Exponential Growth, not Incremental Growth

Businesses hope for exponential growth but most only see incremental growth at best. As
Andre Gide once said, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” If your business can’t leave the shoreline, then it has a very small chance of discovering anything new. Sure, you might own the shoreline, but you won’t own the ocean and countless other shorelines.

If your business leaders won’t let the company make significant changes lest their precious metrics dip, then it’s hopeless to think that the company can reap any great rewards through inaction or the illusion of an initiative. (The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different — better — results).

Years ago I worked on a consumer-facing smartphone app for Visa. The end result would allow a cardholder to access benefits and functionality that was unheard of, at the time. These extra features would benefit both the cardholders and the merchants selling services, by intelligently connecting the two in unique and non-spammy ways. There were a number of these new features.

As we got closer and closer to our release date, and as some users were testing our app and giving us more positive feedback than was expected, we had an onslaught of upper level visitors asking us whether we truly were about to release these features.

There were primarily two groups who wanted to whittle down the functionality; lawyers and business leaders. The lawyers were concerned that the new functionality would imply new commitments that Visa was making to users and merchants. “What if the user’s phone is out of range?”, “What if the user gets a notification from us while they are driving and subsequently they get into an accident?”, “What if the user has to pay extra to receive the messages we are sending them?”, “What if a merchant can’t fulfill their obligation?”, … None of these questions were anything that hadn’t already been encountered by the many other apps that were sending offers to their users, or using bandwidth to alert the user at all times, including while they drive. Solved problems.

The business leaders were more concerned that we had “great”, “game-changing”, and “highly desirable” features, and that they did not want to “give them away”, but to bundle them exclusively for their banking customers to provide their customers. (Visa’s customers are banks like Chase, BofA, etc., not cardholders like you or me). This makes sense of course, but the success of this app had a lot to do with the critical mass of those using it, and waiting for banks to decide when they’d roll it out and to which customers, meant that we would lose all first-mover advantage, and would also be unable to ramp up the user base fast enough.

To cut the story short, we ended up pulling most of features, and even those left were so dumbed down that the app never really had any compelling reason to exist (who needed an app to locate Visa ATMs?). The negotiations with banks had a long lead-time and our new features became irrelevant when companies like Groupon became successful.

Visa has a history of failed projects. There’s a reason that Square, PayPal, Venmo… weren’t started by Visa, even though Visa had those ideas and the 100s of millions of customers to roll out to.

Here’s my conclusion:

At some comapnies, a CEO or a visionary leader, moving forward with a bright idea, is surrounded by layers of protective lawyers and business leads. Our hero tries to run, but with all those folks, the whole group sort of shakes back and forth, vibrating like jello — no like Brownian motion — never really going anywhere. Bravo, you’ve managed to maintain your existing business, but that’s about it.

At the same time, you have companies like Apple with a CEO like Steve Jobs. Jobs was the bull who ran through the china shop. Apple’s team of lawyers and business leads were running behind him, catching most everything that was being knocked over, or writing checks for the damages. Meanwhile, Jobs moved Apple miles ahead, with new customers and new revenue streams.

(Remember, Jobs announced the iPhone before he had even secured the term “iPhone” which was originally a Cisco trademark. Now that’s courage.)

(And some business lead somewhere in Apple may have muttered, “The iPhone may remove the need for someone to buy a Mac, let’s not make the iPhone”. Thankfully Steve ignored that person.)

~ by mz on August 30, 2014.

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