Product-Focus: The 3 Ways It Stymies Success

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Built to Last" by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s wrong with product-focus in business? If the product isn’t the point, what is?

One of the myths about visionary companies is that they require one great idea—a specific product or service—to get started. In reality, visionary companies don’t take the product-focus approach. Instead, they concentrate on building a great company.

Continue reading to learn why product-focus generally doesn’t lead to greatness.

The Product Isn’t the Point

Business schools espouse that you need a great idea backed by a solid marketing plan before starting a company. But visionary companies show that product-focus simply isn’t the path to lasting success.

Out of the 18 visionary companies, only three had a specific product or service in mind when they began: Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, and Ford. All the others tried one thing after another, getting both hits and misses and refining their offerings along the way. Many limped and stumbled before finding their footing and eventually becoming a great success.

  • For example, Hewlett-Packard (HP) began in 1937 without a product. Bill Hewlett and David Packard used their engineering backgrounds to create various contraptions, from bowling lanes to telescopes to urinals, many of which didn’t produce great results. They didn’t let their failures dissuade them—kept creating and experimenting until they acquired profitable war contracts in the 1940s. 

The Trouble With Product-Focus

A great idea shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of a company, and product-focus is actually detrimental in three ways: 

  1. If it fails, you might get discouraged and abandon the company altogether.
  2. If it succeeds, you might become too attached to it, ignoring other avenues for growth. 
  3. Any product, no matter how innovative, will eventually become obsolete. If you pin organizational success to that one great idea, then you won’t have what it takes to find lasting success.

When building a visionary company, the product isn’t the point—the company is. You can only build an enduring company if you never give up, even if your products keep failing. Instead of focusing all your attention on designing a great product, shift your focus to designing a great organization. 

  • For example, General Electric (GE) used Edison’s direct current system, which proved inferior to their competitor Westinghouse’s alternating current system. But one product didn’t dictate GE’s fate. They established the General Electric Research Lab, which created many more products that helped propel GE to greatness.

If you want to build a company that lasts, product-focus isn’t likely to get you there.

Product-Focus: The 3 Ways It Stymies Success

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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