Saturday, November 20, 2010

Following the Ice Breaker Ship is Easier

I recently talked to a company with an innovative product; if it's effective, it could be a game-changer. Their plan was to hit certain deadlines so they could be first in the market in a big way.

I reminded them that being first isn't necessarily best. They "know" this because two of the leaders came from the Best Buy organization, which wasn't first in its market. Wal-Mart wasn't first. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones weren't first. Facebook wasn't first. Yahoo nor Google were first. Microsoft's Internet Explorer wasn't first, nor was Mozilla's Firefox. Likewise, Apple wasn't first with its Macintosh computer, its iPod as an mp3 player, iPhone or most recently with the iPad. None of their products have really been "first". They've been best at learning from the others with regard to design, functionality, and bundling services with the products. (I'm waiting for the electric car to be bundled with a service for recharging in convenient places.)

Bundling may be a good strategy for this company too. There is a key industry sector, an ever-growing sector, into which they can penetrate with a strategic partner who's already strong in that sector. Their product would complement this partner's.

Game-changing isn't necessarily the key to success either. There are lots of innovative products that haven't gone anywhere. Dean Kamen's Segway...and it's too earlier to tell about Terrafugia's Transition--a combination road-worthy car and small plane...and too early for Shenzen Huashi Future Parking Equipment's 2-lane straddling bus that would be immune to traffic delays (but could be stopped dead by overpasses, and could cause traffic accidents if a car stops in order to wait for the lengthy, behemoth bus to pass overhead-and-alongside, before it can make a right turn)...

I worked for a company that tried to combine its product with another function on a unit that could be towed. The idea sounded good to management in the strategic planning session (or some of the management). The market for the new unit would have been country clubs, landscaping services, lawn management companies. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to check with the customers to see what they would have used. By the time the development and early production was done, it cost a million dollars apiece to build the few units that were actually sold.

What sounds good to us may sound really stupid to the people we hope buy it. It may not be wise to be first. Let others find out what's stupid and then capitalize on those lessons. The sailing is easier for the ship that follows the Coast Guard's ice breaker.

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