Stretch Marks

The $50 tablet computer was a worthy dream, but, alas, it remains a dream.

According to a recent story by Pamposh RainaIan Austen and Heather Timmons in the New York Times, an effort to place India at the forefront of “frugal innovation” by mass-producing cheap tablets for school kids just hasn’t worked out as hoped.

Suneet Singh Tuli and his brother Raja Singh Tuli, both executives of a company called DataWind, planned to produce 100,000 tablets in India and sell them to the government. Instead, they have produced a tenth of that amount, and most were produced in China, with thousands of orders left unfilled. “Financial statements filed with British regulators show that the company is deeply in the red,” the Times reported. “DataWind still lacks the manufacturing, marketing and customer service capacity to handle even a substantial fraction of those orders.”

There are many specific reasons that DataWind failed to meet its goals—one small failure here, another larger mistake there. But what happened more broadly seems far easier to explain: The Tuli brothers were undone by grandiosity.

Peter Drucker certainly encouraged business leaders to seek market leadership for their innovations. “Successful entrepreneurs aim high,” Drucker wrote. “They are not content simply to improve on what already exists, or to modify it.”


Still, he didn’t encourage them to seek grand miracles. “Effective innovations start small,” Drucker asserted. “They are not grandiose. They try to do one specific thing.” Sweden became a leading producer of matchsticks because of an innovation in packaging—putting the same number of matches in each box. “By contrast,” added Drucker, “grandiose ideas for things that will ‘revolutionize an industry’ are unlikely to work.”

As leaders, the Tuli brothers talked a good game and set the bar high. But you can also set the bar so high that it’s harmful. “Results should be hard to achieve. They should require ‘stretching,’ to use the present buzzword,” Drucker wrote in Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “But they should be within reach. “To aim at results that cannot be achieved—or can be achieved only under the most unlikely circumstances—is not being ‘ambitious.’ It is being foolish.”

How can a good leader find the right level of “stretching” and still avoid unrealistic aims?