How Cable TV is Deaf to the Market Roar of Change

How Cable TV is Deaf to the Market Roar of Change

Do you really think in 2020 you’ll watch television the way people did in the 1960s?  I would doubt it.

In today’s world if you want entertainment you have a plethora of ways to download or live stream exactly what you want, when you want, from companies like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Streamhunter, Viewster and TVWeb.  Why would you even want someone else to program you entertainment if you can get it yourself?

Additionally, we increasingly live in a world unaccepting of one-way communication.  We want to not only receive what entertains us, but share it with others, comment on it and give real-time feedback.  The days when we willingly accepted having information thrust at us are quickly dissipating as we demand interactivity with what comes across our screen – regardless of size.

These 2 big trends (what I want, when I want; and 2-way over 1-way) have already changed the way we accept entertaining.  We use USB drives and smartphones to provide static information.  DVDs are nearly obsolete.  And we demand 24×7 mobile for everything dynamic.

Yet, the CEO of Charter Cable company wass surprised to learn that the growth in cable-only customers is greater than the growth of video customers.  Really?

It was about 3 years ago when my college son said he needed broadband access to his apartment, but he didn’t want any TV.  He commented that he and his 3 roommates didn’t have any televisions any more. They watched entertainment and gamed on screens around his apartment connected to various devices.  He never watched live TV.  Instead they downloaded their favorite programs to watch between (or along with) gaming sessions, picked up the news from live web sites (more current and accurate he said) and for sports they either bought live streams or went to a local bar.

To save money he contacted Comcast and said he wanted the premier internet broadband service.  Even business-level service.  But he didn’t want TV.  Comcast told him it was impossible. If he wanted internet he had to buy TV.  “That’s really, really stupid” was the way he explained it to me. “Why do I have to buy something I don’t want at all to get what I really, really want?”

Then, last year, I helped a friend move.  As a favor I volunteered to return her cable box to Comcast, since there was a facility near my home.  I dreaded my volunteerism when I arrived at Comcast, because there were about 30 people in line.  But, I was committed, so I waited.

The next half-hour was amazingly instructive.  One after another people walked up to the window and said they were having problems paying their bills, or that they had trouble with their devices, or wanted a change in service.  And one after the other they said “I don’t really want TV, just internet, so how cheaply can I get it?”

These were not busy college students, or sophisticated managers.  These were every day people, most of whom were having some sort of trouble coming up with the monthly money for their Comcast bill.  They didn’t mind handing back the cable box with TV service, but they were loath to give up broadband internet access.

Again and again I listened as the patient Comcast people explained that internet-only service was not available in Chicagoland.  People had to buy a TV package to obtain broad-band internet. It was force-feeding a product people really didn’t want.  Sort of like making them buy an entree in order to buy desert.

As I retold this story my friends told me several stories about people who banned together in apartments to buy one Comcast service.  They would buy a high-powered router, maybe with sub-routers, and spread that signal across several apartments.  Sometimes this was done in dense housing divisions and condos.  These folks cut the cost for internet to a fraction of what Comcast charged, and were happy to live without “TV.”

But that is just the beginning of the market shift which will likely gut cable companies.  These customers will eventually hunt down internet service from an alternative supplier, like the old phone company  or AT&T.  Some will give up on old screens, and just use their mobile device, abandoning large monitors.  Some will power entertainment to their larger screens (or speakers) by mobile bluetooth, or by turning their mobile device into a “hotspot.”

And, eventually, we will all have wireless for free – or nearly so.  Google has started running fiber cable in cities including Austin, TX, Kansas City, MO and Provo, Utah.  Anyone who doesn’t see this becoming city-wide wireless has their eyes very tightly closed.  From Albuquerque, NM to Ponca City, OK to Mountain View, CA (courtesy of Google) cities already have free city-wide wireless broadband. And bigger cities like Los Angeles and Chicago are trying to set up free wireless infrastructure.

And if the USA ever invests in another big “public works infrastructure” program will it be to rebuild the old bridges and roads?  Or is it inevitable that someone will push through a national bill to connect everyone wirelessly – like we did to build highways and the first broadcast TV.

So, what will Charter and Comcast sell customers then?

