Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Benefits of Going Nowhere

Kansas City Union Station
Kansas City Union Station
Last weekend we visited the Union Station in Kansas City which is one of the most beautiful and impressive examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the state of Missouri. When it was built in 1914 by a consortium of 12 western railroads, it was the second largest train station in the United States. Between the end of the Civil War and the construction of Union Station, those railroads had linked together all of the important cities west of the Mississippi river.

Most of those places were not important cities at the time the railroad arrived. For the most part, railroads like the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe built tracks that initially led to and through empty prairies, mountains and deserts with little opportunity for immediate revenue. The railroad executives and their shareholders were confident that creation of the railroad would bring the settlers who would create the demand for passenger and freight services.

Transcontinental Railroads via
Some of the railroad ventures failed, but those that built their routes boldly and backed them up with solid operational practices and a strong customer focus thrived. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe is now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe which is the United States' second largest railroad.

Building into nowhere worked in the 19th century and continued to be a successful strategy in the 20th and 21st centuries. Henry Ford famously quipped "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."  When Apple and IBM created the personal computer, few people had expressed a need for one. When the iPhone launched, how many of us felt a strong need to play music or capture video with our phones?

Providing products and services that people want is essential to maintaining a successful business. But the great breakthroughs come from providing things that people don't know yet that they want. I am reminded of the five year mission of the Starship Enterprise, "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Where are you going?

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A Ride on the Santa Fe in 1955