Being different, the notion goes, is the route to success. Think different was even Apple’s motto for a period. And Apple is often held up as a poster child of the benefits of this ethos. Conventional wisdom suggests that products like the iPhone and Macintosh succeeded because they were different from the rest. Steve Jobs was a visionary because he thought different from everyone else.
There’s only one problem with this advice. It’s wrong.
While the success of companies like Apple and Google is often attributed to them “thinking differently,” different ideas just as often fail miserably (remember the Segway, the Newton, or Google Glass?). Further, Apple and Google’s biggest successes actually came in areas where they were followers rather than leaders. Apple didn’t introduce the first smartphone, IBM did. Yahoo and AltaVista were doing search way before Google was. Research finds that almost 50% of market pioneers fail, and later entrants, or organizations that don’t enter a market first often end up being more successful.
o if being different doesn’t explain success, what does?
In the 1800s, a new innovation was introduced that had the potential to radically change transportation. At the time, most people traveled via horse and buggy. This was fine for shorter distances, but as cities grew, the method proved restrictive. It was slow, expensive, and even dangerous. The engine (horse) had a mind of its own, and fatality rates in large metropolises like Chicago were seven times what they are for cars today.
Gasoline powered vehicles promised a solution. These early automobiles could go farther, faster, and even cut down on manure, which at the time was threatening to suffocate many major cities.
But getting people to adopt what we now think of as cars required a huge mind shift. Horses (and donkeys) had been the primary transportation method for thousands of years. While there were many drawbacks to this method, people were comfortable with it. They knew what to expect. Automobiles were completely new. They required different fuel to run, different skills to drive, and different know-how to fix.
These changes required some getting used to. The first time people saw a carriage roll down the street without a horse in front, they were shocked. Rural Americans viewed this “Devil’s Wagon” as symbolizing the decadence of the city, and introduced restrictive laws to block its intrusion. Horses, skittish to begin with, were spooked by these loud, rambling horseless carriages and prone to run away, taking their passengers careening with them.
In 1899, Uriah Smith came up with a solution. The issue he realized, was psychological more than functional. Even if automobiles performed better, a horseless carriage was still hard to conceptualize.