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.
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.
Throughout 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.
Most of the time “diversity” is a code word for adding women or minorities to an organization. But that is only one way to think about diversity, and it really isn’t the most important. To excel you need diversity in thinking. And far too often, we try to do just the opposite.
“Mythbusters” was a television series that ran 14 seasons across 12 years. The thesis was to test all kinds of things people felt were facts, from historical claims to urban legends, with sound engineering approaches to see if the beliefs were factually accurate – or if they were myths. The show’s ability to bust, or prove, these myths made it a great success.
The show was led by 2 engineers who worked together on the tests and props. Interestingly, these two fellows really didn’t like each other. Despite knowing each other for 20 years, and working side-by-side for 12, they never once ate a meal together alone, or joined in a social outing. And very often they disagreed on many aspects of the show. They often stepped on each others toes, and they butted heads on multiple issues. Here’s their own words:
“We get on each other’s nerves and everything all the time, but whenever that happens, we say so and we deal with it and move on,” he explained. “There are times that we really dislike dealing with each other, but we make it work.”
The pair honestly believed it is their differences which made the show great. They challenged each other continuously to determine how to ask the right questions, and perform the right tests, and interpret the results. It was because they were so different that they were so successful. Individually each was good. But together they were great. It was because they were of different minds that they pushed each other to the highest standards, never had an integrity problem, and achieved remarkable success.
Yet, think about how often we select people for exactly the opposite reason. Think about “knock-out” comments and questions you’ve heard that were used to keep from increasing the diversity:
- I wouldn’t want to eat lunch with that person, so why would I want to work with them?
- We find that people with engineering (or chemical, or fine arts, etc.) backgrounds do well here. Others don’t.
- We like to hire people from state (or Ivy League, etc) colleges because they fit in best
- We always hire for industry knowledge. We don’t want to be a training ground for the basics in how our industry works
- Results are not as important as how they were obtained – we have to be sure this person fits our culture
- Directors on our Board need to be able to get along or the Board cannot be effective
- If you weren’t trained in our industry, how could you be helpful?
- We often find that the best/top graduates are unable to fit into our culture
- We don’t need lots of ideas, or challenges. We need people that can execute our direction
- He gets things done, but he’s too rough around the edges to hire (or promote.) If he leaves he’ll be someone else’s problem.
In 2011 I wrote in Forbes “Why Steve Jobs Couldn’t Find a Job Today.” The column pointed out that hiring practices are designed for the lowest common denominator, not the best person to do a job. Personalities like Steve Jobs would be washed out of almost any hiring evaluation because he was too opinionated, and there would be concerns he would cause too much tension between workers, and be too challenging for his superiors.
Simply put, we are biased to hire people that think like us. It makes us comfortable. Yet, it is a myth that homogeneous groups, or cultures, are the best performing. It is the melding of diverse ways of thinking, and doing, that leads to the best solutions. It is the disagreement, the arguing, the contention, the challenging and the uncomfortableness that leads to better performance. It leads to working better, and smarter, to see if your assumptions, ideas and actions can perform better than your challengers. And it leads to breakthroughs as challenges force us to think differently when solving problems, and thus developing new combinations and approaches that yield superior returns.
What should we do to hire better, and develop better talent that produces superior results?
- Put results and accomplishments ahead of culture or fit. Those who succeed usually keep succeeding, and we need to build on those skills for everyone to learn how to perform better
- Don’t let ego into decisions or discussions. Too many bad decisions are made because someone finds their assumptions or beliefs challenged, and thus they let “hurt feelings” keep them from listening and considering alternatives.
- Set goals, not process. Tell someone what they need to accomplish, and not how they should do it. If how someone accomplishes their goals offends you, think about your own assumptions rather than attacking the other person. There can be no creativity if the process is controlled.
- Set big goals, and avoid the desire to set a lot of small goals. When you break down the big goal into sub-goals you effectively kill alternative approaches – approaches that might not apply to these sub-goals. In other words, make sure the big objective is front and center, then “don’t sweat the small stuff.”
- Reward people for thinking differently – and be very careful to not punish them. It is easy to scoff at an idea that sounds foreign, and in doing so kill new ideas. Often it’s not what they don’t know that is material, but rather what you don’t know that is most important.
- Be blind to gender, skin color, historical ancestry, religion and all other elements of background. Don’t favor any background, nor disfavor another. This doesn’t mean white men are the only ones who need to be aware. It is extremely easy for what we may call any minority to favor that minority. Assumptions linked to physical attributes and history run deep, and are hard to remove from our bias. But it is not these historical physical and educational elements that matter, it is how people think that matters – and the results they achieve.
