Poke’Mon Go is a new sensation. Just launched on July 6, the app is already the #1 app in the world – and it isn’t even available in most countries. In less than 2 weeks, from a standing start, Nintendo’s new app is more popular than both Facebook and Snapchat. Based on this success, Nintendo’s equity valuation has jumped 90% in this same short time period.
Some think this is just a fad, after all it is just 2 weeks old. Candy Crush came along and it seemed really popular. But after initial growth its user base stalled and the valuation fell by about 50% as growth in users, time on app and income all fell short of expectations. And, isn’t the world of gaming dominated by the likes of Sony and Microsoft?
A bit of history
Nintendo launched the Wii in 2006 and it was a sensation. Gamers could do things not previously possible. Unit sales exceeded 20m units/year for 2006 through 2009. But Sony (PS4) and Microsoft (Xbox) both powered up their game consoles and started taking share from Nintendo. By 2011 Nintendo sale were down to 11.6m units, and in 2012 sales were off another 50%. The Wii console was losing relevance as competitors thrived.
Sony and Microsoft both invested heavily in their competition. Even though both were unprofitable at the business, neither was ready to concede the market. In fall, 2014 Microsoft raised the competitive ante, spending $2.5B to buy the maker of popular game Minecraft. Nintendo was becoming a market afterthought.
Meanwhile, back in 2009 Nintendo had 70% of the handheld gaming market with its 3DS product. But people started carrying the more versatile smartphones that could talk, text, email, execute endless apps and even had a lot of games – like Tetrus. The market for handheld games pretty much disappeared, dealing Nintendo another blow.
Competitor strategic errors
Fortunately, the bitter “fight to the death” war between Sony and Microsoft kept both focused on their historical game console business. Both kept investing in making the consoles more powerful, with more features, supporting more intense, lifelike games. Microsoft went so far as to implement in Windows 10 the capability for games to be played on Xbox and PCs, even though the PC gaming market had not grown in years. These massive investments were intended to defend their installed base of users, and extend the platform to attract new growth to the traditional, nearly 4 decade old market of game consoles that extends all the way back to Atari.
Both companies did little to address the growing market for mobile gaming. The limited power of mobile devices, and the small screens and poor sound systems made mobile seem like a poor platform for “serious gaming.” While game apps did come out, these were seen as extremely limited and poor quality, not at all competitive to the Sony or Microsoft products. Yes, theoretically Windows 10 would make gaming possible on a Microsoft phone. But the company was not putting investment there. Mobile gaming was simply not serious, and not of interest to the two Goliaths slugging it out for market share.
Building on trends makes all the difference
Back in 2014 I recognized that the console gladiator war was not good for either big company, and recommended Microsoft exit the market. Possibly seeing if Nintendo would take the business in order to remove the cash drain and distraction from Microsoft. Fortunately for Nintendo, that did not happen.
Nintendo observed the ongoing growth in mobile gaming. While Candy Crush may have been a game ignored by serious gamers, it nonetheless developed a big market of users who loved the product. Clearly this demonstrated there was an under-served market for mobile gaming. The mobile trend was real, and it’s gaming needs were unmet.
Simultaneously Nintendo recognized the trend to social. People wanted to play games with other people. And, if possible, the game could bring people together. Even people who don’t know each other. Rather than playing with unseen people located anywhere on the globe, in a pre-organized competition, as console games provided, why not combine the social media elements of connecting with those around you to play a game? Make it both mobile, and social. And the basics of Poke’Mon Go were born.
Then, build out the financial model. Don’t charge to play the game. But once people are in the game charge for in-game elements to help them be more successful. Just as Facebook did in its wildly successful social media game Farmville. The more people enjoyed meeting other people through the game, and the more they played, the more they would buy in-app, or in-game, elements. The social media aspect would keep them wanting to stay connected, and the game is the tool for remaining connected. So you use mobile to connect with vastly more people and draw them together, then social to keep them playing – and spending money.
The underserved market is vastly larger than the over-served market
Nintendo recognized that the under-served mobile gaming market is vastly larger than the overserved console market. Those console gamers have ever more powerful machines, but they are in some ways over-served by all that power. Games do so much that many people simply don’t want to take the time to learn the games, or invest in playing them sitting in a home or office. For many people who never became serious gaming hobbyists, the learning and intensity of serious gaming simply left them with little interest.
But almost everyone has a mobile phone. And almost everyone does some form of social media. And almost everyone enjoys a good game. Give them the right game, built on trends, to catch their attention and the number of potential customers is – literally – in the billions. And all they have to do is download the app. No expensive up-front cost, not much learning, and lots of fun. And thus in two weeks you have millions of new users. Some are traditional gamers. But many are people who would never be a serious gamer – they don’t want a new console or new complicated game. People of all ages and backgrounds could become immediate customers.
David can beat Goliath if you use trends
In the Biblical story, smallish David beat the giant Goliath by using a sling. His new technology allowed him to compete from far enough away that Goliath couldn’t reach David. And David’s tool allowed for delivering a fatal blow without ever touching the giant. The trend toward using tools for hunting and fighting allowed the younger, smaller competitor to beat the incumbent giant.
In business trends are just as important. Any competitor can study trends, see what people want, and then expand their thinking to discover a new way to compete. Nintendo lost the console war, and there was little value in spending vast sums to compete with Sony and Microsoft toe-to-toe. Nintendo saw the mobile game market disintegrate as smartphones emerged. It could have become a footnote in history.
But, instead Nintendo’s leaders built on trends to deliver a product that filled an unmet need – a game that was mobile and social. By meeting that need Nintendo has avoided direct competition, and found a way to dramatically grow its revenues. This is a story about how any competitor can succeed, if they learn how to leverage trends to bring out new products for under-served customers, and avoid costly gladiator competition trying to defend and extend past products.
This week Starbucks and JPMorganChase announced they were raising the minimum pay of many hourly employees. For about 168,000 lowly paid employees, this is really good news. And both companies played up the planned pay increases as benefitting not only the employees, but society at large. The JPMC CEO, Jamie Dimon, went so far as to say this was a response to a national tragedy of low pay and insufficient skills training now being addressed by the enormous bank.
