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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amazon echo

 

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

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

Can Apple Stop the Alexa juggernaut?

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

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

apple tv and siri image

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

Will we look back and call Echo a Disruptive Innovation?

Innovators Dilemma chart

Innovator’s Dilemma

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

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

The biggest loser in this new market is Microsoft

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

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

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

Build the base and developers will come…

The #1 Real Estate Stock To Own Is Built On Trends – Alexandria Real Estate Equities (NYSE:ARE)

The #1 Real Estate Stock To Own Is Built On Trends – Alexandria Real Estate Equities (NYSE:ARE)

Writing on trends, I frequently profile tech companies that use trends to outperform competitors. But using trends is not restricted to tech companies.

By following trends, since 1998 Alexandria Real Estate Equities has tripled the performance of the NASDAQ, quadrupled returns of the S&P 500, and quintupled the Russell 2000.  Alexandria has even outperformed technology stalwart Microsoft, and investment guru Berkshire Hathaway by 230%.

alexandria return comparisons

Although you probably never heard of it, Alexandria has trounced its real estate peers.  Over the last three years Alexandria has returned double the FTSE NAREIT Equity Office Index, and double the SNL US REIT Office Index.  Alexandria’s value has almost doubled during this time, and produced returns 2.3 times better than such well known competitors as Vornado Realty Trust and Boston Properties.

alexandria real estate three year shareholder return is

In 1983, Joel Marcus was a lawyer in the IPO market when he noticed the high value launch of biotech firms like Amgen and Genentech.  He began tracking the growth of biotechs to see what kind of opportunity might appear to serve these high growth companies.

By 1994 Marcus realized that these companies were struggling to find appropriate real estate to serve their unique needs for laboratory space, and the infrastructure these labs require.  It was a classic under-served market, and it was growing fast.

Jacobs Engineering (NYSE:JEC) was serving some of these companies’ needs, including erecting structures for them.  But Jacobs did not own any buildings or consider itself a real estate developer.  So Marcus approached Jacobs about starting a company to meet the real estate needs of this high growth biotech industry.  Marcus put up some money, Jacobs put up some money, and other friends/associates combined to raise $19 million.  There was no professionally managed money involved – and no real estate developers.

Biotech industry wordle

Focusing on the rapidly expanding biotech scene in San Diego, the newly created Alexandria bought 4 buildings.  They refocused the buildings on the unserved needs of local biotech companies and did a quick flip, breaking even on the transaction.  With just a bit of money Alexandria had proven that the market existed, the trend was real and users were under-served.

But, like any idea based on an emerging trend, growing was not easy.  Using their first transaction as “proof of concept” CEO Marcus and his team set out to raise $100 million. Quickly Paine Webber (now UBS) secured $75 million in debt financing.  But moving forward required raising $25 million in equity.

Over the next few weeks Alexandria pitched a slew of nay-sayers.  From GE Capital to CALPERS investors felt that their first deal was a “1-trick pony,” and this “niche market” was not a sustainable business.  Finally, after 29 failed pitches, the AEW pension fund, an early stage real estate investor, saw the trend and invested.

The Alexandria team realized that fast client growth meant there was no time to develop from ground up. They focused on high growth geographies for biotech, places where the trend was more pronounced, and bought 11 existing properties:

  • In Seattle they found a cancer center they could buy, improve and do a sale-leaseback
  • In San Francisco they identified a portfolio of properties in Alameda they could improve, lease to biotech companies and even suit the needs of the FDA as a tenant
  • In Maryland they identified opportunities to support the lab needs of the Army Corps of Engineers forensic research lab, and ATF testing lab for imported vodka, and a medical testing lab near Dulles – which is now leased to Quest Diagnostics

Realizing that companies needing labs tended to cluster, leadership focused on finding locations where clusters were likely to emerge.  They bought land in San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Worcester, MA. What looked like risky locations to others looked like profitable opportunities to Alexandria due to their superior trend research.

Historically pharma companies built their headquarters, and labs, in suburban locations where development was easy, and labs were welcome. Alexandria realized the new trend for emerging companies was to be near universities in urban environments, and although land was costly — and development more difficult — this was the right place to leverage the trend.

Today Alexandria is the bona fide market leader in labs and tech facilities in the USA. By seeing the trend early they bought land which is now so expensive it is practically untouchable – even for $1 billion. Their development pipeline includes Mission Bay, Kendall Square, the Manhattan borough of New York City and RTP (Research Triangle Park.) Today companies want to be where the lab is — and frequently the lab space is now owned, or being developed, by Alexandria.

alexandria real estate Campus Pointe, California
alexandria real estate equities Research Triangle Park
alexandria real estate equities new york

This didn’t happen by accident. Not at the beginning nor as Alexandria plans its future growth.  The company maintains a team of 13 researchers studying market trends in technology, and under-served real estate needs. They constantly track employers of tech/research people, competitors, historical and emerging customers — and identify prospective tech tenants who will need specialized real estate.  A few of the leading trends Alexandria follows include:

  • Urbanization — The siloed campuses set in bucolic suburbs is the past
  • Innovation externalization — Over 50% of innovation in big pharma is now outsourced. And universities are spinning out innovations faster than ever into development centers for testing and commercialization
  • Nutrition and disease management — These are emerging markets ripe with new products making their way to commercialization, and needing space to grow

Alexandria’s historical and ongoing successes relied first and foremost on using trends to understand underserved markets where needs will soon be the greatest.  This is an important lesson for all businesses. No matter what you do, what you sell, or your industry you can generate higher returns, outperform your peers, and outperform the market rewarding investors by identifying trends and investing in them.

