The story of BlackBerry shows how fast a world-beating tech company can fail. Sadly, the movie tells the wrong story.
The movie tells the story of a brilliant founder and his loyal lieutenant getting burned by Jim Balsillie and the other jerks Balsillie brought in. The real story is how a brilliant founder let his celebrated status as a “visionary” ruin the company he worked so hard to build.
Mike Lazaridis deserves enormous credit for creating the world’s first smartphone. But creating one billion-dollar breakthrough rarely translates into an ability to create the next billion-dollar breakthrough. Unfortunately, when things get tough, that’s exactly what everyone expects.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, most people saw it as a revolution. Suddenly the BlackBerry and all the other smartphones looked so antiquated. Yet Mike Lazaridis was convinced the iPhone would be a spectacular flop. He did everything he could to ignore and dismiss the iPhone. Unfortunately for him, most people didn’t buy the argument. Verizon in particular was worried. AT&T had a multi-year deal to be the exclusive carrier for the iPhone. Verizon wanted an answer to the iPhone so they could successfully compete against AT&T. They turned to RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry, to make it happen.
As the visionary behind the BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis took it upon himself to create the next breakthrough product for RIM. This is ironic given how wrong he seemed to be about the iPhone. It is also ironic because the only other billion-dollar breakthrough to come out of RIM wasn’t invented by Mike Lazaridis. It was invented by Gary Klassen and two colleagues who created BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).
Mike Lazaridis had not created a billion-dollar breakthrough for nearly 20 years by the time Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Yet Lazaridis decided that he, and he alone, could create the breakthrough product that would kill the iPhone. Unsurprisingly, he was wrong. Everyone around Lazaridis seemed to know he was wrong. He faced enormous pushback. Yet he plowed ahead. First he launched the BlackBerry Storm, which was a billion-dollar fiasco for RIM. Then he launched the Playbook, another flop that finally forced him out of an active role in the company.
In 2007 BlackBerry had 6,000 employees. They had thousands of talented engineers. Yet Mike Lazaridis didn’t try to tap any of that talent to create the next billion-dollar breakthrough. He viewed himself as the visionary. Employees were only there to implement his “brilliant” ideas. All of which failed.
How different would history have been if RIM had tapped the enormous talent of its employees instead? If employees had the freedom to experiment with their own big ideas for the company? Following the same corporate rebel approach that Gary Klassen and his colleagues used to create BBM.
The movie producers missed a golden opportunity to tell a powerful story. Breakthroughs by brilliant people may launch successful startups. But lasting success requires brilliant ideas from across the company.