However, both actions look a lot more like reacting to undeniable trends in an effort to simply keep their organizations functioning than any sort of corporate altruism.
Since 2014 there has been an undeniable trend toward raising the minimum wage, now set nationally at $7.25. Fourteen states actually raised their minimum wage starting in 2016 (Massachusetts, California, New York, Nebraska, Connecticut, Michigan, Hawaii, Colorado, Nebraska, Vermont, West Virginia, South Dakota, Rhode Island and Alaska.) Two other states have ongoing increases making them among the states with fastest growing minimum wages (Maryland and Minnesota.) And there are 4 additional states that promoters of a $15 minimum wage think will likely pass within months (Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.) That makes 20 states raising the minimum wage, with 46.4% of the U.S. population. And they include 5 of the largest cities in the USA that have already mandated a $15 minimum wage (New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.)
In other words, the minimum wage is going up. And decisively so in heavily populated states with big cities where Starbucks and JPMC have lots of employees. And the jigsaw puzzle of different state requirements is actually a threat to any sort of corporate compensation plan that would attempt to treat employees equally for common work. Simultaneously the unemployment rate keeps dropping – now below 5% – causing it to take longer to fill open positions than at any time in the last 15+ years. Simply put, to meet local laws, find and retain decent employees, and have any sort of equitable compensation across regions both companies had no choice but to take action to raise the pay for these bottom-level jobs.
Starbucks pointed out that this will increase pay by 5-15% for its 150,000 employees. But at least 8.5% of those employees had already signed a petition demanding higher pay. Time will tell if this raise is enough to keep the stores open and the coffee hot. However, the price increases announced the very next day will probably be more meaningful for the long term revenues and profits at Starbucks than this pay raise.
At JPMC the average pay increase is about $4.10/hour – from $10.15 to $12-$16.50/hour. Across all 18,000 affected employees, this comes to about $153.5million of incremental cost. Heck, the total payroll of these 18,000 employees is only $533.5M (after raises.) Let’s compare that to a few other costs at JPMC:
Wow, compared to these one-off instances, the recent pay raises seem almost immaterial. While there is probably great sincerity on the part of these CEOs for improving the well being of their employees, and society, the money here really isn’t going to make any difference to larger issues. For example, the JPMC CEO’s 2015 pay of $27M is about the same as 900 of these lowly paid employees. Thus the impact on the bank’s financials, and the impact on income inequality, is — well — let’s say we have at least added one drop to the bucket.
The good news is that both companies realize they cannot fight trends. So they are taking actions to help shore up employment. That will serve them well competitively. And some folks are getting a long-desired pay raise. But neither action is going to address the real problems of income inequality.
My last column focused on growth, and the risks inherent in a Growth stall. As I mentioned then, Apple will enter a Growth Stall if its revenue declines year-over-year in the current quarter. This forecasts Apple has only a 7% probability of consistently growing just 2%/year in the future.
This usually happens when a company falls into Defend & Extend (D&E) management. D&E management is when the bulk of management attention, and resources, flow into protecting the “core” business by seeking ways to use sustaining innovations (rather than disruptive innovations) to defend current customers and extend into new markets. Unfortunately, this rarely leads to high growth rates, and more often leads to compressed margins as growth stalls. Instead of working on breakout performance products, efforts are focused on ways to make new versions of old products that are marginally better, faster or cheaper.
Using the D&E lens, we can identify what looks like a sea change in Apple’s strategy.
For example, Apple’s CEO has trumpeted the company’s installed base of 1B iPhones, and stated they will be a future money maker. He bragged about the 20% growth in “services,” which are iPhone users taking advantage of Apple Music, iCloud storage, Apps and iTunes. This shows management’s desire to extend sales to its “installed base” with sustaining software innovations. Unfortunately, this 20% growth was a whopping $1.2B last quarter, which was 2.4% of revenues. Not nearly enough to make up for the decline in “core” iPhone, iPad or Mac sales of approximately $9.5B.
Apple has also been talking a lot about selling in China and India. Unfortunately, plans for selling in India were at least delayed, if not thwarted, by a decision on the part of India’s regulators to not allow Apple to sell low cost refurbished iPhones in the country. Fearing this was a cheap way to dispose of e-waste they are pushing Apple to develop a low-cost new iPhone for their market. Either tactic, selling the refurbished products or creating a cheaper version, are efforts at extending the “core” product sales at lower margins, in an effort to defend the historical iPhone business. Neither creates a superior product with new features, functions or benefits – but rather sustains traditional product sales.
Of even greater note was last week’s announcement that Apple inked a partnership with SAP to develop uses for iPhones and iPads built on the SAP ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) platform. This announcement revealed that SAP would ask developers on its platform to program in Swift in order to support iOS devices, rather than having a PC-first mentality.
This announcement builds on last year’s similar announcement with IBM. Now 2 very large enterprise players are building applications on iOS devices. This extends the iPhone, a product long thought of as great for consumers, deeply into enterprise sales. A market long dominated by Microsoft. With these partnerships Apple is growing its developer community, while circumventing Microsoft’s long-held domain, promoting sales to companies as well as individuals.
And Apple has shown a willingness to help grow this market by introducing the iPhone 6se which is smaller and cheaper in order to obtain more traction with corporate buyers and corporate employees who have been iPhone resistant. This is a classic market extension intended to sustain sales with more applications while making no significant improvements in the “core” product itself.
And Apple’s CEO has said he intends to make more acquisitions – which will surely be done to shore up weaknesses in existing products and extend into new markets. Although Apple has over $200M of cash it can use for acquisitions, unfortunately this tactic can be a very difficult way to actually find new growth. Each would be targeted at some sort of market extension, but like Beats the impact can be hard to find.
