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Tech's short-sighted perspective fails to recognize impending doom

I'm looking for a discussion here. TL;DR is, "Why do we as a tech community think that companies that are successful now are some kind of template for success, rather than considering they may be next year's failure?"

Hear me out: one of the first "unicorns" was Groupon. And there was a now-predictable cycle that it went through:

  1. being valued at billions of dollars
  2. receiving acquisition offers but rejecting them and preparing for IPO
  3. being worshiped and copycatted by the tech community
  4. having the highest IPO since Google
  5. descending into oblivion (just look at its stock price now)

"So what?" you're probably thinking. Groupon is for old people who don't know any better.

Maybe. But Groupon's story is being relived over and over again by Snap, Uber, Lyft, and more.

And a lot of "it" companies of the past also failed spectacularly after being huge for awhile. Atari, AOL, Yahoo, Compaq, Nokia, etc.

At the same time, I hear a lot of people talking up how these companies approach product and engineering, as though they're a template worthy to be followed. I'm not saying they aren't, but I do think we need to have some more careful consideration on that. I think it's worth pausing a moment and considering the past before plunging into all the latest software process crazes just because a company that's successful right now uses them.


Top comments (5)

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

At the same time, I hear a lot of people talking up how these companies approach product and engineering, as though they're a template worthy to be followed.

Sometimes out of sheer scale of the domain, they are worth paying attention to. But yes, this is probably way over-indexed on the "it" factor. Nobody's fawning over Groupon's technical leadership, and they probably were at some point.

Snap is recovering from their lowest point and probably rounding in to shape, but at their most hyped period they claimed to be morphing into "a camera company". This probably serves more as a cautionary above all else at this point.

jkhaui profile image
Jordy Lee

This is just my opinion - without any specific data to back it up - so take it with a grain of salt.

The perceived failure of a number of high profile tech companies recently is definitely a huge issue, but I think it's symptomatic of a much bigger problem: the artificial "systems" we've created for society are toxic and incentivise the wrong kind of thinking/behaviour.

In other words, I don't think tech/software is the real issue here. The real question we should be asking is "what does it say about ourselves when half the population is living paycheck to paycheck, yet VCs have the freedom to gamble billions of dollars to extract even more riches for themselves?" Within this context, the blame for these failed companies lies with the VCs who greedily hyped them, alongside a fundamentally flawed economic system that incentivizes such behaviour in the first place.
For example, let's consider Uber. I'm going to call them a failure in the sense that their financial future is in serious question, when only a couple of years ago they were still the "next Amazon/Apple/Microsoft/etc.". However, when considering the company's technology in isolation, Uber is typically viewed as world-class. Uber's contributions to open-source machine learning are often cited (although I haven't used any personally). In this way, I would still make extensive use of Uber's technological innovations if I were in ML/AI, despite the company being an abject failure in every other aspect.

In summary, I think that a company's technological prowess (or lack thereof) is a consideration separate from whether the company as a whole is a success or failure. It's possible to admire a company's tech while still viewing the company in its entirety a failure.

ferricoxide profile image
Thomas H Jones II

A lot of times (I'd wager "significant majority"), companies fail less because of their innovative engineering methods/techniques/etc. were fatally flawed than that their management was. That what we should really learn from those failures is "how not to run a successful company (over the long term)".

The other thing that often isn't given adequate consideration is the impact of turnover (at all levels of an organization).

jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel ( • Edited

Read Seneca, replace "happy" by "successfull" and see what happens

ALL men, brother Gallio, wish to live happily,
but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy:
and so far is it from being easy to attain to happiness that the more eagerly a man struggles to reach it the further he departs from it, if he takes the wrong road;
for, since this leads in the opposite direction,
his very swiftness carries him all the further away.
We must therefore first define clearly what it is at which we aim:
next we must consider by what path we may most speedily reach it, for on our journey itself, provided it be made in the right direction, we shall learn how much progress we have made each day, and how much nearer we are to the goal towards which our natural desires urge us.
But as long as we wander at random, not following any guide except the shouts and discordant clamours of those who invite us to proceed in different directions, our short life will be wasted in useless roamings, even if we labour both day and night to get a good understanding.
Let us not therefore decide whither we must tend, and by what path, without the advice of some experienced person who has explored the region which we are about to enter, because this journey is not subject to the same conditions as others;
for in them some distinctly understood track and inquiries made of the natives make it impossible for us to go wrong, but here the most beaten and frequented tracks are those which lead us most astray.
Nothing, therefore, is more important than that we should not, like sheep, follow the flock that has gone before us, and thus proceed not whither we ought, but whither the rest are going.
Now nothing gets us into greater troubles than our subservience to common rumour, and our habit of thinking that those things are best which are most generally received as such, of taking many counterfeits for truly good things, and of living not by reason but by imitation of others.
This is the cause of those great heaps into which men rush till they are piled one upon another.
In a great crush of people, when the crowd presses upon itself, no one can fall without drawing some one else down upon him, and those who go before cause the destruction of those who follow them.
You may observe the same thing in human life: no one can merely go wrong by himself, but he must become both the cause and adviser of another's wrong doing.
It is harmful to follow the march of those who go before us, and since every one had rather believe another than form his own opinion, we never pass a deliberate judgment upon life, but some traditional error always entangles us and brings us to ruin, and we perish because we follow other men's examples:
we should be cured of this if we were to disengage ourselves from the herd; but as it is, the mob is ready to fight against reason in defence of its own mistake.
Consequently the same thing happens as at elections, where, when the fickle breeze of popular favour has veered round, those who have been chosen consuls and praetors are viewed with admiration by the very men who made them so.
That we should all approve and disapprove of the same things is the end of every decision which is given according to the voice of the majority.

scottshipp profile image

Wow! What a perfect quote!