Irrelevancy leads to failure Worry for Yahoo, Microsoft, HP, Sears, etc.

30 Nov, 2012

The web lit up yesterday when people started sharing a Fortune quote from Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, "We are literally moving the company from BlackBerrys to smartphones." Why was this a big deal? Because, in just a few words, Ms. Mayer pointed out that Research In Motion is no longer relevant. The company may have created the smartphone market, but now its products are so irrelevant that it isn't even considered a market participant.

Ouch. But, more importantly, this drove home that no matter how good RIM thinks Blackberry 10 may be, nobody cares. And when nobody cares, nobody buys. And if you weren't convinced RIM was headed for lousy returns and bankruptcy before, you certainly should be now.

But wait, this is certainly a good bit of the pot being derogatory toward the kettle. Because, other than the highly personalized news about Yahoo's new CEO, very few people care about Yahoo these days as well. After being thoroughly trounced in ad placement and search by Google, it is wholly unclear how Yahoo will create its own relevancy. It may likely be soon when a major advertiser says "When placing our major internet ad program we are focused on the split between Google and Facebook," demonstrating that nobody really cares about Yahoo anymore, either.

And how long will Yahoo survive?

The slip into irrelevancy is the inflection point into failure. Very few companies ever return. Once you are no longer relevant, customer quickly stop paying attention to practically anything you do. Even if you were once great, it doesn't take long before the slide into no-growth, cost cutting and lousy financial performance happens.


  • Garmin once led the market for navigation devices. Now practically everyone uses their mobile phone for navigation. The big story is Apple's blunder with maps, while Google dominates the marketplace. You probably even forgot Garmin exists.
  • Radio Shack once was a consumer electronics powerhouse. They ran superbowl ads, and had major actresses parlaying with professional sports celebrities in major network ads. When was the last time you even thought about Radio Shack, much less visited a store?
  • Sears was once America's premier, #1 retailer. The place where everyone shopped for brands like Craftsman, DieHard and Kenmore. But when did you last go into a Sears? Or even consider going into one? Do you even know where one is located?
  • Kodak invented amateur photography. But when that market went digital nobody cared about film any more. Now Kodak is in bankruptcy. Do you care?
  • Motorola Razr phones dominated the last wave of traditional cell phones. As sales plummeted they flirted with bankruptcy, until Motorola split into 2 pieces and the money losing phone business became Google - and nobody even noticed.
  • When was the last time you thought about "building your body 12 ways" with Wonder bread? Right. Nobody else did either. Now Hostess is liquidating.
Being relevant is incredibly important, because markets shift quickly today. As they shift, either you are part of the trend going forward - or you are part of the "who cares" past. If you are the former, you are focused on new products that customers want to evaluate. If you are the latter, you can disappear a whole lot faster than anyone expected as customers simply ignore you.

So now take a look at a few other easy-to-spot companies losing relevancy:

  • HP headlines are dominated by write offs of its investments in services and software, causing people to doubt the viability of its CEO, Meg Whitman. Who wants to buy products from a company that would spend billions on Palm, business services and Autonomy ERP software only to decide they overspent and can never make any money on those investments? Once a great market leader, HP is rapidly becoming a company nobody cares about; except for what appears to be a bloody train wreck in the making. In tech - lose customesr and you have a short half-life.
  • Similarly Dell. A leader in supply chain management, what Dell product now excites you? As you think about the money you will spend this holiday, or in 2013, on tech products you're thinking about mobile devices --- and where is Dell?
  • Best Buy was the big winner when Circuit City went bankrupt. But Best Guy didn't change, and now margins have cratered as people showroom Amazon while in their store to negotiate prices. How long can Best Buy survive when all TVs are the same, and price is all that matters? And you download all your music and movies?
  • Wal-Mart has built a huge on-line business. Did you know that? Do you care? Regardless of Wal-mart's on-line efforts, the company is known for cheap looking stores with cheap merchandise and customers that can't maintain credit cards. When you look at trends in retailing, is Wal-Mart ever the leader - in anything - anymore? If not, Wal-mart becomes a "default" store location when all you care about is price, and you can't wait for an on-line delivery. Unless you decide to go to the even cheaper Dollar General or Aldi.
And, the best for last, is Microsoft. Steve Ballmer announced that Microsoft phone sales quadrupled! Only, at 4 million units last quarter that is about 10% of Apple or Android. Truth is, despite 3 years of development, a huge amount of pre-release PR and ad spending, nobody much cares about Win8, Surface or new Microsoft-based mobile phones. People want an iPhone or Samsung product.

After its "lost decade" when Microsoft simply missed every major technology shift, people now don't really care about Microsoft. Yes, it has a few stores - but they dwarfed in number and customers by the Apple stores. Yes, the shifting tiles and touch screen PCs are new - but nobody real talks about them; other than to say they take a lot of new training. When it comes to "game changers" that are pushing trends, nobody is putting Microsoft in that category.

So the bad news about a $6 billion write-down of aQuantive adds to the sense of "the gang that can't shoot straight" after the string of failures like Zune, Vista and early Microsoft phones and tablets. Not to mention the lack of interest in Skype, while Internet Explorer falls to #2 in browser market share behind Chrome.

Jay Yarrow, 5-21-12

When a company is seen as never able to take the lead amidst changing trends, investors see accquisitions like $1.2B for Yammer as a likely future write down. Customers lose interest and simply spend money elsewhere.

As investors we often hear about companies that were once great brands, but selling at low multiples, and therefore "value plays." But the truth is these are death traps that wipe out returns. Why? These companies have lost relevancy, and that puts them one short step from failure.

As company managers, where are you investing? Are you struggling to be relevant as other competitors - maybe "fringe" companies that use "voodoo solutions" you don't consider "enterprise ready" or understand - are obtaining a lot more interest and media excitment? You can work all you want to defend & extend your past glory, but as markets shift it is amazingly easy to lose relevancy. And it's a very, very tough job to play catch- up.

Just look at the money being spent trying at RIM, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Yahoo............

(Adam hartung is the managing director at Spark Partners.)

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