Many years ago, in a seminal TED talk about education and creativity, Sir Ken Robinson described a conversation with his daughter in which he tried to explain why he stubbornly chose to continue to wear a wristwatch. She pointed out that his watch did nothing more than tell the time--a ubiquitous piece of info in the digital world. In his meager defense, he reminded her, with little apparent success, that his watch also told the date. She wasn't swayed. And, in polling the audience that evening, he discovered that virtually no one under the age of 25 was wearing a watch.

The point is that the next several generations of digital natives--as opposed to those of us who think of ourselves as digital immigrants-- will assume and take so many things for granted because they will have grown up in a world where they never knew otherwise. In the next few years, we will all come to expect our devices, digital assistants and other tools and technologies to become more powerful, better at anticipating our requirements, and robust and accessible sources of answers and solutions (as opposed to choices or alternatives) across the entire spectrum of our mental and physical needs and desires.

In an "always-on" mobile world where multi-tasking is increasingly mandatory (although not necessarily effective) dedicated, single-purpose devices will inevitably come to seem inefficient, pathetically limited, and so yesterday. As time and space become ever more precious, we're in a constant struggle to make sure that the sources and magical things that we attach to (or implant in) our bodies or feature prominently on our screens, absolutely deliver the most "bang for the buck" in terms of utility, productivity, efficiency and cost.

We don't have any interest or time to hunt for the right remote or correct controller, to learn a new app or behavior, or spend a moment more than necessary in getting to where we need to be. We're in a features and functionality arms race; the competitive bar continues to rise whether you're talking about apps, watches, phones, fitness or health trackers, ear buds, etc. And, above all, we want them to be as seamlessly integrated into our day-to-day existence as possible. I want exactly what I want - when and wherever I want it - and ideally without asking.

This race is all about ease, access, convenience and "one-stop" shopping and this is why the battle to be the primary operating system in the home is heating up so quickly. Right now, we average more than eight digital devices in our homes, but that's not remotely (so to speak) sustainable. You might think you want an Alexa-enabled device in every room, but Amazon and Lennar Homes are betting that you'll want the system built in, right along with the plumbing and electrical. 

This is also why there's so much competition and confusion around mobile and in-store payment systems. Why waste time extracting and swiping a credit card to pay for anything? Look at what's going on in China with WeChat: more than 900 million daily users essentially live their entire lives on the system and send about 38 billion messages a day. Cash is increasingly a thing of the past.

Comprehensive, integrated solutions and a few dominant platforms (social, shopping, financial and maybe health) are the way the whole world is headed. Stand-alone anything is going to be increasingly difficult to sustain. If it wasn't already tough enough to be in the hardware business, it's likely that things are going to be getting a lot worse. One significant indicator of this trend is Amazon killing its branded DASH buttons. Millions of these simple, in-home reordering devices were sold and installed. What could be easier than walking into your pantry and pressing a couple of little Tide and Windex buttons stuck to the wall to order your favorite cleaning products and have them appear hours later on your doorstep?  Instead, Amazon concluded that voice ordering by consumers through Alexa-enabled products -- Alexa is increasingly being built into refrigerators, microwaves, portals, etc.-- is going to be even more compelling, and far less costly from a production and distribution standpoint. Thus, the wave of the future.

So, if you are in an industry predicated upon a dedicated device, you need to be thinking a lot about where your business is headed. You know what happened to the fax machine. But now we're talking about plugs, cords and other add-on accessories in a wireless world, along with Wi-Fi hotspots, E-Z Pass transponders, garage door openers, etc.  Smarts, as in software, continues to trump steel; any device whose utility can be folded into another platform, vehicle or software system is history.

And here's where a lot of the conventional startup wisdom is also getting stood on its head. We used to emphasize that nothing was more important for a new business than focus. Keep your head down, concentrate on doing a few things really well, identify and double-down on your USP and sustainable competitive advantage, etc. because you need to differentiate yourself from the pack of competitors who will soon enough be on your tail.

Today, fierce focus isn't enough because perspective -- seeing the bigger picture and the way things are moving -- or, as my colleague Rob Wolcott calls it, "foresight" is even more critical. It's not enough to run away from the rabbits; you've got to find or create a protected path forward that will let you grow into your own integrated solution or become an important part of someone else's plan. Just as faxes, scanners and copiers quickly merged into all-in-one machines and CD players disappeared in car dashboards, the pressure to fold additional functions into existing forms -- especially in cars and phones -- is only going to grow.

These days, part of your getting-started calculation needs to be "how can I build my business to be bought by one of the big guys." Here are some tips:

1) Don't raise a crazy amount of money too soon; get the business to cash positive ASAP so you're accretive in an acquisition.

2) Don't plan to be the best "one-trick" pony in the pack because that's an idea whose time has passed.

3) Above all, focus and fall in love with, the ultimate solution. That means solving the customers' ultimate needs as opposed to falling in love with your present product.

 

 

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.