Why the first product may not be the best

By: RICHARD BRANSON

The first time a car’s GPS unit asked for my preference between taking the shortest route to a destination or the fastest, I was confused. “Aren’t they the same thing?” I thought.

The point was, of course, that sometimes a circuitous, 10-mile route on a highway might take 10 minutes, whereas a five-mile alternative through back roads might take three times as long.

Unfortunately, in business there are no GPS devices to clearly chart the way forward, but over the years I have learned that the fastest route is seldom the best.

When you’re working on launching a new company or product, it can be tempting to try to rush the product to market, but it’s often better to slow down and get your offering right instead — testing, retooling, and testing some more. Even the most successful companies occasionally make this mistake.

APPLE’S MISTAKE

In 2008, for instance, as the race to provide cloud storage was heating up, Apple rushed to offer MobileMe, a subscription model that promised to sync up all the data that subscribers stored on all their Apple devices.

But the service was badly flawed — it didn’t work a lot of the time. It took Apple three years of hard work to retrench and create iCloud, a free service that Steve Jobs proudly unveiled in 2011. The odd thing was that Apple caught up again.

Apple’s competitors in the cloud space, notably Amazon and Google, had cruised along with few difficulties during those three years — essentially, sticking to the main road — so Apple was able to learn from its bad experience and recover.

MARKET KNOWLEDGE

Think about it this way: When you visit a new city on business, you seldom get to see much more than the airport and city centre.

When people ask me what I think of China, for instance, I am obliged to point out that I know only a small part of that huge country.

My answer usually has to be couched with, “Well all I’ve ever really seen is Beijing and Shanghai but …”

A tourist who visits only London knows little about Britain, and one who visits only New York and Los Angeles has little understanding of the US.

My point is that you need to develop a solid knowledge of your market, and taking a little time to explore the possibilities for your product or service, test it out with potential customers and ask for their feedback will give you a much better understanding of the terrain.

And if you meander through a few out-of-the-way places, exploring some unusual ideas that have come up, you’re more likely to spot opportunities that your competition has rushed past.

VIRGIN’S “LIE-FLAT BED” MISTAKE

At Virgin Atlantic, we once made a similar mistake during our battle with our arch-rival, British Airways.

We wanted to be the first to introduce a lie-flat bed in our popular business-class cabin, so we went rushed out a new seat.

Now, “flat” is an interesting term. When I say that a door is flat, you probably think of a perpendicular surface, whereas if I say that a bed is flat, you automatically think of a horizontal one.

The problem with our proud new “lie-flat bed” was that while it was flat, it wasn’t horizontal.

In our rush to be first, we had taken the fastest route and produced a seat that converted to a flat bed that sloped at an angle of about 30 degrees.

Passengers (including me) worried that after they drifted off to sleep, they might slide off!

And while we were rushing to deliver our new idea, British Airways had gotten wind of our secret new seat and took their time to develop a truly horizontal lie-flat bed, beating us to the punch.

We went back to the drawing board.

The second time around, we came up with a completely new, horizontal seat and a revolutionary new herringbone cabin configuration — and Virgin leapfrogged ahead of them.

But that rush to be first cost us a lot.

It was an expensive lesson, reminding us that getting things right is better than bringing a new idea to market first, but very badly.

So when you are launching a product or service or working on making one better, remember the story of the tortoise and the hare.

The fastest route doesn’t always get you to the finish line first.

And if it does, the runner-up might prove to be the real winner.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION