It seems like you can't open a browser window without seeing headlines about Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Tesla, or Alibaba touting best practices for entrepreneurs--but there's plenty to be learned from companies that have been more quietly leading their categories.
Take for instance, Sony Corporation. The 71-year-old company just posted an analyst-shocking quarter with a 346 percent growth in earnings. I thought Sony may have something to teach both young and old growing companies about sustainable success, so I spent the last several weeks digging into Sony's history and annual reports.
I've distilled seven decades worth of advice into seven steps that can aid your strategic planning this season:
1. Think big inside small entry points.
Sony launched in May 1946 with the Type-G, Japan's first tape recorder. The company's philosophy was to think big inside small entry points. When founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita designed the Type-G, it wasn't just a tape recorder--it was a complete tape recording system.
This subtle nuance can have a monumental impact on your growth potential. Sony developed the first tape recorder in Japan--and the magnetic heads and tape necessary to make digital recording a reality decades later.
Develop products and solutions with extendable capabilities. Practice seeing around corners.
2. Aggressively scale on that same DNA into complementary offerings.
In the mid-1950s, Sony's TR-63 radio hit the U.S. and scaled from roughly 100,000 units to several million units by the mid-1960s. The company attacked television in a similar fashion: It launched the Trinitron brand in 1968 as "not just another TV, but as a whole new way to watch color television."
Be aggressive when you get your first runaway momentum. The caveat: Stay within a parallel lane where you can leverage your existing resources, DNA, and distribution channels so you don't spread thin.
3. Build solutions for where your customers are heading.
When we think about human life today, we think about "mobility." Well, Sony was doing that in the 1970s.
Before Steve Jobs delivered the first Apple computer or put 1,000 songs in our pockets, Sony gave us "music anywhere you go." The Walkman was revolutionary for its time, adding a waterproof case and auto-reverse functionality ahead its peers.
Think about what your customers will need, not just what they currently have.
4. Wait for your customer.
Innovators march to their own cadence, often ahead of the consumer adoption curve. Research and development funds get sunk into technology that never gains commercial scale but paves the way for future market opportunities.
Sony invested in the digital era back in the 1980s, far before the internet hit scale. When Sony co-developed the CD and introduced the first home, car, and portable CD players, it was with the big idea of launching a digital and optical technology era.
The CD the most successful music format in history, by volume of consumption. Sony was early on its loftier ambition and became vulnerable by the bureaucracy that comes with sizable success.
5. Lose your focus to find the right focus.
Massive success comes with the challenge of getting too broad with your offerings and losing sight of the brand relationship you have with your customer groups.
Sony faced this in the 1990s and early 2000s. Its AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot) product was the first consumer product to highlight the important role that human-robotic interactions would play in the future. However, the weight of Sony's numerous business lines and the pressures of a U.S. recession shifted its focus to shareholder value and other non-customer centric metrics.
When you build a company around innovation, you become a target as smaller, nimbler players enter the space with competing solutions. It can leave you looking like a "me-too" versus the trailblazer that you are.
6. Preserve your core and play defense when under heavy fire.
When you're under strain, there are no easy decisions. Every entrepreneur knows what it's like when you feel your prior success could vanish at a moment's notice.
In the 2000s, Sony looked like a once-great company that had lost its way. However, it held on to its core DNA of innovation and quality development and brought to market things like the Charge-Coupled Device (CDD)--which ultimately affects everything today from cameras to smartphones and self-driving cars.
Prioritize survival. Play defense to preserve your core without forgoing an offensive mindset.
7. Re-insert your customer at the heart of your business process.
When you finally get a reprieve from heavy fire, take your remaining energy and implement a customer-centric culture and organization-wide doctrine.
Every product or service today can be commoditized to some degree--within days, if not minutes--and our only ground for differentiation is customer experience.
Sony put the stagnant years between the mid 1990s-2014 behind itself by putting the customer back in the center of its business decision making.
Now, get back to work building that company I'll be writing about next in this column.