A Cautionary Tale

I remember feeling sad when Borders announced they were going out of business.

I liked the idea of a bookstore where you could pick up a coffee, stroll the store, sit down in a cozy chair and read away.

But in the battle of the bookstores, so far Amazon is ahead by a mile – mostly because they don’t think of themselves as a bookstore!

Let’s look at how what’s happening in the book industry is a perfect example of what’s happening in all industries and pull out the lessons you can use to position your business for success and growth.

Amazon started out selling books online, then they added in resellers selling used books (often enabling finding long out of print books).

Amazon became the one stop option to find any book, published at anytime, anywhere.

Then they started adding in other products; next becoming a sales channel for other businesses.

Amazon has now entered the world of publishing with Print on Demand websites BookSurge.com and CreateSpace.com – publishing industry watch out!

Using emerging technology and continuing to give people more and more of what they are asking for – Amazon continues to forge ahead because they don’t think of themselves as a book seller or an online bookstore.

Instead they are a distribution hub facilitating people getting what they want.

In fact, Amazon can now be a distribution channel for your business if you have periodicals or newsletters (similar to iTunes podcasts).

This is a different way of thinking compared to Borders who thought of themselves as a bookstore. Even their website was really just an online bookstore. They were trying to compete and follow what amazon was doing.

Amazon is not following – they are leading.

Now this is great if you are a fan of Amazon (or if you own Amazon stock!), but what if in your business you feel more like Borders? Being squeezed and displaced?

Thomas Friedman in his book The World is Flat discusses how the coming together of technology has created a global marketplace that actually opens up defining and expanding your niche – but you have to change how you’re thinking about your business.

When the big chain books stores first opened their doors and started to dominate, most of the smaller independent bookstores went out of business.

And yet we are starting to see independent bookstores come back.

Why is that? Because they are targeting and supplying a focused niche – they can’t possibly carry all the books a big bookstore or Amazon does, but they can carry a wide selection around a particular topic or industry.

And an independent bookstore can now supply the world rather than just a local area, if they are the go to place for their niche.

The one advantage that Amazon has is that they are built on the new technology rather than a tradition business using the new technology.

To some extend traditional businesses are handicapped because it is so ingrained to think about their business the way they have been doing it for years.

It doesn’t have to be that way – traditional businesses can absolutely harness the new technology to evolve and innovate their business but doing so involves thinking outside of the box – thinking outside of what they think is normal or “true” for their business and industry.

The world is flat – what the internet allows is access to a greater audience, but if you are trying to be all things to all people that you have to compete on that scale with the Amazons of your industry.

Know who your customers are, what is important to them, and if you take care of their needs you solidify yourself in your niche.

Often service businesses still need to target and market to a local area. If so, then for you the internet might be used to access your market, build your reputation and facilitate how you take care of your customers.

But for other businesses you have a wider audience globally than what you can reach locally but you have to define who you are, and what you offer.

So, what lessons from Amazon and Borders we can apply to our own business?

  • Lesson One: Stay current with your business by identifying who specifically your customers are, and what is important to them. If you are listening, you customers will always tell you what next.
  • Lesson Two: One of the traps for competing effectively is trying to be everything to everyone instead of identifying your niche and fully taking care of their target customers’ needs (which reinforces Lesson One!).
  • Lesson Three. We are dealing with a changing marketplace. The first step to adapting is to consider that your business is NOT what you sell – it is the value you provide.
  • Lesson Four: Adjusting to the internet and changing technology (such as mobile) involves focusing on who your customers are, what value do you provide and with the new resources – HOW do you reach them?


On a regular basis review these lessons and use them to challenge your thinking. Capture your thoughts and ideas.

Personally, I have never seen a business change overnight, but by applying these lessons you will find you evolve your thinking and new opportunities (and markets) will start showing up.


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