Slumping the Shark
The always insightful Scott Kirsner devoted his column in the Boston Globe yesterday to the phenomenon of “jumping the shark” as applied to business. Here’s Scott’s explanation of “jumping the shark” a phrase promulgated by www.jumptheshark.com:
In pop culture, jumping the shark is when something that was once very good – it could be a TV show, a band, or a series of movie sequels – makes a desperate attempt to remain fresh and relevant, and instead goes bad.
The origin of the phrase comes from the long-running TV show ”Happy Days,” which immediately went south following a gimmicky episode in which Fonzie, wearing water skis and his trademark leather jacket, jumped over a shark
Scott suggests CMGI’s paying $120M to get a football field named after it as a case of a business jumping the shark. That strikes me as apt. But, he next asks: “Did Lycos jump the shark when Wetherell killed a deal for the company to be acquired by Barry Diller’s USA Networks?” He also lists EMC’s founder leaving to become the ill-tempered ambassador to Ireland and DEC’s overspending on developing the Alpha chip. None of these are desperate attempts to stay fresh and relevant.
The problem is that most companies don’t get fresh, relevant, creative or silly when they get desperate. They get mean and conservative. They retreat to what they perceive as safe ground. Or, to follow the metaphor, they lower their center of gravity and let themselves be dragged around in the wake of the boat, heading as far away from sharks as they can. Slumping the shark? Humping the shark? Jumping the lark? Stumping the shark? Jumping at shadows? Mini-Bogus Contest: Come up with your own clever pun ’cause I can’t.
Whatever you call it, there’s no shortage of examples: Blue Mountain Arts moving from a funky and personal site to a typical Browsable Taxonomy of Sentiment. Ford backing off its pledge to provide every employee with a free computer and an almost-free Net connection. ThirdVoice reinventing itself a supplier of third-party links (and then completely de-inventing itself in April of this year). Zaplet moving from providing way cool mail applets to the public to becoming a boring “enterprise software and services company.” Gator moving from helpful sidekick to obnoxious, rude betrayer. Just about every company when it hits the 150-employee mark, and again when it nears $100M in revenues.
Sitcoms become outlandish when they’re frightened because entertainment depends upon grabbing our attention. Businesses become boring when they’re frightened because they prefer the risks they know over the unpredictable risk of being original. Different phenomena. Same tedious, self-defeating outcome.
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Scott has replied via email that the phrase “jumping the shark” is broader than I’m crediting; it’s “being used to describe the moment at which things started going wrong.” More important, he nails the name for the counter-phenomenon of making a business go all boring when its original formula starts to fail: Jumping the Slug. Mark this mini-Bogus contest closed! We’ve got a winnah.
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