The Fatal Blindness of Unrealistic Expectations
I wrote the article below in January 2013, but never published it. The strong response to last week's post on the hubris and hype of Silicon Valley, as well as this recent interview, jogged my memory and inspired me to dig this out of the mothballs. I was pleased to see how relevant it remains 2.5 years later.
My old employer, Yahoo!, has been in the news again of late.
Its latest CEO (and former Googler), Marissa Meyer, is currently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she has just given her first televised interview detailing her strategy for the beleaguered web giant.
I wish her and the current team at Yahoo! well with their plans, I really do. The saga of Yahoo!'s descent over the past decade was heartbreaking to watch and experience from the inside. I'd love to see the company find a way to become a leader again.
But I don't have faith.
In my opinion, the company can't be "fixed." At least not the way the tech pundits and the past parade of Yahoo! CEOs have touted it can.
Why? Because of a congenital failure to define its identity, paired with a chronic refusal to be honest with itself.
I get asked a lot for my opinion regarding Yahoo!'s fall from grace. I believe the seeds of its failure were sown from the beginning, and I've come up with the following analogy to make it as intuitive as possible. It all starts at the very formation of the company.
The Importance of Clear Vision
First, look at Google. When the founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page first started collaborating, the Internet had been around for a while and they were insightful enough to realize that the data on the Web was growing exponentially. They reasoned that the company who made it possible to sift through all this data and find the most useful content, when needed, would create immense value.
So, they designed the Google platform from Day 1 to optimize around their core goal: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." This gave them a maniacal focus that enabled them to target talent, refine strategy, and prioritize resources. To this day, while there are many other businesses that Google has become involved in (from alternative energy to self-driving cars), everything revolves around first making sure that the central mission is protected and enhanced, and then leveraging the core platform to do ever more innovative things.
In this way, you can think of Google as the Borg of the Internet, following their mission of technical perfection with a methodical, measured dedication; unwavering in its focus.
Now, look at Yahoo!. Yahoo! is the Internet's Jedd Clampett.
If you don't know the story, the founders Jerry Yang and David Filo shared a trailer while graduate students at Stanford in the early 1990s. (It was literally a trailer. Stanford's graduate campus housing has improved much since then.) The graphical pages of the World Wide Web were just emerging, and as interested computer science students, David and Jerry spent a lot of time exploring them. As the number of Web sites multiplied, they created a simple directory – really nothing more than a page of bookmarked links – to help them keep track of the growing number.
This was the Internet's equivalent of Jedd Clampett missing a varmint with his shotgun, only to find "a-bubblin' crude" spilling out of the earth.
As simple as this directory was, nothing like it existed yet. So word got out, and people started flocking to it in ever-greater numbers. Pretty soon, the founders realized they had a phenomenon happening before their eyes, and they were savvy enough to enlist some seasoned help in structuring a business around it and monetizing it through advertising.
Well, the rest is history. Yahoo! experienced mind-boggling, stratospheric growth over the next several years. For a period of time for most people,Yahoo! WAS the Internet. For everyone else, it was the Internet's front door: occupying the best real estate within the new virtual universe of the World Wide Web.
But the key element to note here is that there was no fundamental vision or guiding mission that preceded Yahoo!'s creation. The company simply sprang into existence; a "happening" created by an unforeseen, rapid and gargantuan transmogrification of the world's analog audience base into digital 'users'.
And it's because of this lack of central identity that Yahoo! has floundered. What is Yahoo!? is a question that has plagued its executives since before I walked in the door in 2001. You would not believe the amount of manpower, brain cycles, and advertising agency dollars that have been thrown at answering this – and yet no enduring answer has emerged.
The Cost of Willful Blindness
Without knowing what its "core" is, Yahoo! hasn't known where to put its focus. It has tried to do everything, and as a result, its diluted efforts allowed pure-play competitors to claim the dominant position in each of the important verticals that it wanted to win. Google became the dominant player in search (helped along in its early days, ironically, by Yahoo!'s patronage). Ebay won auctions. Amazon won online retail. Facebook dominates social media. YouTube cornered the online video space. The list goes on...
As the early 800-lb gorilla, Yahoo! could easily have claimed any or all of these industries. But it didn't. And I know why: Unrealistic expectations.
I personally was involved in several of the never-ending attempts to resolve this need to define Yahoo!. Each one ended up devolving into inaction – or worse, producing some declarative statement of vague pablum that only made folks even more confused. (Examples: Yahoo! is a "life engine," Yahoo! is "the premier digital media company," Yahoo is "you.")
The main reason for the failure to craft a clear vision is that the executive staff was unable to imagine giving up on major existing lines of business, even if there was no clear strategy for why they existed. Because there were so many directions Yahoo! could go in, you could make a compelling reason for why Yahoo! should retain its foothold in any multi-billion-dollar market segment. So again and again, after all the pontificating, the Yahoo! executive team would convince itself it could indeed be all things to everyone.