Poke’Mon Go is a new sensation. Just launched on July 6, the app is already the #1 app in the world – and it isn’t even available in most countries. In less than 2 weeks, from a standing start, Nintendo’s new app is more popular than both Facebook and Snapchat. Based on this success, Nintendo’s equity valuation has jumped 90% in this same short time period.
Some think this is just a fad, after all it is just 2 weeks old. Candy Crush came along and it seemed really popular. But after initial growth its user base stalled and the valuation fell by about 50% as growth in users, time on app and income all fell short of expectations. And, isn’t the world of gaming dominated by the likes of Sony and Microsoft?
A bit of history
Nintendo launched the Wii in 2006 and it was a sensation. Gamers could do things not previously possible. Unit sales exceeded 20m units/year for 2006 through 2009. But Sony (PS4) and Microsoft (Xbox) both powered up their game consoles and started taking share from Nintendo. By 2011 Nintendo sale were down to 11.6m units, and in 2012 sales were off another 50%. The Wii console was losing relevance as competitors thrived.
Sony and Microsoft both invested heavily in their competition. Even though both were unprofitable at the business, neither was ready to concede the market. In fall, 2014 Microsoft raised the competitive ante, spending $2.5B to buy the maker of popular game Minecraft. Nintendo was becoming a market afterthought.
Meanwhile, back in 2009 Nintendo had 70% of the handheld gaming market with its 3DS product. But people started carrying the more versatile smartphones that could talk, text, email, execute endless apps and even had a lot of games – like Tetrus. The market for handheld games pretty much disappeared, dealing Nintendo another blow.
Competitor strategic errors
Fortunately, the bitter “fight to the death” war between Sony and Microsoft kept both focused on their historical game console business. Both kept investing in making the consoles more powerful, with more features, supporting more intense, lifelike games. Microsoft went so far as to implement in Windows 10 the capability for games to be played on Xbox and PCs, even though the PC gaming market had not grown in years. These massive investments were intended to defend their installed base of users, and extend the platform to attract new growth to the traditional, nearly 4 decade old market of game consoles that extends all the way back to Atari.
Both companies did little to address the growing market for mobile gaming. The limited power of mobile devices, and the small screens and poor sound systems made mobile seem like a poor platform for “serious gaming.” While game apps did come out, these were seen as extremely limited and poor quality, not at all competitive to the Sony or Microsoft products. Yes, theoretically Windows 10 would make gaming possible on a Microsoft phone. But the company was not putting investment there. Mobile gaming was simply not serious, and not of interest to the two Goliaths slugging it out for market share.
Building on trends makes all the difference
Back in 2014 I recognized that the console gladiator war was not good for either big company, and recommended Microsoft exit the market. Possibly seeing if Nintendo would take the business in order to remove the cash drain and distraction from Microsoft. Fortunately for Nintendo, that did not happen.
Nintendo observed the ongoing growth in mobile gaming. While Candy Crush may have been a game ignored by serious gamers, it nonetheless developed a big market of users who loved the product. Clearly this demonstrated there was an under-served market for mobile gaming. The mobile trend was real, and it’s gaming needs were unmet.
Simultaneously Nintendo recognized the trend to social. People wanted to play games with other people. And, if possible, the game could bring people together. Even people who don’t know each other. Rather than playing with unseen people located anywhere on the globe, in a pre-organized competition, as console games provided, why not combine the social media elements of connecting with those around you to play a game? Make it both mobile, and social. And the basics of Poke’Mon Go were born.
Then, build out the financial model. Don’t charge to play the game. But once people are in the game charge for in-game elements to help them be more successful. Just as Facebook did in its wildly successful social media game Farmville. The more people enjoyed meeting other people through the game, and the more they played, the more they would buy in-app, or in-game, elements. The social media aspect would keep them wanting to stay connected, and the game is the tool for remaining connected. So you use mobile to connect with vastly more people and draw them together, then social to keep them playing – and spending money.
The underserved market is vastly larger than the over-served market
Nintendo recognized that the under-served mobile gaming market is vastly larger than the overserved console market. Those console gamers have ever more powerful machines, but they are in some ways over-served by all that power. Games do so much that many people simply don’t want to take the time to learn the games, or invest in playing them sitting in a home or office. For many people who never became serious gaming hobbyists, the learning and intensity of serious gaming simply left them with little interest.
