top of page
  • Writer's pictureHassan Younes

Complacency Is the Silent Killer – Nokia, Yahoo and More Big Brands Toppled by Complacency

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

Complacency is the single most dangerous enemy you can have. It has ruined many a great company. If you are not careful, it can do that to your business, too.

Reaching the top in any industry is not going to be easy. Many companies never get there. Some get to the top and go down the other side. And few stay there for a long time.

One of the priorities for staying on top is to remain competitive. And, that can be even harder than the climb to the top itself. Preserving your competitive edge is the only thing that can keep your company where it is.

Unfortunately, many companies lose their competitive edge soon after they make it to the top. Why? That is because they grew too comfortable and opened the door to the most significant danger of them all – complacence.

As you may know, complacency has toppled many brands. Yahoo, General Motors, and Blockbuster are only some of the most famous examples. There are countless others.

But, why is complacency such a big threat? Why is it so dangerous? When complacency sets in, you lower your guard and you slow down. As a result, your employees slow down, too. They stop working as hard as before, and they stop investing in themselves.

If you don’t deal with complacency in time, it can topple your company. In this article, you’ll find some of the most common signs of complacency. Illustrated by several of the seemingly-unstoppable companies that fell to complacency.

How Complacency Kills Your Competitive Edge

Complacency is a deceptive enemy. It creeps in and spreads through your ranks while you are not watching. If you don’t get wise to it, it can do considerable damage. It can even destroy your business.

How do you defeat complacency? You do it by remaining vigilant. You have to spot it on time to root it out. Here are some of the most common signs that complacency has already entered your camp.

The Signs of Complacency

Complacency usually sets in after a company successfully dealt with a major crisis or climbed to the top. When that happens, management might start to tolerate mediocre performances from the employees. Lower output and less-than-satisfactory work become acceptable. And, before you know it, you are not the top performer in your industry anymore.

There’s another tell-tale sign that complacency has taken hold of your company. You and your managers have stopped tracking the competitors and their movements. After climbing to the top, it is easy to fall into this trap. You might start assuming the competition can never dethrone you.

When you are on top, finding new challenges and motivation gets tougher. Your top performers might become bored and lose their edge. If you allow that, it will be extremely hard to turn things around, which may only come to your attention when you’re overtaken by competitors. It might even be impossible.

If the managers and employees have been taking shortcuts, complacency has already taken root in your company. Cutting corners never helped anyone reach the top or stay there. If you see this, it is time to take decisive action.

Finally, if your employees have stopped investing in themselves, they have become complacent. If they stop learning and improving, it could create significant problems for the company. Also, complacent workers oppose change and are not willing to take risks.

This can happen to any business, no matter how large it is. Just take a look at these examples to see complacency for the cancer that it is.


Blockbuster started in 1985 and soon became the undisputed champion of video rental. The company held the title for years. In the 1990s, Blockbuster was almost synonymous with watching movies.

However, Blockbuster’s downfall began near the turn of the century. In 1999, Netflix showed up with a new concept in video rental. At the time, Blockbuster had more than 6,000 stores across America. Netflix’s idea was to rent DVDs by mail, rather than competing with Blockbuster head-on.

At one point, Netflix’s owners reportedly offered to sell the company to Blockbuster for peanuts, which the CEO declined. It was in 2007 when Netflix started the online streaming business model that spelled the beginning of the end for Blockbuster. Just three years later in 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection.


It is safe to say that Yahoo was Google before Google. It entered the scene in the early days of the internet and became the number one search engine by the end of the 20th century. In 2000, 56% of all online searches went through Yahoo. At the same time, only 1% of searches happened on Google.

A year later, probably sensing trouble, Yahoo switched to Google’s proprietary search algorithm. By 2002, Google’s market share had jumped to 31.8%, inching closer to Yahoo’s free-falling 36.3%.

By the time 2010 rolled around, Google had risen to over 65% of all online searches, with Yahoo at a still-falling 16%.

Google continued to grow throughout the last decade even as Yahoo almost became history.


You know you are successful when people use your product’s name to describe all products of its kind. Polaroid was one of the most famous examples. People didn’t take instant pictures; they were taking polaroids.

The Polaroid Corporation was founded in 1937 and achieved worldwide fame for its instant cameras and films. The company ruled the market for decades until it grew too complacent. That complacency destroyed the company when digital cameras entered the market.

It got until the company went bankrupt in 2001. In 2008, the Impossible Project began making instant films for Polaroid cameras. In 2017, It bought the Polaroid brand and gave it a new name – Polaroid Originals.


Nokia entered the mobile phone market in the 1980s and became one of the biggest manufacturers in the next decade. Nokia’s phones became synonymous with innovation and quality.

In the early 2000s, Nokia was still on top of its game. The company launched some of the most successful early models with smart features. But everything changed in 2007 when Apple released the first iPhone.

Nokia was not ready for the smartphone era and failed to adjust… all because of complacency. By 2011, Apple and Samsung overtook the Finnish giant. Their market shares were 19.1% and 15.7%, respectively.

Nokia finally accepted the smartphone but never fully recovered. The company is still making phones, just nowhere near the top.


Social networks existed before Facebook. The first ones came around in the 90s. And, by the early 2000s, most people had a profile online.

In 2003, Myspace arrived and it was an instant success. Its popularity spread like wildfire in the following years. And in 2005, media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought the platform for $580 million. At that time, only college students would use Facebook.

In 2007, Facebook had around 30 million unique viewers a month, and Myspace had some 70 million. Myspace became the king of social media and then it grew complacent. Facebook kept its edge and continued to grow.

By May 2009, Facebook had overtaken Myspace and reached 160 million users just 12 months later. In 2011, Myspace fell below 40 million user accounts, prompting Murdoch to sell it in the same year for $35 million.

In 2020, everyone has a Facebook account and many may not have even heard of Myspace.

General Motors

General Motors was at the top of the car industry for over a century. It was the most prominent car manufacturer in the United States and the world for most of that time. That said, the company’s arrogance and unwillingness to innovate almost destroyed it. Also, GM is guilty of not paying any attention to its competitors.

Back in the day, General Motors made excellent cars. But as time went on, the company turned its attention to finance. It neglected the quality of its vehicles in the process. Over time, General Motors lost its edge when some of its competition didn’t.

In 2008, Toyota sold more cars than General Motors and became the biggest automaker in the world. One year later, GM filed for bankruptcy and had to accept a government bailout. That got General Motors to the top in 2011 at 4.5 million cars sold. It just didn’t stop its decline.

Today, General Motors is still a big automaker, but a far cry from its glory days.


Reaching the top is hard, and staying there is even harder. To stay on top, you have to maintain your competitive edge. But if you let complacency set in, problems are just around the corner. It might even lose its spot in the market.

The companies mentioned in this article lost their top positions because of complacency. There are so many similar sad stories besides.

Have you noticed the signs of complacency in your company? Are you even looking? I can speak to your employees about the dangers of complacency and how to fight it. Click here to book me as a speaker for your next event.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page