How flexible is your business? #smallbiz @entrepreneur
bydave.franklin08-19-201403:27 PM - edited 08-20-201410:13 AM
“We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…” – Jeff Bezos
successful businesses would likely cite “inflexibility” as a core value responsible for maintaining a competitive advantage in their respective markets. Indeed, especially in a digital ecosystem, change is inevitable and frequent. A business’s ability to react to and, more importantly, predict how these changes will affect their model is pivotal to its prosperity.
One of the earliest and most aggressive examples of weathering such change goes back to 1970’s Xerox. Faced with the increasing popularity of personal and business computing, Xerox leaders faced the very sobering thought of a world without physical documentation. While this fear was unquestionably unwarranted in hindsight, rather than dread the coming storm, Xerox leaders decided to attempt to dominate it. The resulting Xerox Alto, while, compared to IBM and Apple’s devices, was a commercial failure, but Xerox had succeeded in developing the very first mouse-driven graphic user interface as well as WYSIWYG document preparation. Having the flexibility to envision and fuel this innovation was certainly a bold step, but lacked follow-through. In fact, Steve Jobs, who was present during an Alto demonstration would later comment, “If Xerox had known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities, it could have been as big as I.B.M. plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined—and the largest high-technology company in the world.”
Perhaps the most singularly distinct example of embracing flexibility, particularly in a very established industry, is Corning Inc. Known to most consumers as manufacturers of durable cooking materials, they first established themselves by mass producing light bulbs and industrial optics cheaply. Branching into glassware in 1958 was an admirable paradigm shift in itself, representing a willingness to boldly investigate other markets as a revenue source while not radically departing from its then-107 year history of glass manufacture for other purposes. Perhaps most radical and successful of all was the push into fiber-optic cable manufacture not long after. Not content to sit idle near the top of the glass manufacturing industry while the world changed around them, Corning Inc. continues to demonstrate a willingness to flex deliberately into myriad markets, most recently with Gorilla Glass; now found in the displays of most all modern smart phones.
The most recent glaring example of the advantages of flexibility versus inflexible practices is, as we all likely remember, the battle between Blockbuster and Neflix. Most notably due to the polar opposite practices in the precise same market. Blockbuster would later attempt to correct its unwise reinvestment in brick-and-mortar retail locations by imitating certain Netflix offerings, but it was the flexibility of Netflix to branch into video-on-demand services that sealed Blockbuster’s fate. Netflix’s mail-delivery services were already highly profitable compared to the Blockbuster model and broadband availability wasn’t necessarily at a point (in 2006-07) to adequately stream feature length films for millions of potential customers. Nonetheless the vision to spot the need to flex into the then-fledgling video-on-demand concept ended up being spot-on, now driving huge revenues the likes of which are, as of August 2014, higher than HBO’s.
Certainly finding and citing examples where flexible companies have prospered is not a difficult exercise. None of these cases are intended to suggest that outlandishly or even mildly risky maneuvers don’t, themselves, come with inherent risk. Nor should one advise that a “stick to your guns” mentality is flatly wrong. Trying new strategies for the sake of change alone is as inadvisable as willfully remaining stagnant. Research, experience, and data analysis should always precede any changes in course.
What examples of flexibility have you found helpful in your business? Please share your thoughts here.