Sony and Microsoft’s quest to “control the living room” has locked them in a classic arms race; they have invested billions of dollars in an attempt to surpass each other technologically, building ever-bigger, ever-better, and ever-more-expensive machines.
Nintendo has dropped out of this race. The Wii has few bells and whistles and much less processing power than its “competitors,” and it features less impressive graphics. It’s really well suited for just one thing: playing games. But this turns out to be an asset. The Wii’s simplicity means that Nintendo can make money selling consoles, while Sony is reportedly losing more than two hundred and forty dollars on each PlayStation 3 it sells—even though they are selling for almost six hundred dollars. Similarly, because Nintendo is not trying to rule the entire industry, it’s been able to focus on its core competence, which is making entertaining, innovative games…
Nintendo’s success is not an anomaly, either. The business landscape of the past couple of decades is replete with companies that have flourished as third wheels, and with companies that have struggled to make money despite being No. 1 in their industries. (Today, would you rather be Honda or G.M.?) And while it’s true that in many industries there is a correlation between market share and profitability, one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.
A recent survey of the evidence on market share by J. Scott Armstrong and Kesten C. Green found that companies that adopt what they call “competitor-oriented objectives” actually end up hurting their own profitability. In other words, the more a company focusses on beating its competitors, rather than on the bottom line, the worse it is likely to do. And a study of the performance of twenty major American companies over four decades found that the ones putting more emphasis on market share than on profit ended up with lower returns on investment; of the six companies that defined their goal exclusively as market share, four eventually went out of business.
Markets today are so big—the global video-game market is now close to thirty billion dollars—that companies can profit even when they’re not on top, as long as they aren’t desperately trying to get there. The key is to play to your strengths while recognizing your limitations.
Related: Build Less: Underdo your competition [Getting Real]