What the CEOs of Netflix and Microsoft Have In Common

October 25, 2016, 3:09 PM UTC
Key Speakers At The WSJDLive Global Technology Conference
Reed Hastings, chief executive officer of Netflix Inc., speaks during the WSJDLive Global Technology Conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. The conference brings together an unmatched group of top CEOs, founders, pioneers, investors and luminaries to explore tech opportunities emerging around the world. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Patrick T. Fallon — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The very best technology companies excel at saying no. This was, after all, the mantra of the late Steve Jobs, who liked to say that Apple said no to more good ideas than it said yes to. He prized focus and discipline almost as much as smooth edges and elegant presentations.

With all the dealmaking hullaballoo going on right now in tech and many other industries, I got to thinking about the importance of saying no. After all, the M&A game is all about saying yes: Yes to combining, yes to doing more, yes to debt, yes to growth for the sake of growth.

So it was that two nuggets of negation jumped out at me Monday night, both from a tech-industry conference that The Wall Street Journal is hosting in Southern California. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix (NFLX), suddenly a showbiz-industry pipsqueak valued at a mere $55 billion, said his service would maintain its focus on entertainment. Netflix, which seemed batty when it started commissioning quality TV shows and the like after starting out as a DVD rental service, will eschew news and sports, said Hastings. (Read and watch coverage of The WSJ’s conference here.)

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Similarly, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft (MSFT), had a demonstrative response when asked about his company’s self-driving car strategy. No one would have thought to ask that question if Microsoft competitors Apple and Google weren’t both gaga over autonomous vehicles. Nadella’s car strategy, according to The WSJ’s estimable Greg Bensinger, is Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-computing business. Translation: Microsoft is saying no to this fad and instead will hope to sell computer time to those who feel compelled to say yes.

A corollary to being overly agreeable is outright hubris. A gripping blow-by-blow description, also in The WSJ, of how Samsung blew the recall of its woeful Galaxy Note 7 reveals that Samsung was so keen to best Apple that in naming its newest smartphone “the company decided to skip the number 6 and jump straight to 7, a name change that would invite direct comparisons with Apple’s model.” In hindsight, saying no to that idea would have been prudent.

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