The Case For Trian’s Nelson Peltz Joining P&G’s Board

The Case For Trian’s Nelson Peltz Joining P&G’s Board

Months ago Trian’s Nelson Peltz began buying Procter & Gamble (P&G) shares.  He invested about $3.5 billion, making Trian’s ownership 1.5%.  Since then he has been lobbying, unsuccessfully, for a seat on P&G’s board of directors.  He has said that although P&G already has 10 outside directors on its 11 member board, adding him would make a tremendous difference increasing P&G’s market valuation.  P&G is now the largest company ever to engage in a proxy battle between the existing board and an outside investor.

Today, Peltz offered his plan to change P&G, continuing his attack on management, saying that P&G has not sufficiently cut costs, nor has it created growth via innovation – citing no new innovation platform since Swiffer was introduced almost 20 years ago.  He attacked the company for selling off brands without returning sufficient funds to shareholders.  He believes management’s targets are too low, and it is too easy for managers to make their bonus.  He also believes there is a need to hire more managers from outside the company.

He informed the company if he were a director he would reorganize the company to make it more streamlined, change the compensation plan, and do a better job of cutting costs.

P&G is dead set against adding Peltz, saying he would disrupt the board, and the company, in negative ways. CNBC.com reported Peltz’ claims the company is spending $100 million on the proxy fight to keep him off the board. P&G’s proxy statement puts that sum at $35 million.  Either number indicates P&G is spending a lot of money to stop the appointment of Peltz.

Nelson Peltz, Trian Partners

Nelson Peltz, Founder Trian Partners, LLC

The company defended itself, saying leadership has been growing EPS (earnings per share,) making productivity improvements, growing sales organically at 2%/year and returning huge value to shareholders.  They accuse Peltz of simply planning a split of the company into 3 parts so each can go public on its own – adding little value to shareholders while damaging the company’s ability to operate.

Unfortunately, P&G’s leadership has pretty much set itself up for this battle.  And shareholders may have good reason to add Peltz to the board in hopes of additional change.

P&G’s financial performance has been poor

Firstly, in the last 10 years the value of P&G has risen about 44%. But the S&P 500 has grown by 154.5%.  Shareholders would have done better owning the average than owning P&G.  Claims about how well P&G have done since the CEO arrived 2 years ago overlook the fact that just prior to his arrival, in November, 2014 P&G shares traded at $90-$93.85/share, which is just about where they are now.  So all that’s happened is a recovery to where things were previously, not a great success.  Shareholders have a right to be frustrated.

EPS has risen, but that has everything to do with share buybacks rather than earnings growth.  EPS has risen about 11%.  But since 2nd quarter of 2007 P&G has spent ~$61billion on share repurchases, reducing the number of shares from 3.32 billion to 2.74 billion, or 17.5%.  Rather than growing earnings, leadership has been making the capital structure smaller – and thus EPS has risen while earnings have not.  This is actually a program that goes all the way back to 1995, which indicates a long-term approach of focusing on EPS, which are manipulated, rather than earnings.

P&G has favored divestitures and share repurchases over innovation and acquisitions for growth

Meanwhile, P&G’s buyback program has been financed by a dramatic divestiture program, selling off very large businesses to raise cash.  Over the last decade major sales included:

2009 – selling the P&G pharma business
2012 – selling the water filtration business including Pur
2012 – selling Pringles (along with several other iconic brands)
2014 – selling the dog food business
2016 – selling the Duracell battery business
2016 – selling the beauty brand business

Management tried in its response to say that innovation was just fine at P&G.  But what it cited were line extensions like Tide PODs, GAIN Flings, Pampers Pants, and Oral B power toothbrush.  None of these are great new innovations launching significant sales.  None are new product platforms for high growth.  Rather they are typical sustaining innovations applied to brands that are long in the tooth.

This is typical of the long-term lack of valuable innovation at P&G. Do you recall in 2009 when the company lauded its development of the “P&G Public Toilet Database App?” Not exactly on the top 20 iTunes list.  Or do you remember in 2014 when P&G launched its “Basic” line of products, where it literally sold a less-good quality product hoping to attract a brand-conscious but quality uncaring targeted niche?  Peltz is making a good point, that leadership at P&G really has forgotten what good, long-term profit producing innovation is, while succumbing to the strategy of selling major business units (reducing revenue) then using the money to buy back shares rather than investing in future growth.

P&G has not shown it understands how trends are quickly changing its business

Meanwhile, the consumer goods industry is changing dramatically, and it is not clear that P&G’s leadership is really preparing for future changes.  P&G still relies heavily on television advertising to sell its products. But that approach had stopped generating profitable growth as far back as 2010. Back then Colgate was holding its market share, and growing revenues, on all its brands that compete with P&G while spending 25% less, and often much less, on advertising.

 

P&G is still stuck using marketing strategies that have been outdated for almost a decade. Comcast lost 90,000 subscribers in Q2, and the stock lost 7% today when Comcast management alerted investors it expects to lose 150,000 more in Q3.  And while viewership is declining, ad pricing is going up, making TV advertising a less effective and more expensive marketing tactic for consumer goods. As P&G brands have fallen further behind competitors in Instagram followers, and lack good social media programs like Wendy’s, Peltz has proposed a substantial increase in digitally savvy marketers.

P&G and Walmart logo

Simultaneously, distribution is changing dramatically.  Once P&G could rely on its product dominance to dictate space usage in grocery stores and discounters.  But the rise of e-commerce has dramatically affected these historical distribution channels.  Today the fastest growing grocer is Aldi, which eschews brands like P&G’s in favor of its own private label.  And after stunting the growth of discounters like WalMart, the leading e-commerce company, Amazon.com, has now purchased Whole Foods.  This is leading everyone to expect greater growth in on-line grocery shopping and additional at-home delivery, which undercuts the former strength P&G had in traditional brick-and-mortar stores with warehouse delivery models.

Management bragged of its $3 billion in e-commerce sales, but that is a drop in the bucket.  Is P&G ready to compete for sales in future markets where social media is more important than advertising?  Where mobile ads have more power than print, TV, radio and traditional internet banners?  Where social media groups drive more consumption behavior than company-sponsored social media pages with coupons and use recommendations?  Will P&G dominate product volume when it has to rely on Amazon.com and other sites to sell and deliver its products?  If people move to daily home deliveries, and less stock-up purchasing what will happen to P&G’s former brand advantage via high numbers of SKUs (stock keeping units) and large packaging options?

This will be an interesting proxy battle.  There is no doubt Peltz wants to shake up the board’s behavior, compensation plans, hiring programs, targets and many of the ways management runs the company.  Simultaneously, the P&G board believes it is moving in the right direction.  Large shareholders are conservative, and don’t like to create problems (P&G’s largest shareholders are Vanguard, Blackrock, State Street, BofA, Capital World, Trian, Northern Trust – which combined control 24% of P&G stock.)

But this isn’t about a complete change in the board.  It’s just a vote to add one additional member who is not happy with things the way they are.  Will these large shareholders see a need for someone to shake things up, or will they accept current leadership’s claims that things are on the right track?

It will be interesting to watch, because Peltz isn’t without some objective concerns about P&G’s future, given its performance the last decade and the amount of change facing the industry.

Apple Partners With Accenture To Build Enterprise Apps: 5 Reasons Apple Is Winning The Developer War

Apple Partners With Accenture To Build Enterprise Apps: 5 Reasons Apple Is Winning The Developer War

Everybody knows that Google’s Android has about 80-85% smartphone market share, and Apple’s iOS has only 14-19% share (depending upon quarter.) But this week tech services giant Accenture announced it was partnering with Apple to build enterprise apps for its customers, focusing initially on financial services and retail.  Despite lower unit sales Apple maintains marketplace technology leadership by capturing the enterprise app developer community – including IBM, Cisco, Deloitte and SAP.

iPhone and Android stand out in Mobile market

For most consumers an Android-based phone from one of the various manufacturers, most likely bought through a wireless provider if in the USA, does pretty much everything the consumer wants.  Developers of most consumer apps, such as games, navigation, shopping, etc. make sure their products work on all phones.  For that reason, the bulk of consumers are happy to buy their phone for $200 or less, and most don’t even care what version of Android it runs.  As a stand-alone tool an Android phone does pretty much everything they want, and they can afford to replace it every year or two.

