Strategy is Something You Can Learn
Quite often when speaking I’m asked how we “came up with” Atlassian’s strategy and business model.
(slide from Scaling Atlassian presentation)
For a long while, this question used to throw me. I’d answer something like “Uh… well, it just kind of evolved.” or “Uhm… it was really just common sense?”.
These answers of course aren’t helpful to the person asking the question who is looking for some sort of learning they can build their own strategy on.
This post is my more thoughtful, updated answer.
The simple answer of course is that we have built the strategy on a few points of initial knowledge, and then evolved it with what we learnt from customers, the market and other businesses over time.
Our initial hunches have proven to be correct. The internet has changed how software is distributed, the web has made it possible to be global from day 1, the cost of writing enterprise software has decreased.
The key point people miss is that we haven’t stopped learning from other businesses in order to improve our own.
Too many people assume that your model or strategy for a startup is fixed. I believe it should be a lot more agile than that. The core values of your company shouldn’t change, however strategies and models are there to be tweaked and evolved.
Learning From Others
I’m a big studier of other businesses. I think of it as strategy cross training. The chance to think about all manner of big, difficult challenges that other technology businesses are facing in order to evolve the strategic side of my brain.
- If I as running eBay, what on earth would I do now? What are my strengths and weaknesses?
- Why did Apple release an iPhone? Is it really a “magic product” or did they put years of engineering into making it right before releasing it? Why did they invest so much?
- Is Yahoo! truly screwed as Google keep eating their lunch? How do they get out of their hole? Can they? Is Y!OS a lock, or a big gamble? Is it their only gamble?
- Can Google just sit back and rest? Have they already “won” the web? If I was Eric, Sergey or Larry – who would I be scared of?
Learn Don’t Copy
It’s extremely important to note that learning doesn’t mean copying. There is no “one true” strategy, rather one that is the best for a given business at a given time.
Even if you think someone else has made smart moves and those moves would work for your businesses, they are extremely unlikely to work for you without modification to your own circumstances.
The “I Want To Be Apple” Fad
Case in point – I hear far too many people looking at Apple and making strategic calls on what they should do to their own businesses. Saying things like “We just need better design.” or “We need to spend more on clever ads.” without truly understanding Apple’s business.
This is extremely dangerous!
To quote the man himself Steve Jobs:
“…when you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple with all these simple solutions, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. And your solutions are way too oversimplified, and they don’t work. Then you get into the problem, and you see it’s really complicated. And then you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop, and the solutions tend to work for awhile. But the really great person will keep on going and find, sort of, the key, underlying principle of the problem. And come up with a beautiful elegant solution that works.”
Or as Mark Rafter coined it – Jobs is striving for the simplicity on the otherside of complexity.
Apple is a fantastic company that’s truly kicking goals. However, they’re not just about flashy marketing, or shiny aluminium bevels. To point to these small examples trivialises Apple’s strategy, smart thinking and understanding of its customers.
If you want to truly learn from other’s strategies, you have to truly understand both their strategy, and your needs. Only then can you learn and improve your own business. Trying to blindly adopt what they’ve done, you risk oversimplifying the solution and failing.
You were blind to the complexity, this didn’t reach the simplicity on the other side.
Where can I learn?
Books are a great start. As I’m writing this, I have a stack of 15 unread books on the left of my desk, a fair few stacks at home and I came home with about 4 or 5 new books from the bookstore last night.
But books are the slow-burn energy of learning. They’re the mental complex carbohydrates your body needs for endurance (aka whole grains) rather than the mental simple sugars you need for a quick high (aka Coca Cola).
The internet provides plenty of simple strategic sugars for quick learning!
(Apologies for the overly metaphor loaded post here – I’m trying to get back into blogging and it takes a while to find one’s voice again. Writing is like a muscle, you need to exercise it often to improve. Oh – and there I go again!)
Want to learn about Apple’s strategy? Steve Jobs’ Master Plan is a great post covering the last 10 years of Apple’s evolution and a few ideas about where they are going next. Good sugar here.
Yahoo! Open Strategy? You can learn a lot about the evolution of their strategy by understanding Yahoo’s competitive position and reading between the lines of their Y!OS launch. TechCrunch has a good set of live blog notes and a follow up post
How about the big G? French consultancy faberNovel today released a fabulous presentation summarising Google’s strategy that I’ve embedded here. Google is a large and complex company, and this is a great attempt at simplifying all the large strategic moves their making. I learned a lot from it that I feel I can reuse (with modification!) at Atlassian.
To finish where I started – another question I’m asked often when speaking is “What advice I took early?”. My answer is often the same. Someone once gave me this advice (apologies, I forgot who!):
“If you take everyone’s advice, you’ll do nothing new. Your role as an entrepreneur is to know what to ignore.”
Beautifully recursive, smart advice – that I didn’t ignore.
And remember, seek the simplicity beyond complexity!