Mainstreaming as a Barrier to Innovation

    February 5, 2008

When you visited Yahoo!, perhaps on a blogger pass, often you would find a product manager or executive extolling their mainstream virtues. 

Every time I’d visit I’d hear that word, mainstream, and wondered if it was some derivative of their mission or boasting of begotten power. 

Yahoo! arguably was the first company to mainsteam open internet services.  A great accomplishment that began with linking elsewhere with something that made the net more usable.  Big laurels.

But the context in which I kept hearing that word was relative to Web 2.0 innovation.  An innovative prototype that had yet to be mainsteamed.  Or worse, describing the factions in the company.  Old services that were mainsteamed vs. newly acquired darlings that had yet to go through the process of assimilation.

Yahoo! to their credit not only acquired some of the best Web 2.0 companies during a certain time period, like Flickr, and Upcoming.  They left them largely alone.  But the competing legacy services were too.  The graph to the right isn’t just the hockey stick everyone wants to skate too, its the before and after for Flickr for when they shut Yahoo Photos down.  It would have been a greater and more timely hockey stick if they did it two years earlier.  And with the multitude of other competing properties.

As a media company, perhaps this could be viewed as offering more channels.  But mainstreaming was a barrier to leveraging latent network effects as a business and a barrier to innovation in the culture.  It isn’t just acquisition integration, and some acquisitions should be left to a minor role, but the in-house projects and people trying to advance the organization as what is mainstream changes and can be changed. 

Maybe Google will suffer the same as they get older and its a plight of any successful company in a dynamic market.  They are still young enough to let YouTube eclipse Google Video.  The Innovator’s Dilemma doesn’t explain it enough when a good part of the organization was doing more than playing lip-service to the change.  There was a tremendous opportunity with the right talent and assets to present a new product strategy that either revive or destroyed old assets with a social overlay.  But perhaps with the founding management they couldn’t get past mainstreaming products, relatively depreciating assets, misdirected attention and playing with monetization embedded in the social fabric.  They could have defined their own game.

Enough writing in the present tense.  The point of this post isn’t lost opportunities at Yahoo! (although I am asking the question why). Its the sad fact that when the Microsoft merger goes through, it will destroy the best parts of value and culture.  When Microsoft owns Yahoo!, do you think it will side in favor of mainstreaming, or the next revision?  My guess us uncreative destruction.