In the early 2000s, the first social media network was launched. It was a huge success, but then, after a while, it was shut down. No, it wasn't Myspace or Facebook. It was Orkut. "Orkut?" You ask. "What was that?"
Orkut was an experiment at Google developed by an engineer of the same name. Google shut it down despite its success because it didn't fit the Google success formula. For the company that developed a superior algorithm and eliminated most of the search engines in the way, it was difficult to see a future in which people, not algorithms, determine search and popularity ranking. Past success blinded Google to future development. This is a classic case of success by repeating the past, not creating the future.
The most dangerous part of every business is success. Success breeds complacency. Success turns you from a ready-to-invent person to a ready-to-enjoy person. You treat success as cash-out time, and that's when you start slipping. That's when you begin to take things for granted and assume you've discovered an eternal winning formula. In reality, your competitors are already working on plans to topple your achievement. They've noticed it and they're copying it, and they're trying to be better and bolder. While you enjoy a celebratory glass of Champagne, they're working on your demise.
Remember Circuit City? Pan Am? Borders books? Blockbuster? When you think about them, what is the first word that comes to mind? Failure? Think again.
They were very successful companies. They redefined their industries and, during their time, were beacons of innovation and customer engagement. They were exceptional once, but then they lost it. Was it overnight failure? No. They continued to ride on the wings of inertia and initial success until they discovered they were no longer relevant to consumers.
Success transforms your mindset. It makes you see what you've gained as a guarantee for the future. There are no guarantees. The success trap is the attempt to continue to do what worked in the past instead of evolving. It's the loss of hunger, succumbing to incremental corrections as opposed to bolder exceptionalism. For a period of time, your success formula will carry you. You will repeat the past and customers will pay for it. But, eventually, they will get bored. Your competitors will reinvent themselves, and you'll be repeating yourself.
There is a big difference between success and sustainable success. While success is the enjoyment of the fruits of your labor, sustainable success is the paranoia of seeking the next success while you're successful. It is difficult to do, as you can tell by the history of the aforementioned companies and many like them. While you are in the midst of success, you are busy and happy, and all of your focus is on executing well.
But while you're preoccupied with your present success, someone else is busy redefining it through some breakthrough experience that will excite customers all over again. Developing sustainable success means being the best executor of your current formula for success while also assuming the willingness to cannibalize it in order to stay relevant and exciting. It's being the builder and the destroyer at the same time. It sounds contradictory, but it's not.
So how do you go about doing that?
Principle 1 - Ask the right questions. Successful companies seek customer satisfaction. Evolving companies seek to improve, and identify newly unmet needs and hidden customer aspirations. Ask your customers what is missing, not what they love already.
Principle 2 - Cannibalize yourself. Be the first one to recognize the success, and, as your competitors try to imitate you, don't stand still and expand. Imagine and execute a plan to evolve your solution.
Principle 3 - Experiment when the market is small. When you become successful, you only dare to change when the evolving market is large enough. It has to be large enough to justify your time and attention, right? Think again. Such a position will ensure other startups have already established themselves in the newly evolving market. Approach new opportunities when they are nascent.
Principle 4 - Dedicate resources to innovation. Tolerance for failure drops significantly when you are successful. You now seek guarantees and have forgotten the old days of experimentation. It's time to build a team with a full charter to fail so they can create the next big thing.
Principle 5 - Celebrate failure. In a successful organization, rewards and recognition go to the winners. They are the people who execute on today's strategy at the expense of the future. Failure and experimentation are treated with a great deal of suspicion and dismay. Change that. Give people license to experiment and fail. Allow them the freedom to try something new and reach new discoveries.
In the fast-paced world in which we operate--where the window of opportunity for being relevant and exceptional is constantly shrinking--you must develop a sustainable success model. Consider the alternative. If you won't cannibalize your business in the name of value proposition relevance, customer excitement, and exceptional value, someone else will.
Beware of the success trap. Do not fall into the calming assumption that past success is an indication of the future. Go on the offensive and search for the next bold thing that will surprise your customers. FYI, as you read this article, someone else is doing it already.