But the business community has different requirements.

And because iOS has superior features, Apple continues to dominate the enterprise environment:

  1. All iPhones are encrypted, giving a security advantage to iOS. Due to platform fragmentation (a fancy way of saying Android is not the same on all platforms, and some Android phones run pretty old versions) most Android phones are not encrypted.  That leads to more malware on Android phones.  And, Android updates are pushed out by the carrier, compared to Apple controlling all iOS updates regardless of carrier.  When you’re building an enterprise app, these security issues are very important.
  2. iOS is seamless with Macs, and can be pretty well linked to Windows if necessary for an apps’ purpose. Android plays well with Chromebooks, but is far less easy to connect with established PC platforms. So if you want the app to integrate across platforms, such as in a corporation, it’s easier with iOS.
  3. iPhones come exactly the same, regardless of the carrier. Not true for Android phones. Almost all Androids come with various “junkware.”  These apps can conflict with an enterprise app.  For enterprise app developers to make things work on an Android phone they really need to “wipe” the phone of all apps, make sure each phone has the same version of Android and then make sure users don’t add anything which can cause a user conflict with the enterprise app.  Much easier to just ask people to use an iPhone.
  4. iOS backs up to iCloud or via iTunes. Straightforward and simple. And if you need to restore, or change devices, it is a simple process. But in the Android world companies like Verizon and Samsung integrate their own back-up tools, which are inconsistent and can be quite hard for a developer to integrate into the app. Enterprise apps need back-ups, and making that difficult can be a huge problem for enterprise developers who have to support thousands of end users.  And the fact that Android restores are not consistent, or reliable, makes this a tough issue.
  5. Search is built-in with iOS. Simple. But Android does not have a clean and simple search feature.  And the old cross-platform inconsistencies plague the various search functions offered in the Android world.  When using an enterprise app, which may well have considerable complexity, accessing an easy search function is a great benefit.

Most of these issues are no big deal for the typical smartphone consumer who just uses their phone independently of their work.  But when someone wants to create an enterprise app, these become really important issues.  To make sure the app works well, meeting corporate and end user needs, it is much easier, and better, to build it on iOS.

This allows Apple to price well above the market average

Today Apple charges around $800 for an iPhone 7, and expectations are for the iPhone 8 to be priced around $1,000.  Because Apple’s pricing is some 4-5x higher, it allows Apple’s iOS revenue to actually exceed the revenue of all the Android phones sold!  And because Android phone manufacturers compete on price, rather than features and capabilities, Apple makes almost ALL the profit in the smartphone hardware business.  Even as iPhone unit volume has struggled of late, and some analysts have challenged Apple’s leadership given its under 20% market share, profits keep rolling in, and up, for the iPhone.

By taking the lead with enterprise app developers Apple assures itself of an ongoing market.  Three years ago I pointed out the importance of winning the developer war when IBM made its huge commitment to build enterprise apps on iOS.  This decision spelled doom for Windows phone and Blackberry — which today have inconsequential market shares of .1% and .0% (yes, Blackberry’s share is truly a rounding error in the marketplace.)  Blackberry has become irrelevant. And having missed the mobile market Microsoft is now trying to slow the decline of PC sales by promoting hybrid devices like the Surface tablet as a PC replacement.  But, lacking developers for enterprise mobile apps on Microsoft O/S it will be very tough for Microsoft to keep the mobile trend from eventually devastating Windows-based device sales.

As the world goes mobile, devices become smaller and more capable.  The need for two devices, such as a phone and a PC, is becoming smaller with each day.  Those who predicted “nobody can do real work on a smartphone” are finding out that an incredible amount of work can be done on a wirelessly connected smartphone.  As the number of enterprise apps grows, and Apple remains the preferred developer platform, it bodes well for future sales of devices and software for Apple — and creates a dark cloud over those with minimal share like Blackberry and Microsoft.

Uber: Be Very Careful Before Hiring Jeff Immelt As CEO

Uber: Be Very Careful Before Hiring Jeff Immelt As CEO

We learned last week that Jeff Immelt is a front-runner to be the next CEO of Uber.  There are many reasons to be concerned about this possibility.

Uber has received nothing but bad news for a while now:

Amidst these scandals, Uber’s big investors are writing down the value of their Uber holdings by 15%. After pushing the board for new leadership, and restructuring, it appears investors are losing faith in the company.
This puts the board in the hot seat.  Investors want a new CEO that will eliminate the scandals.  They want stability at the company.  Reeling from so much bad news, they want someone atop the organization who will “right the ship” with “a steady hand on the tiller” so they can regain confidence.  Amidst the turmoil, and the need to please investors, an executive who spent 35 years at GE, and over a decade in the top job, probably sounds like a good candidate.  He’s known as a stable guy, numbers-focused, genteel, well-schooled (Harvard MBA) and above all “seasoned.”
Delete uber app screen image

But the stakes are incredibly high.  Picking the wrong person at this moment could well lead to a horrible long-term outcome.  While meeting short-term needs sounds like the #1 goal right now, for Uber to succeed means putting someone in the CEO job who can guide the tech company through a decade or more of tough decisions in a fast-paced market.  Other boards have suffered horribly from making this decision hurriedly and poorly.

Remember the CEO turmoil at Yahoo:

  • Yahoo was an early leader on the web, first in search, content distribution, on-line sales and advertising under CEO Tim Koogle from 1995-2001.
  • Due to controversies (remember when he sold Nazi memorabilia?) he was replaced by proven media exec (25 years at Warner Brothers) Terry Semel from 2001-2007. He’s the one who missed the opportunities to buy Google and Facebook.
  • Worried the company needed more pizzazz to catch leapfrogging competitors, the board brought back founder Jerry Yang for 17 months (2007-2008).
  • When sales didn’t improve the board brought in brash, blunt speaking Carol Bartz, CEO of Autodesk, to turn around the company (2009-2011.) After months of cost-cutting but no sales improvement, she was gone.
  • In January 2012 the board hired the President of Paypal, Scott Johnson, as CEO. But 5 months later he was fired for lying on his resume.
  • Amidst a need to find someone to lead the company long-term, in 2012 the board hired Google darling Marissa Mayer as CEO.  She left when Yahoo dissolved.
yahoo logo
twitter logo
apple logo

Or how about Twitter:

  • From 2007-2008 Jack Dorsey was the founder who drove growth and early funding.
  • Dorsey was replaced by Evan Williams (2008-2010) who was to supply a steadier, more seasoned hand at the top.
  • Looking to grow and go public, the board replaced Williams with Dick Costolo (2010-2015). Although the IPO went well, lack of investor enthusiasm led to stock weakness.
  • In 2015 Costolo was replaced by the returning Dorsey. He supposedly would rejuvenate the company. Since his return the stock has dropped about 50% amidst concerns regarding insufficient user and revenue growth.

But this is not a new problem in tech.  Remember the CEO litany at Apple:

  • Apple’s first CEO (1977-1981) was Michael Scott from National Semiconductor, brought in to support the inexperienced Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But he was unable to get along with the founders, and built a reputation of firing those he didn’t like.
  • Mike Markkula, Apple’s early investor and 3rd employee, replaced Scott as CEO from 1981-1983.
  • Hoping to put someone with a better pedigree, more big-company experience and a steadier hand in the top job, Markkula hired John Sculley (former Pepsi CEO) to Apple’s top job in 1983. Markkula agreed with Sculley to fire the mercurial Jobs in 1985. Sculley remained CEO until 1993, when he was removed as Apple lost the war with Microsoft for corporate desktops and sales tanked.  Sculley, the much heralded, experienced corporate leader, ended up ranked the 14th worst CEO of all time by Conde Nast Portfolio.
  • The board replaced him with insider Michael Spindler (1993-1996) who tried to sell Apple to IBM, Sun and Philips, but failed.
  • Spindler was replaced by Gil Amelio (1996-1997) former CEO of National Semiconductor, who was considered the kind of mature, dedicated leader Apple needed. As Apple shares slumped to all time lows, he bought Jobs-owned NeXt.
  • Jobs (CEO 1997-2011) succeeded in convincing the Board to fire Amelio. Jobs subsequently fired the board. The rest is well documented.

