There are many stories in business today about how companies decide not to purchase a company that has since gone on to be a market defining company. Yahoo! is one of the worst offenders. Yahoo managed to turn down both Google and Reddit both in very different ways. In the case of Google, Yahoo realized their mistake and tried to buy Google and then Google turned Yahoo down.
A company like Yahoo is in a tough spot when approached by a novel company that’s trying to compete in a market that Yahoo doesn’t really understand. Although, this isn’t really the case with Google, but Yahoo was much more confident in the technology they knew as their search platform and didn’t understand the potential ad growth that Google was eventually able to deliver.
Reddit, according to Alexis Ohanian and his book Without their permission, an executive at Yahoo told him that reddit was a rounding error to Yahoo’s web traffic. Which so greatly insulted Ohanian that he has used this as a motivational statement to this day.
Eventually Google IPO’d while reddit was bought by Condé Nast media. I believe that because of the direction of management that these companies were both able to flourish to this day. Google is obviously, one of the largest companies in the world, while reddit has become a huge community that the members still feel as if they are in a special club no one knows about.
It is likely that if either company had been acquired and managed in a different way, we wouldn’t have the same internet we have today. Condé Nast essentially left reddit alone and has only started to push the company to become profitable – 7 years after they were bought. It was only 3 years ago they introduced reddit gold and within the last few months they included a daily target for profitability using reddit Gold. In that time reddit has exploded in user base and introduced features to increase user base and interest in the site. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of reddit Randal Olson has an amazing analysis here, it’s really interesting.
On the other hand, Google has gone on to create an amazing ecosystem in Android, Chrome, Glass, the web, and so on. They have shut down more heavily used platforms than most companies create. None of this would have happened if Yahoo had bought Google, because Yahoo doesn’t or at least didn’t think that way.
Yahoo has two fairly large social platforms, Tumblr and Flickr, and is looking to acquire imgur. Acquiring Imgur is essentially admitting defeat with Flickr, as imgur was designed to make sharing photos on reddit easier, and Flickr is horrible to share photos with on reddit. So, it’s likely Yahoo will survive and possibly thrive in the future, but why did it miss out on yesterday’s internet of the future?
I believe that these decisions aren’t because of bad managers. In fact, it’s likely because of high quality “traditional” management. While the internet was evolving companies like Yahoo developed metrics like views, clicks, and click throughs, to measure success of a website and the growth of a platforms. As Yahoo is a platform, being approached by other potential non-compatible platforms that were smaller was something to be expected. It is likely that Yahoo turned down hundreds of other unsuccessful platforms along with Google and reddit.
Yahoo wasn’t able to understand the potential of these different platforms, because their metrics were different than Yahoo’s. Yahoo was likely looking at both volume and number of clicks within the platform, while both reddit and Google’s engagement model focused more on sending users to other websites while minimally keeping the users on their platform. However, because of the content the users would continually come back.
Using the innovator’s dilemma as a lens here, we see that the quality of these platforms is much lower than Yahoo’s. Google’s home screen is the same as it has always been. Just Google with a search box and two buttons. Reddit on the other hand is a series of blue links with little to no ads and some arrows next to each link. Very plain and simple. Very different than Yahoo.
Furthermore, these platforms were servicing different users. Google users were searching the internet more broadly, while Yahoo was trying to both allow searching and be a one stop shop. Reddit was trying to engage with the politically active techie, which is a VERY small subset of the internet user base. Yahoo was servicing a lot of the people that had fairly recently left AOL and wanted a similar portal. It makes the internet less scary to have a platform for inexperienced users.
Measuring these platforms with the same metrics and vision of Yahoo, these would have made very bad buys and likely would have been killed off, directionally changed from the trajectory they were on and led to their success. Condé Nast essentially provided a “skunk works” area for reddit and enjoyed the clicks to the other sites that they owned that redditors also visit frequently.
It is likely that if Yahoo had bought either or both Google and reddit, the end result would not have lead to internet we have today. These platforms would have been warped into very different products that many young people would have avoided. I believe that Yahoo has learned a great deal and will likely do a better job with Tumblr and Imgur than they have with Flickr.