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.
Fortune 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 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.
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.
But 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.]
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.
This 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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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.”
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.
The 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.
Microsoft 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.
The Twelve Days of Christmas refers to an ancient festive season which begins on December 25. Colonial Americans modified this a bit by creating wreaths which they hung on neighbors’ doors on December 24 in anticipation of starting the festival of twelve days, which historically included feasts and celebrations.
Better known is the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which is believed to have started as a French folk rhyme, then later published in 1780 England. The song commemorates the twelve days of Christmas by offering ever grander gifts on each day of the holiday season.
So, it being Christmas Eve I am stealing this idea completely and offering my list of the 12 gifts investors would like to receive this holiday season from the companies into which they invest:
- Stop waxing eloquently about what you did last year or quarter. Yesterday has come and gone. Tell me about the future.
- Tell me about important trends that are going to impact your business. Is it demographics, aging population, the ecology movement, digitization, regulatory change, organic foods, mobility, mobile payments, nanotech, biotech… ? What are the critical trends that will impact your business going forward?
- Tell me your future scenarios. How will these trends change the way your customers and your company will behave? What are your most likely scenarios (and don’t try to be creative in an effort to preserve the status quo!)
- Tell me how the game will change for your industry over the next 1, 3, and 5 years. How will things be different for the industry, based on the trends and scenarios. The world is a fast changing place, and I want to know how this will change your industry.
- Tell me about the customers you lost last year. I gain no value from hearing about, or from, your favorite customers that love what currently do. Instead, bring me info on the customers who are buying alternative products, changing their behaviors, in ways that might impact sales. Even if these changes are only a small percentage of revenue.
- Tell me who the competitors are that are trying to change the game. Don’t tell me that these companies will fail. Tell me who the folks are that are really trying to do something new and different.
- Tell me about the fringe competitors. The ones you constantly say do not matter because they are small, or not part of the historical industry, or from some distant location where you don’t now compete. Tell me about the companies doing the new things which are seen as remote and immaterial, but are nibbling at the edges of the market.
- Tell me how you are reacting to potential game changers in your market. What are your plans to deal with disruptive competitors and disruptive innovations affecting your way of doing business? Other than working harder, faster, cheaper and planning to do better, what are you planning to do differently?
- Tell me how you intend to be a market game changer. Tell me what you intend to do that aligns with trends and leads the company toward fulfilling future scenarios as a market leader.
- Tell me what projects you are undertaking to experiment with new forms of competition, attracting new customers and creating new markets. Tell me about your teams that are working in white space to discover new opportunities.
- Tell me how you will disrupt your own organization so the constant effort to enhance the old success formula doesn’t kill any effort to do something new and different. How will you keep these experimental white space teams from being killed, or simply starved of resources, by the organizational inertia to defend and extend the status quo.
- Tell me the goals of these project teams, and how they will be nurtured and supplemented, as well as evaluated, to lead the company in new directions. Don’t just tell me that you will measure sales or profits, but rather real goals that measure market learning and ability to understand new customer behaviors.
If investors had this transparency, rather than merely reams and reams of historical data, just imagine how much smarter we could all invest.
Will the new Apple Pay product, revealed on iPhone 6 devices, succeed? There have been many entries into the digital mobile payments business, such as Google Wallet, Softcard (which had the unfortunate initial name of ISIS,) Square and Paypal. But so far, nobody has really cracked the market as Americans keep using credit cards, cash and checks.
But that looks like it might change, and Apple has a pretty good chance of making Apple Pay a success.
First, a look at some critical market changes. For decades we all thought credit card purchases were secure. But that changed in 2013, and picked up steam in 2014. With regularity we’ve heard about customer credit card data breaches at various retailers and restaurants. Smaller retailers like Shaw’s, Star Markets and Jewel caused some mild concern. But when top tier retailers like Target and Home Depot revealed security problems, across millions of accounts, people really started to notice. For the first time, some people are thinking an alternative might be a good idea, and they are considering a change.
In other words, there is now an underserved market. For a long time people were very happy using credit cards. But now, they aren’t as happy. There are people, still a minority, who are actively looking for an alternative to cash and credit cards. And those people now have a need that is not fully met. That means the market receptivity for a mobile payment product has changed.
Second let’s look at how Paypal became such a huge success fulfilling an underserved market. When people first began on-line buying transactions were almost wholly credit cards. But some customers lacked the ability to use credit cards. These folks had an underserved need, because they wanted to buy on-line but had no payment method (mailing checks or cash was risky, and COD shipments were costly and not often supported by on-line vendors.) Paypal jumped into that underserved market.
