Avoid Thinly-Spread Growth

Reading about what Yahoo started out as, could have been, and ended up at is fascinating. 

As I continue to read Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo by Nicholas Carlson, I am reminded of the mixed blessing of being "first." 

Yahoo was one of the first to take advantage of the World Wide Web and the Internet, started by two college kids who built a directory for themselves. They succeeded despite themselves: they had no interest in running a business but had found something new and much needed, got funding and "adult" supervision, and the rest is history.

The negative side to being "first" is that there will be competition. That itself is not bad; it's how you react to it that makes the difference. If you remain focused and true to your core value or offering, only growing organically, you're probably safe. But if you try to be a solution to every problem out there, then you won't be the solution to much.

I've just read about the period in Yahoo's history where Brad Garlinghouse's internal memo to the founders about Yahoo's problems ends up in the Wall Street Journal. They called it the "Peanut Butter Manifesto" since he compares Yahoo's lack of focus and trying to get into all Internet businesses as too thinly spread peanut butter. 

Equally interesting was the explanation of what Garlinghouse had been thinking when working on this memo. He recalled a game he played with his staff. He'd say a brand name and they'd have to write down the first word that came to mind. With all other brands he mentioned—PayPal, Google, eBay—everyone had the same answer. When he said Yahoo, no two answers were alike, even though these were all Yahoo employees playing the game. 

Yahoo lost focus. Just like no one person can be good at everything, no one company can do everything. Even Amazon, who seems to be trying to do everything, is staying true to their core focus: it aims to be the the world's largest superstore that can sell you everything and anything you want. 

Focus is crucial, not only when you're building or growing, but when you're making decisions on where to spend time and resources. A good question to ask of yourself, and your supervisors and staff, is whether x project or x task is aligned with your company's or department's focus. Knowing this, and how it is aligned, will not only ensure that it's worth doing but will help keep everyone engaged and vested.

And if someone in your department decides to play the one-word association game, hopefully you'll all have the same answer.

Is your team focused? Are you? If not, how can you fix this?


Karina is VP of Operations and HR at 24/7 Teach.

A version of this was originally posted on Business Common Sense blog.

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