Seven Questions for the CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association

Xconomy National — 

You may never have heard of the Consumer Electronics Association, but you’ve definitely heard of its most famous annual event: the huge Consumer Electronics Show, or International CES. The four-day extravaganza draws more than 150,000 attendees to Las Vegas each January to see keynote talks by top industry CEOs and exhibits from 3,000 companies.

Interestingly, though, CES’s gigantism is a fairly recent development. From 1973 to 1994, CEA mounted two smaller shows each year, both in Chicago. The winter event moved to Las Vegas in 1978, and the once-a-year format wasn’t instituted until 20 years later. And it wasn’t until the cancellation of the competing COMDEX show in 2003 that CES really exploded in size.

The executive who engineered the gradual rise of CES was Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Washington, DC-based CEA since 1990. The rocky history of CES, and the strategy that eventually helped it to kill COMDEX, is one of the stories Shapiro tells his new book Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses.

CES won, Shapiro says, partly by turning COMDEX’s strengths against it. For one thing, CES defined consumer electronics so broadly that it included all the same computing technologies on display at COMDEX. Then it stole away headline speakers like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Sun’s Scott McNealy, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Cisco’s John Chambers.

Those kinds of moves might sound familiar to martial arts practitioners, and in Ninja Innovation, Shapiro—a black belt in tae kwon do—squeezes the martial-arts-warrior metaphor for all it’s worth. While the CES story shows up in the epilogue, the book isn’t really about consumer electronics. Rather, it points to the legendary qualities of Japan’s ninja class (stealthy assassins and saboteurs often hired by samurai to do their dirty work) as examples that can inspire businesspeople trying to succeed today.

No, Shapiro isn’t advising young entrepreneurs to slice open their competitors’ throats while they’re sleeping. He’s just saying that successful people, and successful companies, tend to do ninja-ish things like being goal-focused, operating as teams, taking risks, adapting quickly to surprises, and (sometimes) deceiving through invisibility and disguise.

I met Shapiro for lunch recently in San Francisco, and later followed up by phone. I wanted to ask him how much ninja-style innovation he sees in the consumer electronics business today. I was also curious about how the CEA operates in Washington, how Shapiro sees the future of CES, and what the consumer electronics industry is doing to confront environmental challenges. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: Your second book, Ninja Innovation, came out in January. Who should read it?

Gary Shapiro: People who are interested in technology. Younger people thinking of starting a company. Anybody who wants to improve themselves. There is a whole bunch of my experience in the book about how to take advantage of any situation you’re in—the things I wish I had known when I was younger.

Having written the first book [The Comeback, 2011], I learned that the people you reach are not always those you expect to reach. I have heard from hundreds of people who read the first book and said it changed their lives or their kids’ lives. They went back for their own degree, or did something big. I realized that you are writing for many different audiences.

The premise of both books is that the U.S. is the most innovative country in the world. The question in the first book was, How do we stay that way? It was aimed at policymakers. The second book is aimed at people as individuals: this is what you should do if you want to grow in your career, do something different, make something.

The bottom line of the book is that ninjas make things happen by thinking outside the box, by collecting complementary teams of people who are not like them but have different strengths, and by taking risks and learning from their mistakes. It’s all in the context of, this is the most innovative country in the world, but we have to fight to stay that way, both as a country and as individuals.

X: Do you ever worry that other countries, like China, are rapidly picking up some of these principles of ninja innovation?

GS: China is clearly a major competitive threat to the United States in the next generation, even by the sheer numbers of engineering degrees they are giving out. They’re studying us. And they’re sending their students here at younger and younger ages. Chinese students are now required to learn English in virtually every Chinese city, at every age.

My own son is five years old and he speaks fluent Mandarin. We have a Chinese nanny living with us, and we hired her because of her language skills. So I walk the talk here.

But it’s not just China. Other countries have figured out some of the things we are doing and the world has changed, so innovation can occur from … Next Page »

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