Look! Up in the sky….
My wife’s grandfather was a wheelright in Cambridge, England.
In those days wheelright was an honorable (or as they might say, honourable) profession.
You don’t run into too many wheelrights these days, unless you are walking around The Colonial Village in Willamsburg, Virginia.
Wheelrights when the way of the ox cart. Literally.
Technology changes everything, including professions. What was once a difficult to learn craft, requiring years of apprenticeship and of great value, can, overnight, be suddenly made worthless.
What do those who are caught in the maelstrom (as are so many in the media business today; the 21st century analog to the ox cart industry), do?
We might consider the case of Frank Seiberling.
Never heard of him?
Seiberling was born Western Star, Ohio in 1859.
In 1898, at the age of 40, he was penniless, unemployed and the father of 3 children.
Seiberling had to reinvent himself. He looked around and saw a new piece of technology that was just on the cusp of changing the world. It was the automobile.
Now, plenty of entrepreneurs were trying to get into the auto business. Men like Henry Ford or Olds or Walter Chrysler and a thousand whose names you never heard of because they went broke. It was the Internet of 1900.
Seiberling decided to look at the burgeoning auto business from a slightly different perspective. Instead of building the cars, he would provide a small but essential part.
Seiberling borrowed $3500 from his brother-in-law and founded a tire (or tyre) company.
Tires were an entirely new concept. There were wheelrights who made wheels for carriages, and had done so for hundreds of years. It was an old and respected profession. But the new automobiles required something else, something different. So Seiberling, who had no prior experience as a wheelright at all, set up a company to manufacture rubber tires.
He could have called it Seiberling Rubber Company, but instead, he named it Goodyear, after Charles Goodyear, an inventor who had perfected the vulcanization process that made elastic rubber possible. Goodyear had died penniless 4o years earlier. Seiberling wanted to pay him homage.
The Goodyear Company went on to become one of the largest tire companies in the world.
The reason was not because Seiberling was a wheelright. The reason was because he was not. Because he was able to look at the world in a new way.
My wife’s grandfather had the beat on Seiberling. He knew the wheel business. But he was also trapped in a cul-de-sac of wheelright thinking, so to speak.
The trick, as technologies start to shift under your feet, is not to think about how to prop up your or protect what is dying. It is rather to look at the new world being born and ask what it needs.
And if you can provide it.