Thanks to Joel Marcus for providing an interview to explain the history and current practices at Alexandria.

GE Needs A New Strategy And A New CEO

GE Needs A New Strategy And A New CEO

(Photo: General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)

General Electric stock had a small pop recently when investors thought CEO Jeffrey Immelt might be pushed out. Obviously more investors hope the CEO leaves than stays. And it appears clear that activist investor Nelson Peltz of Trian Partners thinks it is time for a change in CEO atop the longest running member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA.)

You can’t blame investors, however. Since he took over the top job at General Electric in 2001 (16 years ago) GE’s stock value has dropped 38%. Meanwhile, the DJIA has almost doubled. Over that time, GE has been the greatest drag on the DJIA, otherwise the index would be valued even higher! That is terrible performance — especially as CEO of one of America’s largest companies.

But, after 16 years of Immelt’s leadership, there’s a lot more wrong than just the CEO at General Electric these days. As the JPMorgan Chase analyst Stephen Tusa revealed in his analysis, these days GE is actually overvalued, “cash is weak, margins/share of customer wallet are already at entitlement, the sum of the parts valuation points to a low 20s stock price.” He goes on to share his pessimism in GE’s ability to sell additional businesses, or create cost lowering synergies or tax strategies.

Former Chairman and CEO of General Electric Jack Welch. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

What went so wrong under Immelt? Go back to 1981. GE installed Jack Welch as its new CEO.  Over the next 20 years there wasn’t a business Neutron Jack wouldn’t buy, sell or trade. CEO Welch understood the importance of growth. He bought business after business, in markets far removed from traditional manufacturing, building large positions in media and financial services. He expanded globally, into all developing markets. After businesses were  acquired the pressure was relentless to keep growing. All had to be no. 1 or no. 2 in their markets or risk being sold off. It was growth, growth and more growth.

 Welch’s focus on growth led to a bigger, more successful GE. Adjusted for splits, GE stock rose from $1.30 per share to $46.75 per share during the 20 year Welch leadership. That is an improvement of 35 times – or 3,500%. And it wasn’t just due to a great overall stock market.  Yes, the DJIA grew from 973 to 10,887 — or about 10.1 times. But GE outperformed the DJIA by 3.5 times (350%).  Not everything went right in the Welch era, but growth hid all sins — and investors did very, very, very well.

Under Welch, GE was in the rapids of growth. Welch understood that good operating performance was not enough. GE had to grow. Investors needed to see a path to higher revenues in order to believe in long term value creation. Immediate profits were necessary but insufficient to create value, because they could be dissipated quickly by new competitors. So Welch kept the headquarters team busy evaluating opportunities, including making some 600 acquisitions. They invested in things that would grow, whether part of historical GE, or not.

Jeff Immelt as CEO took a decidedly different approach to leadership. During his 16 year leadership GE has become a significantly smaller company. He sold off the plastics, appliances and media businesses — once good growth providers — in the name of “refocusing the company.” Plans currently exist to sell off the electrical distribution/grid business (Industrial Solutions) and water businesses, eliminating another $5 billion in annual revenue. He has dismantled the entire financial services and real estate businesses that created tremendous GE value, because he could not figure out how to operate in a more regulated environment. And cost cutting continues. In the GE Transportation business, which is supposed to remain, plans have been announced to double down on cost cutting, eliminating another 2,900 jobs.

Under Immelt GE has focused on profits. Strategy turned from looking outside, for new growth markets and opportunities, to looking inside for ways to optimize the company via business sales, asset sales, layoffs and other cost cutting. Optimizing the business against some sense of an historical “core” caused nearsighted — and shortsighted — quarterly actions, financial gyrations and transactions rather than building a sustainable, growing revenue stream. Under Immelt sales did not just stagnate, sales actually declined while leadership pursued higher margins.

By focusing on the “core” GE business (as defined by Immelt) and pursuing short term profit maximization, leadership significantly damaged GE. Nobody would have ever imagined an activist investor taking a position in Welch’s GE in an effort to restructure the company. Its sales growth was so good, its prospects so bright, that its P/E (price to earnings) multiple kept it out of activist range.

But now the vultures see the opportunity to do an even bigger, better job of whacking up GE — of tearing it into small bits while killing off all R&D and innovation — like they did at DuPont. Over 16 years Immelt has weakened GE’s business — what was the most omnipresent industrial company in America, if not the world – to the point that it can be attacked by outsiders ready to chop it up and sell it off in pieces to make a quick buck.

Thomas Edison, one of the world’s great inventors, innovators and founder of GE, would be appalled. That GE needs now, more than ever, is a leader who understands you cannot save your way to prosperity, you have to invest in growth to create future value and increase your equity valuation.