But almost everyone has a mobile phone. And almost everyone does some form of social media. And almost everyone enjoys a good game. Give them the right game, built on trends, to catch their attention and the number of potential customers is – literally – in the billions. And all they have to do is download the app. No expensive up-front cost, not much learning, and lots of fun. And thus in two weeks you have millions of new users. Some are traditional gamers. But many are people who would never be a serious gamer – they don’t want a new console or new complicated game. People of all ages and backgrounds could become immediate customers.
David can beat Goliath if you use trends
In the Biblical story, smallish David beat the giant Goliath by using a sling. His new technology allowed him to compete from far enough away that Goliath couldn’t reach David. And David’s tool allowed for delivering a fatal blow without ever touching the giant. The trend toward using tools for hunting and fighting allowed the younger, smaller competitor to beat the incumbent giant.
In business trends are just as important. Any competitor can study trends, see what people want, and then expand their thinking to discover a new way to compete. Nintendo lost the console war, and there was little value in spending vast sums to compete with Sony and Microsoft toe-to-toe. Nintendo saw the mobile game market disintegrate as smartphones emerged. It could have become a footnote in history.
But, instead Nintendo’s leaders built on trends to deliver a product that filled an unmet need – a game that was mobile and social. By meeting that need Nintendo has avoided direct competition, and found a way to dramatically grow its revenues. This is a story about how any competitor can succeed, if they learn how to leverage trends to bring out new products for under-served customers, and avoid costly gladiator competition trying to defend and extend past products.
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.
(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.
Dupont is one of America’s oldest corporations. Founded by e.i. duPont as a gunpowder manufacturer for the revolutionary war, the company has long been one of America’s leading business institutions. From humble beginnings, DuPont became well known as a leader in Research & Development, a consistent leader in patent applications, and the inventor of products that proliferate in our lives from nylon to Teflon pans plastic bottles to Kevlar vests.
But in a series of fast actions during 2015, DuPont as it has been known is going away. And it is too bad the leadership wasn’t in place to save it. Now there will be a short-term bump to investors, but long-term cost cutting will decimate a once great innovation leader. When the bankers take over, it’s never pretty for employees, suppliers, customers or the local community.
It has been a long time since DuPont was the kind of business leader that gathered attention like, say, Apple or Google. From dynamic roots, the company had become quite stodgy and unexciting. Many felt leadership was over-spending on overhead costs like R&D,product development and headquarters personnel.
Thus Trian Fund, led by activist investor Nelson Peltz, set its sites on DuPont, buying 2.7% of the shares and launching a proxy campaign to place its slate of directors on the Board. The objective? Slash R&D and other costs, sell some divisions, raise cash in a hurry and dress up the P&L for a higher short-term valuation.
These sort of attacks almost always work. But DuPont’s CEO, Ellen Kullman, dug in her heels and fought back. She aligned her Board, spent $15M making her case to shareholders, and in a surprising victory beat back Mr. Peltz keeping the board and management intact. In a great rarity, this May DuPont’s management convinced enough shareholders to back their efforts for improving the P&L via their own restructuring and cost improvements, planned divestitures and organic growth that existing leadership remained intact.
But this victory was quite short-lived. By October, Ms. Kullman was forced out as CEO. A few days later the CFO reported quarterly profits that were only half the previous year. Sales had continued a history of declining in almost all divisions and across almost all geographic segments – with total revenue down to $5B from $7.5B a year ago. As it had done in July and previous quarters end-of-year projections were again lowered.
Net/net – CEO Kullman and management may have won the Trian battle, but they clearly lost the business war. Unable to actually profitably grow the company, the Board lost patience. They were willing to support management, but when that team could not produce the innovations to keep growing they were willing to accelerate cost cutting ($1B in 2015 alone) in order to prop up short-term stock valuation.
Now the newly placed transaction-oriented CEO of Dupont has cooked up a deal the bankers simply love. Merge DuPont with Saran Wrap and Ziploc inventor Dow Chemical, which itself has been the target of Third Point’s activist leader Dan Loeb (which Dow settled by giving Third Point 2 board seats rather than risk a proxy battle.) Then whack even more costs – some $3B – and lay off some 20,000 of the combined companies’ 110,000 employees. Then split the remaining operations into 3 new companies and spin those out publicly.
Sounds so good on paper. So simple. And think of the size of the investment banking and legal fees!!!! That will create some great partner bonuses in 2016!
Theoretically, this will create 3 companies that are more profitable, even though sales are not improving at all. Improved P&L’s will be projected into the future, and higher P/E (price to earnings) multiples on the stock should yield investors a very nice short-term gain. A one-time investor “Christmas present.”
