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.

Like The Best Tech Companies, Publicis Launches A Great Strategic Pivot

Like The Best Tech Companies, Publicis Launches A Great Strategic Pivot

People like to discuss “strategic pivots” in tech companies.  The term refers to changing a company’s strategy dramatically in reaction to market shifts. Like when Apple pivoted in 2000 from being the Mac company to its focus on mobile, which lead to the iPod, iPhone, and other mobile products.  But everyone needs to know how to pivot, and some of the most important pivots haven’t even been in tech.

Take for example Netflix.  Netflix won the war in video distribution, annihilating Blockbuster.  But then, when it seemed Netflix owned video distribution, CEO Reed Hastings pivoted from distribution to streaming.  He cut investment in distribution assets, and raised prices.  Then he spent the money learning how to become a tech company that could lead the world in streaming services.  It was a big bet that cannibalized the old business in order to position Netflix for future success.

Analysts hated the idea, and the stock price sank.  But CEO Hastings was proven right.  By investing heavily in the next wave of technology and market growth Netflix soared toward far greater success than had it kept spending money in lower cost distribution of cassettes and DVDs.

(From L to R) Philippe Dauman, US actress and singer Selena Gomez, MTV President Stephen Friedman and US director Jon Chu attend a Viacom seminar during the 59th International Festival of Creativity – Cannes Lions 2012, on June 21, 2012 in Cannes, southeastern France. The Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, running from June 17 to 23, is a world’s meeting place for professionals in the communications industry.  (VALERY HACHE/AFP/GettyImages)

This week Arthur Sadoun, the CEO of the world’s third largest advertising agency (Publicis) announced he was betting on a strategic pivot.  And most in the industry questioned if he made a good decision.

Simply put, CEO Sadoun announced at the largest ad agency awards conference, the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, that Publicis would no longer participate in Cannes.  Nor would it participate in several other conferences including the very large South by Southwest (SXSW) and Consumer Electronics Show (CES.)  Instead, he would save those costs to invest in AR (artificial or augmented reality.)

In an industry long dominated by highly creative people who love mixing with other agency folks and clients, this was an enormous shock.  These conferences were where award winners marketed their creative capability, showing off how much they were admired by peers.  And they wined and dined clients seeking to build on awards to gain new business.  No one would expect any major agency to drop out, and most especially not an agency as large as Publicis.

In changing markets strategic pivots make sense.

And strategically this pivot makes a lot of sense.  The ad industry was once dominated by ads placed in newspaper, magazines and on TV.  But today print journalism is almost dead.  The demand for print ads is a fraction of 20 years ago.  And TV is no longer as prevalent as before.  Today, people spend more time looking at their smartphone than they do their TV.  The days of thinking high creativity would lead to high sales are in the past.  Fewer and fewer big advertisers care about who wins awards, and fewer are going to these conferences to decide who they would like to hire.

Today advertising is going “programmatic.”  Increasingly ads are placed by computers, on web and mobile sites.  Advertising is about finding the right eyeballs, at the right time, next to the right content in order to find a buyer.  Advertisers no longer spend money lavishly on mass media hoping for good results.  Instead ads are targeted, measured for response and evaluated for ROI based on media, location, user and a raft of other metrics.

And the industry has changed.  There still is an advertising agency business.  But it is under attack from tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snap that promote to advertisers their ability to target the right clients for high returns on money spent.  The content is important, but today almost everyone in the industry will tell you success depends on your budget and how you spend it, not the creative.  And that is a lot more about understanding how we’re all interconnected, knowing how to measure device usage, profiling user behavior and programming the computers to put those ads in the right place, at the right time.

To pivot you must stop doing the old to start doing the new

Publicis has something like $10B in revenue.  Thus, dropping $20M on filing award applications at events like Cannes, and sending a contingent of employees to receive awards, meet people and have fun doesn’t sound like a lot.  But multiple that across the year and the total amount could well come to $100M-$200M.  That’s still only 2% of revenues – at most.  It would seem like not that much money given what has been a core part of historical marketing.

But, if Publicis is to compete in the future with the tech leaders, and emerging digital-oriented agencies, it has to develop technology that will make it a leader.  Publicis can’t invent money out of thin air, so it has to stop doing something to create the funds for investing in what’s coming next.  And stopping investing in something as “old school” as Cannes actually sounds really smart.  As boomer ad execs retire the newer generation is not going to conventions to find agencies, they are looking under the hood at the technology engines these companies provide.

In new strategic areas a little money can go a long way

And while $100M to $200M may not sound like a lot, it is enough money to make a difference in creating a tech team that can work on future-oriented technology like AI.  If spent wisely, that could truly move the needle.  If Publicis could demonstrate an ability to use proprietary AI technology to better place ads and manage the budget for higher returns it can survive, and perhaps thrive, in a digitally dominated ad industry future.  At the very least it can find its place next to Facebook and Google.

WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic should take serious notice.  Will they succeed in 2025 if they keep marketing the way they did in 1985?  Will this spending grow revenues if customers really don’t care about creative awards?  Will they remain relevant if  they lack their own technology to develop ads, campaigns and demonstrate positive rates of return on ad dollars spent?

CEO Sadoun’s approach to make the announcement without a lot of preliminary employee discussion shocked a lot of folks.  And it shocked the festival owners who now have to wonder what the future of their business will be.  But strategic pivots are shocking.  They demonstrate a dramatic shift in how resources are deployed to position a company for the future, rather than simply trying to defend and extend the past.

It’s a lot smarter to try what you don’t know than hope everything will stay the same.

