Technological transitions are challenging, particularly for companies in mature industries. Incumbents are frequently blindsided by new technologies, fully missing opportunities to enter emerging markets early. While some established companies do possess the awareness and dexterity to become early adopters of new technologies, they typically lack the vision and the commitment to become leaders. Too often, they cling to the familiar, developing hybrid products that combine elements of the old and the new. The trouble is, hybrid strategies put even the best incumbent companies in a weak position when the market finally embraces the new technology. We call this the “hybrid trap.”
The transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles (EVs) demonstrates the dangers of hesitating to embrace the new. Several internal combustion engine makers, such as General Motors Co., and Honda Motor Co. Ltd., entered the EV market early, but they backed away from these projects in favor of continued emphasis on established technology. Gradually, most of the automakers focused on hybrid cars that combined old and new technologies. This opened the door to new competitors that pursued solely the EV technology, most notably Tesla Inc. It wasn’t until established players saw the market’s interest in Tesla that they began to question their hybrid strategies and realized that electric cars had the potential for broad market appeal. By mid-2017, nearly every old-line engine producer was playing catchup on EV technology, working to release new electric models in the next two to five years.
Meanwhile, Tesla, having established a strong brand in EV, continues its move down market as a more direct threat to incumbent automakers.
Tesla’s first mass-market car, the Model 3, was announced in March 2016, and by summer 2017, it had a waiting list of more than 455,000 units. Although it is too early to know if Tesla will be successful in the long run, its clear leadership in EVs has exposed a fundamental weakness in the approach incumbents commonly take when faced with industry transformations, with lessons that apply to other industries that face similar transitions.
Conviction vs. Opportunism
New markets are often enabled by technological change and exploited by minds that can envision futures that are far different from the status quo. More so, they are convinced that such a future must happen. Amazon.com Inc.
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