“You can innovate on an amazing mousetrap; but, if people eventually don’t want a mousetrap, you’re screwed.”

By Steve Moran

A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal published an article titled: “Polaroid. Walkman. Palm Pilot. iPhone?” that was inspired by the recent report from Apple that iPhone sales are slowing (apologies that you will likely find that the WSJ article is behind a paywall).

There was a quote from Nick Santhanam, McKinsey’s America’s Practice Leader in Silicon Valley, that really hit home and has implications for senior living:

“You can innovate on an amazing mousetrap; but, if people eventually don’t want a mousetrap, you’re screwed.”

Innovation, Iteration or Something Else

Apple has been crazy successful at a world domination level and they did it by creating amazing products and then iterating like crazy on them. But at some point, that iteration becomes less and less amazing, which allows competitors to catch-up or even pass you. This appears to be what is happening with the iPhone.

In fairness, they are a long way from the iPhone being obsolete, probably . . . but the strategy is worth thinking about. As the article points out, today once-dominant Sears, film cameras, Walkman, and PalmPilots are mostly just museum pieces. Blackberrys still exist, are being sold, and have a loyal following with a very small group of users, but mostly they are irrelevant.

Will Senior Living Become the Blackberry of Elder Care?

That might even be a better title for this article. It seems pretty clear to me that we have a Blackberry-like problem. There are a few people who love senior living. People who thrive in senior living and for them, it is and always will be great.   

We have iterated and iterated again. And for sure the product has gotten better. I would argue that at least from a physical plant and dining perspective a lot better, though I am less sure this is true from a programing and care perspective. It has also gotten a lot more expensive.

And maybe gotten less and less relevant. What is particularly disheartening is the number of senior living leaders that say even they are not interested in living in their communities or any community, as a lifestyle choice.

What Would Replace Senior Living?

It is tempting to think Steve Moran is blowing smoke because it is not possible for senior living to completely go away like PalmPilot or even to be replaced. I would be cautious with that thinking. Just a couple of real threats:

  • Small Home Assisted Living: Small home assisted living has been around practically forever. They used to be funky, mostly run by first-generation immigrants who eked out a living by caring for the elderly. The were often the least expensive way to get assisted living. While often the physical plant was not terrific, more often the care and the food were great.

    For sure in many states, this model still exists. In California alone, they make up the vast majority of licensed communities (though not residents served). But more and more I am seeing super nice small homes that are every bit as expensive as enterprise-size senior living and when I talk to the customers they are very happy with the experience.

  • Home Care: Home care will continue to be a big thing and at a lower cost than senior living. As telemedicine becomes more mainstream and with the proliferation of food delivery services, you can fairly easily access a bigger range of food options than any senior living community can possibly offer. And it looks a lot more like home . . .  a mix of everyday meals punctuated by eating out like splurges.
  • Communal Living: This is happening in pockets. It’s seniors helping seniors. In some cases, it avoids senior living and in others it delays it.

Even scarier, there could very well be someone out their right now, who is working on a senior living killer that none of us can even imagine.

There is Hope

This does not have to be a hopeless situation. There have been some great amazing companies that have reinvented themselves over and over again. Ford Motor Company, IBM, Netflix, and Microsoft have done it, sometimes multiple times.

It is something that needs to be a high, high priority even though being a capital intensive venture, the stakes are very high.

Where do you see innovation today? Are you already doing it?