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How early GPS gadget maker Garmin mapped out success against the likes of Apple and Google

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How early GPS gadget maker Garmin mapped out success against the likes of Apple and Google

For all the time, effort, and money companies plow into the endless hunt for innovation, many of their best ideas come from within. A Procter & Gamble chemist in the 19th century figured a bar of soap that floated in the tub would enliven the bathing experience, and Ivory Soap was born. In the 1970s, a 3M employee, craving a better way to mark pages in his hymnal, modified an uncommercialized adhesive invented a few years earlier by a colleague; Post-it Notes became an iconic 3M success story. And at Garmin, a suburban Kansas City maker of navigational devices for boats, planes, and cars, a group of running-obsessed employees applied their know-how to their hobby—a move that revitalized the company when it badly needed a win.

It was the early 2000s, and Garmin had grown from its niche of making consumer devices utilizing the government’s global positioning system, or GPS, technology. Together with rival TomTom, Garmin dominated the market for in-car navigational devices, game-changing gadgets that marked the beginning of the end for foldable maps. GPS for personal fitness wasn’t popular before the Garmin jogging klatch began noodling. “They said, ‘We do all these GPS things. Why don’t we have a GPS product for runners?’ ” recalls Cliff Pemble, Garmin’s CEO and a 31-year company veteran. How Garmin withstood the onslaught is a case study of a company sticking to what it knows best—in its case, products pegged to one key technology, GPS devices—and proof that not all innovation comes from a sun-kissed strip of land in Northern California. Indeed, Garmin’s aw-shucks Midwestern nature and its stick-to-itiveness in the face of adversity go a long way in explaining its staying power. It’s hard to imagine the company’s mega-cap rivals acknowledging, for example, that they more or less lucked into what would become a killer app. “What we probably underestimated was the importance of the wearables,” says Pemble. “We were dabbling with it way back when. But nobody could foresee that it would become the category that it is today.” […]

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