I had lunch with a friend from my “Spinning” class recently. He had worked as an engineer for RCA Records in the late 60’s / early 70’s. RCA paid for him to go to law school at night. He received a law degree from Indiana University in 1974 and went to work as a patent counsel for RCA & GE Consumer Electronics. In 1987 GE sold the consumer electronics division and the RCA brand to Thomson Consumer Electronics. He eventually rose to become the General Counsel at Thomson and had the opportunity to live and work at their Paris headquarters for 4 years. He left Thomson in 1997 and worked for a private law firm for 10 years retiring in 1998.
What a career and story. At one point in his career my friend was in charge of managing and licensing to others hundreds of RCA patents. I remember as a child there were few companies that could hold a candle to the innovative power of RCA. I can still remember the picture of Nipper the dog staring at the gramophone with the inscription “His Master’s Voice.”
As many of us know RCA is now a shell of what it once was. Under Thomson the brand faltered, quality suffered, and competition increased.
I asked my friend, “What happened. How could a brand and a company that defined innovation fall from grace?” He explained that during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s the company invested heavily in videodisk technology that did not pan out. It also built a lot of me-too products. Sony, Panasonic and others were developing better products at a lower price point. Brand loyalty decreased. Market share decreased. The brand (and the consumer electronics department) entered a death spiral that it could not recover. A few years ago Thomson sold the brand and products to a Chinese company.
My friend said the world changed and RCA could not keep up.
A quote that is one of my favorites is “The only thing that is constant is change.” About the only thing we can guarantee is that the world will be a different place in 5 years. In some markets it may be totally different next year or next month. It is a given the world will change and we need to keep up or we’ll found ourselves on the outside looking in like RCA.
So what should we do? What can you do now to keep your company competitive?
My advice to many clients and potential clients is to ask how do you compete? Are you (or your company) known for innovation and innovative products and services or are you a fast follower competing on price? If your company is known for innovation you need to be constantly thinking of how you can improve your products and services. You need to ask what will happen if your competition can sell their product for 50% of your price and/or the key technology that you are using to differentiate our products becomes worthless. What would happen if your customers were able to buy from you (or your competition) in a totally different way (think shopping on-line vs. going to brick and mortar stores, or think automatic downloading of movies instead of going to a video store to rent them)? How would this affect your business? How would you compete? You need to brainstorm solutions. You need to plan for change.
Sometimes the more successful we are today that harder it is to plan for change. A common argument is why spend valuable resources to improve or replace something that is working? How can you fault an executive team that is growing sales and profit?
In many cases the best time to plan for change is when things are going well.
I can guarantee that the world will change. I also guarantee that innovators in your marketplace are planning for that change. How you respond is up to you. If you are or want to be known for innovation how much of your time and budget are you spending on defining and leading your market?
Will someone say in a few years that the world changed and you could not keep up?
Until next time – all the best!