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It’s Tough to Be a Big Company: They Don’t Get No Respect

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 4, 2009

Om Malik recently tweeted:

I think google has no big ideas. this morning they announced a to-do-list. FGS. [For God Sake] Remember the Milk MUCH better.

This touched off a backlash from Google’s ardent supporters who beg to differ, and Om writes about it this morning.

I like Om’s definition of what he means by “big ideas”:

For me, startups and products such as Skype, Flickr and YouTube represent big ideas. Why? Because they not only redefine our notions about certain technologies, but they also change our behavior and cause massive disruption.

Google veteran Matt Cutts responds with what he thinks of as Google’s latest big ideas:

* Google is funding research on the Singularity.
* Google mapping the oceans for Google Maps.
* Google’s research into deep web/dark web.
* Gmail’s offline availability.
* Google tool to measure broadband, especially useful now that more and more broadband providers are looking to shift to a metered broadband model.
* Google’s Android Mobile Operating System.
* Google Chrome, a fast web browser with a distinct philosophy of ease-of-use and radically improved security abstractions.

Om tries hard to be magnanimous with these, but I’m sorry, none of them resonate with me as a Big Idea.  None of them are redefining or disruptive.  Many of them are just Google’s version of something somebody else did first.  Android is just another Smart Phone so far, and the iPhone or earlier the Blackberry get the prize for being redefining and disruptive.  Chrome?  Some interesting features, but as Om points out, not redefining or disruptive any more than Mozilla or other browsers.  Mapping the oceans?  Oh come on.  I’ve been able to buy ocean maps at the Monterey Aquarium for a long time now.  Sure its cool to have them online and free, but redefining?  Disruptive?  I don’t think so.  Gmail offline, not close.  Most of the blogs posts about it were along the lines of “finally, Google does what others have been doing.”

This talk gives me a strange sense of Deja Vu.  I’ve heard it all before.  The best example, back when people used to talk much about it, was Microsoft.  “What is Microsoft going to innovate?” became, “When is Microsoft going to innovate?” which ultimately became, “Microsoft doesn’t innovate.”

And there you have it.  It’s tough to be a big company.  As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “They don’t get no respect.” 

Just one more downside of the Innovator’s Dilemma.

In Microsoft’s case, the speculation was that it was the culture.  To much command and control.  Too top down.  How can this be true for Google?  It’s just the opposite, some would say to a fault from the standpoint of economic efficiency.  They have all that 20% time available to innovate almost anything. 

Yet is isn’t happening, because real redefining and disruptive innovation is really really hard and very rare.  It can’t be scheduled.  It’s not a job and you can’t hire for it.  It’s a passion.  It’s vision not mechanical process.  It is more than just craftsmanship and building it.  It is art and creation.  It burns in the belly of whomever has the real innovative spirit.  It seldom happens with the same person more than once.  It’s problematic for large corporations to nurture it, although there are notable examples of corporations that have managed to including Xerox with PARC, IBM, and Bell Labs.  In many cases those same organizations failed to capitalize on their innovations, but at least they were making them.

What was it about their cultures that spurred innovation so unusually well?  I don’t have the recipe.  Perhaps there isn’t any recipe and those organizations had so much innovation just because they were lucky.  Lucky to have a bunch of innovators all in one place for a time.

If there were a recipe, I suspect one ingredient it would have is to avoid doing the same better.  Once a thing is mainstream, better is not innovation.  Start from things not mainstream.  Start from things perhaps not even possible in the mainstream.  Take a ridiculous amount of computing power for the day, give it to one single person, and ask how that changes the software for that computer.  You’d be looking at something similar to what happened at Xerox to create windowed user interfaces.  Or, you’d be looking at the first Macintosh, which was astonishing, but almost didn’t work it was so close to the limits of what was possible in that time.  Look for things people say can’t be done, and do them anyway. 

