Here’s what to do to stay ahead so what sets you apart doesn’t end up setting you behind.
I’m a self-professed gadget junkie. Back in the heyday of the BlackBerry, I was talking to another gadget lover about the benefits of the BlackBerry over the recently-announced iPhone. While we both were enamored with and awe-inspired by the iPhone, as management consultants, we lived and died by our BlackBerry devices, so we were having trouble with the idea of typing on a screen (as many did).
Beyond that, my colleague pointed out one major advantage RIM (BlackBerry’s name at the time) had over the iPhone or other devices – data management. Specifically, he was talking about how all website or other data transmissions pass through RIM servers for compression and serving back to the devices to speed browsing and lower data usage. It was a brilliant solution for a time when data speed and throughput was very limited, and people paid by the megabyte for their data plans. Quite a different time from today’s unlimited or by-the-gig plans, and speeds that rival wired broadband connections.
But as devices tended toward being screen-based and once 3G launched, that benefit became either worth less, worthless or a cost.
It was worth less (or even worthless) in that most people no longer needed the speed improvement afforded by compression as badly as we once did, either for speed or transmission sizes relative to our plan limitations. And I can say, first hand, sometimes it backfired as the RIM servers occasionally had issues or choked, so you ended up unable to get any content even when the site you wanted to visit was working.
It became a cost as we started to consume visual content on our devices, so lower-quality, compressed content was not appreciated. Add to that the speed that mobile networks could now achieve, the bar rose for what we deemed an acceptable mobile browsing experience, and visual appeal suddenly rose up in our priority ranking.
And of course, it was a cost for RIM who was spending money running their servers to be able to do all of this in the first place.
But none of these specifics or a debate about what people want in their mobile web experience is what this post is actually about.
It’s about the lesson embedded in this story. What was once one of our key selling points can become one of our key detractors.
So what can you do?
Keep up. Duh, right? But how you keep up is the key. I talked about this relative to my experience running my first marathon. The idea is to be aware of yourself, tuning out the noise of competitors buzzing around you. But at the same time, know where you stand, where you’re heading, and what major threats to how you are going about things may arise.
For RIM, that would mean to have their key feature of data compression and reserving, but to understand why it’s a valuable feature, and what would make it less valuable or even a hindrance to success.
They should have known why they were doing things as they were, and also have a response to each of the threats that could lead their approach to work against them.
While this sounds obvious, it doesn’t generally happen. Many companies miss their chance to proactively evolve to stay leaders.
I was reading this morning about how there is now only one Blockbuster Video location left in the country. There used to be 9,000. They could have looked at their business model as consumption of media started to shift online, and thought about how their current key selling feature of a local, brick and mortar solution might become a hindrance and how they can evolve.
And, actually, it wouldn’t even be too original for them to do so, since the music and print industries were already in the throws of it (magazines were moving online, and music had already done it). Even their own industry, movies, was coming under heavy threat from pirates, so they knew it was coming. And that’s to say nothing of Netflix (the original Netflix where you got DVDs by mail through a subscription plan).
On the flip side, you can look at Amazon, who is about to cross the line to owning half of US online sales, with over a quarter-trillion in sales, according to eMarketer. Did you know that 70% of their sales are through marketplace transactions, meaning where Amazon is merely a platform for other sellers? What if they never opened themselves up to that approach? Well, the number two online retailer is eBay, with just 6.6% marketshare (what a HUGE drop off to #2!). If all Amazon Marketplace sales went to eBay, then Amazon would be #2 at about 15% share and eBay would control nearly 41% of all commerce revenue. Quite a role reversal!
This is about people as much as businesses
The lesson applies to people, too. If you have an interpersonal style that works really well for you in one setting, it may lead to your downfall in another. A blatant example is the difference between teaching little kids and teaching adults. I got a taste of this as a ski instructor where I had to flex my style between teaching groups of 7-12 year olds how to ski in the morning, and then working with teens or adults in the afternoon. You can imagine how the things that made me the kids’ favorite instructor in the morning would lead to a ridiculous amount of eye-rolling in the afternoon!
I think it’s actually easier with people than with companies, but the fact is, we all run the risk of getting stuck in our approach, our mindset and our ideas. They may be right and good in a given situation or moment. Even still, they may need to change in another moment.
Keep an open mind, question not just your failures but your successes, and what might make them failures so you can plan how you might respond to keep on top of your goals.