Sunday, December 11, 2005

Slinging mud

Innovation can be a funny thing. I've worked with ~300 companies, mostly startups, in the last couple of years at eBay. They span from the individual with a great idea whose wife was his entire board of directors, to massive wireless carriers, to truly game-changing technology plays (if still early in their adoption). If there's anything I've learned working on the business development side of technology in the past 6 years, innovation is almost always a long-shot and often serendipitous. I've heard so many great ideas go nowhere, or great teams with great ideas fall just short. It's uncommon when the stars align and a company is actually able to sustain itself (i.e. pay a salary to the founders and employees) and unbelievably rare when said company actually scales. Regardless of the odds, entrepreneurs will continue at it, because often the reward of starting a company or chasing innovation is in the expertise or skill picked up during the process of the chase.

The same thing could be said about innovation within organizations. Yes, even at eBay there are features or innovations which are launched and don't meet their targets. eBay actually tends to put a ton of foresight into what targets to go after, reducing that risk. But ultimately eBay falls to what I'll call the law of slinging mud on a wall.

Most mud (i.e. innovative ideas) will fall away and what sticks often isn't what's expected.

Hence when I read about companies whose seeming goal is to pursue innovation lauded for each and every launch as successful, I have to chuckle. It just doesn't work that way. Take VOIP as an example. Does anyone really understand the LUCK and effort it took for Skype to reach its position of leadership in this space? Yahoo or MSN or Google launching their own VOIP feature will take similar if not more LUCK and effort to even get close to what Skype currently manages. Compare Skype with more than 4million concurrent users of its voice technology vs thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) on any of the other IM providers. This isn't to say the IM providers couldn't throw money at the situation, lower price or bundle products and ultimately be successful. But just introducing functionality (which btw ALREADY existed in most cases) means little. If these companies DIDN'T introduce this functionality, that would actually be a surprise.

The same could be said for any of the myriad of new innovations which supposedly will conquer the Internet as we know it. Believe me, I'm all for innovation. In fact, my job and my enjoyment of my job is centered around discovering and supporting it. But we need to put the hype aside and stop prognosticating that this or that new technology ultimately will be the winner or grand disruptor. Until that mud sticks, I'm waiting to see what shakes out as truly paradigm shifting (and what's really a threat). Meanwhile I'll be continuing to hurl as much up there as quicky as possible for eBay.


Anonymous Jason said...

Good thoughts, up to the point where you said:

"But we need to put the hype aside and stop prognosticating that this or that new technology ultimately will be the winner or grand disruptor."

I believe that if you don't try to foresee competitive threats and judge them on their merits and on the merits of the organization making the threats (in other words, if you just wait to see what mud sticks), by the time you the real threats become clear, it may be too late to counter them.

And while I agree that innovation and success is often seredipitous, success tends to beget success; if you see a Google or Microsoft staging a competing product against you, I wouldn't assume that there's a reasonable chance they'll fail and therefore not prepare a response.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Ro said...

I have issue with labeling them as winners. I agree that paranoia is a good strategy to follow when the landscape shifts as quickly as it does in technology. Just don't give me some crap (not directed at you Jason ;)) that the king is dead when the challenge is half-baked...

4:43 PM  

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