What Apple learned from Japan and what it means for your Start-up

Updated: Mar 21, 2018

In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman, which eventually became the most successful consumer electronic product of the next two decades, selling close to 400 million by 2010 (amazingly, Sony still produces the Walkman).  What made the Walkman such a hit would eventually become the same factors that helped Apple launch iPod and then the ultimate CE device, the iPhone.  I don’t know if Steve Jobs and Apple studied Walkman’s success or they just had the same thinking all along, but both Walkman and iPhone share critical common characteristics.

Ironically, after Sony’s success with Walkman, the rest of the Asian manufactures have failed to duplicate that trend or even come close to Apple’s success, despite a number of major technology innovations.  Once again, the reasons for this have to do with ignoring everything that made Walkman and iPhone a success, and herein lies the greatest lesson for today’s start-ups.

And therein lies the surprising lessons for the start-ups of today, to learn from what made Walkman and iPhone the big success stories while a slew of companies since then have failed.

First, let’s discuss what iPhone and Walkman did NOT do.  Neither product had revolutionary cutting edge technology.  Nor were they first to produce this category of products.  In both cases, there were other companies that introduced “the first” such device many years before.  In fact, the consumer electronics industry is littered with innovative new products that failed to grab a large market share and become the category leader.  Even Apple’s most recent product announcement, the iWatch was first introduced, not by Samsung, but by Fossil in 2003.

This, plus a relentless focus on quality (another trait shared by Apple) eventually helped Toyota capture the U.S. auto market.

There are four key lessons we can draw from Walkman and iPhone:

1. Functional.  The biggest single factor that helped propel the original iPhone was its functionality.  It was the first device that allowed you to get a task done, quickly, and painlessly. It allowed one to check stock prices with one tap, not five; weather was right there next to stocks, and most other everyday tasks for both consumers and professionals were easily accessible.  In other words, the product was designed to do your task. It was a solution for your everyday problems.

2. Ease-of-use is paramount.  When iPhone was introduced, you didn’t need any instruction manual to use it.  It was intuitive: you could hand an iPhone to someone walking on the street and they could immediately figure out what to do.   While Apple did not invent Multi-touch, it did incorporate it in a way that made the use of product exceptionally easy. Walkman similarly made thing very easy with focus on one function: listening to music while on the go. By comparison, many products in consumer electronics today remain difficult to use and often times even counter-intuitive!

3. Design is the King.  Both Walkman and iPhone were designed, not engineered. This means the product is first designed to the desired task for the consumer, and then the engineers worked on how to get it done. The process makes the design attractive, natural, and one that you like to keep using.

4. Simplicity.  It is tempting for the engineers to pile on features and buttons that make a product more functional and yet consumers have clearly shown they prefer simplicity to multi-function features. Apple TV is another great example of elegant and simple design.  Nest thermostat also demonstrated the simplicity with a highly elegant UI.

 Thus, Apple didn’t; need to be the first in any of the technology areas, but it needed to design an elegant product that was functional, and it did that well.  By contrast, Keyocera, Sony, Fossil and countless others technology leaders failed because they rushed a technology to the market, not a solution.

So here is my advice to you as you build your new start-up:

Instead of coming up with the next killer technology, which could become a solution in search of a problem, use the best technology available and design an elegant and highly functional, easy-to-use product that is solving a real problem.  Don’t pile on too many functions; don’t make the users read a manual to use it; make the UI and design intuitive and fun, and make sure quality is the highest.