Faster Horses vs. Horseless Carriages

"If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

Henry Ford

The trend in business today is to ask the customer what they want, and we definitely agree with the trend.  The key to modern marketing is knowing and understanding your customers and delivering not just what they want now, but what they’re going to want in the future.  It’s those future wants that make things tricky.

Of course Ford’s customers wanted a faster horse because the horse was all they knew.  It took innovation to come up with something better than a faster horse.  Thomas Edison’s customers wanted brighter, longer-lasting candles.  Union Pacific’s customers wanted faster trains. Fortunately for all of us, Ford and Edison had the gift of looking beyond what "was" and imagining what "could be".  No one in the railroad industry had that same gift and saw their passenger business taken away by the upstart airlines.Wooden_serger_3

Closer to home, Nick Tacony had
that vision.
While others were trying to make traditional household sewing machines that created garments that resembled ready-made, Nick saw a market for a smaller, less-expensive home version of the industrial serging machine.  His foresight created an entire industry, the home serger,  and helped revive home sewing. Today sewing hobbyists are creating fashions and crafts that are virtually indistinguishable from store-bought.  (Click here to see some early serger models.)

It all comes down to understanding our role.  What do we do and why do we do it?  Henry Ford understood that he was in the transportation business, not the horse business.  Edison was in the illumination business, not the candle business.  Union Pacific’s business was to move passengers and freight from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible, not to operate trains.  Nick Tacony wasn’t in the sewing machine business, he was in the service business.  His service?  Providing retailers, particularly sewing retailers, with high-quality products that they could sell at a profit. 

In a world that’s moving as fast as this one is, we have to focus on the big picture.  What”s your business?  Go ahead.  Think outside the box.  What do you do for a living?  If your answer is that you sell some particular product, or group of products, then you’re too narrowly focused. 

You don’t sell vacuum cleaners, you sell clean homes.  You don’t sell sewing machines, you sell creativity.  You don’t sell lighting and fans, you sell a more attractive, comfortable home.  You don’t sell janitorial supplies, you sell cleaner, healthier, safer businesses.  As the old saying goes, you don’t sell 1/4" inch drills, you sell 1/4" inch holes.

Businesses that stayed focused on the big picture will stay in business.  It’s as simple as that.  There’s still a market for horses, and candles, and passenger trains, but the companies that have prospered in those industries have expanded into other areas as well.   

In his book, The E Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber writes that the thing that the thing that makes a great business great is perspective.

"The Entrepreneurial Perspective starts with a picture of a well-defined future, and then comes back to the present with the intention of changing it (the present) to match the business….To the Entrepreneur, the present-day world is modeled after his vision."

And that brings us back to where we started.  Henry Ford had a dream for his business that he could never have achieved by selling horses.  He became a household (or garagehold) name by making reality match his dream.  He made something better than people wanted. He exceeded their expectations.   Edison did the same.  So did Nick Tacony. 

What’s your dream?  Do you have a plan to reach it?  Is your plan big enough to match the dream?  That’s a question that only you can answer.



One Response

  1. Yeah, you should always ask the customer what they want. But sometimes they have no idea, and that’s where you step in. Thanks for the post.

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