All the World in a Wristwatch

Let's talk about watches.

Not the most exciting subject, I'll admit -- especially when we're speaking not of Rolexes and Audemar-Piagets, but the kind of cheap watches you find in the department store or even a pharmacy. In fact, it was just the sight of a humble little display rack of Timex watches that I saw in the Fred Meyer store in Coos Bay, Ore., that started my musings.

It is often the most prosaic of consumer products, the most forgotten corner of the tech world, that can offer the most interesting lessons about how high technology really works -- especially as it collides with human nature. It is a lesson often forgotten by high-flying young companies and that often brings them suddenly to Earth.

When a hot young company with a hot new technology in a hot and newly emerging market looks ahead, it typically sees three great obstacles ahead to overcome.

First, it must win the technological race, leading all competitors in producing the most cost-effective, technologically advanced and performance-leading product or service. Second, it must beat its competitors to market, either by introducing its product first, or soon after its competitors and with a self-evidently superior offering. And, third, it must capture the market's imagination via the best product, best support and most compelling message and, in the process, gather up a dominant and defensible market share.

Those steps, with a few minor variations, are what's needed to win the business world, especially with a young company in an emerging market. That's what they teach you in business school and that's the path that investors (and eventually shareholders) expect you to take. Deviate from it and, even if you are a founder of the company, you will likely find yourself kicked out of the company you helped to create.

And, yet, there is something profoundly wrong with this business model -- or, at best, it is dangerously incomplete. And to understand why, you need merely to study that forgotten little watch kiosk at your neighborhood department store.

The first thing you should notice is just how unimportant that display is to the entire store. Clocks were once miracles, a touchstone of the Enlightenment, a symbol of the Scientific Revolution and, indeed, one of its most important tools.

And a clock that could be carried on one's person -- a pocket watch -- was a miracle upon a miracle. A pocket watch required components so finely tooled that the earliest ones could only offer an hour hand. The minute hand took a small revolution in itself; and a reliable second hand was only possible after the complete reordering of society around new forms of energy, organization and time management that we call the Industrial Revolution.

Even then, in a world now defined by the mass production of interchangeable parts, a pocket watch was still a comparatively expensive item -- and an accurate one so expensive that typically only specialists (railroad engineers, factory foremen, etc.) owned them, and they were awarded with great ceremony by one's employer after a lifetime of work.

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