The world of high tech is filled with tales of spectacular failure and sheer stupidity; it is some of these tales that In Search of Stupidity – Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters (2nd edition) by Merrill (Rick) Chapman chronicles. While hindsight is always 20:20, Chapman argues convincingly that most if not all of the disasters could have been avoided, given just a modicum of common sense and situational awareness at the time. Better decision making might not have been enough to completely turn the fortunes but most of the idiocy could have been avoided. Having said that, In Search of Stupidity makes for very entertaining reading precisely because many companies did act so idiotically.
The book covers a period of some 25 years from 1980s to the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. That means lots of fascinating things made it in but lots were also missed, such as Apple’s new-found success in the mobile business. The title is however somewhat misleading; it’s not just marketing disasters that caused all the disasters – in most cases it took the co-operative idiocy of the entire company to drive them to the ground as successfully as many did. It’s also not just about failed companies, but also a pointed criticism at the many assumptions and beliefs that corporate world still holds dear. At the very beginning the well-known book In Search of Excellence is, once again, convincingly debunked. For those unfamiliar with the book, In Search of Stupidity provides the best summary I have seen so far:
The basic thesis of In Search of Excellence isn’t complex and can be summed up succinctly: Excellent companies create corporate cultures in which success flourishes. (Yes, this is something of a tautology, but it’s a nice one and people always like reading it.) An excellent corporate culture is one that loves customers, loves its employees, loves the company’s products, and loves loving the company. Once enough love is flowing through the corporate veins, a company will organically become excellent and in turn create excellent products and services. This will lead to more customer, employee, product, and corporate love, lifting all concerned to an even greater heights of selling and purchasing ecstasy. The cycle becomes self-sustaining, and a universe of almost sybaritic business success awaits those who master the Zen of Excellence.
If that sounds kooky, that’s because it is. Many companies identified in Search of Excellence were not excellent. Like Lanier. In Search of Stupidity explains what Lanier really was, pointing out that:
In Search of Excellence thought Lanier was really excellent, a company that “lives, sleeps, eats, and breaths customers.” […] The only problem with all of this was that Lanier wasn’t an excellent company; it was a dead company, a shot-through-the-head dinosaur whose sluggish nervous system hadn’t yet gotten round to telling the rest of its body to lie down and die.
.. and of course explaining why Lanier was dead and how it came to be. Well-known companies are given great coverage in the book; Apple, IBM, Digital Research, Microsoft, Ashton-Tate, Siebel, Intel (remember the bunnies? And the Pentium debacle?), Motorola, Google, Palm, Sun Microsystems, Value America, MicroPro, Novell, Borland, Netscape etc etc. If you’ve been involved in the high-tech industry any amount of time, it’s an excellent trip down the memory lane. And if some of these don’t sound well-known to you, well, maybe you should read the book.
But while dissecting the failures (and a few successes) of various companies in a very insightful, yet funny, way is the core of the book, there are plenty of other lessons to take away from it. Memorable lessons in product positioning, marketing, innovation, branding, handling journalists and PR, and many other facets are offered. Without going into those in any great detail, below are a few of my favorite parts of the book:
On the theories of bubbles – as applicable to the bubbles of today as the tech bubble of 2000:
Many reasons for the dot-com boom have been offered, but all are somewhat unsatisfactory. The most common explanations postulate the following:
* Wall Street is full of idiots. This theory is both popular and has a lot going for it.
* The people who bought stock from the idiots on Wall Street were also idiots. What?! Are you implying that the American people’s failure to, when confronted with IPOs that reeked of red ink and gobbled on about idiotic schemes to sell 30-pound bags of pet food directly to consumers at a guaranteed loss (Pets.com), not fall laughing hysterically to the floor before kicking these IPO turkeys out the door somehow makes them responsible for their own losses? This sort of speculation isn’t even worth a reply!
On the failure of Value America; this is something Google also recently failed at with the Nexus One:
The company also didn’t understand that when you sell something to a customer, you “own” that customer and all the customer’s associated problems, including the problem of customer dissatisfaction with a purchase.
On how Windows achieved it’s market position and on the difficulty of formulating and executing a “winning” strategy and actually, how corporate success is largely a matter of chance:
But for Windows to achieve its current monopoly position, the following events had to occur:
* Xerox, the original inventor of what we now call the graphic user interface, had to never develop a clue about how to commercialize most of the groundbreaking developments that came out of its PARC labs.
* Digital Research had to blow off IBM when it came calling for an operating system for the original IBM PC.
* IBM, which during the early years of its relationship with Microsoft could have crushed the company like a bug, had to behave as if prefrontally lobotomized from 1985 to 1995 as the gruesome OS/2 saga ground on.
* Apple had to decide to not license the Macintosh operating system, a decision that led to the company from approximately 30 percent market share in the early 1980s to 4 percent market share by 2006.
Now, how does one fashion a credible strategic plan that assumes your competition will agree to collectively shoot itself in the forebrain while unpredictable market forces break in such a way as to help ensure your eventual success?
The answer is that you can’t.
And as a final quote, several suggestions to the music industry are offered in order to improve their business, like stop suing people. Sensible, yes, but I still like this last recommendation the best 😉
A final suggestion is that decreased drug use by industry executives might lead to clearer thinking.
Now, the book certainly has some shortcomings, but dealing mostly with established, well-known history they are nothing major. Ironically, history in the form of events that took place after the book was written (in the past 4-5 years), has made some comments invalid. For example, Amazon is poked a lot of fun at while the company is quite successful these days. Also, not everyone will like Chapman’s humorous style of writing, but if you were able to stomach the above quotes, you’ll be fine. Finally, the author’s prediction of it taking 6-10 years before e-books begin to disrupt the print business proved, surprisingly in the tech world, to underestimate the pace of development.
All in all however, In Search of Stupidity is a highly entertaining, educating and recommended reading if you work in the high-tech industry. And if you don’t, you might have a good laugh at us – and perhaps lull yourself to a false sense of security that spectacular failures are only limited to the high-tech industry…