And the Winner Is – Netflix!!

Last week's earning's announcements gave us some big news.  Looking around the tech industry, a number of companies reported about as expected, and their stocks didn't move a lot.  Apple had robust sales and earnings, but missed analyst targets and fell out of bed!  But without a doubt, the big winner was Netflix, which beat expectations and had an enormous ~50% jump in valuation!

My what a difference 18 months makes (see chart.)  For anyone who thinks the stock market is efficient the value of Netflix should make one wonder.  In July, 2011 the stock ended a meteoric run-up to $300/share, only to fall 80% to $60/share by year's end.  After whipsawing between $50 and $130, but spending most of 2012 near the lower number, the stock is now up 3-fold to $160!  Nothing scares investors more than volatility – and this kind of volatility would scare away almost anyone but a day trader!

Yet, through all of this I have been – and I remain – bullish on Netflix.  During its run-up in 2010 I wrote "Why You Should Love Netflix," then when the stock crashed in late 2011 I wrote "The Case for Buying Netflix" and last January I predicted Netflix to be "the turnaround story of 2012."  It would be logical to ask why I would remain bullish through all the ups and downs of this cycle – especially since Netflix is still only about half of its value at its high-point.

Simply put, Netflix has 2 things going for it that portend a successful future:

  1. Netflix is in a very, very fast growing market.  Streaming entertainment.  People have what appears to be an insatiable desire for entertainment, and the market not only has grown at a breathtaking rate, but it will continue to grow extremely fast for several more quarters.  It is unclear where the growth rate may tap out for content delivery – putting Netflix in a market that offers enormous growth for all participants.
  2. Netflix leadership has shown a penchant for having the right strategy to remain a market leader – even when harshly criticized for taking fast action to deal with market shifts.  Specifically, choosing to rapidly cannibalize its own DVD business by aggressively promoting streaming – even at lower margins – meant Netflix chose growth over defensiveness.

In 2011 CEO Reed Hastings was given "CEO of the Year 2010" honors by Fortune magazine.  But in 2011, as he split Netflix into 2 businesses – DVD and streaming – and allowed them to price independently and compete with each other for customer business he was trounced as the "dunce" of tech CEOs

His actions led to a price increase of 60% for anyone who decided to buy both Netflix products, and many customers chose to drop one.  Analysts predicted this to be the end of Netflix. 

But in retrospect we can see the brilliance of this decision.  CEO Hastings actually did what textbooks tell us to do – he began milking the installed, but outdated, DVD business.  He did not kill it, but he began pulling profits and cash out of it to pay for building the faster growing, but lower margin, streaming business.  This allowed Netflix to actually grow revenue, and grow profits, while making the market transition from one platform (DVD) to another (streaming.)

Almost no company pulls off this kind of transition.  Most companies try to defend and extend the company's "core" product far too long, missing the market transition.  But now Netflix is adding around 2 million new streaming customers/quarter, while losing 400,000 DVD subscribers.  And with the price changes, this has allowed the company to add content and expand internationally — and increase profits!!

Marketwatch headlined that "Naysayers Must Feel Foolish."  But truthfully, they were just looking at the wrong numbers.  They were fixated on the shrinking installed base of DVD subscribers.  But by pushing these customers to make a fast decision, Netflix was able to convert most of them to its new streaming business before they went out and bought the service from a competitor. 

Aggressive cannibalization actually was the BEST strategy given how fast tablet and smartphone sales were growing and driving up demand for streaming entertainment.  Capturing the growth market was far, far more valuable than trying to defend the business destined for obsolescence. 

Netflix simply did its planning looking out the windshield, at what the market was going to look like in 3 years, rather than trying to protect what it saw in the rear view mirror.  The market was going to change – really fast.  Faster than most people expected.  Competitors like Hulu and Amazon and even Comcast wanted to grab those customers.  The Netflix goal had to be to go headlong into the cold, but fast moving, water of the new streaming market as aggressively as possible.  Or it would end up like Blockbuster that tried renting DVDs from its stores too long – and wound up in bankruptcy court.

There are people who still doubt that Netflix can compete against other streaming players.  And this has been the knock on Netflix since 2005.  That Amazon, Walmart or Comcast would crush the smaller company.  But what these analysts missed was that Amazon and Walmart are in a war for the future of retail – not entertainment – and their efforts in streaming were more to protect a flank in their retail strategy, not win in streaming entertainment.  Likewise, Comcast and its brethren are out to defend cable TV, not really win at anytime, anywhere streaming entertainment.  Their defensive behavior would never allow them to lead in a fast-growing new marketplace.  Thus the market was left for Netflix to capture – if it had the courage to rapidly cannibalize its base and commit to the new marketplace.

Hulu and Redbox are also competitors.  And they very likely will do very well for several years.  Because the market is growing very fast and can support multiple players.  But Netflix benefits from being first, and being biggest.  It has the most cash flow to invest in additional growth.  It has the largest subscriber base to attract content providers earlier, and offer them the most money.  By maintaining its #1 position – even by cannibalizing itself to do so – Netflix is able to keep the other competitors at bay; reinforcing its leadership position.

There are some good lessons here for everyone:

  1. Think long-term, not short-term.  A king can become a goat only to become a king again if he haa the right strategy.  You probably aren't as good as the press says when they like you, nor as bad as they say when hated.  Don't let yourself be goaded into giving up the long-term win for short-term benefits.
  2. Growth covers a multitude of sins!  The way Netflix launched its 2-division campaign in 2011 was a disaster.  But when a market is growing at 100%+ you can rapidly recover.  Netflix grew its streaming user base by more than 50% last year – and that fixes a lot of mistakes. Anytime you have a choice, go for the fast growing market!!
  3. Follow the trend!  Never fight the trend!  Tablet sales were growing at an amazing clip, while DVD players had no sales gains.  With tablet and smartphone sales eclipsing DVD player sales, the smart move was to go where the trend was headed.  Being first on the trend has high payoff.  Moving slowly is death.  Kodak failed to aggressively convert film camera customers to its own digital cameras, and it filed bankruptcy in 2012.
  4. Dont' forget to be profitable!  Even if it means raising prices on dated solutions that will eventually become obsolete – to customer howls.  You must maximize the profits of an outdated product line as fast as possible. Don't try to defend and extend it.  Those tactics use up cash and resources rather than contributing to future success.
  5. Cannibalizing your installed base is smart when markets shift.  Regardless the margin concerns.  Newspapers said they could not replace "print ad dollars" with "on-line ad dimes" so many went bankrupt defending the paper as the market shifted.  Move fast. Force the cannibalization early so you can convert existing customers to your solution, and keep them, before they go to an emerging competitor.
  6. When you need to move into a new market set up a new division to attack it.  And give them permission to do whatever it takes.  Even if their actions aggravate existing customers and industry participants.  Push them to learn fast, and grow fast – and even to attack old sacred cows (like bundled pricing.)

There were a lot of people who thought my call that Netflix would be the turnaround tech story of 2012 was simply bizarre.  But they didn't realize the implications of the massive trend to tablets and smartphones.  The impact is far-reaching – affecting not only computer companies but television, content delivery and content creation.  Netflix positioned itself to be a winner, and implemented the tactics to make that strategy work despite widespread skepticism. 

Hats off to Netflix leadership.  A rare breed.  That's why long-term investors should own the stock.

The Day TV Died – Winners and Losers (Comcast, Disney, CBS)

Remember when almost everyone read a daily newspaper

Newspaper readership peaked around 2000.  Since then printed media has declined, as readers shifted on-line.  Magazines have folded, and newspapers have disappeared, quit printing, dramatically cut page numbers and even more dramatically cut staff. 

Amazingly, almost no major print publisher prepared for this, even though the trend was becoming clear in the late 1990s. 

Newspapers are no longer a viable business.  While industry revenue grew for
almost 2 centuries, it collapsed in a mere decade.

