TL;DR – Do but a few things, but do them extremely well. And you will be rewarded by employees who are focused, and customers who are enchanted.
Do one thing and one thing alone, and do it well. It’s the startup mantra, and it is seared in to an entrepreneur’s brain along with “Stay Lean.” and “Always be closing.” And whenever someone has strayed from it, they have both lost focus and spread themselves too thin, a trait termed too dangerous even for established players and lethal for startups. This was reinforced recently when the Steve Jobs biography reflected on his advice to Larry Page, prior to Page assuming the mantle of CEO at Google. Jobs, already flustered by the inroads Android has made by then, and quite possibly influenced by it, stressed to Page the importance of doing but a few things, and doing them extremely well. He reminded Page to not let Google be another Microsoft. Jobs acerbic comment is driven home by a comparison below of where these three tech titans stand, by way of their existing product lines (Microsoft,Google,Apple) . And it’s not flattering for either Google or Microsoft, and speaks to their lack of focus, and to Jobs – a seemingly unforgivable lack of raison d’être.
Maybe Google already realizes this, since recently at AllThingsD, Google’s Bradley Horowitz touched upon changes underway at Google where it throws fewer and fewer things at the wall to see if they stick. This indicates a seismic shift for a free-wheeling, spontaneous innovator like Google and it will speak to Page’s ability as a CEO, if at all he is successful in what seems like turning around an aircraft carrier around – in a bath tub.
Whether driven by corporate mergers and acquisitions Or by a culture of 20% (as in the case at Google) companies accumulate products that they find increasingly hard to whittle down as soon as these find customers. Jobs ripped off Newton as soon as he was back at the helm at Apple, and believed that fewer products reflected a sharper focus and depth that translates to deeper customer relationships; better trained employees, and greater profits. In comparison Microsoft and Google are today amorphous entities, shape shifting when encountering opportunities, markets, trends and threats, malleable yet unrecognizable. Every product launch is unrecognizable from the previous one, a plethora of products paraded on stage, blending together and rarely standing apart. Ecosystems that develop around these products can never fully mature.
This shift from the traditional paradigm “variation is value” runs counter to perceived notions about customers valuing choice over everything else. To cite a few examples where this has been done successfully; Every CostCo retail store has about 4000 unique products, in comparison to 5300 at Sam’s Club and a sheer 40,000 at your average grocer. Carrying less variety lowers inventory costs while higher sales allows it to get better prices from its suppliers. In-N-Out Burger sees its limited choices as an advantage, instead as a liability. Windows Vista on the other hand, had six editions for sale on launch day which did nothing to help drive adoption or customer satisfaction. And finally, Walmart’s hope to reverse a decline in foot traffic at its stores by returning thousands of products to its shelves across US failed to materialize as it saw weaker store traffic in the first half of 2011 compared to 2010. Customers today are foregoing unlimited choice for a curated, simpler selection of choices, and products that are customer centric. They see products designed to be unnecessarily complex and antithetic to customer expectations of how it should work. Technology that forces customers to change their behavior seems artificial and convoluted to them and appears antiquated in an age of customer centric products that eschew complexity for simplicity.
Admittedly, pulling this off can be described as building an airplane while flying it at the same time. Continually pruning one’s product portfolio, while in motion, requires having a 360 degree view of all its segments and must account for both qualitative and quantitative factors. It is true for an entrepreneur, or a product manager who must carefully select the features that will directly contribute to a higher rate of customer conversion and set aside ones that do not. Products that are not weighed down by features, or where complexity is but abstracted, appear uncluttered and therefore less imposing. They rarely happen by accident and always by orchestration. But when you succeed, you are rewarded with products that are focused, employees that are more productive and are less ambiguous about directionality of the company, and ultimately – customers who feel obligated to be spokesmen for your cause. After all, Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. And that is a lesson every successful startup has learned along the way.
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