Big news in Australasia this weekend was the planned sale of the remaining 51% that Fairfax still holds in TradeMe. Lance Wiggs has been doing the rounds of the media outlets with the view that the move is “absolutely bonkers”. At first look it’s hard to argue with that, until one catches a breath and gives Fairfax a modicum of credit for (maybe) knowing what they’re up to. I left a comment on the NBR story about the move but since NBR prefers its commenters to be both anonymous and full of ad hominem attacks, my comment got blocked. Here it is pasted below to add to the conversation.

I’ve spent a heap of time over the past few years with “legacy” businesses. From banking to travel to telcos to software I’ve had a glimpse inside these big companies and looked at what innovation might mean to them. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time hitting my head against a brick wall, frustrated at how the solutions were just so obvious, and that these massive companies, with all their smarts, couldn’t see the absolute tsunami which was bearing down on them.

But I’ve also seen examples of large companies doing smart stuff. Look at how Sprint has reinvented itself over the past few years. Apple’s return from the brink is a lesson in corporate rebuilding. While in the technology industry we’re keen to write off the traditional dinosaurs, companies like IBM are still going strong, generations since their inception.

Survival and innovation is never guaranteed, but I’d be reluctant to claim that TRadeMe was Fairfax’s one shot at reinventing itself – that’s a case of shortsightedness that might prove premature.

Thinking about this over the weekend and I’m not so sure that everyone’s incredulity is justified. If you take the (admittedly attractive) view that Fairfax is a complete dinosaur, unable to innovate on its own and sitting atop a mountain of crumbling assets with rapidly diminishing value, then you’re likely to see this deal as the final nail in the coffin – an example of a company getting rid of the one asset that could save it.

Another school of thought would suggest that Fairfax an double the amount it bought TradeMe for but, more importantly, it’s had five or so years to look deeply at the culture and the paradigm within which TradeMe works and has been busily looking to apply that model in new ways to other initiatives. So if Fairfax could take the money and build some new businesses that, unlike TradeMe, are not nearing the top of their potential growth trajectory, perhaps this is a smart move.

TradeMe is an awesome business, but it’s hard to see how they’re going to markedly increase value in the mid to long term, take a few of those millions made from the total sell down and apply them to new businesses with potential for mass growth.

Of course there is still the issue of innovators dilemma and the fact that Fairfax would seem to be controlled by people with a fairly traditional view of the world (ie Rinehart, whose idea of “value add” is to dig strip the ground bear – either literally as in mining, or figuratively with her interesting investments).

Either way, Fairfax isn’t completely thick and, just in case anyone forgot, Sam Morgan, founder of TradeMe and someone who “gets” the new world, is a director of the company, I’d be surprised if he was a part of this decision without and plan going forwards….

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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