Quickly Paypal tied itself to on-line vendors, asking them to support their product. They went less to people who were underserved, and mostly to the infrastructure which needed to support the product. By encouraging the on-line retailers they could expand sales with Paypal adoption, Paypal gathered more and more sites. The 2002 acquisition by eBay was a boon, as it truly legitimized Paypal in minds of consumers and smaller on-line retailers.
After filling the underserved market, Paypal expanded as a real competitor for credit cards by adding people who simply preferred another option. Today Paypal accounts for $1 of every $6 spent on-line, a dramatic statistic. There are 153million Paypal digital wallets, and Paypal processes $203B of payments annually. Paypal supports 26 currencies, is in 203 markets, has 15,000 financial institution partners – all creating growth last year of 19%. A truly outstanding success story.
Back to traditional retail. As mentioned earlier, there is an underserved market for people who don’t want to use cash, checks or credit cards. They seek a solution. But just as Paypal had to obtain the on-line retailer backing to acquire the end-use customer, mobile payment company success relies on getting retailers to say they take that company’s digital mobile payment product.
Here is where Apple has created an advantage. Few end-use customers are terribly aware of retail beacons, the technology which has small (sometimes very small) devices placed in a store, fast food outlet, stadium or other environment which sends out signals to talk to smartphones which are in nearby proximity. These beacons are an “inside retail” product that most consumer don’t care about, just like they don’t really care about the shelving systems or price tag holders in the store.
Launched with iOS 7, Apple’s iBeacon has become the leader in this “recognize and push” technology. Since Apple installed Beacons in its own stores in December, 2013 tens of thousands of iBeacons have been installed in retailers and other venues. Macy’s alone installed 4,000 in 2014. Increasingly, iBeacons are being used by retailers in conjunction with consumer goods manufacturers to identify who is shopping, what they are buying, and assist them with product information, coupons and other purchase incentives.
Thus, over the last year Apple has successfully been courting the retailers, who are the infrastructure for mobile payments. Now, as the underserved payment issue comes to market it is natural for retailers to turn to the company with which they’ve been working on their “infrastructure” products.
Apple has an additional great benefit because it has by far the largest installed base of smartphones, and its products are very consistent. Even though Android is a huge market, and outsells iOS, the platform is not consistent because Android on Samsung is not like Android on Amazon’s Fire, for example. So when a retailer reaches out for the alternative to credit cards, Apple can deliver the largest number of users. Couple that with the internal iBeacon relationship, and Apple is really well positioned to be the first company major retailers and restaurants turn to for a solution – as we’ve already seen with Apple Pay’s acceptance by Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Duane Reed, McDonald’s Staples, Walgreen’s, Whole Foods and others.
This does not guarantee Apple Pay will be the success of Paypal. The market is fledgling. Whether the need is strong or depth of being underserved is marked is unknown. How consumers will respond to credit card use and mobile payments long-term is impossible to gauge. How competitors will react is wildly unpredictable.
But, Apple is very well positioned to win with Apple Pay. It is being introduced at a good time when people are feeling their needs are underserved. The infrastructure is primed to support the product, and there is a large installed base of users who like Apple’s mobile products. The pieces are in place for Apple to disrupt how we pay for things, and possibly create another very, very large market. And Apple’s leadership has a history of successfully managing disruptive product launches, as we’ve seen in music (iPod,) mobile phones (iPhone) and personal technology tools (iPad.)
Sony was once the leader in consumer electronics. A brand powerhouse who’s products commanded a premium price and were in every home. Trinitron color TVs, Walkman and Discman players, Vaio PCs. But Sony has lost money for all but one quarter across the last 6 years, and company leaders just admitted the company will lose over $2B this year and likely eliminate its dividend.
McDonald’s created something we now call “fast food.” It was an unstoppable entity that hooked us consumers on products like the Big Mac, Quarter Pounder and Happy Meal. An entire generation was seemingly addicted to McDonald’s and raised their families on these products, with favorable delight for the ever cheery, clown-inspired spokesperson Ronald McDonald. But now McDonald’s has hit a growth stall, same-store sales are down and the Millenial generation has turned its nose up creating serious doubts about the company’s future.
Radio Shack was the leader in electronics before we really had a consumer electronics category. When we still bought vacuum tubes to repair radios and TVs, home hobbyists built their own early versions of computers and video games worked by hooking them up to TVs (Atari, etc.) Radio Shack was the place to go. Now the company is one step from bankruptcy.
Sears created the original non-store shopping capability with its famous catalogs. Sears went on to become a Dow Jones Industrial Average component company and the leading national general merchandise retailer with powerhouse brands like Kenmore, Diehard and Craftsman. Now Sears’ debt has been rated the lowest level junk, it hasn’t made a profit for 3 years and same store sales have declined while the number of stores has been cut dramatically. The company survives by taking loans from the private equity firm its Chairman controls.