Jeff Immelt is no Steve Jobs

Clearly, Uber’s board needs to find a Steve Jobs.  And by all accounts, for all his skills, Jeff Immelt is NOT a Steve Jobs.  During his tenure as CEO of GE things might have been boring, but the company also lost a third of its revenues, and a third of  its market cap.  After more than a decade of stagnation, Immelt was forced out.  It is hard to imagine he is the right person to guide Uber, a high-tech company in a fast changing marketplace filled with techie employees who want a culture of rapid growth with opportunities to build fortunes in company equity.  To maintain its value Uber needs to keep growing at 20%+/year, and Immelt has no experience creating that sort of revenue success.

So what should the board look for?  Last summer Chris Zook and James Allen of Bain & Co. published their treatise on how to lead high growth companies The Founder’s Mentality – How To Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth .  I interviewed Chris Zook last year, and he offered great insights that would be incredibly valuable for the Uber board now:

  1. Being great is hard. Most companies are focused on going from mediocre to good, far from going from good to great. Uber is the undisputed champion in ride-sharing today.  The leader must be unassailable as a visionary.  Someone who understands how to build a GREAT company.  The last CEO may have been problematic, but he built Uber – a tremendous business success.  The new leader has to be on a par with other leaders of companies considered great by the employees (and investors) or he will not be respected, and there will be more problems, not fewer.

 

 

  1. “Next Generation CEOs” (as Zook calls them) are flexible thinkers who can figure out the hidden core, and build on it. The incoming CEO of Marvel realized its core was story telling, not comics, and directed the company into films and other growth venues. Jobs realized Apple was more than the Mac, and tied the company to offering easy-to-use products that fit emerging mobile needs. Uber’s next CEO has to go deeper than the scandals and obvious business model to understand what made Uber the leader, and expand on that nugget of strength to keep the company growing, and beating competitors.  (Software for the gig economy?  Time sharing assets?)

 

  1. Blockages are what kill companies. Most big-company CEOs are great at creating organizational blockages to create stability. They tend to be numbers first, customers and technology second.  They put in place middle managers with the primary job of stopping behaviors that could be problematic.  They instill “no” in order to stop mistakes.  Do not ever forget the Sculley/Apple experience.  The next Uber CEO has to be willing to operate in a culture with few barriers, direct access from the bottom employee to the CEO, and the ability to move quickly to deal with problems rather than attempting to eliminate the possibility of problems.
  1. The CEO has to be willing to make big bets. Today markets move fast. Leaders have to project trends, understand where customers are headed and place big bets that keep the company on top.  Think about Bezos pushing Amazon to implement Prime, and buying Whole Foods.  Think about Jobs directing Apple’s massive bet on mobile and the iPod.  Think about Reed Hastings making the big bet at Netflix on streaming, and more recently on original content.  To be a successful leader today of a growth company is not for the timid, nor for those who want to make small, progressive bets over time.  It requires vision, the willingness to make big bets and the ability to convince your employees, your board of directors and your investors to buy into that bet.

The Uber board is apparently a bit tired of their search.  Perhaps that’s because they aren’t looking for the right kind of person.  As Mr. Zook told me, you rarely find leaders with a “Founder’s Mentality” through a search firm.  You find them already competing, offering insight, doing new things in situations where the competition is intense.  Like Jobs was at Pixar, and NeXt.

The right leader is out there – we’ve seen the type in companies mentioned here, and others like Google and Facebook.  But you have to search for them intensely.  What seems very, very unlikely is that Mr. Immelt is “the right man for the job” at Uber today.

A Bitcoin Is Worth $4,000–Why You Probably Should Not Own One

A Bitcoin Is Worth $4,000–Why You Probably Should Not Own One

Even though most people don’t even know what they are, Bitcoins increased in value from about $570 to more than $4,300 — an astounding 750% — in just the last year.  Because of this huge return, more people, hoping to make a fast fortune, are becoming interested in possibly owning some Bitcoins.  That would be very risky.

Bitcoins are a crypto-currency.  That means they can be used like a currency, but don’t physically exist likeBitcoin dollar bills.  They are an online currency which can be used to buy things.  They are digital cash that exist as bits on people’s computers.  You can’t put them in a drawer, like dollar bills or gold Krugerrands.  Bitcoins are used to complete transactions – just like any currency.  Even though they are virtual, rather than physical, they are used like cash when transferred between people through the web.

Being virtual is not inherently a bad thing.  The dollars on our financial institution statement, viewed online, are considered real money, even though those are just digital dollars.  The fact that Bitcoins aren’t available in physical form is not really a downside, any more than the numbers on your financial statement are not available as physical currency either. Just like we use credit cards or debit cards to transfer value, Bitcoins can be spent in many locations, just like dollars.

What makes Bitcoins unique, versus other currencies, is that there is no financial system, like the U.S. Federal Reserve, managing their existence and value.  Instead Bitcoins are managed by a bunch of users who track them via blockchain technology.  And blockchain technology itself is not inherently a problem; there are folks figuring out all kinds of uses, like accounting, using blockchain.  It is the fact that no central bank controls Bitcoin production that makes them a unique currency.  Independent people watch who buys and sells, and owns, Bitcoins, and in some general fashion make a market in Bitcoins.  This makes Bitcoins very different from dollars, euros or rupees.  There is no “good faith and credit” of the government standing behind the currency.

Why are currencies different from everything else?

Currencies are sort of magical things.  If we didn’t have them we would have to do all transactions by barter.  Want some gasoline?  Without currency you would have to give the seller a chicken or something else the seller wants.  That is less than convenient.  So currencies were created to represent the value of things.  Instead of saying a gallon of gas is worth one chicken, we can say it is worth $2.50.  And the chicken can be worth $2.50.  So currency represents the value of everything.  The dollar, itself, is a small piece of paper that is worth nothing.  But it represents buying power.  Thus, it is stored value.  We hold dollars so we can use the value they represent to obtain the things we want.

Currencies are not the only form of stored value.  People buy gold and lock it in a safe because they believe the demand for gold will rise, increasing its value, and thus the gold is stored value.  People buy collectible art or rare coins because they believe that as time passes the demand for such artifacts will increase, and thus their value will increase.  The art becomes a stored value.  Some people buy real estate not just to live on, but because they think the demand for that real estate will grow, and thus the real estate is stored value.

But these forms of stored value are risky, because the stored value can disappear.  If new mines suddenly produce vast new quantities of gold, its value will decline.  If the art is a fake, its value will be lost.  If demand for an artist or for ancient coins cools, its value can fall.  The stored value is dependent on someone else, beyond the current owner, determining what that person will pay for the item.

Assets held as stored value can crash

Tulip photo with value lineIn the 1630s, people in Holland thought of tulip bulbs as stored value.  Tulips were desired, giving tulip bulbs value.  But over time, people acquired tulip bulbs not to plant but rather for the stored value they represented.  As more people bought bulbs, and put them in a drawer, the price was driven higher, until one tulip bulb was worth 10 times the typical annual salary of a Dutch worker — and worth more than entire houses.  People thought the value of tulip bulbs would  go up forever.

But there were no controls on tulip bulb production.  Eventually it became clear that more tulip bulbs were being created, and the value was much, much greater than one could ever get for the tulips once planted and flowered.  Even though it took many months for the value of tulip bulbs to become so high, their value crashed in a matter of two months.  When tulip bulb holders realized there was nobody guaranteeing the value of their tulip bulbs, everyone wanted to sell them as fast as possible, causing a complete loss of all value.  What people thought was stored value evaporated, leaving the tulip bulb holders with worthless bulbs.

While a complete collapse is unlikely, people should approach owning Bitcoins with great caution. There are other risks. Someone could hack the exchange you are using to trade or store Bitcoins. Also, cryptocurrencies are subject to wild swings of volatility, so large purchases or sales of Bitcoin can move prices 30% or more in a single day.

Be an investor, not a speculator, and avoid Bitcoins

There are speculators and traders who make markets in things like Bitcoins.  They don’t care about the underlying value of anything.  All they care about is the value right now, and the momentum of the pricing.  If something looks like it is going up they buy it, simply on the hope they can sell it for more than they paid and take a profit on the trade.  They don’t see the things they trade as having stored value because they intend to spin the transaction very quickly in order to make a fast buck.  Even if value falls they sell, taking a loss.  That’s why they are speculators.

