I was excited the first time I was to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The museum is full of famous works of art. I had read about or seen pictures of this art in books, but now I was going to get a close up look at the original paintings. I imagined that it would be a very inspiring visit.
Instead, it turned out to be a very disappointing visit. As it turned out, not only do you see the greatness of the paintings when you see them up close. You also see all the imperfections. In particular, I remember looking at some very famous Picasso paintings. When you studied them up close, you could see the rough pencil sketch underneath the paint. They looked a lot sloppier than the little photographic reproductions I had seen of them earlier in art books. After awhile, I became so fixated on the imperfections that I couldn’t enjoy the paintings.
I kept thinking to myself that I could probably find many artists who would be able to reproduce all of these paintings and have fewer imperfections. But in later reflection, I realized that I was missing the point. No matter how much more “perfect” these reproductions would be, they would never be more valuable than the original.
Copying is a lot easier than creating something entirely new. Imitators may even be able to make small improvements over the original. But in the world of art, the value belongs with the original, no matter how flawed it might be.
A similar situation exists in the business world. The ones who create, get known for and exploit exciting new business models first usually create more value than the later imitators.
Therefore, you’d think that there would be more business people striving to be the next Picasso—creating something new, exciting and very valuable. Yet, when I look around, it seems that the business world is more often filled with imitators and copiers. The idea seems to be that “People like that original over there, so if I make something just like it, they will like mine just as well.”
But as we all know, a “just like Picasso” is never as valuable as a real Picasso. Why should we expect the rules to be all that different in business?
We are currently on the second blog in a series on the three characteristics which tend to determine whether a business is a great, lasting winner, or a long-term loser. In the first blog, we looked at “Passion” and saw that the winners have a passion for the business and the intricacies of the business model which makes it work in the marketplace. The losers focus their passion on the money that comes out of the business and are only tangentially concerned about the details in how it is made.
In this blog we will look at “Direction.” Winners tend to move in new and different directions, like Picasso. Losers direct themselves to follow what is already working (the imitators).
The Problems With Following
There are many reasons why the followers rarely become the great companies. It doesn’t matter if you are following the standard rules of convention for your industry or following the innovation of the leaders. You are still following. And followers rarely reap great rewards.
There are three problems with focusing on following the conventional rules for how your industry works. First, if everybody is doing the same things in the same way, then you tend to have parity of offerings amongst the competition. How do you win over the competition if you are all perceived as being the same? This tends to lead to price wars (“everything is the same, but we cost less”), and we all know that price wars are not the path to creating above average prosperity.
Second, even if you can execute within the conventional rules a little bit better than everyone else, it is usually only a temporary advantage. In an earlier blog, we looked at the battle between Fuji and Kodak in conventional analog photographic film. Sometimes Fuji would have a slight advantage; then Kodak would get a slight edge—back and forth it went with no clear winner. The real winners were the innovators who abandoned the conventional rules of photography and brought digital imaging to the masses.
Third, there are limits to how much better one can become by playing by the same rules. The law of diminishing returns tells us that ever increasing improvements tend to lead to ever smaller perceived benefits. For example, I could make an ever more perfect nail, but at some point, the guy hammering that nail into a board won’t be able to see how those perfections improve his hammering. In other words, superior executions of the status quo often do not create enough of a differentiating benefit to shift habitual shopping patterns for the customers.
So what about following the innovators? Well, you’re still a follower. The last time I checked, followers never win races. Just as Picasso gets superior credibility for pursuing a new path, business innovators get superior credibility over their followers. The innovator becomes synonymous with the innovation. The rest are seen as mere copiers.
For example, Google means search. Even though the follower Bing claims a slight superiority in blind tests, Google still wins the war for market share in search. Why? We are not brand blind. The emotional bonds associated with the leader brand overcome the slight differences. The same thing happened when follower Pepsi claimed superior taste in blind taste tests over Coke. Coke still won the war.
Finally, the follower usually is one step behind the innovator. By the time the follower catches up to where the leader was, the leader has moved on to the next innovation. That is why hockey great Wayne Gretzky attributed his success to ignoring where the puck currently is and instead going to where the puck is going to be. Rather than following the puck, he got in front of it.
There are only two ways to win by following. First, you can win by having your competitors make colossal mistakes. Their failure becomes an opening for your gain. But a strategy that depends on others to make mistakes is not much of a strategy. In addition, if you are a follower, you will probably follow them into similar mistakes. For example, the financial collapse which triggered the great recession was caused by colossal mistakes in the banking industry. But because most of the big banks tended to be following each other and playing by the same flawed rules, most of them fell victim to the flaw and could not gain meaningful advantage.
The second way to win playing by conventional rules is if you are substantially larger than everyone else and can leverage your size to your advantage. However, this begs the question of how one gets to be so much larger than the others in the first place. Usually the bigger players got to be so much bigger because they were the innovative leaders which rewrote the old conventional rules into what became today’s conventional rules. It was their leadership which made them big, not any form of followership.
The Value of Being Different
There are two ways to be different. First, you can create a new business model which is inherently superior to the status quo model at delivering value. For example, Southwest Airlines has been a consistent success competing against other airlines who struggle to survive. Why? Southwest Airlines played by a different business model, focused on point-to-point (among other things). It’s unique business model allowed it to provide superior value that those playing by conventional rules could not imitate. Even the best player by conventional rules could not exceed the value offered by Southwest’s different approach to the business.
Another example would be Salesforce.com. While others were playing by the old rules of installing and supporting software scattered everywhere, Salesforce.com eliminated the software paradigm and was a leader in putting everything up in the cloud. That change in business model gave Salesforce.com inherent advantages that the conventional operators couldn’t match if they stayed in the old paradigm, no matter how well they executed it.
This helps reinforce the first differentiation we talked about in the prior blog—where winners focus on business models. You won’t find the success of a Southwest Airlines of Salesforce.com unless you spend time focused on business models.
The second way to win in difference is by creating a new value proposition which did not exist before. Apple has been a winner by creating wholly new types of value expectations. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad changed the whole way people thought about how to live and enjoy their lives. They created new values in new places.
The “Fast Fashion” operators, like H&M, Zara and Forever 21, helped change the definition of what to value in fashion for a significant segment. Instead of defining fashion by Exclusive Labels, High Prices, High Quality and Fashion Seasons, they made fashion more disposable, where frequent change/variety combined with low prices (and lower quality) was a new winning formula.
If you look across the spectrum of business, you will find that nearly every great company at some point took one of these different directions. They either came up with a new business model which had inherent advantages over the old model in the conventional industry, or they invented whole new industries by redefining or creating new value formulas.
One of the key differences between business winners and losers is the direction the leaders take the company. The losers tend to move in a following direction—either following the conventional rules or following the innovators. By contrast, the winners tend to move in a new direction, either by finding new ways to better satisfy old values or by creating new values through new industries.
Artists create; craftsmen copy. Are you an artist or a craftsman?