Newspaper ad spending 1950-2010
Chart Source: BusinessInsider.com

This market shift created clear winners, and losers.  On-line news sites like Marketwatch and HuffingtonPost were clear winners.  Losers were traditional newspaper companies such as Tribune Corporation, Gannett, McClatchey, Dow Jones and even the New York Times Company.  And investors in these companies either saw their values soar, or practically disintegrate. 

In 2012 it is equally clear that television is on the brink of a major transition.  Fewer people are content to have their entertainment programmed for them when they can program it themselves on-line.  Even though the number of television channels has exploded with pervasive cable access, the time spent watching television is not growing.  While simultaneously the amount of time people spend looking at mobile internet displays (tablets, smartphones and laptops) is growing at double digit rates.

Web v mobile v TV consumption
Chart Source: Silicone Alley Insider Chart of the Day 12/5/12

It would be easy to act like newspaper defenders and pretend that television as we've known it will not change.  But that would be, at best, naive.  Just look around at broadband access, the use of mobile devices, the convenience of mobile and the number of people that don't even watch traditional TV any more (especially younger people) and the trend is clear.  One-way preprogrammed advertising laden television is not a sustainable business. 

So, now is the time to prepare.  And change your business to align with impending new realities.

Losers, and winners, will be varied – and not entirely obvious.  Firstly, a look at those trying to maintain the status quo, and likely to lose the most.

Giant consumer goods and retail companies benefitted from the domination of television.  Only huge companies like P&G, Kraft, GM and Target could afford to lay out billions of dollars for television ads to build, and defend, a brand.  But what advantage will they have when TV budgets no longer control brand building?  They will become extremely vulnerable to more innovative companies that have better products and move on fast lifecycles. Their size, hierarchy and arcane business practices will lead to huge problems.  Imagine a raft of new Hostess Brands experiences.

Even as the trends have started changing these companies have continued pumping billions into the traditional TV networks as they spend to defend their brand position.  This has driven up the value of companies like CBS, Comcast (owns NBC) and Disney (owns ABC) over the last 3 years substantially. But don't expect that to last forever. Or even a few more years.

Just like newspaper ad spending fell off a cliff when it was clear the eyeballs were no longer there, expect the same for television ad spending.  As giant advertisers find the cost of television harder and harder to justify their outlays will eventually take the kind of cliff dive observed in the chart (above) for newspaper advertising.  Already some consumer goods and ad agency executives are alluding to the fact that the rate of return on traditional TV is becoming sketchy.

So far, we've seen little at the companies which own TV networks to demonstrate they are prepared for the floor to fall out of their revenue stream.  While some have positions in a few internet production and delivery companies, most are clearly still doing their best to defend & extend the old business – just like newspaper owners did.  Just as newspapers never found a way to replace the print ad dollars, these television companies look very much like businesses that have no apparent solution for future growth.  I would not want my 401K invested in any major network company.

And there will be winners.

For smaller businesses, there has never been a better time to compete.  A company as small as Tesla or Fisker can now create a brand on-line at a fraction of the old cost.  And that brand can be as powerful as Ford, and potentially a lot more trendy. There are very low entry barriers for on-line brand building using not only ad words and web page display ads, but also using social media to build loyal followers who use and promote a brand.  What was once considered a niche can become well known almost overnight simply by applying the new dynamics of reaching customers on-line, and increasingly via mobile.  Look at the success of Toms Shoes.

Zappos and Amazon have shown that with almost no television ads they can create powerhouse retail brands.  The new retailers do not compete just on price, but are able to offer selection, availability and customer service at levels unachievable by traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.  They can suggest products and prices of things you're likely to need, even before you realize you need them.  They can educate better, and faster, than most retail store employees.  And they can offer great prices due to less overhead, along with the convenience of shipping the product right into your home. 

And as people quit watching preprogrammed TV, where will they go for content?  Anybody streaming will have an advantage – so think Netflix (which recently contracted for all the Disney content,) Amazon, Pandora, Spotify and even AOL.  But, this will also benefit those companies providing content access such as Apple TV, Google TV, YouTube (owned by Google) to offer content channels and the increasingly omnipresent Facebook will deliver up not only friends, but content — and ads. 

As for content creation, the deep pockets of traditional TV production companies will likely disappear along with their ability to control distribution.  That means fewer big-budget productions as risk goes up without revenue assurances. 

But that means even more ability for newer, smaller companies to create competitive content seeking audiences.  Where once a very clever, hard working Seth McFarlane (creator of Family Guy) had to hardscrabble with networks to achieve distribution, and live in fear of a single person controlling his destiny, in the future these creative people will be able to own their content and capture the value directly as they build a direct audience.  A phenomenon like George Lucas will be more achievable than ever before as what might look like chaos during transition will migrate to a much more competitive world where audiences, rather than network executives, will decide what content wins – and loses.

So, with due respects to Don McLean, will today be the day TV Died?  We will only know in historical context.  Nobody predicted newspapers had peaked in 2000, but it was clear the internet was changing news consumption behavior.  And we don't know if TV viewership will begin its rapid decline in 2013, or in a couple more years. But the inevitable change is clear – we just don't know exactly when.

So it would be foolish to not think that the industry is going to change dramatically.  And the impact on advertising will be even more profound, much more profound, than it was in print.  And that will have an even more profound impact on American society – and how business is done. 

What are you doing to prepare?

 

 

Buy Facebook Now – Catch a lucky break!

On May 18 Facebook went public with an opening price of $38/share.  Now, after just 2 weeks, it's more like $28.  Ouch – a 25%+ drop in such a short time makes nobody happy.  Except buyers.  And if you are interested in capturing a high rate of return with little risk, this is your lucky break!

The values of publicly traded companies change, often dramatically, based upon changes in performance and investor expectations about the future.  Trying to profit off fast price changes is the world of traders – and the vast majority of them lose fortunes rather than create them.  Knowing how to ignore whipsaw events, and invest in good companies when they are out of favor is important to long-term wealth creation. 

Investors make money by understanding product markets and the companies supplying them, then investing in companies that build upon trends to create revenue growth with high rates of return over several years.  In the forgettable 1999 movie "Blast from the Past" (Brendan Fraser, Christopher Walken, Sissy Spacek) a family moves into its nuclear blast shelter in 1960 during a panic, and doesn't come out for 35 years.  Fortunately, the father had bought shares of AT&T and other companies aligned with 1960 trends, and the family discovers upon re-emergence it is quite wealthy. 

Creating investment wealth means acting like them, buying shares in companies building on trends so you can hold shares for years without much worry.

If ever there was a company aligned with trends, it is Facebook.  The company did not create 900million users in 8 years by being lucky.  Facebook is the ultimate information era company.  Facebook is not a fad – any more than television or telephones were fads in 1960.  Just like they provided fundamental new ways of acquiring and disseminating information Facebook is the newest, most efficient and effective way for connecting and communicating in 2012.

When television appeared the mass population said "why?" There was radio, which was cheap, and older users said TV reduced the use of imagination.  And television was not available many hours per day.  But it didn't take long for CBS and its brethren to prove it could attract eyeballs, and soon Proctor & Gamble started paying for programming so it could promote its soaps (remember "soap operas?") Soon other companies developed programs strictly so they could promote their products. The "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" was sponsored by Geritol, and viewers were reminded of that over and over for 30 minutes every week.  Eventually the TV ad model changed, but the lesson is clear -  when you can attract eyeballs it has value and there will be businesses creative enough to take advantage.

Now television watching is declining.  Instead, people are spending more time on the internet – including via mobile devices.  And the location attracting the most people, and by far for the most minutes per day, is Facebook.  Facebook's access to so many people, so often, creates an audience many businesses and non-profits want to tap. 

Further, in the networked world Facebook not only has eyeballs, it delivers up to those eyeballs some 9 million apps, and knows what everyone wants, where they come from and where they go next.  Beyond the industrial-era business of selling ads (like Google,) Facebook's information business has significant value for anyone trying to promote or sell a solution.  Facebook is a repository of information about people, and their behavior, never before seen, understood or developed for use.

Around the IPO, General Motors decided to drop its  Facebook advertising.  That freaked some investors.  Cries arose that social media is somehow broken, and unable to develop a business model. 