Most of us work hard to put a few dollars, euros, pounds, rupees or other currencies into our bank accounts. Most of those dollars we spend on consumption, buying food, utilities, entertainment and everything else we enjoy.   If we have extra money and want the value to grow we invest that money in assets that have an underlying value, like real estate or machinery or companies that put assets to work making things people want.  We expect our investment to grow because the assets yield a return.  We invest our money for the long-term, hoping to create a nest egg for future consumption.

Unless you are a professional trader, or you simply want to gamble, stay away from Bitcoins.  They have no inherent value, because they are a currency which represents value rather than having value themselves.  The Bitcoin currency is not managed by any government agency, nor is it backed by any government.  Bitcoin values are purely dependent upon holders having faith they will continue to have value.  Right now the market looks a lot more like tulip mania than careful investing.

Five Reasons I Regret Writing About Millennial Entrepreneurs

Recently, I wrote a column about 10 young entrepreneurs.  Originally I titled it “10 under 20” but the Forbes editors thought that was too close to their “30 under 30” column so they changed it to “10 Great Lessons From Millennial Entrepreneurs.”  I didn’t like that title, because it implied these were “great” entrepreneurs, and I really didn’t think they were all that great.  Now that some time has gone by, I really regret having written the column.

1 – PR Inundation

I’ve written this column at Forbes for almost 7 years.  So I am pitched for unsolicited columns every day by PR firms.  On average, about 10 pitches every day. But nothing compared with the onslaught of emails I received after the millenial column.  Firm after firm, and even individuals, contacted me by email, on Facebook, Linked-in, and Twitter to tell me about some incredible young person who just absolutely needed to be written about.  You would think that every high school, and small university, in America had at least one, if not multiple, young prodigies all of which were destined to change the world.  It was an avalanche of pitches, from which I could not even begin to fully read, much less respond.

But, almost universally these businesses were not that fantastic.  Most were the modern day equivalent of someone opening a lawn service in 1960. Simple businesses that had little to distinguish them. Many had no revenues, and many were little more than somebody’s idea of a business they would like to build.  Those that had revenues were so small as to be meaningless, and almost none made any impact on their industry or competition.

The pitches were, without a doubt, the most hyped pitches I have ever received. Over and over I kept asking “why would anyone think this is in the slightest interesting?

Multitasking PR person

The only reason this is being pitched is because it involves someone under the age of 25.  And usually that someone lacks any credentials and offers no new insight to the industry or product.”

2 -Not a sustainable business

Writing an app is not a business.  Even if it sold a few thousand copies. Nor is trading baseball cards, or selling someone else’s stuff on eBay.  Nor is buying bitcoins.  By and large, 99% of the pitches were for one-product opportunities that clearly lacked any sense of being a sustainable business which could produce recurring revenue over multiple years.  Almost none had any employees, and those that did had a mere handful with no plans to scale any larger.

At best most were simply a single shot situation which generated some revenue for the millennial founder. And most could only pay the founder because the business had no overhead and a highly subsidized cost structure due to support from parents.  Many had no, or little, profits and there was nowhere near enough cash to repay traditional investors.  Because there was no cost for financing, overhead or even variable activities like payroll, these businesses could not be considered a success in any traditional sense.

3 – These were not really entrepreneurs

Jean Baptiste Say, French economist

French economist Jean-Baptiste Say coined the term entrepreneur. He used it to describe people who seek out inefficient uses of resources and capital then redeployed them into more productive, higher-profit uses.  None of the pitched businesses actually redeployed any resources.  And none really developed a new industry that created greater productivity.  These were just ideas that manifested into a product that fit an immediate need.  Most used an existing infrastructure, such as an app store, to do one thing – like sell an app.  Maybe someday they’ll write another – but there was no indication any research was happening, customer analysis or market testing to create a long-term business.

Additionally, for entrepreneurs there is some element of risk-taking.  For taking risk, by investing in something where others won’t invest, there is the opportunity for outsized returns.  But these folks didn’t take any risk at all.  It wasn’t their money they invested, but rather their family’s.  Most either lived at home, or lived in housing paid for by family (such as a college dorm room.)  Most had nothing invested in their “business” other than personal time, and if this failed there was almost nothing lost.  And most had minimal gains relative to the size of the risk they undertook with other people’s resources.

And they all lacked any sense of a business plan.  Now I’m all for innovation and trying new things, but business success requires the ability to generate ongoing revenue for a prolonged period that covers all costs and creates returns for investors.  These folks simply promoted ideas with no description of how this was to be a long-term profitable venture that succeeded for customers, suppliers and financial backers.  I found that I would not have been an investor in hardly any of these “businesses” and surely would not recommend readers to back them.

4 – These folks were big self-promoters, not business promoters

Almost to a pitch every story was about some individual – not a business success.  I was told over and over and over about how some 17, 18, 19 or 20 year old was absolutely a genius; a modern miracle of incredible business insight.  Yet, there was little to back-up these claims.  In the end, these were just young folks who had some sense of ambition and fortitude that were doing a few experiments and had (in some instances, not all) sold a few things.  But their stories really weren’t that interesting.

One young fellow washed vehicles.  He got a contract to wash trucks.  And he had expanded his truck washing capability to multiple trucking companies.  OK, ambitious and hard working.  But nothing fantastic.  No technology breakthrough.  Just a basic service that he sold cheaply enough to win some contracts.  But, he was unwilling to discuss his margins, how much he paid himself or others and how he financed the company or paid a return to his backers.  Yet, he was certain that he could franchise his truck washing business and soon enough he would be the next Ray Kroc.  He, and his PR person (and it was unclear who paid her) failed to realize that his story might be interesting in 20 years after he proved he could build the next McDonald’s making himself, his investors and his franchisees rich.

Add onto this the fact that almost all of these people had nothing good to say about anyone older.  For some reason I was informed over and again that nobody over 40 could really understand how brilliant this person is, and how guaranteed was future success.  These people universally had no value for advice from people older than them, senior woman meetingno value for those with experience (all experience was seen as irrelevant to their brilliant insight,) and no value for education.  There was no reason to study business practices, or even business history, much less anything like engineering, because they simply had taught themselves all they needed to know – and if they needed to know anything else they would teach that to themselves as well.

I kept saying to myself “get over yourself kid. You are working hard, but so are a lot of other people.  You really haven’t accomplished anything of merit yet.  And there’s not really anything here that indicates you will achieve great things.  You may win awards for just showing up at school, or at the soccer match, but in business you have a LOT more to prove than you can show up and possibly accomplish some of the basics.  Once..”

5 – No sense of how to build something, or even engage in quid pro quo

Bill Gates built a company that produced software millions of people wanted.  Steve Jobs built a company that made devices (computers initially) that millions wanted.  Henry Ford made cheap cars that millions of people wanted. Mark Zuckerberg created an interaction engine that millions of people wanted (and advertisers would pay to reach.) These founders understood that building a successful business meant combining multiple resources into an organization that functions capably to build products and markets.

If you asked them “why should I write about you?” they would answer, “to tell folks about the improvement in their life from my company’s products.”

When I asked these millennial entrepreneurs why I should write about them, the answer was “because I’m young and great and going places.”

Worse, when I pointed out that in today’s world columnists rely on readers, and therefore columnists want to know the topic will generate reads, they were without even a good idea of how a column on them would generate reads.  When I asked “will you promote this through a large social media conduit to drive readers to the column?” they responded with “but isn’t that what Forbes does, bring in readers?  I think you should write about me so Forbes readers can become enlightened.  Why should I be asked to promote your column, isn’t that what you and Forbes do?”

