In this 3-part series, we dissect the failure of Boeing's inflight satellite-based internet service, Connexion by Boeing. In parts one and two, we discussed the flawed business model and massive marketing mistakes that inevitably led to nearly $1 billion in losses before shutting down the project. In this 3rd and final article, we ask what could have been done differently, and what lessons should be learned.
Recap: A 6-Year Long String of Failures
After looking at the cost structure, revenue models, poor assumptions about market size and demand, pricing, scale of operations and marketing strategy, the inescapable conclusion is that almost everything that could have been done wrong to bring Connexion by Boeing inflight internet service to market, was. Like so much other big company innovation, it was clear that Boeing had no idea how to go about launching and driving market adoption of this service, or how to design a business model that had a chance of working.
Part 3: What could they have done differently? (Hint: Next time pretend you're a startup.)
Although not in any way a disruptive innovation, or even one with potential to disrupt, the Connexion by Boeing service could have learned a lot from how disruptive innovations are successfully brought to market and how startups launch products.
Here are some of the things they could have done differently and lessons that can be learned from Connexion's failure.
1) Business Model Design
The cost structure that this service was saddled with, from satellite bandwidth licensing to having a business unit with 560 people to incredibly expensive technology needed on each plane, boxed Boeing in. To get the service available in a large enough number of planes and at the right price point to make it economically viable, Boeing ought to have used a strategy more akin to the early dotcom successes like Amazon and Yahoo and Google.
If your product depends on a mass market to be affordable, then you have to seed the market to bootstrap it. That means pricing low -- even giving it away for the first year (like Skype is doing) to get people on the grid and addicted.
Ultimately, the pricing strategy needs to recognize what the average or downmarket consumer considers good value, not be a skimming strategy dependent on only those willing to pay the maximum.
Lesson 1: There are many possible variables in designing a business model, and what works in one scenario doesn't always work in another. Don't assume you got it right the first time, and don't scale your business before you know that it's viable.
2) Fast Failures
Boeing assumed that the service they wanted to deliver at the price they wanted to sell it for was the service that the potential customers wanted and were willing to pay for. There was no small scale testing of this before scaling the business into a 560 person business unit, locked into very expensive satellite bandwidth contracts, targeting availability anywhere in the world.
Fast failure is a necessary part of startup methodology. The objective is to test the constraints, minimum viable product features and alternative business models, and assumptions about the target market. You expect to fail multiple times but learn from each failure until you arrive at the right configuration or determine that there is no product/market fit or viable business model.
Big companies tend to see failures as something to penalize rather than something to learn from, which means when they fail, they fail big, just as Boeing did.
Startups without the luxury of Fortune 500 cash backing them are forced to do things in a more lean fashion, and to test all their assumptions before committing them to the business model. This little bit of common sense might have been enough to work out the kinks without blowing a billion dollars, maybe even hitting profitability within months of operation.
Lesson 2: Failing is a good thing in a startup if you do it fast, learn from it and pivot. In fact, it's a necessary component of identifying the right business model design and optimizing for success. It also costs a lot less than assuming you're right and failing slow.
3) Cost Structure
Lean startups need to keep their cost structure pared to the bone until they demonstrate that they have a business model that can scale because VCs wouldn't have it any other way. As noted above, Boeing built an outrageously costly platform making it virtually impossible for the service to be profitable unless every unrealistically optimistic projection came true, and boxing themselves into a price model that customers wouldn't buy into.
Disruptive innovations tend to have the lowest cost structure, often by an order of magnitude. Boeing choose to implement almost the highest possible cost structure. This left the service vulnerable to lower cost technology advances (e.g. onboard conventional wifi from ground transmission stations and/or plane-to-plane daisy-chaining) that could be expected to compete in the future, undercutting and undermining Boeing's business model.
Lesson 3: Always try to achieve the lowest possible cost that delivers a product/service that is "good enough" to satisfy your target market, and be conscious of technology advances that could obsolete your innovation using cheaper components or lower manufacturing and assembly costs.
4) Network Effect Potential?
One of the factors that strongly favors disruptive innovation is the existence of a potential network effect. In this case, there was a weak potential network effect that could have been exploited, which favored convenience and usability and faster time-to-critical-mass.
Had Boeing promoted Connexion directly to consumers with a message that they could now get affordable (assuming the price was affordable, which in their model, it wasn't) internet access in the sky, using a single account with a single sign on and promoting the carriers that offered it, and gained a large subscriber base quickly, the other airlines would have to get on board or be left out of the game.
Achieving this potential network effect / sole supplier status depended on having the right business model to begin with, and getting out of the starting blocks fast once product/market fit was established.
Lesson 4: Always ask whether there is a possible network effect, and if there is, what you need to do to enable it. Don't get greedy in the early days, because networks can easily stall before reaching critical mass if you overprice or enable alternatives to establish viability.
5) Customer Development
The key idea here is that ideas about customer needs formed in a laboratory and without talking to customers are hypotheses, not an accurate description of real needs. The only way to uncover real needs and gain an understanding of who the market is and what its members are willing to pay for with a service of this nature is to go out in the field with a prototype/working model and observe and talk to them. Customer Development is the methodology most commonly used by successful startups to establish what the real needs are and get to Product/Market Fit.
