she was irreplaceable and I was not? Long gone.
The moral of the story here is simple: If your product is generic, you will not survive permanently on marketing alone. As you’ll see below, however, nobody ever thinks that it applies to them — until it’s too late.