Magnet company smackdown

Live for your viewing pleasure, a smackdown of a grand nature, magnet style:

In this youtubed open letter, a representative from Zen Magnets (small-fry makers of little round powerful magnets you can use to make interesting shapes) replies to a legal threat from Buckyballs (leading makers of little round powerful magnets you can use to make interesting shapes). It starts with a recorded voicemail from Buckyballs CEO Jake Bronstein threatening to sue Zen Magnets for selling a kit containing both Buckyballs and Zen Magnets on eBay with the claim that Zen Magnets are manufactured to a higher tolerance, are stronger, and have a brighter finish. From there, the Zen Magnets rep does a wonderful job illustrating the validity of his claims — and making Buckyballs look like an anti-competitive bully who fights dirty with threats instead of superior products.

In a niche industry like high end magnets, personality is a huge differentiator. In one swift movement, the Buckyballs CEO created a platform for their competitor to own a space that, as a “$20 million company”, they should have been theirs. As you watch this video, you’ll probably notice a nearly uncomfortable amount of snark from the folks at Zen. That approach might not work for your business, but it certainly works for theirs. Snark + data + underdog status = huge win for Zen.

Apple tried this approach during AntennaGate by posting a page on their site called “Apple’s Antenna Design and Test Labs“.

Every smartphone has a cellular antenna. And nearly every smartphone can lose signal strength if you hold it in a certain way. To make sure our antennas work as well as they possibly can, Apple has invested more than $100 million building its advanced labs. Our engineers have logged thousands of hours designing and testing iPhone 4 in these state-of-the-art facilities.

There are several problems here, and there’s a reason why it largely didn’t work to convince people that the antenna problems were just part of using a cell phone.

  • It’s bullshit. Seriously, can anyone name a single phone they’ve had in the last 15 years that you could manually drop the call by holding it a certain way? I can’t, and I’ve had something like 30+ cell phones in my life.
  • It’s proven true. It’s not bullshit just because we’ve heard a random urban myths. It’s proven, I’ve done it myself. Close friends have told me they’ve replicated it. Multiple times. In many conditions. Industry test labs have proven it.
  • It’s a cold approach. Showing me that you’ve spent a ton of money on a testing lab does not necessarily equate to product engineering success. Since I’ve SEEN the antenna problems personally, I know that even great teams with great facilities and tons of time spent can still make big mistakes. Hell, how many hours did it take to plan, code, test, and launch Microsoft Entourage (any version)?? Just because you have the tools, doesn’t mean you are inherently perfect or problem free.
  • There’s nothing to believe in. Apple takes Apple’s traditional approach: trust us, what know what we’re doing. You’re not seeing what you are seeing, it’s all your fault. They put up a few bits of nicely designed static content and a video that talks about their process and their equipment. Never do they mention anything specific a regular Joe like me could understand. Never do they say flat out “It’s false and here’s why”. They simply focused on the process and an overview of antenna strength and signal loss. They’re protecting themselves rather than rolling up their sleeves and talking about what they believe.
  • They’re acting like 5 year olds. They make some vague “nuh uh!” claims about how all antennas have the same problem. They say that every smartphone has antenna problems, but they’re not ballsy enough to show examples. And like parents of a 5 year old know, when you hear “nuh uh, wadn’t me! He did it! He did it!” you’re pretty clear that your kid was involved.
  • It’s bullshit. Did I mention this one already? Oh that’s right, I did. Well, it bears repeating. If it wasn’t an issue at all, why did Apple spent so much money on sending out free iPhone 4 cases to users? Yeah. Because they knew it was a real problem.

I’m not advocating for Apple to approach the problem the same way Zen Magnets did. Startups are absolutely different than large companies. There are all kinds of legal, financial, and marketing/PR reasons why Apple couldn’t be as direct as Zen was in their video. And the scenarios are different, of course: Zen was proving higher product quality, while Apple was trying to play sleight of hand games to draw focus away from the worst iPhone design to date.

There are three takeaways here, and they apply to any company:

  1. Don’t be a dick, it always comes back to haunt you… especially these days.
  2. Confront challenges directly, and with data.
  3. If it’s your fault, work harder to owning up to it.