Vertical vs horizontal mindsets: the fashion tech horserace

During the most recent Exponent podcast, which was a podcast about podcasts, Ben Thompson made a fascinating point about the current media landscape. He was reminiscing about the focus of current media platforms to organize vertically. Medium, Soundcloud and Vimeo, for example, are focused on specific verticals, such as text, audio and video respectively.

However, as Thompson mentioned, we're moving into a world where content and the people and brands behind it are focused horizontally. Ezra Klein or Bill Simmons aren't building their audiences vertically, based off of specific mediums. Instead, they're building an audience horizontally, where different mediums serve different uses. It's not text, audio or video, it's everything. These mediums, together, feed the brand and reinforce the other mediums.

This is the result of different mediums being better suited for monetization than others. In Thompson's case, his free weekly article leads people to his free podcast, which leads people to buying a subscription to his daily writing. Looking at these mediums vertically, in isolation, leads to a shortsighted analysis compared to looking at them horizontally, where one can see how they work in tandem.

This evaluation of the media industry sounds eerily familiar to the fashion industry, and how technology is reshaping it. Generally speaking, the industry continues to look at businesses and technologies through individual channels, trying to maximize sales across the board. Everything from stores to social media to fashion shows needs to individually show top line revenue, or it's not worth it, according to this line of thinking. This vertical approach—the idea that each distribution method needs to prosper on its own—is increasingly limiting.

A fashion brand is an organism made up of dozens of different atoms. Looking at a brand on the micro level only provides a small picture, compared to looking at the brand on the macro level. The same goes for how new technologies interact with a brand. Social media is really powerful for building brand awareness, but less so for commerce. Buy buttons have so far failed because they tried to stick a conversion tool in a channel built for awareness. The same goes for the mobile web, native apps, physical stores, on-demand delivery and so on. The quest to have each new technology be everything to everyone is sure to be a let down.

This vertical mindset prohibits companies from unlocking the true potential of specific channels. To do this, one has to look at the brand horizontally. The focus should be on how different technologies and channels work together, not how they compete. This limited mindset is present in debates inside and outside of the industry, when discussing how different technologies should be used. This horserace mentality is constantly searching for the "next big thing," as if everything swings in absolutes. Yet it is this same mentality that is limiting the possibilities everyone is searching for.

Chat currently occupies this space. Chat will be everything! Everything is chat! Chat will solve all of our problems! The hyperbole is palpable. The problem is less so the enthusiasm for a new medium, which is always good, but the whiplash effect this enthusiasm implies. If chat is the future, then the logic often follows that everything before it, from desktop to the mobile web to native apps, is the past. For an industry that has gotten into trouble from endlessly chasing trends, employing the same mentality when it comes technology should be concerning. Imagine the chaos inside of a brand every time a promising new technology surfaces: "Drop everything, we're moving it all to this!"

This thinking is shortsighted. The subliminal effect of this horserace mindset is that it leaves little room for nuance, which is where actual use cases are discovered and refined. Chat is exciting, but it's not single-handedly the future. Instead, chat has some really interesting uses alongside native apps, the mobile web, desktop, and especially physical stores, all technologies that have been counted out many times before. The quest to find the next big thing is making it unnecessarily hard to see how new technologies will work with existing technologies. This vertical mindset is subtractive, trying to replace what exists today, instead of being additive, seeking to build upon what exists today.

A horizontal mindset makes all the difference. It's not how technologies can beat each other, but how they can work together. This especially applies when it comes to discussing ecommerce versus physical stores. An all or nothing answer—"Stores are dead!"—makes good fodder, less so a good business. The exciting opportunities abound when evaluating how technology can augment and improve what currently exists in stores, not obliterate them. Current thinking around how commerce and fashion exists is like a Darwinistic quest to crush everything that came before it. Letting the old and the new play together, and recognizing how the strengths of some mediums overcome the weaknesses of others, is much more interesting. Technology is an evolution, not a horserace.