When you get to the top, don’t blink

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This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of CRN magazine.

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When you get to the top, don’t blink

Way back in 2000 when Sydney could only talk about five little intertwined rings, the billboards in Sydney were awash with endorsements by athletes. One particular poster caught my attention. It was a photo of Cathy Freeman, in her very fashionable full green bodysuit complete with headpiece, running at full stretch. 

Below the photo was a simple statement, which is actually a Maurice Green quote: “To be number one, you have to train like you’re number two.” When an athlete is starting out early in their career, I am sure they have goals and targets but when they reach the number one position, maintaining that position is incredibly difficult. 

Sachin Tendulkar has just proven to us that the body can compete at the highest level until at least the age of 40 and Bradman played his last Test only nine days before his 40th birthday. What sets these players apart from others that reach the top is usually their focus, dedication and attitude.

The development of a business can be similar to the development of a sports career. When a business starts off, the founders and early employees have ambitions of growing and taking market share. 

When a business grows rapidly, just the same as when a young athlete is thrust into the spotlight, it can present a whole range of issues that make it hard to continue that growth and that standard. Often the very core of what achieved the initial fast growth for a business can be lost due to that rapid growth. If a business sets a particular standard for customer service, for example, with rapid growth come more customers. 

More customers need to have that customer service delivered by more staff. Not only do the new staff have to be found, but they have to be trained and assimilated into the ways of the company. In a rapid growth phase, cracks in the structure can be plastered over but when the rapid growth gives way to consolidation, those cracks may reveal themselves in the form of shaky foundations.

As a business goes through a rapid growth phase, it may reach the point where it can claim the number one status. That might be number one in your street, your town, your state or maybe even globally. To retain that number one status is incredibly difficult. You need to continue to innovate and drive change in your business when it would be easy to relax and allow complacency to creep in. No matter how good your growth has been or how substantial a market position you have, the landscape can always change.

 The first mobile boom

Look at a quick analysis of the mobile phone market over the last 23 years in Australia. I sold my first mobile phone in 1990 when NEC was a pretender to Motorola, the undisputed worldwide king. Motorola produced their first radio in 1930; Neil Armstrong used a Motorola transceiver when he spoke those famous first words from the moon and Dr Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first mobile phone call in 1973. Who would possibly challenge the heritage and legacy of Motorola when they ‘owned’ the global mobile market? 

Not only was that true, but I think Motorola believed it would be that way forever and a certain amount of arrogance came into their product development and their service attitude. In 1992, a pretender to the Motorola throne came along with a GSM model – this was a company that had started in the paper mill business and had only dabbled in the world of telecommunications as recently as 1982. 

Motorola, as did many, dismissed this pretender and assumed the role of market leader would continue forever. By 1998, innovation and a sharp company focus by the little pretender known as Nokia took them to the top of the tree worldwide. 

By the mid-2000s, Nokia actually became the largest camera manufacturer in the world by virtue of the number of phones they sold with a camera installed. At one point, Nokia had 40 percent market share – almost three times that of their closest rival. In what seemed like history repeating itself, Nokia’s complacency allowed another company to innovate and change the course of the mobile phone market. 

Apple released a smartphone in 2007 that changed the world of telephones – in fact, the world full stop. 

Although Apple’s iPhone didn’t topple Nokia’s worldwide sales numbers, the lack of response from Nokia allowed Samsung to hit the top of the world in sales and ultimately led to the point where Nokia had no option but to sell to Microsoft. Even Apple, known for innovation, quickly lost their mantle as the number one smartphone manufacturer to Samsung. This was a category they created and grew rapidly but they still couldn’t stay at the top.

If companies of this size and stature struggle to maintain their rapid growth and hold their market position, there is no room for complacency in our reseller businesses. Congratulations to all of those on the CRN Fast 50 list – the real challenge now is to see if you can appear on the list again next year.

Tell me if it is harder to get to the top or stay there at md@smallbusinessrules.com

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