I had an “aha” moment recently about why I like train rides so much.
No, it doesn’t relate to my childhood; I wasn’t obsessed with trains as a kid. Unlike my son, who is very much in that obsessive phase over Thomas the Tank Engine. He reads the catalog of Thomas & Friends accessories like it was porn.
No, it isn’t just a reaction to the genuinely suck-y experience that air travel has become.
But I digress.
Rather, I like trains because they seem to be the only setting left in which I can think. Really long plane rides sometimes come close, but usually not.
Train rides couldn’t be more different than being at the office. Where I’ve managed to engineer my own Attention Deficit Disorder Theme Park. I’m always connected. I’ve got tabbed browsing, inbound emails from 2 sources, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, Skype, Microsoft Office Communicator (i.e. chat), blog comments, etc. And that’s before the phone rings or a co-worker pops in on me.
I love strategic thinking and the creativity it enables. If you think far enough into the future, your thoughts are unconstrained and you’re free to engage in mental experiments and “what-ifs”. Even if we had more time for this, there’s then the need for our co-workers to do the same on their own, and for us to come together and reconcile our best ideas with a plan of action. The odds are stacked against us.
Lately, I’ve been telling the story about the iPod’s success as a way to illustrate the value of having a strategy and executing well on it. When I ask people why the iPod is so successful, they answer with the obvious reasons. “Beautiful looking product”. “It just works”. “Great music selection”. All of these are true. But what few people know is that Apple made a huge bet on its success before it ever launched the product. And made another huge bet afterward.
The first iPod couldn’t store much music. Maybe 300 songs, and no video. The first bet Apple made was that consumers’ appetites were for far more songs than that. And video eventually.
Even though the first iPod had a spinning disk hard drive, Apple knew that flash memory would become affordable in a few years. And that flash memory would enable the size of an iPod to dwindle and/or for its storage capacity to explode. Everybody knew the flash memory economics. What did Apple do that was different?
They planned for this change years in advance, driving the price curve downward by being a first, best customer of the memory manufacturers.
Apple’s next bet: it was so confident in its future success that it bought out all of the flash memory makers’ supply for years in advance. If you were a competitor and you went to those same manufacturers, the answer would have been, “Sorry, dude. We’re sold out for three years. We can build you a new factory. It will take 3 years and $1 billion. Do you want to place a $1 billion order now so we can get started?” Gulp. Creative Labs, the primary competitor with its MP3 player, was screwed. And nobody else could easily enter the market. Game over. You’re still seeing Apple enjoy the fruits of that decision in its financial results this year.
Big risk = big reward. But most big risks fail. Is it because we’re starving ourselves of strategic thinking? Eventually, all of those trains will get wired to the internet. And we’ll have to go somewhere else for deep thinking. For now, I’ll enjoy what trains have to offer.