Successful companies usually have a secret sauce. It could be an algorithm or an insight. But whatever that secret sauce is, it is used to create or disrupt a market.
Apple created the PC market when Steve and Steve figured out that affordable pre-built personal computers would be really useful for consumers. IBM disrupted the PC market that Apple built with the insight that a standard, expandable, business-oriented PC would be especially valuable to businesses. After a while Microsoft disrupted the disrupter with the key insight that PC resources, CPU speed, RAM size, and disk space, were essentially infinite according to Moore’s Law.
Yet secret sauce alone is not enough create or disrupt a market for very long. You might have a brilliant algorithm or insight but if you can’t focus on it and deliver it to your audience then you got nothing.
Secret sauces are a common and cheap. The ability to focus and deliver is rare and expensive!
Let’s take the case of Google. Larry and Sergey started Google with the idea of Page Rank. They turned that idea into a set of algorithms and code and turned it loose on the web. Suddenly Larry and Sergey had the best search engine on the market.
But Page Rank on its own didn’t create Google. This might be hard to believe today but when started Google it was an underdog. Google was the epitome of a scrappy startup that hardly anyone paid any attention to.
Luckily Larry and Sergey had something else: A north star.
I don’t know if they called it a “north star”. That’s what we call it now. They probably didn’t call it anything. Looking back, I think Larry and Sergey, Like Steve and Steve, and all successful market creators/disrupters had an intuitive sense of focus and delivery that was superhuman. They got everyone around them, investors, employees, and partners, to focus on search and to think hard about the best way to deliver search to the consumer. They followed their north start to the detriment of everything else including sleep, civility, and revenue.
Obviously it paid off. Once the nascent search market was disrupted Google attained all the things they had sacrificed. They made money. They decided to be really nice. They got a good night’s sleep.
I see this pattern repeating though out the boom and bust cycle of business. When a company is following it’s north star it eventually becomes successful. When a company is distracted or tries to follow too many stars it eventually fails.
When I worked at Apple in the 90s our north start was summed up in the question, “will it sell more Macintoshes?” If you could answer “yes” then you had tacit approval to do it. Don’t ask. Just do it. HyperCard, QuickTime, TrueType, Unicode, these are all examples of technologies that “sold more Macintoshes.”
At the time I was working on ClarisWorks for Kids. It was a bit like Microsoft Office for the K-12 market. Our theory was that productivity software tools for kids would sell more Macintoshes (to parents and schools) and so I was asked to go and do it. I didn’t fill out a product plan or forecast revenue. I just convinced a group of engineers that ClarisWorks of Kids was cool and off we went. I hired as many people as I needed. I figured out features and even helped design the box art. Since I had a north star, I didn’t have to be managed. My boss was more like my personal coach. I went to him for advice and not orders.
Since I had never shipped a product before I made a few mistakes. I didn’t get fired. As long as I was following Apple’s north star everyone had trust and confidence in what I was doing. And I wasn’t special. I was one of hundreds of Apple engineering managers leading projects in partnership with hundreds of engineers all following a single north star.
ClarisWorks for Kids turned out to be a big hit. We won some awards. More importantly we sold a lot of Macintoshes. ClarisWorks for Kids was part of an educational bundle that filled up computer classrooms across the world with Power PC-based Power Macs.
But then we turned away from our north star.
In the late 1990’s Apple’s marketshare continued to slip. In spite of all our focus and smart insights we were not sell enough Macintoshes. Risc chips, CD-ROMs, and built-in digital signal processors were not cutting it with the consumer. Most people bought IBM compatible PCs that ran Windows.
Instead of doubling down on our north star or discovering a new north star we at Apple decided to pursue many different strategies. Sometime we would follow multiple strategies at the same time but usually it was a new strategy every month. Some of these new “stars” included “Mac is the best PC” and “Let’s find more ways to make money from our existing users” and “Apple is really a software company!” Ouch. None of these stars become north stars. They were more like fly-by-night comets that burnout by dawn.
Without a strong north star, I no longer manage myself. I had to be told what to do. Once day I was told to “port Claris Works for Kids to Windows.” I asked how this project would “sell more Macintoshes?” Apparently Apple wasn’t concerned about that old idea any more and frankly I had not been asked for an opinion.
So we gritted our teeth and cracked open the Windows 3.1 disks and started porting. It was kinda of fun and a huge technical challenge as the Mac programming model was very different from Windows. So we dug into it. As an engineering manager there wasn’t as much for me to do so I got into project plans and status reports. I don’t think anyone read them. At some point we were done. ClarisWorks for Kids could now run under Windows on IBM PCs.
This is the point where we were all laid off. Nothing personal. Business was bad, new management was in town (Steve was back), and Windows software was not needed. It didn’t “sell more Macintoshes” because it didn’t run on a Macintosh.
After we were gone Apple got back in the business of following it’s original and true north star. Mac computers become exciting again with bold design and a new UNIX-based operating system. (OK an old UNIX-based OS but it brought the goodness of UNIX to a mass market.)
ClarisWorks and ClarisWorks for Kids were gone but Apple replaced them with a suite of productivity tools. Pages, Keynote, and Numbers are the great-grandchildren of ClarisWorks. I don’t know if they “sell more Macintoshes” but they have some cool features. Besides, Apple’s north star now is probably “Does it sell more iPhones?” or something like that.
These days I work really hard to provide a north star to my teams and to advocate for a north star in my organization. A good north star is easy to understand and easy to remember. A great north star enables employees to mange themselves and renders budgets and project plans obsolete. An awesome north star fuels growth and turns businesses around.