Netflix Valuation is Not a “House of Cards”

Netflix Valuation is Not a “House of Cards”

The Netflix hit series “House of Cards” was released last night.  Most media reviewers and analysts are expecting huge numbers of fans will watch the show, given its tremendous popularity the last 2 years.  Simultaneously, there are already skeptics who think that releasing all episodes at once “is so last year” when it was a newsworthy event, and no longer will interest viewers, or generate subscribers, as it once did.  Coupled with possible subscriber churn, some think that “House of Cardsmay have played out its hand.

So, the success of this series may have a measurable impact on the valuation of Netflix.  If the “House of Cards” download numbers, which are up to Netflix to report, aren’t what analysts forecast many may scream for the stock to tumble; especially since it is on the verge of reaching new all-time highs.  The Netflix price to earnings (P/E) multiple is a lofty 107, and with a valuation of almost $29B it sells for just under 4x sales.

Netflix House of CardsBut investors should ignore any, and in fact all, hype about “House of Cards” and whatever analysts say about Netflix.  So far, they’ve been wildly wrong when making forecasts about the company.  Especially when projecting its demise.

Since Netflix started trading in 2002, it has risen from (all numbers adjusted) $8.5 to $485.  That is a whopping 57x increase.  That is approximately a 40% compounded rate of return, year after year, for 13 years!

But it has not been a smooth ride. After starting (all numbers rounded for easier reading) at $8.50 in May, 2002 the stock dropped to $3.25 in October – a loss of over 60% in just 5 months.  But then it rallied, growing to $38.75, a whopping 12x jump, in just 14 months (1/04!) Only to fall back to $9.80, a 75% loss, by October, 2004 – a mere 9 months later.  From there Netflix grew in value by about 5.5x – to $55/share – over the next 5 years (1/10.)  When it proceeded to explode in value again, jumping to $295, an almost 6-fold increase, within 18 months (7/11).  Only to get creamed, losing almost 80% of its value, back down to $63.85, in the next 4 months (11/11.)  The next year it regained some loss, improving in value by 50% to $91.35 (12/12,) only to again explode upward to $445 by February, 2014 a nearly 5-fold increase, in 14 months.  Two months later, a drop of 25% to $322 (4/14).  But then in 4 months back up to $440 (8/14), and back down 4 months later to $341 (12/14) only to approach new highs reaching $480 last week – just 2 months later.

That is the definition of volatility.

Netflix is a disruptive innovator.  And, simply put, stock analysts don’t know how to value disruptive innovators. Because their focus is all on historical numbers, and then projecting those historicals forward.  As a result, analysts are heavily biased toward expecting incumbents to do well, and simultaneously being highly skeptical of any disruptive company.  Disruptors challenge the old order, and invalidate the giant excel models which analysts create.  Thus analysts are very prone to saying that incumbents will remain in charge, and that incumbents will overwhelm any smaller company trying to change the industry model.  It is their bias, and they use all kinds of historical numbers to explain why the bigger, older company will project forward well, while the smaller, newer company will stumble and be overwhelmed by the entrenched competitor.

And that leads to volatility.  As each quarter and year comes along, analysts make radically different assumptions about the business model they don’t understand, which is the disruptor.  Constantly changing their assumptions about the newer kid on the block, they make mistake after mistake with their projections and generally caution people not to buy the disruptor’s stock.  And, should the disruptor at any time not meet the expectations that these analysts invented, then they scream for shareholders to dump their holdings.

Netflix first competed in distribution of VHS tapes and DVDs.  Netflix sent them to people’s homes, with no time limit on how long folks could keep them.  This model was radically different from market leader Blockbuster Video, so analysts said Blockbuster would crush Netflix, which would never grow.  Wrong.  Not only did Blockbuster grow, but it eventually drove Blockbuster into bankruptcy because it was attuned to trends for convenience and shopping from home.

As it entered streaming video, analysts did not understand the model and predicted Netflix would cannibalize its historical, core DVD business thus undermining its own economics.  And, further, much larger Amazon would kill Netflix in streaming.  Analysts screamed to dump the stock, and folks did.  Wrong.  Netflix discovered it was a good outlet for syndication, created a huge library of not only movies but television programs, and grew much faster and more profitably than Amazon in streaming.

Then Netflix turned to original programming.  Again, analysts said this would be a huge investment that would kill the company’s financials. And besides that people already had original programming from historical market leaders HBO and Showtime.  Wrong.  By using analysis of what people liked from its archive, Netflix leadership hedged its bets and its original shows, especially “House of Cards” have been big hits that brought in more subscribers.  HBO and Showtime, which have depended on cable companies to distribute their programming, are now increasingly becoming additional programming on the Netflix distribution channel.

Investors should own Netflix because the company’s leadership, including CEO Reed Hastings, are great at disruptive innovation.  They identify unmet customer needs and then fulfill those needs.  Netflix time and again has demonstrated it can figure out a better way to give certain user segments what they want, and then expand their offering to eat away at the traditional market.  Once it was retail movie distribution, increasingly it is becoming cable distribution via companies like ComCast, AT&T and Time Warner.

And investors must be long-term.  Netflix is an example of why trading is a bad idea – unless you do it for a living.  Most of us who have full time day jobs cannot try timing the ups and downs of stock movements.  For us, it is better to buy and hold.  When you’re ready to buy, buy. Don’t wait, because in the short term there is no way to predict if a stock will go up or down.  You have to buy because you are ready to invest, and you expect that over the next 3, 5, 7 years this company will continue to drive growth in revenues and profits, thus expanding its valuation.

Netflix, like Apple, is a company that has mastered the skills of disruptive innovation.  While the competition is trying to figure out how to sustain its historical position by doing the same thing better, faster and cheaper Netflix is figuring out “the next big thing” and then delivering it.  As the market shifts, Netflix is there delivering on trends with new products – and new business models – which push revenues and profits higher.

That’s why it would have been smart to buy Netflix any time the last 13 years and simply held it.  And odds are it will continue to drive higher valuations for investors for many years to come.  Not only are HBO, Showtime and Comcast in its sites, but the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) are not far behind.  It’s a very big media market, which is shifting dramatically, and Netflix is clearly the leader.  Not unlike Apple has been in personal technology.

Apple – Leading Another Market Shift, So Buy It and Forget About It

Apple – Leading Another Market Shift, So Buy It and Forget About It

Apple was a high flyer. As the stock hit $700, analysts predicted it would reach $1,000.  Then Steve Jobs died.  He so personified the company that many felt his death left Apple leaderless.  So the stock lost 42% of its value dropping to $400.

Apple has now recaptured that lost value, and trades a bit above its former historic high.  Apple is the most valuable publicly traded company in America, worth about $700B.  For some perspective on just how large this valuation is, it roughly equals the combined values of Dow Jones Industrial Average stalwart, industry leading mega-companies Walmart ($281B #1 retailer,) GE ($242B #1 conglomerate,) McDonalds ($91B #1 restaurant,) and Dupont ($70B #1 chemical.)

