The Spreadsheet, Apple Co., and Change!

March 6, 2015

Last Friday I heard How the Electronic Spreadsheet Revolutionized Business by Jacob Goldstein for Planet Money on NPR. It’s four+ minutes long, it’s about change, and it’s worth your time. The big moment for me in the story comes through in this short paragraph from Jacob Goldstein:

GOLDSTEIN: When the software hit the market under the name VisiCalc, [Alan] Sneider became the first registered owner, spreadsheet user number one. The program could do in seconds what it used to take a person an entire day to do. This of course, poses a certain risk if your job is doing those calculations. And in fact, lots of bookkeepers and accounting clerks were replaced by spreadsheet software. But the number of jobs for accountants? Surprisingly, that actually increased. Here’s why – people started asking accountants like Sneider to do more.

On the same day, Dominic Basulto wrote The Epic Quest to Become the First $1 Trillion Company for the Washington Post. (The article seems to be referring to market value.) Mr. Basulto makes the case for Apple as an unlikely candidate, despite a current market value of about $750 billion. More significantly, he thinks

… we are at risk of getting it all wrong all over again. By focusing on tech heavyweights such as Apple and Google in the race to $1 trillion, what we are ignoring is the rise of entirely new technologies that are capable of growing at an exponential rate such as artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and 3D printing. These new technologies are the ‘mobile phones,’ ‘social networking’ and ‘Internet search’ of future tech generations.

So I’m focused on two stories, one about seeming adversity that turns on itself in a very positive way, and the other about not yet knowing what awaits us. Both situations bring to mind the ability to contra-think, or see the contrarian side when change is occurring. Right now, it’s easy to assume Apple will grow and grow, and even Mr. Basulto acknowledges the potential for the Apple’s Watch, Pay, HealthKit, and HomeKit products. Still, collectively, we missed the tech and housing bubbles, to focus only on the last 15 years and major events. If someone only watches Apple, the big story will likely be ignored.

The spreadsheet story offers a twist on the issue. If the example is investing, our task is pretty passive: don’t bet too much on what seems, today, to be our future. With the spreadsheet, though, people like Alan Sneider had to figure out how to deal with a new environment. That’s not passive at all!

My industry—legal services, and yes, while it’s a profession, it’s also very much an industry—faces the spreadsheet writ large. Two formerly profitable lines of business stand out for me.

I used to form business entities. Very profitable, easy work. Now, forming simple entities—single member limited liability companies—has become, largely, a do-it-yourself-on-the-Internet process.

Twenty-five years ago I filed and litigated lift stays. (These matter involve secured lenders getting permission from the Bankruptcy Court to foreclose on no-equity (underwater) properties.) Good training for a young attorney, and the lenders paid. Now, lenders use law firms with three attorneys and 100 legal assistants, charging next to nothing, and are profitable via volume and low wages/costs.

Figuring out how to be successful in an environment where consumers of legal services need you less, and only need you when it really matters, presents many challenges. Good attorneys will always have work, especially those who can help their clients wisely! (Of course, identifying those attorneys takes time, and the education and training processes require plenty of “butts in the seats” who will not be successful. That said, in many respects we are watching the free market at work, allowing for services to be provided at a lower cost, in a manner which still protects the public. (I’d like to form lots of single member limited liability companies. Truth be told, though, I can’t compete with prices on the Internet, getting it wrong with a single member LLC won’t happen often, and the fix may cost less than what I would have charged to do the work at the outset.)

My mind is running at less than warp speed, albeit at a faster than usual rate, trying to find my “spreadsheet” moment. Stay tuned!

P.S. Listen to the story, for sure, for Alan Sneider is delightful!

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