It is very, very easy today to end up with a $300/month bill from a major cable provider.  Install 3 HD (high definition) sets in your home, buy into the premium movie packages, perhaps one sports network and high speed internet and before you know it you’ve agreed to spend more on cable service than you do on home insurance.  Or your car payment.  Once customers have the ability to bypass that “cable cost” the incentive is already intensive to “cut the cord” and set that supplier free.

Yet, the cable companies really don’t seem to see it.  They remain unimpressed at how much customers dislike their service. And respond very slowly despite how much customers complain about slow internet speeds.  And even worse, customer incredulous outcries when the cable company slows down access (or cuts it) to streaming entertainment or video downloads are left unheeded.

Cable companies say the problem is “content.”  So they want better “programming.”  And Comcast has gone so far as to buy NBC/Universal so they can spend a LOT more money on programming.  Even as advertising dollars are dropping faster than the market share of old-fashioned broadcast channels.

Blaming content flies in the face of the major trends.  There is no shortage of content today.  We can find all the content we want globally, from millions of web sites.  For entertainment we have thousands of options, from shows and movies we can buy to what is for free (don’t forget the hours of fun on YouTube!)

It’s not “quality programming” which cable needs.  That just reflects industry deafness to the roar of a market shift.  In short order, cable companies will lack a reason to exist.  Like land-line phones, Philco radios and those old TV antennas outside, there simply won’t be a need for cable boxes in your home.

Too often business leaders become deaf to big trends.  They are so busy executing on an old success formula, looking for reasons to defend & extend it, that they fail to evaluate its relevancy.  Rather than listen to market shifts, and embrace the need for change, they turn a deaf ear and keep doing what they’ve always done – a little better, with a little more of the same product (do you really want 650 cable channels?,) perhaps a little faster and always seeking a way to do it cheaper – even if the monthly bill somehow keeps going up.

But execution makes no difference when you’re basic value proposition becomes obsolete.  And that’s how companies end up like Kodak, Smith-Corona, Blackberry, Hostess, Continental Bus Lines and pretty soon Charter and Comcast.


Why Apple Investors Are Deservedly Worried

Apple announced the new iPhones recently.  And mostly, nobody cared.

Remember when users waited anxiously for new products from Apple?  Even the media became addicted to a new round of Apple products every few months.  Apple announcements seemed a sure-fire way to excite folks with new possibilities for getting things done in a fast changing world. 

But the new iPhones, and the underlying new iPhone software called iOS7, has almost nobody excited. 

Instead of the product launches speaking for themselves, the CEO (Tim Cook) and his top product development lieutenants (Jony Ive and Craig Federighi) have been making the media rounds at BloombergBusinessWeek and USAToday telling us that Apple is still a really innovative place.  Unfortunately, their words aren't that convincing.  Not nearly as convincing as former product launches.

CEO Cook is trying to convince us that Apple's big loss of market share should not be troubling. iPhone owners still use their smartphones more than Android owners, and that's all we should care about.  Unfortunately, Apple profits come from unit sales (and app sales) rather than minutes used.  So the chronic share loss is quite concerning. 

Especially since unit sales are now growing barely in single digits, and revenue growth quarter-over-quarter, which sailed through 2012 in the 50-75% range, have suddenly gone completely flat (less than 1% last quarter.)  And margins have plunged from nearly 50% to about 35% – more like 2009 (and briefly in 2010) than what investors had grown accustomed to during Apple's great value rise.  The numbers do not align with executive optimism.

For industry aficianados iOS7 is a big deal.  Forbes Haydn Shaughnessy does a great job of laying out why Apple will benefit from giving its ecosystem of suppliers a new operating system on which to build enhanced features and functionality.  Such product updates will keep many developers writing for the iOS devices, and keep the battle tight with Samsung and others using Google's Android OS while making it ever more difficult for Microsoft to gain Windows8 traction in mobile. 

And that is good for Apple.  It insures ongoing sales, and ongoing profits.  In the slog-through-the-tech-trench-warfare Apple is continuing to bring new guns to the battle, making sure it doesn't get blown up.

But that isn't why Apple became the most valuable publicly traded company in America. 

We became addicted to a company that brought us things which were great, even when we didn't know we wanted them – much less think we needed them.  We were happy with CDs and Walkmen until we discovered much smaller, lighter iPods and 99cent iTunes.  We were happy with our Blackberries until we learned the great benefits of apps, and all the things we could do with a simple smartphone.  We were happy working on laptops until we discovered smaller, lighter tablets could accomplish almost everything we couldn't do on our iPhone, while keeping us 24×7 connected to the cloud (that we didn't even know or care about before,) allowing us to leave the laptop at the office.