Since Apple was on the edge of bankruptcy just 15 years ago, and its value has risen so far, so fast, many people question if it can go much higher.  Yes, it’s had a great recent quarter.  But can anyone expect this company to continue growing at this pace?  Won’t smartphones be commoditized causing Apple to lose share, sales and profits to alternatives?  And aren’t its new products like the  iWatch sort of “faddish?”

Apple is actually leading another new marketplace development that may well be bigger than any previous market development (digital music, smartphones, tablets) which could well send its value much, much higher.  This new market success revolves around developers, beacons, consumers, retailers and payments.  Just like we didn’t know we wanted an iPod until we saw one, or an iPhone, new products that exploit the Internet of Things (IoT) is where Apple is again leading the creation of new products and markets.

Start with Apple’s developer ecosystem.  No device has any value unless it has applications. Apple created the first smartphone developer network around iOS.  Because Android implementations vary based on device manufacturer, Apple’s iOS remains by far the largest installed common device base in the USA, and globally. Thus, developers are attracted in the largest numbers to develop applications for iPhones and iPads running iOS before any other device.  To have a sense of the size of this developer base, and the speed with which they develop for Apple products, when Apple launched its own software language for developers called Swift it was downloaded over 11million times in the first month.  These developer companies, in total, captured over $25B in revenue just in the 4th quarter from AppStore sales.

Crowded Apple Store Hong Kong 1-1-15

Understandably, these developers are constantly creating new products which leverage the installed Apple mobile base.  A base which continues to double every few months as globally people buy more iPhones (75million iPhone 6 and 6+ devices sold in the 4th quarter.)  And a base growing internationally, as Apple just beat out Louis Vuitton and Hermes to become the #1 luxury brand in China.  It is now a virtuous circle, where the more apps developers create the more people want iPhones, and the more iPhones people buy the more developers want to create new apps.

And this is not just consumer apps.  Increasingly business systems are being built to use Apple products. Many of these are small to medium size developers and resellers.  Additionally, in 2014 Apple and IBM joined forces to create IBM MobileFirst which is building enterprise applications for multiple industries which will allow people to do all their work on iPhones and iPads sold by IBM.  Even though IBM has struggled of late, its enterprise application skills have long been a corporate strength, and the first wave of products rolled out in December.

Now focus on iBeacon.  Beacons are small electronic devices which transmit a signal that can talk to a smartphone.  These can cost anywhere from a few dollars to a nickel, depending upon what they do and signal range.  Years ago Apple started developing beacons, and then optimized iOS 8 to selectively and efficiently pick up beacon signals and establish 2-way communications without dissipating the battery.  Without a lot of fanfare to the general public, they began rolling out iBeacons several months ago.

Today there are millions of beacons in place.  Miami airport uses them to help travelers find gates, food, etc.  The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museum use them for wayfinding, virtual guided tours and buying products. The Los Angeles Union Station and zoo, as well as the Orlando Seaworld, uses beacons to aid the customer experience, as this technology has become ready for prime time. Starbucks uses them to help loyal customers place orders.  Retail applications are many, including finding products, couponing, product information, pricing and even purchase.  Chain Store Age says that 2% of retailers had beacons installed in 2014, but that number will grow to 24% by end of 2015.  A 12-fold increase in the installed base, at least.

Additionally, Facebook is now integrating beacons into the Facebook mobile app.  This means iPhone users won’t need to download a museum or store app to communicate with beacons for their personal needs.  Instead they can communicate via Facebook to find items, know what their friends think of the item, compare prices, etc.  When the world’s largest social media platform incorporates beacons Mobile Marketer says this bridges digital and physical marketing, increases personalization in use of beacons, and beacons now accelerate the move to seamless mobile marketing and sales.

So, beacons and your idevice (including your iWatch or other wearable,) with the help of all those developers who are writing apps to bring you information, now make it possible for you to find your way around and learn more about things.  And with ApplePay you can actually achieve the “last mile” of concluding the relationship between the business and consumer.

While mobile payment systems have been slow to get started, ApplePay has a lot more going for it.  Firstly, it has the support of about all the major bank and card-issuing institutions because they see ApplePay as possibly lowering costs and increasing their revenue. Second, 78% of retailers think mobile pay is better and faster than their current point of sale systems. As a result, 43% of retailers plan to implement ApplePay by the end of 2015.

So, during 2015 we will be able to use beacons to find our way around, use beacons to identify services and products we want, and use beacons to tell us about the services and products either with apps from the location and retailer, or via Facebook mobile.  Then we can buy those products immediately with ApplePay.

Even though Apple is a very highly valued company, it is again doing what made it such a big winner.  Pioneering entirely new ways for consumers and businesses to get things done.  New solutions are happening in all kinds of industries, pioneered by developers big and small.  And when it comes to IoT, Apple products are at the center of the next big wave.  Ancillary products, like watches and headphones, further support the use of Apple mobile products and the trend to IoT.  Apple’s had a great run, but there is ample reason to believe that run has not stopped.  There looks to be an entirely new wave of growth as Apple creates new products and solutions we didn’t even know we needed until they were in our hands.

 

Why Now is the Time To Buy Tesla Stock

Why Now is the Time To Buy Tesla Stock

Crude oil has dropped 50% in just 6 months.  At under $50/barrel, gasoline is now selling for under $2/gallon in many places.  This is a price rollback to 2008 prices – something almost no one expected in early 2014.

It is easy to jump to conclusions about what this will mean for sales of some products.  And many analysts have been saying this is a terrible scenario for Tesla, which sells all electric cars.  The theory is pretty simple, and goes something like this: People buy electric cars to save on petrol costs, so when petrol prices fall their interest in electric cars decline.  With gasoline cheap again, nobody will want an electric car, so Tesla will do poorly.

But this is just an example of where common wisdom is completely wrong.  And now that Tesla has lost about 1/3 of its value, due to this popular belief, it is offering investors a tremendous buying opportunity.

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There are three big reasons we can expect Tesla to continue to do well, even if gasoline prices are low in the USA.

First, Teslas are great cars.  Not simply great electric cars.  So quickly we forget that Consumer Reports gave the Model S 99 out of a possible 100 points – the highest rating for an automobile ever.  In 2013 Motor Trend had its first ever unanimous selection of the Best Car of the Year when all the judges selected the Model S.  The Model S, and the Roadster before it, have won over customers not just because they use less petroleum – but rather because the speed, handling, acceleration, fit and detail, design and ride are considered extremely good – even when comparing with the likes of Mercedes and BMW – and when you don’t even consider it is an electric car.

It is a gross mis-assumption to say people buy Teslas because they are electric powered.  People are buying Teslas because they are great cars which are fun to drive, perform well, look stylish, have low maintenance costs and very low operating costs.  And they are more ecological in a world where people increasingly care about “going green.”  In 2015 consumers will be able to choose not only the Roadster, and the fairly pricey Model S, but soon enough the smaller, and less expensive, Model 3 which is targeted squarely at BMW Series 3 customers.  Teslas are designed to compete with all cars for consumer dollars, not just electric cars and not just on the basis of using less fuel.

