Mary Meeker And The (Non) Death Of Industries

Over the last 25 years, governments all over the world have banned or severely restricted the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. Once the refrigerant of choice for air conditioners, CFCs were discovered to threaten the planet’s protective ozone layer. Less damaging hydrochlorofluorocarbons soon replaced CFCs in nearly every use case.

Production of CFCs ended, for the most part, in the early 1990s. Back then, with the muscle of regulation and a viable market alternative, it would have been hard to argue the point that CFCs were dead.

And yet, here’s a listing for Freon R12, a once-common CFC, on eBay, where for $39.95, you can buy a 12 ounce can. That’s not terribly pricey for an item facing extinction.

Freon R12 and other commercially-available CFCs serve as a reminder that industries, companies and products can take a long time to die. In fact, most never die in the way extinct species do.

New York City happens to be home to artisanal vestiges of once booming industries. For example:

Companies, too, are really hard to kill. I happen to have worked for two that people have written off multiple times (see Atari and Nokia), yet both still stand.

Mary Meeker published her 2016 Internet Trends report last week. It includes 213 slides, but don’t let the length deter you. It’s a must-read for anyone in either an Internet-driven industry or a market that is threatened by the rise of challengers that exist because of the Internet. Of all the slides it contains, this is the one that fascinates me the most:

2016 Mary Meeker time spent, dollars spent in media

For the last couple of years, I’ve cited this slide as proof that advertisers are under-spending on mobile, though the slide’s headline makes the opposite point: advertisers are over-spending on legacy media, mainly print.

This conclusion annually sparks an outcry that proclaims, “Print is dead.”

I do not doubt that print, an industry that includes newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, and anything that can be mass produced on paper, is shrinking. Based purely on what we can observe about the nature of industries, companies, and products, however, there is no way print is dead. Far from it.

The purpose of this post is not to detail all the arguments for the print industry’s vitality. Others, especially Bo Sacks, can do that much better than I can. Rather, it is to offer a note of caution.

It is really easy to announce the death of especially older things. After all, logic tells us that old things are inherently closer to their end. When we see signs of their struggle, and without knowledge of their history and therefore resilience in dark times, it can be tempting to write off the old and vulnerable. No one is keeping score, either, so no harm will come to those who get it wrong.

In reality, though, it’s exceedingly difficult to force a thing into extinction.


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