Will this work?  There is no way to know if the Publicis leadership team can maneuver through the technology maze toward something great.  But, at least they are trying.  And that alone gives them a lot better shot at longevity than if they simply decided to do in 2018 what  they have always done.  Is your company ready to reassess its preparation for the future and address your strategy like you’re a tech company?  Are you spending money on market shifts, or simply doing the same thing you’ve always done?

The 9 Reasons Why Amazon Buying Whole Foods Is A Good Idea

The 9 Reasons Why Amazon Buying Whole Foods Is A Good Idea

Whole Food flagship store in Austin, Texas.

Amazon announced it was paying $13.7B to buy Whole Foods.  While not without risks, there are a lot of reasons this is a great idea:

1 – It makes Amazon a national grocery competitor overnight

Building any retail chain takes a long time.  Due to the intensity of competition, and low margins, building a grocery chain takes even longer.  Amazon would have spent decades trying to create its own chain.  Now it won’t lose all that time, and it won’t give competitors more time to figure out their strategies.

2- Now Amazon can get the necessary “deal dollars” to compete in groceries

Few people realize that no grocer makes money selling groceries. Revenues do not cover the costs of inventory, buildings and labor. On its own, selling groceries loses money.  Grocers survive on manufacturer “deal dollars.”

Companies like P&G, Nabisco, etc. pay grocers slotting fees to obtain shelf space, they pay premiums for eye level shelves and end caps, they pay new product fees to have grocers stock new items, they pay inventory fees to have grocers keep inventory on shelf and in back, they pay advertising fees to have signs in the stores and products in circulars, and they pay volume rebates for meeting, and exceeding, volume goals.  It is these manufacturer “deal dollars” that cover the losses on the store operations and create a profit for investors.

One reason Whole Foods prices are so high is they stock less of the mass market goods and thus receive fewer deal dollars.  Now Amazon can use Whole Foods to increase its volume in all products and dramatically increase its deal dollar inflow.  Something that Amazon sorely missed as a “delivery only” grocer.

3 – Amazon obtains a grocery distribution system

Grocery distribution is unique.  For decades grocers have worked with manufacturers, cooperatives, growers and other suppliers to create the shortest, most efficient distribution of food with the lowest inventory. In many instances replenishment quantities are shipped based on manufacturer access to real grocer sales data. Amazon is the best at what it does, but to compete in groceries it needed a grocery distribution system – and with Whole Foods it obtains one at scale without having to create it.

Additionally Amazon will obtain the corporate infrastructure of a grocer, without having to build one on its own.  All those buyers, merchandisers, real estate professionals, local ad buyers, etc. are there and ready to execute – something building would be very hard to do.

4 – Amazon obtains great locations

Whole Foods has 460 stores, and almost all are in great locations. Whole Foods focused on upscale, growing and often urban or suburban locations – all great for Amazon to grow its distribution footprint.  And hard sites to find.

These can be used to sell other products, such as other grocery items, or some selection of Amazon products if that makes sense.  Or these can be used to augment Amazon’s distribution system for local delivery – or as neighborhood drop-off locations for people who don’t want at-home delivery to pick up Amazon-purchased products. Or they can be sold/leased at very attractive prices.

5 – Amazon can change the Whole Foods brand in important, positive ways

“Whole Paycheck” has long been the knock on Whole Foods.  As mentioned before, the lack of mass market items meant their products lacked deal dollars and thus had to be priced higher. And their stores are large, and not the best use of space. The result has been a lot of trouble keeping customers, and one of the lowest sales per square foot in the grocery industry.

Amazon can easily use its low-price position to alter the Whole Foods brand concept to include things like Pepsi, Coke, Bounty, Gain – a slew of branded consumer goods previously eschewed by Whole Foods.  Adding these products could make the stores more useful to more customers, and greatly lower the average cost of a cart full of goods.  On its own, this brand transition has been impossible for Whole Foods.  As part of Amazon remaking the brand will be vastly easier.

6 – Amazon can personalize grocery shopping like it did general merchandise

If you shopped Amazon you know they really figure out your needs, and help you find what you want.  Amazon keeps track of your searches and purchases, and makes recommendations that often help the shopping experience and delight us as customers.

But today all that information on grocery shopping is un-mined.  Despite using a loyalty card, traditional grocers (and WalMart) have been unable to actually mine that information for better marketing. Now Whole Foods will be able to use Amazon’s incredible technology skills, including big data mining and artificial (or augmented) intelligence to actually help us make the grocery shopping experience better – less time intensive, and most likely less costly while still allowing us to fill our carts with what we need and what makes us happy.

7 – The deal is cheap

$13.7B is only 65% of the cash Amazon had on hand end of last quarter.  And Amazon has only $7.7B in long-term debt.  With a $460B market cap Amazon could easily take on more debt without adding significant financial risk.

But even more important, Amazon has the amazingly cheap currency that is Amazon stock.  Even at the offering price, Whole Foods trades at 34x earnings.  Amazon trades at 185x earnings.  Thus by swapping Amazon shares for Whole Foods shares Amazon lowers the price 80%!  Amazon isn’t spending real dollars, it is using its stock – which is an incredibly valuable move for its shareholders.

8 – This is a serious attack on WalMart

For the last several years WalMart’s general merchandise sales have been declining due to the Amazon Effect and growing on-line competitor sales.  For the last 3 years overall revenues have not grown at all.  To maintain revenue Walmart has shifted increasingly to groceries – which account for well over half of all WalMart revenues. By purchasing Whole Foods, Amazon takes direct aim at the only part of WalMart’s “core” business that it has not attacked.

