People in Ivory Towers shouldn't throw Glass Rocks
We've seen a baffling trend lately, something that is not new or specific to AV. It causes us a lot of concern and we hope that in the future these occurrences will not repeat. It happens in AV, it happens in the automotive industry, it happens in most every product type that is out there. But it all starts at one point, success. As we’ve seen so many times with rising stars (actors and musicians rush to mind) some people work so hard for success that once they achieve it, they seem lost. Sociologists have made careers on waxing poetic about this phenomenon but that is not what we are really here to discuss. In some cases a new product is brought to market by an individual, more often by a company. But for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll refer to them both as a singular individual. We’ll posit some theories on what happens to these individuals or companies when they do finally achieve success and suggest some alternatives. But before we discuss that, let’s talk about what it takes to be successful.
If you’ve ever met a person that is self made, that has taken an idea and turned it into a lucrative career, you’ll probably have noticed a few things. First, they are almost always driven. Driven to push themselves, driven to succeed, driven to excel and everything they do. They’ve got the kind of drive that makes most people wonder how they get any sleep at night. They’ve got the kind of drive that makes you feel inadequate in their presence. They’ve also got the kind of drive that makes you think, “Hey, I could do that too!” But you probably won’t (it’s OK, you’re in good company with most the rest of the world).
Of course, they also have to have the ability – in the case of inventing a new product that may mean years of schooling and/or work experience. Or it just may mean that they are willing to put in the time and research to learn the skills they need to do the job. I’ve got a friend that has an idea for a new climbing device. He’s built things before but never something like this using these sorts of material. At first he worked on designs and outsourced the manufacturing to a local shop but that quickly got too expensive. Eventually, he taught himself how to do it and bought a few second-hand tools. His was more of a “trial and error” experience than using theory to design the product. Could someone with the requisite knowledge set have designed his device on paper or in CAD? Sure. But he didn’t have those skills or really the impetus to learn them. Instead, he just built a prototype, tested it, modified it, retested it, over and over until he got a working model. Not necessarily the fastest method but it does work.
Coupled with their drive, a self made person has got a laser-like focus on their objective. They have an idea, the drive to see it through and the vision to know where they want to end up. This person doesn’t see success as a nebulous ideal or a fuzzy future; they can tell you what it looks like. They can tell you how it tastes, how it feels, and all the different ways they’ll be able to know when they’ve achieved it. In many cases, this focus is directed at the completion of a product. They can describe in detail how it will work and what it will do. Others have a more global perspective and view not only the finished product but also how it will fit into the marketplace and how it will be received. Regardless, they have a clear focus and vision for the future.
Last, and in my opinion most importantly, is that they have the will to bring all this to fruition. Ideas are a dime a dozen and plenty of people can envision how their ideas could possibly be transformed into a lucrative enterprise but very, very few have the will to see it through. Often, breaking into a market is more about persistence and good timing than anything else. I posit that persistence is 99% of it as if you are always there; the “good timing” moments won’t slip by. Self made people have to deal with friends, family, colleagues, competitors, and just about everyone else telling them to give it up. They risk money, friendships, marriages, egos and more all in the pursuit of their goal. Success doesn’t often come without a price. There is a lot of suffering involved by the person and their families. But once they succeed, it’s all worth it, right?
Manufacturing a successful product isn’t always about making the “best.” As many a manufacturer has discovered it is about making the “best” within a certain price bracket. Consumers (at least the ones that are savvy enough to do some research) are always on the lookout for quality but more importantly they want the MOST quality for the LEAST money. Sometimes that means that they are paying more than they would have expected but since their perceived value is so high, they don’t mind forking over the extra dough. It is no mistake that marketers love to use lines like, “Sound as good as products costing five times as much.” Value resonates with people.
