Tag Archives: business thinking

Innovating On Top Of Imitating

Let’s start today with something written by someone significantly smarter about business than yours truly:

In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and new ways of doing things that we are witnessing today, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. A simple look around us will, I think, quickly show that imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.

Right? That wasn’t written recently, however. It’s from a piece written in 1966 for The Harvard Business Review by Theodore Levitt. If you’re a businessperson and you don’t know who he is you might want to do a little research. His classic piece Marketing Myopia has been one of the foundations upon which I base my business thinking. It argues that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Amen.

That’s not our topic today, however. What caught my eye was a piece about how What’sApp was imitating Snapchat‘s disappearing content feature that lets users share photos, videos, and GIFs that disappear after 24 hours. You might be aware that Instagram – also owned by Facebook – did the same copying last summer with Stories. Facebook itself is doing the same thing. In Snapchat it seems as if we have a company who innovates beautifully but does so in a way that simply blazes a trail that others follow shortly thereafter. Facebook, in this case, is the imitator. Apple is a classic imitator. They will let others innovate and learn from the success or failure of those innovations, refining them and making them better. One could argue that for a while, the entire Japanese manufacturing economy was based on that principle – innovative imitation.

As Professor Levitt wrote, there is nothing wrong with that. While every company needs to do some innovating, “no single company can afford even to try to be first in everything in its field. The costs are too great; and imagination, energy, and management know-how are too evenly distributed within industries.” The question for any of us is when do we need to dig deep and innovate vs. when should we be looking to what others are doing nicely and make it better? You might surprise yourself if you can put your business ego aside and focus on solving customers’ problems better than anyone else can, even if it’s just by doing innovating on top of imitating someone else. Clear?

Leave a comment

Filed under Consulting

It Just Works

I’m old enough and digital enough to have used the first IBM PC and VisiCalc. It wasn’t the easiest thing to use but it pretty much was the only thing. DOS led to other operating systems, primarily Windows, that enabled all of us to work more efficiently. Well, that is, unless we were busy figuring out why we couldn’t print or why we were suddenly deluged with pop-up ads via malware.

English: IBM Personal Computer model 5150 with...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That was always the biggest appeal of Apple products to me. They just worked. My primary computer is a MacBook Air and the thought of going back to a Windows environment, no matter how good the reviews are on Windows 10, is dismaying. I’ve had to help friends with their Win10 issues and it certainly doesn’t “just work.” Then again, neither does my MacBook any longer. Sure, it’s nice that the OS upgrades every year (for free!) but I find myself diagnosing problems constantly now (wifi drops, SD cards being ejected at random, and more!).

My next computer will be a Chromebook; specifically a Chromebook with a touchscreen that can serve as a tablet. Chromebooks do just work. They are malware free. Think about how you work now. Most of it is probably via a web browser and in the cloud – my work certainly is for the most part. And they’re inexpensive – I can buy two decent Chromebooks for the price of a new MacBook or a touchscreen Windows machine. But what does this have to do with your business?

The bulk of customers wants that “it just works” experience no matter what you’re selling. They want their problems solved with the least hassle and for the best value. Notice I didn’t say for the lowest price. Just as there are high-end Chromebooks costing more than some Apple computers, so too is there a segment of buyer that want the high-end product and can afford to pay more if they perceive better quality, better service, or maybe a boost to their self-esteem (think luxury cars). But that’s not everyone.

If you want to brag about your computer’s specs then Chromebooks probably aren’t for you. Honestly, they’re not for everyone – you can’t do serious gaming or Photoshop or video editing. If you’re the type that likes to tweak your settings until they’re just right, you probably want to stick with something else. You need to think about your business in this context too. Are you for some very specialized, narrow audiences or are you for the bulk of the consumer base? If the latter, I’d suggest you focus on the “it just works” experience because history shows that’s how the best businesses succeed. You with me?

Leave a comment

Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Unlimited Gall

You might be aware of the battle going on in the wireless provider space which revolves around “unlimited” service. Yes, I meant to put unlimited in quotes because as it turns out there is no such thing. I’ll explain the details in a second but what this represents is mirrored in other businesses too and is a ridiculous bit of anti-customer behavior in which none of us should engage. Let’s see what you think.

