The Kindle Smartphone is a Game Changer – But Not As You Think

The Kindle Smartphone is a Game Changer – But Not As You Think

Yesterday Amazon launched its new Kindle Fire smartphone.

“Ho-hum” you, and a lot of other people, said.  “Why?”  “What’s so great about this phone?”

The market is dominated by Apple and Samsung, to the point we no longer care about Blackberry – and have pretty much forgotten about all the money spent by Microsoft to buy Nokia and launch Windows 8.  The world doesn’t much need a new smartphone maker – as we’ve seen with the lack of excitement around Google/Motorola’s product launches.  And, despite some gee-whiz 3D camera and screen effects, nobody thinks Amazon has any breakthrough technology here.

But that would be completely missing the point.  Amazon probably isn’t even thinking of competing heads-up with the 2 big guns in the smartphone market.  Instead, Amazon’s target is everyone in retail.  And they should be scared to death.  As well as a lot of consumer products companies.

Amazon's new Kindle Fire smartphone

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire smartphone

Apple’s iPod and iPhones have some 400,000 apps.  But most people don’t use over a dozen or so daily.  Think about what you do on your phone:

  • Talk, texting and email
  • Check the weather, road conditions, traffic
  • Listen to music, or watch videos
  • Shopping (look for products, prices, locations, specs, availability, buy)

Now, you may do several other things.  But (maybe not in priority,) these are probably the top 4 for 90% of people.

If you’re Amazon, you want people to have a great shopping experience.  A GREAT experience.  You’ve given folks terrific interfaces, across multiple platforms.  But everything you do with an app on iPhones or Samsung phones involves negotiating with Apple or Google to be in their store – and giving them revenue.  If you could bypass Apple and Google – a form of retail “middleman” in Amazon’s eyes – wouldn’t you?

Amazon has already changed retail markedly.  Twenty years ago a retailer would say success relied on 2 things:

  1. Store location and layout.  Be in the right place, and be easy to shop.
  2. Merchandise the goods well in the store, and have them available.

Amazon has killed both those tenets of retail.  With Amazon there is no store – there is no location.  There are no aisles to walk, and no shelves to stock.  There is no merchandising of products on end caps, within aisles or by tagging the product for better eye appeal.  And in 40%+ cases, Amazon doesn’t even stock the inventory.  Availability is based upon a supplier for whom Amazon provides the storefront and interface to the customer, sending the order to the supplier for a percentage of the sale.

And, on top of this, the database at Amazon can make your life even easier, and less time consuming, than a traditional store.  When you indicate you want item “A” Amazon is able to show you similar products, show you variations (such as color or size,) show you “what goes with” that product to make sure you buy everything you need, and give you different prices and delivery options.

Many retailers have spent considerably training employees to help customers in the store.  But it is rare that any retail employee can offer you the insight, advice and detail of Amazon.  For complex products, like electronics, Amazon can provide  detail on all competitive products that no traditional store could support. For home fix-ups Amazon can provide detailed information on installation, and the suite of necessary ancillary products, that surpasses what a trained Home Depot employee often can do.  And for simple products Amazon simply never runs out of stock – so no asking an aisle clerk “is there more in the back?”

And it is impossible for any brick-and-mortar retailer to match the cost structure of Amazon.  No stores, no store employees, no cashiers, 50% of the inventory, 5-10x the turns, no “obsolete inventory,” no inventory loss – there is no way any retailer can match this low cost structure. Thus we see the imminent failure of Radio Shack and Sears, and the chronic decline in mall rents as stores go empty.

Some retailers have tried to catch up with Amazon offering goods on-line.  But the inventory is less, and delivery is still often problematic.  Meanwhile, as they struggle to become more digital these retailers are competing on ground they know precious little about.  It is becoming commonplace to read about hackers stealing customer data and wreaking havoc at Michaels Stores and Target.  Thus on-line customers have far more faith in Amazon, which has 2 decades of offering secure transactions and even offers cloud services secure enough to support major corporations and parts of the U.S. government.

