Imagine it’s mid-2006, and you manufacture and sell hand dryers. Your product probably looks something like this:
Then, one day in October, a company that manufactures vacuum cleaners releases this machine, and literally turns your industry upside-down:
How do you react to something like that? Well, like most people in your industry at the time, you probably criticize the device for being loud, weird-looking, and creating a puddle of water on the floor after use. Unfortunately for you, the die has already been cast. Until now, consumers much preferred paper towels, and only tolerated your product because premise owners wanted to save money and waste. Most hand dryers took a minute to dry a pair of hands, resulting in queues, and customers giving up, just to wipe their hands on their clothes. But an Airblade can dry a pair of hands completely in 10 seconds.
A single company, with a little innovation, design and smooth marketing, has turned a utilitarian product which had to be ‘put up with’ into a status symbol for high-end venues and offices.
Dyson was by no means the first to come up with the general idea, the Mitsubishi Jet Towel having preceded the Airblade by 13 years. But to ascribe all of the Airblade’s success to pure luck would be a clear mistake—design, sales and brand matter in the toilet industry as much as any other. Conceivably, any other company could have made a hand dryer with the impact, impression and technology of the Airblade. The question is: why didn’t they?
I’d guess that garden variety complacency is the answer. Your cash flows are just fine as they are, and you’re not particularly worried about the future. Premise owners who have already bought your product are now locked into service contracts, and they’ve probably amortized the initial cost of the dryers over several years. High-end establishments would use paper towels anyway, and the highest-end ones use real cloth towels that get laundered.
The ease with which the human brain can rationalize away laziness never fails to surprise. But, as Darwin teaches us, complacency = death. This parable keeps playing out, in different industries, but always the same way.
As Airblade-like technology becomes cheaper, and second- and third-generation derivatives thereof (sometimes referred to as ‘knock-offs’) spring up, how many mid-market venues do you think will be upgrading? How many greasy spoons and diners and cafés? This is Gibson’s unevenly-distributed future—an economic tidal wave which sees ‘premium’ products entering the economy at one end and dispersing across every stratum within a few years. It’s the reason why there are whole families on welfare carrying iPhones.
Being a human carries an inevitable amount of economic risk. Being an innovator, pioneer or entrepreneur carries more still. But it’s important to remember that non progredi est regredi—no matter how safe we feel, the Red Queen effect is always at play, and a Dyson or Apple or Tesla is always working away in the darkness, ready to eat our lunch.
Go forth and make Airblades.