In May, 2012 (five years ago) I warned investors that Immelt was the wrong CEO. I listed him as the fourth worst CEO of a publicly traded company in America. While he steered GE out of trouble during the financial crisis, he also simply steered the company in circles as it used up its resources. Then was the time to change CEOs, and put in place someone with the fortitude to develop a growth strategy that would leverage the resources, and brand, of GE. But, instead, Immelt remained in place, and GE became a lot smaller, and weaker.

At this point, it is probably too late to save GE. By losing sight of the need to grow, and instead focusing on optimizing the old business while selling assets to raise cash for reorganizations, Immelt has destroyed what was once a great innovation engine. Now that the activists have GE in their sites it is unlikely they will let it ever return to the company it once was – creating whole new markets by developing new technologies that people never before imagined. The future looks a lot more like figuring out how to maximize the value of each piece of meat as it’s carved off the GE carcass.

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.

A salute to immigrants, America’s unsung national treasure

A salute to immigrants, America’s unsung national treasure

I’m amazed about Americans’ debate regarding immigration. And all the rhetoric from candidate Trump about the need to close America’s borders.

I was raised in Oklahoma, which prior to statehood was called The Indian Territory. I was raised around the only real Native Americans. All the rest of us are immigrants. Some voluntarily, some as slaves. But the fact that people want to debate whether we allow people to become Americans seems to me somewhat ridiculous, since 98% of Americans are immigrants. The majority within two generations.

immigrationThroughout America’s history, being an immigrant has been tough. The first ones had to deal with bad weather, difficult farming techniques, hostile terrain, wild animals – it was very difficult. As time passed immigrants continued to face these issues, expanding westward. But they also faced horrible living conditions in major cities, poor food, bad pay, minimal medical care and often abuse by the people already that previously immigrated.

And almost since the beginning, immigrants have been not only abused but scammed. Those who have resources frequently took advantage of the newcomers that did not. And this persists. Immigrants that lack a social security card are unable to obtain a driver’s license, unable to open bank accounts, unable to apply for credit cards, unable to even sign up for phone service. Thus they remain at the will of others to help them, which creates the opportunity for scamming.

Take for example an immigrant trying to make a phone call to his relatives back home. For most immigrants this means using a calling card. Only these cards are often a maze of fees, charges and complex rules that result in much of the card’s value being lost. A 10-minute call to Ghana can range from $2.86 to $8.19 depending on which card you use. This problem is so bad that the FCC has fined six of the largest card companies for misleading consumers about calling cards. They continue to advise consumers about fraud. And even Congress has held hearings on the problem.

One outcome of immigrants’ difficulties has been the ingenuity and innovativeness of Americans. To this day around the world people marvel at how clever Americans are, and how often America leads the world in developing new things. As a young country, and due to the combination of resources and immigrants’ tough situation, America frequently is first at developing new solutions to solve problems – many of which are problems that clearly affect the immigrant population.

So, back to that phone call. Some immigrants can use Microsoft Skype to talk with their relatives, using the Internet rather than a phone. But this requires the people back home have a PC and an internet connection. Both of which could be dicey. Another option would be to use something like Facebook’s WhatsApp, but this requires the person back home have either a PC or mobile device, and either a wireless connection or mobile coverage. And, again, this is problematic.

But once again, ingenuity prevails. A Romanian immigrant named Daniel Popa saw this problem, and set out to make communications better for immigrants and their families back home. In 2014 he founded QuickCall.com to allow users to make a call over wireless technology, but which can then interface with the old-fashioned wired (or wireless) telecom systems around the world. No easy task, since telephone systems are a complex environment of different international, national and state players that use a raft of different technologies and have an even greater set of complicated charging systems.

But this new virtual phone network, which links the internet to the traditional telecom system, is a blessing for any immigrant who needs to contact someone in a rural, or poor, location that still depends on phone service. If the person on the other end can access a WiFi system, then the calls are free. If the connection is to a phone system then the WiFi interface on the American end makes the call much cheaper – and performs far, far better than any other technology. QuickCall has built the carrier relationships around the world to make the connections far more seamless, and the quality far higher.

But like all disruptive innovations, the initial market (immigrants) is just the early adopter with a huge need. Being able to lace together an internet call to a phone system is pretty powerful for a lot of other users. Travelers heading to a remote location, like Micronesia, Africa or much of South America — and even Eastern Europe – can lower the cost of planning their trip and connect with locals by using QuickCall.com. And for most Americans traveling in non-European locations their cell phone service from Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or another carrier simply does not work well (if at all) and is very expensive when they arrive. QuickCall.com solves that problem for these travelers.

Small businesspeople who have suppliers, or customers, in these locations can use QuickCall.com to connect with their business partners at far lower cost. Businesses can even have their local partners obtain a local phone number via QuickCall.com and they can drive the cost down further (potentially to zero). This makes it affordable to expand the offshore business, possibly even establishing small scale customer support centers at the local supplier, or distributor, location.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma Clayton Christensen makes the case that disruptive innovations develop by targeting a customer with an unmet need. Usually the innovation isn’t as good as the current “standard,” and is also more costly. Today, making an international call through the phone system is the standard, and it is fairly cheap. But this solution is often unavailable to immigrants, and thus QuickCall.com fills their unmet need, and at a cost substantially lower than the infamous calling cards, and with higher quality than a pure WiFi option.

