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BigTechCo 3 - Mullet Businesses


– expansion of my tweetstorm here

I’ve come to observe a common pattern in large businesses. ‘BigCo’ has built a product and service and is loved by all. They sport a mission that customers, investors and employees all understand and appreciate. BigCo’s CEO gets on Fortune covers and does TED talks. He or she might have written an autobiography (or two!).

But lurking behind this glamorous BigCo facade, hidden from view is a darker side.

It comes in many forms: a business unit, a set of tactics, a source of revenue. Sometimes it’s as simple as a particular team with a particular set of cultural values.

Whatever be the form, you’ll find two common traits: a) they are crucial to the business. These matter. b) they are rarely discussed outside. Any commentary is relegated to a throw away sentence in earnings reports. No BigCo exec is going to get into the details on a SxSW panel.

I’ve come to term these businesses “mullets”.

If you’re unfamiliar with bad hairstyles from the 80s, let me bring you up to speed. A ‘mullet’ is hair that is crisp, clean in the front while…significantly less so in the back. A “mullet business” is similar: looks fantastic to the public but has a darker side away from the spotlight.

Mullets are everywhere.

When you start looking, you find them everywhere and you find some common patterns. One common location is anything to do with finance. No fintech exec is proud of being a leading cause of direct mailed offers in people’s mailboxes. Regardless, they can’t escape that this drives their customer acquisition. Don’t hold your breath for a CapitalOne exec to do a TED talk on how to get people to open envelopes. Entertainment execs rarely get into the revenue from “after dark” content. But until recently this was a leading revenue driver for the likes of HBO.

Closer home in the tech world, one common form is of aggressive marketing and customer acquisition. A quick jaunt through Craigslist or Google highlights some aggressive growth tactics.

Often, mullets are often legacy holdovers from a previous generation that the company is trying to transition from but still reliant on. See: dial-up connections powering AOL revenue a decade ago though everyone knew this wasn’t exactly a growth business.

Diagnosing your mullet

The easiest way to diagnose your mullet or not is to look at the core strategic “equation”. (a phrase I stole from Keith Rabois).

Look at the various dials that make up your business and the levers that move them. Where does your revenue come from and what drives each lever? Where do your users come from and how do they interact with each other? If a smaller company, what is driving your financials and who is on the cap table?

Understanding the levers of this equation will tell you where the mullets may be hiding.

Side note: It’s healthy for you to understand this at any workplace. If you’re a senior leader, you are expected to understand this at a deep, intuitive level.

This is crucial as…

Not realizing you have a mullet can be fatal

One common trap I see companies fall into is not realizing their company is fact a mullet (I admit my hair metaphors get stretched here).

This happens easier than you might expect, and often through good intentions. You hire talented, passionate employees that are in love with the stated mission of the company but never internalize the mechanics that drive it. Or they fall in love with a future vision for the company but lose sight of what is driving the core business today. No senior exec wants to run the “legacy” business while everyone else is working on “vNext”. Over time, the back of the mullet gets starved of the best people and resources. Before you know it, you have no existing business and no vNext either.

Another common pattern: startup founders who want to build the next innovative big thing and aren’t as energized with the details of running an existing business. Sometimes they want to recreate the “feel” of being a small team in a garage. I recently talked a startup founder out of placing all his best people on a “labs” effort while calling the entirety of his current offering a “run the business” effort.

Though their paths might be different, companies seem to slide into forgetting key drivers for their business. By the time they realize it, it’s too late. They’ve lost core talent or key marketshare and it leads into a fatal spiral for the company.

Dealing with your mullet

So now you realize a mullet - what do you do about it? Most often - nothing! It’s common to have a business supported by the kinds of things that don’t make WIRED covers. If your strategy reconciles why these various levers exist and how they ladder up to your mission, you can stop reading. You have nailed “business-ing”.

One illuminating question to ask yourself is: why is this exactly a mullet? Why aren’t you proud of this part of your business and shouting about it from the rooftops? Why exactly are you trying to keep it…secret-ish? Even the process of asking this question is quite revealing. I find often digs into hidden assumptions and cultural tensions.

One acceptable answer is that it represents some secret sauce; something you don’t want competitors to find out. The less glamorous business divisions plays a key supporting role in supporting the more shiny parts. This is great, keep it secret.

A more concerning answer is: “It may not play well with press/future employees/current employees”. This is a red flag as this will definitely lead to a crisis down the road.

The worst answer is “We are worried about legal/regulatory scrutiny”. Stop right there, talk to your friendly neighborhood General Counsel (or get a new one). Figure out how to stop this from becoming the next Enron. For that’s another common path for mullets to take - to slide into the kind of grey areas that get people into prison. Don’t do this, save yourself from being the subject of a future HBO documentary.

If you can reconcile your mullet, greatness awaits. The truly great businesses find a way to internalize and have their mullet be a key part of their flywheel. Then you can truly have a business at the front and a party in the back.

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