You've watched it happen to venerable brands like Kodak, Blockbuster, and Radio Shack. What was once an apparently invincible business is swept under by changing times and market conditions--and the dogged determination to keep doing what's worked in the past rather than find new opportunities for a different future.

And then there are companies like Apple. When the whole world was using room-size computers, Apple founder Steve Jobs was creating one that could sit on your desk. While everyone else embraced CDs that could play an hour of music on a device the size of a lunchbox, Jobs dreamed of putting your entire album collection into a candy-bar-size object in your pocket. While the rest of the world built ever smaller and lighter laptops, Jobs knew that many people would rather use tablets instead.

Jobs understood technology and what it could do, and he also understood users and their deepest desires. And while everyone else was living in the present, he had uncanny insight into how market forces and social trends were changing the world around him. That vision made Jobs, and Apple, virtually future-proof.

There was only one Steve Jobs and we can't all be him. But we can all learn to read the signals around us and position our companies and careers to flourish as technological and market trends shake up the industries and the world around us.

To get started, ask yourself these questions:

1. What's frustrating my customers?

Jobs saw earlier than anyone else what most frustrates casual users about technology--its complexity. He drove the engineers at Apple nuts with his relentless insistence that the company's products be completely simple and intuitive, but that insistence paid off handsomely in time.

You had better know what's frustrating your customers too, because if you don't, someone else will come along and steal them away by removing those frustrations. Ideally, you or your staff is in constant touch with your customers so you know exactly how happy or unhappy they are and exactly what would make them happier. And if there's any way in the world it can be done, you're going to give it to them.

2. What do my customers want, but they don't know it yet?

This ability to foresee what people will want may have been the biggest secret of Jobs's success. Admittedly, it's not easy to do, and Jobs appeared to go by instinct alone. But there are ways to move in the right direction.

Begin with the answer to question 1. Knowing what frustrates people will help you know what sorts of features or products would remove those frustrations and make them love you more.

Next, dream about the products or features you wish you could have, and ask your friends what they dream of too. And if you're still coming up dry, try watching some science fiction. From mobile flip phones to computer tablets, many products made their first appearance in programs like Star Trek, inspiring later product developers to actually create them.

3. How can new technology affect or improve my product?

Although Jobs's biggest talent was for product design rather than engineering, he was very quick to see how technological innovations could improve existing products or help create new ones. From pinch and zoom touchscreens to retina displays, Apple has a history of using the latest technology to create a better user experience. Competitors are often left scrambling to catch up.

There's a lesson here for every entrepreneur. Frequently reassess your product or service to see how technology could make it better, deliver it more seamlessly, or improve your customers' experience. Because if you don't, someone else will.

4. How should I respond to coming market trends?

One of Apple's most forward-thinking moves was its decision to create the first app store for its mobile devices. Ironically, it was a decision that Jobs forcefully resisted at first, insisting that third-party developers who wanted to create apps for the iPhone and other iOS devices should design Web-based apps that would run within the iOS browser. That approach soon proved unpopular with developers, and Jobs, to his credit, quickly reversed course.

It was a smart move, because it let Apple take advantage of growing interest in disintermediation--the removal of traditional middlemen, such as retailers, from the buying and selling equation. Aspiring App Store sellers go through a product review mainly for security purposes, but once they pass they can use the App Store like a marketplace, setting their own prices and communicating directly with customers. Apple's strong relationship with the app developer community remains an important asset today, even as Android phones have come to outnumber iPhones and the number of apps available on the Google Play Store has ballooned.

What market trends do you see on the horizon that could give you a similar competitive advantage?

Published on: May 15, 2015
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