But now that it is established, and expanding to more countries – including developed markets like the U.K. – the technology behind QuickCall.com is becoming more mainstream. And its uses are expanding. And it is reducing the need for people to have international calling service on their wired or wireless phone because the available market is expanding, the quality is going up, and the cost is going down. Exactly the way all disruptive innovations grow, and thus threaten the entrenched competition.

The end-game may be some form of Facebook in-app solution. But that depends on Facebook or one of its competitors seizing this opportunity quickly, and learning all QuickCall.com already knows about the technology and customers, and building out that network of carrier relationships. Notice that Skype was founded in 2003, and acquired by Microsoft in 2011, and it still doesn’t have a major presence as a telecom replacement. Will a social media company choose to make the investment and undertake developing this new solution?

As small as QuickCall.com is – and even though you may have never heard of it – it is an example of a disruptive innovation that has been successfully launched, and is successfully expanding. It may seem like an impossibility that this company, founded by an immigrant to solve an unmet need of immigrants, could actually change the way everyone makes international calls. But, then again, few of us thought the iPhone and its apps would cause us to give up Blackberries and quit carrying our PCs around.

America is known for its ingenuity and innovations. We can thank our heritage as immigrants for this, as well as the immigrant marketplace that spurs new innovation. America’s immigrants have the need to succeed, and the unmet needs that create new markets for launching new solutions. For all those conservatives who fear “European socialism,” they would be wise to realize the tremendous benefits we receive from our immigrant population. Perhaps these naysayers should use QuickCall.com to connect with a few more immigrants and understand the benefits they bring to America.

Facebook’s Surge, Apple’s Slide and Chipotle’s Stall – It’s All About Growth

Facebook’s Surge, Apple’s Slide and Chipotle’s Stall – It’s All About Growth

Growth fixes a multitude of sins.  If you grow revenues enough (you don’t even need profits, as Amazon has proven) investors will look past a lot of things.  With revenue growth high enough, companies can offer employees free meals and massages. Executives and senior managers can fly around in private jets.  Companies can build colossal buildings as testaments to their brand, or pay to have thier names on  public buildings.  R&D budgets can soar, and product launches can fail. Acquisitions are made with no concerns for price. Bonuses can be huge.  All is accepted if revenues grow enough.

Just look at Facebook.  Today Facebook announced today that for the quarter ended March, 2016 revenues jumped to $5.4B from $3.5B a year ago.  Net income tripled to $1.5B from $500M.  And the company is basically making all its revenue – 82% – from 1 product, mobile ads.  In the last few years Facebook paid enormous premiums to buy WhatsApp and Instagram – but who cares when revenues grow this fast.

Anticipating good news, Facebook’s stock was up a touch today. But once the news came out, after-hours traders pumped the stock to over $118//share, a new all time high. That’s a price/earnings (p/e) multiple of something like 84.  With growth like that Facebook’s leadership can do anything it wants.

But, when revenues slide it can become a veritable poop puddle. As Apple found out.

Rumors had swirled that Apple was going to say sales were down.  And the stock had struggled to make gains from lows earlier in 2016. When the company’s CEO announced Tuesday that sales were down 13% versus a year ago the stock cratered after-hours, and opened this morning down 10%.  Breaking a streak of 51 straight quarters of revenue growth (since 2003) really sent investors fleeing.  From trading around $105/share the last 4 days, Apple closed today at ~$97.  $40B of equity value was wiped out in 1 day, and the stock trades at a p/e multiple of 10.

The new iPhone 6se outsold projections, iPads beat expectations.  First year Apple Watch sales exceeded first year iPhone sales.  Mac sales remain much stronger than any other PC manufacturer. Apple iBeacons and Apple Pay continue their march as major technologies in the IoT (Internet of Things) market. And Apple TV keeps growing.  There are about 13M users of Apple’s iMusic.  There are 1.5M apps on the iTunes store.  And the installed base keeps the iTunes store growing.  Share buybacks will grow, and the dividend was increased yet again.  But, none of that mattered when people heard sales growth had stopped.  Now many investors don’t think Apple’s leadership can do anything right.

Growth StallYet, that was just one quarter.  Many companies bounce back from a bad quarter.  There is no statistical evidence that one bad quarter is predictive of the next.  But we do know that if sales decline versus a year ago for 2 consecutive quarters that is a Growth Stall.  And companies that hit a Growth Stall rarely (93% of the time) find a consistent growth path ever again.  Regardless of the explanations, Growth Stalls are remarkable predictors of companies that are developing a gap between their offerings, and the marketplace.

Which leads us to Chipotle.  Chipotle announced that same store sales fell almost 30% in Q1, 2016.  That was after a 15% decline in Q4, 2015. And profits turned to losses for the quarter.  That is a growth stall.  Chipotle shares were $750/share back in early October. Now they are $417 – a drop of over 44%.

Customer illnesses have pointed to a company that grew fast, but apparently didn’t have its act together for safe sourcing of local ingredients, and safe food handling by employees.  What seemed like a tactical problem has plagued the company, as more customers became ill in March.

