Cannibalisation Is Not A Useful Choice Of Language

Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, doesn’t like the word “cannibalisation” because it’s zero sum. It implies that you’re the guy doing the eating or being eaten.

He says being in business is not like playing a sport or being in warfare. It’s more like music, it’s more like art. It’s not a zero sum game.

I absolutely agree with Libin, and in the long run his view is the only healthy and constructive way to think about business. However, this doesn’t account for the popularity of books among business people like Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or Machiavelli’s “The Prince”.

What’s going on here?

Why does Libin think about business as music, whereas many others think only of warfare?

A first explanation is that most people who think and write about business are not C-suite executives or founders of successful companies, and so they are typically exposed to the hostilities that are inevitable in trying to rise upwards. Even in the friendliest of work environments employee performance will be reviewed annually and productivity will be compared against other employees working at the same level.

Large professional service firms typically place employees in a kind of tournament like dynamic where they are shown the promise of a small number of well-paid managerial roles and the implicit threat of being fired if they fail to perform better than their peers.

A second explanation is that some industries are more zero sum than others.

Any industries dealing in the real world of atoms (for example, mining, farming or transportation) are likely to see the world in a more zero sum way. The customer either buys my coal, corn or transportation or they buy someone else’s.

Industries dealing in the virtual world of information on the other hand (for example, tech start-ups) are likely to see the world in a more collaborative way. After all, there is always more information and goodwill to go around.

That being said, I would suggest that Libin’s view of business should apply not just to the technology industry but to all sectors.

Economists have coloured our thinking by painting traditional business as a place where firms compete to maximise profits through the sale of goods and services, forgetting of course that businesses can only sell their products by first engaging in some form of marketing. And what is marketing, if not the pure and free exchange of information.

Libin is in the technology industry, but in a strange and unexpected way, so are we all. And as a result, talk of “cannibalisation” is not a useful choice of language.