Of course, having a clear identity means you know what you are and you know what you AREN'T. That second part is easily as important as the first. It's what gives you the discipline to say "no." To look at alluring market opportunities and pass on them, knowing that your core competencies aren't a good enough fit. To avoid wasting time and treasure chasing a losing game.
Without this clarity and discipline, Yahoo!s diluted and aimless efforts have resulted in its services becoming less and less relevant as the Web has evolved and matured.
I used to believe very passionately that the company could be turned around. But as time went on, I lost that hope, for two reasons.
First, I witnessed enough changings of the executive guard to conclude that the courage and ruthlessness required is simply not likely to happen. There are business lines at Yahoo! that are like Tolkien's Ring of Power. Every new CEO thinks they can withstand their allure as they unsheathe their cutting sword, and then soon finds themselves jealously protecting their "precious".
The second is that too much time and damage has occurred. Yahoo! has been rotting for years, resulting in unwieldy infrastructure, underperforming talent, poor partner relations, and consumer apathy. If the new CEO was suddenly bestowed from above with the "next big idea" for the Internet, why would you possibly want to saddle that gift with all of the albatrosses around Yahoo!'s neck? She'd be much better off starting a new company from scratch, with the right talent, the right culture, the right platform, and a clean shot at defining the brand.
The Hard Truth
So why am I going on so much about a struggling tech company?
Because I read this today from Robert Reich:
Brace yourself. In coming weeks you’ll hear there’s no serious alternative to cutting Social Security and Medicare, raising taxes on middle class, and decimating what’s left of the federal government’s discretionary spending on everything from education and job training to highways and basic research.
“We” must make these sacrifices, it will be said, in order to deal with our mushrooming budget deficit and cumulative debt.
But most of the people who are making this argument are very wealthy or are sponsored by the very wealthy: Wall Street moguls like Pete Peterson and his “Fix the Debt” brigade, the Business Roundtable, well-appointed think tanks and policy centers along the Potomac, members of the Simpson-Bowles commission.
These regressive sentiments are packaged in a mythology that Americans have been living beyond our means: We’ve been unwilling to pay for what we want government to do for us, and we are now reaching the day of reckoning.
The truth is most Americans have not been living beyond their means. The problem is their means haven’t been keeping up with the growth of the economy — which is why most of us need better education, infrastructure, and healthcare, and stronger safety nets.
He goes on to make the argument for a wealth tax on the richest Americans to pay for that education, infrastructure, and healthcare.
I'm not going to tackle the wealth tax concept here (though I have strong opinions). But I want to point out that I see the same blindness to reality, the same unrealistic expectations, in Reich's commentary as I did in Yahoo!.
Reich mentions but then dismisses the only point that matters: America does not have the wealth to meet the entitlements it has promised. Nor can it sustainably meet its operating costs.
Why is that? Because we, as a society, have very much indeed lived beyond our means. By building up such a tremendous amount of debt through our profligacy that a small rise in interest rates would be catastrophic. That our children and children's children will be "paying backwards" for our largess, unless some debt-clearing event transpires (which I think will).
Being unwilling to acknowledge this unpleasant but fundamental truth dooms any attempts to avoid it, via wealth redistribution or any other means. It's the same flavor of willful ignorance that caused Yahoo! to convince itself it could claim all mountaintops until it eventually begrudgingly realized it wasn't summitting any.
There were many times in my years at Yahoo! where I would listen to the "rah rah" all-hands presentations by the executives and walk away disconcerted. Despite the assurances of the great talent within the company and the wonderful ideas currently on the drawing board, it increasingly appeared that they were not admitting the obvious: The strategy was flawed, the company was failing, and radical change was needed if we wanted to succeed again.
That's exactly how I feel when reading Reich's piece. If this is the logic that our country's leaders are using in their decision-making, then Houston, we indeed have a problem. Having seen this movie play out in the smaller Yahoo! microcosm, I have no appetite for watching a sequel at the national level. But I fear that's what we're in store for.
I don't know how much influence Reich has these days, as he's not working in the current Administration as he did for three other Presidents (Ford, Carter and Clinton). But from the current fiscal and monetary policy we're pursuing, it sure seems like his mindset is not that far from those currently in DC.
So I find myself reflecting on how I reacted when I concluded that Yahoo! wasn't going to change its course. I decided I was going to need to change mine, instead.
I invested in self-discovery to identify work that was meaningful for me. Fulfilling work that I'd be happy doing no matter the compensation. I cut the cord, resigning before I knew what I would do next. Staying on would only delay the hard work I'd need to do to create my future. I started developing the skills I'd need for my new chosen profession. And I began to tap the power and goodwill of other people who could help me (and whom, in turn, I could help back).
Seems to me this is good advice for our national predicament.
The ride from here is likely to get bumpy as reality punctures our leaders' unrealistic expectations. But if we, as individuals, invest in living authentically, working hard, and fostering supportive community, we'll enjoy the benefits of a resilient life regardless of what transpires.