The wheel is a nearly perfect invention—except that it's round. And while that one minor "flaw" is a benefit to most people, for someone looking to reinvent the wheelchair, it's a pretty fundamental defect.
Thanks to the bulky size of a wheelchair's wheels, there's a limit to how compactly they can be folded. As a result, wheelchairs tend to be tough to transport, especially when traveling. To solve this problem, designer Duncan Fitzsimons and his partners at London-based Vitamins design and invention studio translated Fitzsimons' passion for bicycle design into the first foldable "Morph Wheels" for use on wheelchairs.
Then the design team did something really smart.
Instead of creating their own ultra-expensive designer wheelchair that incorporates their wheel design, they've partnered with Maddak, a U.S.-based manufacturer of products for people with disabilities, to produce the wheels and make them fit any chair with a standard, quick-release axle.
In other words, they decided to create a wheel that most software developers might call "backwards compatible." This, in many ways, is the exact opposite of everything that a company like Apple has been doing for years.
When Apple launches a new product, that product has its own proprietary plug, proprietary apps, proprietary software, proprietary purchasing experience and, well, the list goes on and on. Older products Apple has launched become obsolete—and stop working with newer operating systems. By controlling every aspect of the customer experience, the company has the ultimate product dictatorship. And it has worked for the past decade.
Yet there have been signs for some time that the future is moving away from the Apple command-and-control model and toward the more open source collaborative model. Companies can't build their own entire ecosystems and expect that every consumer will happily fit themselves into it—a fact that even Apple reluctantly acknowledged when it launched iTunes for PC computers several years ago despite its previous unwillingness to admit that not everyone would want a $1,200 computer as an "accessory" for their $150 iPod.
Collaborating Rather Than Controlling
So what does this shift mean for your business, and how do you need to prepare for it? There are three key lessons that the Vitamins design team and the move toward a collaborative market offer for your business:
1. Build holistic customer profiles. It's tempting to think your customer wakes up in the morning with the single priority of shopping that day for the product or service you sell. Of course, we know that's not really true. Instead, they're fitting the tasks involved in doing business with you into their own daily schedule. Do you have the type of service that they may be spending a hurried moment during their lunch break trying to use? What else are they buying in the same trip to the store as your product? Who might they consult with first before learning about your business? This type of analysis has led some of the biggest companies in the world to finding deeper ways to work together. For instance, FedEx and Kinkos joined forces (at least in part) because of the insight that the same businessperson who needed to get copying and printing support might also need to ship the materials they were printing more easily. The business world is full of ideal partnerships like this—if only you can become better at spotting them.
2. Engage in marketplaces. There's a reason that open marketplaces have been commonplace among cultures and regions for thousands of years. Vast empires that sell everything from DVD players to bananas in a Walmart-style megastore do offer convenience—but only in their ability to offer a one-stop shop. A marketplace, by contrast, can be located closer to where people live, offer a more personal experience, and bring together the collective power of many merchants and their products. It's tempting to think of the battle you face against your biggest competitors as being one that you need to fight alone. It doesn't have to be that way. At my local farmers market, in contrast, antique dealers sell their wares alongside those of apple farmers. Right next to them, my kids can get a balloon animal and I can drink fresh, hand-packaged, imported Guatemalan coffee. Without realizing it, those vendors all help one another create a unique experience for me—their customer—just by sharing the same location every Saturday.
3. Be compatible, not dependent. The idea of compatibility should be an easy one. Essentially it means that whatever you are producing will work and integrate with the ideas and objects that your target customer already has. Unfortunately, in a world where there are plenty of dependent companies making millions from creating cases for iPhones or apps that only work on Facebook, compatibility can be a confusing thing. What's the difference between being compatible and being dependent? Essentially it comes down to managing your risk. The Morph Wheel, for example, can work with any wheelchair. As a result, the market for that product is completely open. The case for the iPhone 4, in contrast, fits only one model phone, and it will be obsolete in six months. Long term, only one of these models actually works for sustainable success, and it creates compatibility without dependency.
For most entrepreneurs, seeing the success of Apple's controlling model offers a tempting lesson that the way to get ahead is to control every aspect of your customer's experience. In reality, that type of control is difficult to build and establish—and even harder to maintain. Instead, the better alternative for many small businesses searching for the right way to carve a niche may be to focus on compatibility and being part of an ecosystem rather than taking on the pressure and mission to build everything solo.
Rohit Bhargava is the founder and CEO of the Influential Marketing Group and a consultant dedicated to helping companies act and communicate in more human ways. He is the bestselling author of four marketing books and advises several startups on business and marketing strategy.
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