“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” — The Art of War
It’s a tough time to be in tech. Forget about the lavish Silicon Valley parties and the auto-celebratory David Fincher’s movies––it’s hard to swim upwards when the pond is full of new upcoming fishes. Things get even tougher when the pond is full of hungry sharks waiting to snatch the prey right under your nose.
And if you’re not big enough to eliminate them, you can only resort to swimming in the same direction. Hoping to get to the food first.
The tech industry is now an ecosystem of alpha packs of highly-skilled and driven individuals, who keep pushing innovation further with small tweaks to our favourite tech-gadgets. Private messages that disappear; filters that turn your face into a piece of toast; delivering your Chinese takeaway through your phone and an underpaid biker––small nudges that turn our world inside out.
But in the heart of change, there it lies a relentless competition for great minds to outshine each other. They compete for the same juicy fish:
Retaining users. Maintaining the ‘cool app’ status. Being cool enough for Generation Z to put off their homework to watch Kylie Jenner lip-syncing to her boyfriend’s rap.
So it’s no wonder that tech companies are shamelessly copying each other’s ideas; looking over the shoulder to snatch the exclusive shiny feature that will unlock the jackpot of social media engagement.
Because this is the game of survival in the Silicon Valley.
Be the great app. Or avoid death by copying somebody else’s greatness. Improve it just a little bit so that it doesn’t seem obvious; only to swim a little bit faster towards your digital fishes.
Take Facebook, per example. First it was the @ feature borrowed from Twitter. Then it was Facebook Live, which looked a lot like Twitter’s Periscope. But things got tricky with the increasing popularity of Instagram, whose filters and social media marketability were luring away from their Facebook feed. Instagram was crushing Facebook’s user engagement by a lot; from young teenagers to celebrities, having a well-curated Instagram profile suddenly became more important than stalking your college friends on Facebook.
So Zuckerberg smelled the stinky threat and decided to shell out $1 billion to let Instagram swim around the pond for him, instead of even bothering to replace it.
(It would be worth mentioning though that Instagram at the time wasn’t the ad revenue machine that it is today.)
But the game got harder. A new shark came in town: Snapchat.
Snapchat, the instant photo-messaging app that suddenly became invincible at snatching the most sought after prey in the pond: millennials. Once again, Facebook wasn’t going to be pushed aside by another start-up founded by another college grad; so in 2013, Zuckerberg offered Snapchat $3 billion to kindly let go of the millions of users that simply got sick of Facebook.
But Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s co-founder, who was 23 years old at the time, did not let that happen. Spiegel was very well aware of the golden throne he was sitting on. Especially if they kept playing their cards right. So it was obvious for them to keep playing in the pond, say no to $3 billions, and keep the bittersweet chance of suddenly becoming an equal rival to the biggest social network that it has ever existed. (Until Snapchat.)
Facebook never got over that. Over the last few years, Zukerberg has tirelessly been desperately trying to push Snapchat a little bit further, in hope of a breaking point. The Instagram stories almost identical to the ones on Snapchat and the ones that will be soon introduced on Whatsapp, another impressive purchase that could be added to Facebook’s collection.
But Snapchat didn’t break. In fact, rumours say that despite the blatant plagiarism––addressed by Spiegel with a strategic silence––Snapchat is swimming better than ever.
Not to mention the $1 billion they are expected to roll out in ad revenue thanks to its successful brand partnerships and user engagement; or their new tech-gadget, the Spectacles, a pair of sunglasses that can do the snapping for you.
Snapchat’s success may be due to a quirky app with addicting filters and effective digital marketing strategy, but we have to bow down to their victory in swimming faster than a giant social media shark like Facebook.
It wasn’t just luck. Spiegel knew that the popularity of his app would have lured Facebook to take his users away. Not out of pettiness, or unfair competition, but because that’s how you play the game of becoming the best tech-company in the Silicon Valley.
You create a great product. You wait for users to get addicted to it and tell their friends. And then you wait for a bigger company to come in and steal your ideas, because great ideas in technology don’t just rack up millions––they push forward to the next big thing.
It’s a tough game, and not everybody can play it. And it is certainly unpleasant to find that your work has been kindly borrowed to improve another company’s service.
But as they say, them’s the rules.
Except, not everyone is okay about losing.
This week it was Slack’s turn to fight the sharks, and they were not so happy about it.
Slack is a popular real-time messaging app that has won over the hearts of 4 million daily active users of the likes of Conde Nast, IBM and Linkedin. The company is now valued $3.8 billion; part of its success due to its underdog founding story, impeccable service and commitment to users feedback on the service.
However, Slack didn’t see the obvious plot-twist coming towards their outstanding success.
Teams, an identical productivity and communication service released by Microsoft this week.
Teams does exactly what Slack does. With the difference that Teams provides the video and audio feature that Slack’s users have been pressuring the company to implement for months. Teams is also potentially going to be used by Linkedin, a huge client for Slack, not to mention Microsoft’s shiny new purchase.
You’d think that a service which allows instant file-sharing and communication in the workplace would know of the impending threat of a company whose business is based solely upon technology that is used in an office.
It was only a matter of time before Microsoft finally seized the opportunity to complete its Microsoft Office package with a tool that allowed the files to be shared without having to use second-party applications.
But I guess Slack was genuinely shocked and offended by that, if you look at the full-page ad letter they published on the New York Times, calling Microsoft out for not playing a fair game.
Forget about the obvious observations and the boring whiny tone of the letter.
Did Slack genuinely not see it coming? Or are they too ashamed to admit their naivety in assuming that nobody would go after them?
Innovation happens in the Valley, and people invent formats, and that’s great. And then what you see is those formats proliferate. So @ usernames were invented on Twitter. Hashtags were invented on Twitter. Instagram has those. Filtered photos were not invented on Instagram.You can’t just recreate another product. But you can say ‘what’s really awesome about a format? And does it apply to our network?’ — Kevin Stystrom, Founder of Instagram
The Silicon Valley is a losing game. Working hard to gather investments, build the right team of talented engineers and marketers. Build an open office worthy of The Coveteur. All of it is thrown in the trash as soon as the kid around the block, or the bored employee at work, deems you outdated.
And in a pond where every fish is fighting for billions and users, you have to swim faster if you want to beat the shark waiting around the corner.
I write about technology and business on Medium. You can find other stories on my profile @challengeyoass