But what will investors actually own? The lower cost companies will now be largely without R&D, new product development, internal patent departments, university research grant management programs, and many of the finance, marketing and sales personnel. Exactly how will future growth be assured? What will happen to these once-great sources of invention and innovation?
Nothing about this mega-transaction actually makes business better for anyone:
- The companies are no closer aligned with market trends than before. In fact, lacking people in innovation positions (product development, R&D and marketing) they are very likely to become even further removed from the leading trends that could create breakthrough products.
- Competition will be reduced short-term, so there will be less price pressure. But longer-term innovation will shift to smaller companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, or even companies currently not on the industry radar – as well as universities. These big companies will be removed from the leading edge of competition, the innovation edge, and will much more likely miss the next wave of products in all markets as new competitors emerge.
- There will be no resources to develop or manage new innovations that emerge internally, or externally. The much smaller staffs will have no bandwidth to explore new technologies, new products, new go-to-market channels or new ways of doing business. There will be no resources for white space teams to explore market shifts, consider major threats to their “core,” or develop potentially disruptive businesses that will generate future growth.
A very smart CFO once told me “when the finance guys are figuring out how to make money, rather than the business guys, you need to be very worried.” Clever transactions, like the one proposed between DuPont and Dow, do not replace great leadership. These are one-time events, and almost always leave the remaining assets weaker and less competitive than before.
Leadership requires understanding markets, managing innovation, creating new solutions, disrupting old businesses by launching new ones, and generating recurring profitable sales growth. Unfortunately, DuPont suffered from a lack of great leadership for several years, which left it vulnerable. Now the bankers are in charge, busy managing spreadsheets rather than products, customers and sales.
Don’t be confused. In no way does this merger and reorganization improve the competitiveness of these businesses. And for that reason, it will not offer a long-term value enhancement for shareholders. But even more obvious is the outcome negative outcome we can expect for employees, suppliers, customers and the communities in which these companies have operated. Bad leadership let the hyenas in, and they will pick the best meat off the bone for themselves first – leaving seriously damaged carcasses for everyone else.
No. You’re not seeing things. These are goats in trees.
These goats love the fruit growing on argon trees west of Marrakesh, Morocco. They don’t care so much for the nut inside, so they spit it out. People gather those nuts and make them into argon oil highly valued for food and in beauty products.
I was startled by these goats. It was, at the very least, mentally disruptive. As I thought about the experience, I realized there were leadership lessons to be learned from these tree climbing goats:
- These goats don’t chase low hanging fruit. What they want is up in the trees, and the challenge did not stop them. It takes extraordinary measures to accomplish what they want, but they invested in the effort to be extraordinary. Once they learned to climb trees, something they easily could say was “not their core strength,” they left behind what was on the ground for the riches of success. These goats prove that if what you want is in the trees, you have to go for it. One should not settle for less. No leader should stay so focused on the past that they can’t figure out new ways to compete, and succeed.
- Once they became known for doing extraordinary things, people flocked to be next to these goats. People want to be near goats that are unusual, and in some way better than other goats. By seeking the extraordinary, and accomplishing the extraordinary, these goats merely need to “do their thing” and people are attracted to them. People will feed these goats, and even pay their shepherds to be next to them and take photos. Being extraordinary creates a winning situation that feeds on itself, creating additional wins – including attracting people to you.
- Because of their willingness to do something extraordinary, these goats have control over their shepherds. In a real way, the shepherds need the goats much more than the goats need the shepherds. The power wielded by tree climbing goats is not from being brutal, or micromanaging, or being “charismatic.” They simply developed their power via their willingness to do something extraordinary — something their shepherds will not do. Something most people will not do. Simultaneously, the goats share their wealth with the shepherds. While they receive lots of their favorite foods, the shepherds receive payments. The goats have a symbiotic, sharing relationship with their handlers, and the people who visit and feed them, where everyone wins.
Here’s the bottom line:
No matter what you are doing, strive for the extraordinary. You are not limited by “core strengths,” nor your past. If you can visualize a goal you can seek that goal and you can work to accomplish that goal. You can be extraordinary if you are willing to break out of your old self-definition and try. These goats didn’t become successful tree climbers in one day, but by accomplishing their goal over time they became quite extraordinary.
It is good to be extraordinary. Don’t just go for the low-hanging fruit, or what is easy. Innovate. Be disruptive. The path may not be easy, or obvious, but the payoff can be as extraordinary as the accomplishment.
