One of my favorite Apple product announcements happened on September 7, 2005. In an Apple music event announcement, Steve Jobs got on stage, gave the usual state of the business update, and then he did something I’d never seen before. He killed a wildly successful product.
The iPod Mini was one of the most popular consumer electronic devices of the time. iPod market share was skyrocketing and the Mini was leading the charge of segmenting the market with a variety of consumer-friendly price points. The Mini, with its size, sleek metal enclosure and variety of colors was loved, and Apple killed it. They completely redesigned around flash memory and shit-canned the Mini’s name and design.
The Mini had a worthy replacement – the flash-based iPod Nano – and it was likely that favorable price points for flash memory were a driving force in the new product. But why not milk it? The Mini had been on the market a year and a half and Apple was still having difficulty keeping the Mini in stock. Why kill a best-selling product? I think the reason, and, more importantly, an emerging Apple strategy, was announced as part of the keynote. Steve spent multiple slides showing off the Mini’s competition, and, not surprisingly, it looked a lot like the Mini. So rather than letting them catch up, he changed the game.
If there was ever a moment where Steve Jobs tipped his hand regarding what drives him, it was this moment.
Faster Than You
You have a hit. Congratulations, you’ve built something that is perceived as being best of class. Seminal moment – go you. What’s your next move?
Well, we’ve been busting our collective asses for a good long time and I think it’s high time that we all take a break and catch our collective breath.
If your goal is this solo win, if you have achieved everything that you want to achieve with this hit, here’s to you - the first round is on me. If your goal is growth, if you want to turn this win into more success, taking the time to catch your breath is the wrong strategy. Like, really wrong.
Your success is a battle plan for your competition. Your success is a public acknowledgement of a strategy that works, and while I appreciate that you and your team are tired, I’m going to be a buzz kill. Your success is your worst enemy. Your success, while hard earned, is a curse.
Your success is delicious. Others look at your success and think, “Well, duh, it’s so obvious what they did there – anyone can do that” and, frustratingly so, they’re right. Your success has given others a blueprint for what success looks like, and while, yes, the devil’s in the details, you have performed a lot of initial legwork for your competition in the process of becoming successful.
More bad news via metaphors. Your enticing success has your competition chasing you, and that means that, by definition, that they need to run harder and faster than you so they can catch up. Yes, many potential competitors are going to bungle the execution and vanish before they pose a legitimate threat but there’s a chance someone will catch up, and when they do, what’s their velocity? Faster than yours.
The reward for winning is the perception that you’ve won. In your celebration of your awesomeness, you are no longer focused on the finish line, you now lack a clear next goal, and while you sit there comfortably monetizing eyeballs, you’re becoming strategically dull. You’ve forgotten that someone is coming to eat you and if you wait until you can see them coming, you’re too late. Just ask Nokia or RIM.
The Devil in the Details
Apple’s current biggest competitor is itself, and I think Steve Jobs learned this the hard way – from the sidelines. When he returned, one of his first hires was a gentlemen named Tim Cook, and while Tim Cook holds a degree in industrial engineering, he is not an engineer, a designer, or a poet. Tim Cook is an execution machine and he exists at Apple to enable them to pull off one thing – the iPod Mini moment.
By initially focusing on getting Apple out of manufacturing and streamlining the supply chain, yes, he dramatically improved margins and it’s a lot easer to kill a bestseller under the warm blanket of an attractive balance sheet. But Cook’s larger contribution is an operations team that enables them to build and ship new products with increasingly ferocious regularity.
The reason you’ll see new iPhone hardware in the fall and yet another iPad come spring is because Steve Jobs knew that he didn’t just need to out-design his competition, he needed to out-execute them. Apple is an ambidextrous organization that is equally adept at designing products as they are at making sure millions of them are ready the moment you want them.
If you think nothing revolutionary was announced at the recent WWDC event, if you think you’ve heard it all, I ask you to think about what they’re not talking about. I was thinking about the iPod Mini as I watched the announcement of the MacBook Pro. While it is certainly one of the sexiest pieces of metal on the planet, it also represents painfully consistent execution by Apple.
Yes, you’ve heard it all before – Retina display, thinner, faster, and more, but I trust Apple when they say they re-imagined everything in the design. I fully expect there is design work in the MacBook Pro that you’ve never heard of that will give the next iPhone or iPad a competitive edge and I believe the experience they’ve gained executing this design will allow them to not only maintain, but increase momentum.
How long can they keep it up? I don’t know, but I do know that Apple believes the future is invented by the people who don’t give a shit about the past.