Let's keep in mind who we're talking about here – GM.  Not the most innovative, forward thinking company, to put it mildly.  GM, like a lot of other plodding, but big spending, large companies has approached social media like it is just television on the web – and would prefer to simply put up a television ad on a Facebook like link.  Whoa! That would be akin to a 1960s TV ad that was simply the text from a newspaper ad.  Nobody would read it, and it simply wouldn't work. 

Television required a new kind of communication to reach customers – and social media does as well.  TV required the ad be entertaining, with movement, product use demonstrations, and video plus audio to go with the words.  Connecting with users was harder, but the message (and connection) could be far more robust.  And that is what advertisers are being forced to learn about Facebook/Social.  It has new requirements, but once understood companies can be remarkably successful at connecting with potential customers – far more than the traditional one-way approach of historical advertising.

Paid promotion on Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg – a one-way approach to advertising sure to create short-term revenue but not terribly robust.  Beyond that, social media changes everything. Retail, for example, is fast shifting from pushing inventory to being all about understanding the customer and offering them what they need in an anticipatory way (think Amazon rather than Best Buy.)  And nowhere can you better understand customer needs than by social media participation.  By being an information company, rather than an industrial company, FB is remarkably well positioned to create growth – for everybody that figures out how to use this remarkable platform.

As Facebook's shares kept falling this week, more attention was paid to whether traditional advertisers would buy FB.  And much was made about whether the "metrics" were there to justify social media investments.  This micro-management approach clearly misses the main point.  People are already on Facebook, their numbers are growing, their uses are growing, their time on the site is growing, and the benefits of using Facebook are growing.  Trying to measure Facebook use the way you would measure a print ad – or even a Google Adword buy – is simply using the wrong tool.

When P&G first started producing television "soaps" their competition sat back and said "look at what television advertising costs, compared to print and compared to pushing products into the local stores.  What is the return for each of those television shows?  Can it be justified? I think it is smarter to keep doing what we've done while P&G throws money at ads you can't measure."  By moving beyond the historically myopic view of trying to find returns at the micro level P&G quickly became (at the time) the world's largest consumer goods company.  Early TV advertisers followed the trend, knowing their participation would create returns far in excess of doing more of the old thing. And that is the direction of social media.

There was a lot of anticipatory excitement for the Facebook IPO.  Lots of people wanted shares, and couldn't buy them in advance.  The public, and the Morgan Stanley investment bankers, clearly thought the shares would go up.  Oops.  But that's a lucky thing for investors. Especially small investors, usually unable to participate in a "hot" IPO.  Now anybody can buy FB shares at a 25% discount to the offering price – a better deal than the institutional buyers that usually get the "sweet" deal little guys never see. 

If you are an employee, short term you might be unhappy.  But if you are an investor, be happy that worries about Greece, the Euro's future, domestic politics, a lousy jobs report and simple myths like  "sell in May and go away" have been a drag on equities this month – and diminished interest in Facebook. 

Buy FB shares, then forget about them for a while.  What you care about isn't the value of FB shares in 4 days, 4 weeks or 4 months – you care about 4 years.  If you missed the chance to buy Microsoft in 1986, or Amazon in 1997, or Apple in 2000, or Google in 2004 then don't miss this one.  There will be volatility, but the trends are all in your favor.

Sayonara Sony – How Industrial, MBA Management Killed a Great Company

Who can forget what a great company Sony was, and the enormous impact it had on our lives?  With its heritage, it is hard to believe that Sony hasn't made a profit in 4 consecutive years, just recently announced it will double its expected loss for this year to $6.4 billion, has only 15% of its capital left as equity (debt/equity ration of 5.67x) and is only worth 1/4 of its value 10 years ago!

After World War II Sony was the company that took the transistor technology invented by Texas Instruments (TI) and made the popular, soon to become ubiquitous, transistor radio.  Under co-founder Akio Morita Sony kept looking for advances in technology, and its leadership spent countless hours innovatively thinking about how to apply these advances to improve lives.  With a passion for creating new markets, Sony was an early creator, and dominator, of what we now call "consumer electronics:"

  • Sony improved solid state transistor radios until they surpassed the quality of tubes, making good quality sound available very reliably, and inexpensively
  • Sony developed the solid state television, replacing tubes to make TVs more reliable, better working and use less energy
  • Sony developed the Triniton television tube, which dramatically improved the quality of color (yes Virginia, once TV was all in black & white) and enticed an entire generation to switch.  Sony also expanded the size of Trinitron to make larger sets that better fit larger homes.
  • Sony was an early developer of videotape technology, pioneering the market with Betamax before losing a battle with JVC to be the standard (yes Virginia, we once watched movies on tape)
  • Sony pioneered the development of camcorders, for the first time turning parents – and everyone – into home movie creators
  • Sony pioneered the development of independent mobile entertainment by creating the Walkman, which allowed – for the first time – people to take their own recorded music with them, via cassette tapes
  • Sony pioneered the development of compact discs for music, and developed the Walkman CD for portable use
  • Sony gave us the Playstation, which went far beyond Nintendo in creating the products that excited users and made "home gaming" a market.

Very few companies could ever boast a string of such successful products.  Stories about Sony management meetings revealed a company where executives spent 85% of their time on technology, products and new applications/markets, 10% on human resource issues and 5% on finance.  To Mr. Morita financial results were just that – results – of doing a good job developing new products and markets.  If Sony did the first part right, the results would be good.  And they were.

By the middle 1980s, America was panicked over the absolute domination of companies like Sony in product manufacturing.  Not only consumer electronics, but automobiles, motorcycles, kitchen electronics and a growing number of markets.  Politicians referred to Japanese competitors, like the wildly successful Sony, as "Japan Inc." – and discussed how the powerful Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) effectively shuttled resources around to "beat" American manufacturers.  Even as rising petroleum costs seemed to cripple U.S. companies, Japanese manufacturers were able to turn innovations (often American) into very successful low-cost products growing sales and profits.

So what went wrong for Sony?

Firstly was the national obsession with industrial economics.  W. Edward Deming in 1950s Japan institutionalized manufacturing quality and optimization.  Using a combination of process improvements and arithmetic, Deming convinced Japanese leaders to focus, focus, focus on making things better, faster and cheaper.  Taking advantage of Japanese post war dependence on foreign capital, and foreign markets, this U.S. citizen directed Japanese industry into an obsession with industrialization as practiced in the 1940s — and was credited for creating the rapid massive military equipment build-up that allowed the U.S. to defeat Japan.

Unfortunately, this narrow obsession left Japanese business leaders, buy and large, with little skill set for developing and implementing R&D, or innovation, in any other area.  As time passed, Sony fell victim to developing products for manufacturing, rather than pioneering new markets

The Vaio, as good as it was, had little technology for which Sony could take credit.  Sony ended up in a cost/price/manufacturing war with Dell, HP, Lenovo and others to make cheap PCs – rather than exciting products.  Sony's evolved a distinctly Industrial strategy, focused on manufacturing and volume, rather than trying to develop uniquely new products that were head-and-shoulders better than competitors.

In mobile phones Sony hooked up with, and eventually acquired, Ericsson.  Again, no new technology or effort to make a wildly superior mobile device (like Apple did.)  Instead Sony sought to build volume in order to manufacture more phones and compete on price/features/functions against Nokia, Motorola and Samsung.  Lacking any product or technology advantage, Samsung clobbered Sony's Industrial strategy with lower cost via non-Japanese manufacturing.

When Sony updated its competition in home movies by introducing Blue Ray, the strategy was again an Industrial one – about how to sell Blue Ray recorders and players.  Sony didn't sell the Blue Ray software technology in hopes people would use it.  Instead it kept it proprietary so only Sony could make and sell Blue Ray products (hardware).  Just as it did in MP3, creating a proprietary version usable only on Sony devices.  In an information economy, this approach didn't fly with consumers, and Blue Ray was a money loser largely irrelevant to the market – as is the now-gone Sony MP3 product line.

