Caracas Debrief: Outthinkers Don't Hold Their Breath

My blog last year from Caracas, Venezuela prompted a rich discussion about the future of this oil-rich, Caribbean giant. So, back this week to conduct a seminar, I wanted to see how things have changed. (View my blogcast here.)

I had two opportunities to feel the pulse of commerce in Venezuela: a dinner party with a group of big-company, expat executives and a half-day strategy workshop I conducted for 150 small and medium-size companies.

My key takeaway: while businesses continue to struggle with the same uncertainties, activity is brewing under the surface. My key lesson: Outthinkers don't hold their breath.

First the takeaway. Businesses in Venezuela seem to continue to struggle with uncertainty. How long will Chavez remain in power? What regime might follow? What will the government privatize next? They have to deal with a loss of skilled workers who, pushed out by political and economic factors, moved their talents to Colombia, the U.S., and other countries in the region.

But there is activity brewing. The entrepreneurs who attended my workshop are growing their petroleum service businesses, advertising agencies, printing companies, consultancies. They continue setting growth goals and pursuing them.

I got to talk with expat executives from India, Malaysia, Tunisia, and other parts of the world. They are set up in the country to expand. They collectively are ready to invest tens of billions of dollars in the country and are now building the alliances and laying the foundations to do so.

Sure, Venezuela has created a business environment far from the ideal. But the gloom and doom characterizations that we tend to get in the mass media at least where I live, in the United States, which leaves one with the impression that the entire country is in stand-still, is oversimplifying what is going on. While many choose to circle in formation, observing from afar, "outthinkers" are building relationships and businesses. They are making things happen despite the uncertainty. While others are holding their breath, "outthinkers" are moving ahead.

This is like GE buying Enron's wind turbine business when Enron fell. This is like Carlos Slim turning the Mexican economic crisis of 1982 into his biggest expansion opportunity. This is like Coca-Cola seeing the 1999 crisis in Brazil, in which the local currency lost 40% of its value, as an opportunity to buy assets at a 40% discount.

Whether Venezuela is on your radar screen or not, the lesson is relevant. There is a risk so people decide to wait it out. But some people are just waiting it out because they see other people are waiting it out. They stop thinking for themselves. They follow the crowd. At that moment an opportunity may emerge to break from the pack.

Ask yourself:

1. What does the "crowd" believe you should do?
2. What are the specific facts that support this point of view?
3. What would it mean to do the opposite of what the crowd says you should do?
4. What are some specific facts that support this alternative view?
5. Choose ... for yourself.

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