In the course of history, many smart people have been scared by the rapid progression of technology and its impact on the way we live. Forget the printing press; Socrates was concerned that even the technology of recording via written documents (i.e. writing) would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories”. One need only look at the graphic above, representing swings in market share for tech titans, to see significant change in just the past 35 years.
January has been a difficult month for the stock market, with share prices around the world taking a tumble. A lot of the liquidity in the market rests on the valuation of a growing number of technology firms, whose route to profitability varies wildly. The oft-written about “Unicorns” are seemingly due for some market correction – no bad thing for the tech sector – but what about the bastions of the industry, how are they looking?
Twitter – The firm would have breathed a sigh of relief at the end of last year, when original co-founder Jack Dorsey committed to returning to the company. There were promising sounds at first, but recently it has been mulling a move away from the 140-character limit that defines its modus operandi. It has the potential, according to Forrester, to repackage such long-form fare in the mode of Facebook’s Instant Articles. But attempting to emulate what has already been done cannot hold any hope for actually catching up with its rival. An article in The New Yorker this week derides the social network, calling out its lack of direction, and questioning its relevance in a growing pool of competitors. Twitter’s US penetration has been flat for the past three quarters, and Snapchat is nipping at its heels in terms of engagement. While overall Twitter is seeing steady growth, it’s rate of growth continues to decline
Facebook – By contrast, Facebook is doing well, particularly concerning its financial performance. Its increasing collaboration with telcos as it explores new revenue opportunities pave the way for sizeable rewards in the medium term. And it is slowly learning from the likes of WeChat and Kakao Talk in Asian markets on how to better integrate various functionality into its Messenger app; it’s first foray is working with Uber to allow users to hire a car without leaving Messenger. (This week Whatsapp also begun to get the message, no pun intended). We commented in our last article about how the social network is fast having to adapt to an ageing user base and lower engagement, but Facebook is attempting to combat such trends with numerous tactics. Sadly, its attempt to provide free internet services in developing markets has run into obstacles. In both Egypt and India, government regulators have interceded to stop the network from running its Free Basics service, under the guise of net neutrality (which in our opinion stretches the definition, and the spirit, of net neutrality).
Yahoo – The troubles for this company are more than we can summarise in this short review. Let it suffice to say that Marissa Mayer’s wunderkind sheen has been significantly tarnished since her arrival at the company in 2012. In an editorial in the Financial Times last month, the company was described as a “blur of services and assets of different values”. As her inescapably significant role in the organisation’s lacklustre performance becomes increasingly apparent – hedge fund Starboard Value has issued an ultimatum for her to either leave peacefully or be replaced by shareholder vote come March – reports are that Mayer will have to lay off around 10% of the company. The FT puts it well,
[R]ather like AOL, it is considered a service stuck in internet dark ages. It is what grandma uses to look up the weather. It is not for Snapchatting teenagers. And it is not what investors crave most of all: the prospect of growth.
Amazon – Until this week the company had been faring extremely well, and its most recent concern was not getting investors too excited about its recent profit announcement. And while it’s reporting this week of a 26% YoY rise in sales was welcome, its fourth-quarter profits of $482m were one-third lower than what Wall Street analysts were expecting; the stock plunged 13% as a result. The disparity between rising sales and profits that don’t align to such a rise are nothing new for the company, unfortunately.
Holistic sector frailty – Two excellent articles in The Economist this month reveal a sector that is experiencing growing pains as the current digital era reaches a period of relative maturity. As the hype dies down, what hath such new ways of thinking, making and working wrought? The first article examines the seemingly glamorous role of a techie working in a startup firm, and the pitfalls that come with it. The article reports that “Only 19% of tech employees said they were happy in their jobs and only 17% said they felt valued in their work”. In looking at the explosion of demand for the inadequately named Hoverboard, the second article identifies that globalisation has vastly sped up a product’s journey from conception to delivery at a consumer’s home, at the expense of a proper regulatory system; it is unclear with so many disintermediated players who should shoulder the burden of quality control. The Economist sees such risk as a parable for the tricky place the sector as a whole finds itself in.
Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.
As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.
Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.
Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted the country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of their hands.
CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What these histories tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised in the following ways: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again elsewhere. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.
At the end of the 18th century, the Maharajas were rulers only in name. The British showered them with jewels and Western trappings (like Vuitton tea sets). Grand palaces were created for them, which in effect were nothing but beautiful prisons. Is today’s ultimate trapping – the Internet and its peripheries – any less of a beautiful prison?
A recent FT editorial details the evolution of Apple. 1977 saw the debut of the Apple II; “owners were confronted with a cryptic blinking cursor, awaiting instructions” writes Jonathan Zittrain. The computer was a blank canvas for the user to do with as they wish. Apple’s iPhone, Zittrain contests, is the antithesis, positing that the incredibly popular App Store was introduced only grudgingly. The chief fault with the App Store is the approval process, which eighteen months later remains byzantine and ad hoc. Zittrain rightly points out that the process excludes many harmful or offensive apps. There is, however, seemingly no specific criterion upon which apps are dismissed. To judge a piece of software on its inherent use as a service or product before it has been allowed to develop can lead to stifling of innovation. Zittrain notes “How worthy of approval would Wikipedia have seemed when it boasted only seven articles – dubiously hoping that the public would magically provide the rest?”
This argument casts Zeitgeist’s mind back to uni days spent studying technological determinism vs. social constructivism. As Ian McLoughlin explains, “The final form a technology does not, therefore, reflect its technical superiority, but rather the social processes which establish consensus around the belief that it is superior”. The Internet, originally a way for the US military to send emails, has grown inestimably beyond anything initially anticipated. Google, believing that an open-source platform will lead to innovation and advantages that they could never have thought of by themselves, have done just that with Android. Open access encourages collaboration, and always produces a more accurate solution than a smaller, more highly-qualified group. The Internet has already moved on once from the so-called “walled garden” era – when ISPs like CompuServe and AOL created their own, proprietary internets with approved material – we should not return to it.
Furthermore, a victim of its own success, the capacity of the Internet is straining under the sheer weight of data it handles. The Net Neutrality policy has been around for years but recently gained headway, finding a supporter in President Obama. There is increasing pressure on ISPs to provide preferential services (i.e. more bandwith) to certain companies, bodies or organisations who deem themselves to need it more (and who can afford to pay more for it). The upshot is a situation where certain information, or views, are more readily accessibly and available than others, “where consumers are at the mercy of the dealmaking prowess of operators and networks”. The proposed acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast has raised concern for some, especially given Comcast’s recent history. The prioritising of messages based on financial favouritism is a slippery slope, and those small and large (such as WPP) may find themselves adversely affected.
UPDATE: Australia is currently in the throes of its own net neutrality debate, according to BBC News.