“Do you know what Google did?”.
You’ve heard it said before as if it’s describing some game-changing business strategy that nobody else thought of at the time. The reality was much different with a myriad of complicated factors involved, many of which were totally unpredictable. Apple is the other classic story that is presented as inevitably successful, after the fact of course. In reality, many occurrences were entirely dependent on fate, not faith - as Apple commentators would have you believe. The problem with the real success stories is that they are complicated to understand, not quite as inspiring, and seemingly impossible to reproduce. Furthermore, they're not good for motivation and lack any sort of startup romance. However, they are good for understanding the way business actually works.
If you reviewed the Google case study on an MBA course you might feel like you know why they succeeded and why they failed, thus giving you a better understanding of what works in business. But you would have missed all the non-events along the way - all the things that went Google’s way but could have easily gone against them.
Another little know fact is that the Google founders were willing to sell the company for less than one million dollars1, but the potential buyer thought the price was too high. Mentioning this detail makes the owners appear somewhat more fallible. Didn’t they know it was going to turn into one of the most wealthy businesses on the planet? They didn’t and they were lucky that the buyer refused. That’s only one example but of course, there are more.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a huge amount of knowledge, skill, perseverance and incredible value in the company, it’s just not totally predictable as a business case study. The more luck involved in any story, the less that can’t be learned from it in a practical sense.
Consider their competitors Yahoo, Bing and DuckDuckGo. Let’s suppose they were the giants in the industry and not Google, here are some possible reasons why they have done so well.
Why Yahoo won the race: Amazing value to be availed of on their homepage with an exceptionally quick way of reading news, weather and finding links to whatever you need in easily categorised sections. That’s why Yahoo has become the market leader.
Why DuckDuckGo won the race: A simple interface (just like Google) but is much more catchy as a brand, easy to remember and accessible to the Internet using generations. It has a ‘for us by us’ mentality that the public readily buys into and shows little advertising - this allows users to browse without being distracted, unlike Google. That’s why DuckDuckGo has become the market leader.
Why Bing won the race: The obvious choice considering that the majority of the world's computers use Microsoft operating systems (Internet Explorer) and their default search engine is Bing. The usability being almost identical to Google, along with the fickle attitudes of the users meant that changing over was easy, if not unnoticeable. That’s why Bing has become the market leader.
Could these be argued against in rational sense for a business case study? Of course they can, but the point is that it’s extremely difficult to ascertain the one or two key factors that lead a business to the top. Also, we must avoid becoming victims of the illusion of understanding.
1. Seth Weintraub, “Excite Passed Up Buying Google for $750,000 in 1999,” Fortune, September 29, 2011.