Activity and Inactivity

Om Malik has a nice column on business models (see here, for instance), with reference to Twitter. He pushes the point that many startups are too product-oriented, and there can be big dividends from an early focus on business model innovation. Many would agree that Google’s core innovation was a business-model, not a product; and it is hard to argue against Om’s point.

The example he uses of a company that waited “too long” for business model exploration is Twitter. I suspect Om may be right about that. But it made me wonder if there isn’t a strange passivity in many aspects of the way Twitter is run. Not only are they surprisingly inactive on business model development, the capability set of their product has been quite static, too, when compared with their extraordinary explosion of users (at least 180 million) and usage.

Is Twitter’s success in spite of, or because of, their “strange passivity?”

Part of their success may well be due to product-feature passivity. Imagine if Twitter were run by an activist product-management team; by now the service would be festooned with special features and capabilities. The cries of “We have to add this… we have to add that!” would be endless.

But a feature-heavy approach would directly undermine Twitter’s minimalism, symbolized by the 140-character limitation on the length of tweets. Only by exercising self-restraint can that that core value be maintained. In product specification, especially – but also in other areas of business management – masterful inactivity often has a lot to recommend it.

Yet, excessive passivity can also be dangerous. When big opportunities come along, you fail to take them. I think Twitter is at risk of that; and simultaneously at risk (as Om says) of chasing opportunities in a messy fashion after they have passed by.

In the end, management has to find the small number of big bets it wants to take. The “do everything” model doesn’t work (Google has fallen into that, somewhat, I think). The “do nothing” model will eventually run out of steam, too. Bet early, bet rarely, and manage the results, is the hardest and best approach.

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