Remember, after all revenue gains and losses were summed, Apple’s revenue fell $7.6B last quarter. Let’s look at some favorite analyst acquisition targets to explain:
- Box could be a great acquisition to help bring more enterprise developers to Apple. Box is widely used by enterprises today, and would help grow where iCloud is weak. IBM has already partnered with Box, and is working on applications in areas like financial services. Box is valued at $1.45B, so easily affordable. But it also has only $300M of annual revenue. Clearly Apple would have to unleash an enormous development program to have Box make any meaningful impact in a company with over $500B of revenue. Something akin of Instagram’s growth for Facebook would be required. But where Instagram made Facebook a pic (versus words) site, it is unclear what major change Box would bring to Apple’s product lines.
- Fitbit is considered a good buy in order to put some glamour and growth onto iWatch. Of course, iWatch already had first year sales that exceeded iPhone sales in its first year. But Apple is now so big that all numbers have to be much bigger in order to make any difference. With a valuation of $3.7B Apple could easily afford FitBit. But FitBit has only $1.9B revenue. Given that they are different technologies, it is unclear how FitBit drives iWatch growth in any meaningful way – even if Apple converted 100% of Fitbit users to the iWatch. There would need to be a “killer app” in development at FitBit that would drive $10B-$20B additional annual revenue very quickly for it to have any meaningful impact on Apple.
- GoPro is seen as a way to kick up Apple’s photography capabilities in order to make the iPhone more valuable – or perhaps developing product extensions to drive greater revenue. At a $1.45B valuation, again easily affordable. But with only $1.6B revenue there’s just not much oomph to the Apple top line. Even maximum Apple Store distribution would probably not make an enormous impact. It would take finding some new markets in industry (enterprise) to build on things like IoT to make this a growth engine – but nobody has said GoPro or Apple have any innovations in that direction. And when Amazon tried to build on fancy photography capability with its FirePhone the product was a flop.
- Tesla is seen as the savior for the Apple Car – even though nobody really knows what the latter is supposed to be. Never mind the actual business proposition, some just think Elon Musk is the perfect replacement for the late Steve Jobs. After all the excitement for its products, Tesla is valued at only $28.4B, so again easily affordable by Apple. And the thinking is that Apple would have plenty of cash to invest in much faster growth — although Apple doesn’t invest in manufacturing and has been the king of outsourcing when it comes to actually making its products. But unfortunately, Tesla has only $4B revenue – so even a rapid doubling of Tesla shipments would yield a mere 1.6% increase in Apple’s revenues.
- In a spree, Apple could buy all 4 companies! Current market value is $35B, so even including a market premium $55B-$60B should bring in the lot. There would still be plenty of cash in the bank for growth. But, realize this would add only $8B of annual revenue to the current run rate – barely 25% of what was needed to cover the gap last quarter – and less than 2% incremental growth to the new lower run rate (that magic growth percentage to pull out of a Growth Stall mentioned earlier in this column.)
Such acquisitions would also be problematic because all have P/E (price/earnings) ratios far higher than Apple’s 10.4. FitBit is 24, GoPro is 43, and both Box and Tesla are infinite because they lose money. So all would have a negative impact on earnings per share, which theoretically should lower Apple’s P/E even more.
Acquisitions get the blood pumping for investment bankers and media folks alike – but, truthfully, it is very hard to see an acquisition path that solves Apple’s revenue problem.
All of Apple’s efforts big efforts today are around sustaining innovations to defend & extend current products. No longer do we hear about gee whiz innovations, nor do we hear about growth in market changing products like iBeacons or ApplePay. Today’s discussions are how to rejuvenate sales of products that are several versions old. This may work. Sales may recover via growth in India, or a big pick-up in enterprise as people leave their PCs behind. It could happen, and Apple could avoid its Growth Stall.
But investors have the right to be concerned. Apple can grow by defending and extending the iPhone market only so long. This strategy will certainly affect future margins as prices, on average, decline. In short, investors need to know what will be Apple’s next “big thing,” and when it is likely to emerge. It will take something quite significant for Apple to maintain it’s revenue, and profit, growth.
The good news is that Apple does sell for a lowly P/E of 10 today. That is incredibly low for a company as profitable as Apple, with such a large installed base and so many market extensions – even if its growth has stalled. Even if Apple is caught in the Innovator’s Dilemma (i.e. Clayton Christensen) and shifting its strategy to defending and extending, it is very lowly valued. So the stock could continue to perform well. It just may never reach the P/E of 15 or 20 that is common for its industry peers, and investors envisioned 2 or 3 years ago. Unless there is some new, disruptive innovation in the pipeline not yet revealed to investors.
Growth fixes a multitude of sins. If you grow revenues enough (you don’t even need profits, as Amazon has proven) investors will look past a lot of things. With revenue growth high enough, companies can offer employees free meals and massages. Executives and senior managers can fly around in private jets. Companies can build colossal buildings as testaments to their brand, or pay to have thier names on public buildings. R&D budgets can soar, and product launches can fail. Acquisitions are made with no concerns for price. Bonuses can be huge. All is accepted if revenues grow enough.
Just look at Facebook. Today Facebook announced today that for the quarter ended March, 2016 revenues jumped to $5.4B from $3.5B a year ago. Net income tripled to $1.5B from $500M. And the company is basically making all its revenue – 82% – from 1 product, mobile ads. In the last few years Facebook paid enormous premiums to buy WhatsApp and Instagram – but who cares when revenues grow this fast.
Anticipating good news, Facebook’s stock was up a touch today. But once the news came out, after-hours traders pumped the stock to over $118//share, a new all time high. That’s a price/earnings (p/e) multiple of something like 84. With growth like that Facebook’s leadership can do anything it wants.
But, when revenues slide it can become a veritable poop puddle. As Apple found out.
Rumors had swirled that Apple was going to say sales were down. And the stock had struggled to make gains from lows earlier in 2016. When the company’s CEO announced Tuesday that sales were down 13% versus a year ago the stock cratered after-hours, and opened this morning down 10%. Breaking a streak of 51 straight quarters of revenue growth (since 2003) really sent investors fleeing. From trading around $105/share the last 4 days, Apple closed today at ~$97. $40B of equity value was wiped out in 1 day, and the stock trades at a p/e multiple of 10.
