Is Execution More Important than Vision?

A few years ago, Max Levchin—of PayPal and Slide fame— told me there were two kinds of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley: Those who work tirelessly and are great at execution, and those who are visionary and truly create new ideas—and sometimes new markets. Levchin put himself in the former category. Indeed, a lot of Slide’s success has just been the result of doing a better job ripping off ideas from competitors like RockYou. He put Evan Williams of Blogger and Twitter in the latter. At the time, Twitter was only a techy phenomenon, but Max noted that unlike a lot of other Web 2.0 companies, Twitter was one of the only ones doing something untested and new.

With all the hyperbole about Twitter today, if I asked you whether the executor or the visionary would wind up being more successful, nearly everyone would say the visionary. But—as Levchin no doubt knew when he made this point—the visionary is usually the one that gets the shaft in Silicon Valley.

Napster changed the music world, but it was iTunes that profited off of it. Google was one of the last companies in the Internet bubble to try their hand at building a search engine—and was laughed out of some VCs’ offices as a result. Palm pioneered the smart phone, not Blackberry. And Friendster was the social network pioneer before Mark Zuckerberg even entered college.

What about Apple? Well it was visionary when it came to the computer, but what turned the company around was the iPod and the iPhone—both just way better versions of MP3 player and smart phones. You can extrapolate it to enterprise software too: Is it i2, PeopleSoft or Siebel that ended up reaping top dog rewards for creating the software that now runs every single large company? Nope. It’s SAP—a company great at applications but horrible at underlying technology—and Oracle—a company great at technology but horrible at applications.

Of course, you can’t talk about this issue without bringing up TiVo: The company that revolutionized how we watch TV and dramatically altered the business model of nearly everyone in that medium, whether it’s cable companies, networks, or advertisers. What was its reward? The company has mostly limped along losing money as competitors ripped off their idea and gave boxes away for free. Most people who use the verb “TiVo” have never even owned a TiVo.

Tom Rogers, TiVo’s CEO, granted a rare interview to NBC’s Press:Here, and he laid out his vision for why TiVo is getting stronger. First there are the financials: It finally turned a profit on net income last year, and a healthy one at about $100 million. Second, there’s the stock: It’s up from a November 16 low of $4.60 a share to nearly $11 a share. But the big question is where future growth will come from. Who doesn’t have a TiVo who wants one at this point?

In essence, Rogers says the company’s future lies in three main areas: Getting way more content than just broadcast and cable on their box; pioneering Internet-like market research on what people watch down to the second they start fast-forwarding through a commercial, and cooperating with TV stations to come up with ways to get their advertising message across that people will actually consume. The heavy lifting here won’t be innovation as much as it’ll be tough execution. Of course the company could always get bought. But given the stock bump, that’s probably not in the offing any time soon.

It’s not surprising that the focus is on programming and TV-partnerships since Rogers is a TV guy, not a techy. He was a long time NBC executive who co-founded CNBC and MSNBC. Notice in this clip how deftly he bats aside the question I asked about product innovation and why TiVo was so late to the HD game. The full episode can be viewed in the Bay Area on Sunday morning on NBC or here now.