How in the world can companies be such successful pioneers, and end up in such trouble?
Markets shift. Things in the world change. What was a brilliant business idea loses value as competitors enter the market, new technologies and solutions are created and customers find they prefer alternatives to your original success formula. These changed markets leave your company irrelevant – and eventually obsolete.
Unfortunately, we’ve trained leaders over the last 60 years how to be operationally excellent. In 1960 America graduated about the same number of medical doctors, lawyers and MBAs from accredited, professional university programs. Today we still graduate about the same number of medical doctors every year. We graduate about 6 times as many lawyers (leading to lots of jokes about there being too many lawyers.) But we graduate a whopping 30 times as many MBAs. Business education skyrocketed, and it has become incredibly normal to see MBAs at all levels, and in all parts, of corporations.
The output of that training has been a movement toward focusing on accounting, finance, cost management, supply chain management, automation — all things operational. We have trained a veritable legion of people in how to “do things better” in business, including how to measure costs and operations in order to make constant improvements in “the numbers.” Most leaders of publicly traded companies today have a background in finance, and can discuss the P&L and balance sheets of their companies in infinite detail. Management’s understanding of internal operations and how to improve them is vast, and the ability of leaders to focus an organization on improving internal metrics is higher than ever in history.
But none of this matters when markets shift. When things outside the corporation happen that makes all that hard work, cost cutting, financial analysis and machination pretty much useless. Because today most customers don’t really care how well you make a color TV or physical music player, since they now do everything digitally using a mobile device. Nor do they care for high-fat and high-carb previously frozen food products which are consistently the same because they can find tastier, fresher, lighter alternatives. They don’t care about the details of what’s inside a consumer electronic product because they can buy a plethora of different products from a multitude of suppliers with the touch of a mobile device button. And they don’t care how your physical retail store is laid out and what store-branded merchandise is on the shelves because they can shop the entire world of products – and a vast array of retailers – and receive deep product reviews instantaneously, as well as immediate price and delivery information, from anywhere they carry their phone – 24×7.
“Get the assumptions wrong, and nothing else matters” is often attributed to Peter Drucker. You’ve probably seen that phrase in at least one management, convention or motivational presentation over the last decade. For Sony, McDonald’s, Radio Shack and Sears the assumptions upon which their current businesses were built are no longer valid. The things that management assumed to be true when the companies were wildly profitable 2 or 3 decades ago are no longer true. And no matter how much leadership focuses on metrics, operational improvements and cost cutting – or even serving the remaining (if dwindling) current customers – the shift away from these companies’ offerings will not stop. Rather, that shift is accelerating.
It has been 80 years since Harvard professor Joseph Schumpeter described “creative destruction” as the process in which new technologies obsolete the old, and the creativity of new competitors destroys the value of older companies. Unfortunately, not many CEOs are familiar with this concept. And even fewer ever think it will happen to them. Most continue to hope that if they just make a few more improvements their company won’t really become obsolete, and they can turn around their bad situation.
For employees, suppliers and investors such hope is a weak foundation upon which to rely for jobs, revenues and returns.
According to the management gurus at McKinsey, today the world population is getting older. Substantially so. Almost no major country will avoid population declines over next 20 years, due to low birth rates. Simultaneously, better healthcare is everywhere, and every population group is going to live a whole lot (I mean a WHOLE LOT) longer. Almost every product and process is becoming digitized, and any process which can be done via a computer will be done by a computer due to almost free computation. Global communication already is free, and the bandwidth won’t stop growing. Secrets will become almost impossible to keep; transparency will be the norm.
These trends matter. To every single business. And many of these trends are making immediate impacts in 2015. All will make a meaningful impact on practically every single business by 2020. And these trends change the assumptions upon which every business – certainly every business founded prior to 2000 – demonstrably.
Are you changing your assumptions, and your business, to compete in the future? If not, you could soon look at your results and see what the leaders at Sony, McDonald’s, Radio Shack and Sears are seeing today. That would be a shame.
Yesterday Amazon launched its new Kindle Fire smartphone.
“Ho-hum” you, and a lot of other people, said. “Why?” “What’s so great about this phone?”
The market is dominated by Apple and Samsung, to the point we no longer care about Blackberry – and have pretty much forgotten about all the money spent by Microsoft to buy Nokia and launch Windows 8. The world doesn’t much need a new smartphone maker – as we’ve seen with the lack of excitement around Google/Motorola’s product launches. And, despite some gee-whiz 3D camera and screen effects, nobody thinks Amazon has any breakthrough technology here.
But that would be completely missing the point. Amazon probably isn’t even thinking of competing heads-up with the 2 big guns in the smartphone market. Instead, Amazon’s target is everyone in retail. And they should be scared to death. As well as a lot of consumer products companies.