We see this across practically all the Sony businesses.  In televisions, for example, Sony has lost the technological advantage it had with Trinitron cathode ray tubes.  In flat screens Sony has applied a predictable, but money losing Industrial strategy trying to compete on volume and cost.  Up against competitors sourcing from lower cost labor, and capital, countries Sony has now lost over $10B over the last 8 years in televisions.  Yet, Sony won't give up and intends to stay with its Industrial strategy even as it loses more money.

Why did Sony's management go along with this?  As mentioned, Akio Morita was an innovator and new market creator.  But, Mr. Morita lived through WWII, and developed his business approach before Deming.  Under Mr. Morita, Sony used the industrial knowledge Deming and his American peers offered to make Sony's products highly competitive against older technologies.  The products led, with industrial-era tactics used to lower cost. 

But after Mr. Morita other leaders were trained, like American-minted MBAs, to implement Industrial strategies.  Their minds put products, and new markets, second.  First was a commitment to volume and production – regardless of the products or the technology.  The fundamental belief was that if you had enough volume, and you cut costs low enough, you would eventually succeed.

By 2005 Sony reached the pinnacle of this strategic approach by installing a non-Japanese to run the company.  Sir Howard Stringer made his fame running Sony's American business, where he exemplified Industrial strategy by cutting 9,000 of 30,000 U.S. jobs (almost a full third.) To Mr. Stringer, strategy was not about innovation, technology, products or new markets.  

Mr. Stringer's Industrial strategy was to be obsessive about costs. Where Mr. Morita's meetings were 85% about innovation and market application, Mr. Stringer brought a "modern" MBA approach to the Sony business, where numbers – especially financial projections – came first.  The leadership, and management, at Sony became a model of MBA training post-1960.  Focus on a narrow product set to increase volume, eschew costly development of new technologies in favor of seeking high-volume manufacturing of someone else's technology, reduce product introductions in order to extend product life, tooling amortization and run lengths, and constantly look for new ways to cut costs.  Be zealous about cost cutting, and reward it in meetings and with bonuses.

Thus, during his brief tenure running Sony Mr. Stringer will not be known for new products.  Rather, he will be remembered for initiating 2 waves of layoffs in what was historically a lifetime employment company (and country.)  And now, in a nod to Chairman Stringer the new CEO at Sony has indicated he will  react to ongoing losses by – you guessed it – another round of layoffs.  This time it is estimated to be another 10,000 workers, or 6% of the employment.  The new CEO, Mr. Hirai, trained at the hand of Mr. Stringer, demonstrates as he announces ever greater losses that Sony hopes to – somehow – save its way to prosperity with an Industrial strategy.

Japanese equity laws are very different that the USA.  Companies often have much higher debt levels.  And companies can even operate with negative equity values – which would be technical bankruptcy almost everywhere else.  So it is not likely Sony will fill bankruptcy any time soon. 

But should you invest in Sony?  After 4 years of losses, and entrenched Industrial strategy with MBA-style leadership focused on "numbers" rather than markets, there is no reason to think the trajectory of sales or profits will change any time soon. 

As an employee, facing ongoing layoffs why would you wish to work at Sony?  A "me too" product strategy with little technical innovation that puts all attention on cost reduction would not be a fun place.  And offers little promotional growth. 

And for suppliers, it is assured that each and every meeting will be about how to lower price – over, and over, and over.

Every company today can learn from the Sony experience.  Sony was once a company to watch. It was an innovative leader, that pioneered new markets.  Not unlike Apple today.  But with its Industrial strategy and MBA numbers- focused leadership it is now time to say, sayonara.  Sell Sony, there are more interesting companies to watch and more profitable places to invest.

Buy Facebook, P&G’s CEO told you to

Buy Facebook.  I don't care what the IPO price is.

Since Facebook informed us it was going public, and it's estimated IPO valuation was reported, debate has raged over whether the company could possibly be worth $75-$100B.  Almost nobody writes that Facebook is undervalued, but many question whether it is overvalued. 

If you are a trader, moving in and out of positions monthly and using options to leverage short-term price swings then this article is not for you.  But, if you are an investor, someone who holds most stock purchases for a year or longer, then Facebook's IPO may be undervalued.  The longer you can hold it, the more you'll likely make.  Buy it in your IRA if possible, then let it build you a nice nest egg.

About 85% of Facebook's nearly $4B revenues, which almost doubled in 2011, are from advertising.  So understanding advertising is critical to knowing why you want to buy, and hold, Facebook

Facebook has 28% of the on-line display ad market, but only 5% of all on-line advertising.  On-line advertising itself is generally predicted to grow at 16%/year.  But there is a tremendous case to be made that the market will grow a whole lot faster, and Facebook's share will become a whole lot larger.

At the end of January Proctor & Gamble's stock took a hit as earnings missed expectations, and the CEO projected a tough year going forward.  He announced 1,600 layoffs, many in marketing, as he admitted the ad budget was going to be "moderated" – code for cut.  While advertising had grown at 24%/year sales were only growing at 6%.  He then admitted that the "efficiency" of on-line advertising was demonstrating the ability to be much higher than traditional advertising.  In other words, he is planning to cut traditional marketing and advertising, such as coupon printing and ads in newspapers and television, and spend more on-line.

P&G spends about $10B/year on advertising.  2.5x the Facebook revenue.  Now, imagine if P&G moves 10% – or 25% – of its advertising from television (which is now a $250B market) on-line.  That is $1-$2.5B per year, from just one company!  Such a "marginal" move, by just one company, adds 1-3% to the total on-line market.  Now, magnify that across Unilever, Danon, Kimberly-Clark, Colgate, Avon, Coke, Pepsi …… the 200 or 300 largest advertisers and it becomes a REALLY BIG number.

The trend is clear.  People spend less time watching TV and reading newspapers.  We all interact with information and entertainment more and more on computers and mobile devices.  Ad declines have already killed newspapers, and television is on the precipice of following its print brethren.  The market shift toward advertising on-line will continue, and the trend is bound to accelerate. 

Last year P&G launched an on-line marketing program for Old Spice.  The CEO singled out the 1.8 billion free impressions that received on-line.  When the CEO of one of the world's largest advertisers takes note, and says he's going to move that way, you can bet everyone is going to head that direction.  Especially as they recognize the poor "efficiency" of traditional media spending.

And don't forget the thousands of small businesses that have much smaller budgets.  Most of them rarely, or never, could afford traditional media.  On-line is not only more effective, but far cheaper.  Especially as mobile devices makes local marketing even more targeted and effective.  So as big companies shift to on-line we can expect small to medium sized businesses to shift as well, and new advertisers are being created which will expand the market even further.  This trend could lead to a much faster organic market growth rate beyond 16% – perhaps 25% or even more!

Which brings us back to Facebook, which will be the primary beneficiary of this market shift. 

Facebook is rapidly catching up with Google in the referral business.  850 million users is important, because it shows the ability Facebook has to bring people on-line, keep them on-line and then refer them somewhere.  The kind of thing that made Google famous, big and valuable with search a decade ago.  In fact, people spend much more time on Facebook than they do Google.  When advertisers want to reach their audience they go where the people are (and are being referred) and that is Facebook.  Nobody else is even close. 

The good thing about having a big user base, and one that shares information, is the ability to gather data.  Just like Google kept all those billions of searches to analyze and share data, increasingly Facebook is able to do the same.  Facebook will be able to tell advertisers how people interact, how they move between pages, what keeps them on a page and what leads to buying behavior.  Facebook uses this data to help users be more effective, just like Google does to help us do great searches.  But in the future Facebook can package and sell this data to advertisers, helping  them be more effective, and they can use it for selling, and placing, ads.

Facebook usage is dominant in social media, but becoming more dominant in all internet use.  Like how Windows became the dominant platform for PC users, Facebook is well on its way to being the platform for how we use the web.  Email will be less necessary as we communicate across Facebook with those we really want to know.  Information on topics of interest will stream to us through Facebook because we select them, or our friends refer them.  Solving problems will use referrals more, and searching less.  The platform will help us be much more efficient at using the internet, and that reinforces more usage and more users.  All the while attracting more advertisers.