First, the phone war. Verizon and T-Mobile are the primary protagonists. Verizon announced it was bringing back unlimited data so you could stream video on your mobile device to your heart’s content. Of course, as one article reminded us, unlimited is actually not:

“Unlimited” data also continues to be a misnomer. If you use more than 22GB of data, Verizon may throttle your connection. You also only get the $80/month price if you sign up for Autopay. If you don’t, it will cost $85/month. While this includes the $20 fee for adding a line, it doesn’t include your phone’s payment plan, so if you want to pay monthly to buy a phone, it will cost more.

T-Mobile responded with changes to their own so-called unlimited data plan. While the plan was unlimited previously, it added on charges for video quality over 480p (that’s not great). It also charged you extra to use your phone as a high-speed (meaning 3G quality) hotspot. It slowed the data down before. In the new plan, those limits are gone but T-Mobile says subscribers who use more than 28GB of data in a given month may see their speeds reduced due to “prioritization” in congested areas. In short, using the word “unlimited” is crap. There are still limits, and if you’re a consumer you have the right to expect that there really aren’t.

The phone companies (and Sprint and AT&T aren’t much better) aren’t the only businesses that do a form of bait and switch. It’s no secret that what you’re quoted as an airfare is also only part of the story since there are fees for bags, boarding passes, seats, and just about anything else depending on your carrier. The airlines say the fees are optional. Yeah, sure. And pay the fee at the airport and there is a fee to pay the fee!

Ever buy tickets to a show online? Convenience (whose convenience?) fees, printing fees, etc. Ever book a hotel room? Resort fees, safe fees, service fees, and more. My bank charges my business account a monthly admin fee even though they make money off the money I have in the bank. My cable operator charges me for sports channels I can’t refuse to take.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that businesses need to be upfront about their true costs to consumers or face a backlash when their dishonesty is discovered. I’d much rather know the true cost of something than to feel as if I’d been ripped off later. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that how we need to treat our customers?

Leave a comment

Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Eating At The Buffet

Our topic this Foodie Friday is buffets. Las Vegas is renowned for the lavish and enormous buffets but they can be found almost anywhere across this great land of ours. There are dedicated buffet restaurants, most hotels offer a buffet option for breakfast and many bbq joints offer something similar so you needn’t choose between the 4 or 5 varieties of meat and the 7 or 8 sides they serve. Grab a plate, pile it high, and it’s on!

A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United Stat...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One could make the argument that a traditional dim sum place is a buffet in reverse. Instead of you going to fill your plate from a variety of choices, the variety of choices are wheeled out to you and you choose as they go by. I don’t put salad bars into the buffet category since by definition they have a more limited focus.

My buffet strategy is to skip the “normal” foods (corn, mashed potatoes, cold cuts, etc.) and to focus on the more indigenous specialty items. I don’t want to fill up on food I could get anywhere while missing whatever makes this experience unique. After all, while I have a healthy appetite, I can’t eat everything, right?

That’s business point today. I remind many of my clients that they need to “step away from the buffet.” When you are a growing company and you have a smart, visionary leadership team, there is a tendency to want to try everything on the buffet table. In business, that means chasing down every apparent opportunity in an effort to grow. The reality is that no early- or mid-stage business can afford to do that. Resources are too precious and the time to get to profitability is ticking away. Stepping away from the buffet means having a business plan that’s focused on whatever problem it is that the business is solving for your market segment and sticking to it. Don’t take that to mean that you can’t adjust based on what you’ve discovering on your journey:  you must! But you also can’t keep changing direction as you spot another new hot plate being added to the buffet.

Like a large buffet, business can present an overwhelming number of choices. Our job as managers is to find the best of those choices that align with our business goals. It’s one thing to overeat at breakfast. It’s quite another to run out of resources before reaching sustained profitability. Step away from that buffet!

Leave a comment

Filed under Consulting

Asked And Answered

I’m constantly advocating that we listen to our customers. One of the ways that we can do that is through surveys. The problem with many surveys is that we don’t ask the right questions, or we ask the right questions in the wrong way. Let me explain.

Suppose I were to ask about Obamacare. I might ask if you approve or disapprove of the law. Simple question, right? Unfortunately, wrong. To someone on the right, the “disapprove” answer might come from a disagreement with the mandate that we all have health insurance. To someone on the left, the “disapprove” response might come from feeling that the law doesn’t go far enough and a single payer system is what we need. Same answers, very different perspectives.