Most manufacturers will tell you that making a “cost is no object” high end anything (including chainsaws, sewing machines, and picture frames) is not really hard. All you need is a lot of money and a little technical know how. What is hard is putting together a product that not only performs well but can be sold at a “reasonable” price (reasonable mostly being determined by the market). When a product hits that sweet spot, it sends ripples out among consumers. It makes the news, people are talking about it over dinner, and the Internet is literally aflame with discussion. A product like that can take a relatively unknown company and turn them into a household name over night.
But now what? What’s the next step? They’ve weathered the storm of orders. They’ve ramped up production to meet the needs. They’ve opened up accounts in the Cayman’s to store their big piles of money. What next?
Success is NOT a Destination
All too often we see the heroes of movies achieve their goal, kill the bad guy, get the girl, and the credits roll. But that is not how life works. Striving for and achieving success (getting your product to market, making your first million, inventing a new widget, whatever) is only the first step. The next steps are, by far, more important. Too many times you read of a “one hit wonder” – someone that has one good idea and then disappears never to be seen again except on one of those “Whatever Happened Too” specials. Whether they only had the one good idea (or song), that they only enjoyed the strife of struggling to the top and didn’t know where to go when they got there, or they just spent all their money, burned out, and ended up in a trailer park in Florida, these people didn’t know what the next step was. Their vision ended at the goal and they were lost afterwards.
In the case of AV, what you end up with (most of the time) is a product. It might be a speaker, DVD player, scaling/deinterlacing chip, or a piece of furniture. It might be a cable, a screen, a remote, or a music server. It could be a decoder, a format, an interface, or a chair. Whatever it is, it has been built, marketed, sold, and well received. At that point, you’re successful. There are a number of different paths that you see people take (only one good one). Let’s discuss each in turn:
1) Continuing to innovate and push the envelop
Some people aren’t satisfied with just one success, they want more. Maybe they want more money, more success, or just something more to do. Maybe they simply enjoy the challenge of work or they are a type A personality. There are as many theories about this type of person as there are people so trying to pigeonhole them into a typology it pretty futile. What is important is that they will not stop. This person isn’t as afraid of failure as they are of boredom. Of course, they are not very used to failure either.
One doesn’t have to look very hard to find products that haven’t changed in years and yet are still marketed as “cutting edge”. Some people find that success and for whatever reason refuse to change. They’ve got a product that works and figure, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, there are a couple of possible reasons for this train of thought:
- Fear – The fear that changing the product will in some way damage the brand, alienate consumers, or something else paralyzes the person into inaction.
- Will – The “will to succeed” that was mentioned earlier can sometime cause a sort of “inability to question” the design. This person has designed a product and in their minds, the product is perfect. Why change?
- Inability – When you stumble across a product (even one that you’ve invented) in an area you aren’t an expert in, it’s hard (some might say impossible) to come up with another. In this case, you’re probably best off selling your product to someone else and working on a new product in a different field or going back to school to learn more about the area you stumbled into.
3) Keeping the faith
When someone believes in something, it is often nigh impossible to change their minds. This is no less true in design. How many of us can point to a product and say, “Well, it does X very well but it is at the expense of Y.”? Examples abound. Making these sorts of choices is a fact of life in design and shouldn’t be viewed negatively. At least not until those choices border on the fanatical. When aesthetic concerns complete rule of functionality, there is a problem (some would say that the opposite is true as well though people are more forgiving of a highly functional but ugly product). These design choices tend to be tempered at first but as a product evolves, they tend to become more and more extreme until you have a product that sacrifices too much. Eventually, so many design compromises have been made that, while the product performs above all others on the single element, in every other way the product is substandard.
4) Losing touch with your consumers
In what can only be considered one of the saddest outcomes, too often these successful people will develop and “Ivory Tower” mentality. They will surround themselves with people that think they are the greatest, listen only to reviews that tout the same, pay attention to research that supports their design while ignoring all else, and generally forget that the outside world is going on. They start to believe some pretty incredible theories and will do some pretty outrageous things. You’ll see them price themselves right out of their own niche. You’ll see them introduce products that don’t gel with the rest of their offerings. You’ll see them generally do things that makes you shake your head in confusion.
