Staying Alive

This will be the third post in an unintended trilogy following my last two on why companies that might appear to be “built to last” may suddenly evaporate before your eyes. In response to those stories (Gone So Soon and 8 Warnings That Your Company Is Toast), I received several inquiries wondering if there were ways to spot an imminent mudslide while there’s time to escape.

Executive turnover is something to watch closely, especially the C-suite. Either too little or too much turnstile rotation can be a warning sign. With no leadership change over long periods of time, a company might become entrenched in its plodding, convinced it knows how to do things so well no seismic shift in the landscape requires reinvention of the company’s ways. When executives are repeatedly jumping ship in under a year, the lack of stability in teamwork, embrace of new ideas, or core strategy might be signaling a torpedo crater in the ship’s hull that can’t immediately be seen underwater. Certain presidential administrations come to mind.

An escalating executive dump of equity holdings will usually light up an analyst’s eyes, but what about yours? If your top management is seeking liquidity while proclaiming they are simply reducing concentration and balancing their holdings, ask yourself why now. It’s good to be loyal when there’s a reason to be loyal. Ignoring the siren to go down with the ship will never seem as noble when your colleagues have departed in first class and you are left treading ice water. Much of the dot-com bubble unraveled this way, with most of the stock prices dropping swiftly to zero.

Ever sit in a meeting, listen to a colleague or team of co-workers present an innovative, visionary solution to a core concern the company has long identified as critical to its survival, only to see the framers of the big idea summarily dismissed without adequate explanation? Sure you have, most of us have. Perhaps those framers then quit, go across town and put their concept to work for a competitor, of course without violating their nondisclosure or trade secret agreements, modifying their ideas to a variation on the theme. If you believe they are as smart as they think you are, consider following them. That’s how companies like Intel started.

Do you observe evidence that your company understands its core competency, protects it through a culture of learning, and openly admits its weaknesses as opportunities for improvement? When you go to an offsite, is the point of that retreat an honest evaluation of the company’s strengths and threats, or is the current leadership pontificating on how unlikely it is that your competitors can take your market share? Sears has been dying for decades. I wonder when in each of the past years they thought they were winning.

Are you building a project or a company? A lot of people aren’t sure. Most startups begin with a product offering, but if the company building that product defines itself too narrowly, it may soon cease to be a company when it is folded into a larger company with a lot of “synergies” found in the combination. If the word “synergies” doesn’t ring a bell for you in the world of mergers and acquisitions, it usually means overlapping functions that are removed as redundant costs, possibly you. Look at the string of product builders that companies like Microsoft and Google synergized throughout their history. How many of them can you still name?

Are analytics, diagnostic evaluation, empirical assessment, and primary research core to your company’s self-evaluation? Are key decisions made on gut instinct or debated with facts? Ask yourself if that’s what the top leaders in your company say they want to do or if it’s what they really do. That which gets measured gets done. That which gets quantified gets fixed. If you’re in the room where people are swapping stories rather than interpreting data, you’re probably better off gambling in a casino where the odds are at least known.

Another way to think about this is whether you believe top management in a company is truly focused on staying alive, and whether you can help overcome the challenges to a company you love or want to love. If the decision-makers around you are people you trust who are committed to vetting solutions, perhaps you can be as well. Too often when the axe falls, we acknowledge in hindsight what we should have applied in advance thinking. There are artifacts of knowledge all around you—both positive and negative—if you choose to pay close attention to the reality of your situation.

You can always be pleasantly surprised or devastatingly rocked by good or back luck on the job. Predicting the likelihood of an outcome is a learned task that is likely more tangible than you think.

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Gone So Soon

Recently I gave an interview about one of my favorite career projects, Carmen Sandiego. It was being researched by an archivist! I hadn’t been asked in years about the mysterious thief in the red trench coat and fedora. As big as she was in my life and on the national stage, save for a new motion picture in development, few people remember dear Carmen as much more than nostalgia. For that matter, who remembers the massive multimedia magic of CD-ROM computer games with all of 700mb of storage?

There she is. There she isn’t. Nothing lasts forever. Very little lasts long at all. That is the stuff of our culture. That is the stuff of our careers. Hold on too tightly to anything and you find yourself grasping ancient pixel dust.

Creative destruction is increasingly real and accelerating faster than ever. A new company comes, an old company goes. Brands emerge and evaporate before our eyes. In the start-up world, the notion of permanence is almost impossible to envision. Look forward with alacrity or don’t bother looking up from abandonment.

Contemporary taste is fickle. Technology trends are more fickle. Customer loyalty is most fickle.

Earlier this year I watched the National Geographic Channel limited series Valley of the Boom. I couldn’t tell if it was a dark walk down memory lane or an idealist’s time capsule of lost promise. Netscape—the big bang of the internet age—went from conception to extinction in all of about four years. The Globe—the biggest IPO of its time—was practically eviscerated at birth. Pixelon—a scam extraordinaire foiled by its own iBash—today doesn’t even make a decent trivia question on a game show.