Now we hear about upgrades.  A better operating system (sort of sounds like Microsoft talking, to be honest.)  Great for hard core techies, but what do users care?  A better Siri; which we aren't yet sure we really like, or trust.  A new fingerprint reader which may be better security, but leaves us wondering if it will have Siri-like problems actually working.  New cheaper color cases – which don't matter at all unless you are trying to downgrade your product (sounds sort of like P&G trying to convince us that cheaper, less good "Basic" Bounty was an innovation.) 

More (upgrades) Better (voice interface, camera capability, security) and Cheaper (plastic cases) is not innovation.  It is defending and extending your past success.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't excite us.  And it doesn't make your brand something people can't live without.  And, while it keeps the battle for sales going, it doesn't grow your margin, or dramatically grow your sales (it has declining marginal returns, in fact.)

And it won't get your stock price from $450-$475/share back to $700.

We all know what we want from Apple.  We long for the days when the old CEO would have said "You like Google Glass?  Look at this…….  This will change the way you work forever!!" 

We've been waiting for an Apple TV that let's us bypass clunky remote controls, rapidly find favorite shows and helps us avoid unwanted ads and clutter.  But we've been getting a tease of Dick Tracy-esque smart watches. 

From the world's #1 tech brand (in market cap – and probably user opinion) we want something disruptive!  Something that changes the game on old companies we less than love like Comcast and DirecTV.  Something that helps us get rid of annoying problems like expensive and bad electric service, or routers in our basements and bedrooms, or navigation devices in our cars, or thumb drives hooked up to our flat screen TVs —- or doctor visits.  We want something Game Changing!

Apple's new CEO seems to be great at the Sustaining Innovation game.  And that pretty much assures Apple of at least a few more years of nicely profitable sales.  But it won't keep Apple on top of the tech, or market cap, heap.  For that Apple needs to bring the market something big.  We've waited 2 years, which is an eternity in tech and financial markets.  If something doesn't happen soon, Apple investors deserve to be worried, and wary.

Some Leaders Never Learn – Tribune’s Big, Dumb Bet

Tribune Corporation finally emerged from a 4 year bankruptcy on the last day of 2012.  Before the ink hardly dried on the documents, leadership has decided to triple company debt to double up the number of TV stations.  Oh my, some people just never learn.

The media industry is now over a decade into a significant shift.  Since the 1990s internet access has changed expectations for how fast, easily and flexibly we acquire entertainment and news.  The result has been a dramatic decline in printed magazine and newspaper reading, while on-line reading has skyrocketed.  Simultaneously, we're now seeing that on-line streaming is making a change in how people acquire what they listen to (formerly radio based) and watch (formerly television-based.)

Unfortunately, Tribune – like most media industry companies – consistently missed these shifts and underestimated both the speed of the shift and its impact.  And leadership still seems unable to understand future scenarios that will be far different from today.

In 2000 newspaper people thought they had "moats" around their markets. The big newspaper in most towns controlled the market for classified ads for things like job postings and used car sales.  Classified ads represented about a third of newspaper revenues, and 40% of profits.  Simultaneously display advertising for newspapers was considered a cash cow.  Every theatre would advertise their movies, every car dealer their cars and every realtor their home listings.  Tribune leadership felt like this was "untouchable" profitability for the LA Times and Chicago Tribune that had no competition and unending revenue growth.

So in 2000 Tribune spent $8B to buy Times-Mirror, owner of the Los
Angeles Times.  Unfortunately, this huge investment (75% over market
price at the time, by the way) was made just as people were preparing to
shift away from newspapers.  Craigslist, eBay and other user sites killed the market for classified ads.  Simultaneously movie companies, auto companies and realtors all realized they could reach more people, with more information, cheaper on-line than by paying for newspaper ads. 

These web sites all existed before the acquisition, but Tribune leadership ignored the trend.  As one company executive said to me "CraigsList!! You think that's competition for a newspaper?  Craigslist is for hookers!  Nobody would ever put a job listing on Craigslist."  Like his compadres running newspapers nationwide, the new competitors and trends toward on-line were dismissed with simplistic statements and broad generalizations that things would never change.