The new iPhone 6se outsold projections, iPads beat expectations. First year Apple Watch sales exceeded first year iPhone sales. Mac sales remain much stronger than any other PC manufacturer. Apple iBeacons and Apple Pay continue their march as major technologies in the IoT (Internet of Things) market. And Apple TV keeps growing. There are about 13M users of Apple’s iMusic. There are 1.5M apps on the iTunes store. And the installed base keeps the iTunes store growing. Share buybacks will grow, and the dividend was increased yet again. But, none of that mattered when people heard sales growth had stopped. Now many investors don’t think Apple’s leadership can do anything right.
Yet, that was just one quarter. Many companies bounce back from a bad quarter. There is no statistical evidence that one bad quarter is predictive of the next. But we do know that if sales decline versus a year ago for 2 consecutive quarters that is a Growth Stall. And companies that hit a Growth Stall rarely (93% of the time) find a consistent growth path ever again. Regardless of the explanations, Growth Stalls are remarkable predictors of companies that are developing a gap between their offerings, and the marketplace.
Which leads us to Chipotle. Chipotle announced that same store sales fell almost 30% in Q1, 2016. That was after a 15% decline in Q4, 2015. And profits turned to losses for the quarter. That is a growth stall. Chipotle shares were $750/share back in early October. Now they are $417 – a drop of over 44%.
Customer illnesses have pointed to a company that grew fast, but apparently didn’t have its act together for safe sourcing of local ingredients, and safe food handling by employees. What seemed like a tactical problem has plagued the company, as more customers became ill in March.
Whether that is all that’s wrong at Chipotle is less clear, however. There is a lot more competition in the fast casual segment than 2 years ago when Chipotle seemed unable to do anything wrong. And although the company stresses healthy food, the calorie count on most portions would add pounds to anyone other than an athlete or construction worker – not exactly in line with current trends toward dieting. What frequently looks like a single problem when a company’s sales dip often turns out to have multiple origins, and regaining growth is nearly always a lot more difficult than leadership expects.
Growth is magical. It allows companies to invest in new products and services, and buoy’s a stock’s value enhancing acquisition ability. It allows for experimentation into new markets, and discovering other growth avenues. But lack of growth is a vital predictor of future performance. Companies without growth find themselves cost cutting and taking actions which often cause valuations to decline.
Right now Facebook is in a wonderful position. Apple has investors rightly concerned. Will next quarter signal a return to growth, or a Growth Stall? And Chipotle has investors heading for the exits, as there is now ample reason to question whether the company will recover its luster of yore.
Netflix has been a remarkable company. Because it has accomplished something almost no company has ever done. It changed its business model, leading to new growth and higher profits.
Almost nobody pulls that off, because they remain stuck defending and extending their old model until they become irrelevant, or fail. Think about Blackberry, that gave us the smartphone business then lost it to Apple and its creation of the app market. Consider Circuit City, that lost enough customers to Amazon it could no longer survive. Sun Microsystems disappeared after PC servers caught up to Unix servers in capability. Remember the Bell companies and their land-line and long distance services, made obsolete by mobile phones and cable operators? These were some really big companies that saw their market shifts, but failed to “pivot” their strategy to remain competitive.
Netflix built a tremendous business delivering physical videos on tape and CD to homes, wiping out the brick-and-mortar stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. By 2008 Netflix reached $1B revenues, reducing Blockbuster by a like amount. By 2010 Blockbuster was bankrupt. Netflix’ share price soared from $50/share to almost $300/share during 2011. By the end of 2012 CD shipments were dropping precipitously as streaming viewership was exploding. People thought Netflix was missing the wave, and the stock plummeted 75%. Most folks thought Netflix couldn’t pivot fast enough, or profitably, either.
But in 2013 Netflix proved the analysts wrong, and the company built a very successful – in fact market leading – streaming business. The shares soared, recovering all that lost value. By 2015 the company had more than doubled its previous high valuation.
But Netflix may be breaking entirely new ground in 2016. It is becoming a market leader in original programming. Something we long attributed to broadcasters and/or cable distributors like HBO and Showtime.
Today’s broadcast companies, like NBC, CBS and ABC, are offering less and less original programming. Overall there are 3 hours/night of prime time television which broadcasters used to “own” as original programming hours. Over the course of a year, allowing for holidays and one open night per week, that meant about 900 hours of programming for each network (including reruns as original programming.) But that was long ago.
These days most of those hours are filled with sports – think evening games of football, basketball, baseball including playoffs and “March Madness” events. Sports are far cheaper to program, and can fill a lot of hours. Next think reality programming. Showing people race across countries, or compete to survive a political battlefield on an island, or even dancing or dieting, uses no expensive actors or directors or sets. It is far, far less expensive than writing, casting, shooting and programming a drama (like Blacklist) or comedy (like Big Bang Theory.) Plan on showing every show twice in reruns, plus intermixing with the sports and reality shows, and most networks get away with around 200-250 hours of original programming per year.
Against that backdrop, Netflix has announced it will program 600 hours of original programming this year. That will approximately double any single large broadcast network. In a very real way, if you don’t want to watch sports or reality TV any more you probably will be watching some kind of “on demand” program. Either streamed from a cable service, or from a provider such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.
When it comes to original programming, the old broadcast networks are losing their relevancy to streaming technology, personal video devices and the customer’s ability to find what they want, when they want it – and increasingly at a quality they prefer – from streaming as opposed to broadcast media.
To complete this latest “pivot,” from a video streaming company to a true media company with its own content, Morgan Stanley has published that Netflix is now considered by customers as the #1 quality programming across streaming services. 29% of viewers said Netflix was #1, followed by long-time winner HBO now #2 with 21% of customers saying their programming is best. Amazon, Showtime and Hulu were seen as the best quality by 4%-5% of viewers.
So a decade ago Netflix was a CD distribution company. The largest customer of the U.S. Postal Service. Signing up folks to watch physical videos in their homes. Now they are the largest data streaming company on the planet, and one of the largest original programming producers and programmers in the USA – and possibly the world. And in this same decade we’ve watched the network broadcast companies become outlets for sports and reality TV, while cutting far back on their original shows. Sounds a lot like a market shift, and possibly Netflix could be the game changer, as it performs the first strategy double pivot in business history.
