Friday, July 6, 2012

Can Your Owner Center Represent Disruptive Innovation? Yes, If You Sell Tractors


The premise of this blog is that we might not be thinking creatively enough in the rapid development of our digital owner centers.  Ford’s brilliant Laura Fraga talks about “stickiness” in web applications.  Simple, but profound.  If mainstream cars and trucks are teflon appliances, there’s not much sticky about them for many or most of our customers.  Maybe what’s sticky is what these cars …. and tractors … are used for.  We need to glue together sources of innovation (the Super Soaker) with the kernels of brilliance in notable failures (GM’s obsolete Yahoo-based Owner Centers) with unbridled success (Google, Amazon, Apple).

We always think of Steve Jobs as the master of disruptive innovation.  The original Apple computer was a great example of this.   More recently, the iPhone was a major disruptor in the cell phone space.  RIM/Blackberry is now on the skids and looks a lot like Yahoo (stock price down 95% and they are still saying everything’s OK).  It is easy to intellectualize what Jobs did … because we can’t.  He faced off against a market leader (RIM) with dazzling technology that we can’t even see (just try to open up your iPhone) and took market share by the boatload.  All it took was a couple thousand engineers, Chinese sourcing, millions of dollars in merchandising, and the artist, Steven Jobs.  Hard to imagine doing what he did.

But, it is not hard to understand what Lonnie Johnson did in the early 1990s.   He transformed a 25 cent squirt gun into a $25 super soaker and created a billion dollar segment.  He formed his own engineering firm, wrote patents, and licensed his ideas.   Hell, it was just a big damn squirt gun. Golly, anybody reading this could do that.  If , … if you start with the right idea.  Ideas.

The right idea.  Hmm… sounds simple.  A few years back I was talking with Ford’s Laura Fraga about owner centers and third party web sites.  She asked if they were “sticky.”   I have been thinking about that simple phrase for a couple of years now.  I only frequent websites that are sticky. 

OK, what about the wrong idea?  The automotive segment seems further along in the development of digital owner centers than the other vehicle segments.  The thinking must be that digital owner centers are more appropriate for the automotive industry than for construction, agriculture, etc., so, there’s no there there.  Lonnie might challenge that and conclude that Ag is another Super Soaker.   Let’s assemble some facts based on a sample of one.  (Jobs was famous for basing decisions on a  sample of one … but, then again, I’m no Steve Jobs).

Some historical facts about me.  Nearly 20 years ago our family “rescued” a horse farm that was across the street from us.  We saw tell-tale white pipes sticking up in the air one day and knew it was about to become a cluster of ersatz colonial houses.  So, we bought it.  Thinking, horses … what’s so tough about raising a bunch of horses?  Got that one wrong.  It’s like brain surgery and there’s no rulebook or single source of information.  You stumble along, and our household’s bounty of graduate degrees has been pretty much useless.  There are a few lessons to be learned.  (1) Horses are fragile and break down a lot based on the slightest provocation (like the baseball players for the Red Sox).  (2) Vets are expensive.  (3) Horseshoes cost as much as Gucci’s … every 6 weeks.  (4) You will have as many horses as stalls in the barn.  (5) You will soon do everything in your power to fix the little things that seem to cause problems … like proper footing, proper paddocks, and manure removal.  (6) Each day of experience surfaces more understanding of how little you really know.  I spend more time on the internet figuring out how to improve my horse operations than I do with any other of my passions.  In fact, more than all the others combined.

Some recent facts.  Most recently, we built an indoor riding arena.  Maybe global warming is just a Massachusetts phenomenon.  It rains a lot here and the outdoor arena became useless.  Besides the arena, we needed four new things:  (1) good footing for the horses, (2) a rake that would not screw up the footing, (3) a watering system that would eliminate the dust from the new footing, and (4) a new dedicated tractor.