The big losers will be traditional media.  We may watch sports live, but increasingly we'll be unwilling to watch streaming TV as the networks trained boomers.  Companies like NBC will suffer just as newspaper giants such as Tribune Corp., New York Times and Dow Jones.  Ad agencies will have a very tough time, as ad budgets drop their placement fees will decline concomittantly.  Lavish spending on big budget ads will also decline. 

Anyone in on-line advertising is likely to be a winner initially.  Linked-in, Twitter, Pinterest and Google will all benefit from the market shift.  But the biggest winner of all will be Facebook.

What if the on-line ad market grows 25%/year (think not possible? look at how fast the smartphone and tablet markets have grown while PC sales have stagnated last 2 years as that market shifted.  And don't forget that incremental amount could easily happen just by the top 50 CPG companies moving 10% of their budget!)?   That adds $20-$25B incrementally.  If Facebook's share shifts from 5% to 10% that would add $2-2.5B to Facebook first year; more than 50%! 

Blow those numbers up just a bit more.  Say double on-line advertising and give Facebook 20% share as people drop email and traditional search for Facebook – plus mobile device use continues escalating.  Facebook revenues could double up, or more, for several years as trends obsolete newspapers, magazines, televisions, radios, PCs and traditional thoughts about advertising.

If you missed out on AT&T in the 1950s, IBM in the 1960s, Microsoft in 1980, or Apple in 2000, don't miss this one.  Forget about all those spreadsheets and short-term analyst forecasts and buy the trend.  Buy Facebook.

The Case for Buying Netflix. Really.


Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, has long been considered a pretty good CEO.  In January, 2009 his approval ranking, from Glassdoor, was an astounding 93%.  In January, 2010 he was still on the top 25 list, with a 75% approval rating. And it's not surprising, given that he had happy employees, happy customers, and with Netflix's successful trashing of Blockbuster the company's stock had risen dramaticall,y leading to very happy investors.

But that was before Mr. Hastings made a series of changes in July and September.  First Netflix raised the price on DVD rentals, and on packages that had DVD rentals and streaming download, by about $$6/month.  Not a big increase in dollar terms, but it was a 60% jump, and it caught a lot of media attention (New York Times article).  Many customers were seriously upset, and in September Netflix let investors know it had lost about 4% of its streaming subscribers, and possibly as many as 5% of its DVD subscribers (Daily Mail). 

No investor wants that kind of customer news from a growth company, and the stock price went into a nosedive.  The decline was augmented when the CEO announced Netflix was splitting into 2 companies.  Netflix would focus on streaming video, and Quikster would focus on DVDs. Nobody understood the price changes – or why the company split – and investors quickly concluded Netflix was a company out of control and likely to flame out, ruined by its own tactics in competition with Amazon, et.al.

Neflix Price chart 10-3-2011 Yahoo (Source: Yahoo Finance 3 October, 2011)

This has to be about the worst company communication disaster by a market leader in a very, very long time.  TVWeek.com said Netflix, and Reed Hastings, exhibited the most self-destructive behavior in 2011 – beyond even the Charlie Sheen fiasco! With everything going its way, why, oh why, did the company raise prices and split?  Not even the vaunted New York Times could figure it out.

But let's take a moment to compare Netflix with another company having recent valuation troubles – Kodak. 

Kodak invented home photography, leading it to tremendous wealth as amature film sales soared for seveal decades.  But last week Kodak announced it was about out of cash, and was reaching into its revolving credit line for some $160million to pay bills.  This latest financial machination reinforced to investors that film sales aren't what they used to be, and Kodak is in big trouble – possibly facing bankruptcy.  Kodak's stock is down some 80% this year, from $6 to $1 – and quite a decline from the near $80 price it had in the late 1990s.

Kodak stock price chart 10-3-2011 Yahoo
(Source: Yahoo Finance 10-3-2011)

Why Kodak declined was well described in Forbes.  Despite its cash flow and company strengths, Kodak never succeeded beyond its original camera film business.  Heck, Kodak invented digital photography, but licensed the technology to others as it rabidly pursued defending film sales.  Because Kodak couldn't adapt to the market shift, it now is probably going to fail.

And that is why it is worth revisiting Netflix.  Although things were poorly explained, and certainly customers were not handled well, last quarter's events are the right move for investors in the shifting at-home video entertainment business:

  1. DVD sales are going the direction of CD's and audio cassettes.  Meaning down.  It is important Netflix reap the maximum value out of its strong DVD position in order to fund growth in new markets.  For the market leader to raise prices in low growth markets in order to maximize value is a classic strategic step.  Netflix should be lauded for taking action to maximize value, rather than trying to defend and extend a business that will most likely disappear faster than any of us anticipate – especially as smart TVs come along.
  2. It is in Netflix's best interest to promote customer transition to streaming.  Netflix is the current leader in streaming, and the profits are better there.  Raising DVD prices helps promote customer shifting to the new technology, and is good for Netflix as long as customers don't change to a competitor.
  3. Although Netflix is currently the leader in streaming it has serious competition from Hulu, Amazon, Apple and others.  It needs to build up its customer base rapidly, before people go to competitors, and it needs to fund its streaming business in order to obtain more content.  Not only to negotiate with more movie and TV suppliers, but to keep funding its exclusive content like the new Lillyhammer series (more at GigaOm.com).  Content is critical to maintaining leadership, and that requires both customers and cash.
  4. Netflix cannot afford to muddy up its streaming strategy by trying to defend, and protect, its DVD business.  Splitting the two businesses allows leaders of each to undertake strategies to maximize sales and profits.  Quikster will be able to fight Wal-Mart and Redbox as hard as possible, and Netflix can focus attention on growing streaming.  Again, this is a great strategic move to make sure Netflix transitions from its old DVD business into streaming, and doesn't end up like an accelerated Kodak story.

Historically, companies that don't shift with markets end up in big trouble.  AB Dick and Multigraphics owned small offset printing, but were crushed when Xerox brought out xerography.  Then, afater inventing desktop publishing at Xerox PARC, Xerox was crushed by the market shift from copiers to desktop printers – a shift Xerox created. Pan Am, now receiving attention due to the much hyped TV series launch, failed when it could not make the shift to deregulation.  Digital Equipment could not make the shift to PCs.  Kodak missed the shift from film to digital.  Most failed companies are the result of management's inability to transition with a market shift.  Trying to defend and extend the old marketplace is guaranteed to fail.

Today markets shift incredibly fast.  The actions at Netflix were explained poorly, and perhaps taken so fast and early that leadership's intentions were hard for anyone to understand.  The resulting market cap decline is an unmitigated disaster, and the CEO should be ashamed of his performance.  Yet, the actions taken were necessary – and probably the smartest moves Netflix could take to position itself for long-term success. 

Perhaps Netflix will fall further.  Short-term price predictions are a suckers game.  But for long-term investors, now that the value has cratered, give Netflix strong consideration.  It is still the leader in DVD and streaming.  It has an enormous customer base, and looks like the exodus has stopped.  It is now well organized to compete effectively, and seek maximum future growth and value.  With a better PR firm, good advertising and ongoing content enhancements Netflix has the opportunity to pull out of this communication nightmare and produce stellar returns.

 

 

 

 

Grow like (the) Amazon to Succeed – Invest outside your “core”


“It’s easier to succeed in the Amazon than on the polar tundra” Bruce Henderson, famed founder of The Boston Consulting Group, once told me.  “In the arctic resources are few, and there aren’t many ways to compete.  You are constantly depleting resources in life-or-death struggles with competitors.  Contrarily, in the Amazon there are multiple opportunities to grow, and multiple ways to compete, dramatically increasing your chances for success.  You don’t have to fight a battle of survival every day, so you can really grow.”

