I have constantly reminded people that it's always a bad bet for any company to try to be all things to all people-; unless you have the technology to support mass customization solutions (See Surprise! You Can Be All Things To All People). For the vast majority of companies, a scattered and over-extended approach results in a business that's spread a mile wide and an inch deep. Yet I'm still confronted almost every day with new examples of this same problem. No one gets anything 100% right the first time out, so trying to build a product or service that is so comprehensive that it works for the world is crazy.

This isn’t a problem that’s limited to new or small businesses with little or no experience. The biggest guys in business are equally adept at repeatedly stubbing their toes exactly the same way. They try to boil the whole ocean by taking on too much too soon, trying to address every possible part of every market and they end up getting scalded in the process. Niches are nice and a really smart place to focus as you start.

You would think that anyone with any smarts (or at least some access to any decent tech conference or publication in the last decade) would be sick of hearing, and absolutely know by now, that a lack of early focus-;or an inability to say "no" on a regular basis to ideas that are clearly attractive, but off target-; is a certain formula for failure. You can try to do pretty much anything you want today, but you can’t do it all at once. This isn’t new news. I’ve been harping on this subject myself for 20 years or more. Focus, focus and more focus: start small, nail it, then scale it.

The fact is that, when Henry Ford launched the Model T, I’m reasonably sure that the last things on his mind were seat coverings, trim options or paint colors. You could buy your new Ford automobile in any color that you wanted as long as it was basic black. He knew that he had much bigger fish to fry-; matters of substance, not style-; if he was going to ultimately succeed in a cost-effective manner on a large scale. So he focused on the big things first. The new car was all about function, not fashion, and it was also an early lesson for all of us on the importance of laser-like focus and tunnel-vision when you’re launching not just a new product, but new ideas, categories and behaviors as well.

At the same time, as everyone knows, had he been too focused on simply incremental improvements (faster horses), he would have never made the critical jump over the chasm and into the future. See Stop Focusing. See Around Corners Instead.. So a little balance and some perspective are big advantages also.

Apple used to have the same kind of courage of its convictions in its new products-; at least while Steve Jobs was alive. Ear buds for the iPad-; you can have any shade of white that you like. Model selection across several products-; meager or non-existent or pre-packed at the factory. Consumer choices-; not really interested. The whole marketing posture sent a clear message to the consumer that Apple had already made all the important choices for you and they’d tell you what to like. Frankly, as cool and stylish as the products were, what was really critical was what was under the cover and inside the box. In the end, that’s what really matters.

White pretty much used to be for Apple what black was to the Model T. In fact, you could argue that the advent of color choices for the iPhone 5c (black, white and silver don’t count), along with the proliferation of a dozen bands for the new watch, wasn’t exactly a triumph of innovation. These additions were more like fairly confusing and boring line extensions-;reflections of just a touch of desperation rather than design. The only thing we know for sure these days is that hesitating and hedging your bets as well as halfway execution aren’t the hallmarks of any great entrepreneurs.

What was really lost when Steve died was that singular sense of unerring confidence, which I thought of as his “sometimes wrong, but never in doubt” approach. A little hubris isn’t exactly the worst thing an entrepreneur can have when he or she is starting out-; it’s probably critical. Apple used to be all about an intensely-focused effort to do a very few elegant things really well. The feeling seemed to be “we’ll always be Apple and never be Android.” In fact, Apple still brags about all of its products fitting on the kitchen table, but-; to me-; the burgeoning product mix these days looks more like potpourri than perfection.

And guess, on the other hand, who seems to have learned its lesson and getting it right these days? At least as to Glass, it’s Google that’s taking a couple of steps backwards in order to move the whole wearable computing category forward. They’re doing it by (a) narrowing their focus (not chasing the consumer for now); (b) addressing a limited number of problem sets; and (c) going after target customer markets with readily-discoverable best-use cases and the most obvious and low-hanging solutions. It’s all about industrial uses and enterprise level solutions rather than trying to continue to change the behavior of consumers across the entire planet overnight.

It seemed pretty obvious to me from Day One that Glass was a perfect tool for the surgical suite (photos, narration, shared viewing, largely hands-free and sterile, etc.) and a farce for the fashionistas. And if they get it right with Glass, you can bet that we’re going to see a very similar strategy with respect to Google voice search and voice recognition in general (even Siri) which has suffered for decades from the same attempts to overreach instead of focusing on the immediate opportunities to massively increase industry productivity by addressing easy needs rather than beating their heads against the wall trying to solve the last 1% of the problem.

Voice recognition is essentially more than 100% accurate when it is properly employed to interpret, capture and respond to a fixed and basic vocabulary and/or a finite set of commands. This is why it will be so central to the next several generations of the connected car where we’ll never see a keyboard that makes any sense. And the opportunities are huge because millions of businesses have exactly these kinds of finite vocabularies of products, services, descriptions and conditions or instructions which could use accurate voice control systems every day to save millions of man hours which are now wasted with inventory functions, clipboards, scanning guns, etc.

The introduction of new technology is always tough and the obvious conclusion is that you don’t have to make it harder than necessary on yourself by aiming too high at the outset. Focusing on immediate problem solving for customers who are willing, able and interested in buying what you’ve got to sell today is the name of the game.

 

Published on: Aug 4, 2015