Fashion takeaways from Ben Horowitz book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things

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The inaugural #fashmash book club was held in London earlier this month, with a group of digital individuals from the fashion industry meeting at the all-new Library private members club in London.

The book in question for this first get-together was leading venture capitalist Ben Horowitz‘s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The aim wasn’t just to dissect the chapters and share our impressions on each of them, but apply them (and their learnings intended for the world of tech start-ups) directly to what they mean for the fashion industry, enabling a broader discussion on business strategy as a result.

What ended up was quite a critical look at what needs to shift in our industry. Here then are some of the takeaways – a series of considerations designed to be thought-starters rather than fully formed arguments.

“Dogs at work and yoga aren’t culture”

Culture doesn’t make a company, but once you’ve nailed the product, it’s an essential part of building and maintaining it, Horowitz suggests. This isn’t about team drinks or gym classes as the easy option, but an ethos that determines who you are both internally and externally. In fashion, an obvious example is Zappos. As a brand that stands for customer service, it inducts all its employees no matter what level they’re starting at into that way of thinking with a mandatory four weeks training in the call centre.

Much of the industry comes with a significant heritage in tow, however – 150 years for a department store here, 168 for a designer brand there – which make cultural shifts, if necessary, all that much harder to achieve. In the most traditional of senses, the biggest barrier is still that feeling of fashion living in an ivory tower.

Despite a move at large to new ways of thinking thanks to digital, there remains very much a culture industry-wide of there only being one voice, a focus on the idea of that being ‘the way things have always been done’, and significant barriers to internal innovation as a result. Even some of today’s youngest and most successful online companies are beginning to battle with this as their teams grow and become increasingly siloed seemingly overnight. Tweets and Facebook posts planned three months in advance aren’t uncommon, especially in certain European cities, neither are rigorous sign-off processes that make simple tasks significantly more laborious than they need be.

“Create a culture that rewards, not punishes people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved,” writes Horowitz. For culture to evolve in fashion, the starting point is still internal communication, development of trust and a willingness to become more open, our members suggested.

“Technological advances have dramatically lowered the financial bar for starting a new company, but the courage bar for building a great company remains as high as it has ever been”

Courage, as with risk or failing fast, is a common concept for those in Silicon Valley. For fashion however, as with many other industries similarly based on cumbersome legacy systems, it remains somewhat foreign, despite words like “disruption” regularly being banded about off the back of association with new business models, like that of Warby Parker. For a young designer entering the market otherwise, there is little choice but to follow the established distribution model or not be in with the chance of getting picked up from a buying perspective.

The closest the industry at large comes to consistently courageous activity is instead with a constant obsession with the shiny and the new. But is this to our detriment?

Take seasonal collections. The fashion cycle is becoming increasingly transseasonal; fast fashion ever the norm, even at designer level where there can be anywhere in the region of 12 collections per year nowadays. The sustainability of that is another discussion, what’s interesting here rather is what’s happening to seasonal campaigns alongside. From the highest fashion house to the most basic high street brand, we are still obsessed with twice yearly print ads (with the addition of the odd film alongside) that focus on the newness of the product. What’s lacking then is a reflection on the continuity of the brand.

Fashion is so obsessed with its visual representation, it forgets to portray bigger ideas that help maintain and entice a customer base. Sir John Hegarty of BBH gave a great example of the value of this at Cannes Lions this year by comparing Nike and Reebok. The former launched its strapline “Just Do It” in 1988 – a brand identity in three words that it has kept ever since. Reebok in the meantime, has changed its message near on every year, which is perhaps why so few of us can remember any of them. It’s hard to believe the two had equal market share at that point in time in the 80s.

Shiny and new is also seen with our focus on introducing buzzy technology concepts. Are the high profile, often gimmicky (though duly press-worthy) initiatives seen around fashion weeks worthwhile? As Horowitz writes: “It’s quite possible for an executive to hit her goal by ignoring the future.” In other words, it’s all very well pushing a piece of innovation tied to a specific initiative at a point in time, but is it something that fundamentally fits authentically with the business so it impacts down the road efficiently. True courage lies in building blocks that shape the future.

“When you are a start-up executive, nothing happens unless you make it happen”

There is of course an enormous place for innovation in the fashion industry when done right. It’s important to note the difference between innovation and technology here – in fact some of the most successful examples in our industry are those businesses innovating in areas that aren’t hugely press-worthy. Those figuring out how to decrease e-commerce return rates, or strategising on updating those aforementioned legacy systems to an all-new omnichannel approach. Behind-the-scenes work initially, but innovation that absolutely impacts the future.

This fits with the fact an increasing number of new job roles are being created with retailers in so-called innovation labs. What we’re accordingly starting to see is a big focus on how to actually make things happen.

In the recent WGSN Google Hangout on this very subject, John Vary, innovation manager at John Lewis, and Will Young, director of Zappos Labs, highlighted the necessity of the role of ideas managers in their organisations. Having an innovation team is all very well, but someone needs to execute on those ideas for them to be at all worthwhile. Importantly, these tend to be very different skill sets.

As Horowitz outlines in a chapter about leadership, there’s a big difference between knowing what to do, and doing what you know. Some people lean more heavily towards setting the direction, while for others enjoyment comes from making the company perform. All businesses, fashion included, do of course need both.

“You should strive to hire people with the right kind of ambition”

It mightn’t come as a surprise the #fashmash book club, though spinning off from a network that’s more evenly split, was entirely comprised of women on this first occasion. It’s also not surprising then that everyone in the room picked up on the fact Horowitz consistently referred to the CEO and executive subjects in his book as ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout. It’s interesting in itself that that stands out as being so different when you read it. For a fashion crowd, however, it also sparked yet another conversation.

Despite the female association, this is an industry still dominated at the top level almost entirely by men. When Angela Ahrendts was the CEO of Burberry, she was one of only three females on the FTSE 100, a loss the UK mourned on her move over to Apple. But one the fashion industry did too. Technology as an industry is battling a lack of women at exec level, but has the fact so few have studied computer science or engineering, frequently to blame. That’s certainly not an issue in our world.

More disappointingly however, this is an industry that still operates under a very stereotyped “mean girls” sensibility, especially in increasingly competitive organisations where egos play a significant part.

With Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as the go-to reference, not to mention this Pantene ad from the Philippines that went viral worldwide after Sandberg herself shared it, women already have to deal with being perceived as ‘bossy’ or ‘selfish’ compared to men being seen as ‘powerful’ or ‘dedicated’. Bitch is another frequent term referred to. So why aren’t we supporting each other more?

Horowitz defines ambition as a particularly interesting game. “When hiring a management team, most start-ups focus almost exclusively on IQ, but a bunch of high-IQ people with the wrong kind of ambition won’t work,” he writes. He emphasises the importance of distinguishing whether candidates see the world through the “me” prism (their own personal success) or the “team” prism (how the company will win). “Nothing motivates a great employee more than a mission that’s so important that it supersedes everyone’s personal ambition,” he adds.

In closing…

Safe to say, and no doubt this isn’t new to hear for most readers (nor is it unique to this industry), fashion needs a bit of a wake-up call. We’re very good at resting on old laurels, tired ways and the way things have always been done. But increasingly these traditional means don’t match a modern world or a modern consumer. This book is a great example of what the industry should know, what they should look at, and where they should learn from. In general for those managing, hiring, training or firing, there’s also some very practical insights to glean as well.

Do check out Horowitz’s book on Amazon here. And keep up with the #fashmash hashtag on Twitter too to see what titles we’re looking to dive into next.

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