Forget profit.  Forget stock options.  They don’t factor into innovation in this sense.  The failure rate will be huge.  But the rewards if you succeed will also be huge.  If nothing else, you’ll have satisfied your passion.

Related Articles

Dare misses the plot by ignoring “disruptive” and focusing on original.  Om is still right about Big Ideas.  Being original but not disruptive is doing something nobody cares about.  If you’re disruptive, its because your customers love you.  He labels the iPod and iPhone as not original, and therefore not Big Ideas.  But they were different enough and disruptive enough to be Big Ideas.  They were not just the same thing better.  My first iPod bore no resemblance to my Nomad MP3 player, which I liked very well at the time.  But the Nomad just wasn’t a Big Idea.

11 Responses to “It’s Tough to Be a Big Company: They Don’t Get No Respect”

  1. […] Warfield of smoothspan blog reinforces the same with some witty quotes […]

  2. ajaydawar said


    Agreed. I have experienced this myself at big and small companies companies. When a company is small it has nothing to lose and a lot to prove. When a company becomes big they have a lot to lose and nothing to prove. At least the execs at the companies who make millions and are mostly thinking about running larger and larger orgs, have a lot lose and not much to prove.

    My personal belief, not necessarily supported evidence, is that big companies should simply outsource disruptive innovation. It is much better done when there are fewer people, fewer resource (it breeds creatvity and forces one to prioritize) and fewer chiefs to answer to. Big companies should take a portion of thier cash and act like VCs and angels.

  3. smoothspan said

    Couldn’t agree more Ajaydawar. This is another way of looking at what a company like Cisco does with their acquisition strategy.

    Oracle has moved in that direction too.

    It doesn’t always work. Certainly Yahoo made a lot of acquisitions without succeeding, but that isn’t necessarily the fault of the acquisitions.



  4. mdangear said

    I agree with your conclusion:

    Big companies, even when the culture is trying to encourage innovation are handicapped because their whole purpose is to develop the concept that made them successful in all possible directions, and protect it against the rest of the market as much as possible, therefore creating barriers to what would be otherwise innovation. So by design all they can do really is more of the same, not disruption, not big ideas.

    Sometime there are exceptions:
    – Steve Jobs had enough of an ego that he could drive Apple like you drive a startup, and he produce the iPhone which is a real big idea because it finally put the user experience first, as opposed to what other smartphones were doing by pushing the computer paradigm into smaller devices that could not really support it.
    Now that he is gone, I would be very surprise if we see real innovation from Apple (other than what they still have under the radar for the next few months/years)
    – 3M created the post-it by accident rather than by purpose, so accidents happen

    Meanwhile startups are not bogged down by the politics of the corporation, they are small teams of people that can execute better/faster on novel ideas. The best corporations can do is collaborate with startups by sharing data and knowledge, and then acquire the ones that succeed.

    The hard part is to manage this interaction well: how to foster innovation outside the entreprise and to bring it back in later on. Oracle has done it, but if you look at what happened with Siebel, it was rather painful. Cisco seems to be doing better with this.
    Industry leaders clearly have a role to play into making this process a better one…

  5. darrellross said

    You bring up a good point about the pure R&D focus that large corporations used to sponsor (e.g. PARC, Bell Labs, etc.). I “think” that one of the changes we’ve seen in the past 15 years is the introduction of the Stage-Gate Process which forces potentially disruptive ideas to pass through a filter before it advances to the next level of funding. Gone are the days when you tossed a bunch of really bright people in a room and left them alone for months (sometimes years). Now you have Innovation Steering Committees sniffing around every two weeks for an update. Truly disruptive ideas are killed by Stage-Gate.

    Sure, Google engineers get 20% to devote to their own projects. But can one truly get their head immersed in disruptive idea using only one day a week? And then…..there is their own internal Stage-Gate process headed by Marissa Meyer. No wonder that innovation at Google = derivative works.

    Darrell Ross

  6. arajanala said

    Google looks and behaves more like Microsoft, they are waiting for the market to be defined and proven before they muscle in with their version of the mousetrap. GMail, Chrome are just some examples of this.

