Listening to Customers

In 2011, BlackBerry peaked with a little more than 50 million devices sold. The trajectory had an impressive ~50% CAGR from 2007 where the sales were around 10 million devices. I am sure the board and chiefs were pleased and expected this trend to continue. One might expect that ~250 million devices were to be sold in 2016 if the CAGR could be sustained. Even linear growth would be fairly impressive.

Today, in 2017, BlackBerry commands a somewhat unimpressive 0.0% of the smartphone market.

There was also Nokia. The Finnish toilet-paper manufacturer pretty much shared the market with Ericsson in Scandinavia and was incredibly popular in many other regions. If I recall correctly, they sold more devices than any other manufacturer in the world. But they were the McDonalds of mobile phones: Cheap and simple (nothing wrong with that per se). They did have some premium phones, but perhaps they were just too expensive, too clumsy or maybe too nerdy?

ngage

Talking on a Nokia N-Gage phone

Nokia cleverly tricked Microsoft into buying their phone business, and soon after the Microsoft gave up on that too (having been a contender in the early years with Windows CE/Mobile).

I am confident that BlackBerry was “listening to their customers”. But perhaps they didn’t listen to the market. Every single customer at BlackBerry would state that they preferred the physical keyboard and the naive UI that BlackBerry offered. So why do things differently? Listen to your customers!

If BlackBerry was a consulting agency, then sure, do whatever the customer asks you to. If you’re selling hot-dogs, and the customer asks for more sauerkraut, then add more sauerkraut, even if it seems revolting to you. But BlackBerry is not selling hotdogs or tailoring each device to each customer. They are making a commodity that goes in a box and is pulled off a shelf by someone in a nice shirt.

As the marginally attached customers are exposed to better choices (for them), they will opt for those, and in time, as the user base dwindles, you’re left with “fans”. Fans love the way you do things, but unless your fan base is growing, you’re faced with the very challenging task of adding things your fans may not like. Employees that may be prostrate bowed but not believing, will leave and eventually you’ll have a group of flat-earth preachers evangelizing to their dwindling flock.

It might work as a small, cooky company that makes an outsider device, but it sure cannot sustain the amount of junk that you tag on over the years. Eventually that junk will drag the company under.

Or, perhaps BlackBerry was a popular hotdog stand, in a town where people just lost the appetite for hotdogs and had a craving for juicy burgers and pizza (or strange hotdogs)

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