Whether that is all that’s wrong at Chipotle is less clear, however.  There is a lot more competition in the fast casual segment than 2 years ago when Chipotle seemed unable to do anything wrong.  And although the company stresses healthy food, the calorie count on most portions would add pounds to anyone other than an athlete or construction worker – not exactly in line with current trends toward dieting.  What frequently looks like a single problem when a company’s sales dip often turns out to have multiple origins, and regaining growth is nearly always a lot more difficult than leadership expects.

Growth is magical.  It allows companies to invest in new products and services, and buoy’s a stock’s value enhancing acquisition ability.  It allows for experimentation into new markets, and discovering other growth avenues.  But lack of growth is a vital predictor of future performance.  Companies without growth find themselves cost cutting and taking actions which often cause valuations to decline.

Right now Facebook is in a wonderful position.  Apple has investors rightly concerned.  Will next quarter signal a return to growth, or a Growth Stall?  And Chipotle has investors heading for the exits, as there is now ample reason to question whether the company will recover its luster of yore.

Can Netflix Double Pivot to Be a Media Game Changer?

Can Netflix Double Pivot to Be a Media Game Changer?

Netflix has been a remarkable company.  Because it has accomplished something almost no company has ever done.  It changed its business model, leading to new growth and higher profits.

Almost nobody pulls that off, because they remain stuck defending and extending their old model until they become irrelevant, or fail.  Think about Blackberry, that gave us the smartphone business then lost it to Apple and its creation of the app market.  Consider Circuit City, that lost enough customers to Amazon it could no longer survive.  Sun Microsystems disappeared after PC servers caught up to Unix servers in capability. Remember the Bell companies and their land-line and long distance services, made obsolete by mobile phones and cable operators?  These were some really big companies that saw their market shifts, but failed to “pivot” their strategy to remain competitive.

Netflix built a tremendous business delivering physical videos on tape and CD to homes, wiping out the brick-and-mortar stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video.  By 2008 Netflix reached $1B revenues, reducing Blockbuster by a like amount.  By 2010 Blockbuster was bankrupt.  Netflix’ share price soared from $50/share to almost $300/share during 2011.  By the end of 2012 CD shipments were dropping precipitously as streaming viewership was exploding.  People thought Netflix was missing the wave, and the stock plummeted 75%. Most folks thought Netflix couldn’t pivot fast enough, or profitably, either.

But in 2013 Netflix proved the analysts wrong, and the company built a very successful – in fact market leading – streaming business.  The shares soared, recovering all that lost value.  By 2015 the company had more than doubled its previous high valuation.

But Netflix may be breaking entirely new ground in 2016.  It is becoming a market leader in original programming.  Something we long attributed to broadcasters and/or cable distributors like HBO and Showtime.

Today’s broadcast companies, like NBC, CBS and ABC, are offering less and less original programming.  Overall there are 3 hours/night of prime time television which broadcasters used to “own” as original programming hours.  Over the course of a year, allowing for holidays and one open night per week, that meant about 900 hours of programming for each network (including reruns as original programming.)  But that was long ago.

Netflix Original ProgrammingThese days most of those hours are filled with sports – think evening games of football, basketball, baseball including playoffs and “March Madness” events.  Sports are far cheaper to program, and can fill a lot of hours.  Next think reality programming.  Showing people race across countries, or compete to survive a political battlefield on an island, or even dancing or dieting, uses no expensive actors or directors or sets.  It is far, far less expensive than writing, casting, shooting and programming a drama (like Blacklist) or comedy (like Big Bang Theory.)  Plan on showing every show twice in reruns, plus intermixing with the sports and reality shows, and most networks get away with around 200-250 hours of original programming per year.

Against that backdrop, Netflix has announced it will program 600 hours of original programming this year.  That will approximately double any single large broadcast network.  In a very real way, if you don’t want to watch sports or reality TV any more you probably will be watching some kind of “on demand” program.  Either streamed from a cable service, or from a provider such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.

When it comes to original programming, the old broadcast networks are losing their relevancy to streaming technology, personal video devices and the customer’s ability to find what they want, when they want it – and increasingly at a quality they prefer – from streaming as opposed to broadcast media.

To complete this latest “pivot,” from a video streaming company to a true media company with its own content, Morgan Stanley has published that Netflix is now considered by customers as the #1 quality programming across streaming services.  29% of viewers said Netflix was #1, followed by long-time winner HBO now #2 with 21% of customers saying their programming is best.  Amazon, Showtime and Hulu were seen as the best quality by 4%-5% of viewers.

So a decade ago Netflix was a CD distribution company.  The largest customer of the U.S. Postal Service. Signing up folks to watch physical videos in their homes.  Now they are the largest data streaming company on the planet, and one of the largest original programming producers and programmers in the USA – and possibly the world.  And in this same decade we’ve watched the network broadcast companies become outlets for sports and reality TV, while cutting far back on their original shows.  Sounds a lot like a market shift, and possibly Netflix could be the game changer, as it performs the first strategy double pivot in business history.

 

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.

 

Apple’s Debacle – Why Growth is All That Matters

Apple’s Debacle – Why Growth is All That Matters

Apple announced earnings for the 4th quarter this week, and the company was creamed.  Almost universally industry analysts and stock analysts had nothing good to say about the company’s reports, and forecast.  The stock ended the week down about 5%, and down a whopping 27.8% from its 52 week high.