Conclusions

It was completely unclear to me who was paying for these PR firms.  But to them, and to the hundreds of millennials who sent me Facebook, Linked-in and Twitter messages:

  1. Quit focusing on yourself and actually accomplish something.  Don’t be proud you’re a drop-out, go finish school.
  2. Listen more and talk less.  You really don’t have much that’s interesting to say.  Pay attention to those who are older, wiser and could help you reach your goals.  You need them, and most of them don’t need you.  You’re really not as interesting as you think you are.
  3. Get some education.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are my age – not yours.  Every generation needs more skills than the one before it.  Mark Zuckerberg is THE exception, not the rule.  Dropping out of Harvard did not make him great.  Before you decide you have all the answers, go learn what the questions are.  Learn how to think, how to reason, before you decide you know all that’s needed to take action.
  4. Quit living on subsidies.  If your parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles are paying for your rent, or car, or supplies then you still don’t understand basic economics.  Become self-sufficient.  Make enough money to buy your own new car, buy your own house, and pay 100% of your bills – and even enough that you could afford to raise children. Until you are self-reliant it is very hard to take you seriously as a business leader.
  5. Life is NOT a one-round event.  You are very likely to live 100 years.  Do you have the skills to maintain your lifestyle for that full 100 years? Quit crowing about the 1 success (by your definition) you’ve had so far and instead figure out how you’ll lead a productive 100 year existence.  You’re only 20% of the way there.

I hear folks say we need to advance millennials onto boards of directors for public companies.  Or fund their new ventures without business plans or traditional benchmarks. Or put them into highly placed positions of major corporations. I can’t agree with that.  From what I observed, millennials are similar to all other young people. They don’t know what they don’t know.  And only time, failures, successes, education (formal and informal) and hard work will prepare them to be tomorrow’s leaders.

I started my entrepreneurial life while a college junior.  I was lucky enough to hook up with several people at least a decade older, and they found investors that were a generation older.  The company made computer hardware, and largely due to good luck as well as hard work the company was successfull, and was sold for a great return to the investors and some money for the founders.  Simultaneously I completed my undergraduate degree in 4 years, summa cum laude. What made me most excited about that experience was not trying to be featured in any journal, but rather that the folks at the Harvard Business School felt this experience was good  enough to admit me to their institution to complete an MBA.  And there is no doubt in my mind that what I learned in college, and grad school, was incredibly important to generating a lifetime of ongoing business accomplishments – long after that first company disappeared into the dustbin of obsolete technology.

Starbucks Closing Teavana Is A Long-Term Troubling Sign For Investors

Starbucks Closing Teavana Is A Long-Term Troubling Sign For Investors

Amid all the political news last week it was easy to miss announcements in the business world.  Especially one that was relatively small, like Starbucks announcement on Thursday July 27, 2017 that it was closing all 379 of its Teavana stores.  While these will be missed by some product fanatics, the decision is almost immaterial given that these units represent only about 3% of Starbucks US stores, and about 1.5% of the 25,000 Starbucks globally.

Yet, closing Teavana is a telltale sign of concern for Starbucks investors.

Starbucks founding CEO Howard Schultz returned to the top job in January, 2008,  promising to get out of distractions such as music production, movie production, internet sales, grocery products, liquor products and even in-store food sales in order to return the company to its “core” coffee business.  Since then Starbucks valuation has risen some 5.5-6 fold, from $9.45/share to the recent range of $54 to $60 per share.  A much better return than the roughly doubling of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same timeframe.

Yet, one should take time to evaluate what this closing means for the long-term future of Starbucks.  This is the second time Starbucks made an acquisition only to shut it down.  In 2015 Starbucks closed all 23 La Boulange bakery cafes, with little fanfare.  Now, after paying $620M to buy Teavana in 2012, they are closing all those stores.  While leadership blamed its decision on declining mall visits (undoubtedly a fact) for the closures, Teavana is not missing goals due to the Amazon Effect.  There are multiple options for how to market Teavana’s fresh and packaged products far beyond mall store locations.  Choosing to close all stores indicates leadership has minimal interest in the brand.

Starbucks’ focus leaves little opportunity for new growth

Starbucks under construction. Photo by Jamie Lytle

It increasingly appears that today’s Starbucks literally isn’t interested, or able, to do anything other than build, and operate, more Starbucks stores.  And Starbucks is clearly doubling down on its plans to be Starbucks store-centric.  The company opened 575 new units in the last year, and announced plans to open more stores creating 68,000 additional US jobs in the next 5 years.  Further, Starbucks is paying $1.3B to buy the half of its China business previously owned by a partner.  Clearly, leadership continues to tighten company focus on the “core” coffee store business for the future.

This sounds great short-term, given how well things have gone the last 8 years.  But there are concerns.  Sales are up 4% last quarter, but that is wholly based upon higher prices.  Customer counts are flat, indicating that stores are not attracting new customers from competitors.  Sales gains are due to average ticket prices increasing 5%, which is marginal and likely refers to higher priced products.  Starbucks is now relying completely on new stores to create incremental growth, since bringing in new customers to existing stores is not happening.

Frequently this stagnant store sales metric indicates store saturation.  A bad sign.  Does the US, or international markets, really need more, new Starbucks stores?  It was 2010 when comedian Lewis Black had a successful viral rant (PG version) claiming that when he observed a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks he knew it was the end of civilization.

Lewis Black and Starbucks, end of universe rant

What happens when the market doesn’t need new Starbucks stores?

One does have to wonder when the maximum number of Starbucks will be reached.  Especially given the ever growing number of competitors in all markets. Direct competitors such as Caribou Coffee, The Coffee Bean, Seattle’s Best, Gloria Jean’s, Costa, Lavazza, Tully’s, Peet’s and literally dozens of chain and independent coffee shops are competing for Starbucks’ customers.  Simultaneously competition from low priced alternatives is emerging from brands like Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s, now catering more to coffee lovers.  And non-coffee fast casual shops are seeking to attract more people for congregating, such as Panera, Fuddruckers, Pei Wei, TGI Friday’s and others.  All of these are competitors, either directly or indirectly, for the customer dollars sought by Starbucks.  Are more Starbucks stores going to succeed?

As McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and other fast food chains learned the hard way, there comes a time when a brand has built all the market needs.  Then leadership has to figure out how to do something else.  McDonald’s invested heavily in Boston Market and Chipotle’s, but let those high growth operations go when it decided to refocus on its “core” hamburger business – leading to heavy valuation declines.  Starbucks is closing Teavana, but should it?  When will Starbucks saturate?  And what will Starbucks do to grow when that happens?

Starbucks has had a great run.  And that run appears not fully over.  But long-term investors have reason to worry.

Is it smart to make such a huge bet on China?
Will store growth successfully continue, with all the stores that already exist?
Will direct and indirect competitors eat away at market share?

What will Starbucks do when it has reached it market maximum, and it doesn’t seem to have any emerging new store concepts to build upon?

President Trump: The 5 Reasons You Are Not A Disruptive Leader And Instead Create Chaos

President Trump: The 5 Reasons You Are Not A Disruptive Leader And Instead Create Chaos

The news was filled this week with stories about President Trump’s “unorthodox” management style. From tweeting his thoughts on replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to tweeting his multiple positions on healthcare law changes, to hiring a new communications director who lets loose with expletive-laden rants, people have been left questioning what sort of leadership style President Trump is trying to display.

Donald Trump promised to be a “disruptive leader”

Donald Trump ran for office as an outsider who pledged to disrupt Washington politics.  This was a message well received by many people.  They felt that “business as usual” in national politics was not serving them well, so they wanted change.  To them a disruptor could find a way to steer national politics back onto a course that was more aligned with the conservative middle Americans.  These voters felt that a businessman entrepreneur just might be the kind of leader who could disrupt the status quo in order to get something done for them.

Unfortunately, things have not worked out that way.  And largely this can be traced to the leadership style of President Trump.  Rather than a dedicated disruptor, ready to implement change, President Trump has proven to be a chaos generator that has stymied progress on pretty nearly all issues.  Disruptions can lead to positive change.  Chaos leads to stagnation and degradation as the system searches for homeostasis and a path forward.

From early age, we are taught not to be disruptive.  Disrupting someone during school, religious ceremonies, entertainment events leads to distractions and an inability to remain focused on the goal.  Thus, we are mostly taught to listen, learn and do what we’re told.  However, we also recognize there is a time to be disruptive, because the act of intervening in the process at times can lead to far more positive outcomes than maintaining the course.