The floor fell out from under advertising revenues in newspapers in the 2000s. There was no way Times-Mirror would ever be worth a fraction of what Tribune paid.  Debt used to help pay for the acquisition limited the options for Tribune as cost cutting gutted the organization.

Then, in 2007 Sam Zell bailed out management by putting together a leveraged buyout to acquire Tribune company.  Saying that he read 3 newspapers every day, he believed people would never stop reading newspapers.  Like a lot of leaders, Mr. Zell had more money than understanding of trends and shifting markets.  He added a few billion dollars more debt to Tribune.  By the end of 2008 Tribune was unable to meet its debt obligations, and filed for bankruptcy.

Now, new leadership has control of Tribune.  They are splitting the company in two, seperating the print and broadcast businesses.  The hope is to sell the newspapers, for which they believe there are 40 potential buyers.  Even though profits continued falling, from $156M to $89M, in just the last year. Why anyone would buy newspaper companies, which are clearly buggy whip manufacturers, is wholly unclear.  But hope springs eternal!

The new stand-alone Tribune Broadcasting company has decided to go all-in on a deal to borrow $2.7B and buy 19 additional local television stations raising total under their control to 42.

Let's see, what's the market trend in entertainment and news?  Where once we were limited to local radio and television stations for most content, now we can acquire almost anything we want – from music to TV, movies, documentaries or news – via the internet.  Rather than being subjected to what some programming executive decides to give us, we can select what we want, when we want it, and simply stream it to our laptop, tablet, smartphone, or even our large-screen TV.

A long time ago content was controlled by distribution.  There was no reason to create news stories or radio programs or video unless you had access to distribution.  Obviously, that made distribution – owning newspapers, radio and TV stations – valuable.

But today distribution is free, and everywhere.  Almost every American has access to all the news and entertainment they want from the internet. Either free, or for bite-size prices that aren't too high.  Today the value is in the content, not distribution.

In the last 2 years the number of homes without a classical TV connection (the cable) has doubled.  Sure, it's only 5% of homes now.  But the trend is pretty clear.  Even homes that have cable are increasingly not watching it as they turn to more and more streaming video.  Instead of watching a 30 minute program once per week, people are starting to watch 8 or 10 half hour episodes back to back. And when they want to watch those episodes, where they want to watch them.

While it might be easy for Tribune to ignore Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, the trend is very clear.  The need for broadcast stations like NBC or WGN or Food Network to create content is declining as we access content more directly, from more sources.  And the need to have content delivered to our home by a local affiliate station is becoming, well, an anachronism. 

Yet, Tribune's new TV-oriented leadership is doubling down on its bet for local TV's future.  Ignoring all the trends, they are borrowing more money to buy more assets that show all signs of becoming about as valuable whaling ships.  It's a big, dumb bet.  Similar to overpaying for Times-Mirror.  Some leaders just seem destined to never learn.

Why Twitter Won the SuperBowl While Traditional Ad Execs Don’t Get It

Reading reviews of Super Bowl ads I was struck by two observations:

  1. The reviewers got the value of most ads backwards
  2. They missed the most important ad of all – on Twitter

Super Bowl ads cost $1M+ to make.  Then they cost $2M+ to air.  So it is an expensive proposition.  This isn't fine art, like a Picasso, with a long shelf life to create a rate of return.  These ads need to pay off fast.  They need to build the brand with existing and/or new customers to drive sales and make back that money now.

So let's start with one of the best reviewed ads – Chrysler's "God Made a Farmer". Reviewers liked the home-spun approach of using a dead conservative radio commentator voicing over pictures of farmers in pick-ups.  Unfortunately, from a rate of return perspective my bet is this ad will end up near the very bottom.  

  • Firstly, the 50 year trend is to urbanization.  In 1900 9 out of 10 Americans had something to do with agriculture.  Now it is fewer than 1 in 20.  Trucks are used for lots of things, but farming makes up a small percentage.  It has been a full generation since most 2nd generation Americans had anything to do with a farm.  Showing people using a product in ways that almost nobody uses it, and with a message most of your target market doesn't even recognize, leaves most people confused rather than ready to buy.
  • Secondly, first generation Americans are changing the demographics of America quickly.  First generation Americans (can I say immigrant?) proved large enough, and powerful enough, to play a spoiler role in Mitt Romney's run for the Presidency.  To them, farming in America has no history, appeal or meaning to their lives. 
  • Thirdly, no one under the age of 35 has any idea who Paul Harvey is.  Perhaps Chrysler could have used Bill O'Reilly and achieved its message mission.  But as it was, there were two of us +50 people who spent 5 minutes trying to tell the group watching the game at my home who Paul Harvey even was – and why he was being quoted.

