A tournament of apes

"The Gorilla Game" goes out on a limb, encouraging us to invest in -- duh! -- big companies that dominate rapidly expanding markets.


Thomas Scoville
September 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Has anybody else noticed that most popular business books these days can be condensed onto a Post-It note? I certainly have. Time and again I sink precious hours into the latest offerings from management gurus and investment wizards, only to finally arrive at the end with a feeling of: "Is that it? It took $24.95 of ink, paper and promotion to say that?"

My reading hasn't been a complete waste, of course. My extended wanderings through the variegated offerings of the business press permitted my discovery of some enlightening similarities -- if only in a literary sense. I have started to think of business books as genre fiction; just like spy thrillers, mystery novels and bodice-rippers, these works also cleave to a standard form. I can say with some confidence that I've identified the dominant recipe.

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Step 1: Identify a thorny, white-collar problem, anything from "how do I invest in Internet stocks without losing my shirt, shoes and socks?" to "how can I transform my employees from a motley band of unmotivated, slouching miscreants into an, energized, passionate 'team' with a totally go-for-it, win/win attitude?"

Step 2: Establish author's credentials to solve same. Be sure to look for the magic invocations: Harvard Business School (alternatively Wharton or Sloan) and/or any major brokerage, venture capital or investment banking firms (but call them "I-banks" -- one of the hidden attractions of business books is the access to the hip argot of big-league MBAs).

Step 3: Present major thesis -- just not all at once. Do it coyly, like a rhetorical strip-tease, so as not to call attention to the single note concealed beneath the Seven Veils of Highly Effective Leaders, or whatever the current fashion being modeled.

Step 4: Oops -- 200 more pages to fill. Time to recapitulate major thesis in multiple variations, or present case study after case study that supports the major thesis while studiously avoiding ones that don't.

Even when viewed from such a disenchanted perspective, I must confess: "The Gorilla Game: Picking Winners in High Technology" is an engaging, and perhaps even profound, Post-It. It goes like this:

Only invest your money in "gorillas" -- companies with exclusive franchises in rapidly expanding markets.

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Well, duh! (Insert your own monkey-house noises here.)

The authors of "The Gorilla Game" -- Geoffrey Moore, Paul Johnson and Tom Kippola -- then go on to name some of the largest apes in today's marketplace: Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, to mention a few. Since there isn't enough money in the world to retool the industries dominated by these gorillas, they reason, and since those industries are still rapidly expanding (you hope), you can't lose. Right?

It's a compellingly simple thesis. The problem is that, like most Post-Its, it doesn't always stick, especially to a slippery surface like the NASDAQ. One of the signal features of markets is the persistence with which they rebuff attempts to tag them with simple formulae.

But no matter. From the very beginning of the book, our attention is entertainingly diverted by a pleasantly disorienting menagerie of mixed metaphors. The authors depict a jungle not simply of imaginary industrial gorillas, but of lesser companies in pursuit (Chimps), and even smaller corporations exploiting niche markets (Monkeys). Then they jump-cut to a parallel universe of companies cast as Kings, Princes and Serfs.

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Not even market dynamics are safe from metaphorical mangling: Software companies must be acquired, the authors assert, under market conditions known as "bowling alleys" -- periods of cascading, niche-to-niche market growth akin to the toppling of bowling pins. Companies must "cross the chasm" into profitability. The very markets themselves are periodically rearranged by "tornadoes."

All of this left me feeling just a little bit silly; for all the authors' heavy Wall Street cred, their industry analysis bears a suspicious similarity to the fantasy lives of adolescent boys: "And here comes the Gorilla. Now it's colliding with another gorilla! Two gorillas fighting! But they've got to stop for a while, because they're both being attacked by chimpanzees! Now they're all crossing the chasm! Now the monkeys are counterattacking! Aaaugh! Here comes the tornado!"

What's next? Power Investing with the Power Rangers? The Market Wisdom of Pokemon?

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It seems the authors of "The Gorilla Game" are all too aware of the gaps in their central thesis, and waste no time trying to patch the holes with a host of qualifications, special cases and exceptions to the gorilla rule (when is a gorilla not a gorilla?). But in the end, it feels like they've pared and pruned and refined their large-primate assertions down to a paltry nub, leaving the reader with just about as much stock-picking doubt and guesswork as before.

More than anything, this book serves a very timely purpose -- as a potent tonic for one of today's most common ailments, namely the sickening feeling that the stock market on the whole is grossly overvalued. Gorillas, we are told, are still wildly underpriced, even with price-to-earnings ratios of 60 zillion.

Thanks, we all feel better now. We have been given permission to ignore Benjamin Graham and his Value School of investing, and to discard the usual metrics of stock price gyrations, just so long as we're swinging our portfolios with the gorillas. This comes as welcome anxiety relief in these heady days of the five-figure Dow.

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It should be noted that "The Gorilla Game" is currently on the shelves in a revised edition, 12 scant months after its original appearance. The new edition features a supplemental chapter addressing the current Internet stock mania; the authors felt the need, apparently, to rationalize recent stock market anomalies by pulling them under the tent of their gorilla paradigm. (Pardon my metaphor.) The name of the new chapter? -- "Investing on the Internet: Playing the Godzilla Game." I'm not kidding.

"Personal wealth is only a gorilla game away," the jacket cover touts. And I do believe it, if only in the abstract. The gorilla game is a lot of fun to play -- particularly while facing backwards. But in the final analysis, I can't shake the notion that it may just be a paean to hindsight -- and as such, just more of the usual monkey-business.


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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