There’s something about Tesla …

In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic FutureAshlee Vance’s excellent, newly released biography of the Tesla Motors CEO, he writes that Musk’s all-electric Model S Tesla sedan “slapped Detroit sober,” despite the automobile industry tinkering with electric cars for years. Musk went further, and is winning big.

This same principle helps to explain Apple’s and Amazon’s successes, too. In each case, these companies have been willing to bet 100 percent on the future, rather than hedging or bridging to the past.

Let’s start with Tesla.

Going Big On Batteries

I noted that the automobile industry had been working on electric vehicles for years, but that’s not quite true. What the industry kept foisting on us were half-baked compromises—you know, hybrid cars that looked like hamsters (Toyota Prius) and felt like they were powered by them, too.

Tesla, however, is different. As Vance writes:

With Tesla Motors, Musk has tried to revamp the way cars are manufactured and sold, while building out a worldwide fuel distribution network at the same time. Instead of hybrids, which in Musk lingo are suboptimal compromises, Tesla strives to make all-electric cars that people lust after and that push the limits of technology.

I remember the first time I test drove a Model S. It didn’t feel like a compromise. It felt like the coolest driving experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve wanted to buy one ever since.

Musk and his Tesla team could have come out with the world’s greatest hybrid, but that would have also been the world’s greatest compromise. He’s inventing the future, not making a comfortable causeway to the past. That’s why he’s winning.

Apple Goes All In On Touch

Apple has followed a similar track with the iPhone, by far its biggest success. At the time of its release, though, success was far from certain.

After all, Apple turned its back on the industry’s dominant mobile experience—Blackberry—and built a phone without a physical keyboard. At the time I thought this was insane, and said so. Nor was I alone in believing that a keyboard without tactile feedback would be a non-starter.

Apple was right, and I was wrong. Apple saw the possibilities inherent in a full touchscreen experience, while I and others were languishing in “Why isn’t it like what I’m used to?” land. Microsoft, Research In Motion (as BlackBerry Inc. was then known), and other mobile manufacturers lost billions trying to appease their existing customer base while Apple’s futuristic approach stole them away.

And it’s not just in consumer tech where these lessons apply.

Amazon’s “True Cloud” Wins Converts

Take enterprise infrastructure, for example. In theory, nothing should be more resistant to change, as enterprises are reluctant to fix things that don’t appear to be broken.

In practice, however, Amazon Web Services is turning enterprise IT upside down.

Sure, it’s only a $5 billion business today, while hundreds of billions more gets spent on datacenters and software licenses. But directionally, AWS is winning, and winning big. It’s currently ten times this size of the next largest 14 cloud competitors combined, according to Gartner, and shows no sign of slowing.

Like Tesla and Apple, AWS wins because it offers an unalloyed vision of the future.

For years we’ve been told that enterprises won’t move workloads to the cloud for performance or security reasons, and for years companies keep doing it, anyway. For almost as long, we’ve been told that cloud is great but private cloud or hybrid cloud are what the enterprise really wants.

Meanwhile, AWS has left all private and hybrid clouds for roadkill.

Inventing The Future

Compromise is great in human relationships. It’s not so great in product decisions.

Tesla Motors, Apple, and Amazon Web Services keep winning because they’ve refused to compromise on an exceptional customer experience, one that pushes us into the future, rather than bridging us to the past. Other companies also do this, like Red Hat with its laser-sharp focus on delivering 100% open-source solutions.

But most companies compromise. Most companies are afraid to go all-in on the future. And that is why most companies will never inspire us the way Tesla, Apple, and Amazon do.

Matt Asay

author