Reset Your Expectations – It’s the End of Big

Dorie Clark | Forbes | 4/25/13Potential rock stars, take heed: no one is ever going to sell as many records as Michael Jackson. On the other hand, there’s a lot more room these days for artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who hit #1 on the Billboard charts without a record deal. The era of big is ending, says Harvard Kennedy School professor Nicco Mele, and that means profound changes for business, entertainment, academia, government, and everything else.

“Now two-thirds of Americans carry around smartphones with the power
of a supercomputer,” he says. “That’s a tremendous redistribution of
power. No longer is the audience passive and waiting to get the news.
Now we have all this incredible energy, and it pushes power to
individuals in dramatic ways that we’re just beginning to realize. That
has implications for any big institution.”

“Empowering the individual” may sound good, but it’s not all positive, says Mele, the author of the newly-released The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath.

“In the press, it took decades to develop the norms and ethics of
reporting – having more than one source, for instance. Professional
standards develop over time, and we’re at the very beginning of this in
social media. We’re at a very fragile moment when the standards and
institutions of the past are simply not in touch with the reality of the
present.” As a result, we may find that cutting-edge new techniques,
like crowdsourcing, create fast but dangerously wrong results, such as
the Reddit community’s efforts to identify the Boston Marathon bombers – ultimately pointing to the wrong suspects.

Mele says businesses may need to reset their expectations; you’re
unlikely to create a lasting, blockbuster success in this fragmented new
era. “I’m not sure there’ll be much breaking through in the future. I
think there’ll be moments of breakthrough, but it’s pretty hard to
achieve any kind of scale in the digital era. The average self-published
author sells some pitiful volume of copies, and even the biggest hits
are substantially below what was a big hit in the past. I don’t believe
in scale anymore.”

The new paradigm, he says, looks far more like a company run by a
couple he recently met. “They have a thriving business making vinyl
laptop decals, and they sell them through Etsy and eBay. They make a
pretty good living, and it’s a business that would have been impossible
10 years ago. But they work 365 days a year, and they don’t have
insurance or retirement. It comes down to what you want out of your
life, and you have to have some sense of what ‘successful’ means for you
and your business.”

Overall, says Mele, “The end of big is awesome for entrepreneurs. It
allows very small companies to be competitive with much, much larger
companies. It’s a leveling of the playing field; with alibaba.com, any
small business can try to take on Wal-Mart. There are more Americans
self-employed now than any time since 1820s, when they were subsistence
farmers. But for leaders of big businesses, it’s a scary time – you have
to figure out ways to structure your business to be more nimble.”

Mele has applied the “end of big” principles in his own life; he’s
reconfigured his classroom teaching to “regularly use Twitter and Google
Groups and email as ways of engaging my students and not lecturing to
them. If they want to watch a lecture, they can watch YouTube. It’s
about creating an engaging classroom experience and engaging discussion
outside the classroom.”

For business leaders, says Mele, “ you have to start to recognize
that everyone you’re dealing with has the same power you do, a
tremendous amount of power. And once we do that, have to begin to
imagine what new ways of doing it would look like. The Founding Fathers
were wealthy white guys who only knew a monarchy and managed to imagine
the Constitution. If they can do it, we can do it in small ways.”

How will the End of Big reshape your business or industry?