Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blind repetition and learning from the past

I think that this post - "The 37Signals Effect" by Louis Brandy - is a great article and really points out a useful lesson. In short, Louis argues that by simply following the precise advice of a successful company or blogger, you will achieve your own success.

I firmly believe that far too often, people blindly follow the exact words of successful predecessors. Just think about it. Someone else, who was solving some other problem, took a series of steps that helped to solve that problem. Now you, facing a different set of problems, think that you can solve your problem by doing the exact same thing? That just doesn't make any sense. Blindly repeating action items is a sure recipe for failure. Or at least, doing so doesn't really get you any closer to success. You might still become successful - just not because of these repeated steps.

On the other hand, those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. So, to assume that there are no lessons to be learned from past experiences of others is equally foolhardy. Surely, successful people were successful for some reason. Maybe they can't articulate that reason very clearly or maybe the reason was pure chance (as Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers), but either way, they were successful, you want to be successful, and so it's worth considering why they succeeded. Perhaps, buried somewhere in there is a nugget that will help you succeed in your business.

With this in mind, let's revisit Louis' primary example of blind repetition.

First, he quotes Getting Real:
Do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to everyone else.

Then, Louis comments that "
doing 20% of the work for an 80% product, and solving only the easy problems" leaves the consumer wanting more and lets someone else duplicate your product or service quickly and easily.

There are actually 2 issues intertwined here - first, the "do less" strategy, second, the "easy solutions are vulnerable to duplication" challenge.

I think that the "do less" strategy misses the real point. Consumer-facing businesses succeed when they solve a problem or pain that consumers experience, and solve that pain "better" than the current solutions available to the consumer. Some consumer pains are solved with simple solutions and some require more complex solutions. But the complexity of the solution doesn't matter. What matters is how well it solves the problem people experience.

However, I also think that the "do less" strategy can be useful under certain circumstances. For example, new technology can fundamentally change the possibilities for solving a certain problem. Frequently, products that have traditionally solved a problem are eclipsed by newer technologies and businesses are slow to react. Or, if existing products are not eclipsed, then the newer technologies enable new solutions that solve the problem more successfully. When this happens, the "do less" strategy can be extremely successful. New, clean, simple products can quickly replace large, unwieldy, complex products. (
Usually, newer products are simpler, but only because they are newer and don't have days/weeks/months/years of cruft built up around them.) But, the critical issue isn't the product itself or its complexity - it's how the product addresses the pain felt by users. If your product addresses the user pain better than the competitor's, then you will likely succeed. Doing less or more work than your competitor per se doesn't make a difference.

Now, the "it's easy to duplicate easy solutions" challenge is different story. I think that there is an underlying flaw in the logic of this line of thinking. It suggests that your product is somehow novel or not duplicative or won't be copied if it's complex. Well, guess what. Pretty much every idea is a copy of some other idea. Jason Nazar points this out quite dramatically in his presentation "Mistakes People Make Before Starting a Business".

Mistake 3: Thinking no one else has ever done it before
... just go to page 3 of the Google search result... It doesn't make a difference if someone else is doing it, just do it better.
I think that Jason capture the point exactly. Don't worry if someone else is going to copy you or if you are copying someone else! Being successful is only partially about the idea. And the chances are, someone else either has done it before or is doing it now. So, who really cares if your idea is easy to duplicate? You are more likely to be successful if you focus on the solution to the problem faced by users. If you execute on your product better than anyone else, then your business is likely to succeed. (Or, at least, it won't fail just because someone copies you.) Eventually someone else will copy you, so you must do it better, cheaper, faster, etc. And if Google copies you, well, take it as a complement and move on to the next idea. Or walk into the Googleplex and pitch your business to them as a better solution that their simple demo app.

So, in conclusion, don't blindly repeat someone else's steps. But don't blindly ignore the learnings buried in others' experiences. Read the blog posts and articles from successful and unsuccessful people. Think about how they apply to you and your business. Shape those lessons and mold them into something that's useful for you. If you can't figure out how to do that, then file them away as interesting, but not clearly useful. Revisit that list periodically to see if you can make sense of those ideas you can't apply immediately. Of course that's not simple. But no one said that being successful in business is easy. If it was that easy, then everybody would be successful.

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