Wow, how could the world’s #1 mobile device company be so hammered?  After all, sales and earnings were both up – again!  Apple’s brand is still one of the top worldwide brands, and Apple stores are full of customers.  It’s PC sales are doing better than the overall market, as are its tablet sales.  And it is the big leader in wearable devices with Apple Watch.

Yet, let’s compare the  stock price to earnings (P/E) multiple of some well known companies (according to CNN Money 1/29/16 end of day):

  • Apple – 10.3
  • Used car dealer AutoNation – 10.7
  • Food company Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) – 12.2
  • Industrial equipment maker Caterpillar Tractor – 12.9
  • Farm equipment maker John Deere – 13.3
  • Defense equipment maker General Dynamics – 15.1
  • Utility American Electric Power – 16.9
  • Industrial product company Illinois Tool Works (ITW) – 17.7
  • Industrial product company 3M – 19.5

isadWhat’s wrong with this picture?  It all goes to future expectations.  Investors watched Apple’s meteoric rise, and many wonder if it will have a similar, meteoric fall.  Remember the rise and fall of Digital Equipment? Wang? Sun Microsystems? Palm? Blackberry (Research in Motion)?  Investors don’t like companies where they fear growth has stalled.

And Apple’s presentation created growth stall fears.  While iPhone sales are enormous (75million units/quarter,) there was little percentage growth in Q4. And CEO Tim Cook actually predicted a sales decline next quarter!  iPod sales took off like a rocket years ago, but they have now declined for 6 straight quarters and there was no prediction of a return to higher sales volumes.  And as for future products, the company seems only capable of talking about Apple Watch, and so far few people have seen any reason to buy one.  Amidst this gloom, Apple presented an unclear story about a future based on services – a market that is at the very least vague, where Apple has no market presence, little experience and no brand position.  And wasn’t that IBM’s story some 2.5 decades ago?

In other words, Apple fed investor’s worst fears.  That growth had stopped.  And usually, like in the examples above, when growth stops – especially in tech companies – it presages a dramatic reversal in sales and profits.  Sales have been known to fall far, far faster than management predicts.  Although Apple has not yet entered a Growth Stall (which is 2 consecutive quarters of declining sales and/or profits, or 2 consecutive quarters  than the previous year’s sales or profits) investors are now worried that one is just around the corner.

Contrast this with Facebook.  P/E – 113.3.  Facebook said ad revenues rose 57%, and net income was up 2.2x the previous year’s quarter.  But what was really important was Facebook’s story about its future:

  • Facebook is now a “must buy” for advertisers
  • Mobile is the #1 ad trend, and 80% of revenues are from mobile
  • Revenue/user is up 33%, and growing
  • There are multiple unmonetized new markets that Facebook is just developing – Instagram, WhatsApp, FB Messenger and Oculus

In other words, the past was great – but the future will be even better.  The short-term result?  FB stock rose 7.4% for the week, and intraday hit a new 52 week high.  Facebook might have seemed like a fad 3 years ago, especially to older folks.  But now the company’s story is all about market trends, and how Facebook is offering products on those trends that will drive future revenue and profit growth.

Amazon may be an even better example of smart communications.  As everyone knows, Amazon makes no profit.  So it sells for an astonishing P/E of 846.9.  Amazon sales increased 22% in Q4, and Amazon continued gaining share of the fast growing, #1 trend in retail — ecommerce.  While WalMart and Macy’s are closing stores, Amazon is expanding and even creating its own logistics system.

Profits were up, but only 2/3 of expectations – ouch!  Anticipating higher sales and earnings announcements the stock had run up $40/share. But the earnings miss took all that away and more as the stock crashed about $70/share!  A wild 12.5% peak-to-trough swing was capped at end of week down a mere 2.5%.

But, Amazon did a great job, once again, of selling its future.  In addition to the good news on retail sales, there was ongoing spectacular growth in cloud services – meaning Amazon Web Services (AWS.)  JPMorganChase, Wells Fargo, Raymond James and Benchmark all raised their future price forecasts after the announcement, based on future performance expectations.  Even analysts who cut their price targets still kept price targets higher than where Amazon actually ended the week.  And almost all analysts expect Amazon one year from now to be worth more than its historical 52 week high, which is 19% higher than current pricing.

So, despite bad earnings news, Amazon continued to sell its growth story.  Growth can heal all wounds, if investors continue to believe.  We’ll see how it plays out, but for now things appear at least stable.

Steve Jobs was, by most accounts, an excellent showman.  But what he did particularly well was tell a great growth story.  No matter Apple’s past results, or concerns about the company, when Steve Jobs took the stage his team had crafted a story about Apple’s future growth.  It wasn’t about cash flow, cash in the bank, assets in place, market share or historical success – boring, boring.  There was an Apple growth story. There was always a reason for investor’s to believe that competitors will falter, markets will turn to Apple, and growth will increase!

Should investors think Apple is without future growth?  Unfortunately, the communications team at Apple last week let investors think so.  It is impossible to believe this is true, but the communicators this week simply blew it.  Because what they said led to nothing but headlines questioning the company’s future.