It appears that Boeing failed to understand that the airlines weren't really their customers, just gatekeepers. Unfortunately, for aircraft sales, the airlines are their customers, which complicates this enormously. Boeing probably shouldn't have been in this business, or should have found a way to work around this fundamental conflict.
For this service to be successful, Boeing needed direct access to the end customer -- the passengers using the service. They needed to have a few market-test planes where the service was fully available, but could be run experimentally with different ways of constructing pricing. They needed to sit beside customers who were deciding whether or not to use the service and to see directly everything about its operation and the user experience, from how the customer pays to price barrier resistance to difficulties signing on to how it was communicated by flight crew to passengers.
These and many more attributes needed to be known so that an affordable, easy-to-use, properly communicated and desired service could be introduced. Because this wasn't done, none of the obvious objections about usability, availability of power outlets, space to work, price point, etc. were encountered or thought of, creating numerous barriers to adoption.
Lesson 5: Understand who your real customer is before you launch a service saddled with $1 billion in cost structure and have no way to reach them.
6) Establish Product/Market Fit
Establishing product/market fit is the process of identifying the compelling need that your target customer must have satisfied by the Minimum Viable Product, as well as all the assumptions that this is based on and the risk factors.
If you haven't spoken to real customers, it's impossible to know whether your product/service innovation meets any compelling needs that they are willing to pay for. It's also difficult to uncover the risk factors that will inhibit adoption, or to know which assumptions are valid, and which are invalid.
Boeing theorized that passengers were willing to pay for inflight internet access, but never validated that assumption with more than a flawed market survey, nor properly established if sufficient demand could be created at the pre-determined price point to have any chance at economic viability.
They also didn't observe firsthand customers choosing not to use the service because they wanted to sleep, or to watch a movie, or because they lacked sufficient space to get value, or didn't have access to power or sufficient battery life -- they never learned any of the risk factors so that they could act to address/negate them, or pivot their strategy and work around the risks.
Lesson 6: With any innovation, you must know how customers view the product, what the risk factors to viability and adoption are, what alternatives exist (to using your product -- they don't have to be direct competitors), what segment(s) you appeal to and what will motivate them to a purchase. You have to get out in the field with customers (not imagined customers) and see it yourself.
- Traditional market research instruments and focus groups are useless for designing non-sustaining innovations. They cannot uncover real needs and market drivers. The most you can expect from research with end-users is that they tell you their pain, not a solution or its value. After they've tried it in a real scenario, they can give lots of feedback about what's wrong with it. The conclusions of Boeing's research indicate that the survey used was an invalid research instrument that asked irrelevant self-serving questions - the sort used to fill press release content, not to determine customer needs.
- Accessibility and Convenience. Every plane needed to be outfitted ASAP for this service to take off. Amazingly, it was not until this year that the first new plane was built and delivered with Connexion installed. Boeing should have made the decision to include it as a standard piece of equipment, and charge more if the airline said no. This way, there is no retrofit cost barrier to laggard carriers deciding to offer the service -- they could even conduct trials without having to plan years ahead and make big commitments. Furthermore, the cost to retrofit existing planes should have been made much more attractive, even going so far as to bundle it with major maintenance service intervals at cost of materials, or cost of labor, whichever was lower.
- Take responsibility for your own marketing. If you need to work through the carrier to reach the customer, do their marketing and business planning for them. A Connexion-in-a-box kit, because if they have to think, you've lost the game.
- Pricing. What the market has clearly said regarding any communication/network service such as this (think landlines, cell phones, earth-based broadband, Tivo, even text messaging) is that it wants a reasonable (read: relatively low) subscription price which is capped, and which an average user perceives as good value. For example, if it costs me $30 for 2 hours of access, I'll wait until I'm on the ground and connect for free at the airport lounge (not free really, but I already have a subscription that works there). Very little email is that urgent, and I certainly won't pay that for gaming or to watch TV over the net.
- What about the lack of carrier vision? Indeed there is plenty to pin on the carriers too. They don't get marketing either, at least not in a user-oriented authentic context. For any of the US majors, this would have been a cinch to create brand loyalty, much like frequent flyer miles did when American was the only one doing it. Think of this: a premium flyer package, as an add-on to my Crown Room or Admiral's Club membership. How about a $15-20/month upgrade to my membership that not only gets me Club access, but gives me unlimited internet access on the plane, higher priority waitlisting for upgrades, a free drink on domestic flights and two freebies on international (if I'm stuck in cattle class), plus phone calls, movies, the whole shebang. It's hard to imagine anyone not buying this, with an associated increase in demand for Club memberships and an extremely sticky preference for a ticket on that carrier. Ironically, I would probably pay $30-40 more for a ticket on a carrier where I had those privileges, and that level of increased ticket price is well within most business traveler's discretion at time of purchase.
In the end, it's about being sensitive to customer needs and perceptions, and offering a product and packaging that removes barriers to adoption, rather than erecting them.
And carriers, please, power access in every seat should have been done 15 years ago.