    Arun Rajanala

  7. teyc said

    I’ll bite.

    What do you think qualifies as a big idea that isn’t an incremental improvement on the past?

  8. […] It’s Tough to Be a Big Company: They Don’t Get No Respect « SmoothSpan BlogIf Google can’t keep up the mind-blowing innovation, it must be an accident driven process, or something else un-rational. […]

  9. bigworld said

    One of the challenges of being a large company, as Google is, is that innovations tend to get lost in the size, scope and perception of the brand. I see a hell of a lot of innovation coming out of Google. Are any of these innovations perceived to be as big as their original innovation? No. But even that original Big Idea was reinventing the search wheel. I presume it qualifies as a Big Idea because we could give it a name: Google, and we liked it a bit more than AltaVista.
    Google is synonymous with search, so we as simplistic consumers and hype-peddlers tend to overlook anything new that doesn’t fit our definition of Google the brand.
    To the mousetrap comments: yes. Google is reinventing a lot of stuff but even reinvention can be disruptive. For instance, word processors, spreadheets and other reinvented-wheels. The innovation? My “office” is accessible from a browser anywhere in the world. I don’t need to spend $$$ on over-bloated Office, I don’t need to install it on every computer I want to work on. Disruptive, Big Idea? I don’t know, but go ask Microsoft if they’re feeling a little uncomfortable.
    I suspect that this example won’t ever be seen as disruptive by the hype-peddlers, even though it may have more users than Skype for instance, because it’s simply harder to identify in the larger Google brand. Is it more “behaviour changing” than Skype (for instance)? I’d argue, yes.
    I think the real issue here is brand perception. Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, Skype are all just easily-identifiable symbols of changing usage patterns and technologies: digital photos, text messaging, digital video, voip. They, in and of themselves, are not responsible for the disruptive innovations or even Big Ideas, just the dominant symbolic brands in their application niche.
    Google is clearly the dominant symbolic search brand. Their challenge is to present consumers with more than just “search” in a way that doesn’t balkanize their lead in search. Are they innovating? Hell, yes. Can they market their innovations so that we all credit them for the next disruptive application or big idea? We’ll see.
    If I was Google, I’d learn from Microsoft’s (and many others’) mistakes and create distinct brands. I could write a book… Wait, maybe I will. 🙂

  10. smoothspan said

    I don’t buy it Chris (Bigworld). Innovation is not a branding problem. In fact, innovation creates brand. iPod and iPhone didn’t get lost in the overall Apple / Mac brand. They stood out and redefined that brand. It would have been all too easy to lose sight of the Amazon Cloud. Heck, it’s a book seller. No wait, it’s a huge online retailer. Hmmm. The Amazon brand has evidently been steadily redefining itself, and its innovation has been big enough that wasn’t lost in the brand.

    That’s the nature of disruptive innovation.

    Are these things first? Was Google search first?

    We can play that game all day long and conclude Leonardo da Vinci actually sketched the first web browser so he was first, LOL. But Leonardo didn’t disrupt anything with his sketch. He didn’t execute. So it’s more a matter of first to disrupt than first to have an idea. Google wasn’t first to search, but they sure disrupted the heck out of it when they showed up.

    Google Apps has so far failed to disrupt. It has had a lot of downloads, there are people using it, perhaps a lot of people, but it isn’t disruptive. It could be, but there are problems with Google Apps I’ve talked about before in the area of compatibility. It’s another case of too little disruption. Just because it runs in a web browser and your data is in the Cloud was not innovative enough to achieve disruptive adoption. Sometimes that can be a timing thing. We’re not done seeing it run it’s course and there is still time for it to become disruptive, but the initial foray was not.



  11. […] recently read a post on the SmoothSpan Blog “It’s Tough to Be a Big Company…” discussing Google’s innovation, or lack thereof. The post refers to “big ideas” , […]

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