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8track_2I sat and listened to the newbie speaker talk about how he wanted to speak to the youth of America. His plan was to promote himself to schools, getting them to hire him to speak before their student body.

He put the problem to the group of professional speakers in the room. The schools he’d contacted so far didn’t have much to spend on speakers, if anything at all. How can he get these schools to understand the value of his message? And, more important, how can he make a living?

His dilemma took me back to the middle 1970’s. My father’s company, Lear Jet Stereo, had a similar problem. They pioneered the original 4-track and 8-track tape players. They were the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) for most of the top brands in the world. They rode pretty high for a few years.

Then Philips Electronics introduced a killer new product – the audio cassette. It didn’t have better quality sound than the 8-track, but it was nice and compact. It fit in the palm of your hand. It could record. It could fast forward and rewind. I still remember driving around the block waiting for Spinning Wheel to come around again on Track 1 of my Blood, Sweat & Tears 8-track tape in 1969! (And if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, well, nevermind…)

Dad and his team responded aggressively. "We’ll build a BETTER 8-track!" They redesigned, adding fast-forward (the 8-track couldn’t rewind). They added recording capability.

But to go one step beyond the lowly, poorer quality cassette, they added QUADRAPHONIC SURROUND SOUND. That’s right, FOUR channels are better than TWO! Dad’s team even developed headphones with two speakers for each ear. (I wonder if Gillette didn’t get their idea for having FOUR blades from this? Hmmmm…)

But guess what? The 8-track was still dead. It didn’t matter what they did. They could have thrown in all of BS&T’s 8-tracks, plus Steve Miller Band’s, Chicago’s, Iron Butterfly’s, and Black Sabbath’s. It wouldn’t have saved it. The audio cassette was so much more convenient and compact it was an overwhelming success. And instead of dying a long lingering death, the 8-track went off the cliff.

There’s an important business lesson in the Lear Jet Stereo experience:

The last thing you want to be is very,
very good at something nobody wants to pay for.

College professors and wannabe gurus who’ve never actually built a business or a product often talk about the need to be passionate about your product.

Hogwash.

Passion is all well and good if and ONLY if you also have a product or service somebody wants and is willing to pay for.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a great passion for speaking to the youth of America. But if that market doesn’t want to pay for his services, then it’s just a hobby. It’s no different if you want to start a company or have an idea for the latest widget.