Leading tech tracking companies IDC and Gartner both announced Q1, 2016 PC sales results, and they were horrible. Sales were down 9.5%-11.5% depending on which tracker you asked. And that’s after a horrible Q4, 2015 when sales were off more than 10%. PC sales have now declined for 6 straight quarters, and sales are roughly where they were in 2007, 9 years ago.
Oh yeah, that was when the iPhone launched – June, 2007. And just a couple of years before the iPad launched. Correlation, or causation?
Amazingly, when Q4 ended the forecasters were still optimistic of a stabilization and turnaround in PC sales. Typical analyst verbage was like this from IDC, “Commercial adoption of Windows 10 is expected to accelerate, and consumer buying should also stabilize by the second half of the year. Most PC users have delayed an upgrade, but can only maintain this for so long before facing security and performance issues.” And just to prove that hope springs eternal from the analyst breast, here is IDC’s forecast for 2016 after the horrible Q1, “In the short term, the PC market must still grapple with limited consumer interest and competition from other infrastructure upgrades in the commercial market. Nevertheless….things should start picking up in terms of Windows 10 pilots turning into actual PC purchases.”
Fascinating. Once again, the upturn is just around the corner. People have always looked forward to upgrading their PCs, there has always been a “PC upgrade cycle” and one will again emerge. Someday. At least, the analysts hope so. Maybe?
Microsoft investors must hope so. The company is selling at a price/earnings multiple of 40 on hopes that Windows 10 sales will soon boom, and re-energize PC growth. Surely. Hopefully. Maybe?
The world has shifted, and far too many people don’t like to recognize the shift. When Windows 8 launched it was clear that interest in PC software was diminishing. What was once a major front page event, a Windows upgrade, was unimportant. By the time Windows 10 came along there was so little interest that its launch barely made any news at all. This market, these products, are really no longer relevant to the growth of personal technology.
Back when I predicted that Windows 8 would be a flop I was inundated with hate mail. It was clear that Ballmer was a terrible CEO, and would soon be replaced by the board. Same when I predicted that Surface tablets would not sell well, and that all Windows devices would not achieve significant share. People called me “an Apple Fanboy” or a “Microsoft hater.” Actually, neither was true. It was just clear that a major market shift was happening in computing. The world was rapidly going mobile, and cloud-based, and the PC just wasn’t going to be relevant. As the PC lost relevancy, so too would Microsoft because it completely missed the market, and its entries were far too tied to old ways of thinking about personal and corporate computing – not to mention the big lead competitors had in devices, apps and cloud services.
I’ve never said that modern PCs are bad products. I have a son half way through a PhD in Neurobiological Engineering. He builds all kinds of brain models and 3 dimensional brain images and cell structure plots — and he does all kinds of very exotic math. His world is built on incredibly powerful, fast PCs. He loves Windows 10, and he loves PCs — and he really “doesn’t get” tablets. And I truly understand why. His work requires local computational power and storage, and he loves Windows 10 over all other platforms.
But he is not a trend. His deep understanding of the benefits of Windows 10, and some of the PC manufacturers as well as those who sell upgrade componentry, is very much a niche. While he depends heavily on Microsoft and Wintel manufacturers to do his work, he is a niche user. (BTW he uses a Nexus phone and absolutely loves it, as well. And he can wax eloquently about the advantages he achieves by using an Android device.)
Today, I doubt I will receive hardly any comments to this column. Because to most people, the PC is nearly irrelevant. People don’t actually care about PC sales results, or forecasts. Not nearly as much as, say, care about whether or not the iPhone 6se advances the mobile phone market in a meaningful way.
Most people do their work, almost if not all their work, on a mobile device. They depend on cloud and SaaS (software-as-a-service) providers and get a lot done on apps. What they can’t do on a phone, they do on a tablet, by and large. They may, or may not, use a PC of some kind (Mac included in that reference) but it is not terribly important to them. PCs are now truly generic, like a refrigerator, and if they need one they don’t much care who made it or anything else – they just want it to do whatever task they have yet to migrate to their mobile world.
The amazing thing is not that PC sales have fallen for 6 quarters. That was easy to predict back in 2013. The amazing thing is that some people still don’t want to accept that this trend will never reverse. And many people, even though they haven’t carried around a laptop for months (years?) and don’t use a Windows mobile device, still think Microsoft is a market leader, and has a great future. PCs, and for the most part Microsoft, are simply no more relevant than Sears, Blackberry, or the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet it is somewhat startling that some people have failed to think about the impact this has on their company, companies that make PC software and hardware – and the impact this will have on their lives – and likely their portfolios.
Tesla started taking orders for the Model 3 last week, and the results were remarkable. In 24 hours the company took $1,000 deposits for 198,000 vehicles. By end of Saturday the $1,000 deposits topped 276,000 units. And for a car not expected to be available in any sort of volume until 2017. Compare that with the top selling autos in the U.S. in 2015:
Remarkably, the Model 3 would rank as the 6th best selling vehicle all of last year! And with just a few more orders, it will likely make the top 5 – or possibly top 3! And those are orders placed in just one week, versus an entire year of sales for the other models. And every buyer is putting up a $1,000 deposit, something none of the buyers of top 10 cars did as they purchased product widely available in inventory. [Update 7 April – Tesla reports sales exceed 325,000, which would make the Model 3 the second best selling car in the USA for the entire year 2015 – accomplished in less than one week.]
Even more astonishing is the average selling price. Note that top 10 cars are not highly priced, mostly in the $17,000 to $25,000 price range. But the Tesla is base priced at $35,000, and expected with options to sell closer to $42,000. That is almost twice as expensive as the typical top 10 selling auto in the U.S.
Tesla has historically been selling much more expensive cars, the Model S being its big seller in 2015. So if we classify Tesla as a “luxury” brand and compare it to like-priced Mercedes Benz C-Class autos we see the volumes are, again, remarkable. In under 1 week the Model 3 took orders for 3 times the volume of all C-Class vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2015.
