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On Pivoting Inward
Originally published in Rhapsody, the inflight magazine for United Airlines' premium cabins
After Radio Shack declared bankruptcy earlier this year, I couldn't help but feel that the former electronics giant had missed out on the greatest retail pivot opportunity of the 21st century. Here was the world's most established outlet for electronics parts and expertise, having entered the era of computer hacking, Arduino electronics kits, Makerfaire, programming, wearable computing, coding-and utterly missing out on the whole thing. The electronics age of the 1970s, after all, was the original tech "maker" era, when crafts transitioned from wood and glue to wires and solder. It wouldn't have been much of a leap to silicon.
Back when I was growing up in the '70s, Radio Shack was always one of my favorite stores. I was a tech geek, fascinated by crystal radio kits, diodes and capacitors. A blank circuit board and pile of transistors was an invitation to make pretty much anything you could imagine: a walkie-talkie, a battery
tester, a lie detector. If there were plans, I. could follow them. If there were no plans, well, there was Larry at the Radio Shack in New Rochelle, New York, who could point me in the right direction. After the bankruptcy, I went to a Radio Shack to rummage through the bins at the back of the store, in the small area they still dedicated to parts and tools for hobbyists. The problem, I realized, was that there was no Larry, and not much in the way of silicon, despite the fact that Radio Shack sold one of the first personal computers available to the consumer market, the TRS-80. line of the late '70s.
Radio Shack's tragic error was ceding the tech space to IBM and Apple, who turned the computer into less of a programming tool for hobbyists and more of a slick, plug-and-play appliance for consumers. Instead of empowering a new generation of citizen makers, Radio Shack allowed Google and Apple to dominate the technology development space and instead pivoted away, toward selling the same boxed electronics as everyone else. The proposed rebirth of Radio Shack as a dedicated retail space within existing Sprint stores just drives the point home: the franchise pivoted straight into someone else's business. If Radio~Shack had pivoted inward, perhaps I'd be at a Radio Shack right now, with a new generation of tech hobbyists, asking Larry how I might go about making my own smartwatch.
Instead of competing with cellphone shops, Radio Shack should have doubled down on its expertise and reputation. The geeks may have been temporarily disrupted by the computer age, but they are back. Radio Shack could have been the local hub for high-tech knowledge and creativity, the place to build a 3-D printer, take an Arduino class, program a Raspberry Pi or get the parts for a robot. Radio Shack should have been earning headlines about whether they'd be going too far by arming hobbyists with so much technological power, not about whether they could move enough smartphones to please shortterm shareholder interests.
Ironically, Radio Shack's demise isn't the story of how the Web destroyed another retail business. We could always buy parts from catalogs, but we went to Radio Shack for the culture, the convenience and the expertise. No, the real story here is that a great company pivoted away from both its expertise and the market opportunity of a lifetime. Now, someone else will get to pivot into its place. The takeaway for companies in any space is never to pivot away from your core competency or the culture you have built. Dealing with disruption is a bit like skidding in a car: You steer into the skid, not away from it. Likewise, a pivot is not really an excuse to go find something else to do. It is an opportunity to rediscover what it is you do all over again
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