Second, the market for autos is global and gasoline isn’t cheap everywhere.  Take for example Hong Kong, where gasoline still retails for $8.50/gallon (as of 31Dec. 2014.) Or in Paris or Munich where gasoline costs $5/gallon – even though the Euro’s value has shrunk to only $1.20.  Outside the USA most developed countries have a lot more demand for oil than they have production (if they have any at all.)

Almost all of these countries offer incentives for buying electric cars.  For example, in Hong Kong and Singapore the import tax on an auto can be 100-200% of the car’s price (literally double or triple the price due to import taxes.)  But in these same countries the tax is greatly reduced, or eliminated entirely, for buying an electric car for policy reasons to promote lower oil consumption and cleaner city air.  So a $100,000 Mercedes E class in Hong Kong will cost $200,000+, while a $100,000 Model S costs $100,000.

Further, outside the USA most countries heavily tax gasoline and diesel in order to discourage consumption and yield infrastructure funds.  So even as oil prices go down, gasoline prices do not decline in lock-step with oil price declines.  Consumers in these countries have a much greater demand than U.S. consumers for high mileage (and electric) cars almost regardless of crude oil prices.  So thinking that low USA gasoline prices reduces demand for electric cars is actually quite myopic.

Third, do you really think oil prices will stay low forever?  Oil is a commodity with incredible political impact.  Pricing is based on much more than “supply and demand.”  At any given time Aramco, or its lead partners such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, can decide to simply pump more, or less fuel.  Today they are happy to pump a lot of oil because it hurts countries with which they have a bone to pick – such as Russia (now almost out of bank reserves due to low oil prices) and Iran.  And it helps USA consumers, reducing domestic interest in things like the Keystone Pipeline which could lessen long-term reliance on Aramco oil.  And investing in risky development projects like the arctic ocean.  Tomorrow these countries could decide to pump less, as they did in the mid-1970s, driving up prices and almost killing the U.S. economy.

Oil prices have a long history of instability.  Like most commodities.  That’s why a state economy like Texas, where they produce a lot of oil, could boom the last 4 years, while manufacturing states (like Wisconsin and Illinois) suffered.  With oil back under $50/barrel drilling rigs will go into mothballs, oil leases will go undeveloped, fracking projects will be stalled and the economy of oil producing states will suffer. Like happened in the mid-1980s when Saudi Arabia once again began flooding the market with oil and exploration and production companies across Texas went out of business.

Most people are smart enough to realize you look at all aspects of owning a new car.  There are a lot of reasons to buy Tesla automobiles.  Not only are they good cars, but they are changing the sales model by eliminating those undesirable auto dealers most consumers hate.  And they are offering charging stations in many locations to make refills painless.  And you don’t have to change the oil, or do quite a bit of other maintenance.  And you do less damage to the environment.  It’s not simply a matter of the price of fuel.

It is always risky to oversimplify consumer behavior.  Decisions are rarely based entirely on price. And, as Apple has shown with sales if iOS devices and Macs, people often buy more expensive products when they offer a better experience and brand.  Long term investors know that when a stock is beaten down by a short-term reaction to a short-term phenomenon (such as this fast decline in oil prices) it often creates an opportunity to buy into a company with a great future potential for growth.

Resolve to Focus on Goals Rather Than Results in 2015

Resolve to Focus on Goals Rather Than Results in 2015

Results, results, results.  We frequently hear that we should focus on results.

More often than not, focusing on results is a waste of time.  Because it is looking in the rear view mirror, rather than the windshield.

Someone asked me today what I thought of Janet Yellen as head of the Federal Reserve.  I found this hard to answer.  Even though Chairperson Yellen has been in the job since February, her job as lead policy setter has almost no short term ramifications.  It takes quarters – not months – to see the results of those policy decisions.  Even after a year in office, it is very difficult to render an opinion on her performance as Fed leader.  The fantastic 5% growth in the U.S. economy last quarter has much more to do with what happened before she took office – in fact years of policy setting before she took office – than what has happened since she became the top Fed governor.

We often forget what the word “results” means.  It is the outcome of previous decisions.  Results tell us something about decisions that happened in the past. Sometimes, far into the past.  We all can remember companies where looking backward all looked well, right up until the company fell off a cliff.  Circuit City. Brachs Candy. Sun Microsystems.

Further, “results” are impacted dramatically by things outside the control of management, such as:

  • Changes in interest rates (or no changes when they remain low)
  • Changes in oil prices (which have been dramatically lower the last 6 months)
  • Changes in investor expectations and the overall stock market (which has been on a record-setting bull run)
  • Inflation expectations (which remain at historical lows)
  • Expectations about labor rates (which remain low, despite trends toward higher minimum wages)
  • Technology advances (including rapid mobile growth in apps, beacons, payments, etc.)

We too often forget that last quarter’s (or even last year’s) results are due to decisions made months before.  Gloating, or apologizing, about those results has little meaning.  Results, no matter how recent, are meaningless when looking forward.  Decisions made long ago caused those results. “Results” are actually unimportant when investing for the future.

What really matters are the decisions being made today which can cause future results to be wildly different – better or worse. What we need to focus upon are these current decisions and their ability to create future results:

  • What are the goals being set for next year – or better yet for 2020?
  • What are the trends upon which goals are being set? How are future goals aligned to major trends?
  • What are the future expected scenarios, and how are goals being set to align with those scenarios?
  • Who will be the likely future competitors, and how are goals being set make sure we the organization is prepared to  compete with the right companies?

Far too often management will say “we just had great results.  We plan to continue executing on our plans, and investors should expect similar future results.”  But that makes no sense.  The world is a fast changing place.  Past results are absolutely not any indicator of future performance.

Windshield v Rear View Mirror

For 2015, and beyond, investors (and employees, suppliers and communities sponsoring companies) should resolve to hold management far more accountable for its future goals, and the process used to set those goals. Amazon.com maintains a valuation far higher than its historical indicates it should primarily because it is excellent at communicating key trends it watches, future scenarios it expects and how the company plans to compete as it creates those future scenarios.

In the 1981 Burt Reynolds’ movie “Cannonball Run” a character begins a trans-country auto race by ripping the rear view mirror from his car and throwing it out the window.  “What’s behind me is not important” he proudly states.  This should be the 2015 resolution of investors, and all leaders.  Past results are not important. What matters are plans for the future, and future goals.  Only by focusing on those can we succeed in creating growth and better results in the future.

 

 

 

Those Who Lead (Zebra Tech) and Those Who Abdicate (Motorola)

Those Who Lead (Zebra Tech) and Those Who Abdicate (Motorola)

On April 15 Zebra Technologies announced its planned acquisition of Motorola’s Enterprise Device Business.  This was remarkable because it represented a major strategic shift for Zebra, and one that would take a massive investment in products and technologies which were wholly new to the company.  A gutsy play to make Zebra more relevant in its B-2-B business as interest in its “core” bar code business was declining due to generic competition.

