Business Advice from a 19th Century Thief

Imagine you’re a recently-minted travel agent in 1996. You love your profession, you love helping people, and you think you’ll be putting them in spacious hotel rooms and cramped plane seats forever. But within five years, travel sites like Orbitz and Expedia have taken away your job and transformed your industry.

Stories like these put us into panic mode. What if our field is the next to be wiped off the map? What unseen danger is stalking my business? What can I do about disruptive change? If you’re concerned, you should consider the case of Fiddler Dick, a Victorian gentleman whose entire industry was upended not in five years—but on a single day.

Dick was the innovative leader of a gang of pickpockets who worked London train stations. Earlier in his career, he had realized something interesting. As a train arrived, the people getting off tended to be distracted: They looked for loved ones, they picked up luggage, they jostled through a crowd, and so on. This made it easy for you to relieve them of their cash and jewelry. But it gets better. While you worked the crowd, the train was getting ready to depart, making it the perfect getaway vehicle. You could hop aboard at the last minute, and because information in those days could not travel faster than a train, you would be long and safely gone before your victims realized they’d been robbed.

The scheme worked beautifully until August 24, 1844. On that day, a policeman used a new invention, the telegraph, to wire a description of Dick and an associate ahead to the next station, where the astonished thief was caught. He spent the next ten years in a penal colony.

What can Dick teach us?

  1. You have to be curious about what’s going on around you. Try to be aware of new developments outside your core business. As Dick watched workmen putting poles in the ground and stringing wires along them, he should have asked a few questions. If so, he might have realized that his business had viability issues. That said, it’s hard to recognize disruptive change in advance, so the next step may be more useful.

  2. Pay close attention to developments in your industry. If something fundamental changes, you’ll want to recognize it as quickly as possible. After Dick’s arrest, for example, the other pickpockets in town reacted swiftly to the news. London papers reported that they were quite afraid, and most stopped stealing for a while until they understood the implications of the new technology. Of course, successful pickpockets tend to be highly sensitive to new developments in their field—unlike many businesspeople. You should follow their example.

  3. Constant innovation is key. The London pickpockets failed in another respect, however. They were unprepared for change, and so had to lay low for a considerable time until they could figure out the new landscape. This doubtless hurt their bottom lines. But imagine if they had a culture of innovation. Thieves who were continually looking for new ways to pilfer pocketbooks would have transitioned seamlessly to the post-telegraph era. Instead, they were used to doing things a certain way, and when disruptive change hit, they went hungry.

  4. Usually, you can adapt. Most peoples’ skillsets are transferable. The telegraph didn’t put a stop to railroad station pickpocketing, but it did cause its practitioners to rethink the risks underlying their business model. Eventually, they either diversified into other verticals, like shoplifting and armed robbery, or found new ways to ply their trade.

  5. Business strategy is not always marketing strategy. You can’t hide behind brand and marketing strength (just ask Kodak). Fiddler Dick’s name alone indicates that he had a strong, well established brand in certain circles, and his success and notoriety speak to an extensive customer base. Regardless of that, his business model was doomed.

In other words, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Perhaps the best thing to remember is that while your industry may experience major disruptions, hopefully you can change with it or transfer your skillset elsewhere. We may not need travel agents much anymore, but we certainly need friendly people who like helping others.

I’d like to thank Anders Rosenquist, Director of Emerging Media at POSSIBLE Seattle, for his input on this article. Image Credit.


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