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  • Writer's pictureTGW

Small Business Lessons From The iPod

It came. It saw. It conquered. And after 20+ years (22 come this October) of industry domination, it's being discontinued. There are post-mortems abound on the internet, and some rather pithy ones as well, but as usual, I've not seen any speaking with Small Business Owners so I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring.

The iPod wasn't the most powerful device in the mp3 world and it certainly wasn't the first. But not only did it help to transform Apple into a massive consumer electronics juggernaut; it emaciated its competition, taking over 90% of the market for hard-drive based players in North America. It not only became part of the zeitgeist in the early naughts, revolutionised how people consumed media, and catapulted the fledgling web radio industry into the broadcasting behemoth that we now know as Podcasting.

Yes, Apple is a massive brand with a cult following. And yes, they threw boatloads of money at it to help it succeed. But that doesn't mean that we, as small business owners can't learn a lesson or two from the iPod's climb atop the digital music mountain.


Wix, Mailchimp, and Trello are not the most powerful SAAS (Software As A Service) products in their respective industries. But one of the reasons that they have high adoption rates is because they're easy to use in comparison to their competition. More importantly, they're easy to understand. They don't need a full-day seminar just to explain their concept and business. I remember attending a roundtable discussion with Jack Ma back when Alibaba was first getting popular. He said, perhaps facetiously, that he didn't understand the internet, but that he knew that Alibaba had something promising because, 'even he could understand it'. Talking spcifically about the iPod, DJ and musician, Moby said of the iPod, "I held it, and 45 seconds later; I knre how to use it".


While beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, there's something to be said for good design. Looking at the original iPod today, some 20 years later, while the design is somewhat dated, it isn't garishly so. It's also not just the looks that we're talking about we talk about design, it's also the usability of it. Again, we're talking simplification. But when it comes to simplification, there's a fine line between what Jon Franklin says about simplicity, "Simplicity, carried to an extreme, becomes elegance" to what Albert Einstein said about simplicity, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler". And the genius that is Jony Ive, found that balance.


Digital PMPs (Portable Music Players) had been around a few years when the iPod was released. There were already a handful of players in the space. But there was a myriad of issues. The iPod took care of many of them in a single attempt. "Selling a product is about solving customer problems" Lee Iacocca (ex-Chairman of Ford). Extrapolating that further, so is selling a service. We also don't have to be all things to all people. Unlike selling consumer-based products that benefits by hitting critical mass; reaching critical mass as professional service providers can leave us perilously close to creating a critical mess! Think specifically about what problem you are uniquely able to solve and to whom that solution is for. Even for Apple, they initially carved out a niche market that they wanted to attract. They targeted teenaged music lovers. They understood that teenagers wanted to take charge of their own lives, that they were adventurous and willing to try new products, and that teenagers not only want to be cool, but they are happy to share their wealth of information. Apple curated a solution to specifically target this segment.

Understand Your Why

Steve Jobs focused on customer needs and not on technology. His raison d'etre for the iPod was always about listening to music, that nothing should get in the way of listening to music. Understanding that why, paves the way for everything else. It paves the way toward the solution that you provide. It paves the way in how you communicate the solution. It's one of the reasons why some great technological innovations don't get the same amount of attention and market share as some lesser advanced products. It's one of the reasons why Apple was late to the digital PMP game, had less advanced technology, a less powerful device, was less versatile, but overshot and lapped its competitors. Because at its core, Jobs understood that the iPod wasn't a tech device, but a music player providing the user with a great experience.

Identity / Storytelling

A car gets you from A to B. A digital PMP plays music. A vacuum sucks dust and dirt. And yet, often, we'll pay extra for something that does exactly the same thing as the other brand, even if it's more expensive. Having an iPod was never about having the greatest device on the planet, it was about owning an iPod. There was an identity attached, a factor of prestige. This identity is the reason why people buy a Lexus ES300 over a Toyota Camry. While there are some subtle differences, they are essentially the same car. It's the reason why people might buy a Whirlpool microwave over KitchenAid one. What does it mean to work with you? You might be an accountant exactly like the next accountant. So what's the actual difference?

These are just a few of the ways that I've found that we, as small businesses, can learn and apply what the iPod implemented and scale it down to our needs.


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