Last week the acquisition was completed. In an example of Jonah swallowing the whale, Zebra added $2.5B to annual revenues on its old base of $1B (2.5x incremental revenue,) an additional 4,500 employees joined its staff of 2,500 and 69 new facilities were added.  Gulp.

zebra-technologies-logo

As CEO Anders Gustafsson told me, “after the deal was agreed to I felt like the dog that caught the car. ”

Fortunately Zebra has a plan, and it is all around growth.  Acquisitions led by private equity firms, hedge funds or leveraged buyout partners are usually quick to describe the “synergies” planned for after the acquisition.  Synergy is a code word for massive cost cutting (usually meaning large layoffs,) selling off assets (from buildings to product lines and intellectual property rights) and shutting down what the buyers call “marginal” businesses.  This always makes the company smaller, weaker and less likely to survive as the new investors focus on pulling out cash and selling the remnants to some large corporation.

There is no growth plan.

But Zebra has publicly announced that after this $3.25B investment they plan only $150M of savings over 2 years.  Which means Zebra’s management team intends to grow what they bought, not decimate it.  What a novel, or perhaps throwback, idea.

Minimal cost cutting reflects a deal, as CEO Gustafsson told me, “envisioned by management, not by bankers.”

Zebra’s management knew the company was frequently pitching for new work in partnership with Motorola.  The two weren’t competitors, but rather two companies working to move their clients forward.  But in a disorganized, unplanned way because they were two totally different companies.  Zebra’s team recognized that if this became one unit, better planning for clients, the products could work better together, the solutions more directly target customer needs and it would be possible to slingshot forward ahead of competitors to grow revenues.

As CEO since 2007, Anders Gustafsson had pushed a strategy which could grow Zebra, and move the company outside its historical core business of bar code printers and readers.  The leadership considered buying Symbol Technology, but wasn’t ready and watched it go to Motorola.

Then Zebra’s team knuckled down on their strategy work.  CEO Gustafsson spelled out for me the 3 trends which were identified to build upon:

  1. Mobility would continue to be a secular growth trend. And business customers needed products with capabilities beyond the generic smart phone.  For example, the kind of integrated data entry and printing device used at a remote rental car return.  These devices drive business productivity, and customers hunger for such solutions.
  2. From the days of RFID, where Zebra was an early player, had emerged automatic data capture – which became what now is commonly called “The Internet of Things” – and this trend too had far to extend.  By connecting the physical and digital worlds, in markets like retail inventory management, big productivity boosts were possible in formerly moribund work that added cost but little value.
  3. Cloud-based (SaaS and growth of lightweight apps) ecosystems were going to provide fast growth environments.  Client need for capability at the employee’s (or their customer’s) fingertips would grow, and those people (think distributors, value added resellers [VARs]) who build solutions will create apps, accessible via the cloud, to rapidly drive customer productivity.

Inventory Control Device

With this groundwork, the management team developed future scenarios in which it became increasingly clear the value in merging together with Motorola devices to accelerate growth.  According to CEO Gustafsson, “it would bring more digital voice to the Zebra physical voice. It would allow for more complete product offerings which would fulfill critical, macro customer trends.”

But, to pull this off required selling the Board of Directors.  They are ultimately responsible for company investments, and this was – as described above – a “whopper.”

The CEO’s team spent a lot of time refining the message, to be clear about the benefits of this transaction.  Rather than pitching the idea to the Board, they offered it as an opportunity to accelerate strategy implementation.  Expecting a wide range of reactions, they were not surprised when some Directors thought this was “phenomenal” while others thought it was “fraught with risk.”

So management agreed to work with the Board to undertake a thorough due diligence process, over many weeks (or months it turned out) to ask all the questions.  A key executive, who was a bit skeptical in her own right, took on the role of the “black hat” leader.  Her job was to challenge the many ideas offered, and to be a chronic skeptic; to not let the team become enraptured with the idea and thereby sell themselves on success too early, and/or not consider risks thoroughly enough.  By persistently undertaking analysis, education led the Board to agree that management’s strategy had merit, and this deal would be a breakout for Zebra.

Next came completing financing.  This was a big deal.  And the only way to make it happen was for Zebra to take on far more debt than ever in the company’s history.  But, the good news was that interest rates are at record low levels, so the cost was manageable.

Zebra’s leadership patiently met with bankers and investors to overview the market strategy, the future scenarios and their plans for the new company.  They over and again demonstrated the soundness of their strategy, and the cash flow ability to service the debt.  Zebra had been a smaller, stable company.  The debt added more dynamism, as did the much greater revenues. The requirement was to decide if the strategy was soundly based on trends, and had a high likelihood of success.  Quickly enough, the large shareholders agreed with the path forward, and the financing was fully committed.

Now that the acquisition is complete we will all watch carefully to see if the growth machine this leadership team created brings to market the solutions customers want, so Zebra can generate the revenue and profits investors want.  If it does, it will be a big win for not only investors but Zebra’s employees, suppliers and the communities in which Zebra operates.

The obvious question has to be, why didn’t Motorola do this deal? After all, they were the whale.  It would have been much easier for people to understand Motorola buying Zebra than the gutsy deal which ultimately happened.

Answering this question requires a lot more thought about history.  In 2006 Motorola had launched the Razr phone and was an industry darling.  Newly minted CEO Ed Zander started partnering with Google and Apple rather than developing proprietary solutions like Razr.  Carl Icahn soon showed up as an activist investor intent on restructuring the company and pulling out more cash. Quickly then-CEO Ed Zander was pushed out the door.  New leadership came in, and Motorola’s new product introductions disappeared.

Under pressure from Mr. Icahn, Motorola started shrinking under direction of the new CEO.  R&D and product development went through many cuts.  New product launches simply were delayed, and died.  The cellular phone business began losing money as RIM brought to market Blackberry and stole the enterprise show.  Year after year the focus was on how to raise cash at Motorola, not how to grow.

After 4 years, Mr. Icahn was losing money on his position in Motorola.  A year later Motorola spun out the phone business, and a year after that leadership paid Mr. Icahn $1.2B in a stock repurchase that saved him from losses. The CEO called this buyout of Icahn the “end of a journey” as Mr. Icahn took the money and ran.  How this benefited Motorola is – let’s say unclear.

But left in Icahn’s wake was a culture of cut and shred, rather than invest.  After 90 years of invention, from Army 2-way radios to police radios, from AM car radios to home televisions, the inventor analog and digital cell towers and phones, there was no more innovation at Motorola.  Motorola had become a company where the leaders, and Board, only thought about how to raise cash – not deploy it effectively within the corporation.  There was very little talk about how to create new markets, but plenty about how to retrench to ever smaller “core” markets with no sales growth and declining margins.  In September of this year long-term CEO Greg Brown showed no insight for what the company can become, but offered plenty of thoughts on defending tax inversions and took the mantle as apologist for CEOs who use financial machinations to confuse investors.

