Insisting on the Impossible

An old legend goes that when George Mallory was about to leave for his final attempt at Everest, he was asked why he chose to attempt this seemingly impossible task. His curt reply was “because it is there”. It is the habit of the few to aspire to achieve the near impossible. That journey is not always successful. In both cases, humankind has usually learnt something. This is true not just for individuals but even for organizations. When most firms start out , be it from a garage or from a 30 storey skyscraper, they start out hungry and eager to achieve the impossible. Some lose that fire in a few years while others choose to keep that fire burning for a much longer duration. In recent times one organization, which has made strides towards achieving what others consider impossible, is Apple. Much has been written about Steve Job’s charismatic style of management. What most of these articles fail to mention is the decision to take extraordinarily risks to achieve what was hitherto considered as impossible.

Polaroid Camera

Let us look back into the fragments of time, and pull out a few from the wrecks sublime. One of the first organizations to test the boundaries of existing technology was Polaroid and the key behind this was their founder, Edwin H Land. When the Polaroid SX-70 camera was conceptualized, the firm did not have close to 80% of the technology necessary for production of the camera. To actually complete the camera, the firm had to develop new emulsions for the photographic film, a method to actually print the photo on a piece of paper and design an entirely new type of camera base. The successor to Polaroid was a firm called Psion. Famous for developing the first ever Personal Digital Assistant, they took on the dream of developing a revolutionary communication device. But they are a cautionary tale for organizations who wish to chase impossible dreams. The company failed to bring out a product within time and was soon beaten by their competitors and failed to keep up with changing customer demands. Post Psion, Apple came back with their launch of the iPod. The iPod , much like the PDA’s of the 90’s and the Polaroid cameras of the 70’s , was a product not meant to cater to the existing needs of customers but create a desire within customers for a new range of products. This desire to achieve what seems impossible for other companies , is what sets Apple aside from most other technology companies. However , the game is not just about choosing to achieve an impossible dream. One has to ensure that it is a viable business venture. Here is where Apple beats all other companies hollow through a mix of highly efficient operations and good marketing. Not only does Apple focus on minimizing costs through global procurement and close collaboration with OEM Manufacturers, the firm also focuses on controlling supply, thus artificially maintaining demand as and when necessary.

In recent times, the requirement for innovation has shifted from innovation in the hardware domain to innovation both on the software end and the customer end. Not only is it required to provide a better customer experience, one is required to bring it out as quickly as possible, so that one can bring in more iterations and work to remove the kinks. Google plus, which has been launched recently, has been termed as a Facebook killer and the buzz (Oops) around it has been phenomenal. However some people are still doubtful about the possibilities and the extent to which Google can launch a social network to challenge existing networks like Twitter or FB. There is a common misconception that startups possess a greater propensity to innovate / have greater incentive to innovate. The incentive / propensity to innovate comes with the corporate/ company culture. There are firms such as IBM which have been able to consistently maintain the culture for decades, as can be proved from their company history. However it is true that startups do possess an advantage of being at the edge of latest research and have the ability to change direction quickly in comparison to most large firms. However it is as much a factor of risk tolerance as it is of size and propensity. The startup may enjoy a few benefits of an early advantage but it can be negated very quickly by a large firm choosing to enter the field. Another common misconception is that Social media as a trend is fluid and people will soon shift to the next upcoming media channel just like people shifted from Orkut to Facebook to Twitter. However what people forget is that Social Media is an evolving channel. The dramatic changes we have seen in the last 10 years rival the changes seen in the telecom space two decades back. What however we need to realize is that the choice of media channel will not matter as much as how we are able to make users both generate and promote content. The channel is but a choice. However users do believe in the importance of user experience and this is one place where both large firms and startups are equally ignorant and at equal risk. What one really needs to remember though, is the story of Psion. People forget that Psion was way ahead of its times. It came up with amazing innovations and brilliant concepts but consumers were pretty happy with their first product and were equally happy with getting a few simple needs satisfied. Psion is the origin of at least three path breaking ideas (Ipad, GPS systems and Satellite Radio) but these ideas could not get accepted as most people were unsure of the business potential for such ideas. The true advantage of a huge firm like a Google or an IBM or an Apple is not about its innovation. It can choose to innovate through promoting its own talent or acquiring talent. The true advantage lies in its ability to take risks which other firms cannot. Google has burnt its fingers twice earlier with Wave and Buzz. Each time it has learnt valuable lessons about privacy and true sharing of content which it has applied in Google Plus. Though I have been using Google Plus for only some days, I like two of its features – one the ability to choose whom I allow to follow/ be followed and whom I share content with, and secondly, the ability to take all my data with me through Google Takeout if I choose to leave. Google has addressed two major concerns of most existing social media users – privacy and data control. Equally important is the changes it has brought in controlling and managing conversations, which has predominantly been a feature much needed in Twitter. Each time, users lose out on useful conversations which cannot be saved or noted as the TL moves faster than one can blink.

One has to realize that firms can choose to innovate horizontally or vertically. The big firms enjoy the advantage of horizontal innovation through their access to talent across spheres of technology . If there is something a startup does which is really interesting / innovative, the large firm will probably just incorporate it into its systems the next time. Classic examples are those of Tweetdeck shortening of links being integrated into Twitter, Facebook Messages being converted into mail and so on. The problem for a small firm to grow big or innovate majorly lies in accomplishing innovation which is of no interest to the existing major firms. Sadly most firms seem least interested in taking that risk. The key for Indians is to learn from the experiences of these firms. We are best suited for bringing in new products, both in the hardware and the online domains, for Indians. One need look no farther than the Micromax’s and the Karbon Mobile firms to prove this statement. It is important that we focus now on achieving what has not been done before so that we can steal a march on the large firms, before they take large footsteps in India.


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