Kevin Maney: First interview, by Bob Morris

Kevin Maney

Kevin Maney is an author and journalist who has interviewed many of the biggest names in business in a career spanning 25 years. His most recent book is Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t, published in 2009 by Broadway Books. His other published books include the critically-acclaimed The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson Sr. and the Making of IBM, published in 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, and the 1995 BusinessWeek bestseller Megamedia Shakeout: The Inside Story of the Leaders and the Losers in the Exploding Communications Industry. He writes for Fortune, The Atlantic, Fast Company and other magazines. Maney was recruited by Conde Nast Portfolio magazine prior to its launch in 2007, and was a contributing editor there until its demise in April 2009. He was previously technology columnist and senior technology reporter at USA Today. Working with Chicago firm VSA Partners, he is currently an historical consultant and collaborator helping IBM plan for its 100-year anniversary in 2011. He often appears on television and radio, notably on PBS, NPR, CNBC. He is a frequent keynote speaker and on-stage interviewer. He is also a musician and songwriter, and in 2008 released a CD of songs of wry commentary about business and technology — “Privacy,” by Kevin Maney & His Briefs. He grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., has a B.A. in English and Journalism from Rutgers University, and now lives outside Washington, DC, where he plays soccer and hockey as much as possible.

Note: I conducted this interview about two years ago. Kevin has recently published The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed by Anticipating the Future — Just Enough, co-authored with Vivek Ranadivé and published by Crown Business (2011). My second interview of him will be posted in several weeks.

Morris: Before discussing any of your books, a few general questions. First, what attracted you to a career in journalism?

Maney: From about ninth grade on, I knew I was a writer at heart. I had fantasies of being a great novelist, but I thought that seemed like an iffy way to try to make a living. So I tried journalism while in college, and really liked it. But even in journalism, I’ve always pursued ways to be somewhat literary, whether writing a column or writing books.

Morris: In your opinion, why do some magazines prosper and so many others don’t?

Maney: I don’t know if any magazines are prospering in this economy. It’s been brutal on the industry. To use the lens of my book, in the long run magazines can’t be a convenience play — the Web has stolen that. So magazines have to be high fidelity — a fantastic experience — to thrive. Magazines will survive the Internet age, but only the ones that give people an experience they just can’t get anywhere else. A magazine will have to be truly loved to make it.

Morris: Given the emergence of electronic reading devices, is the bound volume an endangered species?

Maney: It won’t become extinct for a very long time, but it’s definitely endangered. Within the next three years, we’ll see several e-book readers on the market for less than $100, and they’ll access any electronic bookstore — so they’ll work more like online music works now. At that point, e-books will take off.

Morris: You have been writing about the business world for more than 20 years. Of all the changes that have occurred during those years, which change do you consider to be most significant? Why?

Maney: Without question, the explosion of the Web and digital media from 1995 to 2000 shook companies more profoundly in a shorter time than anything since the end of World War II. Here’s how fast things were happening: Megamedia Shakeout was released in early 1995. By the end of 1995, the trajectory of nearly every company discussed in the book was so severely altered that the book had become out of date.

Morris: What led you to write Megamedia Shakeout?

Maney: In the early 1990s, I started writing some of the earliest mainstream media stories about digital media and what we were then calling the “information superhighway.” I thought there was a book idea in there somewhere, so I wrote a proposal, tried to shop it, and got nowhere. I stuck the twenty-page proposal in a drawer.

Months later, out of the blue, I got a call from John Mahaney, then an editor at book publisher John Wiley & Sons. He’d seen some of my stories and wondered if there was a book to be done about the info highway. It was bizarre. I was able to say, “I’ve got a proposal I can send you tomorrow.” Mahaney bought the book.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. For those who have not as yet read Megamedia Shakeout, what business lessons can be learned from the “winners” and from the “losers” that you discuss?

Maney: Here’s my big take-away: Who “wins” and who “loses” depends on when you measure it. Measured in 1995, Apple was a huge loser and AOL a huge winner. There are two-dozen stories like that from the book alone.

Morris: Prior to writing The Maverick and His Machine, you had access to previously inaccessible records that provided a wealth of information about Thomas Watson, Sr. (1874-1956). Did this material provide any head-snapping revelations?

Maney: I didn’t find any illegitimate children or murder plots, though there was a rival to Watson’s son who mysteriously died. The big revelation is that Watson was a daredevil businessman, a larger than life character, and something of the Bill Gates of his time.

Morris: As I read this book, I was struck by how out-of-control Watson’s ego had sometimes become in the late-1930s and thereafter. How do you explain that?

Maney: Absolutely, his ego was huge, though I’m not sure it was all that different from a Gates or Steve Jobs or Jack Welch. Watson also used his ego and fame to help IBM, which made back-office computers the public would rarely see or touch. If people could relate to IBM better by focusing on its central character, he was all too happy to be that character.

Morris: Now please shift you attention to Trade-Off. Again, for those who have not as yet read it, please explain “the ever-present tension between quality and convenience.”

Maney: They are opposing forces. In the book, I use the word fidelity to indicate something greater than quality — it’s the total quality of an experience, including a sense of exclusiveness and aura. Convenience is simply how easy something is to get, which often means a low price and ubiquitousness. A super-fidelity product or service would lose its luster and quality if it’s pushed too hard toward convenience. A super-convenient product or service would start to get expensive and exclusive if it moved toward higher fidelity, which would naturally undermine its convenience.

Morris: Is it possible to achieve and then sustain super fidelity? If so, which trade-offs must be made?

Maney: Super fidelity requires constant investment and discipline, but great companies know how to do that. Corning Glass is an example I use in the book of a company that pumps money into R&D so it can constantly renew its super-fidelity offerings. The trade-off is having the discipline to focus on fidelity and not also try to chase convenience.

Morris: In Chapter Eleven, you observe, “In researching this book, I was struck by the fact that every time I explored a market segment through the fidelity-swap lens, there was an obvious set of opposites holding down the high-fidelity and the high-convenience positions.” What is the significance of this phenomenon?

Maney: If you spot a market where the only choices are at either one end or the other — high fidelity or high convenience — there’s probably a big opportunity at the other end. That was the opening for Federal Express, for instance. When it started, there was only one mail service in America — the US Postal Service, which was high convenience. Fred Smith created a high-fidelity mail service.

Morris: Although you devote most of your attention in the book to companies, many of the same insights and principles concerning trade-offs seem relevant to individuals, also. Is that a fair assessment?

Maney: The last chapter of the book applies the trade-off concept to personal life. If you want to stand out, find a way to be either high fidelity or high convenience in whatever you do. If you’re halfway in between on both measures, you’re not going to make people feel very excited about you.

Morris: What will you explore in your next book?

Maney: I have a pretty good idea, but it’s too early to talk about it.

Morris: Which question do you wish you had been asked in this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Maney: You didn’t ask about my next music album! I love to write and perform songs, and a good number of them are wry commentaries on technology or business. In 2008 I recorded an album with a terrific group of musicians in San Francisco. It’s called “Privacy” and you can buy it on iTunes. I hope to do another with those guys soon.

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