Catching the Right Wave
“Timing” as the saying goes is everything. That is certainly one of the main messages in the 2018 award winning documentary, General Magic. The documentary tells the story of a start-up company that has been called “the most influential Silicon Valley company that no one has ever heard of.” This Apple spin off saw the future in terms of “a computer in your pocket” (smart phone) and thought they could bring it to market in the early 90’s.
The documentary captures the thrill and excitement possessed by a group of young, really bright IT professionals who believed they could invent the future. The core group had done it once with the creation of the Mac computer and wanted to position themselves to be a part of the next big thing. They attracted an enthusiastic and committed team who thrived on working side by side with these early legends of the computer age.
The inability to bring to market a smart phone and all the associated technology developments was not related to a lack of vision, commitment, or talent. Had the enterprise achieved its lofty ambitions, the company would have become one of the enduring case studies taught in every business school. As you watch the documentary, it is hard not to think, “I want to work in that type of organization and I want to work with those kinds of people.”
But timing does matter, especially on the frontiers of technology and the introduction of radically new products. Price, size, features, and connectivity are influenced by the larger ecosystem and can’t be solved within a single organization. If General Magic had been the R & D division of a larger tech company with no financial exposure, it might have been compared to the innovation factory of Bell Labs from decades earlier. Instead the company ended up declaring bankruptcy in 2002.
However, the story of General Magic is more than a validation of the quote presented in the documentary, “If you start paddling too early, the wave will leave you behind.” General Magic may have showed up to the party a decade too soon but also made choices regarding how fast to paddle and which wave to ride. Some commentators see the organizational pursuit for perfection and staying true to a breakthrough vision as contributing to their failure. Rather than release product versions that would progressively build on previous technological developments (think the ipod), General Magic wanted to bring everything that was possible to their first release.
One of General Magic’s founders, Andy Hertzfeld, offers the lesson learned stating, “It was completely possible to achieve the majority of our vision, but in a staged fashion.” So why did such an obvious and even easier solution not emerge among these bright decision makers. Some observers point to the blinding power of pursuing a vision to change the world fueled by the intense passion of all the fellow world changers on your team. In that environment, it is hard to see the benefits of slowing down and looking outside the organization to get opinions from others.
This tunnel vision also contributed to General Magic missing the implications of how the world wide web would change everything. Rather than seeing new opportunities and possibilities the web would create, General Magic invested more effort in its closed network approach to make its business model work.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Steve Jobs would resurrect the project a few years later and bring several of those young energetic IT professionals into his vision of the future. Others ended up playing central roles in Silicon Valley’s leading companies. The documentary states it clearly, “failure is not the end it is the beginning.” In the end, Silicon Valley, these young professionals, and the consumers experienced a victory.
But for the company founders, the documentary captures a profound sense of what could have been. Marc Porat, the leading visionary and CEO, says he agreed to be in the documentary to help his children understand what happened in their lives. You feel his pain and what pursuing this vision cost him personally and professionally.
Porat’s vision regarding the smart phone could not have been more accurate and his ability to recruit and mobilize passionate talent any more effective. But a vision so focused on a world changing product or solution often requires just the right timing. In contrast, a vision around building an organization that can change the world provides more flexibility leading to a longer time horizon and a greater willingness to see the world as it is and to integrate other people’s world changing ideas.