Walmart’s net profit before taxes is ~4%. If Amazon can use Whole Foods to combine stores and on-line sales to take just 3% of WalMart’s grocery business away it could remove from Walmart ($485B revenues * 60% grocery * 3% market share loss) a net revenue decline of ~$9B.  Given that the cost of grocery goods sold is about 50% – that would mean a net loss in contribution of $4.5B – which would cut almost 25% out of Amazon’s $20B pre-tax income.  Raise the share taken to 5% and Amazon could cut WalMart’s pre-tax income by $7.25B, or ~35%.

The negative impact of declining store sales on the fixed costs of WalMart is atrocious. Even small revenue drops mean cutting staff, cutting inventory, cutting store size and eventually closing stores.  Look at how fast Sears and Kmart fell apart when sales started declining.  Like dominoes falling, declining sales sets off a series of bad events that dooms almost all retailers – as the quickened pace of retail bankruptcy filings has proven.

9 – This could be a huge win for Amazon shareholders

The above analysis, taking 3-5% out of Walmart’s grocery sales, say over 3 years, would be a huge gain attributed to the creation of a new Whole Foods combined with Amazon’s e-commerce.  Growing grocery revenues by $9-$14B would mean practically a doubling of Whole Foods.  Which sounds enormous – and most likely impossible for Whole Foods to do on its own, even if it did launch some kind of e-commerce initiative.

But this is not so unlikely given Amazon’s track record.  Amazon has been growing at over 25%/year, adding between $20-$25B of new revenues annually. In 3 years between 2013 and 2016 Amazon doubled its revenues.  So it is not that unlikely to expect Amazon puts forward an extremely ambitious push to turn around Whole Foods, increase store sales and use the combined entities to grow delivery sales of groceries and other general merchandise.

Is there risk in this acquisition?  Of course.  Combining any two companies is fraught with peril – combining IT systems, distribution systems, customer systems and cultures leaves enormous opportunities for missteps and disaster.  But the upsides are enormous.  Overall, this is a bet Amazon investors should be glad leadership is making – and it is a great benefit for Whole Foods investors.

Why the ‘Amazon Effect’ Is So Huge In The USA, And Not In Other Countries

Why the ‘Amazon Effect’ Is So Huge In The USA, And Not In Other Countries

Originally posted: May 31, 2017

On the day after Memorial Day Amazon stock hit $1,000/share — a new record high. Amazon is up about 40% the last year. It’s market capitalization doubles Wal-mart. And the vast majority of investment analysts expect Amazon to rise further.

The Amazon logo is displayed at the Nasdaq MarketSite, in New York’s Times Square, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Online retail giant Amazon.com traded above $1,000 a share for the first time. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Amazon competes in dozens of international markets, as do many on-line retailers, yet the ‘Amazon Effect’ is far greater in the USA than anywhere else. And there’s a good reason — America is vastly over-served when it comes to traditional retail.

Retail space of various countries adjusted for population

Chart courtesy of Felix Richter, Statista.com https://www.statista.com/chart/9454/retail-space-per-1000-people/

Retail space of various countries adjusted for population

America is enormously over-built with retail space

Looking at square feet of retail space per 1,000 people, this infographic shows that, adjusted for population size, the USA has 8x the retail of Spain, 9x the retail of Italy, 11x the retail of Germany, 22x the retail of Mexico, 51x the retail of China and 400x the retail of India! Overall, this is remarkable. I’ve been to all of these countries, and in none did I feel that I was unable to buy things I needed. Clearly, the USA has had such a robust retail sector that it has dramatically over-expanded – with individual stores, suburban strip malls, elaborate horizontal malls, vertical urban malls and multi-floor urban retail complexes far outpacing the needs of American shoppers.

All these stores created a very competitive retail environment. This competition, and the lack of any sort of national value added tax (VAT,) kept prices for most things in America among the lowest in the world. Simultaneously according to the Department of Labor, Retail is the third largest employer in America. Couple that with the enormous wholesale distribution networks of warehouses and truck fleets — and selling things becomes the country’s largest employer — even bigger than the sum total of all federal, state and local government employees .

Additionally, retail has produced the largest local taxes of any industry, combining local sales taxes with property taxes, which has funded schools and public works projects for decades. And this retail space has helped drive demand for all kinds of support services from utilities to maintenance.

U.S. retail consumers are tremendously over-served, and the market is set to collapse

But now retail is wildly overbuilt. Organic demand for all retail grows about equal to population growth, so about 3%/year.  But retail real estate grew far faster since World War II as developers kept building more malls, and large retailers like Sears, KMart, Walmart, Target, Lowe’s and Home Depot built more stores. Now demand for products through traditional retail is declining. People are simply ordering on-line.

Net/net, America’s consumers are now over-served by retailers. There is too much space, and inventory. And now that store-to-home distribution has faded as a problem, with multiple carriers offering overnight service, people are increasingly happy to avoid stores altogether, greatly exacerbating the overcapacity problem. Thus, the ‘Amazon Effect’ has emerged, where stores are closing at a rapid rate and many retailers are failing altogether leaving vast amounts of empty retail space.

Foreign markets are under-served, and benefit from Amazon’s entry

Contrarily, in other countries consumers were to some extent under-served. They actually dealt with local stock-outs on desirable items. And frequently lived in a world with a lot less product choice. And, generally, international consumers expected to travel farther to shop at the few larger stores, malls and urban shopping centers with greater selections.

In those countries local economies became far less dependent on retail real estate for jobs — and for taxes. Most have little or no property taxes as deployed in the USA. Additionally, rather than adding a local sales tax to the price of goods, most countries use some sort of national VAT to collect the tax during distribution. When Amazon starts distributing in these markets it is seen as a good thing! Consumers have more choice, less hassle and often better service. Also, Amazon collects the VAT so no taxes are lost.