And Amazon, so far, hasn’t even had to make a profit.  It’s lofty price/earnings multiple of 500 indicates just how little “e” there is in its p/e.  Amazon keeps pouring money into new ways to succeed, rather than returning money to shareholders via stock buybacks or dividends.  Or dumping it into chronic store remodels, or new store construction.

Today, you could shop at Amazon from your browser on any laptop, tablet or phone.  Or, if you really enjoy shopping on-line you can now obtain a new tablet or phone from Amazon which makes your experience even better.  You can simply take a picture of something you want, and your new Amazon smartphone will tell you how to buy it on-line, including price and delivery.  No need to leave the house.  Want to see the product in full 360 degrees? You have it on your 3D phone.  And all your buying experience, customer reviews, and shopping information is right at your fingertips.

Amazon is THE game changer in retail.  Kindle was a seminal product that has almost killed book publishers, who clung way too long to old print-based business models.  Kindle Fire took direct aim at traditional retailers, from Macy’s to Wal-Mart, in an effort to push the envelope of on-line shopping.  And now the Kindle Fire smartphone puts all that shopping power in your palm, convenient with your other most commonplace uses such as messaging, fact finding, listening or viewing.

This is not a game changing smartphone in comparison with iPhone 5 or Galaxy S 5.  But, as another salvo in the ongoing war for controlling the retail marketplace this is another game changer.  It continues to help everyone think about how they shop today, and in the future.  For anyone in retail, this may well be seen as another important step toward changing the industry forever, and making “every day low prices” an obsolete (and irrelevant) retail phrase.  And for consumer goods companies this means the need to distribute products on-line will forever change the way marketing and selling is done – including who makes how much profit.


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.

Obamacare – America’s Greatest Legislation Since the Civil Rights Act?

Obamacare – America’s Greatest Legislation Since the Civil Rights Act?

Obamacare is the moniker for the Affordable Care Act.  Unfortunately, a lot of people thought the last thing Obamacare would do was make health care more affordable.  Yet, early signs are pointing in the direction of a long-term change in America’s cost of providing health services.

The November, 2013 White House report on “Trends in Health Care Cost Growth” provides a plethora of data supporting declining health care costs.  Growth in health care cost per capita at 1% in 2011 was the lowest since record keeping began in the 1960s.  Health care inflation now seems to be about the same as general inflation, after 5 decades of consistently outpacing other price increases.  And Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections of Medicare/Medicaid cost as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have declined substantially since 2010.

Of course, one could easily accuse the White House of being self-serving with this report.  But at a February National Association of Corporate Directors Chicago Conference on health care,

all agreed that, indeed, the world has changed as a result of Obamacare.  And one short-term outcome is American health care trending toward greater affordability.

How Obamacare accomplished this, however, is not at all obvious.

Abdication: that is the word which best desribed patient health care choices for the last several decades.  Patients simply did whatever they were told to do.  If a test was administered, or a procedure recommended, or a referral to a specialist given, or a drug prescribed patients simply did what they were told – “as long as the insurance paid.”

The process of health care implementation, how patients were treated, was specified by medical professionals in conjunction with insurance companies and Medicare.   Patients had little – or nothing – to do with the decision making process.  The service was either offered, and largely free, or it wasn’t offered.

In effect, Americans abdicated health care decision-making to others.  The decisions about what would be treated, when and how was almost wholly made without patient involvement.  And what would be charged, as well as who would pay, was also made by someone other than the patient.  The patient had no involvement in determining if there was any sort of cost/benefit analysis, or the comparing of different care options.

Insurance companies dickered with providers over pricing.  Then employers dickered with insurance companies over what would be covered in a plan, what the price would be and what percentage was paid by the insurance company and what would be paid by patients.  When a patient needed treatment either the employer’s insurance company paid, after a negotiation on price with the provider, or the insurance company did not.  And patients largely consumed whatever care was offered under their plan.

Or, if it was Medicare the same process applied, just substitute for “employer” the words “a government agency.”

