Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have.

Fantastic piece. I'm often dumbfounded by how poorly people write. If someone interested in a job makes a typo or grammatical error in an inquiry email, NO HIRE. If there's a single misplaced comma or misspelling on their résumé, NO HIRE. If I check out their twitter account and it's full of 'U' for 'you' or other lazy writing, NO HIRE.

A lot has been made in recent years about 'design' being a competitive advantage in today's difficult market, but I would argue that what we call 'good design' or 'bad design' is really just an artifact—a byproduct—of a company's overall attention to detail. Attention to detail is now and always has been a massive competitive advantage, whether you're talking about design or engineering or compensation or product management or sales or anything a company does. In fact, now that I've typed that out, I feel a little silly reading it back. Saying "Competitive advantage is a function of attention to detail" seems tautological, at least to me.

But tautological or not, I don't think a lot of people get this. Or maybe they get it intellectually but it doesn't inform their day-to-day activities. Take Apple, for example. Some common things you hear from both Apple acolytes and Apple haters is that "Apple is good at design," or "Apple is good at innovation," or "Apple is good at marketing," or even "Apple is good at supply chain management." (The haters usually insert "only" into those sentences. e.g., "Apple's only successful because they're good at marketing.")

I'd make the case that what Apple is really good at is having a culture of obsessive attention to detail in all its capacities. Corporate communication? Check. Supply chain management? Check. Design? Check. Retail? You get the idea. (Haters will hold up the recent iOS 6 Maps debacle as a counterexample, but isn't the umbrage over Maps precisely because we expect them not to fall down on this sort of thing? It's the quintissential exception that proves the rule.)

Apple's virtues aside, I think the smartest thing a company of any size can do is optimize for attention to detail. And when it comes to evaluating potential hires, I can't think of a better, faster, lower-cost pass/fail evaluation of a candidate's attention-to-detail-fitness than their writing. After all, if someone can't be bothered to sweat the details in their communication when they're reaching out about joining your team, how hard will they sweat the details of their job when they're on the team?

AuthorArt Gillespie
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Somewhere, right now, someone is founding a company in your industry (and Facebook's, and SAP's, and's...) that is 100% focused on the personal device ("mobile") experience. These companies will seem wrong-headed for their messianic zeal and focus... or at the very least like they're just servicing a low-margin niche market. Meanwhile, you—the successful incumbent—will wisely tend the garden that made you successful.

And when we look back in five years, that same laser focus, that same zeal, that same "niche thinking" will have been the competitive advantage that enabled some of those upstarts to utterly disrupt their field. And you.

I recently read an overview of a case study on Blockbuster versus Netflix. I'm as guilty as any meritocratic nerd of thinking that Blockbuster was "dumb" and Netflix was "smart," but the funny thing about it is that Blockbuster did everything right—they weren't blindsided by Netflix, they weren't victims of corporate arrogance, and they sure as hell weren't "dumb"—they thoroughly analyzed the opportunity early on. What they found was that the existing and projected mail order DVD market was far smaller and had thinner margins than their existing—and very successful—model. Netflix, on the other hand, didn't have any business to compare their model to. To Netflix, small margins and a small market were better than no margins and no market at all.

Blockbuster would've done well to analyze the opportunity not in terms of their existing business, but whether that existing business would be there at all in five years. That's easy for us to say now, with the benefit of hindsight. But if you're at the helm of a growing business with billions in revenue and extraordinary margins, would you have interpreted the analysis differently? I don't know if I would have. Or could have.

My personal take is that just about everyone in the web application business is smack dab in the middle of a similar textbook example of the Innovator's Dilemma. Established web application companies aren't wrong to focus on what's made them successful—I mean, it's called a dilemma for a reason: It's extremely difficult to tend your garden (the smart thing) whilst at the same time turning it over (also the smart thing).

But regardless of how difficult the dilemma may be, you're going to want to do your level best to solve it: Your industry's Netflix is out there—that much is certain.

AuthorArt Gillespie