Contrarily, American communities could never stop adding retail space. Whenever Walmart or Best Buy wanted a new store, no community leaders turned down the potential local economic gains. But it led to too much space being built for a healthy sector, and certainly far too much given the market shift to on-line retail. Now retail is a classic over-served market, sort of like the need for stagecoaches and livery barns after the railroads were built.

Expect 50-67% of retail space to go vacant within a decade

How much retail space could go vacant in the USA?  Just invert the multiples from above. For the USA to have the same retail space as Spain implies an 87.5% reduction, Italy -89%, Germany -91%, Mexico -95.5%. Thus it is not hard to imagine a full 50-67% of America’s retail space to be empty in just 5 or 10 years. Americans would still have 2-3 times the retail space of other developed markets.

There is no doubt Amazon is a good employer, and on-line sales growth will employ hundreds of thousands at Amazon, and millions across the marketplace. Further, most of those jobs will pay a lot better than traditional retail jobs. But there is no sugar-coating the huge impact the ‘Amazon Effect’ will have on local economies and jobs. America is vastly overbuilt and over-supplied by retailers. There will be a huge shake-out, with dozens of retail failures. And there will be enormous amounts of vacant property sitting around, looking for some kind of alternative use. And local communities will find it difficult to meet constituent needs as sales tax and property tax receipts fall dramatically.

As I wrote in my column on February 28, this is going to be an enormous shift. Far bigger than the offshoring of manufacturing. The ‘Amazon Effect’ is automating retailing in ways never imagined by those who built all that retail space. As people keep buying on-line there will be a collapse of retail space pricing, and a collapse of industry participants.  Industry players always greatly under-estimate these shifts, so they aren’t projecting retail armaggedon. But in short order the need for retail will be like the need for dedicated, raised-floor computer centers to house mainframes, and later network hubs. It’s just going to go away.

Why Investors Should Support the Tesla, SolarCity Merger

Why Investors Should Support the Tesla, SolarCity Merger

In early August Tesla announced it would be buying SolarCity. The New York Times discussed how this combination would help CEO Elon Musk move toward his aspirations for greater clean energy use. But the Los Angeles Times took the companies to task for merging in the face of tremendous capital needs at both, while Tesla was far short of hitting its goals for auto and battery production.

Since then the press has been almost wholly negative on the merger. Marketwatch’s Barry Randall wrote that the deal makes no sense. He argues the companies are in two very different businesses that are not synergistic – and he analogizes this deal to GM buying Chevron. He also makes the case that SolarCity will likely go bankrupt, so there is no good reason for Tesla shareholders to “bail out” the company. And he argues that the capital requirements of the combined entities are unlikely to be fundable, even for its visionary CEO.

musk-tesla-solarcityFortune quotes legendary short seller Jim Chanos as saying the deal is “crazy.” He argues that SolarCity has an uneconomic business model based on his analysis of historical financial statements. And now Fortune is reporting that shareholder lawsuits to block the deal could delay, or kill, the merger.

But short-sellers are clearly not long-term investors. And there is a lot more ability for this deal to succeed and produce tremendous investor returns than anyone could ever glean from studying historical financial statements of both companies.

GM buying Chevron is entirely the wrong analogy to compare with Tesla buying SolarCity. Instead, compare this deal to what happened in the creation of television after General Sarnoff, who ran RCA, bought what he renamed NBC.

The world already had radio (just as we already have combustion powered cars.) The conundrum was that nobody needed a TV, especially when there were no TV programs. But nobody would create TV programs if there were no consumers with TVs. General Sarnoff realized that both had to happen simultaneously – the creation of both demand, and supply. It would only be by the creation, and promotion, of both that television could be a success. And it was General Sarnoff who used this experience to launch the first color televisions at the same time as NBC launched the first color programming – which fairly quickly pushed the industry into color.

Skeptics think Mr. Musk and his companies are in over their heads, because there are manufacturing issues for the batteries and the cars, and the solar panel business has yet to be profitable. Yet, the older among us can recall all the troubles with launching TV.

Early sets were not only expensive, they were often problematic, with frequent component failures causing owners to take the TV to a repairman. Often reception was poor, as people relied on poor antennas and weak network signals. It was common to turn on a set and have “snow” as we called it – images that were far from clear. And there was often that still image on the screen with the words “Technical Difficulties,” meaning that viewers just waited to see when programming would return. And programming was far from 24×7 – and quality could be sketchy. But all these problems have been overcome by innovation across the industry.

Yes, the evolution of electric cars will involve a lot of ongoing innovation. So judging its likely success on the basis of recent history would be foolhardy. Today Tesla sells 100% of its cars, with no discounts. The market has said it really, really wants its vehicles. And everybody who is offered electric panels with (a) the opportunity to sell excess power back to the grid and (b) financing, takes the offer. People enjoy the low cost, sustainable electricity, and want it to grow. But lacking a good storage device, or the inability to sell excess power, their personal economics are more difficult.

Electricity production, electricity storage (batteries) and electricity consumption are tightly linked technologies. Nobody will build charging stations if there are no electric cars. Nobody will build electric cars if there are not good batteries. Nobody will make better batteries if there are no electric cars. Nobody will install solar panels if they can’t use all the electricity, or store what they don’t immediately need (or sell it.)

This is not a world of an established marketplace, where GM and Chevron can stand alone. To grow the business requires a vision, business strategy and technical capability to put it all together. To make this work someone has to make progress in all the core technologies simultaneously – which will continue to improve the storage capability, quality and safety of the electric consuming automobiles, and the electric generating solar panels, as well as the storage capabilities associated with those panels and the creation of a new grid for distribution.

