Problem Solving as a Competitive Advantage

In 1999, Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay saw a huge gap in the home entertainment market. People were growing frustrated trying to record their favorite TV shows and rewatch them. They either had to be home to man the VCR, which sort of defeats the purpose, or if they were really brave they could try to set the timer on the device and hope it didn’t cut off the first couple of minutes of their show. We all know the joke about how setting the clock on your VCR is about as intuitive as assembling a hydrogen bomb, so the results of this method were, unsurprisingly, mixed. Barton and Ramsay understood the problem, recognized the opportunity, and would go on to develop TiVo and forever change the home entertainment landscape.

That’s not the end of the TiVo story, but it might as well be. After enjoying a brief run of massive success, so much so that people still refer to recording shows as “TiVo-ing”, TiVo quickly found itself an afterthought in a crowded marketplace. The company that revolutionized television in the early 2000s today is nothing more than a tertiary player in the space. For reference, TiVo stock peaked at about $50 a share and today is worth about $13. Quite a fall for what was, not that long ago, one of the biggest brand names in the world.

So where did TiVo go wrong? It failed where so many companies before it have failed, and so many more since.

It didn’t have purpose.

The Long Haul


Starting a business or inventing a new product is hard. To be successful, conventional wisdom says finding and maximizing new business opportunities lies in two magic words – market demand. Conventional wisdom would lead you to find underserved markets and create products with unique selling points to satiate an unmet customer need.

Conventional wisdom says that being successful means revenue. Or gaining and owning the most market share, owning a product category, or having the highest revenue in a particular industry segment.

TiVo did all of that. It passed those tests with flying colors. So why is it clinging to life?

Because conventional wisdom is wrong.

Brand trumps revenue over the long haul. And brands are built as a function of having purpose and consistently solving problems that align with that purpose.

The problem with TiVo is that it stopped innovating. It went all in on a single product. A game-changing, revolutionary product? Yes, but a product nonetheless. And the rest of the world can catch up to a product. Today you can bundle DVR services with pretty much any cable provider for a few extra dollars a month. No special installation, no separate bill. Easy. It’s made TiVo effectively useless.

We’re not picking on TiVo – this is a mistake you see every day, in every industry. So what’s the solution?

Be a problem solver.

Solving Problems


Anyone can be a one hit wonder. Anyone can sell a widget – at least temporarily. However, being a relentless problem solver is sustainable. Don’t get me wrong – it’s hard. Really hard. But, it’s actually the only thing that is sustainable over time.

Apple makes technology easier, and more enjoyable, to use. The iPod wasn’t invented to serve market demand. Macbook Pros don’t tout their USPs when compared to their PC counterparts. Apple simply solves the problem of making our laptops and tech gadgets fun to use.

Southwest makes flying more affordable and accessible. All of their products and services solve problems related to this purpose. They are relentlessly focused on democratizing the airways as described in Roy Spence’s book, "It's Not What You Sell, It's What You Stand For".

Revenue is a byproduct of problem solving and market share is a byproduct of sustained problem solving.

Problem solving is a mindset. It means relentlessly trying to improve the world, even if it’s just in your specific industry or category. And there’s no shortage of broken or flawed things in the world.

Getting It Done


Long-term brand success isn’t about a product. It’s about constantly finding new ways to make the lives of your users easier, or better, or more enjoyable.

But it’s not enough to just attack your competition or industry. It’s not enough to be innovative once, or in your initial stages of development. It means being honest with yourself. It means attacking your own products and services. It means attacking your ideas. It means being relentless.

Most importantly, problem solving means changing your worldview. You have to move away from the sales-driven mindset that’s been beaten into business culture. You have to disregard the exploitative approach that most businesses think leads to success. Move away from a revenue-driven definition of achievement. These are all shortsighted, and more importantly, misguided points of view. And they’re not sustainable.

Solve a problem and make a difference --- consistently. And If you can do this, you truly have a competitive advantage. If not, brace yourself for the fall.

Written by Brian Easter on November 21, 2013


Add A Comment
kacey says:

Love this! Great reference and great writing!

Rj says:

Thanks for this post. Now I know the history of TiVo. Amazing..

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Written by
Brian Easter