Those were just three emblematic stories, real-world cautionary tales of boom and bust. You might remember the history of other exploded rockets, from Pets.com to Webvan. Maybe you don’t want to remember. Of the big consumer-facing internet companies that emerged from dotcom v1.0, it seems Amazon, Priceline, and eBay are the only lauded brands continuing to operate at large scale.

Google emerged in the second wave of the internet, capitalizing on all the failed portals’ inability to understand the essential nature of search, most notably the excruciating death spiral of Yahoo. Can you think of another important round-one bubble survivor? Which will be the next to vaporize? Jeff Bezos has already said Amazon won’t last forever. He knows inescapably it will be replaced by something fast moving and better.

Today there are reportedly 300 or so companies affectionately refered to as “unicorns.” These are start-ups largely in the technology sector with a valuation of more than one billion dollars regardless of revenue or earnings to justify the bragging rights. You are undoubtedly familiar with many of their quirky names: Uber, Lyft, WeWork, Airbnb, DoorDash, Slack, Pinterest, Instacart… these are widely regarded as some of the good ones.

How many of these brands will today’s schoolchildren recognize when they become adult consumers? You know they won’t all still be around. History assures us of that—unless of course this time is different (and when someone tells you this time is different, keep your hands on your wallet).

Early last year I wrote an article titled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At the time I wasn’t sure. Later in the year I wrote about it again. By then Mark Zuckerberg had testified before Congress and I had become sure. Facebook is going to fall hard. The level of cynicism over there is no different from the hubris of America Online. Today cash is pouring in and it has no serious competitors, so hey, it must be invincible, a forever brand!

Facebook only has one major problem corroding its innards: customers don’t trust the people running it. No product or service can last long that way. It’s hard to be a forever brand when your promise is held in contempt. You can pay lip service to addressing the failings in your business model, but if the core concept is fundamentally conflicted, you can’t beat the reaper.

Even General Electric has fallen from grace. GE, the one original Dow Jones industrial average company dating back a century, is no longer in the Dow 30 index. How can that be? Yes, it is still an enormous enterprise, too big to fail, one might say. Does that mean the brand matters a fraction as much as it did a decade or two ago?

Nothing lasts. Creative destruction is consistent that way.

Google will last a long time because it has built a mighty moat, but it won’t last forever.

Apple? Depends on how it deploys its seismic war chest of cash.

Netflix? Hard to imagine, but it seems like a transitional platform. It could be bumped off.

Microsoft is evolving again, truly embracing the cloud, so maybe it will be the new GE. It has lots of runway to continue reinventing itself, but like GE, no runway is infinite.

What’s the point? Think about your own Carmen Sandiego, that gig you love that will be gone someday, and plan your career accordingly. Are you ready to lose the inevitable and discover what comes next? The ship you are on may appear to be built out of steel, but steel eventually rusts. Are you looking beyond the bow?

Creative destruction wins every single time, but don’t despair. Where old jobs become obsolete with antiquated value propositions, new jobs emerge requiring fresh ways of looking at the world. I doubt that will change. While so many companies have come and gone in the last quarter century, the planet has lifted two billion people out of abject poverty. There are new pockets of middle-class workers emerging all over the world in an increasingly shared global economy. That seems like a decent enough tradeoff for a few trampled unicorns.

Maybe someone will even capture Carmen Sandiego. You never know what can happen when you let go of everything you don’t need anymore.

The Ins and Outs of Yahoo!

Shortly after it was announced that Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was departing, the always funny Andy Borowitz tweeted:

“The CEO of Yahoo just resigned. I had never heard of her so I Googled her.”

What makes any great comic funny is the truth underlying a punchline.  I wonder if Andy knew just how close he got on this one, which was reported by the Los Angeles Times.  What Andy points to in far fewer words than I will use is precisely the problem of what went wrong at Yahoo.  Yahoo was one of the three great search engines still standing on the web as late as 2009, in fact it was #2 behind Google and ahead of Bing (a.k.a. Microsoft).  Search was in Yahoo’s DNA, it was a core competency, Yahoo was very good at Search and a tremendous amount of self-selected traffic still flowed through Yahoo Search (Microsoft noticed this, too).

Remember that Yahoo bought Overture in 2003, the pioneer of text-link keyword advertising, and honed paid search advertising as mainstream before Google took it to perfection.  Remember also that Yahoo helped put Google on the map when for a long period of time it outsourced Search to Google in exchange for “Powered By” credit and revenue sharing — a business development deal it later regretted because that little “Powered By” logo pretty much put the Google brand on the global map.  At the end of that deal in 2004, Yahoo took Search back and went on to be a respectable competitor to Google.  Sure its Panama search ad buying system upgrade was a little late to market, but it was also very good.

I have great misgivings about the notion of Monday morning quarterbacking any fellow CEO’s performance, since no one on the outside of any problem ever has enough detail or information to make a well-reasoned assessment of someone else’s decision-making. In the case of Yahoo, I offer this personal observation only for the lessons that I believe need to be evangelized.

