Striving (And Not) In Silicon Valley

Living and working in Silicon Valley can be both exhilarating and heartbreaking.  Companies that come from nowhere are suddenly overnight sensations and then, just as quickly, fall into obscurity.  Companies that seem sure to define a new era are suddenly, in the blink of an eye, gone. 

Witness Yahoo.  Though it seems to have a few of its nine lives left to live, it nevertheless appears to have entered its sunset years.  The drive that creates successful companies and sustains them over time seems to have been lost, the inspired Yahooligan gone forever. 

Like many people in the Valley, I was among the thundering herd that rushed to the theaters to see "The Social Network" (aka "The Facebook Movie").  What impressed me about this largely imagined film is the degree to which it accurately portrayed the striving and motivating forces that bring successful Internet companies into being. 

Though I find it hard to believe that Mark Zuckerberg is the Asperger-syndrome-like person that sprang from the imagination of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who makes a brief appearance in the movie as an advertising exec), I do think he's like many of the Valley start-up founders I've worked with over the years.  That is, I imagine he's driven by a variety of both angels and demons to create something (capital "I") Important -- something that will change the world.



In the movie, Sorkin imagines Zuckerberg's drive to create what was then known as The Facebook as being inspired by a deep longing for acceptance -- by elite Harvard clubs, by tall-and-handsome blue-blood classmates who happen to also be Olympic athletes, by Sean Parker of Napster fame, and by girls: lots and lots of girls.  The idea that he would be motivated to create a service that transformed the way people stay connected to the other people who ebb and flow through their lives, or something that produces massive shareholder value, or even a company that transforms the lives of its creators and contributors, is all afterthought in Sorkin's world. 

Zuckerberg just wanted to belong. 

Whatever his true motivation, Zuckerberg and those who enabled him in those early days did in fact change the world with their invention.  Whatever their drivers initially, Facebook is a service that produces an enormous amount of value for its users, its shareholders and its employees. 

I know something about longing, about wanting to belong; about needing success in order to prove something about myself to others.  Such impulses can be destructive. But they can also be powerfully motivating.  Such are often the drivers of success in Silicon Valley.  And their absence can as easily doom a company to the dustbin of Internet history. 

Last week, as Yahoo faced down the fact that Microsoft now almost completely powers its search results, it gamely put forward a number of announcements designed to telegraph to the world: we're still in the search game.  But the striving that once built and defined a great brand, and those like AOL and Ask, seems all but gone at Yahoo these days.  

Though the new Yahoo search user experience looks interesting -- the accordion is a nice idea, except advertisers will certainly be wary of an experience that leaves users on a search results page rather than transporting them to the destination of the advertisers' choosing -- it's all pretty me-too.  It seems to be part of a larger strategy at Yahoo to return to its Terry Semel days of "content is king" and "we're a content company."  Which isn't a bad idea; advertisers typically love good content.  But Yahoo as the content destination bears striking similarities to the AOL and MSN strategies (I'm not quite sure what the Ask strategy is these days.)< 

Advertisers -- and the world -- sure could use a real alternative to Google's growing hegemony.  Maybe Microsoft will be that alternative.  It's certainly trying.  Yahoo could be that once again if it found some motivating force to give it focus and to put itself back in an innovating posture (and f-bombs from the C-suite aren't what I have in mind.)  Unless and until it does -- and, frankly, I hope that it can -- all eyes will remain on the innovators like Google -- and Facebook. 

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