Don’t Get Shacked

It was painful for me, personally, to watch RadioShack enter bankruptcy last week. I grew up with RadioShack, building crystal radios by hooking small electronic parts to the various springs that acted as electrical connectors. I believed that with the right electronics components I could make anything — and the DIY books, tools, and parts to do it were all available at RadioShack.

What happened to this brand? Could a different use of social technology have a made a difference?

Consider the brand itself: RadioShack, like Kodak, was central to a lifestyle. RadioShack was home to DIYers — geeks, home repair types, inventors. That lifestyle still exists! For Kodak, it was ordinary people wanting to document life around them; families on vacation, kids in pools, snapshots of mountain ranges and national monuments. Kodak moments. As with RadioShack, the lifestyle-related behaviors that powered Kodak still exist: almost countless hours of video (Kodak) are uploaded onto the Internet every second. So what went wrong?

In a word: disconnection. These brands were stuck on themselves, believing they knew more about their customers wanted than their customers did. And in both cases they were wrong. Of course, hindsight is pretty easy and the fact is that both brands had long, successful runs by any standards, so “well done.” But still, if the core lifestyle elements central to both brands are still present, why aren’t the brands?

First, there is the challenge of inertia: taken in a business context it means the difficulty of changing direction to keep pace with macro forces (like the Internet, for example). It’s difficult for businesses to do this, especially for those businesses that create their own markets. Second, for any brand with a run as long as RadioShack’s (founded in Boston in 1921 and purchased by Tandy in 1962) there is the challenge of remaining relevant to customers indefinitely. Technology (like the Internet, for example) has ushered change in lifestyle: who repairs anything anymore? (But hold that thought.) Not all brands survive culture and lifestyle shifts.

Kodak was late to recognize that while the demand for photos was exploding, photos themselves that were limited to physical film and the idea that the attraction to them was limited to women (women were always the primary focus for Kodak’s advertising) were both changing. For RadioShack, while DIY and the follow-on “maker” ethos remained part of the brand, the brand itself got lost in retail. From the 1980s and its TRS-80 — one of the first mass-produced personal computers — to the 2010s and support for Arduino and other DIY/maker electronics platforms, RadioShack was aligned with DIY. But as time and management changes chipped away at this central element, “The Shack” drifted from its DIY core into generic retail, almost the antithesis of maker: the DIY element of its “DIY + retail” roots were lost as the “retail” focus took over.

OK, so what does this have do to with your brand? Think about your own social technology program: how you could extend it to avoid losing the connection between your brand and core customers? How could you tap your customers to help you build a path to where they are going? RadioShack played a role in launching the careers — and companies — of Steve Wozniak, Marc Andreessen, Michael Dell, and many, many others. Were these individuals — or any of the thousands like them — consulted when RadioShack replaced its hobbyist line of audio components with ready-made stuff from RCA? Or when the stores moved into mobile phone retailing, instead of the place to learn how to repair, unlock, or program a new app for a phone?

The Internet grew up around RadioShack and Kodak, yet beyond elementary attempts to graft their core business onto “the digital wave” both failed to embrace and understand from their customers’ points of view where to steer the brand, how to remain relevant, and to survive in the face of extreme market change. Innovation communities could have prevented that. By failing to embrace digital technology (selling technology is not the same as embracing it) RadioShack became a tech spectator, an Internet-age “me too” instead of the place to go for those who saw themselves as participants. It’s not a stretch to see the RadioShack of late as a competitor to the ‘net rather than an enabler, evidenced in statements like this one from early RadioShack advocate Steve Wozniak: “I (used) RadioShack probably more than any other electronics store… aside from the Internet.” That quote should have been “I use RadioShack more than any other electronics store…to build what I learn about, including from the Internet.”

And that was the issue: by focusing on retail, RadioShack allowed the Internet to replace it as the place to go for information — and inspiration — for DIYers, now called Makers. Rather than diving into the technology and showing ordinary people how to use the Internet, how to innovate, or how to “hack” in the DIY sense, RadioShack leaned in to its retail skills to sell finished products that its customers learned about elsewhere. The makers left the Shack for the Internet, and the rest is history.

Back to the culture shift and “repair” (versus “replace.”) It’s easy to dismiss RadioShack’s fate as arising due to the lack of repairable devices: phones, TVs, refrigerators, even cars…that powered the “I can fix this” mindset of RadioShack customers became “not repairable.” But that view is unfair to makers everywhere.

RadioShack was never about the people who actually believed “there are no user-serviceable components inside.” Everything is user serviceable. Just as I have special tools and repair guides (many of which are online, in discussion forums) which I use to keep our Mercedes vehicles running into the hundreds of thousands of miles, RadioShack could have been the place for video guides and access to parts needed to replace a phone screen. Or to hook any refrigerator to the Internet. Or…

Want proof of this missed opportunity? Consider RadioShack’s phone repair page on its website. RadioShack’s “we’ll repair it for you…” is 180 degrees from the “walk-in, you can build it, fix it, make it better” brand promise of the ‘60s. Want more? Search RadioShack’s online site for “repair my phone.” Answer: “Sorry, No products were found for your search.” “No Products” belies the retail POV of the current brand, baked right in.

As a comparison, take a look at ifixit’s repair guide for a Samsung Galaxy S4 along with this $20 kit from Amazon. Read Amazon’s 5-star and 1-star reviews: this is DIY heaven, and no, it’s not for everyone. Repair and invention require skills: DIY is a cool club. A passion. Far from retail consumer electronics, DIY/Maker is about empowered alternatives. RadioShack could have played here but instead said “bring it to us and we’ll take care of it.” That’s just not the message a DIYer wants to hear. So, when the phones business dried up, the brand was left without its historical base of advocates.

Is there hope for RadioShack? More than you might think, but it will require a reinvention and a deep re-integration with its DIY customers. Half of the RadioShack stores will become Sprint stores, for whom a physical storefront probably makes sense. The other half? Make them into TechShops, an idea presented in 2012 in Forbes and advanced by author Mark Hatch. TechShops are the defacto modern-day reincarnation of what RadioShack would have become had it leaned toward DIY instead of retail.

OK, back to your social technology platform: Do you see Facebook and Twitter as places where you can talk more, or do you see them as a part of an ecosystem built around discussion forums, ideation communities, and internal tools that connect your customers and their passions to the people inside your organization who can engage with them around a shared passion? People who can help them extend their own interests, who in turn will guide your product and service development teams to continuous, renewable success over the long haul? Do you see yourself as a maker, or someone getting made? The right answers to these questions — and actions — just might keep you from getting shacked.

Image via Shutterstock.

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