For the most part, I am not a fan of business biography. Too often they are hagiographic, arguing for a particular perspective in order to ‘set the record straight’ from the view of one party. Seldom is there actual balance.
Losing the Signal isn’t exactly biography, unless we consider corporations to be persons. At the same time, it is an in depth exploration of the personalities that were involved in building, sustaining and guiding Research in Motion (commonly known as RIM, and now BlackBerry) from its initial founding through its tumultuous recent years.
RIM had an exceptional rise and a phenomenal period of sustained growth. The company had a chaotic and complicated beginning, leveraging expertise in electronics and networking into a number of random engagements with a variety of organizations, including Rogers. Ultimately, this led to the crystallization of a vision of wireless email, focussed, purposeful and universally available. Attaining the vision relied on RIM being a hardware company, a software company and a services company, all at the same time. The ability of the organization to sustain and cement its ability to deliver never entirely caught up with its meteoric rise. As with any public company that experiences exponential evolution, the pressures of continuing to grow and perform—to serve the market and the investors—were unrelenting.
What I love about what Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff have accomplished is their ability to provide in-depth insight into the personalities and players that drove RIM first to success and then to struggle. They clearly enjoyed unprecedented access to many individuals within RIM, especially those who occupied key leadership roles within the organization. In particular, the actions, motives and thoughts of the two founders—Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie—are brought to life with exceptional clarity.
The story of RIM as portrayed in Losing the Signal, like many great dramas, follows a traditional three-act structure. We meet the characters, explore their upbringing and get exposed to the formative influences that fuelled their drive and ambition. We see the metoric rise of RIM from struggling services organization to corporate colossus. We become aware of the flaws and challenges that face not just RIM as an organization but Lazaridis and Balsillie as individuals. Ultimately, we see the dreams and ambitions of the founders collide with the pressures competitive threats, investor expectations, regulatory constraints, political divisiveness and their own ability to communicate with—and to trust—each other.
What remains to be seen, however, is if the third act will ultimately end in tragedy or in triumph. The book ends with the departure of both founders from the organization, resigning from the board and selling their shares. It is difficult to imagine this as anything other than hubris, with each founder essentially packing up their toys and going home. And yet, at the time of writing, BlackBerry is not done. It’s story is not yet fully told. What remains may be a stunning reinvention, or a gradual fading of importance and influence in the face of competitors that didn’t exist a few years prior.
For fans of BlackBerry (of which I used to be one), for strategists, for business readers and for those who simply enjoy a good story well told, Losing the Signal is a worthwhile read. At the same time, I came to the end of the book genuinely wondering what happens next. The challenge is that, in reality, we simply don’t know. Much will depend upon how the marketplace evolves and BlackBerry evolves with it. For all of the challenges, trials and missteps, there is a great deal that BlackBerry got right. It will be interesting to see if they are able to leverage the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses. And we can only hope that McNish and Silcoff come back to write the sequel.