Do one thing and do it well?

Peter Futcher, Hub for Innovation and Enterprise, University of Kent

The so-called ‘Unix Philosophy’ as documented by Douglas McIlroy of Unix back in 1978 seems somewhat to have revisited the world of e-commerce, retail and business start-up in a journey which has taken us full-circle. McIlroy’s work was on software componentization and still forms the backbone of all things tech which we take for granted today. “Make each program do one thing well” was the premise. Computer software architecture is just like this – lots of little routines which do their job perfectly in harmony with lots of others doing their job perfectly too.

So how does this relate to business today? Well, perhaps more than you would think. But first, let’s go back a hundred years.

The Great War had just ended and the world was at a crossroads. The benefits of industrialisation were clear for all to see and the speed of progress was great, but people still went to work at the Accountant’s Office or Butcher or Chandlery. The ‘department’ store had been born, with the likes of Messrs. Selfridge and Woolworth leading the way, but the High Street and its environs featured stores and offices which, on the whole, did one thing and did it well. Most shopped in their local area, sourced their services from their local area and socialised in their local area.

Jump forward to the late 90’s and the world is a very different place. The High Street still prevails as the place of commerce but the growth of multiples such as Tesco, Sainsbury, John Lewis, House of Fraser, Poundworld and many others one could mention alongside smaller concerns is mirrored in the service industry with large conglomerates dominating everything from refuse collection to primary and secondary care and public transport and beyond. Surely technology has helped this but a more mobile workforce, transport infrastructure and the glorious positivity of World War 2 Victory have all played their part. By 2000 the burgeoning growth of ‘online’ meant that even by then you could source your credit card, car insurance and home energy in one online ‘shop’. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to do more and more.

And then, in 2008, the financial crisis hit. By 2009, 100 years after its familiar appearance on the High Street, Woolworths was gone. 807 store closures and 27000 job losses later and the world was a different place. Sort of.

Was this the death of the Department Store? Jeff Bezos and Amazon would argue otherwise. But 2018 has shown that the High Street is suffering once again. The truth is, however, that the figures expressed by the ONS and others so often only focus on the multiples. In smaller towns up and down the country small concerns are actually starting to thrive, filling up empty shops with their ‘thing’ – often their one ‘thing’…. and they are doing it well! Many of these were online only companies who now have a bricks and mortar presence. What is the secret? Reduction of overheads, offering something you cannot get on Amazon, and surely, the Unix Philosophy plays a part. Community too, but that’s for another post.


Is this just about retail? Absolutely not.

Is Amazon going anywhere? Not for now, but none of us are going to compete so why try? Let’s accept it and move on. Maybe.

Should we only do one thing? Absolutely…. to start with.


So, what way forward for the entrepreneur?

It’s actually as simple as it always has been.

Do one thing and do it well.

Then do it again. And again…..



PS: Amazon was just an online bookstore in the late 90’s….





Peter Futcher

Hub for Innovation and Enterprise, University of Kent

29 January 2019



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