The Business Paradox: When 1 is more than 10
How you can leverage a minimalist approach to your business.
What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word minimalism? Probably empty houses, using the same clothes every day or walls so white you almost have to use sunglasses.
But minimalism is not just about white walls or wearing jeans and a grey t-shirt every day: It's about focusing on what adds value to your life. And when you apply that same principle to your business it'll change everything.
You’ll realise that 1 can be more than 10.
Jonathan Ive, ex-Chief Design Officer at Apple and responsible for the design of the company's most successful products, once said:
"Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”
In 2013, Apple started its WWDC annual conference with the following video:
It talks about focusing, perfecting a product and making something that people love. It's the most under-the-radar video that Apple launched in the last decade, we can learn so many things in less than 2 minutes:
"Designing something requires focus."
"What do we want people to feel?"
"There are a thousand no's for every yes."
Almost a decade later, these insights are still essential to building something great. We feel that they are embedded in Apple's DNA and in how they design their products. It's hard to imagine a time where they didn't follow these principles.
And yet, Apple was once on the brink of failure, with a rapidly deteriorating brand, low sales and terrible management. The company had lost its essence.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he was faced with a disgruntled company. Apple had then multiple versions of the same product and many were lacklustre. One of his priorities was to review the company's product line. And this is what he did:
"We examined the future product roadmap ... and what we found was that 30 percent of them were incredibly good. And about 70 percent of them were either pretty good, or things that we didn't really need to be doing. Businesses we didn't really need to be in. And so, we've pared a lot of that back, so we could focus the same amount of original resource even more on what was remaining--and add a few new things in.
So, the resources that we're investing are equal or greater than we have been, but it's on fewer things so we're going to do a better job at them I think."
They streamlined their product line and focused on the most important ones. As a result, the company put more effort in less products and the quality increased. The products were once again clean, simple and sparked joy. It was now clear the purpose of each product and how it fit in the plan of Apple.
The same happens in other business: there's a reason why Michelin star restaurants don't have 20-pages menus. Unlike some restaurants that offer everything you can imagine from fish, to meat, pizza, vegetarian and sushi in the same menu, the best restaurant have a simple one or two pages menu. Because the best restaurants don't want to be a jack-of-all-trades: they want to make the best meals possible, and that means simplifying the menu to the main dishes that they know are the most unique and impactful.
This is a mistake many startups do: they try to do too much too soon. They think that growth can happen if they develop more products, but that's often not the case. What happens in those cases is the same as mentioned before: they lose focus of their core products and become spread too thin. Instead of improving the various bugs or adding the features that the customers have been constantly requesting, they have to put more efforts in building the new product.
As a result, no product stands out because none was really refined and had the attention to details that it required. What was once a differentiated product is now similar to the competitors, just with a different logo. They're now part of a herd, with no meaningful advantages compared to everyone else.
Big things have small beginnings
Does this mean you should stay small forever?
No. But you should probably stay for longer than you think.
Amazon started by focusing on a specific niche: books. It was founded in 1994 and filed for an IPO in 1997. As they defined in the S-1 documents when filing to go public: "Amazon.com is the leading online retailer of books."
During that period they made the process of buying a book online as seamless as possible: expanding to more countries, improving operations, simplifying the payment process and adding distribution centres. Only in 1998 they expanded beyond books to include music and DVD sales. They continued gradually adding more categories until it had achieved Bezo's founding vision of dominating all of online retail.
Facebook only branched out of exclusive access for students two years after the company was founded, already with millions of users under its belt.
Google released its first version in 1996 on the Stanford University website and only in 2002 they launched the first product besides search: Google News.
This shows that you don't need to be continuously coming up with new products to build a successful business - you need to build a solid foundation and perfect it before you decide to add more products.
Growing beyond one product
How should you branch out?
By expanding to related categories. You can leverage your knowledge and infrastructure from your main product to introduce the new category. That way, you can bring along your previous customers to this new complementary category in addition to the new customers interested in the new product. These new customers can then become interested in your main product,
This process can be expanded to further categories and creating a network of products that are connected between each other and to the main foundational product - which we can call the brain.
Apple is a mastermind at implementing this strategy: its main product is the iPhone that is connected to the Mac and iPad to expand the experience, and can connect to other products like the Apple Watch and AirPods. These products can all connect with each other and use the iPhone has the brain of the network.
In any case there should always be considerable thought before introducing a new category in your portfolio. As the first law of thermodynamics states, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only altered in form. If you're building a new product that means your removing something from somewhere else - in this case you're removing precious team and budget resources that could be allocated to your remaining products.
Therefore, it's it's worth analysing if 1) there's market potential there and 2) will it bring network effects to the remaining products (for example, it wouldn't make sense for a bank to start producing cheese, as they simply can't leverage their resources and know-how from the banking industry to make cheese. Even if everyone in the bank really likes cheese.)
Some questions that you should ask yourself before start developing this new product:
What's the long-term vision for this company?
Where does this product fit in the vision and current product line?
How can this benefit my company and what will I have to give up to make it successful?
If you can't answer these questions that shows you should further refine your product idea. You might want to adapt it to fit better, find a way to integrate it within the current products or remove it entirely.
Your main product is the one that people associate with your brand.
The first product that you think when you hear about Apple is the iPhone. When you think about Google you think about the web browser.
So don’t settle for a mediocre main product and don’t start to diverge your attentions to other products too soon. Make it so good that people instantly associate your brand with it.
That’s how 1 product can be more important than 10 different products.