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iTunes Turns 20 This Year. Here Are 5 Lessons All Entrepreneurs Can Take Away From Its 2 Decades of Disruption

Reflecting on this milestone, there's a lot we can learn from the service's hugely successful campaign to disrupt the music industry.

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Believe it or not, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of iTunes. The highly successful Apple product was released in January of 2001, and it revolutionized the way we purchase, interact with and listen to music. 

Although Apple has since transitioned away from iTunes and toward streaming services like Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Apple TV, there is a lot we can learn from iTunes’ journey to the forefront of the music industry. 

Related: How NFTs Are Set to Disrupt the Music Industry

1. Be bold 

Don’t be afraid to try a different model. The way that iTunes charged for music when it debuted was drastically different from any other music service, and it worked. Before iTunes, people assumed you had to buy an entire album to access one song. Many people couldn't conceive at the time that they should be able to only buy one song digitally if they wanted. The idea of a playlist was largely unheard of. iTunes turned this mentality on its head and gave way to a completely different way of listening to music.

Taking a novel approach takes bravery and courage, but iTunes proved that taking huge risks can have major payoffs. When your product challenges the norm, even in small ways, expect pushback from long-term players in an industry. Ingrained markets will feel threatened by disruptive new products. Don't let their resistance stand in your way. iTunes showed entrepreneurs that resilience, passion and courage are the ingredients for a wildly successful product that can destabilize an entire industry.

2. Expect longevity

Anticipate that your idea is a good one and that it'll be around for a long time. It doesn't matter right away if that ends up being true or not. Assume your product will find long-term success, and proceed from there. With that mentality you can potentially accomplish great feats and maybe even change the world or an industry. Making large, long-term investments in hours and energy early on can pay off down the road. 

For example, the iPod, which was also released in 2001, played a huge role in iTunes' success. Apple invested years of time and money towards developing the iPod. Without it, iTunes would never have achieved the same level of success.

Assuming your venture will succeed will encourage you to spend on expensive, big-picture investments that might look daunting when just starting out. However, had Apple not taken the risk and developed the iPod, the way we consume music today might be drastically different. This overall mindset may simplify hard decisions around devoting energy to your project, whatever it might be. 

Related: Has Apple's Streaming Bet Paid Off?

3. Be prepared to pivot

As the old adage goes, expect the best, but prepare for the worst.

iTunes' success can be credited somewhat to its ability to adapt over time as trends and society as a whole changed. For example, as the public gravitated towards rentals and subscriptions and away from ownership, Apple gave up many of iTunes' core facets to ensure its survival. For much of its life, iTunes charged several dollars for each individual song. When streaming services offered the idea that you could merely save songs without owning them, Apple was prepared to adapt and transform its platform from a store to a streaming service. 

Had iTunes stayed committed to the idea of music and video ownership, it almost certainly would have been left behind. Although iTunes might have maintained a niche in the market, Apple Music let Apple remain one of the biggest players in the music game. If your company has been around for awhile, the good news is that your assumption of longevity paid off. Be prepared to continue taking risks and sacrificing aspects of your business that have historically seemed essential to your company. 

Keep a close eye on how societal attitudes are changing, and don’t be afraid to adapt to those changes. Being in denial won't help you. Be like iTunes and pivot and rebrand if it means your product will stay in the game. 

Related: 3 Proven Ways Your Business Can Disrupt That Well-Established Industry It's Struggling to Enter

4.Stay nimble

Just because iTunes started revolutionizing the way we consumed music in 2001, doesn’t mean Apple was guaranteed to remain a leader in the media market in 2021. Inevitably, new companies would come in and disrupt that market, so the lesson is to stay nimble.

Spotify, for example, capitalized on the shift to streaming services before Apple was able to. This gave Spotify a significant edge. Had Apple been more nimble, it might have prevented Spotify from taking such a large market share in the first place. Embrace the power of staying nimble, and recognize that someone will arrive with a novel approach, just as your company might have done when it debuted. 

Related: Your Brand Is Much More Than Your Logo. Here's What Really Makes Your Brand Stand Out to Customers

5. Obsess over your brand

Apple’s branding is arguably its greatest strength. Other companies have rushed to keep up with its technology, such touch screens, high-quality cameras, etc. But as those companies catch up and even surpass Apple's tech, they can't match the impressive brand loyalty that Apple has established. 

Don't forget to focus on telling the story of your company in thoughtful and effective ways as it develops and changes over time. A large part of the reason Apple was able to transition from iTunes to streaming services like Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Apple TV is the impressive brand recognition the company spent years cultivating. You must do the same if you are to succeed long-term. Brand recognition now lets Apple wield its power in the market, and has helped it remain a leader in the music space for 20 years. Marketing and branding can be hugely powerful tools. Don’t be one of those founders who dismisses them.

Related: 4 Lessons from Steve Jobs That Are Still Relevant 10 Years After His Death

John Boitnott

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Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.