But it takes good judgement, and reasoned action, to be a positive disruptive influence.  If you are in a crowded theater and you recognize a blaze it is time to disrupt the stage presentation.  But you have a choice.  If you jump up and yell “fire” you will create chaos.  Everyone suddenly realizes a problem, but with no idea how to deal with it a thousand different solutions emerge simultaneously.  Everyone starts looking out for their own interest, and they trample those around them in an effort to implement their own plans.  Many people get hurt, and frequently the goal of saving everyone by disrupting the presentation is lost in carnage created by the bad disruption leading to chaos.

What is successful disruptive leadership?

So, if you sense a pending fire you are far smarter to develop a plan, such as activating the evacuation notices and opening the exits, prior to making an alert.  And then, instead of yelling “fire” you say to folks “an issue has developed, please make your way down the evacuation routes to the open exits while we deal with the situation.  Please remain calm so everyone can exit safely.”  Your disruption can lead to successful outcome, rather than chaos.

I’ve spent over 20 years focusing on how disruptions can lead to positive change.  And it is clear that with disruptive innovations, and disruptive business models, their success relies on leaders that understand how to implement disruptions effectively.  Leadership matters.

Disruptive leaders think very hard about their desired outcomes, and they go to great lengths to describe what those future, better outcomes will look like.  They then create a plan of action before they do anything.  While the innovation might well be known, they are very, very careful to think through how that innovation will be adopted, then nurtured to gain acceptance and hopefully become mainstream.  These leaders are very careful about their language choices, and where they communicate, in order to encourage people to accept their vision and join with their plan.  They seek adoption rather than confrontation, and they discuss the desired outcomes rather than the disruption itself.  They gain trust and build a consensus for change, and then they systematically roll out their plan, which they adjust as necessary to meet unexpected market conditions.  They gradually move people along the implementation route by relentlessly focusing on the better outcome and reducing the fear inherent in accepting the disruption.

Five ways Donald Trump fails as a successful disruptive leader:

  1. The President has not portrayed a superior outcome which he can use to rally people to his viewpoint.  Despite talking about “making America great again” there is no picture of what that looks like.  What is this future “great” America he envisions and wants us to buy into?  What are the poor outcomes of today that he will greatly improve, leading to vastly superior future outcomes?  Without a clear description of the future, it is hard to gain supporters.  For example, will changes in health care improve care?  Lower the cost? What are the benefits, the better outcomes, of change?  What is the benefit of replacing the sitting attorney general?
  2. The President has not laid out his plan for bringing people on board to his future. Look at the recent effort to implement new health care legislation. At times the President has said there is a need to repeal current legislation and replace it, but he has offered no description of what the replacement should look like.  At other times he has said to repeal current legislation, but he has offered no insight into how that would lead to better outcomes than the current legislation provides.  At yet other times he has said to do nothing, and he expressed his hope that current legislation would fail even though he admitted this would lead to an outcome far worse than the status quo.  By not creating a plan, and bringing people on board to his plan, he has created chaos in the legislative process.
  3. President’s Trumps messages are built on negative language, not positive language about the future. His messages are long on how some person or current situation is weak, rather than explaining what a strong future would look like. He frequently attacks his predecessor, or his former electoral opponent, but does little to say what is good about his Presidency or recommendations or what he is specifically going to do that will create better outcomes.  He frequently talks about firing people in his administration, but talks little about the specifics of what good work people in his administration are doing.  These language choices are exclusive, not inclusive, and they create chaos among those who work in his administration, and members of Congress.  Instead of understanding the President’s goals and objectives people are wondering “what will he say next?”  And by appointing a communications director who uses outrageous, unacceptable and incendiary language he further exacerbates the problem of everyone losing any insight to his message because we are stunned and amazed at the choice of language.
  4. President Trump has the ability to communicate from the most Presidential locations. He can provide TV, radio and internet addresses from the oval office, or the White House platform. He can invite media in for press conferences or interviews to discuss his goals and ambitions, plans and pending decisions.  Or he can make himself, or his staff, available for press interviews.  And while he does some of this, we all spend every day wondering what Tweet he will send over the Twitter social network next.  Several million people use Twitter. It is for social exchange.  For the President to announce policy positions (such as banning transgenders from military service) or evaluations of key subordinates (such as referring to the attorney general as weak) or military policy (such as opining on the potential retribution toward North Korea) via Twitter belies the nature of the office and his role.  His selection of communication venues only serves to make his comments less valuable, rather than more important.
  5. President Trump neither remains consistent in his communications, nor does he exert loyalty. Changes on health care and denouncing his own staff does not create trust. How are people in the legislature, regulatory agencies or military going to become advocates for his goals when they don’t know if he can be trusted to support their actions, or support them as employees?  If you want people to take a different course of action, to let go of the status quo, they have to trust you.  Disruptive leaders time and again must state their positions with clarity and demonstrate support for those who do their best to promote the disruptive agenda.  They battle fear of the future with clarity around their support for future outcomes those who help describe how the future will be better.

There are times for disruptive leadership.  Status quo models become outdated, and outcomes decline as a result.  Change offers the opportunity for better outcomes, and helping people migrate to new innovations helps them toward a better future.  But implementing innovation and change requires skill at being a disruptive leader.  If the process is bungled, you can look like the guy who started a deadly rampage by yelling “fire” when a more reasoned approach would have prevailed.  If you don’t follow the best practices of disruptive leadership, you will create chaos.

What The NBA All-Star Game Venue Change Teaches Us About Decision-Making

Leaders like to be deciders. Most leaders think of themselves as decision makers. In 2006 President George Bush, defending Donald Rumsfeld as his Defense Secretary said “I am the Decider.  I decide what’s best.” It earned him the nickname “Decider-in-Chief.” Most CEOs echo this sentiment. Most leaders like to define themselves by their decisions.

But whether a decision is good or not is open to interpretation. Often immediately after a decision things may look great. It might appear as if that decision was obvious. And often decisions quickly make a lot of people happy.

As we enter the most intense part of the U.S. presidential election, both candidates are eager to tell potential voters what decisions they have made – and what decisions they will make if elected. And most people will look no further than the immediate expected impact of those decisions.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File

It takes time to determine the quality of any decision.

However, the quality of most decisions is not based on the immediate, or obvious, first implications. Rather, the quality of a decision is discovered over time, as the consequences are revealed – intended and unintended. Because quite often, what looked good at first can turn out to be very, very bad.

The people of North Carolina passed a law to control the use of public bathrooms. Most people of the state thought this was a good idea, including the governor. But some didn’t like the law, and many spoke up. Last week the NBA decided that it would cancel its All-Star game scheduled in Charlotte due to discrimination issues caused by this law. This change will cost Charlotte about $100 million.

 That action by the NBA is what’s called unintended consequences. Lawmakers didn’t really consider that the NBA might decide to take its business elsewhere due to this state legislation. It’s what some people call, “Oops. I didn’t think about that when I made my decision.”

Often unintended consequences are more important than first reactions to decisions.

Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, was a staunch supporter of unions. In his book Locked in the Cabinet, he tells the story of visiting an auto plant in Oklahoma supporting the local union. He thought his support would incent the company’s leaders to negotiate more favorably. Instead, the company closed the plant. Laid-off everyone. Oops. The unintended consequences of what he thought was obvious support led to the worst possible worker outcome.

President Obama worked Congress hard to create the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for everyone in America. One intention was to make sure employers covered all their workers, so the law required that if an employer had health care for any workers he had to offer that health care to all employees who worked over 30 hours per week. So almost all employers of part time workers suddenly said that none could work more than 30 hours. Those that worked 32 (four days per week) or 36 suddenly had their hours cut. Now those lower-income people not only had no health care, but less money in their pay envelopes. Oops. Unintended consequence.

President Reagan and his First Lady launched the “War on Drugs.” How could that be a bad thing? Illegal drugs are dangerous, as is the supply chain. But now, some 30 years later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that almost half (46.3% or over 85,000) of inmates are there on drug charges. The U.S. now spends $51 billion annually on this drug war, which is about 20% more than is spent on the real war being waged with Afghanistan, Iraq and ISIS.  There are now over 1.5 million arrests each year, with 83% of those merely for possession. Oops. Unintended consequences. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

This is why it is so important leaders take their time to make thoughtful decisions, often with the input of many other people. Because the quality of a decision is not measured by how one views it immediately. Rather, the value is decided over time as the opportunity arises to observe the unintended consequences, and their impact. The best decisions are those in which the future consequences are identified, discussed and made part of the planning – so they aren’t unintended and the “decider” isn’t running around saying “oops.”