Early in her tenure, Carol Bartz made a decision to outsource Search and the text ad auction platform to Microsoft. Her rationale seemed to make sense in the savings she would achieve, but that presumed there was no growth left in Search, which had become dominated by Google to the tune of 65% market share, the remaining share going to Yahoo and Bing.  We all know that Microsoft was spending heavily to gain share, up to and including offering to buy Yahoo for more than $44B.  This post is not about that decision, nor does it have anything to do with the circumstances or theatrics of Bartz’s departure.  It has to do with one and only one thing, my own opinion that the decision for Yahoo to exit Search was not a good decision.  Here is why:

In any company, you strike a balance between what you build and what you buy.  Every senior executive and management team struggles with this every day.  No company — not one of the Fortune 500 companies, not the one person startup in your garage — has all the resources to do everything it wants to do or needs to do.  Management must make tradeoffs, sometimes hourly.  Talent is not unlimited, access to capital is not unlimited, time is anything but unlimited.  Management has to decide what it will build and what it will buy.  Will a company hire talent, buy another company, or outsource a task?  These questions never go away, thus management always needs a framework for making these decisions without guesswork or emotion.  Here in a nutshell is that framework:

You in-source that which is strategic — that which is vital and essential and defining to a company’s success in the landscape of its peers.

You outsource that which is tactical — that which is non-essential to the company’s definition in its chosen competitive space

Let’ start with the basics: an intellectual property company — whether technology based, media based, or design based — is a creative company.  That means success begins with an assessment of one’s unique core competency, and that informs leadership through product strategy, not structural adjustment.  Applying unique core competency to product vision drives innovation, forcing a company to determine how it will always be as good as or better than its peer group or competitive circle.   Creative destruction — the continual reinvention of a product or service through ceaseless innovation — begins with the decision not to position one’s output as a commodity, where price rather than differentiation calls the shots.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he applied a product vision to absolutely embrace the internet through leapfrog design, which was exactly the right move at the right time.  When Eisner and Wells took over management at Disney in 1984 when it was on the verge of a breakup, they applied a product vision to reinvent the company’s product lines through best in class storytelling, merchandising, and delivery mechanisms.  When Jack Welch took over General Electric in 1981 and decided he wanted to exit small appliances, he applied a product vision to become a market leader in industry leading medical equipment and aircraft engines.  In all three cases, it was product strategy — knowing what to keep, knowing what to dump, and knowing what to pioneer — that led to unparalleled success.  They did not outsource their winning moves, they owned them.

The turnaround at Yahoo after the refusal of the Microsoft buyout offer was positioned broadly as structural adjustment.  I am sure there were inefficiencies at Yahoo like there are in any big company, but if you solved all those and added no product vision, it really didn’t matter what you solved.  You would have a more efficient machine that produced less visionary work.  That is not a growth company with promise.  It is a factory.  A factory is not a creative company, it is a factory.

For any “portal” platform, Search is not tactical, it is strategic.  I have heard the argument against this for ten years and it just wrong.  How do I know that?  Look at Google.  Search is their core competency, it is their DNA.  So if Search is strategic for Google and you are competing against them, then how is it tactical?  You may choose to decide you can’t compete with them, which is fine, but if Yahoo was not competing with Google, then who was their competition?  Content companies with big editorial and production costs?  Ad networks?  Telecom?  The problem for the Yahoo employees has been that they were never sure, and the company’s valuation is a reflection of that ambiguity.

Imagine that instead of agreeing to the Microsoft partnership, Yahoo had fought with every fiber of its creativity and gained 3 or 4 points of market share from Google on product respect recognized by the public.  Imagine instead of the mass media branding campaign they did two years ago if they had put all of that money into engineering talent and led a battle cry inside the company to take Search share from Google by improving their algorithms, relevancy correlations, and keyword auction technology while mobile was still nascent.  Would the street have valued that commitment and its promise over the one time benefit of cost cutting and the ten-year forecast baked into their financials of the low delta Microsoft contribution?  Would the employees have given everything they had for the pride of winning, not to mention the potential payoff in their stock options?  Was the Search game so over in 2009, just 15 years into the commercial internet, that walking away from Search when you were still positioned as a top 3 player made sense?

And if you were going to exit Search, where was the company’s core creative focus to be redirected?  Long ago, Tandy got out of leather goods to become Radio Shack, a bold move for its time, but one with a rallying cry.  Yahoo got out of Search, so that people today ask, “What is Yahoo?”

Simple lessons replayed:

In-source that which is strategic, outsource that which is tactical. 

If you exit a strategic line of business, you better have a better one to champion as its replacement. 

A technology company is a creative company.

Creative people have a dire need to build that which is great.  That is what they do.  That is how innovation happens.  Creative destruction is how value creation in legendary companies is sustained.

Yahoo may or may not address this on the rebound, but all of us should take the opportunity to ditch the hyperbole and internalize the basics of identifying and sustaining core competencies that are lasting and cherished.  A brand is a promise.  That promise is delivered not by what you rent, but by what you own.