Originally published at Sultan Knish.
The strange thing about America’s dot com titans is how short their lifecycles are. The development of the internet has been dominated by a handful of companies that changed the paradigm and were then run over by a new paradigm in under a decade.
The Netscape CEO was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1996 sitting on a golden throne. Today an entire generation of internet users has grown up without ever having bought his web browser. They don’t even think of a web browser as something you buy.
Netscape directed traffic to Yahoo, without realizing that having a site that millions of people visited was a better way of making money than selling a piece of software that let you browse those sites. Yahoo’s portal was powered by Google because it thought that offering people services was a better way to make money than something as grubby as a search engine.
Google used search to become an ad empire and began piling on more services, Yahoo style, while not paying much attention to the growth of social media. And today, Facebook is Google’s biggest real competitor on the internet. Until some upstart company, maybe Twitter, figures out how to eat Google’s lunch. And then someone eats their lunch.
IBM may have been mocked for its stodgy ways, but it stayed relevant far longer than the companies of the dot com waves that break upon the silicon shore and then vanish into obscurity. Yesterday’s genius on his golden throne who represents the wave of the new is writing his memoirs in a few years while trying to explain what went wrong and trying to figure out how he can get it all back.
The public is treated to a parade of computer geniuses who will deliver the future without realizing that all they’re seeing is another Alpha techie who doesn’t understand the future, but is successfully monetizing some service or piece of software that has suddenly become popular. If he does it well enough, he can build an entire ring of failed businesses around that single golden egg, the way that Microsoft has with its operating system licenses, Google with its search ad sales or Facebook with the sheer number of users in its social graph while pretending to be an innovator and change agent.
The constant expansion and destructive acquisition of small innovative companies maintains the illusion that the latest digital horse is something special. It’s not. The unglamorous truth is that Google makes its money selling ad space to insurance companies and Microsoft makes its money releasing incremental updates to its flawed operating system that it alternately sabotages and then repairs. If you’re annoyed by Windows 8, don’t worry. Windows 9 will “fix” the problem. It’s part of the idiotic business plan by a company that exploited a niche in IBM to become a much lamer IBM.
The “genius” factor is the sizzle that convinces investors to put their money into companies that have one core product whose profitability depends on the internet remaining the same ten years from now. It’s a furious buzz of activity that makes investors overlook the hard numbers. Take Amazon, which sells physical objects for money, and yet has been described as a shareholder subsidized charity because it funnels all its profits into getting bigger and bigger without actually turning a profit.
The absurd economics of the thing have made it so that not having a business plan is proof of sincerity. Any MBA can put together a business plan, but it takes a real genius to waltz into Wall Street wearing a hoodie and flipflops accompanied by a few celebrity pals with a plan to become the biggest companies that does everything ever… at which point it might turn a profit.
All this silliness has distorted our sense of how business is supposed to work and how things actually get done. Every CEO is supposed to be brilliant, to make irrational snap decisions that his peers will think make no sense and to parachute out of the company just ahead of the next trainwreck. And now it’s also how our government runs.
Obama’s public image is tethered to some illusion of genius entirely divorced from real world results. If he accidentally sat on the red button and ended the world in a blaze of nuclear fire, his horribly scarred mutant biographers would still explain in detail why he was much too smart to be president. And they’re probably right. Dot coms are likewise full of CEOs who are too smart to run companies, but enjoy solving abstract puzzles, buying other companies, waterskiing in Samurai costumes and giving interviews full of buzzwords to business magazines. Another word for them is idiots.