Think hard about the long-term complications of any decision.

As you listen to the politicians this cycle, keep in mind what could be the unintended consequences of implementing what they say:

  • What would be the social impact, and transfer of wealth, from suddenly forgiving all student loans?
  • What would be the consequences on trade, and jobs, of not supporting historical government trade agreements?
  • What would be the consequences on national security of not supporting historically allied governments?
  • What would be the long-term consequence of not allowing visitors based on race, religion or sexual orientation?
  • What would be the consequence of not repaying the government’s bonds?
  • What would be the long-term impact on economic growth of higher regulations on banks – that already have seen dramatic increases in regulation slowing the recovery?
  • What would be the long-term consequences on food production, housing and lifestyles of failing to address global warming?

Business leaders should be very aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. Every time a decision is necessary, is the best effort made to obtain all the information available on the topic? Are inputs and expectations obtained from detractors, as well as admirers? Is there a balance between not only what is popular, but what will happen months into the future? Did you consider the potential reaction by customers? Employees? Suppliers? Competitors?

There are very few “perfect decisions.” All decisions have consequences. Often, there is a trade-off between the good outcomes, and the bad outcomes. But the key is to know them all, and balance the interests and outcomes. Consider the consequences, good and bad, and plan for them. Only by doing that can you avoid later saying “oops.”

Why Amazon Echo Is Killing It While Windows Phone Is Dead — Developers Are What Matters

Why Amazon Echo Is Killing It While Windows Phone Is Dead — Developers Are What Matters

Amazon just had another record Prime Day, with sales up 60%.  And the #1 product sold was Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker. At $34.99 it surpassed last year’s unit sales by seven-fold.  And the traditional Echo speaker, marked down 50% to $90, broke all previous sales records.

Amazon just took a commanding lead in the voice assistant platform market

These Echo sales most likely sealed Amazon’s long-term leadership in the war to be the #1 voice assistant.  Amazon already has 70% market share in voice activated speakers, nearly 3 times #2 provider Google.  And all other vendors in total barely have 5% share.

While it may seem like digital speakers are no big deal, speaker sales are analogous to iPhone sales when evaluating the emergence of smartphones and apps.  The iPhone seemed like a small segment until it became clear smartphones were the new personal technology platform. Apple’s early lead allowed iOS to dominate the growth cycle, making the company intensely profitable.

Echo and Echo Dot aren’t just speakers, but interfaces to voice activated virtual assistants.  For Echo the platform is Amazon’s Alexa.  Alexa is to voice activated devices and applications what iOS was to Smartphones.  By talking to Alexa customers are able to do many things, such as shopping, altering their thermostats, opening and closing doors, raising and lowering blinds, recording people in their homes — the list is endless.  And as that list grows customers are buying more Alexa devices to gain greater productivity and enhanced lifestyle.  Echos are entering more homes, and multiplying across rooms in these homes.

Do you remember when early iPhone ads touted “there’s an app for that?” That tagline told customers if they changed from a standard mobile phone to a smartphone there were a lot of advantages, measured by the number of available apps.  Just like iOS apps gave an advantage to owning an iPhone, Alexa skills give an advantage to owning Echo products. In the last year the number of skills available for Alexa has exploded, growing from 135 to 15,000.   Quite obviously developers are building on Alexa much faster than any other voice assistant.

By radically cutting the price of both Echo Dot and Echo, and promoting sales, Amazon is creating an installed base of units which encourages developers to write even more skills/apps.

The more Alexa devices are installed, the more likely developers will write additional skills for Alexa. As more devices lead to more skills, skills leads to more Alexa/Echo capability, which encourages more people to buy Alexa activated devices, which further encourages even more skills development.  It’s a virtuous circle of goodness, all leading to more Amazon growth.

For marketers it is important to realize that success really doesn’t correlate with how “good” Alexa works.  Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana perform better at voice recognition and providing appropriate responses than Alexa and Siri.  But there are relatively few (almost no) devices in the marketplace built with Assistant or Cortana as the interface.  Developers need their skills/apps to be on platforms customers use.  If customers are buying speakers, thermostats and televisions that are embedded with Alexa, then developers will write for Alexa.  Even if it has shortcomings. It’s not the product quality that determines the winner, but rather the ability to create a base of users.

It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker.  Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales.  By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.

amazon echo

 

It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker.  Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales.  By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.

This is a horrible problem for Google, #2 in this market, because Google does not have the retail clout to place millions of their speakers (and other devices) in the market.  Google is not a device company, nor a powerful retailer of Android devices.  The Android device makers need to profit from their devices, so they cannot afford to sell devices unprofitably in order to build an installed base for Google.  And because Android’s platform is not applied consistently across device manufacturers, Google Assistant skills cannot be assured of operating on every Android phone.  All of which makes the decision to build Google Assistant skills problematic for developers.

Can Apple Stop the Alexa juggernaut?

The game is not over.  Apple would like customers to use Siri on their iPhones to accomplish what Amazon and Alexa do with Echo.  Apple has an enormous iPhone base, and all have Siri embedded.  Perhaps Apple can encourage developers to create Siri-integrated apps which will beat back the Amazon onslaught?

Today, Apple customers still cannot use Siri to control their Apple TV (Though as of August, 2017, it’s been improved.), or make payments with ApplePay, for example. Nor can iPhone users tell Siri to execute commands for remote systems which are controlled by apps, like unlocking doors, turning on appliances, shooting remote security video or placing an on-line order. Apple has a lot of devices, and apps, but so far Siri is not integrated in a way that allows voice activation like can be done with Alexa.

apple tv and siri image

Additionally, as big as the iPhone installed base has become, when comparing markets the actual raw number of speakers could catch up with iPhones.  Echo Dot is $35.  The cheapest iPhone is the SE, at $399 (on the Apple site although available from Best Buy at $160.)  And an iPhone 7 starts at $650.  The huge untapped Apple markets, such as China and India, will find it a lot easier to purchase low cost speakers than iPhones, especially if their focus is to use some of those 15,000 skills.  And because of the low pricing ($35 to $90) it is easy to buy multiple devices for multiple locations in one’s home or office.

Will we look back and call Echo a Disruptive Innovation?

Innovators Dilemma chart

Innovator’s Dilemma

Recall the wisdom of Clayton Christensen‘s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” The incumbent keeps improving their product, hoping to maintain a capability lead over the competition.  But eventually the incumbent far overshoots customer needs, developing a product that is overly enhanced.  The disruptive innovator enters the market with a considerably “less good” product, but it meets customer needs at a much lower price.  People buy the cheaper product to meet their limited goal, and bypass the more capable but more expensive early market leader.

Doesn’t this sound remarkably similar to the development of iPhones (now on version 8 and expected to sell at over $1,000) compared with a $35 speaker that is far less capable, but still does 15,000 interesting things?

The biggest loser in this new market is Microsoft

This week Microsoft announced another 1,500 layoffs in what has become an annual bloodletting ritual for the PC software giant.  But even worse was the announcement that Microsoft would no longer support any version of Windows Phone OS version 8.1 or older – which is 80% of the Windows Phone market.  Given that Microsoft has less than 2% market share, and that less than .4% of the installed smartphone base operates on Windows Phone, killing support for these phones will lead to sales declines.  This action, along with gutting the internal developer team last year, clearly  indicates Microsoft has given up on the phone business for good.  This means that now Microsoft has no device platform for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, to use.

Microsoft ignored smartphones, allowing Apple’s iOS to become the early standard.  Apple rapidly grew its installed base. Microsoft could not convince developers to write for Windows Phone because there weren’t enough devices in the market.  Without a phone base, with tablet and hybrid sales flat to declining, and with PC sales in the gutter Cortana enters the market DOA (Dead On Arrival.)  Even if it were the best voice assistant on the planet developers will not create skills for Cortana because there are no devices out there using Cortana as the interface.

So Microsoft completely missed yet another market. This time the market for voice activated devices in the smart phone, smart car or any other smart device in the IoT marketplace.  It missed mobile, and now it has missed voice assist.  As PC sales decline, Microsoft’s only hope is to somehow emerge a big winner in cloud storage and services (IaaS or Infrastructure as a Service) with Azure.  But, Azure was a late-comer to the cloud market and is far behind Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services.)  Amazon has +40% market share, which is 40% more than the share of Microsoft, Google and IBM combined.