Investors today should cheer the leadership, in management and on the Board, at Zebra.  Rather than thinking small, they thought big. Rather than bragging about their past, they figured out what future they could create. Rather than looking at their limits, they looked at the possibilities.  Rather than giving up in the face of objections, they studied the challenges until they had answers.  Rather than remaining stuck in their old status quo, they found the courage to become something new.

Bravo.

 

Why Apple Pay Is Likely to Succeed – Lessons from Paypal

Why Apple Pay Is Likely to Succeed – Lessons from Paypal

Will the new Apple Pay product, revealed on iPhone 6 devices, succeed?  There have been many entries into the digital mobile payments business, such as Google Wallet, Softcard (which had the unfortunate initial name of ISIS,) Square and Paypal.  But so far, nobody has really cracked the market as Americans keep using credit cards, cash and checks.

But that looks like it might change, and Apple has a pretty good chance of making Apple Pay a success.

First, a look at some critical market changes.  For decades we all thought credit card purchases were secure.  But that changed in 2013, and picked up steam in 2014.  With regularity we’ve heard about customer credit card data breaches at various retailers and restaurants. Smaller retailers like Shaw’s, Star Markets and Jewel caused some mild concern.  But when top tier retailers like Target and Home Depot revealed security problems, across millions of accounts, people really started to notice.  For the first time, some people are thinking an alternative might be a good idea, and they are considering a change.

In other words, there is now an underserved market.  For a long time people were very happy using credit cards.  But now, they aren’t as happy.  There are people, still a minority, who are actively looking for an alternative to cash and credit cards.  And those people now have a need that is not fully met.  That means the market receptivity for a mobile payment product has changed.

Second let’s look at how Paypal became such a huge success fulfilling an underserved market.  When people first began on-line buying transactions were almost wholly credit cards.  But some customers lacked the ability to use credit cards.  These folks had an underserved need, because they wanted to buy on-line but had no payment method (mailing checks or cash was risky, and COD shipments were costly and not often supported by on-line vendors.)  Paypal jumped into that underserved market.

Quickly Paypal tied itself to on-line vendors, asking them to support their product.  They went less to people who were underserved, and mostly to the infrastructure which needed to support the product.  By encouraging the on-line retailers they could expand sales with Paypal adoption, Paypal gathered more and more sites.  The 2002 acquisition by eBay was a boon, as it truly legitimized Paypal in minds of consumers and smaller on-line retailers.

After filling the underserved market, Paypal expanded as a real competitor for credit cards by adding people who simply preferred another option.  Today Paypal accounts for $1 of every $6 spent on-line, a dramatic statistic.  There are 153million Paypal digital wallets, and Paypal processes $203B of payments annually.  Paypal supports 26 currencies, is in 203 markets, has 15,000 financial institution partners – all creating growth last year of 19%.  A truly outstanding success story.

Back to traditional retail.  As mentioned earlier, there is an underserved market for people who don’t want to use cash, checks or credit cards.  They seek a solution.  But just as Paypal had to obtain the on-line retailer backing to acquire the end-use customer, mobile payment company success relies on getting retailers to say they take that company’s digital mobile payment product.

ibeacon

Here is where Apple has created an advantage.  Few end-use customers are terribly aware of retail beacons, the technology which has small (sometimes very small) devices placed in a store, fast food outlet, stadium or other environment which sends out signals to talk to smartphones which are in nearby proximity.  These beacons are an “inside retail” product that most consumer don’t care about, just like they don’t really care about the shelving systems or price tag holders in the store.

Launched with iOS 7, Apple’s iBeacon has become the leader in this “recognize and push” technology.  Since Apple installed Beacons in its own stores in December, 2013 tens of thousands of iBeacons have been installed in retailers and other venues.  Macy’s alone installed 4,000 in 2014.  Increasingly, iBeacons are being used by retailers in conjunction with consumer goods manufacturers to identify who is shopping, what they are buying, and assist them with product information, coupons and other purchase incentives.

Thus, over the last year Apple has successfully been courting the retailers, who are the infrastructure for mobile payments.  Now, as the underserved payment issue comes to market it is natural for retailers to turn to the company with which they’ve been working on their “infrastructure” products.

Apple has an additional great benefit because it has by far the largest installed base of smartphones, and its products are very consistent.  Even though Android is a huge market, and outsells iOS, the platform is not consistent because Android on Samsung is not like Android on Amazon’s Fire, for example. So when a retailer reaches out for the alternative to credit cards, Apple can deliver the largest number of users. Couple that with the internal iBeacon relationship, and Apple is really well positioned to be the first company major retailers and restaurants turn to for a solution – as we’ve already seen with Apple Pay’s acceptance by Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Duane Reed, McDonald’s Staples, Walgreen’s, Whole Foods and others.

This does not guarantee Apple Pay will be the success of Paypal.  The market is fledgling. Whether the need is strong or depth of being underserved is marked is unknown. How consumers will respond to credit card use and mobile payments long-term is impossible to gauge. How competitors will react is wildly unpredictable.

But, Apple is very well positioned to win with Apple Pay.  It is being introduced at a good time when people are feeling their needs are underserved.  The infrastructure is primed to support the product, and there is a large installed base of users who like Apple’s mobile products.  The pieces are in place for Apple to disrupt how we pay for things, and possibly create another very, very large market.  And Apple’s leadership has a history of successfully managing disruptive product launches, as we’ve seen in music (iPod,) mobile phones (iPhone) and personal technology tools (iPad.)

 

How this Zebra Changed Its Stripes – Bold Move

How this Zebra Changed Its Stripes – Bold Move

Zebra Technologies is a company most people don’t recognize.  Yet, I bet every product you buy has the product on which they specialize.

Since 1982 Zebra has been the leader in bar code printers and readers.  Zebra was a pioneer in the application of bar codes for tracking pallets through warehouses, items used in a manufacturing line, shipment tracking and other uses for manufacturing and supply chain management.  As the market leader Zebra Technologies developed its own software (ZPL) for printing barcodes, and made robust printing and reading machines that were the benchmark for rugged, heavy duty applications at companies from Caterpillar, to UPS and FedEx, to WalMart.

Although the company dabbled in RFID technology for product tracking, and is considered a leader in that market, the new technology really never “took off” due to higher costs compared with the boring, but effective and remarkably cheap, bar code.  So Zebra plodded away making ever better, smaller, cheaper, faster bar code printers.  It may not have been exciting, like the nondescript headquarters in far-suburban Chicago, but it met the market needs.  Zebra was an excellent operational company that was delivering on its focus.

Even if it was, well …… boring.

But, like all markets, the bar code market began shifting.  Generic software companies, like Microsoft, produced drivers that would work from a cheap PC to allow

cheap generic printers, like those from HP, to print bar codes.  These were cheap enough to be considered disposable.  Not a good thing for the better, but more expensive, market leader.  Competitive, non-proprietary software and hardware leads to lower prices and margin compression.  It’s a differentiation stealer.