Amazon’s new Kindle Fire smartphone
Apple’s iPod and iPhones have some 400,000 apps. But most people don’t use over a dozen or so daily. Think about what you do on your phone:
- Talk, texting and email
- Check the weather, road conditions, traffic
- Listen to music, or watch videos
- Shopping (look for products, prices, locations, specs, availability, buy)
Now, you may do several other things. But (maybe not in priority,) these are probably the top 4 for 90% of people.
If you’re Amazon, you want people to have a great shopping experience. A GREAT experience. You’ve given folks terrific interfaces, across multiple platforms. But everything you do with an app on iPhones or Samsung phones involves negotiating with Apple or Google to be in their store – and giving them revenue. If you could bypass Apple and Google – a form of retail “middleman” in Amazon’s eyes – wouldn’t you?
Amazon has already changed retail markedly. Twenty years ago a retailer would say success relied on 2 things:
- Store location and layout. Be in the right place, and be easy to shop.
- Merchandise the goods well in the store, and have them available.
Amazon has killed both those tenets of retail. With Amazon there is no store – there is no location. There are no aisles to walk, and no shelves to stock. There is no merchandising of products on end caps, within aisles or by tagging the product for better eye appeal. And in 40%+ cases, Amazon doesn’t even stock the inventory. Availability is based upon a supplier for whom Amazon provides the storefront and interface to the customer, sending the order to the supplier for a percentage of the sale.
And, on top of this, the database at Amazon can make your life even easier, and less time consuming, than a traditional store. When you indicate you want item “A” Amazon is able to show you similar products, show you variations (such as color or size,) show you “what goes with” that product to make sure you buy everything you need, and give you different prices and delivery options.
Many retailers have spent considerably training employees to help customers in the store. But it is rare that any retail employee can offer you the insight, advice and detail of Amazon. For complex products, like electronics, Amazon can provide detail on all competitive products that no traditional store could support. For home fix-ups Amazon can provide detailed information on installation, and the suite of necessary ancillary products, that surpasses what a trained Home Depot employee often can do. And for simple products Amazon simply never runs out of stock – so no asking an aisle clerk “is there more in the back?”
And it is impossible for any brick-and-mortar retailer to match the cost structure of Amazon. No stores, no store employees, no cashiers, 50% of the inventory, 5-10x the turns, no “obsolete inventory,” no inventory loss – there is no way any retailer can match this low cost structure. Thus we see the imminent failure of Radio Shack and Sears, and the chronic decline in mall rents as stores go empty.
Some retailers have tried to catch up with Amazon offering goods on-line. But the inventory is less, and delivery is still often problematic. Meanwhile, as they struggle to become more digital these retailers are competing on ground they know precious little about. It is becoming commonplace to read about hackers stealing customer data and wreaking havoc at Michaels Stores and Target. Thus on-line customers have far more faith in Amazon, which has 2 decades of offering secure transactions and even offers cloud services secure enough to support major corporations and parts of the U.S. government.
And Amazon, so far, hasn’t even had to make a profit. It’s lofty price/earnings multiple of 500 indicates just how little “e” there is in its p/e. Amazon keeps pouring money into new ways to succeed, rather than returning money to shareholders via stock buybacks or dividends. Or dumping it into chronic store remodels, or new store construction.
Today, you could shop at Amazon from your browser on any laptop, tablet or phone. Or, if you really enjoy shopping on-line you can now obtain a new tablet or phone from Amazon which makes your experience even better. You can simply take a picture of something you want, and your new Amazon smartphone will tell you how to buy it on-line, including price and delivery. No need to leave the house. Want to see the product in full 360 degrees? You have it on your 3D phone. And all your buying experience, customer reviews, and shopping information is right at your fingertips.
Amazon is THE game changer in retail. Kindle was a seminal product that has almost killed book publishers, who clung way too long to old print-based business models. Kindle Fire took direct aim at traditional retailers, from Macy’s to Wal-Mart, in an effort to push the envelope of on-line shopping. And now the Kindle Fire smartphone puts all that shopping power in your palm, convenient with your other most commonplace uses such as messaging, fact finding, listening or viewing.
This is not a game changing smartphone in comparison with iPhone 5 or Galaxy S 5. But, as another salvo in the ongoing war for controlling the retail marketplace this is another game changer. It continues to help everyone think about how they shop today, and in the future. For anyone in retail, this may well be seen as another important step toward changing the industry forever, and making “every day low prices” an obsolete (and irrelevant) retail phrase. And for consumer goods companies this means the need to distribute products on-line will forever change the way marketing and selling is done – including who makes how much profit.