Smart Leaders Like Elon Musk Embrace the Rule of Low Expectations. Here’s Why It Works, and When to Use It

Smart Leaders Like Elon Musk Embrace the Rule of Low Expectations. Here's Why It Works, and When to Use It



I live in a suburb outside New York City, but I spend a fair amount of time in rural New Hampshire.

My wife’s parents live there, and we love visiting. It’s a beautiful place, lots of opportunity to experience nature and awe.

But, there’s one one practical problem: internet connectivity. 

It’s so rural that it’s hard to get really reliable, fast, consistent broadband. That makes it difficult for people like me to stay up there for long periods of time, since nearly 100 percent of my work requires a fast internet connection.

I’ve explored lots of stopgap solutions, and of course, I’m not alone in this quandry. A study in 2018 found about one quarter of Americans who live in rural areas can’t get reliable high-speed Internet.

That’s why I’ve been watching with high personal interest as Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite Internet service begins to roll out. I’m on the waiting list for the public beta test, which is apparently just getting its first non-employee participants.

While reviewing the reports, I suddenly realized that there’s something genius about the way that Musk and other smart leaders sometimes introduce new product offerings like this — intentionally setting very low expectations, which lines them up for great success as a result.

Take, for example, the name of the Starlink beta test itself: the “Better Than Nothing Beta.”

“As you can tell from the title, we are trying to lower your initial expectations,” said Starlink’s emails to the users who have been selected for the first go-round, according to CNBC. “Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mbs and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.”

Against that low bar, almost any kind of positive result would vastly overdeliver. And so far, some beta users who have had the opportunity to try it out have been taking to social media to announce that they’ve seen much more than Starlink promised.

“Starlink is a game changer,” wrote one beta tester. “[B]efore I was getting 0.5-12mb/s now I get 100-160mb/s.”

Now, perhaps you’re thinking, “Hmmm, how do I apply this rule to my business?”

If so, I think it’s definitely worth considering — but also that there are a few factors required to give any shot of success.

First, this only works if you can identify true customer pain. 

Believe me, not having access to high speed internet in a rural area after living in an urban or suburban area is significant customer pain. (Attention world: I’m eager for Starlink, but I would be willing to pay a lot for any effective solution.)

Second, you need customers who are willing to accept a short-term, less than ideal solution, as part of their hope for a better, longer-term solution.

Third, somewhat related, you likely need scarcity. Starlink’s messaging works here in part because there are few other options, and because the number of beta test slots is still small. 

According to PCMag, Starlink’s public beta focuses on rural users in Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin; those of us a bit farther east have to continue to wait.

Fourth, there has to be minimal downside. This is why “better than nothing” works for high-speed Internet connectivity, but it would not work for something where failing to meet a minimal standard would result in really bad outcomes. 

Finally, perhaps most crucial: Remember that you’re trying to set customers’ low expectations, not your expections of yoruself or your team. 

The backbone of Starlink is a network of ultimately thousands of satellites in low earth orbit, costing at least $10 billion to build and launch.

But as CNBC points out, SpaceX anticipates that overall revenue could eclipse $30 billion a year, which would be something like 10 times what the company currently makes from its rocket business.

So, that’s the plan: leverage low short-term expectations for customers, all the while setting high expectations internally.

Could it work for a version of this work for your business, too? 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.





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PAUL WALKER

PAUL WALKER

Lonely traveler, l like to explore with my camera and my laptop every part of the earth.