Not so long ago, many big tech companies used to be startups with small engineering teams, a little bit of money in the bank and fast-paced development cycles. But when these companies grew, it became harder and harder to find a consensus and release new features or entirely new versions of their core products. Small startups with a dozen employees can now easily outpace tech companies with thousands of employees, which is both terrifying and exciting.
Earlier this week, LinkedIn updated profile pages to add a cover photo and a larger profile picture. There are a few other new features, but these are the two main additions on the profile pages. Yet, the company has more than 5,400 employees right now, and it just made two marginal changes even though profiles hadn’t been updated for a while.
Don’t get me wrong, I think LinkedIn is a good product with very efficient viral loops and a killer business model. But I’m sure there are more than a few employees that are in charge of front end development, user interface and user experience.
Moreover, LinkedIn now has 300 million users. First, the company doesn’t want to alienate its user base, which include non-tech-savvy people. Second, it has been making more frequent changes for the past year on both mobile and web versions. Yet, the company has moved at a glacial pace before that. Turning things around is not an easy feat, but LinkedIn doesn’t have a choice now if it wants to stay current.
Another example, PayPal seemed to be stuck in the past. While the company is currently refreshing its account pages, it took years to get this change. I don’t have the new interface yet. Right now, I still get the same convoluted interface when you log in. It looks like the Minitel, and it is as slow as the Minitel.
I recently talked with an entrepreneur who is developing a complicated productivity app for the iPhone, the iPad and Android phones with a team of less than 10 people. He told me that he couldn’t believe that Foursquare still doesn’t have an iPad app.
It’s not like you have to entirely redevelop the app for the iPad — most universal apps share the exact same code base but provide two different interfaces. The company told me that Foursquare’s website was designed with tablets in mind. It makes a lot more sense to look for a restaurant from your phone, but not releasing an iPad app is a missed opportunity.
Of course some companies have more pressing issues than iterating on product. For example, Twitter probably spent a lot of time developing a scalable backend infrastructure to fight downtimes. But now, it seems like the company is iterating every week on features and design.
Big tech companies all face similar challenges, such as finding the optimal number of management layers, fostering a strong culture, retaining longtime staffers, and keeping a clear product strategy. All of this is well known, but some companies suffer more than others.
This is great news for talented startup founders. Giants with feet of clay offer plenty of opportunities to create new innovative products. As for big tech companies, try to avoid the “feet of clay” syndrome.