Not everyone can be Google

By , 1 February, 2009, 1 Comment

You’d think the above was a fairly simple statement, but apparently Jeff Jarvis, big shot of media commentators, does not understand it. He’s written a book called “What Would Google Do?” in which he takes Google’s business model and suggests that since they have been successful with it, everyone should run their companies–in all industries–this way. I haven’t read the book, but I know this is the argument, because Jarvis has taken his own advice and generated much of the book through suggestions from his blog readers this past year. You can watch him explain the idea here:

I’ve been whining that I find Jarvis’s argument about media unsatisfying for some time. Jarvis’ problem, as evidenced by a book that tries to explain the world through one company, is that he thinks what has worked for one can work for all, whether it’s media companies or auto companies or individuals. What’s worked for him and a handful of other bloggers as a business model is to say inflammatory things that everyone can read free, become a cult figure, and then charge lots of money for teaching and speaking engagements, i.e. he doesn’t actually make any money from his production of journalism content. There’s a whole school of people who think journalism and the arts should go back to being nonprofit activities supported by patronage or other jobs on the side, but Jarvis claims he’s not among them.

He’s arguing that revenue sources outside those generated by the production of content can support journalism as a for-profit venture, even though the profitable example he cites [bloggers like him] represent a celebrity niche among media personalities, hardly an example for the rest.

John Gapper of the FT did a great job picking this argument apart in his review of the book. Gapper says

“The truth is that following Google, or surrendering to it, as Jarvis spends half his time advocating, is a route to bankruptcy for many. Google tries to commoditise industries and crush the margins of other companies which may be good for consumers, but is bad for business. Jarvis will not admit this because he is a digital evangelist for whom Google must be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

…How come Apple, which ignores most of his rules for Google-like behaviour, is so successful and profitable? He does not have an adequate answer…Apple believes in gaining as much leverage against rivals as it can, whether through closed technology standards or superior design. Its aim is to level the playing field but to tilt the field to its own advantage. It is, in other words, a traditional, if unusually successful enterprise.

…Google is not a good overall model for most companies, however. The internet is a great laboratory for experimentation and for launching products at zero marginal cost, but most enterprises have to make hard choices about how much to produce and in how many varieties; they struggle to gain distribution; they must spend heavily on advertising and marketing. THe best way to recoup these costs is to eliminate rivals, not purr at ‘frenemies.’

Most in other words, stand no chance of being like Google. They might, if determined, lucky and skilful, do something similar to Apple. But they must start by aiming at the right target.”

Now, the same caution applied to Jarvis, should apply here too: there are no cure-alls, no models that fit every company in every industry. Business would be boring as hell if there were. There are many reasons that most companies can’t become Apple, one of which is that most companies don’t have Steve Jobs. Heck, Apple might not be Apple a year from now without Jobs. But seriously, not every company is in a business where it’s possible or desirable to reinvent the wheel with each product. In that kind of business, if your reinventions are as good as Apple’s, you can and should be somewhat closed and proprietary. In other industries (ahem financial services), too many attempts to go out on a bold new limb might be bad news. To bring this back to media, which is what Jarvis, Gapper and I actually know about, the Apple model would be content so extraordinary and unique that people would pay through their noses for it. I can’t think of ANYONE who’s done this successfully except Gapper’s own employer and the WSJ. Business media, I’d argue, is it’s own niche on this count: people will pay for things they think can make them more money.

Building a list of things that have worked for specific companies or industries and why they worked is valuable. But ultimately, I just don’t think a totalizing vision that says “here’s the model we can all aspire to” is especially useful.

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1 Response {+}
  • Colin Clout

    But I think you fail to realize that Google is God and needs to be emulated in all our lives. Sorry I cannot be serious this week.

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