This is why Mr. Musk says that combining Tesla and SolarCity is obvious. Yes, he will have to raise huge sums of money. So did such early pioneers as Vanderbilt (railways,) Rockefeller (oil,) Ford (autos,) and Watson (computers.) More recently, Steve Jobs of Apple became heroic for figuring out how to simultaneously create an iPhone, get a network to support the phone (his much maligned exclusive deal with AT&T,) getting developers to write enough apps for the phone to make it valuable, and creating the retail store to distribute those apps (iTunes.) Without all those pieces, the ubiquitous iPhone would have been as successful as the Microsoft Zune.

It is fair for investors to worry if Tesla can raise enough money to pull this off. But, we don’t know how creative Mr. Musk may become in organizing the resources and identifying investors. So far, Tesla has beaten all the skeptics who predicted failure based on price of the cars (Tesla has sold 100% of its production,) lack of range (now up to nearly 300 miles,) lack of charging network (Tesla built one itself) and charging time (now only 20 minutes.) It would be shortsighted to think that the creativity which has made Tesla a success so far will suddenly disappear. And thus remarkably thoughtless to base an analysis on the industry as it exists today, rather than how it might well look in 3, 5 and 10 years.

The combination of Tesla and SolarCity allows Tesla to have all the components to pursue greater future success. Investors with sufficient risk appetite are justified in supporting this merger because they will be positioned to receive the future rewards of this pioneering change in the auto and electric utility industries.

Tesla Model 3 – This is What a “Game Changer” Looks Like

Tesla Model 3 – This is What a “Game Changer” Looks Like

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:

U.S.-Auto-Sales1Remarkably, 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.

 

Why Tesla Could Be the Next Apple – and Put a Hurt On Exxon

Why Tesla Could Be the Next Apple – and Put a Hurt On Exxon

A recent analyst took a look at the impact of electric vehicles (EVs) on the demand for oil, and concluded that they did not matter.  In a market of 95million barrels per day production, electric cars made a difference of 25,000 to 70,000 barrels of lost consumption; ~.05%.

You can’t argue with his arithmetic.  So far, they haven’t made any difference.

Charging_Tesla_Model_S_01But then he goes on to say they won’t matter for another decade.  He forecasts electric vehicle sales grow 5-fold in one decade, which sounds enormous.  That is almost 20% growth year over year for 10 consecutive years.  Admittedly, that sounds really, really big.  Yet, at 1.5million units/year this would still be only 5% of cars sold, and thus still not a material impact on the demand for gasoline.

This sounds so logical.  And one can’t argue with his arithmetic.

But one can argue with the key assumption, and that is the growth rate.

Do you remember owning a Walkman?  Listening to compact discs?  That was the most common way to listen to music about a decade ago.  Now you use your phone, and nobody has a walkman.

Remember watching movies on DVDs?  Remember going to Blockbuster, et.al. to rent a DVD?  That was common just a decade ago.  Now you likely have shelved the DVD player, lost track of your DVD collection and stream all your entertainment.  Bluckbuster, infamously, went bankrupt.

Do you remember when you never left home without your laptop?  That was the primary tool for digital connectivity just 6 years ago.  Now almost everyone in the developed world (and coming close in the developing) carries a smartphone and/or tablet and the laptop sits idle.  Sales for laptops have declined for 5 years, and a lot faster than all the computer experts predicted.

Markets that did not exist for mobile products 10 years ago are now huge.  Way beyond anyone’s expectations.  Apple alone has sold over 48million mobile devices in just 3 months (Q3 2015.)  And replacing CDs, Apple’s iTunes was downloading 21million songs per day in 2013 (surely more by now) reaching about 2billion per quarter.  Netflix now has over 65million subscribers. On average they stream 1.5hours of content/day – so about 1 feature length movie.  In other words, 5.85billion streamed movies per quarter.

What has happened to old leaders as this happened?  Sony hasn’t made money in 6 years.  Motorola has almost disappeared.  CD and DVD departments have disappeared from stores, bankrupting Circuit City and Blockbuster, and putting a world of hurt on survivors like Best Buy.

The point?  When markets shift, they often shift a lot faster than anyone predicts. 20%/year growth is nothing.  Growth can be 100% per quarter.  And the winners benefit unbelievably well, while losers fall farther and faster than we imagine.

Tesla was barely an up-and-comer in 2012 when I said they would far outperform GM, Ford and Toyota.  The famous Bob Lutz, a long-term widely heralded auto industry veteran chastised me in his own column “Tesla Beating Detroit – That’s Just Nonsense.”

Mr. Lutz said I was comparing a high-end restaurant to McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Pizza Hut, and I was foolish because the latter were much savvier and capable than the former.  He should have used as his comparison Chipotle, which I predicted would be a huge winner in 2011.  Those who followed my advice would have made more money owning Chipotle than any of the companies Mr. Lutz preferred.

The point? Market shifts are never predicted by incumbents, or those who watch history.  The rate of change when it happens is so explosive it would appear impossible to achieve, and far more impossible to sustain.  The trends shift, and one market is rapidly displaced by another.

While GM, Ford and Toyota struggle to maintain their mediocrity, Tesla is winning “best car” awards one after another – even “breaking” Consumer Reports review system by winning 103 points out of a maximum 100, the independent reviewer liked the car so much. Tesla keeps selling 100% of its production, even at its +$100K price point.

