Missing out on a break through company

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?

Missing out

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.

Entitlement for copyright owners

Business Insider had an article today about Reddit’s FIA. In my article in the Urban Times last week I addressed some of these issues before he wrote this article. However, he raises points that I don’t mention there and I feel that it’s extremely important to discuss them.

First he says that the law would make the internet “Hugely Difficult to monitor.” This raises a few questions. What does he mean by the internet? I helped define that in FIA, which I defined it as any data network including the web, social networks, FTP, peer to peer, email and a slew of other things. If he means this; then do we want the web to be easy to monitor? He trots out the case against it as child pornography of course, which I addressed in my Urban Times article. It’s a powerful argument because it hits upon two competing sets of social norms, rights of privacy and abhorrence to child abuse.

The use of child porn is a technique that is designed to end the conversation and shut down dissent. It places supporters of privacy in a position that is not congruent with their belief system. Additionally, the connection between copyright and child porn mixes different issues and seriously different belief systems. This difference is extremely important as there have become two different competing sets of norms. The incumbent belief that copyright is stealing, and the one new that has been developed by Web Kids.I strongly suggest reading the previous link as it provides powerful arguments for the changing sets of norms that my generation and younger entail. (I’d be on the rather old side of that generation).

Using a somewhat bad analogy, we’re using the “internet superhighway” and like the real highway people don’t want everyone driving by to know what you have in your car. Even if you aren’t doing anything illegal, do you want the cops to know that you have 5 cases of beer in the back and are going to be floating down a river all day? Probably not, cause they have no reason to know what you’re doing. Now, our data is similar to those cases of beer. Using encryption puts that into the back of the trunk where a cop is required to have justifiable cause (in the US) to inspect it’s contents. The person looking at the data would know the general direction your going and some of the ways you’re getting there, but nothing more. Yes, it makes it more difficult to identify bad stuff, but it’s difficult to do that on a real highway too. Just ask boarder patrol, and they have the right to inspect whatever they want.

Second, he essentially argues that copyright owners should have their content monitored by others. This is a huge subsidy for the copyright industry that will be paid for by other services. I’m going to use a physical world comparison, it doesn’t work perfectly but it works reasonably well. Let’s say that YouTube is similar to a Wal-Mart, or even Amazon.com. The author is arguing that YouTube needs to monitor as soon as the video is put on the web to ensure it is not infringing on copyrighted material. This would be similar to requiring Wal-Mart or Amazon.com to search for patent infringing technologies.

Why does this analogy work? In both cases these rights are state sanctioned monopolies. In both cases they are protecting a manifestation of an idea. Something that needs protection because it is extremely easy to protect. However, in Patent suits things are extremely different. The owners of the patent are required to sue companies that infringe on the patent. Wal-Mart and Amazon.com are both protected from the suit.

If Apple was allowed to sue Wal-Mart for the fact that an infringing technology is being sold there, Wal-Mart would have to bear the cost of policing their inventories for infringing material. In addition it would be in their benefit to be overly caution and remove potentially infringing products before anyone can see them. Part of the cost of owning a patent is the cost of policing products that may be infringing. By removing that burden from the copyright industry we are reducing the cost of the ownership of copyright and placing it on services like YouTube. This stifles innovation in services like YouTube because they have to include the extra cost of policy copyrighted material. A competitor to YouTube has a huge hurdle to overcome before they can even open.

Finally, he argues that the bill supports file sharing. I don’t think that it does other than being based off of a different set of norms. I’d argue that the bill supports innovation over old business models. You can disagree with me on this, however it’s been shown in several studies and some anecdotal evidence that increasing legal access to copyrighted content reduces pirating. If it is easier for a company to create interesting ways to provide access to content while paying the copyright industry then everyone wins. However, as Falkvinge puts it, “I don’t care about industry profits.” Realistically, I don’t care about most companies profits, because I’m only dealing with the company to buy a product or service I want at a price that I believe is reasonable. If all the legal sources that are available to me to watch a show or listen to a song when a person wants to, it is not unreasonable for them to look for it elsewhere and then try to find it legally later if they liked it.

If the company is making bad choices for their business, why should the law change to improve their business model’s chances of surviving? Anyone that supports free market capitalism should be horrified by this sort of industrial policy making. Essentially, these companies are being faced with disruptive technologies and working to push the government to protect them. It’s similar to what has happened with the auto industry in the US.

In closing, FIA represents a dramatic change from the current norms and aligns more directly with a younger generation. This generation does not understand why companies prevent them from viewing content that they want to see. While being an open generation on Facebook, they also understand the importance of protecting the data that has been given to companies. They choose what information they share and with whom. They want an open internet so they have the ability to innovate like their parents generation. They believe that it should be a fundamental human right to have access to data and communicate with whoever they want. An industry that is not innovating should not have the ability to destroy the internet.