[Car and Driver top 10 cars; Mercedes Benz 2015 unit sales; Tesla 2015 unit sales; Model 3 pricing]
Although this has surprised a large number of people, the signs were all pointing to something extraordinary happening. The Tesla Model S sold 50,000 vehicles in 2015 at an average price of $70,000 to $80,000. That is the same number of the Mercedes E-Class autos, which are priced much lower in the $50,000 range. And if you compare to the top line Mercedes S-Class, which is only slightly more expensive at an average $90,0000, the Model S sold over 2 times the 22,000 units Mercedes sold. And while other manufacturers are happy with single digit percentage volume growth, in Q4 Tesla shipments were 75% greater in 2015 than 2014.
In other words, people like this brand, like these cars and are buying them in unprecedented numbers. They are willing to plunk down deposits months, possibly years, in advance of delivery. And they are paying the highest prices ever for cars sold in these volumes. And demand clearly outstrips supply.
Yet, Tesla is not without detractors. From the beginning some analysts have said that high prices would relegate the brand to a small niche of customers. But by outselling all other manufacturers in its price point, Tesla has demonstrated its cars are clearly not a niche market. Likewise many analysts argued that electric cars were dependent on high gasoline prices so that “economic buyers” could justify higher prices. Yet, as gasoline prices have declined to prices not seen for nearly a decade Tesla sales keep going up. Clearly Tesla demand is based on more than just economic analysis of petroleum prices.
People really like, and want, Tesla cars. Even if the prices are higher, and if gasoline prices are low.
Emerging is a new group of detractors. They point to the volume of cars produced in 2015, and first quarter output of just under 15,000 vehicles, then note that Tesla has not “scaled up” manufacturing at anywhere near the necessary rate to keep customers happy. Meanwhile, constructing the “gigafactory” in Nevada to build batteries has slowed and won’t meet earlier expectations for 2016 construction and jobs. Even at 20,000 cars/quarter, current demand for Model S and Model 3 They project lots of order cancellations would take 4.5 years to fulfill.
Which leads us to the beauty of sales growth. When products tap an under- or unfilled need they frequently far outsell projections. Think about the iPod, iPhone and iPad. There is naturally concern about scaling up production. Will the money be there? Can the capacity come online fast enough?
Of course, of all the problems in business this is one every leader should want. It is certainly a lot more fun to worry about selling too much rather than selling too little. Especially when you are commanding a significant price premium for your product, and thus can be sure that demand is not an artificial, price-induced variance.
With rare exceptions, investors understand the value of high sales at high prices. When gross margins are good, and capacity is low, then it is time to expand capacity because good returns are in the future. The Model 3 release projects a backlog of almost $12B. Booked orders at that level are extremely rare. Further, short-term those orders have produced nearly $300million of short-term cash. Thus, it is a great time for an additional equity offering, possibly augmented with bond sales, to invest rapidly in expansion. Problematic, yes. Insolvable, highly unlikely.
On the face of it Tesla appears to be another car company. But something much more significant is afoot. This sales level, at these prices, when the underlying economics of use seem to be moving in the opposite direction indicates that Tesla has tapped into an unmet need. It’s products are impressing a large number of people, and they are buying at premium prices. Based on recent orders Tesla is vastly outselling competitive electric automobiles made by competitors, all of whom are much bigger and better resourced. And those are all the signs of a real Game Changer.
Starboard Value last week sent a letter to Yahoo’s Board of Directors announcing its intention to ask shareholders to replace the entire Board. That is why Starboard is called an “activist” fund. It is not shy about seeking action at the Board level to change the direction of a company – by changing the CEO, seeking downsizings and reogranizations, changing dividend policy, seeking share buybacks, recommending asset sales, or changing other resource allocations. They are different than other large investors, such as pension funds or mutual funds, who purchase lots of a company’s equity but don’t seek to overtly change the direction, and management, of a company.
Activists have been around a long time. And for years, they were despised. Carl Icahn made himself famous by buying company shares, then pressuring management into decisions which damaged the company long-term while he made money fast. For example, he bought TWA shares then pushed the company to add huge additional debt and repurchase equity (including buying his position via something called “green mail”) in order to short-term push up the earnings per share. This made Icahn billions, but ended up killing the company.
Similarly, Mr. Icahn bought a big position in Motorola right after it successfully launched the RAZR phone. He pushed the board to shut down expensive R&D and product development to improve short-term earnings. Then borrow a lot of money to repurchase shares, improving earnings per share but making the company over-leveraged. He then sold out and split with his cash. But Motorola never launched another successful phone, the technology changed, and Motorola had to sell its cell phone business (that pioneered the industry) in order to pay off debt and avoid bankruptcy. Motorola is now a fragment of its former self, and no longer relevant in the tech marketplace.
So now you understand why many people hate activists. They are famous for
- cutting long-term investments on new products leaving future sales pipelines weakened,
- selling assets to increase cash while driving down margins as vendors take more,
- selling whole businesses to raise cash but leave the company smaller and less competitive,
- cutting headcount to improve short-term earnings but leaving management and employees decimated and overworked,
- increasing debt massively to repurchase shares, but leaving the company financially vulnerable to the slightest problem,
- doing pretty much anything to make the short-term look better with no concern for long-term viability.
Yet, they keep buying shares, and they have defenders among shareholders. Many big investors say that activists are the only way shareholders can do anything about lousy management teams that fail to deliver, and Boards of Directors that let management be lazy and ineffective.
Which takes us to Yahoo. Yahoo was an internet advertising pioneer. Yet, for several years Yahoo has been eclipsed by competitors from Google to Facebook and even Microsoft that have grown their user base and revenues as Yahoo has shrunk. In the 4 years since becoming CEO Marissa Mayer has watched Yahoo’s revenues stagnate or decline in all core sectors, while its costs have increased – thus deteriorating margins. And to prop up the stock price she sold Alibaba shares, the only asset at Yahoo increasing in value, and used the proceeds to purchase Yahoo shares. There are very, very few defenders of Ms. Mayer in the investment community, or in the company, and increasingly even the Board of Directors is at odds with her leadership.