The Glass Rocks
So what you may end up with is a product that starts off as a price and technology leader but eventually degenerates into a flawed mess that is suddenly overpriced. The only choice left for these manufacturers is to try to convince others that their design is still the best. Aggressive marketing, technical papers, and all around name calling quickly follows as they do everything in their power to keep their ideas afloat. This isn’t really conducive to innovation as it confuses what many believe to be fairly straightforward issues. If it weren’t for all the marketing pushing ideas to extremes (skin effect in cables and speaker break-in jumps to mind) then people wouldn’t be talking about it. If people weren’t talking about it, marketers wouldn’t feel the need to address it in their campaigns and literature. If these issues weren’t included in campaigns and literature, less people would know about it and talk about it. You can see this is vicious cycle.
We love to uncover new and innovative product. We especially love when they are priced way below what we expect for their performance. But we absolutely hate to see them degenerate into a shadow of their former selves. As an industry, it is important not only to recognize a good product when it comes along, but also to be cognizant of when it has reached its apex. Much like fine wine, many of these products have a shelf life. They may be the best (and getting better) for a number of years, but eventually they turn. At that point it is only a matter of time before it turns into vinegar. If you are still around shouting its praises at that point, all you’re doing is pickling.
There is no single recipe for success (at least no specific and global recipe) other than just hard work. Likewise, there is no single recipe for handling success well. It does seem that there could be a few ways in which a successful person (or company) could avoid some of the pitfalls that we’ve identified:
- Look to the future – The fact that you’ve made a successful product doesn’t mean you can hang up your hat and go home. If you want that success to continue, you’ll need to spend a lot of time (and resources) planning for your next product. Stay hungry. That’s really the only way you’ll stay ahead of the curve and your competition.
- Get rid of the sycophants – No one likes criticism but you’re doing yourself a disservice surrounding yourself with “yes” men. Foster dissent. The way you got to where you are is because you were willing to go against the status quo and bring a product to market that was truly innovative, significantly less expensive than the competition, or both. Look for others that think like that and don’t be offended when they want to improve upon or change your design.
- Put your fear aside – It was all well and good when you were working in your garage to design everything exactly the way you wanted but now you have a team of people, a bunch of marketing data, and the entire Internet making suggestions. Don’t let that paralyze you. Your product is designed to be hated by some (you know you can’t please everyone, right?) so just resign yourself to that and go on with your life. Remember, performance is key. If you’ve got that, everything else will fall into place. Also, don’t forget that you made the best product with the data available. You did nothing wrong. Changing your design (or completely scrapping the old one) when new research comes out is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- Stay in touch – It is easy to get wrapped up in your own world to the exclusion of everything else. Realize that there is constant research being done. If you find yourself either avoiding that research or immediately trying to find ways to discredit it if it does not gel with one of your designs, take a step back. Isolating yourself may be easy, but if you want to have longevity, you’re going to have to step out of your comfort zone. Keeping in touch with the research and data that is out there is important.
- Stay centered – You may be tempted to release a product that doesn’t really fit with the rest of your catalog. Most likely it doesn’t fit because of the price difference or because it is wildly different from anything you’ve ever offered before. There are two ways of introducing products like this: a) come up with a new company and sell it under that badge or b) SLOWLY work your way up to it. Look at VW’s Phaeton. A $80k+ Volkswagen?! Come on! Had they slowly released a couple of cars between the $23k Passat and it... well it might have worked. Or they could have just come up with a new brand like Nissan did with Infinity, Honda with Acura, and Toyota with Lexus.
This article is not meant to be a diagnostic or even comprehensive discussion. We have just recognized some disturbing trends and want our loyal readers to be aware of them. We hope that this article will stimulate more talk on the subject and perhaps encourage people to take a closer look at some of their “favorite” brands.
'For many audiophiles, the age of the transistor left a big hole in the emotion and pleasure provided by good valve amplification. The hi-fi world became orientated around numbers and statistics and choosing a new product was simply a question of numerical specifications.'
I wonder what Peter Walker would think now?