So could the market for EVs wildly grow?  BMW has announced it will make all models available as electrics within 10 years, as it anticipates a wholesale market shift by consumers promoted by stricter environmental regulations. Petroleum powered car sales will take a nosedive.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) points out that EVs are just .08% of all cars today. And of the 665,000 on the road, almost 40% are in the USA, where they represent little more than a rounding error in market share.  But there are smaller markets where EV sales have strong share, such as 12% in Norway and 5% in the Netherlands.

So what happens if Tesla’s new lower priced cars, and international expansion, creates a sea change like the iPod, iPhone and iPad?  What happens if people can’t get enough of EVs?  What happens if international markets take off, due to tougher regulations and higher petrol costs?  What happens if people start thinking of electric cars as mainstream, and gasoline cars as old technology — like two-way radios, VCRs, DVD players, low-definition picture tube TVs, land line telephones, fax machines, etc?

What if demand for electric cars starts doubling each quarter, and grows to 35% or 50% of the market in 10 years?  If so, what happens to Tesla?  Apple was a nearly bankrupt, also ran, tiny market share company in 2000 before it made the world “i-crazy.” Now it is the most valuable publicly traded company in the world.

Already awash in the greatest oil inventory ever, crude prices are down about 60% in the last year.  Oil companies have already laid-off 50,000 employees.  More cuts are planned, and defaults expected to accelerate as oil companies declare bankruptcy.

It is not hard to imagine that if EVs really take off amidst a major market shift, oil companies will definitely see a precipitous decline in demand that happens much faster than anticipated.

To little Tesla, which sold only 1,500 cars in 2010 could very well be positioned to make an enormous difference in our lives, and dramatically change the fortunes of its shareholders — while throwing a world of hurt on a huge company like Exxon (which was the most valuable company in the world until Apple unseated it.)

[Note: I want to thank Andreas de Vries for inspiring this column and assisting its research.  Andreas consults on Strategy Management in the Oil & Gas industry, and currently works for a major NOC in the Gulf.]

Congratulations Rangers Griest and Haver, You Aren’t Diverse – You’re Good

Congratulations Rangers Griest and Haver, You Aren’t Diverse – You’re Good

How clearly I remember.  I was in the finals of my third grade arithmetic competition.  Two of us at the chalkboard, we both scribbled the numbers read to us as fast as we could, did the sum and whirled to look at the judges.  Only my competitor was a hair quicker than me, so I was not the winner.

As we walked to the car my mother was quite agitated.  “You lost to a GIRL” she said; stringing out that last word like it was some filthy moniker not fit for decent company to here.  Born in 1916, to her it was a disgrace that her only son lost a competition to a female.

But it hit me like a tsunami wall.  I had underestimated my competitor.  And that was stupid of me.  I swore I would never again make the mistake of thinking I was better than someone because of my male gender, white skin color, protestant christian upbringing or USA nationality.  If I wanted to succeed I had to realize that everyone who competes gets to the end by winning, and they can/will beat me if I don’t do my best.

Army Officers and Rangers Griest and HaverThis week 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, 25, and Capt. Kristen Griest, 26, graduated Army Ranger training.  Maybe the toughest military training in the world.  And they were awarded their tabs because they were good – not because they were women.

In retrospect, it is somewhat incredible that it took this long for our country to begin training all people at this level.  If someone is good, why not let them compete?  In what way is it smart to hold back someone from competing based on something as silly as their skin color, gender, religious beliefs or sexual orientation?

Our country, in fact much of mankind, has had a long history of holding people back from competing. Those in power like to stay in power, and will use about any tool they can to maintain the status quo – and keep themselves in charge.  They will use private clubs, secret organizations, high investment rates, difficult admission programs, laws and social mores to “keep each to his own kind” as I heard far too often throughout my youth.

As I went to college I never forgot my 3rd grade experience, and I battled like crazy to be at the top of every class.  It was clear to me there were a lot of people as smart as I was.  If I wanted to move forward, it would be foolish to expect I would rise just because the status quo of the time protected healthy white males.  There were plenty of women, people of color, and folks with different religions who wanted the spot I wanted – and they would win that spot.  Maybe not that day, but soon enough.

In the 1980s I did a project for The Boston Consulting Group in South Africa.  As I moved around that segregated apartheid country it was clear to me that those supporting the status quo did so out of fear.  They weren’t superior to the native South Africans.  But the only way they could maintain their lifestyle was to prohibit these other people from competing.

And that proved to be untenable.  The status quo fell, and when it did many of European extraction quickly fled – unable to compete with those they long kept from competing.

In the last 30 years we’ve coined the term “diversity” for allowing people to compete.  I guess that is a nice, politically favorable way to say we must overcome the status quo tools used to hold people back.  But the drawback is that those in power can use the term to imply someone is allowed to compete, or even possibly wins, only because they were given “special permission” which implies “special terms.”

That is unfortunate, because most of the time the only break these folks got was being allowed to, finally, compete.  Once in the competition they frequently have to deal with lots of attacks – even from their own teammates. Jim Thorpe was a Native American who mesmerized Americans by winning multiple Gold Medals at the 1912 Olympics, and embarrassing the Germans then preaching national/racial superiority as they planned the launch of WW1.  But, once back on American soil it didn’t take long for his own countrymen to strip Mr. Thorpe of his medals, unhappy that he was an “Indian” rather than a white man.  He tragically died a homeless alcoholic.

And never forget all the grief Jackie Robinson bore as the first African-American professional athlete.   Branch Rickey overcame the status quo police by giving Mr. Robinson a chance to play in the all-white professional major league baseball.  But Mr. Robinson endured years of verbal and physical abuse in order to continue competing, well over and beyond anything suffered by any of his white peers. (For a taste of the difficulties catch the HBO docudrama “42.”)