The biggest event in digital marketing is the Digital Content NewFronts in New York City this time every year. Big digital platforms spend heavily to promote themselves and their content to big advertisers. But in the last year Yahoo closed several verticals, and discontinued original programming efforts taking a $42M charge. It also shut is online video hub, Screen. Smaller, and less competitive than ever, Yahoo this year has cut its spending and customer acquisition efforts at NewFronts, a decision sure to make it even harder to reverse its declining fortunes. Not pleasant news to investors.
And Yahoo keeps going down in value. Looking at the market the value of Yahoo and Alibaba, and the Alibaba shares held in Yahoo, the theoretical value of Yahoo’s core business is now zero. But that is an oversimplification. Potential buyers have valued the business at $6B, while management has said it is worth $10B. Only in 2008 Ballmer-led Microsoft made an offer to buy it for $45B! That’s value destruction to the amount of $35B-$39B!
Yet management and the Board remains removed from the impact of that value destruction. And the risk remains that Yahoo leadership will continue selling off Alibaba value to keep the other businesses alive, thus bleeding additional investor value out of the company. There are reports that CEO Mayer never took seriously the threat of an activist involving himself in changing the company, and removing her as CEO. Ensconced in the CEO’s office there was apparently little concern about shareholder value while she remained fixated on Quixotic efforts to compete with much better positioned, growing and more profitable competitors Google and Facebook. Losing customers, losing sales, and losing margin as her efforts proved reasonable fruitless amidst product line shutdowns, bad acquisitions, layoffs and questionable micro-management decisions like eliminating work from home policies.
There appear to be real buyers interested in Yahoo. There are those who think they can create value out of what is left. And they will give the Yahoo shareholders something for the opportunity to take over those business lines. Some want it as part of a bigger business, such as Verizon, and others see independent routes. Even Microsoft is reportedly interested in funding a purchase of Yahoo’s core. But there is no sign that management, or the Board, are moving quickly to redirect the company.
And that is why Starboard Value wants to change the Board of Directors. If they won’t make changes, then Starboard will make changes. And investors, long weary of existing leadership and its inability to take positive action, see Starboard’s activism as the best way to unlock what value remains in Yahoo for them. After years of mismanagement and underperformance what else should investors do?
Activists are easy to pick at, but they play a vital role in forcing management teams and Boards of Directors to face up to market challenges and internal weaknesses. In cases like Yahoo the activist investor is the last remaining player to try and save the company from weak leadership.
United Continental Holdings is the most recent public company to come under attack by hedge funds. Last week Altimeter Capital and PAR Capital announced they were using their combined 7.1% ownership of United to propose a slate of 6 new directors to the company’s board. As is common in such hedge fund moves, they expressed strongly their lack of confidence in United’s board, and pointed out multiple years of underperformance.
United’s leadership is certainly in a tough place. The airline consistently ranks near the bottom in customer satisfaction, and on-time performance. It has struggled for years with labor strife, and the mechanics union just rejected their proposed contract – again. The flight attendant’s union has been in mediation for months. And few companies have had more consistently bad public relations, as customers have loudly complained about how they are treated – including one fellow making a music and speaking career out of how he was abused by United personnel for months after they destroyed his guitar.
But is changing the directors going to change the company? Or is it just changing the guest list for an haute couture affair? Should customers, employees, suppliers and investors expect things to really improve, or is this a selection between the devil and the deep blue sea?
Much was made of the fact that one of the proposed new directors is the former CEO of Continental, Gordon Bethune, who was very willing to speak out loudly and negatively regarding United’s current board. But Mr. Bethune is 74 years old. Today most companies have mandatory director retirement somewhere between age 68 and 72. Retired since 2004, is Mr. Bethune really in step with the needs of airline customers today? Does he really have a current understanding of how the best performing airlines keep customers happy while making money?
And, don’t forget, Mr. Bethune hand picked Mr. Jeff Smisek to replace him at Continental. Mr. Smisek was the fellow who took over Mr. Bethune’s board seat in 2004 after being appointed President and COO when Mr. Bethune retired. Smisek became CEO in 2010, and CEO of United Continental after the merger, and led the ongoing deterioration in United’s performance as well as declining employee moral. And then there’s that pesky problem of Mr. Smisek bribing government officials to improve United’s gate situation in Newark, NJ which caused him to be fired by the current board. Is it coincidental that this attack on the Board did not happen for years, but happens now that there is a new CEO – who happens to be recently recovering from a heart replacement?
Although Mr. Bethune has commented that the new board would be one that understands the airline industry, the slate does not reflect this. Mr. Gerstner is head of Altimiter and by all accounts appears to be a finance expert. That was the background Ed Lampert brought to Sears, another big Chicago company, when he took over that board. And that has not worked out too well at all for any constituents – including investors.
One can give great kudos to the hedge funds for proposing a very diverse slate. Half the proposed directors are either female or of color. And, other than Mr. Bethune, the slate is pretty young – with 2 proposed directors under age 50. Congratulations on achieving diversification! But a deeper look can cause us to wonder exactly what these directors bring to the challenges, and what they are likely to want to change at United.
Rodney O’Neal was the former CEO of Delphi Automotive. A lifelong automotive manager and executive, he graduated from the General Motors Institute and spent his career at GM before going to the parts unit GM had created in 1997 as a Vice President. Many may have forgotten that Delphi famously filed for bankruptcy in 2005, and proceeded to close over half its U.S. plants, then close or sell almost all of the other half in 2006. Mr. O’Neal became CEO in 2007, after which the company closed its plants in Spain despite having signed a commitment letter not to do so. He was CEO in 2008 when the company sued its shareholders. And in 2009 when the company sold its core assets to private investors, then dumped assets into the bankrupt GM, cancelled the stock and renamed the old Delphi DPH Holdings. Cutting, selling and reorganizing seem to be his dominant executive experience.
Barney Harford is a young, talented tech executive. He headed Orbitz, where Mr. Gerstner was on the board. Orbitz was originally created as the Travelocity and Expedia killer by the major airlines. Unfortunately, it never did too well and Mr. Harford actually changed the company direction from primarily selling airline tickets to selling hotel rooms.
