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The iPod is 20. What can its success teach business founders?

It was one of those "you must be kidding" moments when I read that the iPod is 20 years old this week. Really? Can it be that long? I remember being at a press event for another gadget maker, with a bunch of seasoned tech journalists not long after. One of them had an iPod and the room was like a bunch of kids in a playground, crowding around, all wanting to have look at the shiny new toy.


It was startling at the time and and yet now seems such a natural evolution of how we engage with music. It was a defining and transformational moment for music and personal entertainment. So what lessons are there for other founders when it comes to getting new products right?


1. Land at the right time

There’s no question the timing of its arrival played a key part in the success of the iPod. But it’s a mistake to confuse that with luck. Steve Jobs was a keen student of both the tech market and the music industry. He guessed the music business was at an inflexion point. He saw the lucrative era of the CD was in danger of being overtaken by digital services, including the illegal file sharing sites that had sprung up. While the record companies saw this as a threat, he saw only opportunity. He had the vision to see the potential of the door that pioneers such as Napster had opened. Importantly, he could see that there was also an appetite even for the existing, low-quality MP3 players on the market. He saw what a high-quality player could achieve. And he figured, correctly, that Apple would be able to convince major labels to accept the inevitable and start to play ball. That was something smaller, independent start-ups never could.


2. Be brave and challenge current thinking

The size and market heft of Apple helped. But there was also a major role for the sheer bloody mindedness of Jobs. Other having tried and failed to break through before wasn't enough to prevent him having a go. The iPod succeeded partly because Jobs and his team just had so much courage in their conviction that the current music business model wasn’t sustainable in the face of the technological onslaught from the internet. Most record company bosses had too much skin in the CD game to look past their current cash cow. Jobs could see what even then looked likely and which now (with the benefit of hindsight) looks blindingly obvious. Jobs knew that if he got the product right, the opportunity was huge.


3. Focus on details but get to market soon

Just because the market is ready for your product, it doesn’t mean your product is ready for market. Here, the lesson from Apple is to strike the right balance between speed to market and perfection. You need to get the product good enough, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. Apple has developed an excellent model for in-market testing. Back with the first iPod the first pitch had to be good enough to blow away any other MP3 player. Jobs was famous for being demanding on the size of the iPod. He wanted maximum storage (1,000 songs sounded impressive at the time) in the smallest device. Stories abound of his dissatisfaction with prototypes, including him allegedly chucking one in a fish tank, pointing to the air bubbles rising from it and saying they proved it was full of “dead space”. Getting the product right matters. But don't delay launch for perfection and miss the market opportunity.

4. Go big or go home

Having decided to launch, it's not good enough to hope the product sells itself. Launching a new product takes courage and investment, especially when you are also effectively creating a new category. For Jobs and his team that meant backing their innovation with an absolute ton of marketing spend. For a while it was impossible to avoid those iconic dancing silhouette ads, on posters, in magazines, on TV or at the cinema. They later linked up for a huge deal with U2. Were it launching today, it's probable there would be slightly less above-the-line spend but a great deal more direct marketing, SEO and social media influencer activity. The details of the tactics are less important than the strategy of spend all you can afford and a bit more to make as much noise as possible.


5. Keep innovating

Just as you don’t need a finished product to launch, so you don’t need a successful launch to spell the end of product development. One defining characteristic of Apple has been its commitment to constant innovation. The original iPod was a game-changing product, but it was followed by a string of further innovations, including the iTunes Store with its ability to download individual songs (for a standard flat fee of $0.99). The iPod was the first in a long line of digital music players from Apple, and an extended family tree that runs through many variations and deviations all the way up to the iPhone 13 Pro. There have been iPod Nanos and Minis along the way, and an entirely new ecosystem and environment of apps and smartphones. Never stop innovating sounds like a simple slogan, but following a rule of "even if it ain't broke, fix it" is much harder to do in practice.