In 2014, 4057 highly trained, fit soldiers entered Ranger training. 1,609 (40%) graduated.  In this latest class 364 soldiers started; 136 graduated (37%.)  Officers Griest and Haver are among the very best, toughest, well trained, well prepared, well armed and smartest soldiers in the entire world.  (If you have any doubts about this I encourage you to watch the HBO docudrama “Lone Survivor” about Army Rangers trapped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan.)

Officers Griest and Haver are like every other Ranger.  They are not “diverse.”  They are good.  Every American soldier who recognizes the strength of character and tenacity it took for them to become Rangers will gladly follow their orders into battle.  They aren’t women Rangers, they are Rangers.

When all Americans learn the importance of this lesson, and begin to see the world this way, we will allow our best to rise to the top.  And our history of finding and creating great leadership will continue.

Regulations Work – Applaud SOX and Dodd- Frank

Regulations Work – Applaud SOX and Dodd- Frank

Last week the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) pre-released some results of its 2015–2016 Public Company Governance Survey.  One major finding is that the makeup of Boards is changing, for the betterment of investors – and most likely everyone else in business.

Boards once had members that almost never changed.  Little was required of Directors, and accountability for Board members was low.  Since passage of the Securities Act of 1933, little had been required of Board members other than to applaud management and sign-off on the annual audit.  And there was nothing investors could do if a Board “checked out,” even in the face of poorly performing management.

But this has changed.  According to NACD, 72% of public boards reported they either added or changed a director in the last year.  That is up from 64% in the previous year.  Board members, and especially committee chairs, are spending a lot more time governing corporations. As a result “retiring in job” has become nearly impossible, and Board diversity is increasingly quite quickly.  And increased Board diversity is considered good for business.

Remember Enron, Arthur Anderson, Worldcom and Tyco?  At the century’s turn executives in large companies were working closely with their auditors to undertake risky business propositions yet keep these transactions and practices “off the books.”  As these companies increasingly hired their audit firm to also provide  business consulting, the auditors found it easier to agree with aggressive accounting interpretations that made company financials look better.  Some companies went so far as to lie to investors and regulators about their business, until their companies failed from the risks and unlawful activities.

Sarbanes-OxleyAs a result Congress passed the Sarbanes Oxley act in 2002 (SOX,) which greatly increased the duties of Board Directors – as well as penalties if they failed to meet their duties.  This law required Boards to implement procedures to unearth off-balance sheet items, and potential illegal activities such as bribing foreign officials or failing to meet industry reporting requirements for health and safety.  Boards were required to know what internal controls were in place, and were held accountable for procedures to implement those controls effectively.  And they were also required to make sure the auditors were independent, and not influenced by management when undertaking accounting and disclosure reviews.  These requirements were backed up by criminal penalties for CEOs and CFOs that fiddled with financial statements or retaliated on whistle blowers – and Boards were expected to put in place systems to discover possibly illegal executive behavior.

In short, Sarbanes Oxley increased transparency for investors into the corporation.  And it made Boards responsible for compliance.  The demands on Board Directors suddenly skyrocketed.

In reaction to the failure of Lehman Brothers and the almost total bank collapse of 2008, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010.  Most of this complex legislation dealt with regulating the financial services industry, and providing more protections for consumers and American taxpayers from risky banking practices.  But also included in Dodd-Frank were greater transparency requirements, such as details of executive compensation and how compensation was linked to company performance.  Companies had to report such things as the pay ratio of CEO pay to average employee compensation (final rules issued last week,) and had to provide for investors to actually vote on executive compensation (called “say on pay.”)  And responsibility for implementing these provisions, across all industries, fell again on the Board of Directors.

Thus, after 13 years of regulatory implementation, we are seeing change in corporate governance.  What many laypeople thought was the Board’s job from 1940-2000 is finally, actually becoming their job.  Real responsibility is now on the Directors’ shoulders.  They are accountable.  And they can be held responsible by regulators.

The result is a sea change in how Boards behave, and the beginnings of big change in Board composition.  Board members are leaving in record numbers.  Unable to simply hang around and collect a check for doing little, more are retiring.  The average age is lowering.  And diversity is increasing as more women, and people of color as well as non-European family histories are being asked onto Boards.  Recognizing the need for stronger Boards to make sure companies comply with regulations they are less inclined to idly stand by and watch management.  Instead, Boards are seeking talented people with diverse backgrounds to ask better questions and govern more carefully.

Most business people wax eloquently about the negative effect of regulations.  It is easy to find academic studies, and case examples, of the added cost incurred due to higher regulation.  But what many people fail to recognize are the benefits.  Thanks to SOX and Dodd-Frank companies are far more transparent than ever in history, and transparency is increasing – much to the benefit of investors, suppliers, customers and communities.  And corporate governance of everything from accounting to compensation to industry compliance is far more extensive, and better.  Because Boards are responsible, they are stronger, more capable and improving at a rate previously unseen – with dramatic improvement in diversity.  And we can thank Congress for the legislation which demanded better Board performance – to the betterment of all business.

Why Google Glass, Amazon Fire Phone and the Segway Failed

Why Google Glass, Amazon Fire Phone and the Segway Failed

Despite huge fanfare at launch, after a few brief months Google Glass is no longer on the market.  The Amazon Fire Phone was also launched to great hype, yet sales flopped and the company recently took a $170M write off on inventory.

Fortune mercilessly blamed Fire Phone’s failure on CEO Jeff Bezos.  The magazine blamed him for micromanaging the design while overspending on development, manufacturing and marketing.  To Fortune the product was fatally flawed, and had no chance of success according to the article.