What should Apple have said?

  • Give investors a great news story about wearables.  Show applications in health care, retail, etc. that really makes investors think all those people with a Timex or Rolex will wear an AppleWatch in the future.  Apple sold investors the future of iPhone apps long before most of people used anything other than maps and weather – and the story led investors to believe if people didn’t have an iPhone they would miss out on something important, so they were bound to go buy one.  Where’s that story when it comes to wearables?
  • ApplePay is going to change the world.  While ApplePay is #1, investors are wondering if mobile payments is ever going to be big.  What will make it big, when, and what is Apple doing to make this a multi-billion dollar business?  ApplePay launched to a lot of hype, but very little has been said since.  Is this going to be the Apple version of Microsoft’s Zune?  Make investors believers in ApplePay.  Convince them this is worth a lot of future value.
  • iBeacons are one of the most important technology products in retail and inventory control.  iBeacons were launched as a great tool for local businesses, but since then Apple has said almost nothing.  B2B may not be as sexy as consumer markets, but Microsoft made investors believers in the value of enterprise products.  Demonstrate that Apple’s technology is the best, and give investors some stories about how companies are winning.  Most investors have forgotten about beacons and thus they no longer plan for substantial revenues.
  • Apple has the #1 mobile developer community, and the best products are yet to come – so sales are far from stalling.  Honestly, the developer war is critical.  The platform with the most developers wins the most customers.  Microsoft taught investors that.  But Apple never talks about its developer community.  IBM has made a huge commitment to develop iOS enterprise apps that should drive substantial future sales, but Apple isn’t exciting investors about that opportunity.  Tell investors more stories about how Apple is king of the developer world, and will remain in the top spot – better than Android or anyone – for years.  Tell investors this will turn users toward tablets from PCs faster, and iPod sales will start growing again as smartphone and wearable sales join suit.
  • Apple will win big revenues in auto markets.  There was lots of rumors about hiring people to design a car, and now firing the lead guy. What is going on?  Google has been pretty clear about its plans, but Apple offers investors no encouragement to think the company will succeed at even winning the war to be in other manufacturer’s cars, much less build its own.  Given that the story sounds limited for Apple’s “core” products, investors need some stories about Apple’s own “moonshot” projects.
  • Apple is not a 1-pony, iPhone story.  Make investors believe it.

Tim Cook and the rest of Apple leadership are obviously competent.  But when it comes to storytelling, this week their messaging looked like it was created as a high school communications project.  Growth is what matters, and Apple completely missed the target.  And investors are moving on to better stories – fast.

 

The 5 Stocks You Should Buy This Week

The 5 Stocks You Should Buy This Week

Stocks are starting 2016 horribly.  To put it mildly.  From a Dow (DJIA or Dow Jones Industrial Average) at 18,000 in early November values of leading companies have fallen to under 16,000 – a decline of over 11%.  Worse, in many regards, has been the free-fall of 2016, with the Dow falling from end-of-year close 17,425 to Friday’s 15,988 – almost 8.5% – in just 10 trading days!

With the bottom apparently disappearing, it is easy to be fearful and not buy stocks.  After all, we’re clearly seeing that one can easily lose value in a short time owning equities.

But if you are a long-term investor, then none of this should really make any difference.  Because if you are a long-term investor you do not need to turn those equities into cash today – and thus their value today really isn’t important.  Instead, what care about is the value in the future when you do plan to sell those equities.

Investors, as opposed to traders, buy only equities of companies they think will go up in value, and thus don’t need to worry about short-term volatility created by headline news, short-term politics or rumors.  For investors the most important issue is the major trends which drive the revenues of those companies in which they invest.  If those trends have not changed, then there is no reason to sell, and every reason to keep buying.

(1) Buy Amazon

Take for example Amazon.  Amazon has fallen from its high of about $700/share to Friday’s close of $570/share in just a few weeks – an astonishing drop of over 18.5%.  Yet, there is really no change in the fundamental market situation facing Amazon.  Either (a) something dramatic has changed in the world of retail, or (b) investors are over-reacting to some largely irrelevant news and dumping Amazon shares.

Everyone knows that the #1 retail trend is sales moving from brick-and-mortar stores to on-line.  And that trend is still clearly in place.  Black Friday sales in traditional retail stores declined in 2013, 2014 and 2015 – down 10.4% over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend.  For all December, 2015 retail sales actually declined from 2014.  Due to this trend, mega-retailer Wal-Mart announced last week it is closing 269 stores.  Beleaguered KMart also announced more store closings as it, and parent Sears, continues the march to non-existence.  Nothing in traditional retail is on a growth trend.

However, on-line sales are on a serious growth trend. In what might well be the retail inflection point, the National Retail Federation reported that more people shopped on line Black Friday weekend than those who went to physical stores (and that counts shoppers in categories like autos and groceries which are almost entirely physical store based.)  In direct opposition to physical stores, on-line sales jumped 10.4% Black Friday.

And Amazon thoroughly dominated on-line retail sales this holiday season.  On Black Friday Amazon sales tripled versus 2014.  Amazon scored an amazing 35% market share in e-commerce, wildly outperforming number 2 Best Buy (8%) and ten-fold numbers 3 and 4 Macy’s and WalMart that accomplished just over 3% market share each.