A 24 year old boy watching the game with me in suburban Chicago listened to my explanation about Paul Harvey and farming.  He drives a Ford F-250 4×4 pick-up.  After I finished he looked me square in the eyes and said "Swing, and a miss."  And that's what I'd say to Chrysler.  Whoever made this ad had more money than market research and common sense.

Simultaneously, reviewers hated's "Perfect Match, Bar Rafieli's Big Kiss." This portrayed a very stereotypical engineer enjoying a long kiss with a pretty girl – referring to how the company's products well serve client needs.  Reviewers found the ad in bad taste.  My bet is this ad will have immediate payback for

Have you ever heard of the monstrously successful situation comedy "The Big Bang Theory?"  At just about any time you can find this in reruns on at least one, if not more than one, cable channel.  The show is so successful that to pull people viewers to its Monday night schedule CBS actually chose to rerun "Big Bang" episodes amidst new episodes of its other programs in January.  The show thrives on the tension of male technical professionals seeking to solve the age old question of how a man can appeal to desirable ladies.  Politically correct or not, the show is successful because it is a timeless message.  Most boys want to be liked by girls.

Today the world of people who have technical, or quasi-technical jobs, is HUGE.   GoDaddy's target audience of people buying, and servicing, web domains just happens to be mostly male under-40 men with technical or quasi-technical backgrounds.  This little, tasteless demonstration may have upset the high ethics of ad execs (or has "Mad Men" unraveled that myth?) but to its target group this ad was pure gold.  And same for

But most importantly, none of these ads will have the payback of 9 words a marketer tweeted when the lights went out at the game.  Because it had blown a huge wad of money on a traditional game ad the Oreo brand folks at Mondelez were watching the game with their media agency 360i.  Thinking quickly the creatives came up with an idea, and the brand guys approved it – so out went the tweet from Oreo Cookies "No problem.  You can still dunk in the dark."

"Booya" as my young friends say.  10,000 retweets and an entire Monday news cycle devoted to the quick thinking folks who posted this tweet.  ROI?  Given that the incremental cost was zero, pretty darn high. If I was investing, I'd take the tweet over the video.  The equivalent of a kick return for a TD.

The world has changed.  We now live in a 24×7, real-time, always-on world.  We no longer wait for the weekly magazine for analysis, or the daily newspaper for information.  Or even the 11:00 television daily recap.  We pick up alerts on our mobile devices constantly.  Receive highlights from friends on Facebook and Twitter.  We want our information NOW.  And those who connect to this new way of living for providing us information are not only accepted, but admired by those thriving on the social networks.

This year's Super Bowl social media postings were triple last year's; over 30million.  This is the world of immediate feedback.  Immediate discussion.  And the place were ads need to be immediate as well.  Those who understand this, and connect to it, will succeed.  Others, who spend too much to make and then distribute ads on traditional media, will not.  Just as newspaper ads have lost of their relevance – TV ads are destined for the same conclusion.

The good news is that Mondelez and its Oreos team was ready, and willing, to take advantage.  Where were most of the other advertisers?  Audi, VW and P&G's Tide also jumped in.  But of all those millions spent on once-run ads, these major corporate advertisers – and their extremely highly paid ad agencies – were absent.  When the easy money was to be made, they simply weren't there.  Off drinking beer and watching the game when they should have been working!

Today we learned Twitter is buying Bluefin to make its information on who is tweeting, about what, in real time even better.  This will be helpful for any smart advertiser.  And not just the multi-billion dollar giants.  The good news is anyone, anywhere in any size company can play in this real-time, on-line social media world.  You don't have to be huge, or rich. 

Where were you when the lights went out?  Were you taking advantage of what we may later call a "once in a lifetime" opportunity? 

Where will you be the next time?  Are you ready to invest in the new world of social media advertising?   Or are you stuck spending too much to come in too late?

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:

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,

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. 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  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.