Writing the Book on Blackberry

Sean Silcoff co-authored the bestselling book, Losing the Signal, with fellow Carleton grad Jacquie McNish. (Photo Provided)

On Friday September 27, 2013, The Globe and Mail published a story titled “Inside the fall of Blackberry.” The 7,000-word article featured interviews and graphs built from the files of six journalists.

It revealed previously unreported details about the company formerly known as Research in Motion, and everyone who owned a smartphone read it, including a literary agent from Washington, D.C. named Howard Yoon.

The following Monday, Yoon contacted the reporters of the investigative piece to see if they would consider writing a book. Carleton graduates Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish weighed their options, knowing such a project could take them away from daily reporting. But for just how long?

Silcoff, an award-winning journalist at the Globe, had never given much thought to writing his own book during his career of 20 years. He had graduated from Queen’s University Smith School of Business in 1992 and, without many prospects, opted to continue his education at Carleton’s School of Journalism. After a few internships, he landed a job at Canadian Business in late 1996.

“I wasn’t sure for another two years that I wanted to be a business journalist, despite my educational background,” said Silcoff. “Then I was asked by my editor to lead the magazine’s inaugural Rich 100 project.”

Silcoff oversaw the exhaustive eight-month investigation to create the Rich 100 list that originally appeared in July 1999. What has since become the feature of Canadian Business’s top-selling issue was what truly whetted Silcoff’s appetite for business reporting.

Shortly after the first Rich 100 went to print, Jacquie McNish published her first business book. The Big Score: Robert Friedland, INCO, and the Voisey’s Bay Hustle was an account of a battle over a nickel deposit in Newfoundland that read like a thriller novel. McNish graduated with an Honours BA in history and political science from Carleton in 1980 and has been working as a business journalist ever since.

Yoon’s proposal to write a book on BlackBerry was a unique opportunity to paint a full picture of the Canadian tech giant still fighting for a global foothold. The journalists went for it and together they wrote Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry.

“I hoped that we could produce a text that would be both an informative case study for the business community, as well as a fascinating tale for general readers,” said Silcoff. “But the book’s enthusiastic reception and success has exceeded our wildest dreams.”

Out last May, Losing the Signal made the Canadian bestseller list and was shortlisted for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Inc. and several other publications named it one of the best business books of 2015.

Toronto and Ottawa public library waiting lists for the book are in the double digits, even with dozens of copies in circulation. Hardcover copies are still available for purchase while readers wait for the release of the paperback edition in April.

Losing the Signal is McNish’s fourth book. A senior writer for the Globe and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, McNish has covered some of the biggest ground-breaking business stories since 1984, and she has won seven National Newspaper Awards for her work.

“I have loved writing each of my books,” she said, “but the access and details we were able to gather for Losing the Signal made it, for me, a uniquely compelling book.”

To complete the book in just 10 months, McNish and Silcoff travelled from Waterloo, Ont. to Silicon Valley to build on relationships established for their September 2013 story. Harder than finding facts was drawing conclusions about a company still shrouded in so much uncertainty. They decided to focus on the core relationship that founded (and was ultimately destroyed by) BlackBerry: the partnership of co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis.

“Many former insiders sensed that we were dedicated to searching for the larger story that so many had missed before,” said McNish. “I think we earned the trust of both Jim and Mike that we would take a fair and balanced approach to telling their stories.”

Both former BlackBerry executives agreed to be interviewed at length for the book, as well as 120 former employees, customers and suppliers.

“During our interviews, which added up to dozens of hours, it became clear to us that they were still searching for answers to explain the sudden and dramatic rise and fall of their company,” said McNish. “I imagine the book would have been difficult for them to read, but we understand from a number of people that they do not dispute our account.”

“We had to answer three questions no one had definitively answered before,” said Silcoff. “How did a little company that started above a bagel store in Waterloo become a $20-billion global giant and create the smartphone industry that has so radically reshaped our lives? What led to the company’s rapid descent? And what happened to the key relationship at the core, between Jim and Mike?”

The consensus from reviewers and readers is that the writers have successfully answered these questions.

The authors took their work on a tour that included book launches in Toronto and Ottawa. Silcoff spoke at Carleton on Jan. 27 for an event hosted by the Technology Innovation Management program.

This particular TIM Lecture was a celebration of the program’s 100th issue of the TIM Review journal, and was an ideal event to discuss the lessons of the BlackBerry story. Attendees were keen to know more about the innovative Canadian company that managed to create a market seemingly from scratch and then abruptly lose its monopoly.

Losing the Signal could remain a case study for years to come for those wanting to avoid a similar fate, said McNish.

“Whether you are a taxi driver or a banker, disruption is a fact of life and BlackBerry is the mother of all disruption stories.”

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