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June 15, 2011

Tech Leaders Don't Win By Saying They'll Crush Somebody

The best technology companies in the world, be they in hardware, software or Web services, didn't get there by brashly saying they were going to take out #1, kill them or stomp on their grave. If you think about it, or do your share of reading up on Web history, you'll find that for the most part, the companies who we associate with leadership, be it through quality, market share or traffic stats, reached their position with a near purity of thought on their ability to deliver something new and differentiated. So when you read about company X targeting company Y or setting up to take them down, you can almost guarantee they either won't make it, or company Y is going to change the game again.

In the last few weeks, I've been doing a lot of reading on Silicon Valley history - away from the day to day news releases and rumor mongering, but a few years to a decade back in the past. I enjoyed reading "In the Plex" by Steven Levy, which walks through the rise of Google, and am nearing the end of "The Facebook Effect" by David Kirkpatrick, which goes beyond The Social Network's fight with the Winklevii and walks along Mark Zuckerberg and team as they try to change the world. In years past I've enjoyed plenty of books on Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, AOL and other tech titans, with similar paths.

In the recent cases of Google and Facebook, what you don't see is a lot of crowing about how they plan to "take down" Alta Vista, Yahoo! and Excite for the first, or to crush Friendster and MySpace for the second. In fact, as Levy points out, Google tried to sell itself to Excite in the early days, only to be turned down due to the engine's accuracy being so high it would reduce pages for ads to be displayed. Facebook quickly morphed from a single university system to a march on openness and increased social connections.

In Facebook's case, the failure of Friendster helped the company focus on system reliability to avoid issues that badly damaged the social pioneer, and contrasts with MySpace were common during the network's growth. But you don't see Zuckerberg targeting number one. Instead, he wanted to build a new platform with a higher mission.

Extend this to the world of mobile phones. If you remember the initial launch of the iPhone, Apple didn't talk about being the majority leader in market share. Instead, Steve Jobs set a target of one percent market share by 2008. Sure enough, in 2008, they reached 1.1 percent. (See: Ars Technica) They clearly beat that 1 percent goal, and kept going.

So when I read about challengers taking on big targets and swearing they will surpass them, I can't help but be skeptical. For example:
There are many many examples like this where the hubris outweighs the reality (all deference to the hardworking folks trying to make this happen). In 2008, I wrote that those talking about taking down leaders like TechCrunch and Techmeme only further proved how hard it is to be on top. In January of this year, I said there were no iPad killers, only alternatives. Don't get me wrong. Our iPads seemingly exist just so my kids can watch videos, while I'm much more open to using the Galaxy Tab, but I don't expect iPad sales to go anywhere but up for a while.

Look at who is on top today in whatever category makes sense for you. Social networking. Search. Mobile OS. Tablets. Storage systems. Operating systems. Printers. You name it. You would be hard-pressed to see those companies having talked big about taking down number one when they were on their pathway to success. They probably didn't do it at all.

I never saw Google commercials mocking Yahoo!. I never saw Facebook taking potshots at MySpace. Those throwing stones now should do what the big guys did to get here - focus on their business and do a fantastic job executing on something users really want. If they do, and they get a chance to get noticed, then they will get a chance to be number one. While bravado is fun for internal sales rallies and personal goals, it's probably not the best for a public press position. And those companies who are going to be the next Google, Facebook, Linkedin, Apple or who knows what... they're probably going to creep up on us and not tell the world they're going to do it. Just watch.