Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Let H-P be H-P

I've written a couple of posts recently about the importance of being earnest.  No, not the Oscar Wilde play, but the importance of understanding, communicating and simply "being" what and who you are as a company when you innovate.  The common mistake that many firms have is that they believe innovation is about a cool product.  While a cool product is interesting, unless your firm has clear goals, plans and trajectories, a product is here today, gone tomorrow.  That why I wrote about innovating your "purpose", not just your product.

Today, I'd like to further that argument by using two simple examples - Apple and H-P.  I'm writing as Jobs steps down and Apotheker steps up.  Jobs is stepping down due to health reasons, and his imminent departure leaves us wondering if Apple can be Apple without Jobs.  Will Apple sustain its ability to predict the market, perhaps even lead its customers to want its new products and services?  Well, since Jobs returned Apple has had a clear vision and purpose.  The real question is:  can Apple sustain that vision and purpose without Jobs, or does it become a more careful, cautious company?

On the other hand, Leo Apotheker takes over at H-P and seems ready to jettison the last 15 years of investment in consumer hardware.  The story goes that Apotheker wants H-P to be cool like Apple.  This, in my mind, is missing the point, and missing the entire history of H-P.  H-P has a backstory - and one actually very similar to Apple.  Further H-P had far more people who knew and respected H-P for its history, its culture and its story.  Apotheker either doesn't know, or doesn't care, about this core story and its importance sense of purpose.

H-P was Apple before Jobs was even born.  H-P was, and in many parts of its business still is, the engineer's choice of product.  Raise your hand if you are an engineer and had an HP calculator in school, or if you are in any scientific endevor and use H-P equipment.  H-P stood for something - high quality, tools for people who did important thinking work, equipment that worked and lasted, built for engineers by engineers.  For some reason, none of this seems to matter anymore, yet I suspect that even today, H-P has as big, and as loyal, a customer base as Apple, they've just forgotten about it or de-emphasized what was and still is a loyal H-P base.  H-P was never cool.  In fact H-P products sat in engineering labs, in places where real work got done, and on belt loops and pocket protectors.  But H-P products built stuff, took men to the moon, designed and ran chemical plants.  H-P products, and the loyal people who used them, designed and built the stuff that all innovators now use as platforms.

And that's the point of this post - create a story about who and what you are and your value proposition, build a loyal following and innovate with those loyal followers.  After all, they are far more likely to adopt your new products and services than prospects and strangers who don't know your products.  As a loyal H-P guy I acquired one of the first H-P handheld devices, the Jornada, even though the Palm seemed like a better product, because I was convinced that H-P made better equipment.  H-P is trying to be the next IBM, or SAP, and wants to be cool like Apple.  H-P should look back to its history and decide to re-invigorate what made it great - great, innovative products that stood the test of time for people doing serious work who needed excellent machines.

I'm sure that's not in vogue right now as Google, Facebook, Twitter and god help us, Groupon take all the publicity.  We are at another "eyeballs" inflection point, where solid firms like H-P believe innovation is about capturing more prospects through interesting interfaces, rather than capitalizing on their intellectual property, reputation and loyal customer base.  When innovating, copying someone else's strategy or persona is akin to wearing someone else's clothes and driving their car - you may borrow their look and feel for a while, but inevitably your persona shines through.  H-P was never cool, and that should be OK.  H-P was a great company, is, and will be in the future if it realizes who and what it is, and who and what it is for.  H-P needs to be itself - it's real self, only better and faster.

H-P can't adopt another firm's strategy or pretend to be a fashionable consumer company.  That's not in its roots, its purpose and not where its loyal customers are.  Right now H-P stands to risk angering its loyal engineering, technical and scientific customers who number in the tens of millions, trying to become something that it is not, a follower in consumer goods and software, a purveyor of "cool.  Those fickle customers may not accept H-P's entrance into "cool" and the die-hard H-P fan boys are losing heart as H-P increasingly seems set to ignore the stuff that made H-P what it is.  H-P needs to be what H-P was, and is, rather than what it thinks Apple is.  Only then can it be successful innovating.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:19 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Those fickle customers may not accept H-P's entrance into "cool" and the die-hard H-P fan boys are losing heart as H-P increasingly seems set to ignore the stuff that made H-P what it is"

Great writeup. A couple niggles:

1.HP Fanboys? Really?

2. I can't believe you wrote a whole essay referring to Hewlett Packard as "H-P"

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Anonymous TechAlmanac said...

Thoughtful post. The question that I am sure drives much of what passes for strategy these days is "How can we grow the top and bottom line when our traditional markets are mature?" HP was/is a great instrumentation company feeling the need for bigger markets. Back to its roots would mean really digging into the instrumentation business which continues to have new opportunities in bio, nano, and environmental markets.

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