Bart Simpson and Sun Tzu on Technology Strategy

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So some of you may know that I’m a big of fan of TV’s The Simpsons (though the quality is down a bit, IMO). If you troll through past postings, you’ll find the odd reference here or there. Before you condemn my TV viewing habits, understand that it’s one of maybe 2 or 3 things I actually watch so I can afford the indulgence.

Every now and again I’ll be watching and the odd phrase or line will resonate with something at work. They’re usually totally irrelevant and unconnected, and this example is no exception. But I do believe that Bart Simpson has some good advice for some of the technology vendors out there; it’s certainly advice that I think is relevant to what we do.

In this particular episode, Homer decides to move the family to Cypress Creek to work for a James Bond-style villain (but great boss) named Hank Scorpio. Those of you who are fans probably know the one I’m talking about.

Anyway, following the move, Bart finds himself woefully behind the rest of his class, not knowing the multiplication tables, cursive, etc. As a result, he gets moved over to a remedial class, called the “Leg Up Program,” which is populated primarily by child arsonists and kids who fell off the jungle gym. After seeing how much time the class is spending learning the letter “A,” Bart says the following: “Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”

Now it might seem a bit strange to be turning to the Simpsons for strategic thinking, but then again, it’s Friday afternoon and I was travelling yesterday. In any event, I believe that that one line is a point that could use some amplification within many of the would-be disruptors out there. Implicit in that statement is the guerilla realization that playing by the rules – in some contexts anyway – a likely path to failure.

For all of the bubble era or Web 2.0 talk of ‘disruptive’ technologies, you’d be surprised at just how many vendors we speak with who anticipate closing marketshare or other gaps by simply outexecuting or outperforming their competitors. Or by taking conservative strategic advice from third parties, usually delivered in the form of a “vision” slide that speaks in the dry, safe lexicon dominated by terms like product bundling synergies, realigning the channel, or building compelling enterprise solutions.

Setting aside the fact that it’s unlikely that one firm’s management team is that much better than a dominant competitor’s – or that the advice they’re receiving from outside is that unique, the fact is that with few exceptions, those strategies are not aggressive enough. Why? Because they’re playing by someone else’s rules.

As Sun Tzu says, “You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended,” and yet we see on a regular basis firms committing the technology equivalent of Pickett’s Charge.

Examples? How about most every competitor to Microsoft Office, with the notable exception of solutions like SubEthaEdit or Writely. Just about every package that comes along to unseat Microsoft Office over the years has been just as complicated and feature overridden as the real thing, so why switch? Price? That’s usually not enough.

There are businesses that get this; MySQL, for example, has built a growing if not immense business out of expressly not competing with the likes of IBM and Oracle – by being simpler, and easier to use. By not competing where they are, in other words – but where they’re not. Linux works as well; in no way, shape or form does it attempt to compete on a feature by feature basis with Microsoft Windows. And so on.

Why do I mention this now? Because I think there are a couple of massive island hopping opportunities for firms that can be a bit creative, and a bit aggressive – or firms that have little else to lose. Just because Red Hat didn’t take that path doesn’t mean that others can’t.


  1. Didn’t Robert Cringely point that out back in 2004? 🙂 “The Only Way to Beat Microsoft is by Ignoring Microsoft.”

  2. Brave words and well said… i don’t know how many time we end up looking into products which are too busy trying to live up to their competitors to invent something new them selves.

  3. Great point. Once you compete *against* market leaders, you lock yourself into the same context they inhabit, rules and all.

    It’s much better to focus on creating new customers in a totally different, and better, context. That’s a context *you* can define. (Hmmm. Sounds a bit like the business model of Red Monk!)

  4. I agree with your point, but I don’t see how SubEthaEdit can be considered a “competitor to MS Office”. Of the apps in MS Office, it’s closest to MS Word, in that you can put text on the screen, but it’s not even a word processor: you can’t set the font, spacing, etc. It’s a text editor, through and through.

    If anything, it’s much more like XCode, though SEE isn’t really a competitor to XCode, either. Would anybody claim that XCode is a competitor to MS Office? I doubt it.

  5. bi: it’s entirely possible. i’m in no way trying to champion this as an spontaneously original thought, it’s more a reminder.

    Steven: precisely.

    Brian: i wasn’t going to point it out, but since you mentioned it…;)

    M.R.: objection sustained, but i think that in some respects you’re making my point for me. i’ve been in countless meetings over the years where note taking has been essential to capture requirements, minutes, etc. what’s been used? Word. in that context, maybe 1% of the functionality of word is necessary – probably less.

    but one thing that would help – collaborative online editing – isn’t present.

    enter SubEthaEdit (or Gobby), which doesn’t aim at where Word is – word processing – but where it’s not, real-time collaborative text-editing.

    it should also be mentioned that OneNote is definitely competitive w/ SubEthaEdit.

  6. The way I tend to think of the problem described is: “Don’t try to out-X X”, where X is some company or product that is the clear market leader. ie, trying to out-Dell Dell is unlikely to be a success. For a start, the market leader generally benefits from economies of scale, network effects and other positive feedback loops.

    So how do you compete? Well, if you have an installed base you need to protect it, nuture it and try to expand it. If you’re a start-up, you’d need some new “model” (eg Software-as-a-Service) or some new technology that fills a (hopefully quickly growable) niche, or both. The problem is, the more successful you get, the more you’ll start to bang up against the big boys – if you’re lucky you could get bought out, and if you’re unlucky your “edge” could be copied and your install base crushed. And once in a blue moon you can actually permanently disrupt the whole market.

    PS With regards to Microsoft Office, I agree that the most direct competitors are also bloated. To be honest, I don’t use “office” software at all (I use OOo to read such files though, that’s about it). The problem is, what annoyed existing customers of Microsoft Office *ask for* is a cheap, easy to migrate to alternative, which requires a similar feature set. Yet in practice most are extremely unwilling to make such a step – in general, they’re only seriously likely to do consider doing so when being forced to upgrade anyway. So is there any realistic way to compete with Microsoft Office? Does stuff like Writely actually “compete” with MO or just avoid it? When potential customers *ask for* a similar product, how can you avoid copying MO’s complexity? Does seem like trying to square the circle.

    Maybe one way would be to offer a multi-level product: at the simplest, it only has read and write and print functions, and no editing. At the next level, you’d have a simple, legacy-free editing interface and then you could have a “MO immigrants” level. Or would it require a completely different *type* of application? (ie try to change the world instead of trying to displace the market leader)

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