Worse, lots of customers stopped caring much about bar codes altogether.  Zebra’s customers realized bar codes were everywhere.  Nothing new was really happening.  When it came to delivering on the promise of really efficient, accurate and low cost supply chain management the bar code had a place.  But no longer an exciting one.  When your product is boring discussions with customers easily slip toward price rather than new products.  And when you’re talking about price, and how to keep existing business, relevancy is at risk.  You become a target for a new competitor to come along and steal your thunder (and profits) by relegating your product to generic-doom while taking the high rode of delivering more value by changing the game.

So hand it to Zebra’s leadership team that they observed the risk of staying focused on their status quo, and took action to change the game themselves.  Today Zebra announced it is buying the enterprise device business of Motorola.  And this is a big bet.  At a price of $3.5B, Zebra is spending an amount nearly equal to its existing net worth. And it is borrowing $3.25B – almost the whole cost – greatly increasing the company’s debt ratios.  That is a gutsy move.

Yet, in this one move Zebra will nearly triple its revenues.

This decision is not without risk. The acquired Motorola business has seen declining revenues – like a $500M decline in the last year (roughly 25%.)  With many products built on Microsoft software, customers have been shifting to other solutions.  Exactly how the old technologies will integrate with new ones in the Motorola lines is not clear. And even less clear is how a combined company will bring together old-line printer/scanners using proprietary software with the diverse, and honestly pricey, products that Motorola enterprise has been selling, to offer more competitive solutions.

Yet, investors should be encouraged.  Doing nothing would spell disaster for Zebra.  It is a company that needs to re-invent itself for today’s pressing business needs — which have little in common with the top needs 30 years ago (or even 10 years ago.)  In October, Zebra launched Zatar, a Web-based software that allows companies to deploy and manage devices and sensors connected to the Internet.  In December Zebra purchased a company (Hart) for its cloud-based software to manage inventory.  Now Zebra is looking to use these integration tools to bring together all kinds of devices the new company will manufacture to help companies achieve an entirely new level of efficiency and capability in today’s real-time manufacturing and logistics world.

We should admire CEO Anders Gustaffson’s leadership team for recommending such bold action.  And the company’s Chairman and Board for approving it.  Of course “there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” but at least Zebra’s investors, employees, suppliers and customers can now see that Zebra is really holding a viable cup, and that it is putting together a serious effort to provide better delivery to buyers lips.

This is a play to grow the company by following the trend to “the internet of things” with new solutions that are potential game changers.  And there’s no way you can win unless you’re in the game.  With these acquisitions, there is no doubt that what was mostly a manufacturing company – Zebra – is now “in the game” for doing new things with new technologies.

This does beg some questions:  What is your company doing to be a game changer?  Are you resting on the laurels of strong historical sales – and maybe a strong historical market position?  Do you recognize that your market is shifting, and it is undercutting historical strengths?  Are you relying on operational excellence, while new technologies are threatening your obsolescence?

Or — are you thinking like the leaders at Zebra Technologies and taking bold action to be the industry game-changing leader, even if it means stretching your financials, your management team and the technology?

Most of us would rather be in the former, than the latter, I think.

Tesla is Smarter Than Other Auto Companies

Tesla is Smarter Than Other Auto Companies

Car dealers are idiots” said my friend as she sat down for a cocktail.

It was evening, and this Vice President of a large health care equipment company was meeting me to brainstorm some business ideas. I asked her how her day went, when she gave the response above. She then proceeded to tell me she wanted to trade in her Lexus for a new, small SUV. She had gone to the BMW dealer, and after being studiously ignored for 30 minutes she asked “do the salespeople at this dealership talk to customers?” Whereupon the salespeople fell all over themselves making really stupid excuses like “we thought you were waiting for your husband,” and “we felt you would be more comfortable when your husband arrived.”

My friend is not married. And she certainly doesn’t need a man’s help to buy a car.

She spent the next hour using her iPhone to think up every imaginable bad thing she could say about this dealer over Twitter and Facebook using various interesting hashtags and @ references.

Truthfully, almost nobody likes going to an auto dealership. Everyone can share stories about how they were talked down to by a salesperson in the showroom, treated like they were ignorant, bullied by salespeople and a slow selling process, overcharged compared to competitors for service, forced into unwanted service purchases under threat of losing warranty coverage – and a slew of other objectionable interactions. Most Americans think the act of negotiating the purchase of a new car is loathsome – and far worse than the proverbial trip to a dentist.  It’s no wonder auto salespeople regularly top the list of least trusted occupations!

When internet commerce emerged in the 1990s, buying an auto on-line was the #1 most desired retail transaction in emerging customer surveys. And today the vast majority of Americans, especially Millennials, use the web and social media to research their purchase before ever stepping foot in the dreaded dealership.

Tesla heard, and built on this trend.  Rather than trying to find dealers for its cars, Tesla decided it would sell them directly from the manufacturer. Which created an uproar amongst dealers who have long had a cushy “almost no way to lose money” business, due to a raft of legal protections created to support them after the great DuPont-General Motors anti-trust case.

When New Jersey regulators decided in March they would ban Tesla’s factory-direct dealerships, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, went after Governor Christie for supporting a system that favors the few (dealers) over the customer.  He has threatened to use the federal courts to overturn the state laws in favor of consumer advocacy.

It would be easy to ignore Tesla’s position, except it is not alone in recognizing the trend.  TrueCar is an on-line auto shopping website which received $30M from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s venture fund.  After many state legal challenges TrueCar now claims to have figured out how to let people buy on-line with dealer delivery, and last week filed papers to go public.  While this doesn’t eliminate dealers, it does largely take them out of the car-buying equation.  Call it a work-around for now that appeases customers and lawyers, even if it doesn’t actually meet consumer desires for a direct relationship with the manufacturer.

Apple’s direct-to-consumer retail stores were key to saving the company

Distribution is always a tricky question for any consumer good. Apple wanted to make sure its products were positioned correctly, and priced correctly. As Apple re-emerged from near bankruptcy with new music products in the early 2000’s Apple feared electronic retailers would discount the product, be unable to feature Apple’s advantages, and hurt the brand which was in the process of rebuilding.  So it opened its own stores, staffed by “geniuses” to help customers understand the brand positioning and the products’ advantages. Those stores are largely considered to have been a turning point in helping consumers move from a world of Microsoft-based laptops, Sony music products and Blackberry mobile devices to new iDevices and resurging Macintosh popularity – and sales levels.

Attacking regulations sounds – and is – a daunting task. But, when regulations support a minority of people outside the public good there is reason to expect change.  American’s wanted a more pristine society, so in 1920 the 18th Amendment was passed prohibiting alcohol. However, after a decade in which rampant crime developed to support illegal alcohol production Americans passed the 21st Amendment in 1933 to repeal prohibition. What seemed like a good idea at first turned out to have more negatives than positives.

