Hubris vs. Humility: The positioning challenge

(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This story originally appeared on his blog.)

Describing your product as “new and “never been done before” instead of “we’re just like those others guys, but better” could cost your company billions.  RIM and TiVo are two examples of getting it right and wrong.By 1992 Research in Motion (RIM) had been in business for eight years, had 16 employees, sales of about $500,000 a year, and three or four business lines. That year the two founders decided to get serious about being a company, and hired a CEO. Soon, RIM was focusing on making products for people on the move, using wireless communication and digital data.

In the early 1990’s two different trends were occurring in wireless communication. First, wireless voice networks – cell phone networks – had started to emerge. The ability to make a phone call untethered from a traditional phone was revolutionary and was starting to catch on fast. These new cellular phone networks were built around two-way circuit switched technology designed to move voice calls without interruption.

At the same time, digital data networks to support “pagers” were also growing rapidly. Pagers were small receive-only devices with 1 or 2-line displays that showed the phone number of who was “paging” them. Users ran to a traditional telephone and called a paging service who would read them their message. Both doctors and drug dealers found the devices handy. Unlike the circuit-switched cell phone networks, pager networks were built around digital packet-switched technology.

In 1996 RIM was still in the hardware business – selling packet-switched wireless radio modems to OEMs. In a major strategy shift, they decided to sell a product directly to businesses. In 1997, RIM introduced the first packet-switched messaging device. It used narrowband PCS and was housed in a clamshell device with a full keyboard.

The new device could hold names, email addresses, phone and fax numbers and incoming and outgoing messages. In 1998 RIM quickly followed this up with a next generation product with an 8-line display, ran on AA batteries that lasted 500 hours.

The fact that you could send messages interactively blew people away. Underneath the hood RIM’s product was a technical tour de force. But RIM decided to hide all of that from their customers.

RIM positioned the Blackberry as an “interactive pager,” because pagers were something people could understand. While the device was actually was doing email, people understood it as “the pager that you could respond with.” While phrases like “mobile email and packet switching” didn’t mean a thing to RIM’s first customers, the “interactive pager” positioning proved important in attracting early adopters.

Resegmenting an Existing Market
RIM’s product needed very little explanation. If you knew what a pager was, you knew what an interactive pager was. You got it, though you might gulp at the price – paging prices were dropping like a stone ($9/month vs. $99/month for a RIM interactive pager) since most people were moving from pagers to cell phone to get calls. But to businesses where instant information gave you a critical edge (Wall Street, politicians, etc.) these new capabilities were worth almost any price.

In today’s language of Customer Development, RIM positioned the Blackberry as a segment of an existing market pager users who needed two-way communication. Their intent: initial sales would come from users who already understood what the product could do so adoption would occur rapidly.

RIM, the Blackberry and its network had more inventions per square inch than most startups. The founders could have easily described the product as “the first packet-switched interactive messaging network.” Or they could have said, “corporate email now seamlessly forwarded from your company’s network to your pocket.” They did none of that.  The founders swallowed their pride and simply introduced the Blackberry as an “interactive pager.” Their board, with no need to prove how smart and creative they were, agreed.

After a few years, as users became comfortable with the technology, the entire space of interactive pagers became known as the “Blackberry or “wireless email” market rather than the “interactive pager” market.

In 1999, about the same time RIM introduced its first interactive pager, another advanced technology company, TiVo, shipped its first product.

Video cassette tapes, which were popular at the time, were bulky and awkward. And most consumers had never mastered recording a TV program (let alone setting the clock on their VCR.)

TiVo solved all those problems. It was the logical marriage of computers and video recording. Essentially TiVo was a computer with a hard drive integrated with a TV tuner and MPEG decoder.  It digitized and compressed analog video from an antenna, cable or direct broadcast satellite. But it was the software that made the TiVo great. It was reliable. Its user interface was simple. It let users record from the familiar program guide. Since you were recording video to a hard disk, you could appear to pause live TV, instant replay, rewind or record anything.

TiVo’s product needed very little explanation. After a demo, if you knew what a VCR was you knew what a TiVo was.  You got it. (You might pause at the price – VCR prices were plummeting – $150 versus $800 for the first TiVos, but compared to a VCR it took your breath away.)

In today’s language of Customer Development, a TiVo positioned as a segment of an existing market (VCR’s) was a no brainer. Everyone would have immediately understood it.

There was one problem, though. The TiVo CEO hated the idea that customers might think of TiVo as a better VCR. In fact he said, “Anytime anyone says that to me, I go completely nuts. So we had this challenge of explaining, It’s actually not a VCR. It’s a lot more sophisticated and uses a hard disk, and therefore you can record and playback simultaneously and do clever things like pause live TV, and so on.”

The board, being enamored with Silicon Valley technology, first mover advantage and concerned about the huge price gap between a VCR and TiVo, agreed.

As a result, the company instead chose to position TiVo as a New Market. In a new market when customers have no idea what the product can do, a company needs to educate potential customers about the space not the product. This results in a much slower adoption curve – the classic hockey stick.

The cost of hubris
TiVo spent the next five years trying to convince users that the box they wanted to buy as a better VCR was really something different. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into marketing campaigns to create an entirely new consumer electronics category – Digital Video Recorders. TiVo was first positioned as a “personal television system.” But no one knew what that meant. Next they tried the slogan “TiVo, TV your way.” Early adopters simply ignored the company’s positioning buying the device in spite of the inane descriptions.

But trying to create a totally new market took its toll. TiVo had plenty of other battles to fight: competition, issues with channel partners, patent battles, as well as the movie studios, cable companies, broadcast networks and advertisers who all wanted TiVo dead. Instead the company used most its cash on marketing and advertising in trying to define a new product category and accelerate adoption.

RIM sales were $15 billion in 2010. In the last ten years they’ve made over $9 billion in profit.

TiVo sales were $240 million in 2010.  In the last ten years they lost $400 million dollars.

How much of this can be traced back to the time, money and energy they spent on their initial positioning?

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