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Mozilla laid off 250 people, and the company overhaul is just beginning

For too many years, it was The Firefox Company, funded by Google. Now Mozilla needs to find a different business, and fast.

Mozilla office

Mozilla's office in San Francisco.

Photo: Courtesy of Mozilla

Mitchell Baker and the team at Mozilla have known for a long time that the company's business needed to change. For a couple of reasons, starting with the fact that most of Mozilla's revenue came from Google as part of a deal to make Google the default search engine in Firefox. As Mozilla started to fight for a privacy-first, less-invasive (and thus frequently less Google-y) future of the internet, that didn't sit right anymore. There's writing on the wall, too: Google and Mozilla haven't renewed that deal, which expires this year, and search-default deals in general are suddenly under serious antitrust scrutiny.

"We are looking for other ways of generating revenue," CEO Mitchell Baker told me last year. "The issue, of course, is that they're hard to find." In a COVID-ravaged world, Mozilla's runway to find those other ways appears to have shortened. Baker announced on Tuesday that Mozilla is laying off about 250 people, closing its operations in Taipei, and moving another 60 or so people between teams. "Our pre-COVID plan is no longer workable," Baker wrote in an email to Mozilla staff. "We have talked about the need for change — including the likelihood of layoffs — since the spring. Today these changes become real."

Baker laid out five changes Mozilla plans to make in order to more successfully move forward. Many are classic Mozilla, focusing on community and pushing change out into the world. But the first and fifth changes are new, somewhat overdue, and require a big shift inside the organization: a new focus on product, and a new focus on economics.

For many years, Mozilla's main — and for all intents and purposes only — product has been Firefox. And as Firefox's popularity has waned, that has become a problem. "We know we also need to go beyond the browser to give people new products and technologies that both excite them and represent their interests," Baker wrote.

In recent months, Mozilla's been on something of a product-launch spree. It built a password manager called Lockwise; a secure way to share files called Send; a data-privacy tool called Monitor, and a VPN. All are connected to users' Firefox accounts, and all are paid products. Sure, Mozilla's also working on tech standards, fighting court battles, and generally trying to make sure the internet is a good place for people to be, but Mozilla is pushing hard toward turning that focus into a consumer product that costs money.

Adam Seligman, Mozilla's new COO, was hired to speed up the process. He joined Mozilla in May, after stints at Google and Salesforce, and said his mission is very clear: "I'd like to diversify our revenue streams." In his first few months at the company, he said he'd been struck by the team's focus on its mission, the sense of a greater good, "but I want to make sure we have products that are really easy for consumers and generate new revenue streams for us."

Mozilla also has a habit of being slightly unfocused: it works on VR, voice, machine learning and countless other projects that tend to look more like R&D than real products. It also invests heavily in other researchers, and into things like developer tools. All that is fine for a company with seemingly infinite Google revenue but problematic for one looking for something more sustainable. "We have to make some hard choices," Seligman said, "we have to get really focused."

What that looks like in practice is finding a way to get people to pay for security products. Enterprises, maybe, someday. But the first job is to find enough people willing to pay for password managers and VPNs. Mozilla's a trusted company, with huge clout in the tech industry, which means it has a better chance than most of building a business out of consumer security. And the early signs are good, Seligman said, especially when it comes to the VPN. But it's still really early.

Mozilla also has big plans for Pocket, its read-later app. Seligman was tight-lipped about exact plans, but said that users love the ability to read offline, and love the curation and recommendations Pocket offers. "There's all this great content out there that's not in the hands of a couple of big companies," Seligman said, "and it'd be nice just to surface that and let users discover all these wonderful corners of the internet."

One slightly surprising place the company's going to invest? Hubs, its virtual-room product that has become a popular choice for VR meetings in a socially distant world. Mozilla has long bet that mixed reality is the next big thing after mobile, and with Hubs growing fast thanks to remote work, it's going to stick around.

The big question for Mozilla will be how to stay mission-focused, to continue to be the kind of company where people casually quote the manifesto and can talk with a straight face about trying to make the internet a better place, while also focusing much harder on the bottom line. And for a company so focused on getting a better internet into everyone's hands, will a paid-for security suite simply feel wrong? Mozilla has always seen itself as different from all the money-grubbing, data-snatching companies in Silicon Valley. Now it has to learn a bit from those companies, but make sure it only learns the right parts.

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