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Blog 139: A Faster Horse

I read something the other day about Steve Jobs that got me thinking.

He was commenting on his famous disdain for paying too much attention to market research. He felt that customers had no idea what they wanted, that this was our value, to read the tea leaves, to figure this out and show them.

He then cited Henry Ford for being the person who inspired him, because Henry Ford once said that “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘a faster horse.’”

Then I did some digging and some thinking.

Nobody, not even the Henry Ford museum knows whether or not Henry Ford ever said that if he asked his clients what they wanted they’d tell him a faster horse. But I’m willing to give Henry the benefit of the doubt. Was he right?

It turns out, he wasn’t.

Had his clients asked for a faster horse, he might have asked “why?” And he would have learned that they needed to haul more materials, more quickly across town and that horses get tired and have to rest. That they didn’t just need a faster horse, they needed one that could work longer hours. This insight might have led Henry Ford to invent the Pick Up truck earlier than he did, which would have been very valuable to Ford shareholders.

Instead, he doubled down on protecting what he had. He made only one car in only one color and he continued to streamline efficiencies so that he could make more cars, more quickly and for less and compete on price.

And that worked, from 1908 to 1920 Ford was able to increase production from roughly 10,000 cars per year to close to 1,000,000 in 12 years. In fact, Ford sold 2/3rds of all cars that were sold in 1920.

While Henry Ford was focused on making black Model T Fords as efficiently as possible, someone else was inventing the future. General Motors.

“A car for every purse.”

They knew that the public wanted options, such as a choice and variety of colors and features and new models to get excited about. Within a few years after 2020, Ford was only selling 15% of the cars on the road. They had to shut down factories, to retool them to make the cars that people wanted.

The lesson. Be bold. Invent the future, don’t be afraid to make something surprising but don’t turn your back on your clients along the way. Ask them questions, lots of them. Try your very best to understand their needs and it will lead you, certainly, to the next best thing.

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