Today, Amazon(.com) is the place to be.  As the financial markets droop, fearful about the economy and America’s debt ceiling “crisis,” Amazon is achieving its highest valuation ever.  While the economy, and most companies, struggle to grow, Amazon is hitting record growth:

Amazon sales growth July 2011
Source: BusinessInsider.com

Sales are up 50% versus last year! The result of this impressive sales growth has been a remarkable valuation increase – comparable to Apple! 

  • Since 2009, valuation is up 5.5x
  • Over 5 years valuation is up 8x
  • Over the last decade Amazon’s value has risen 15x

How did Amazon do this?  Not by “sticking to its knitting” or being very careful to manage its “core.”  In 2001 Amazon was still largely an on-line book seller.

The company’s impressive growth has come by moving far from its “core” into new markets and new businesses – most far removed from its expertise.  Despite its “roots” and “DNA” being in U.S. books and retailing, the company has pioneered off-shore businesses and high-tech products that help customers take advantage of big trends.

Amazon’s earnings release provided insight to its fantastic growth.  Almost 50% of revenues lie outside the U.S.  Traditional retailers such as WalMart, Target, Kohl’s, Sears, etc. have struggled in foreign markets, and blamed poor performance on weak infrastructure and complex legal/tax issues.  But where competitors have seen obstacles, Amazon created opportunity to change the way customers buy, and change the industry using its game-changing technology and capabilities.  For its next move, according to Silicon Alley Insider, “Amazon is About to Invade India,” a huge retail market, in an economy growing at over 7%/year, with rising affluence and spendable income – but almost universally overlooked by most retailers due to weak infrastructure and complex distribution.

Amazon’s remarkable growth has occurred even though its “core” business of books has been declining – rather dramatically – the last decade.  Book readership declines have driven most independents, and large chains such as B. Dalton and more recently Borders, out of business. But rather than use this as an excuse for weak results, Amazon invested heavily in the trends toward digitization and mobility to launch the wildly successful Kindle e-Reader.  Today about half of all Amazon book sales are digital, creating growth where most competitors (hell-bent on trying to defend the old business) have dealt with stagnation and decline. 

Amazon did this without a background as a technology company, an electronics company, or a consumer goods company.  Additionally, Amazon invested in Kindle – and is now developing a tablet – even as these products cannibalized the historically “core” paper-based book sales.  And Amazon has pursued these market shifts, even though these new products create a significant threat to Amazon’s largest traditional suppliers – book publishers. 

Rather than trying to defend its old core business, Amazon has invested heavily in trends – even when these investments were in areas where Amazon had no history, capability or expertise!

Amazon has now followed the trends into a leading position delivering profitable “cloud” services.  Amazon Web Services (AWS) generated $500M revenue last year, is reportedly up 50% to $750M this year, and will likely hit $1B or more before next year.  In addition to simple data storage Amazon offers cloud-based Oracle database services, and even ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions from SAP.  In cloud computing services Amazon now leads historically dominant IT services companies like Accenture, CSC, HP and Dell.  By offering solutions that fulfill the emerging trends, rather than competing head-to-head in traditional service areas, Amazon is growing dramatically and avoiding a gladiator war.  And capturing big sales and profits as the marketplace explodes.

Amazon created 5,300 U.S. jobs last quarter.  Organic revenue growth was 44%.  Cash flow increased 25%.  All because the company continued expanding into new markets, including not only new retail markets, and digital publishing, but video downloads and television streaming – including making a deal to deliver CBS shows and archive. 

Amazon’s willingness to go beyond conventional wisdom has been critical to its success.  GeekWire.com gives insight into how Amazon makes these critical resource decisions in “Jeff Bezos on Innovation” (taken from comments at a shareholder meeting June 7, 2011):

  • “you just have to place a bet.  If you place enough of those bets, and if you place them early enough, none of them are ever betting the company”
  • “By the time you are betting the company, it means you haven’t invented for too long”
  • “If you invent frequently and are willing to fail, then you never get to the point where you really need to bet the whole company”
  • “We are planting more seeds…everything we do will not work…I am never concerned about that”
  • “my mind never lets me get in a place where I think we can’t afford to take these bets”
  • “A big piece of the story we tell ourselves about who we are, is that we are willing to invent”

If you want to succeed, there are ample lessons at Amazon.  Be willing to enter new markets, be willing to experiment and learn, don’t play “bet the company” by waiting too long, and be willing to invest in trends – especially when existing competitors (and suppliers) are hesitant.

Throw away that slide rule! Use Facebook, iPhones, iPads and Groupon


My high school physics teacher spent a week teaching students how to use a slide rule.  I asked him, "why can't we just use calculators?" At the time a slide rule was about $2, and a calculator was $300.  The minimum wage was $1.14/hour.  He responded that slide rules had been around a long time, and you never knew if you'd have access to a calculator. To the day he retired he insisted on using, and teaching, slide rule use.  Needless to say, by then plenty of folks were ready to see him go.  Too bad for his students he stayed as long as he did, because that was a week they could have spent learning physics, and other important materials. Ignoring the new tool, and its advantages, was a wasteful decision that hurt him and his customers.

Yet, I am amazed at how few people are using today's new tools for business, and marketing.  At a small business Board meeting this week the head of marketing presented his roll-out of the boldest campaign ever in the business's history.  His promotion plan was centered around traditional PR, supplemented with radio and billboard ads.  I asked for his social media campaign, and after he confirmed I was serious he said he had a manager working on that.  I asked if he had a facebook page ready, the videos on YouTube, a linked-in program ready to run against targets and his twitter communications established, including hash tags? He said if those things were important somebody had to be working on them.  Two weeks from roll-out and he wasn't giving them any personal consideration.

I then asked the roughly 20 attendees, all but one of which were over 40, some questions:

  • How many of you use skype at least once/month? Answer – 5%
  • How many of you have a facebook page and check it daily? A – 15%
  • How many of you check twitter daily? A – 5%  Tweet at least 5 times/week? A – none
  • How many own and use a tablet? A – 10%
  • How many of you have a smartphone on which you've downloaded at least 10 apps? A – 10%
  • How many of you carry a laptop? A – 100%
  • Who knows the #1 company for new hires in Chicago in 2010? Answer – 5% (GroupOn)
  • Who has used a Groupon coupon? Answer – 30%

Slide rule users.

New tools are here, and adopters will be the winners. If you still think we're a nation of laptop users, you need to think again.  Laptop usage declined 20% in the last 2 years, to 2006 levels, as people have adopted easier to use technology

Declining PC Usage 2010

Chart Source: Silicon Alley Insider of BusinessInsider.com

If you are trying to pump out ads the new medium is mobile – not television, radio, outdoor or even web sites.  Have you tested the look and feel of your web site on popular mobile devices? Do you know if new users to your business are even able to access your information from a mobile device?

And, it's more likely a customer will hear about you, and obtain a review of your product or service, via Facebook than vai the web!  A CNet.com article asks the leading question "Will Facebook Replace Company Web Sites?" Want to understand the importance of Facebook, check out these same month comparisons:

  • Starbucks: Facebook likes – 21.1M, site visits – 1.8M
  • Coca-Cola: Facebook likes – 20.5M, site visits – .3M
  • Oreo: Facebook likes – 10.1M, site visits – .3M

Yes, these are consumer products.  But if you don't think the first place a potential customer looks for information on your business is Facebook, whether it's financial services, business insurance, catering or blow-molded plastic housings you need to think again.  The use of facebook is simply exploding. 

According to Business Insider, by the end of December, 2010 Facebook apps were downloaded to iPhones at a rate exceeding 500,000/day as the total shot to nearly 60million! Meanwhile the Facebook app downloads to Android devices grew to over 20million!  Blackberry Facebook users has reached 27million, bringing the total by end of 2010 to well over 100M – just on smartphones!  In September, 2010 Facebook became the #1 most time spent on the internet, passing combined time on all Google and all Yahoo sites!  With over 500million users, Facebook isn't just kids checking on their friends any longer. When somebody wants a first peak at your business, odds are great it will be done over a smartphone and likely via a Facebook referral!