So what’s stopping you from being extraordinary? What locks you in to your definition of your old “self?” What goal can you set, and work to accomplish, that will set you apart and demonstrate you are extraordinary, and a leader someone should admire?
Twitter’s Board decided in July to oust the CEO, Dick Costolo, due to frustration over company profits. As I wrote at the time, Twitter had continued to add members, at a rate comparable to its social media competition. And it had grown revenues, while remaining the industry leader in revenue per active user.
But the concern was a lack of profits. Oh my, if rapid revenue growth but weak profits were a reason to fire a CEO, how does Jeff Bezos keep his job?
Anyway, Mr. Costolo was replaced by an original founder and former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on an interim basis. Four months later, after failing in its effort to find a suitable full-time CEO, the Board has made Mr. Dorsey the permanent CEO. While he simultaneously remains full time CEO of Square, a mobile payments processing company.
As I said in my last column on this subject, investors better beware.
Facebook is tearing up the social media market. It has grown to be not only #1 in active monthly users, but at 1.5B monthly active users (MSUs) the site has 5 times the number of users that Twitter has. By adding a slew of new features and functions Facebook has become more valuable to its users – and advertisers.
According to Statista, simultaneously Facebook has grown Facebook Messenger to 700M MSUs, acquired WhatsApp with 800M MSUs and Instagram with 400M MSUs. By constantly expanding the ecosphere Facebook now has 3.4B MSUs – over 10 times the number of Twitter. Facebook is so dominant that even muscular Google, with all its resources, abandoned its efforts to compete with the juggernaut by killing Google+ (which had 300M MSUs) earlier in 2015.
Twitter had great organic growth numbers, but unlike competitors it does not dominate any particular category of social media. Linked in, with only 100M MSUs dominates business networking, and bosts a user base that skews older and more professional. Pinterest and Instagram are battling it out for leadership in photo sharing. But it is unclear how one would describe a social growth category that Twitter dominates.
I actively use Twitter. But among my peers I am the exception. When I ask people over 40 if they use Twitter I regularly hear “I don’t get it. It all looks completely chaotic. Why would I want to follow people on Twitter, and why would I want to post.” This sounds a lot like what people said of Facebook and Linked in 5 years ago. But those companies found their connection with users and people now “get it.”
So the question is whether Mr. Dorsey will make Twitter into a site that is ubiquitous, at least for one category. Can he make the product so useful that users can’t live without it, and that continues drawing in massive new numbers of users?
Twitter has not changed much at all since it was founded. It still depends on users to sign on, start tweeting, and search out others a user wants to follow. And that means follow for some reason other than that person is a celebrity or politician that simply can’t stop spouting off. The Twitter user has to hunt for like minded individuals, find a way to connect with folks who are informative to their needs and then create a dialogue — and all with pretty much the same character limits and shrunken link technology available many years ago.
Apple floundered as a manufacturer of niche PCs. The returning CEO, Steve Jobs, resurrected the company by putting all his money on mobile. It wasn’t an improved Mac that turned around Apple, but rather the launch of the iPod and iTunes, followed by the iPhone and the iPad. The way Apple stole the thunder from previously dominant Microsoft was by creating new products built on the mobile trend that led to explosive growth.
Mr. Costolo left Twitter in far better shape than Apple was in when Mr. Jobs retook the reins. But will Mr. Dorsey be able to launch a series of new products that can create an Apple-like growth explosion?
Square, where Mr. Dorsey ostensibly spends half his time, is preparing to go public. But, even though it is currently considered by many the leader in its marketplace, Square is looking down the barrel of ApplePay – a technology on every iPhone that could make it obsolete. Then there’s also Google Wallet that is on all the other smartphones. Plus well funded outfits like PayPal and Mastercard. Square will need a very competent, capable and visionary CEO to guide its development competing with these – and other – well funded and powerful companies. Square will need to add features, functions and benefits if it is create long-term value.
A lot of new products are needed by two relatively small companies in short order if they are to survive. Success will not happen by cutting costs in either. It will require intensive product development with very rapid product cycles that bring in millions upon millions of new users.
Twitter was once a disruptive innovator. Now it is hard to recognize any innovation at Twitter. Does Mr. Dorsey get it? And if he does, can he do it? And do it twice, simultaneously?
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.]
As market volatility reached new highs this week, CNBC began talking about something called “FANG Investing.” Most commentators showed great displeasure in the fact that prior to the recent downturn high growth companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANG) had performed much better than all the major market indices. And, in the short burst of recent recovery these companies again seemed to be doing much better.