It is always good to see more women proposed for board positions. However, Ms. Brenda Yester Baty is an executive with Lennar, a very large Florida-based home builder. And Ms. Tina Stark leads Sherpa Foundry which has a 1 page web site saying “Sherpa Foundry builds
bridges between the world’s leading Corporations and the Innovation Economy.” What that means leaves a lot of room for one’s imagination, and precious little specifics. What either of these people have to do with creating a major turnaround in the operations of United is unclear.
There is no doubt that United is ripe for change. Replacing the CEO was clearly a step in the right direction – if a bit late. But one has to wonder if the new directors are there to make some specific change? If so, what kind of change? Despite the rough rhetoric, there has been no proclamation of what the new director slate would actually do differently. No discussion of a change in strategy – or any changes in any operating characteristics. Just vague statements about better governance.
Historically most activists take firm aim at cutting costs. And this is probably why the 2 largest unions have already denounced the new slate, and put their full support behind the existing board of directors. After so many years of ill-will between management and labor at United, one would wonder why these unions would not welcome change. Unless they fear the new board will be mostly focused on cost-cutting, and further attempts at downsizing and pay/benefits reductions.
Investors will most likely get to vote on this decision. Keep existing board members, or throw them out in favor of a new slate? One would like to see United’s reputation, and operations, improve dramatically. But is changing out 6 directors the answer? Or are investors facing a vote that has them selecting between 2 less than optimal options? It would be good if there was less rhetoric, and more focus on actual proposals for change.
We all like to think the world is a meritocracy, where hard work is important and results matter.
As we watched Mitt Romney, and others, frontally assault Donald Trump this week it was clear they were saying Mr. Trump is not the right person to be President. They are pointing out his use of bankruptcies to protect his personal wealth, while leaving investors holding the empty bag. And his flip-flopping on various issues, including how he would deploy military forces. And his use of misogynistic language against women, while simultaneously referring to most Mexicans and lawbreakers and all Muslims as terrorists, are gross generalities they say are not supported by facts.
Yet, while many sober-minded leaders are denouncing Mr. Trump, it is not clear that it matters. His followers seem to remain passionately loyal, and completely unmoved by any factual representation of their candidate as anything other than a savior for America. The “Super Saturday” delegate selection resulted in Mr. Trump winning 2 more contests (Louisiana and Kentucky) while coming in second in 2 others (Kansas and Maine.) And it demonstrated the ongoing pattern of Mr. Trump winning the popular vote in primaries.
Everyone remembers a situation where a very hard working, smart, industrious person did things well for years. But they weren’t promoted, or even given large pay increases. Or, worse, they made one mistake and lost their position, or job.
Simultaneously, we all also can think of at least one, or more, person who simply wasn’t that good, and often didn’t work that hard, but was promoted (often beyond their competency) and given large pay increases. And every time this person made a mistake it was explained away as a “learning experience” that would make them a better future performer. They were blessed with continuous upward mobility, and could seemingly do no wrong.
For each of us these experiences seemed unique, and we often tied them to the specific individuals involved – including not only the person at the center of these experiences but their superiors, subordinates and peers. And many people are saying the political rise of Donald Trump is unique to him and the current state of his political party.
But rather than each being unique, these experiences all have something in common. The actual frequency of these experiences belies the notion that they are all unique. Rather, what all of these demonstrate is the implementation of selective bias. They demonstrate that very often we prefer people because they reinforce our bias, and their past results do not matter.
Bosses who promote incompetency don’t really care about the competency as much as they care that the individual reinforces their inherent Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies about the world. There is often a familial, geographic, academic, business relationship, religious or gender trait (or often multiple traits) which reinforces in these bosses that their view of the world is right, and should be promoted.
This may be due to the person being very much similar to the boss. But, not always. It just requires that the target be a visible, walking, talking implementation of how they think the world works. Whether or not the person is successful really does not matter. If they are different from the boss’s viewpoint, no success will be great enough to have the boss support them. If they fulfill the boss’s bias then they often can do no wrong.
Donald Trump has been leading his candidate competitors not because he was wildly successful. Rather, he is attracting a larger group of people who identify with him; who share his basic Beliefs, Interpretations of the world, Assumptions about how people behave, and Strategies for how to succeed. They share his bias, and thus they select him. As Mr. Trump said himself “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Regardless of the robustness of the American economy and the ongoing growth in jobs creation, they Believe America is in terrible shape, and that almost all media participants are liars. No matter what the truth is about the value of immigrants on the economy, they Interpret all immigrants as job-stealing bad people that have made their lives worse. No matter the truth about the spirit of Islam and the goodness of Muslims, they Assume all of them terrorists out to blow up the world. And they agree with Strategies like stopping immigrants with walls, killing civilian Muslims as collateral damage in a religious war, torturing prisoners of war (possibly to death,) eliminating international trade, and depriving poor people of health care and other services.
Thus, selective bias ties these voters to Mr. Trump with a bind that is not breakable by discussing his performance, or pointing out his failings. Facts are not relevant. Their judgement is not based on historical facts, but rather a clear alignment with their bias. No matter who says Mr. Trump may have lied, or exaggerated, or misinterpreted history that messenger will not be believed. Because the real results don’t matter. What matters is reinforcing their bias.
Unfortunately we see this selective bias all too often in business. Leaders that favor some over others simply because of bias, rather than results. It has long been a problem which has restricted diversity in the workforce, and inhibited equal pay. It has long created a caste system for admission to top schools and places of employment. And because selective bias is so rampant in American business, it is second nature to Mr. Trump. It is easy for him to say what is on his mind, and expect that lots of people will agree with him. It’s how he sees the world, it is his bias, and he’s used to having it reinforced by those who wish to work with him.
Whatever happens in this Presidential campaign, as business leaders we can learn from this situation that if we allow selective bias to sway us then we are no longer really paying attention to results. As leaders which of the following should be important – promoting those who reinforce our beliefs, interpretations, assumptions and strategies, or finding the best people to do the job and rewarding those who really have worked hard for good results?