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Perspectives February 4, 2011

Stanford GSB Talk on Mozilla and Scaling

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Last week I got to attend a class at Stanford Business School taught by one of my favorites, Huggy Rao. The course is on “scaling” — an over-used word, but one that Huggy’s been really digging into lately — resulting in some great insights. This particular class covered a case study authored by Huggy with Bob Sutton on the rise of Mozilla and Firefox, so it was fun to participate in.

Huggy asked me to do a quick 10 minute introduction to the class. I chose to talk about the differences between then and now — how much has changed in the 5.5 years since Firefox’s initial 1.0, and what the new challenges of scaling are. So, naturally, my first comment to the students was that most of the case was irrelevant to today’s world. That Mozilla was amazing and unique and special — for lots of reasons that include (1) breaking the MS/IE monopoly distribution and usage of the browser, (2) doing it in a way that enabled lots of innovation and competition that we’re seeing now, and (3) finding our own way through the journey — not behaving like anyone else in the market ever really has. So that’s cool. In that battle, though, access to users was probably the biggest challenge — it looked impossible when Mozilla started, and it’s remarkable — incredible, really — that we ultimately have gotten the reach we have.

But fast forward to today’s world, where we have more than 600M users on Facebook, more than 400M users of Firefox, and networks like LinkedIn and Twitter with global reach of a hundred million or more. Combine that with the rise of the Apple App Store and mobile devices — with something approaching 200M user accounts that all have credit cards associated with them. (And if there’s any doubt, these numbers are truly huge. I put in some cultural references in my talk — about 100M people will watch the SuperBowl. And only about 20M watch the nightly news in America; 30M listen to NPR. We think of these institutions as huge, but they’re nowhere near Internet scale at this point. The new networks have left them behind, quite handily.)

So now a huge part of the world is accessible, a huge part of the world is ready and able to download an app or click on a shared link. Which means that access is no longer the chief initial obstacle to scaling. That means you can see companies like Zynga or Groupon rise from nothing to massive practically overnight. Clearly, the initial challenge is about rising above the noise of an increasingly crowded field of ways for people to spend their time and money, but it’s very, very possible to get to tens or hundreds of millions of users quickly. Which means that now you’ve got companies that are dealing with huge, complex, global user bases at an extremely early point in their history. My view is that scaling successfully — which means sustaining that scale over time — will be dependent on figuring out how to make the teams and processes in rocket ship organizations operate effectively.

I know not all the analogies in the slides are apples-to-apples, but what’s clear is that we’re living in an era of hyper-distribution, where things can change very, very quickly. I’m really glad that smart people like Huggy and Bob are thinking about how to help us all learn how to manage these in the future.

Fun conversation, thanks to Huggy for the invitation!

“My view is that scaling successfully — which means sustaining that scale over time — will be dependent on figuring out how to make the teams and processes in rocket ship organizations operate effectively.”