Auto dealer regulations hurt competition, and consumers

Today Americans do not need a protected group of dealers to save them from big, bad auto companies. To the contrary, forced distribution via protected dealers inhibits competition because it keeps new competitors from entering the U.S. market. Small production manufacturers, and large ones in countries like India, are effectively blocked from reaching American customers because they lack a dealer base and existing dealers are uninterested in taking the risks inherent in taking these new products to market. Likewise, starting up an auto company is fraught with distribution risks in the USA, leaving Tesla the only company to achieve any success since the dealer protection laws were passed decades ago.

And that’s why Tesla has a very good chance of succeeding. The trends all support Americans wanting to buy directly from manufacturers. At the very least this would force dealers to justify their existence, and profits, if they want to stay in business. But, better yet, it would create greater competition – as happened in the case of Apple’s re-emergence and impact on personal technology for entertainment and productivity.

Litigating to fight a trend might work for a while. Usually those in such a position are large political contributors, and use both the political process as well as legal precedent to protect their unjustified profits. NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association) is a substantial organization with very large PAC money to use across Washington. The Association can coordinate election contributions at national and state levels, as well as funding for judge elections and contributions for legal defense.

But, trends inevitably win out. Today Millennials are true on-line shoppers.  They have no patience for traditional auto dealer shenanigans. After watching their parents, and grandparents, struggle for fairness with dealers they are eager for a change. As are almost all the auto buyers out there. And they are supported by consumer advocates long used to edgy tactics of auto dealers well known for skirting ethics and morality when dealing with customers. Those seeking change just need someone positioned to lead the legal effort.

Tesla wins because it uses trends to be a game changer

Tesla has shown it is well attuned to trends and what customers want. When other auto companies eschewed Tesla’s first entry as a 2-passenger sports car using laptop batteries, Tesla proceeded to sell out the product at a price much higher competitive gas-powered cars. When other auto companies thought a $70,000 electric sedan would never appeal to American buyers, Tesla again showed it understood the market best and sold out production. When industry pundits, and traditional auto company execs, said it was impossible to build a charging grid to support users driving up the coast, or cross-country, Tesla built the grid and demonstrated its functionality.

Now Tesla is the right company, in the right place, to change not only the autos Americans drive, but how Americans buy them. It’s rarely smart to refuse a trend, and almost always smart to support it. Tesla looks to be positioning itself as much smarter than older, larger auto companies once again.

The Smart Leadership Lessons from Facebook’s WhatsApp Acquisition

The Smart Leadership Lessons from Facebook’s WhatsApp Acquisition

Facebook is acquiring WhatsApp, a company with at most $300M revenues, and 55 employees, for $19billion.  That’s billion – with a “b.” An astonishing figure that is second only to HP’s acquisition of market leader Compaq, which had substantial revenues and profits, as tech acquisitions.  $19B is 13 times Facebook’s (not WhatsApp’s) entire 2013 net income – and almost 2.5 times Facebook’s (again, not WhatsApp’s) 2013 gross revenues!

On the mere face of it this valuation should make the most dispassionate analyst swoon.  In today’s world very established, successful companies sell for far, far lower valuations.  Apple is valued at about 13 times earnings.  Microsoft about 14 times earnings.  Google 33 times.  These are small fractions of the nearly infinite P/E placed on WhatsApp.

But there is a leadership lesson offered here by CEO Zuckerberg’s team that is well worth learning.

Irrelevancy can happen remarkably quickly.  True in any industry, but especially in digital technology. Examples: Research-in-Motion/Blackberry.  Motorola.  Dell.  HP all lost relevancy in months and are struggling.  (For those who want non-tech examples think of Circuit City, Best Buy, Sears, JCPenney, Abercrombie and Fitch.)  Each of these companies was an industry leader that lust its luster, most of its customers, a big chunk of its employees and much of its market valuation in months when the company missed a market shift.

Although leadership knew what it had historically done to sell products profitably, in a very short time market trends reduced the value of the company’s historical success formula leaving investors, as well as management, wondering how it was going to compete.

Facebook is not immune to changing market trends.  Although it has been the benchmark for social media, it only achieved that goal after annihilating early leader MySpace.  And although Facebook was built by youthful folks, trends away from using laptops and toward mobile devices have challenged the Facebook platform.  Simultaneously, changing communication requirements have altered the use, and impact, of things like images, photos, charts and text.  All of these have the potential impact of slowly (or not so slowly) eroding the value (which is noticably lofty) of Facebook.

Most leaders address these kinds of challenges by launching new products to leverage the trend.  And Facebook did just that.  Facebook not only worked on making the platform more mobile friendly, but developed its own platform apps for photos and texting and all kinds of new features.

But, and this is critical, external companies did a better job.  Two years ago Instagram emerged as a leader in image sharing.  And WhatsApp has developed a superior answer for messaging.

Historically leadership usually said “we need to find a way to beat these new guys.” They would make it hard to integrate new solutions with their dominant platform in an effort to block growth.  They would spend huge amounts on marketing and branding to try overcoming the emerging leader.  Often they filed intellectual property litigation in an effort to cause short-term business interuption and threaten viability.  They might even try hiring the emerging company’s tech leader away to stop development.

All of these actions were efforts to defend & extend the early leader’s market position.  Even though the market is shifting, and trends are developing externally from the company, leadership will tend to look inside for an answer.  It will often ignore the trend, disparage the competition, keep promising improvements to its historical products and services and blanket the media with PR as to its stated superiority.

But, as that list (above) of companies that lost relevancy demonstrates, this rarely works.  In a highly interconnected, fast-paced, globally competitive marketplace customers go where they want.  Quickly.  Often leaving the early leader with a management team (and Board of Directors) scratching its head and wondering how it lost so much market position, and value, so quickly.

Hand it to Mr. Zuckerberg’s team.  Instead of ignoring trends in its effort to defend & extend its early lead, they reached out and brought the leader to them.  $1B for Instagram was a big investment, especially so close to launching an IPO.  But, it kept Facebook relevant in mobile platforms and imaging.

And making a nosebleed-creating $19B deal for WhatsApp focuses on maintaining relevancy as well.  WhatsApp already processes almost as many messages as the entire telecom industry.  It has 450million users with 70% active daily, which is already 60% the size of Facebook’s daily user community (550million.)  By bringing these people into the Facebook corporate family it assures the company of continued relevancy as the market shifts.  It doesn’t matter if these are the same people, or different people.  The issue is that it keeps Facebook relevant, rather than losing relevance to a competitor.

How will this all be monetized into $19B?  The second brilliant leadership call by Facebook is to not answer that question.

Facebook didn’t know how to monetize its early leadership in users, but management knew it had to find a way.  Now the company has grown from almost no revenues in 2008 to almost $8B in just 5 years.  (Does your company have a plan to add $8B/year of organic revenue growth by 2019?)

So just as Facebook had to find its revenue model (which it is still exploring,) Zuckerberg’s team allows the leadership of Instagram and WhatsApp to remain independent, operating in their own White Space, to grow their user base and learn how to monetize what is an extraordinarily large group of happy folks.  When looking to grow in new markets, and you find a team with the skills to understand the trends, it is independence rather than integration that makes the most sense organizationally.