Build the base and developers will come…

10 Great Lessons From Millennial Entrepreneurs

10 Great Lessons From Millennial Entrepreneurs

There has been a lot of press about Millennial entrepreneurs the last 2 years. Young folks – mostly boys – dropping out of high school to start their own businesses at ages as young as 15. One of these, Noah Miller, who started a sports web site at 15 and later a creative agency asked to join my network on Linked-in. Then he asked me to look into the topic of young entrepreneurs and see what lessons we could learn.

1 – If you are really good at something at a young age, continue to work at it

Ben Pasternak liked gaming, and he liked apps. So at 15 he wrote a game-like app and put it on iTunes. 1.3million downloads later he was a young superstar. Since then he’s created two more apps (Flogg and Monkey.) His young hobby led to building strong programming skills, which when linked to identifying what appeals to Millenials turned into apps people really use.

George Matus started flying drones at age 12. He loved it so much he started modifying drones, and building his own. He published videos of his exploits on YouTube, and convinced drone makers to let him be a tester. After 6 years of working on Drones he now has his own Peter Thiel funded company making drones. So far no products on the market, but he is working at it.

Whether iOS apps or drones will be a long-term career is hard to say. But by building strong skills in new technologies with large markets and high growth rates these fellows created business opportunities. You don’t have to be a Millenial to do that.

2 – Take advantage of trends while they are hot

Collecting sneakers is a remarkably big market. Most older folks would call it a fad, thinking nobody will collect sneakers for long. But, it doesn’t really matter if a trend is going to be long-lived, or not, if you are willing to jump in and help push the trend along.

Fifteen year old Ben Kapelushnik liked sneakers. He wanted money to buy more. So he started buying multiple pairs of collectible sneakers and selling the “extra” pairs at a profit. To grow he networked with sneaker sellers to figure out how he could get in line early and buy many pair. Then he networked hard as he could to find associations with big time sneaker collectors, like rappers and other creative artists. Now he has a business buying and selling sneakers. How long will the fad last? Who knows – but Ben is making money by taking advantage of a hot trend.

Connor O’Neil saw the same phenomenon. He thought “why don’t I go source things people want?” So he created a web site where buyers can request he source sneakers, T-shirts and other items. He then searches the web, sourcing the items manually and with bots that will make instantaneous purchases of hard to find items.  He charges customers a fee to find what they want. By meeting customer needs for trendy items, he finds an opportunity for profit.

At 16 Casey Adams started networking on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  After he built up a following of several thousand followers he began offering them t-shirts and wristbands.  Pretty soon he was generating $5k/month in revenue.  While many older folks still think social media, and Snapchat in particular, is a time-waster, Casey is making money on the obvious trend toward all things social.  He’s leveraging his social network to sell things – and teaching other people how to do the same.

Are Bitcoins long-term currency? Will crypto-currency replace things like Dollars and Euros? Most older generation folks don’t think so, and view this as another fad.  But Erik Finman saw the trend at age 12, and started buying Bitcoins.  A few trades later and he turned $1,000 into $100,000.  A few more trades and Finman had a stash worth over $1,000,000.  Are Bitcoins the next Tulip bulbs?  You can research the economists for opinions on that.  But as long as the trend is growing, Erik Finman is making money.

bitcoins
facebook ad and teen

Peter Szabo was only 12 when he used a Google search to identify ways to make money on the internet.  He discovered making Facebook ads for affiliates could pay off – in pennies at first, but as volume rose these became dollars.  Since so few older people knew how to manage a Facebook ad budget, by age 18 he created an on-line agency focused on maximizing value (and return) for Facebook advertising.  You don’t have to be a Millennial to recognize the growth of new platforms and help people use them to make money.

3 – There has never been a better time to be a self-promoter

Today anyone can claim to be “great” at anything using the web.  There are so few genuine ways to measure quality and results when it comes to anything on the web that if you say it enough, and find enough testimonials, you can be very convincing.

Noah Miller started a sports web site at age 15 using a group of writers he amassed via Twitter connections.  Sports Crave had some success with USAToday and Google before Noah closed it at age 17.  Based on his claims of great success he’s now promoting his new creative agency, Colour Medium, which has nothing more than a flash page.  But the web allows Noah to position himself at the forefront of creative.

Benji Taylor at age 18 has opened a new on-line creative agency named Next Exit focused on art for the music industry.  By forging relationships with known young musicians he has positioned his agency at the top of the creative spectrum for his target customers.  Given how fast musicians come and go in the limelight, who knows how long his testimonials will stand up.  But as long as people know the name of those who know his name he is leveraging those associations to crown himself the king of that industry.

 

Eighteen year old Josh King Madrid, known as Jet, has built a business on seemingly nothing more than a lifestyle.  It is wholly unclear if Jet has ever actually created a profitable business selling anything physical or digital.  But what he has done is convince lots of Millenials that he knows the lifestyle they want to lead, and he can tell them how to lead it.  So now, largely without any clear source of how he obtained any knowledge about succeeding at business, he is proselytizing how young people can be independent, self-actualized and living the “Jet Set” lifestyle at his events.  Jet is one of the best descriptions of how self-promotion can succeed in today’s social-media world, leading people to believe they should listen to you primarily because of the image you portray.

Overall Lessons from these 10 under 20 entrepreneurs

There is precious little to support the grandiose success claims of most Millennial entrepreneurs.  They claim huge revenues and wealth, but in most cases it is impossible to prove their claims, and most support comes down to number of followers, or testimonials of some celebrity.  But, that does not mean we can’t learn from what they did to achieve their current fame:

  1. Use social media exhaustively.  Over-communicate.  Use Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. over and over and over to communicate your value and your message.  These platforms are dirt cheap, so hard work there can make up for few dollars.
  2. Take big risks, especially if you have little to lose.  Most folks are hamstrung by the commitments of family, mortgage, car payments, etc.  If you remove these bindings you can take big risks, like rolling over thousands of dollars worth of crypto-currency.  And if something fails, never call it a failure.  Just a learning experience you’ve moved beyond.
  3. Don’t try to improve something that already exists.  Do something new.  Develop a new app, a new drone, a site focused on selling collectible sneakers.  It is cheaper, and more likely to succeed, if you are an early entrant in something new and growing.
  4. Hype is good.  Pre-announce everything.  And announce that your next thing (whether a drone, a web site, an exchange site or something else) is going to be HUGE.  It will be the VERY BEST EVER.  Do not be deterred by feeling the need to prove any of your claims, just make big claims with tremendous bravado.
  5. Take credit for anything that goes right.  None of these people ever say they were lucky.  Whatever went right was always do to their inherent insight, skill or genius.
  6. Stay out of specifics.  Talk in platitudes.  Especially statements that appeal to other Millenials.
  • “Live your own life if you want to succeed.”
  • “Believe in yourself 1,000%.  That’s what truly matters.”
  • “Don’t trust employers or education. Trust only yourself.”
  • “Self-education is better than schools.  You can learn more on YouTube than any classroom. Teachers are nay-sayers.”
  • “Do what you are passionate about.”
  • “Millennials are special.  Millennials are smarter and better than older people.”
  1. Select good parents.  I was struck by the fact that almost all these young people had parents and/or grandparents that were physicians, PhDs, successful real estate developers, successful business people.   There is no doubt they benefited at their young age from families that had resources and skills that are not available to the vast majority of folks.

Is ongoing success pre-ordained?

I remember the student counsel President of my school, Mr. Popularity, who dropped out of college to open a string of pizza shops.  He received ample praise and publicity for his young entrepreneurial success.  But after a few setbacks the pizza shops failed, he took work as a salesman for a liquor distributor, became an alcoholic and lost his family.  I was glad he found success early, and saddened that he wasn’t the wunderkind many people foisted upon him.

Life is not a one round fight.  It will be interesting to see who among these, if any, go on to do great things in business, politics or another arena.  While they are full of chutzpah today, life has a way of throwing many derailing curves into everyone’s path.  But…

…that does not mean their early success can’t teach us some important lessons that can be applied, regardless of our age.