Coined by “CNBC Mad Money” host Jim Cramer, he felt that FANG investing was bad for investors. He said he preferred seeing a much larger group of companies would go up in value, thus representing a much more stable marketplace.
Sound like Wall Street gobblygook? Good. Because as an individual investor why should you care about a stable market? What you should care about is your individual investments going up in value. And if yours go up and all others go down what difference does it make?
Most financial advisers today actually confuse investors much more than help them. And nowhere is this more true than when discussing risk. All financial advisers (brokers in the old days) ask how much risk you want as an investor. If you’re smart you say “none.” Why would you want any risk? You want to make money.
Only this is the wrong answer, because most investors don’t understand the question – because the financial adviser’s definition of risk is nothing like yours.
To a broker investment risk is this bizarre term called “beta,” created by economists. They defined risk as the degree to which a stock does not move with the market index. If the S&P down 5%, and the stock goes down 5%, then they see no difference between the stock and the “market” so they say it has no risk. If the S&P goes up 3% and the stock goes up 3%, again, no risk.
But if a stock trades based on its own investor expectation, and does not track the market index, then it is considered “high beta” and your broker will say it is “high risk.” So let’s look at Apple the last 5 years. If you had put all your money into Apple 5 years ago you would be up over 200% – over 4x. Had you bought the S&P 500 Index you would be up 80%. Clearly, investing in Apple would have been better. But your adviser would say that is “high risk.” Why? Because Apple did not move with the S&P. It did much better. It is therefore considered high beta, and high risk.
You buy that?
Thus, brokers keep advising investors buy funds of various kinds. Because the investors says she wants low risk, they try to make sure her returns mirror the indices. But it begs the question, why don’t you just buy an electronic traded fund (ETF) that mirrors the S&P or Dow, and quit paying those fund fees and broker fees? If their approach is designed to have you do no better than the average, why not stop the fees and invest in those things which will exactly give you the average?
Anyway, what individual investors want is high returns. And that has nothing to do with market indices or how a stock moves compares to an index. It has to do with growth.
Growth is a wonderful thing. When a company grows it can write off big mistakes and nobody cares. It can overpay employees, give them free massages and lunches, and nobody cares. It can trade some of its stock for a tiny company, implying that company is worth a vast amount, in order to obtain new products it can push to its customers, and nobody cares. Growth hides a multitude of sins, and provides investors with the opportunity for higher valuations.
On the other hand, nobody ever cost cut a company into prosperity. Layoffs, killing products, shutting down businesses and selling assets does not create revenue growth. It causes the company to shrink, and the valuation to decline.
That’s why it is lower risk to invest in FANG stocks than those so-called low-risk portfolios. Companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google — and Apple, EMC, Ultimate Software, Tesla and Qualcomm just to name a few others — are growing. They are firmly tied to technologies and products that are meeting emerging needs, and they know their customers. They are doing things that increase long-term value.
McDonald’s was a big winner for investors in the 1960s and 1970s as fast food exploded with the baby boomer generation. But as the market shifted McDonald’s sold off its investments in trend-linked brands Boston Market and Chipotle. Now its revenue has stalled, and its value is in decline as it shuts stores and lays off employees.
Thirty years ago GE tied its plans to trends in medical technology, financial services and media, and it grew tremendously making fortunes for its investors. In the last decade it has made massive layoffs, shut down businesses and sold off its appliance, financial services and media businesses. It is now smaller, and its valuation is smaller.
Caterpillar tied itself to the massive infrastructure growth in Asia and India, and it grew. But as that growth slowed it did not move into new businesses, so its revenues stalled. Now its value is declining as it lays off employees and shuts down business units.
Risk is tied to the business and its future expectations. Not how a stock moves compared to an index. That’s why investing in high growth companies tied to trends is actually lower risk than buying a basket of stocks — even when that basket is an index like DIA or SPY. Why should you own the low-or no-growth dogs when you don’t have to? How is it lower risk to invest in a struggling McDonald’s, GE or Caterpillar or some basket that contains them than investing in companies demonstrating tremendous revenue growth?
Good fishermen go where the fish are. Literally. Anybody can cast out a line and hope. But good fisherman know where the fish are, and that’s where they invest their bait. As an investor, don’t try to fish the ocean (the index.) Be smart, and put your money where the fish are. Invest in companies that leverage trends, and you’ll lower your risk of investment failure while opening the door to superior returns.