Thirdly, back to that valuation issue.  $19B is a huge amount of money.  Unless you don’t really spend $19B.  Facebook has the blessed ability to print its own.  Private money that it can use for such acquisitions.  As long as Facebook has a very high market valuation it can make acquisitions with shares, rather than real money.

In the case of both Instagram and WhatsApp the acquisition is being made in a mix of cash, Facebook stock and restricted Facebook stock for employees.  The latter two of these three items are not real money.  They are simply pieces of paper giving claims to ownership of Facebook, which itself is valued at 22 times 2013 revenue and 116 times 2013 earnings.  The price of those shares are all based on expectations; expectations which now require the performance of Instagram and WhatsApp to make happen.

By making acquisitions with Facebook shares the leadership team is able to link the newly acquired managers to the same overall goals as Facebook, while offering an extremely high price but without actually having to raise any money – or spend all that money.

All companies risk of becoming irrelevant.  New technologies, customer behavior patterns, regulations, inventions and innovations constantly challenge old success formulas.  Most leaders fall into a pattern of trying to defend & extend their old business in the face of market shifts, hastening the fall into irrelevancy.  Or they try to acquire a new business, then integrate it into the old business which strips away the new business value and leads, inevitably, to irrelevancy.

The leaders of Facebook are giving us a lesson in an alternative approach.  (1) Recognize the market shift.  Accept it.  If there is a better solution, rush toward it rather than ignoring it.  (2) Bring it into the company, and leave it independent.  Eschew integration and efforts to find “synergy.”  (You never know, in 3 years the company may need to be renamed WhatsApp to reflect a new market paradigm.)  (3) And as long as you can convince investors that you are maintaining your relevancy use your highly valued stock as currency to keep the company moving forward.

These are 3 great lessons for all leadership teams.  And I continue to think Facebook is the one stock to own in 2014.

 

Facebook – The One Stock to Own in 2014

Facebook – The One Stock to Own in 2014

Most investors really aren’t. They are traders.  They sell too fast, and make too many transactions.  That’s why most small “investors” don’t do as well as the market averages.  In fact, most don’t even do as well as if they simply put money into certificates of deposit or treasury bills.

I subscribe to the idea you should be able to invest in a company, and then simply forget about it.  Whether you invest $10 or $100,000, you should feel confident when you buy a stock that you won’t touch it for 3, 5 or even 10 years.  Let the traders deal with volatility, just wait and let the company do its thing and go up in value.  Then sometime down the road sell it for a multiple of what you paid.

That means investing in big trends.  Find a trend that is long-lasting, perhaps permanent, and invest in the leader.  Then let the trend do all the work for you.

Imagine you bought AT&T in the 1950s as communication was about to proliferate and phones went into every business and home.  Or IBM in the 1960s as computer technology overtook slide rules, manual databases and bookkeeping.  Microsoft in the 1980s as personal computers became commonplace.  Oracle in the 1990s as applications were built on relational databases.  Google, Amazon and Apple in the last decade as people first moved to the internet in droves, and as mobile computing became the next “big thing.”

In each case investors put their money in a big trend, and invested in a leader far ahead of competitors with a strong management team and product pipeline.  Then they could forget about it for a few years.  All of these went up and down, but over time the vicissitudes were obliterated by long-term gains.

Today the biggest trend is social media.  While many people still decry its use, there is no doubt that social media platforms are becoming commonplace in how we communicate, look for information, share information and get a lot of things done.  People inherently like to be social; like to communicate.  They trust referrals and comments from other people a lot more than they trust an ad – and often more than they trust conventional media.  Social media is the proverbial fast flowing river, and getting in that boat is going to take you to a higher value destination.

And the big leader in this trend is Facebook.  Although investors were plenty upset when Facebook tumbled after its IPO in 2012, if you had simply bought then, and kept buying a bit each quarter, you’d already be well up on your investment.  Almost any purchase made in the first 12 months after the IPO would now have a value 2 to 3 times the acquisition price – so a 100% to 200% return.

But, things are just getting started for Facebook, and it would be wrong to think Facebook has peaked.

Few people realize that Facebook became a $5B revenue company in 2012 – growing revenue 20X in 4 years.  And revenue has been growing at 150% per year since reaching $1B.  That’s the benefit of being on the “big trend.”  Revenues can grow really, really, really fast.

And the market growth is far from slowing.  In 2013 the number of U.S. adults using Facebook grew to 71% from 67% in 2012.  And that is 3.5 times as often as they used Linked-In or Twitter (22% and 18%.)  And Facebook is not U.S. user dependent.  Europe, Asia and Rest-of-World have even more users than the USAROW is 33% bigger than the USA, and Facebook is far from achieving saturation in these much higher population markets.

Advertisers desiring to influence these users increased their budgets 40% in 2013.  And that is sure to grow as users and their interactions climb. According to Shareaholic, over 10% of all internet referrals come from Facebook, up from 7% share of market the previous year.  This is 10 times the referral level of Twitter (1%) and 100 times the levels of Linked in and Google+ (less than .1% each.)  Thus, if an advertiser wants to users to go to its products Facebook is clearly the place to be.

Facebook acquires more of these ad dollars than all of its competition combined (57% share of market,) and is 4 times bigger than competitors Twitter and YouTube (a Google business.)  The list of Grade A advertisers is long, including companies such as Samsung ($100million,) Proctor & Gamble ($60million,) Microsoft ($35million,) Amazon, Nestle, Unilever, American Express, Visa, Mastercard and Coke – just to name a few.

And Facebook has a lot of room to grow the spending by these companies.  Google, the internet’s largest ad revenue generator, achieves $80 of ad revenue per user.  Facebook only brings in $13/user – less than Yahoo ($18/user.)  So the opportunity for advertisers to reach users more often alone is a 6x revenue potential – even if the number of users wasn’t growing.

But on top of Facebook’s “core” growth there are new revenue sources.  Since buying revenue-free Instagram, Facebook has turned it into what Evercore analysts estimate will be a $340M revenue in 2014. And as its user growth continues revenue is sure to be even larger in future years.

Even a larger opportunity for growth is the 2013 launched Facebook Ad Exchange (FBX) which is a powerful tool for remarketing unused digital ad space and targeting user behavior – even in mid-purchase. According to BusinessInsider.com FBX already sells to advertisers millions of ads every second – and delivers up billions of impressions daily.  All of which is happening in real-time, allowing for exponential growth as Facebook and advertisers learn how to help people use social media to make better purchase decisions.  FBX is currently only a small fraction of Facebook revenue.

Stock investing can seem like finding a needle in a haystack.  Especially to small investors who have little time to do research.  Instead of looking for needles, make investing easier.  Eschew complicated mathematical approaches, deep portfolio theory and reams of analyst reports and spreadsheets.  Invest in big trends that are growing, and the leaders building insurmountable market positions.

In 2014, that means buy Facebook.   Then see where your returns are in 2017.