We often make that same mistake by not digging deeply enough. We’re told to avoid open-ended questions in survey design (they’re not computer friendly, after all), but in so doing we end up with data which is ambivalent at best and useless at worst. We also make the mistake of asking both new and returning customers the same things. Their perspectives are different and one group should have better, different insights from which we can learn.

Try to remember that consumers get hit up with surveys everywhere these days. You can’t make a customer service call without being prompted to stay on the line after you hang up to complete a survey. Many websites will pop up a user-experience survey while you’re in the midst of trying to find some important information. We need to survey but we need to be judicious. We need to be as personal as we can and to be respectful of our consumer’s time by not asking 30 questions (3 or 4 are optimal).

As with anything in business, put yourself in the customer’s position first. If what you’re asking is vague, repetitive, burdensome, or impersonal, you’ve already got your answer. It’s in your low response rates.

Leave a comment

Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

Those Who Aren’t Watching

It’s the Foodie Friday before the Super Bowl. It’s hard for me to imagine The Big Game without food. If I’m invited to a party there is usually an assortment of chips, dips, and snacks to get us through until halftime, when some sort of “main” is brought out. It could be a six-foot deli sandwich or a pot of chili – no self-respecting fan wants to be hovering over a grill or a stove during the Ultimate Game (which, as Hollywood Henderson once pondered, if it’s really the ultimate game, why will they play it again next year?). Many years I stay home and watch the game with someone else who is there TO WATCH THE DAMN GAME and not make idle conversation.

English: American-style pigs in blankets.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, I do need sustenance for my fandom. It’s not football without weenies (pigs in a blanket, hot dogs in puff pastry, whatever you call them) or jalapeño poppers (they look like little footballs!). This year I’ll throw a pork shoulder in either the pressure cooker or the slow cooker for some pulled pork at the half. That will be done long before kickoff.

I rarely go to a sports bar to watch the game. The big advantage is that the food is made for me and there are more choices than I’d have at home or at most parties. The noise level, however, is a big minus, not to mention the cost. Still, this is a choice for a lot of fans as well.

But there is one other segment of people that are instructive for us today. Even the most widely-watched Super Bowls aren’t watched by everyone. There are just some people who aren’t sports fans (the horror!). And they are an opportunity. I’m willing to bet it’s a great Sunday evening to get into almost any restaurant you’d like, and therein lies our business thought.

There are almost always opportunities available if you dig deeply enough. The availability of highly-targeted, one to one media has made it possible to identify the niche audiences that can be aggregated into a great business. That restaurant that might otherwise be empty on Super Bowl Sunday? How about calling or emailing your wait-list or the people who left phone numbers in the event of a cancellation? Maybe seat some folks earlier than usual, promising to have them out by the end of the first half so they can hit a bar or a party or home to watch the second half (the first half of these games tend to be dull anyway).

You take my point. This is the biggest event of every year and yet not everyone cares. Find them – there’s a good business opportunity there. Even the big guys in your category have people who aren’t fans. How are you going to seek them out? The rest of you – enjoy the game!

Leave a comment

Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

The Cobra Effect

If you heard any news this weekend, you probably are aware of the Executive Order banning folks from certain countries from entering the United States. I expect that the folks who issued the order felt that they were doing something pretty straightforward. Instead, they ended up preventing workers with visas, legal residents with green cards, and a host of others who have all their legal certifications in order from traveling here.

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Fa...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we’re not a political blog, I’m going to put aside humanitarian concerns and politics and instead focus on what one must assume are unintended consequences of the order. It’s the “Cobra Effect” come to life yet again. Unfamiliar with that? It got its name based on what happened when the Indian government offered rewards for dead cobras in an effort to cure a plague of them. Rather than decreasing the number of cobras, people began breeding them and killing them for the reward money. When the government figured this out they stopped paying for them. People released the cobras they no longer needed. Net effect? More cobras and lots of wasted money. Unintended consequences personified!

So how do we avoid the Cobra Effect in our businesses? Not by preserving the status quo since that’s rarely an option. It’s actually as simple as taking the time to think through what possible effects a particular action might have. “If we do this, that might happen.” Don’t be bashful about throwing out absurd conclusions, either. There are many examples those absurdities becoming reality (you gain more weight when you skip meals? Really?).

I guess my thinking is to go fast but do so slowly. Push for change and evolve your products, services, and business, but do so in a manner that thinks through as many of the potential effects those changes could bring about as you can imagine and avoid the Cobra Effect. Make sense?

Leave a comment

Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?