Clearly the market trend toward on-line sales is intact.  Perhaps accelerating.  And Amazon is the huge leader.  Despite the recent route in value, had you bought Amazon one year ago you would still be up 97% (almost double your money.)  Reflecting market trends, Wal-Mart has declined 28.5% over the last year, while the Dow dropped 8.7%.

Amazon may not have bottomed in this recent swoon.  But, if you are a long-term investor, this drop is not important.  And, as a long-term investor you should be gratified that these prices offer an opportunity to buy Amazon at a valuation not available since October – before all that holiday good news happened.  If you have money to invest, the case is still quite clear to keep buying Amazon.

FANGs(2) Buy Facebook

The trend toward using social media has not abated, and Facebook continues to be the gorilla in the room.  Nobody comes close to matching the user base size, or marketing/advertising opportunities Facebook offers.  Facebook is down 13.5% from November highs, but is up 24.5% from where it was one year ago.  With the trend toward internet usage, and social media usage, growing at a phenomenal clip, the case to hold what you have – and add to your position – remains strong.  There is ample opportunity for Facebook to go up dramatically over the next few years for patient investors.

(3) Buy Netflix

When was the last time you bought a DVD?  Rented a DVD?  Streamed a movie?  How many movies or TV programs did you stream in 2015? In 2013?  Do you see any signs that the trend to streaming will revert?  Or even decelerate as more people in more countries have access to devices and high bandwidth?

Last week Netflix announced it is adding 130 new countries to its network in 2016, taking the total to 190 overall.  By 2017, about the only place in the world you won’t be able to access Netflix is China.  Go anywhere else, and you’ve got it.  Additionally, in 2016 Netflix will double the number of its original programs, to 31 from 16. Simultaneously keeping current customers in its network, while luring ever more demographics to the Netflix platform.

Netflix stock is known for its wild volatility, and that remains in force with the value down a whopping 21.8% from its November high.  Yet, had you bought 1 year ago even Friday’s close provided you a 109% gain, more than doubling your investment.  With all the trends continuing to go its way, and as Netflix holds onto its dominant position, investors should sleep well, and add to their position if funds are available.

(4) Buy Google

Ever since Google/Alphabet overwhelmed Yahoo, taking the lead in search and on-line advertising the company has never looked back.  Despite all attempts by competitors to catch up, Google continues to keep 2/3 of the search market.  Until the market for search starts declining, trends continue to support owning Google – which has amassed an enormous cash hoard it can use for dividends, share buybacks or growing new markets such as smart home electronics, expanded fiber-optic internet availability, sensing devices and analytics for public health, or autonomous cars (to name just a few.)

The Dow decline of 8.7% would be meaningless to a shareholder who bought one year ago, as GOOG is up 37% year-over year.  Given its knowledge of trends and its investment in new products, that Google is down 12% from its recent highs only presents the opportunity to buy more cheaply than one could 2 months ago.  There is no trend information that would warrant selling Google now.

(5) Buy Apple

Despite spending most of the last year outperforming the Dow, a one-year investor would today be down 10.7% in Apple vs. 8.7% for the Dow.  Apple is off 27.6% from its 52 week high.  With a P/E (price divided by earnings) ratio of 10.6 on historical earnings, and 9.3 based on forecasted earnings, Apple is selling at a lower valuation than WalMart (P/E – 13).  That is simply astounding given the discussion above about Wal-mart’s operations related to trends, and a difference in business model that has Apple producing revenues of over $2.1M/employee/year while Walmart only achieve $220K/employee/year.  Apple has a dividend yield of 2.3%, higher than Dow companies Home Depot, Goldman Sachs, American Express and Disney!

Apple has over $200B cash. That is $34.50/share.  Meaning the whole of Apple as an operating company is valued at only $62.50/share – for a remarkable 6 times earnings.  These are the kind of multiples historically reserved for “value companies” not expected to grow – like autos!  Even though Apple grew revenues by 26% in fyscal 2015, and at the compounded rate of 22%/year from 2011- 2015.

Apple has a very strong base market, as the world leader today in smartphones, tablets and wearables.  Additionally, while the PC market declined by over 10% in 2015, Apple’s Mac sales rose 3% – making Apple the only company to grow PC sales.  And Apple continues to move forward with new enterprise products for retail such as iBeacon and ApplePay.  Meanwhile, in 2016 there will be ongoing demand growth via new development partnerships with large companies such as IBM.

Unfortunately, Apple is now valued as if all bad news imaginable could occur, causing the company to dramatically lose revenues, sustain an enormous downfall in earnings and have its cash dissipated.  Yet, Apple rose to become America’s most valuable publicly traded company by not only understanding trends, but creating them, along with entirely new markets.  Apple’s ability to understand trends and generate profitable revenues from that ability seems to be completely discounted, making it a good long-term investment.

In August, 2015 I recommended FANG investing.  This remains the best opportunity for investors in 2016 – with the addition of Apple.  These companies are well positioned on long-term trends to grow revenues and create value for several additional years, thereby creating above-market returns for investors that overlook short-term market turbulence and invest for long-term gains.