July 28th, 2012. London. A man on the verge of glory climbed on the starting blocks of his first final of the 2012 Summer Games. Earlier that day, he had unexpectedly squeaked his way into the final by only 0.07 of a second. As he crouched for the start, the crowd roared for him. When the buzzer blew, he did something that no one expected: he finished a well-beaten fourth.
Two days later, Michael Phelps became the greatest Olympic athlete ever as his 18th and 19th Olympic medals were placed around his neck. Over the next days, he added three more—finishing his career with more Olympic medals than 82 countries.
Yet even as his name was written in the history books, it was obvious that the rest of the world had finally caught up. He was still magnificent, but Michael Phelps was no longer a force of nature. He was beatable.
In the world of innovation, those shocking upsets lurk on every successful product’s horizon. An amazing product like the iPhone will take over the market. Challengers quickly rise and are just as quickly vanquished. Like Michael Phelps in 2008, the new product seems unstoppable.
Until suddenly, shockingly, it’s not.
Like Michael Phelps, the iPhone is without a doubt the greatest competitor in its category. No phone has sold so much and so consistently been tops for so many years. It has also worn the unstoppable label.
But right before it was named the most valuable company in history, Apple also tasted defeat. When customers bought 2.5 million fewer iPhones than expected this spring, Apple missed its earnings goal – something it has only done a handful of times in the past decade. At the same time, Samsung announced the Galaxy S3 smartphone—and the world pounced.
Before the Galaxy S3 even left the factory at the end of May, it had over 9 million pre-orders (2 times more pre-orders than for the latest iPhone.) In a shocking upset, the Galaxy S3 became the fastest-selling gadget in history.
What happened? How did Apple and Michael Phelps fall so short so fast?
Quite simply, they lost their hunger to push the envelope. They had reached the top—and instead of throwing themselves forward to the next level—they paused to enjoy their moment.
Between Beijing and London, Michael Phelps cut down the mileage he swam and dabbled in alternative training methods. Competitors such as 400 IM gold medalist Ryan Lochte trained harder—and their intensity paid off. Phelps even admitted after the 400 IM that he had come up short at the end of the race.
Like Phelps, Apple stopped being so hungry this past year. The highly-anticipated iPhone 5 did not arrive in 2011 as expected. Instead, Apple disappointed with iPhone 4S—an improved fourth generation iPhone. Upgraded hardware and a nifty new speaking app simply weren’t enough to hold the lead when Samsung sought to change the game with their Galaxy S3.
When companies have a successful product, it’s tempting for them to take that as an opportunity to catch their breath and enjoy their success. But that’s when it’s most critical to keep the hunger level alive! Because the instant something reaches the top, challengers have a benchmark and a target.
Between Beijing and London, elite swimmers studied Michael Phelps’ success. They studied his fitness regimen, analyzed his stroke and matched everything he did right. And then they dedicated themselves to going beyond.
The same thing happened with the iPhone. Samsung took some parts of the iPhone that consumers loved—and then asked themselves, “What’s next?” They studied consumer trends, gathered insights and unmet needs—and then set off to create a game-changer. And they succeeded.
In London, Michael Phelps was able to pull himself back to the top—but it was obvious that he was no longer an unstoppable force. In October, Apple has a chance to regain their dominance when the iPhone 5 hits shelves—but they are no longer the innovator to beat.
Reaching the top is an incredible feat—but staying at the top means staying hungry. There’s always a challenger waiting in the wings to take it away.
Katie Konrath writes about creativity, innovation and “ideas so fresh they should be slapped” at getFreshMinds.com. As an Innovation Process Specialist at Ideas To Go, she helps Fortune 500 companies co-create fresh ideas with their consumers. If you’re interested in having her speak to your organization, she’d love to hear from you.