While building a product a founder will need to strike a balance between originality and unoriginality. Yet can being too original put the product or the company at risk?
The allure of originality is strong. A “disruptor” entrepreneur will feel a pull to display exuberant creativity in order to justify the title. The founder disruptor may consider their creativity a competitive advantage. A way to differentiate their product and acquire customers. Starting with a blank product canvas is an opportunity to reimagine industry standards. While competitors zig, our product will zag.
The incumbent product is dull and boring. Our product is original, elegant, and made with love.
Steve Jobs is considered the paragon of this unbridled creative disruption. An unrelenting pursuit of building products in his vision. Questioning and reinventing industry standards in his wake. When it worked, it was magnificent. Not so much when it did not.
In “Steve Jobs & The NeXT Big Thing” by Randall Stross, Stross captures the history of Steve Jobs building the computer company NeXT. Having been exiled from Apple, Jobs founded a new computer company, NeXT. And from his spectacular success of building the Macintosh, Jobs trusted that his taste and innovative thinking would carry over to build the next revolutionary personal computer product. And yet, it was his innovative thinking and disregard (maybe even disdain) for the industry standard that resulted in net harm to the product. Stross writes:
Ballooning costs began with Jobs’s insistence on using cast magnesium for the Cube.
At the time, computers more powerful than personal computers had yet to be engineered in such a way as to secure FCC approval for the home; Jobs wanted his new machine, which he was describing as a “personal mainframe,” to be the first, and magnesium would be a great help. These positive attributes of magnesium were matched by some drawbacks, however. Other computer manufacturers had avoided using it for the most part because it was a difficult material to work with, extremely flammable and hard to cast. When injected into a mold, magnesium solidifies quickly, much faster than plastic, leading to a high incidence of air bubbles, voids, and other defects.
Special molds had to be created that consisted of separate panels for each face of the Cube, each panel built in such a way as to explode outward—simultaneously—when the casting was completed. The cost of the molds alone was $650,000, and a nationwide search was required before a specialty metals shop in Chicago was located that had the expertise to do such tricky casting.
All of these tribulations during development work on the Cube could have been an education for Jobs, an opportunity to learn and make adjustments as work proceeded. But he refused to pay heed. When underlings protested that specifications for the Cube contradicted the laws of physics, Jobs would wave the objections away. Anything less than implementation to the last perfect jot was not good enough. Costs were not of primary concern, and so the cost of manufacturing and finishing a single Cube case turned out to be higher than NeXT’s original estimates by a factor of ten.
There were reasons why other computer manufacturers had avoided cast magnesium. Yet Jobs did not consider these regardless of the pleas from his team. And so you ask, would the casing material be a relevant factor in a customer’s decision to purchase the NeXT Cube? If not, was it worth the cost?
Another example of costly disruptive originality comes from Ample Hills, an Ice Cream Company. Courtney Rubin in her article The Shocking Meltdown of Ample Hills — Brooklyn’s Hottest Ice Cream Company describes a scene where the founders had a vision to reimagine their packaging. Rubin writes:
To further complicate things, Smith and Cuscuna had fallen in love with the idea of bringing back 1930s-era square-pint packaging, with two spoons tucked beneath the lid to promote sharing. They hoped to stand out, like Talenti does with its clear packaging. They ordered the square pints — referred to internally as “squints” — custom-made from Turkey. If you don’t work in the ice cream industry, choosing square packaging reminiscent of the 1930s may seem like a fairly innocent aesthetic and branding decision. But there is a reason why pretty much everyone uses the round ones. Among other things, the corners of square pints melt faster, and the packaging breaks off. They are harder to fill properly — it took three months just to be able to fill them without it looking sloppy, wasting product and packaging. Plus, filling the squints required a custom-made $180,000 machine, one that, in the case of Ample Hills, never worked properly. (Cuscuna says they eventually got a refund for it.
Despite pushback from the staff — including a small protest on a company whiteboard, with a drawing of a square pint, with a circle, a slash, and the words “No Squints!” — Smith and Cuscuna would not be dissuaded. “It was like, ‘The rules of physics don’t apply to us. We’re Ample Hills!’” Scott says. Smith, he adds, had begun to think of himself as “the Steve Jobs of ice cream.” According to both current and former employees, Smith frequently invoked the mercurial Apple founder, as well as Walt Disney. Smith admits the execution of the square pints was “an absolute unmitigated disaster,” but maintains the idea is still a great one. “I can guarantee you somebody will do it more effectively,” he says. “It’s always hard when you’re creating something new. That’s not a reason not to do it,” Smith adds, comparing it to Apple’s creation of the iPhone.
When it works, such as in the Steve Jobs iPhone example, it truly works. But as in the Steve Jobs NeXT Cube example, the Ample Hills founders found their innovative creativity to be quite costly.
How do you mitigate this? How do you know when to stand firm on your innovative vision versus succumbing to the industry standard? I believe it’s about analyzing tradeoffs. Determining the probabilistic benefit minus the probabilistic cost of the decision. With NeXT, was the cast magnesium a net positive to the ultimate goal of mass producing personal computers at a target price point for consumers? For Ample Hills, was the squints packaging a net positive to the goal of mass producing ice-cream for consumers? Were the manufacturing costs, delays and headaches worth the perceived benefits of disrupting the industry standard. Would consumers care if their computer was made out of cast magnesium and that their ice cream came in a square packaging?
Sometimes the industry standard is standard for a reason. It saves time, and the founder can implement a battle tested solution which frees them to focus on the core features. However sometimes disrupting the industry standard is exactly what is needed in order for the product to break out. It’s up to the founder to determine if the risk is worth it, and when to take it.