Facebook minutes 9.2010

Chart Source: Silicon Alley Insider at Business Insider

As fast as smartphone usage has grown, tablet usage is on the precipice of explosion.  Tablet sales will be 6 times (or more) notebook sales in just a few years!  The second most popular product will be, of course, continued sales of advanced smartphones as the two new platforms overtake the traditional laptop.  So what's your budgeted spend on mobile devices, mobile apps and mobile marketing?

Tablet Sales Forecast 2.11

Chart Source: Silicon Alley Insider of Business Insider

And in the effort to attract new customers, if you think the route will be newspapers, radio, TV, billboards, or direct mail – think again.  Digital local deal delivery is projected to grow at least 45%/year through 2015 creating a market of over $10billion! If you want somebody to know about your product or service, Groupon and its competitors is already taking the lead over older, traditional techniques.  By the way, when was the last time you bothered to open that latest Vallasis direct mail package – or did you just throw it immediately in the recycling bin without even a look?

Groupon Market forecast 1.11

Chart Source: Silicon Alley Insider of Business Insider

So, what is your business doing to leverage these tools?  Are your marketing, and technology, plans for 2011 and 2012 still mired in old approaches and technologies?  If so, expect to be eclipsed by competitors who more quickly implement these new solutions.

Too often we become comfortable in our old way of doing things.  We keep implementing the same way, like the teacher giving slide rule instructions.  And that simply wastes resources, and leaves you uncompetitive.  The time to use these new solutions was yesterday – and today – and tomorrow – and every day.  If you don't have plans to adopt these new solutions, and use them to grow your business, what's your excuse?  Is it that much fun using the old slide rule?

 

Why Steve Jobs Couldn’t Find a Job


Business people keep piling onto the innovation and growth bandwagon.  PWC just released the results of its 14th annual CEO survey entitled “Growth Reimagined.”  Seems like most CEOs are as tired of cost cutting as everyone else, and would really like to start growing again.  Therefore, they are looking for innovations to help them improve competitiveness and build new markets.  Hooray!

But, haven’t we heard this before?  Seems like the output of several such studies – from IBM, IDC and many others – have been saying that business leaders want more innovation and growth for the last several years!  Hasn’t this been a consistent mantra all through the last decade?  You could get the impression everyone is talking about innovation, and growth, but few seem to be doing much about it!

Rather than search out growth, most businesses are still trying to simply do what their business has done for decades – and marveling at the lack of improved results.  David Brooks of the New York Times talks at length in his recent Op Ed piece on the Experience Economy about a controversial book from Tyler Cowen called “The Great Stagnation.”  The argument goes that America was blessed with lots of fertile land and abundant water, giving the country a big advantage in the agrarian economy from the 1600s into the 1900s.  During the Industrial economy of the 1900s America was again blessed with enormous natural resources (iron ore, minerals, gold, silver, oil, gas and water) as well as navigable rivers, the great lakes and natural low-cost transport routes.  A rapidly growing and hard working set of laborers, aided by immigration, provided more fuel for America’s growth as an industrial powerhouse.

But now we’re in the information economy.  Those natural resources aren’t the big advantage they once were.  Foodstuffs require almost no people for production.  And manufacturing is shifting to offshore locations where cheap labor and limited regulations allow for cheaper production.  And it’s not clear America would benefit even if it tried maintaining these lower-skilled jobs.  Today, value goes to those who know how to create, store, manipulate and use information.  And success in this economy has a lot more to do with innovation, and the creation of entirely new products, industries and very different kinds of jobs.

Unfortunately, however, we keep hiring for the last economy.  It starts with how Boards of Directors (and management teams) select – incorrectly, it appears – our business leaders.  Still thinking like out-of-date industrialists, Scientific American offers us a podcast on how “Creativity Can Lesson a Leader’s Image.”  Citing the same study, Knowledge @ Wharton offers us “A Bias Against ‘Quirky’ Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Creative Positions.” While 1,500 CEOs say that creativity is the single most important quality for success today – and studies bear out the greater success of creative, innovative leaders – the study found that when it came to hiring and promoting businesses consistently marked down the creative managers and bypassed them, selecting less creative types!

Our BIAS (Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies) cause the selection process to pick someone who is seen as less creative.  Consider these comments:

  • “would you rather have a calm hand on the tiller, or someone who constantly steers the boat?” 
  • “do you want slow, steady conservatism in control – or irrational exuberance?”
  • “do we want consistent execution or big ideas?” 

These are all phrases I’ve heard (as you might have as well) for selecting a candidate with a mediocre track record, and very limited creativity, over a candidate with much better results and a flair for creativity to get things done regardless of what the market throws at her.  All imply that what’s important to leadership is not making mistakes.  Of you just don’t screw up the future will take care of itself.  And that’s so industrial economy – so “don’t let the plant blow up.”

That approach simply doesn’t work any more.  The Christian Science Monitor reported in “Obama’s Innovation Push: Has U.S. Really Fallen Off the Cutting Edge” that America is already in economic trouble due to our lock-in to out-of-date notions about what creates business success.  In the last 2 years America has fallen from first to fourth in the World Economic Forum ranking of global competitivenes.  And while America still accounts for 40% of global R&D spending, we rank remarkably low (on all studies below 10th place) on things like public education, math and science skills, national literacy and even internet access! While we’ve poured billions into saving banks, and rebuilding roads (ostensibly hiring asphalt layers) we still have no national internet system, nor a free backbone for access by all budding entrepreneurs!

Ask the question, “If Steve Jobs (or his clone) showed up at our company asking for a job – would we give him one?”  Don’t forget, the Apple Board fired Steve Jobs some 20 years ago to give his role to a less creative, but more “professional,” John Scully.  Mr. Scully was subsequently fired by the Board for creatively investing too heavily in the innovative Newton – the first PDA – to be replaced by a leadership team willing to jettison this new product market and refocus all attention on the Macintosh.  Both CEO change decisions turned out to be horrible for Apple, and it was only after Mr. Jobs returned to the company after nearly 20 years in other businesses that its fortunes reblossomed when the company replaced outdated industrial management philosophies with innovation.  But, oh-so-close the company came to complete failure before re-igniting the innovation jets.

Examples of outdated management, with horrific results, abound.  Brenda Barnes destroyed shareholder value for 6 years at Sara Lee chasing a centrallized focus and cost reductions – leaving the company with no future other than break-up and acquisition.  GE’s fortunes have dropped dramatically as Mr. Immelt turned away from the rabid efforts at innovation and growth under Welch and toward more cautious investments and reliance on a set of core markets – including financial services.  After once dominating the mobile phone industry the best Motorola’s leadership has been able to do lately is split the company in two, hoping as a divided business leadership can do better than it did as a single entity.  Even a big winner like Home Depot has struggled to innovate and grow as it remained dedicated to its traditional business. Once a darling of industry, the supply chain focused Dell has lost its growth and value as a raft of new MBA leaders – mostly recruited from consultancy Bain & Company – have kept applying traditional industrial management with its cost curves and economy-of-scale illogic to a market racked by the introduction of new products such as smartphones and tablets.

Meanwhile, leaders that foster and implement innovation have shown how to be successful this last decade.  Jeff Bezos has transformed retailing and publishing simultaneously by introducing a raft of innovations, including the Kindle.  Google’s value soared as its founders and new CEO redefined the way people obtain news – and the ads supporting what people read.  The entire “social media” marketplace is now taking viewers, and ad dollars, from traditional media bringing the limelight to CEOs at Facebook, Twitter and Linked-in.  While newspaper companies like Tribune Corp., NYT, Dow Jones and Washington Post have faltered, pop publisher Arianna Huffington created $315M of value by hiring a group of bloggers to populate the on-line news tabloid Huffington Post.  And Apple is close to becoming the world’s most valuable publicly traded company on the backs of new product innovations. 

But, asking again, would your company hire the leaders of these companies?  Would it hire the Vice-President’s, Directors and Managers?  Or would you consider them too avant-garde?  Even President Obama washed out his commitment to jobs growth when he selected Mr. Immelt to head his committee – demonstrating a complete lack of understanding what it takes to grow – to innovate – in today’s intensely competitive information economy. Where he should have begged, on hands and knees, for Eric Schmidt of Google to show us the way to information nirvana he picked, well, an old-line industrialist.

