Lessons From the Titans of Technology

By Mark Roberti

A new book that provides insights into the successful strategies of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Andy Grove could help RFID providers position their company to win in the market.

I'm reading a new book titled Strategy Rules: Five Timeless Lessons from Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Steve Jobs, by David B. Yoffie and Michael A. Cusumano. Yoffie is the Max and Doris Starr Professor of International Business Administration at Harvard Business School, while Cusumano is the Sloan Management Review Distinguished Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, with a joint appointment in the MIT School of Engineering.

Like many management books, this one is interesting, and it is enlightening to understand the strategies that three titans of technology employed and the specific moves they made at critical junctures in their respective company's development. They could provide some guidance for companies in the radio frequency identification industry, as we are nearing an inflection point similar to the dawn of the PC era, which gave birth to Microsoft and Apple and made Intel what it is today.

The authors have identified five strategies that all three CEOs employed to build the most successful technology companies in the world. The most important strategy is perhaps "Look Forward, Reason Back." The authors write that Gates, Grove and Jobs "determined where they want their companies to be in the future and could 'reason back' to identify the moves that would take them there."

Now is the time for forward-thinking RFID providers who believe the technology will be as big as the PC and the Internet were—and that it will generate billions of dollars in wealth for some companies—to reason back and figure out how to position their firm as a major player in that space.

Do you build the whole product, as Geoffrey Moore might advocate? Do you focus on a particular type of reader that you believe will dominate (another strategy the authors identify is to not bet the company on one thing)? Or do you try to create the platform on which others will build RFID applications, as the authors might advocate?

To be successful in the way that Gates, Jobs and Grove were, you need to have a clear vision and the ability to understand what current trends suggest the future will be like. You need to envision a world in which every midsize to large factory, every warehouse and nearly every store is using RFID. What will it take to make that happen? Will readers exist on a common platform, like the PC? Will there be different applications written for that platform? Will there be many niche players or a few big winners?

I've heard some RFID companies say, "We know we won't be the gorilla in the market." I find that interesting, since Microsoft, Intel, Apple, Facebook, eBay and many other businesses started out as small as most RFID companies are today. They took advantage of the change because they saw it coming before the bigger firms did (companies like Motorola clearly don't see RFID as a big deal).

There is no doubt that to be a major player in the RFID industry, you will need some luck. Gates was fortunate that IBM did not write its own operating system, which it clearly could have done. Jobs was lucky that Apple was foundering and needed a new operating system just at the time when his own startup NeXT was struggling and had one thing worth selling—its Unix-based operating system. Grove was fortunate that the PC and the need for microprocessors came along just as Intel was losing out to Japanese competitors in the market for memory chips.

The key is to have the vision that allows you to take advantage of the luck that comes your way. Gates, Grove and Jobs believed the PC industry would grow at a time when many others didn't, so they remained committed and focused. They executed their strategies—all of their strategies—effectively. They created effective marketing campaigns, developed new products, manufactured products efficiently and built a sales channel, even before the market was fully there.

I recommend that anyone in the RFID industry read Strategy Rules. Regardless of what you believe, ask yourself these questions while reading it: What if RFID were to become the next big thing in technology? What would I do? How would I position my company to win in this market? Who knows, you might hit on a strategy that turns you into the next Bill Gates, Andy Grove or Steve Jobs.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.