Unordinary Thinking No. 36 – Gestating elephants, mice and Kindles

I found out about gestation periods today. Did you know it takes 19 months for a baby elephant to develop from mummy and daddy elephants doing the business to birth (try not to linger on that image)? Or that it takes a mouse a mere six weeks from sperm and egg making acquaintance to lots of little mice arriving?

Amazon’s Kindle, or more specifically the technology to read on an electronic device, was conceived, in its basic form, in 1973 in Xerox’s Research Centre in Palo Alto, California (incidentally also where the computer mouse was first developed). If we define ‘birth’ as mass adoption and seeing people everywhere with Kindles in their hand, then that occurred in and around 2007. Which means the Kindle was born after a pregnancy of nearly 35 years.

Elephant and babyWhen I first found this out, I was surprised. After all, if the initial technology was available in the 70s, what has taken so long?  But it was not the technology that caused the delay. It was the translation of a cool, clever bit of tech into a proposition that consumers decided they wanted and would buy which has taken the time.

And, where numerous others had tried and failed, it took a clever and charismatic visionary, deploying what we at Lexden would call unordinary thinking, to bring an electronic reading device into all of our lives. That visionary was Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos.

If you think about it, an electronic reader was a counter intuitive thing for Bezos to pursue. With an inordinately successful online business based on shipping paper books, a more conventional thinker might well have persuaded himself that people would continue hundreds of years of habit and never switch to electronic books. That analysis would certainly have suited him. Except Bezos did not look at it that way. All he could see was something which could destroy his business. He might have thought “if my customers love getting books delivered in 2 days, what happens if someone can get them the same books in 2 hours?  Or two minutes?” It was a brave call but, if anyone was going to destroy his business, it was going to be him.

There is a secondary element which is at the core of Jeff Bezos and his ethos. He has an obsessive, overwhelming and intrinsic focus on the customer. It is how he built Amazon and is summarised best by the man himself: “Whenever we are facing one of those too-hard problems, where we get into an infinite loop and can’t decide what to do, we try to convert it into a straightforward problem by saying, ‘well, what’s better for the customer?’”. There is a big clue for all of us here and is why so many people love their Kindles.

Finally he knew the limitations of Amazon as an organisation and what would get in the way of launching a successful product. After all, what did they really know about developing a technological product? So he empowered a completely separate and new business unit-Lab 126 in California – hundreds of miles from Head Office in Seattle. By doing this, he knew that the Kindle project team could get on with developing their product without the distractions, potential negativity, office politics and budget pressures that are a feature of all corporates – even one as new as Amazon.

But why has the Kindle succeeded where other attempts, notably Sony’s Librie which had launched three years earlier, failed?Kindle

It was not the technology. In fact, the Librie actually had a better screen with eight different shades of grey rather than the four on the Kindle. Instead the difference was in how the Kindle set out to address, one by one, all of the reasons which would get in the way of consumers falling in love with their reader.

For instance:

  • Being able to wirelessly download books instead of having to link to a PC
  • Tens of thousands of books available through Amazon’s relationship with publishers
  • Leveraging the book reviews and recommendations of 65m existing Amazon shoppers
  • Ability to purchase with one click of a mouse
  • Books sold at a significant discount to their physical counterpart

When you look it at it like this, it seems easy doesn’t it? Of course, it was not. It must have been really hard. But it shows that by following the customer, doing all you can for them, and putting absolutely everything into brilliant execution, there is a road map for all of us who are hoping to launch propositions we hope consumers will, one day, love.

So think of it like this: even if the conception of your idea was over in a flash, your baby is gestating nicely. Just figure out everything you have to do to get down to the maternity ward and give birth.


Lexden is a Customer Strategy Agency. We put customers at the start and the heart of the business strategy.

We work with brands to attract and retain happy customers. We achieve this by helping them to understand what makes their customers tick, building memorable customer experience strategies and creating engaging customer value propositions.

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