In the past few weeks, as some of the Valley’s most mature internet companies have faced crisis after crisis, there’s been a theme circulating that these companies, and Facebook in particular, has lost their product way.
This chatter peaked when journalists and others suggested that Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom should run Facebook, in part, because he’s a fabulous product leader.
It’s an oh-so-familiar theme in the Valley where every VC and entrepreneur you meet will tell you “product wins” and that the quickest way to a $1 billion—or $1 trillion—business is to have your finger on the product pulse. It’s the core tenant of the myth that anyone with the right ah-ha moment in the shower can change the world and become rich in Silicon Valley. All you need is product mojo, and when it’s gone, you’re toast.
There is some truth to this. No one can build a successful company without a product that people want to use. But that product isn’t ultimately why they win—why they become Facebooks or Googles or Microsofts. It’s the systems they build to scale those products and the relentless way they fine-tune those products to maximize their business that ultimately crowns them.
It’s some luck—but mostly execution.
Google didn’t become Google because it built the perfect search experience. It became a $775 billion company because it figured out how to distribute and tune a superior search algorithm and use the cash that spewed off of it to acquire businesses like YouTube, DoubleClick, startups that formed the basis of Google Maps, and Android. Then it used the same system of great engineering and hyper-data-driven refinements to turn those products into global hits too.
Facebook’s detractors like to say that despite its success, it has only created one product: newsfeed, based on the once-novel idea that people wanted to be entertained with a stream of updates from people, businesses and publishers. I see it differently. Facebook’s leaders had excellent instincts in creating newsfeed but their talents were in scaling it and refining it endlessly so that people spend hours a day on it.
Criticizing Facebook as a “one-trick pony” fundamentally misses why it is Facebook. Also, if these companies were special because of their magic touch, why would they have long laundry lists of failures from Paper to Google+?
The product spark myth has been deeply entrenched through companies’ founding stories. Why? Because it makes their leaders seem superhuman. And who wants to work for a mere human?
Remember when you couldn’t read a story about Uber that didn’t mention that one fated Paris evening when the soon-to-be founders realized: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get a limo with the press of a button?” But Uber isn’t Uber because of that evening. Plenty of other entrepreneurs had the same idea. Uber just hustled its way to a bigger network of drivers, faster.
I am sure I am going to hear from many subscribers this morning telling me how wrong I am and that I just don’t “get it” because I am not a product person. (I am not, by the way, by either definition of the term. But I do work with some wonderful ones.)
But I hope that I can convince at least some people to change their minds about what makes great technology companies great.
The product-as-genius myth creates false hope for companies that seem just one good product idea away from a turnaround. (Snap comes to mind at the moment.)
More importantly, it perpetuates Silicon Valley exceptionalism—the idea that tech companies aren’t like other companies. This mentality has created the blind spots around privacy, safety, and content responsibility that are coming back to haunt Facebook, Google, Twitter and many more.
So now would be a great time to abandon the notion and admit that Silicon Valley is great because of the people whose ideas and efforts scale and grow great products. In other words, tech companies are just like every other company.
Please dear authors, Jessica is right. Always remember – you need a good idea AND you need to be able to build on that idea. Daily effort, insight and some luck give us the opportunity to be next to good ideas as they arise. Daily effort, building an audience, and scaling your work creates traction. You need both to create bestsellers.