Of all the things I could do to make a living, I focused on strategy for one simple reason: I’m really good at it. If that implies I’m not very good at anything else, well, you’ll never hear me say that out loud, but I’m not going to deny it, either. If you can live with that, so can I.
We all have to face life’s unpleasant realities, from time to time. If we don’t, that’s called living in denial. You can maybe pull it off for a while, but sooner or later, the cold hard truth will have its way with you. There’s just no way around it, at least not in my experience.
It might surprise you to know that executive management teams have to deal with the exact same thing. I know that because I’m usually the guy who gets to help them come to terms with what’s really going on at their companies. That’s not always a pleasant experience, but it’s a living.
Speaking of which, a guy named Brad Garlinghouse once tried to do the same thing at a floundering Internet company. In an internal memo that came to be known as the Peanut Butter Manifesto, the gutsy senior veep attempted to convince his fellow Yahoos that the company lacked a cohesive vision. He said Yahoo (YHOO) was trying to be everything to everybody and spreading itself too thin … like peanut butter on bread.
Did it do any good? No, not really. Seven years and five, maybe six CEOs later, it seems that Yahoo is still trying to figure out what the guy meant. Just goes to show how sticky peanut butter – I mean denial – can be. It’s like quicksand. The more you struggle to get out, the more it pulls you in.
Now here’s a funny coincidence for you. Three years ago to the day, I wrote an open letter to Google co-founder and brand spanking new CEO, Larry Page. The message: Trying to be all things to all people and compete with everyone is not a viable diversification strategy.
While I knew that Google (GOOG) needed to diversify, I said that, “without a clear vision and strategy for the company, diversification [will be an] expensive free-for-all in highly competitive markets dominated by powerful incumbents.”
“So far,” I said, “Google's diversification strategy appears to be chasing Apple in mobile, Facebook in social media, Microsoft in web browsing and operating systems, Amazon in retail, and pretty much everyone in the cloud.”
Granted, to keep its core search advertising business growing, Google has to be where our eyeballs are, but still, its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” may be carving out a bit too much terrain, considering that we’ve become a more or less unbridled information society and all that.
Besides Search, AdWords, AdSense, Android, Chrome, YouTube, Gmail, Google+, Maps, Books, Wallet, Chromecast, and Nexus phones and tablets, now Google’s into Glass, self-driven cars, smart homes, robots, flying drones, and who knows what else.
That’s an awful lot of balls to juggle, if you ask me. And it’s starting to show in Google’s earnings.
Revenue growth is decelerating while expense growth continues to soar. If you look at Google’s operating margins, it’s hard to believe it’s an Internet company. Gross margins are a good ten to twenty points below those of Facebook (FB), Yahoo, eBay (EBAY), Microsoft (MSFT), and Oracle (ORCL). They’re even lower than at chip companies Intel (INTC) and Qualcomm (QCOM).
To make matters worse, as search moves from desktop to mobile, Google is losing ad revenue share to Facebook and others, even while the price-per-click declines. Meanwhile, users are looking for search results that go beyond text-based algorithms to contextual, media, apps, and other specialized areas where Google has no advantage.
Then there’s a dark horse. Marissa Mayer is working hard to get around Yahoo’s search partnership with Microsoft’s Bing and bring Yahoo back into search. According to Kara Swisher, Mayer has a secret (or maybe not so secret) plan to unseat Google as the default search engine in Apple’s iPhones and iPads. That would be quite a coup, if she can pull it off.
The real shocker here isn’t that Larry Page is screwing up, but that he’s intentionally spreading Google thin because that’s his plan. In Why Google Really is Evil, I came to the realization that Page wants Google to be everywhere and in everything so he can blast you with ads wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. That is the strategy.
Crazy as that sounds, maybe he can pull it off. After all, people have been searching for frictionless motors, perpetual motion machines, and infinite energy sources since the dawn of civilization.
For all I know, maybe Google Search is the fabled Philosopher’s Stone that can turn anything to gold. Maybe Google will be the first company in history that doesn’t have to have a focused strategy. Maybe it can actually be all things to all people.
If not, I sure hope Larry Page likes peanut butter. A lot.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.