Until we start promoting innovators we won’t have any innovation.  We must understand that America’s successful history doesn’t guarantee it’s successful future.  Competing on bits, rather than brawn or natural resources, requires creativity to recognize opportunities, develop them and implement new solutions rapidly.  It requires adaptability to deal with new technologies, new business models and new competitors.  It requires an understanding of innovation and how to learn while doing.  Amerca has these leaders.  We just need to give them the positions and chance to succeed!

 

Pick the Right Battle – NBC Universal/Comcast’s future


Summary:

  • There is dramatic change in the television/media industry
  • NBC Universal/Comcast is changing ownership, and leaders
  • The company’s future success will have more to do with which battles the new President invests in than the history, or style of the past and future company President’s
  • Trying to “fix” the old business will waste resources and harm future prospects
  • Success will require developing a management approach that gives permission and resources to find a path to the future – a future that will be nothing like the past

NBC Universal is changing owners, from General Electric to Comcast.  The former NBC President, Jeff Zucker, is being replaced by Steve Burke.  Stylistically, it’s hard to imagine two fellas less alike.  Mr. Burke, portraited in the New York TimesA Little Less Drama at NBC,” is a mild-mannered, quiet, self-effacing executive who almost attended divinity school.  He avoids the limelight as much as he avoids being abrasive with colleagues.  The outgoing Mr. Zucker is by all accounts brash,abrasive and quick to make decisions, as he was portraited in PaidContent.orgWas Jeff Zucker Really So Bad For NBC Universal?

But it isn’t executive style that will determine whether Mr. Burke succeeds.  Although NBCU just returned its highest profits since 2004, the television and media industries are in dramatic transition.  Things aren’t like they used to be, and they will never be that way again.  Growing revenues, and profits, at the combined NBCU/Comcast will require Mr. Burke quickly move both companies into a different kind of competitor focused on the changed market of 2015 – when media customers and suppliers will both be very different, with quite different demands.

Although Mr. Zucker is blasted for allowing NBC’s ratings to fall to last among the Big 3 networks (including CBS and ABC), it’s not at all clear why that wasn’t a smart move.  What has grown NBC’s profits has been far removed from network programming.  It was the acquisition of cable channels USA and Sci Fi (now Syfy) via Universal, and later Bravo, Oxygen and The Weather Channel that contributed greatly to NBC’s revenue and profit growth.  These were also enhanced by building, from scratch, the #1 business-content television channel at CNBC, and the profitable, somewhat populist counter-channel to powerhouse conservative Fox News with MSNBC. Despite what the critics (who are largely interested in programs rather than profits) have said, it may have been an act of brilliance to avoid investing in the declining business that is prime time network programming.

What anyone thinks about the brouhaha over Jay Leno’s attempt at prime time, and Conan O’Brien’s stint leading The Today Show, is immaterial to revenue growth and profits.  I’m a late boomer, so I remember when there were only 3 stations, and Johny Carson dominated the post-news late evening.  But now I have college age sons that don’t even own televisions, have almost no idea who Jay Leno is (other than know of him as a car and motorcycle collector) and find all interview programs boring.  “Network” TV is something they don’t quite understand – since their tolerance for watching entertainment on someone else’s pre-determined schedule is non-existent, and their patience for sitting through commercials of real-time programming is even lower.  In other words, what happens in the “prime time” race, or with network celebrities, really doesn’t matter any more.  And if NBCU can’t grow viewers it can’t grow ad revenues – so why should it invest in the prime time business?  Just because it used to?  Or started that way?

While lots of media “experts” are screaming for Mr. Burke to “fix” NBC, that business is already well into the hospice.  Network share of entertainment interest is falling rapidly as boomers die, dozens of new offerings are micro-targeting across the channel spectrum, and we all turn to the internet for downloads, ignoring the TV for news or entertainment several additional hours each year.  Meanwhile, people under the age of 30 aren’t even watching much television any more.  They just pretend to watch while sitting with their parents as they text, check Facebook or watch a downloaded program on their iPhone.

“Network” programming is a business which is not going to grow again. Given how costs are increasing for traditional shows, and the over-explosion of inexpensive “reality” or “news” shows, and fragmentation and decline of advertising why would anyone ever expect this to be a profitable business?  Being last in that 3 horse race is about as interesting as tracking share of market for printed phone directories.  Probably the first to quit ist he big winner. So why should Mr. Burke spend much time, or money, fighting the last war?  “Fixing” that outdated business model is fraught with high risk, and low return.  Now that tthe artificial limits on news and entertainment programming have been removed (thanks to the internet) isn’t it time to let go of that historial artifact and focus on the future?

We know the future will be a mix of traditional TV (at least for a while, but don’t make any bets on it being too long), as well as targeted channels we now refer to as “cable” (even though that moniker is clearly losing meaning in a WiFi world.)  Some of these will be free access, and some will be paid content.  But all of that now must compete with downloads from Netfilx, Hulu (in which NBCU is a part owner) and YouTube (partially owned by Google.)  People can create and post their own programs, and even do their own marketing.  Instant availability, reviews and promotion will be couresy of Twitter and Facebook. This is a lot more complex than just ordering a new crime drama series, or situation comedy, and foisting it on a market with only a handful of channel options.

Viewership will range from 50″ panels, to 2″ hand-held screens – with a plethora of optional sizes in between.  Program length will be infinitely variable from hours of non-stop viewing to constantly interrupted sound bites, no longer proscribed by 30 minute increments.  Traditional programming, like local or national “news” will have little meaning, or value, in 2020 (or maybe 2015) when we will be receiving instant updates several times each day on our mobile device. 

Mr. Zucker did a yeoman’s job of steering NBCU toward the future.  He was smart enough to understand that only historians, locked-in media critics and old farts in Lay-Z-Boys care about what’s happening on The Tonight Show or the NBC News.  His primary investments were oriented toward understanding the future, and getting NBCU’s toes into that rapidly churning water where future growth lies.  But he’s leaving just as the stream is turning into a torrent.  Even what he did could well be out of date within a few years – or months!

Now it is Mr. Burke’s turn.  The very pleasant fellow has a daunting challenge.  If he isn’t supposed to “double down” his bets in network TV, and traditional “cable,” what is he supposed to do?  In a dramatically changing advertising world, where Google, Facebook and mobile device ads are now becoming the hot markets, what is the role for NBCU/Comcast?  If we no longer need the physucal cable (say in 2020), won’t Comcast lose subscribers for cable access just like we’re seeing declines in subscribers for newspapers, DVD subscriptions, land-line telephones and land-line long distance?  What is the role of a “programmer” like NBCU if viewers all have unlimited access to everything, anytime, anywhere, in any format?  And what is the value of a content provider if self-published content streams onto the web by the terabyte daily?  And is sorted by engines like Google and YouTube?

What Mr. Burke must do, regardless of style, is develop some scenarios about the future, and understand the much more complex playing field that is today’s media business.  He has to find the holes in competition, and learn how to leverage what the “fringe” competitors are doing that drives all that usage, and viewership.  And, most importantly, he has to keep experimenting – just as Mr. Zucker did.  He has to create opportunities to test the newly developing markets, figure out who will buy, and what they will buy.   He has to set up white space teams who have permission to be experimental, even if they attack the old businesses like “network” TV – even cannibalizing the historical viewr base as they transition toward future media markets.  If he can create these teams, give them the right permission and resources, NBCU/Comcast could be the next great media company. 

We’ll have to wait and see.  Will the sirens of the past, looking backward, pull the company into gladiator battles with old foes trying to hold share in narrowing, declining markets?  That path looks like a sure disaster.  Despite being an early leader with satellite TV and MySpace that approach has not helped NewsCorp.  But betting on the future is more a bet on the journey, and finding the right path, than betting on any particular destination.  The future-based approach takes a lot of faith in company leadership, and the company management team.  It will be interesting to see which way Mr. Burke goes.