Similarly, the New York Times blasted Google co-founder and company leader Sergie Brin for the failure of Glass. He was held responsible for over-exposing the product at launch while not listening to his own design team.

google-glass_

Both these articles make the common mistake of blaming failed new products on (1) the product itself, and (2) some high level leader that was a complete dunce.  In these stories, like many others of failed products, a leader that had demonstrated keen insight, and was credited with brilliant work and decision-making, simply “went stupid” and blew it.  Really?

Unfortunately there are a lot of new products that fail.  Such simplistic explanations do not help business leaders avoid a future product flop.   But there are common lessons to these stories from which innovators, and marketers, can learn in order to do better in the future.  Especially when the new products are marketplace disrupters; or as they are often called, “game changers.”

Segway

Do you remember Segway?  The two wheeled transportation device came on the market with incredible fanfare in 2002. It was heralded as a game changer in how we all would mobilize.  Founders predicted sales would explode to 10,000 units per week, and the company would reach $1B in sales faster than ever in history.  But that didn’t happen.  Instead the company sold less than 10,000 units in its first 2 years,  and less than 24,000 units in its first 4 years.  What was initially a “really, really cool product” ended up a dud.

There were a lot of companies that experimented with Segways.  The U.S. Postal Service tested Segways for letter carriers. Police tested using them in Chicago, Philadelphia and D.C., gas companies tested them for Pennsylvania meter readers, and Chicago’s fire department tested them for paramedics in congested city center.  But none of these led to major sales. Segway became relegated to niche (like urban sightseeing) and absurd (like Segway polo) uses.

Segway tried to be a general purpose product. But no disruptive product ever succeeds with that sort of marketing.  As famed innovation guru Clayton Christensen tells everyone, when you launch a new product you have to find a set of unmet needs, and position the new product to fulfill that unmet need better than anything else.  You must have a very clear focus on the product’s initial use, and work extremely hard to make sure the product does the necessary job brilliantly to fulfill the unmet need.

Nobody inherently needed a Segway.  Everyone was getting around by foot, bicycle, motorcycle and car just fine.  Segway failed because it did not focus on any one application, and develop that market as it enhanced and improved the product.  Selling 100 Segways to 20 different uses was an inherently bad decision. What Segway needed to do was sell 100 units to a single, or at most 2, applications.

Segway leadership should have studied the needs deeply, and focused all aspects of the product, distribution, promotion, training, communications and pricing for that single (or 2) markets.  By winning over users in the initial market Segway could have made those initial users very loyal, outspoken customers who would recommend the product again and again – even at a $4,000 price.

Segway should have pioneered an initial application market that could grow.  Only after that could Segway turn to a second market.  The first market could have been using Segway as a golfer’s cart, or as a walking assist for the elderly/infirm, or as a transport device for meter readers.  If Segway had really focused on one initial market, developed for those needs, and won that market it would have started a step-wise program toward more applications and success. By thinking the general market would figure out how to use its product, and someone else would develop applications for specific market needs, Segway’s leaders missed the opportunity to truly disrupt one market and start the path toward wider success.

amazon-fire-phoneThe Fire Phone had a great opportunity to grow which it missed.  The Fire Phone had several features making it great for on-line shopping.  But the launch team did not focus, focus, focus on this application.  They did not keep developing apps, databases and ways of using the product for retailing so that avid shoppers found the Fire Phone superior for their needs.  Instead the Fire Phone was launched as a mass-market device. Its retail attributes were largely lost in comparisons with other general purpose smartphones.

People already had Apple iPhones, Samsung Galaxy phones and Google Nexus phones.  Simultaneously, Microsoft was pushing for new customers to use Nokia and HTC Windows phones.  There were plenty of smartphones on the market. Another smartphone wasn’t needed – unless it fulfilled the unmet needs of some select market so well that those specific users would say “if you do …. and you need…. then you MUST have a FirePhone.”  By not focusing like a laser on some specific application – some specific set of unmet needs – the “cool” features of the Fire Phone simply weren’t very valuable and the product was easy for people to pass by.  Which almost everyone did, waiting for the iPhone 6 launch.

This was the same problem launching Google Glass.  Glass really caught the imagination of many tech reviewers.  Everyone I knew who put on Glass said it was really cool.  But there wasn’t any one thing Glass did so well that large numbers of folks said “I have to have Glass.”  There wasn’t any need that Glass fulfilled so well that a segment bought Glass, used it and became religious about wearing Glass all the time.  And Google didn’t improve the product in specific ways for a single market application so that users from that market would be attracted to buy Glass.  In the end, by trying to be a “cool tool” for everyone Glass ended up being something nobody really needed.  Exactly like Segway.

win10_holoLensMicrosoft recently launched its Hololens.  Again, a pretty cool gadget.  But, exactly what is the target market for Hololens?  If Microsoft proceeds down the road of “a cool tool that will redefine computing,” Hololens will likely end up with the same fate as Glass, Segway and Fire Phone.  Hololens marketing and development teams have to find the ONE application (maybe 2) that will drive initial sales, cater to that application with enhancements and improvements to meet those specific needs, and create an initial loyal user base.  Only after that can Hololens build future applications and markets to grow sales (perhaps explosively) and push Microsoft into a market leading position.

All companies have opportunities to innovate and disrupt their markets.  Most fail at this.  Most innovations are thrown at customers hoping they will buy, and then simply dropped when sales don’t meet expectations.  Most leaders forget that customers already have a way of getting their jobs done, so they aren’t running around asking for a new innovation.  For an innovation to succeed launchers must identify the unmet needs of an application, and then dedicate their innovation to meeting those unmet needs.  By building a base of customers (one at a time) upon which to grow the innovation’s sales you can position both the new product and the company as market leaders.