Here’s what I did.  I went to the World Equestrian Games website to find out what footing they used a few years ago in Kentucky for their dressage competition.  Did a Google search for rakes and water wagons that were appropriate for dressage and used the type of footing used in the World Equestrian Games.  We dedicated an existing tractor to the arena, but found out it was too heavy and did not have the needed turf tires (footing is all about compaction).  So, I went searching.  The perfect tractor for this sort of application is the New Holland Boomer 20.  Hydrostatic transmission, sips very little diesel fuel per hour (important because I use a 5 gallon can to fill it), 3-point hitch for the water wagon, draw bar for the rake, and weighs less than 2,000 pounds.  And priced very competitively – it is uniquely qualified for this application.  It pretty much stands alone.

One more fact.  I am a birder, love the Red Sox, am a weather and news junkie, and have a grudging respect for the New York Times.  Here’s what my iGoogle homepage looks like.  I use it 50 times a day. (Yes, I know Google just announced that they’re sending iGoogle out to pasture. I won’t be the only one who will miss it).

Conclusions.  Some people need to go to the store and need a car (an “appliance”) to do this; others are more passionate about their vehicle.  That passion certainly is alive and well in the upscale and high-mpg segments, but is on the wane for mainstream products.  Remember, Laura Fraga said that successful websites need to be “sticky.”  It is hard to imagine how to make websites for appliance automobile owners.  Passion? That’s easy.  Just buy a Porsche. Or a Volt.

Back to tractors.  Tractors are appliances, too.  To make a tractor owner center “sticky” you must focus on the use, not the appliance.  I think that Lonnie would agree with me.   I have some questions for us all:

Question #1:  If Google can allow me to quickly customize my homepage to reflect my interests, why can’t the OEMs do this with their “home pages”?

Question #2:  Maybe GM’s tie-in with Yahoo was brilliant … they just picked the wrong horse.  If the cost of the technology to do #1 is too stiff, why not partner with Google or Facebook?

Question #3:  If you can’t get organizational support for an innovative “home page “ experiment, why not work with Google Facebook and try to get your needed functionality incorporated as an application?  Redundancy is OK when it represents huge instrumentality.

Question #4:  Why not design these sticky Owner Centers with some owners?  If stickiness is all about the use, not the appliance, then it might make sense to involve some users.  OK, it will take more time to do it this way.  Maybe a day or so.

Question #5:  Maybe you don’t have to foot the cost of all this yourself.  The picture of the Arena Rascal Pro shows that there are product tie-ins that the OEMs don’t know about or appreciate.  Ag OEMs are pretty much terrible with implements and attachments … why not figure out the best tie-ins with third parties that could be brand-enhancing?  This could be by area of use represented in your home page customization process (e.g., for your equine “Owner Centers”, tie in to Kister).

Question #6: Have we thought about what a sticky use-based site might look like? The Knot is sticky, if you’re planning a wedding. It makes money via ads and vendor listings; it’s also an e-commerce site. They don’t sell wedding dresses (yet), but you can pick up some nice toasting flutes.  Another example is Redfin, which is a real estate brokerage with a great listings interface. What differentiates Redfin from other brokers’ sites is that it seems to strike just the right balance between the needs of the user (which involve obtaining information on listings via an efficient, understandable, and powerful interface) and its own objectives (selling its own listings). This balance is easy to envision, but incredibly hard to implement—because most of the time, Redfin’s audience will use other brokers.

Question #7:  We need to challenge our economies-of-scale thinking.  I live in Acton, Mass.  It is a tad more than 20 square miles.  In it are nine horse farms of consequence.  Five of these have indoor arenas.  So, there are a lot of horse farms out there in America, and we all have the same information needs.  You can sell tractors in this segment, if you do it right. It’s not a huge segment, but when you add up a bunch of small segments, you can get to a big one. Some other tractor segments worth targeting with use-based sites include:

  •       Row Crop
  •       Hay and Forage
  •       Dairy Farms
  •       Vineyards 
  •       Vegetable Farms
  •       Sugar Cane

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