Americans had abdicated the decision-making process for health care to a cumbersome process that involved medical professionals, insurance companies and employers.  While patients may have acted like health care was free, everyone knew it was not free.  But the process of deciding what would be done, pricing and measuring benefits had been abdicated by patients to this process years ago.

Obamacare moves Americans from a world of abdication to a world of accountability.  Everyone now has to be insured, so the decision about what coverage each person has, at what level and cost, is now in the hands of the patient.  Rather than a single employer option, patients have a veritable smorgasboard of coverage options from which they can select.  And this begins the process of making each person accountable for their health care cost.

When people receive treatment, by and large more is now being paid by the patient.  And once people had to start paying, they had to be accountable for the cost (higher deductibles and co-pays had already started this process before Obamacare.)  When people became accountable for the cost, a lot more questions started to be asked about the price and the benefit.  Instead of consuming everything that was available, because there was no cost implication, patient accountability for some of the cost has now forced people to ask questions before committing to treatments.

Higher accountability now has consumers (patients) asking for more choices.  And more choices pushes providers to realize that price and delivery make a difference to the patient – who is now a decision-making buyer.

In economic lingo, accountability is changing the health care demand and supply curves.  Previously there was no elasticity of demand.  Patients had no incentives to reduce demand, as health care was perceived as free.  Providers had no incentive to alter supply, because the more they supplied the more they were paid.  Both supply and demand went straight up, because there was no pricing element to stand in the way of both increasing geometrically.

But now patients are making decisions which alter demand. Increasingly they determine what procedures to have, based on price and expected outcomes. And supply is now altered based upon provider and price.  Patients can shop amongst hospitals and outpatient facilities to determine the cost of minor surgery, for example, and decide which solution they prefer.  More services, at different locations and different price points alter the supply curve, and make an impact on the demand curve.  We now have elasticity in both demand and supply.

A patient with a mild heart arythmia can decide if they really need an in-house EKG with a cardiologist review, or substitute an EKG detected from a smartphone diagnosed by an EKG tech remotely.  With both services offered at very different price points (and a host of options in the middle,) it is possible for the patient to change their demand for something like an EKG – and on to total cost of cardiac care.  They may buy more of some care, such as services they find less costly, or providers that are less pricey, and less of another service which is more costly due to the service, the provider or a combination of the two.

And thus accountability starts us down the road to greater affordability.

In distribution terms, the old system was a “wholesale system” which had very expensive suppliers with pricing which was opaque – and often very bizarre.  Pricing was impossible to understand.  Middlemen in insurance companies hired by employers tried to determine what services should be given to patients, and at what prices for the employers (not the patient) to pay.  This wholesale distribution method of health care drove prices up.  Neither those creating demand (patients) or those offering the supply (medical providers) had any incentive to use less health care or lower the price.  And often it left both the patient and the supplier extremely unhappy with how they were treated by arbitrary middle men more interested in groups than individuals.

But the new system is a retail system.  Because the patient no longer abdicates decision making to middle-men, and instead is accountable for the health care they receive and the price they pay. It is creating a far more rational pricing system, and generating new curves that are starting to balance both supply and demand; while simultaneously encouraging the implementation of new options that provide the ability to enhance the service and/or outcome at lower price points.

Obamacare is just beginning its implementation.  “The devil is in the details,” and as we saw with the government web site for exchanges there have been many, many glitches.  As with anything so encompassing and complex, there are lots of SNAFUs. The market is still far from transparent, and patients are far from educated, much less fully informed, decision makers. There is a lot of confusion amongst providers, suppliers and patients.  Regulations are unclear, and not always handled consistently or judiciously.

But, America has made one heck of a start toward containing something which has overhung economic growth since the 1970s.  The health care cost trend is toward greater price visibility, smarter consumers, more options and lower health care costs both short- and long-term.

In the 1960s Congress, and the nation, was deeply divided over passing the Civil Rights Act.  Its impact would be significant on both the way of life for many people, and the economy.  How it would shape America was unclear, and many opposed its passage.  Called for by President Kennedy, President Johnson worked hard – and with lots of strong-arming – to obtain its passage after Kennedy’s death.

After a lot of haggling, some Congressional trickery, filibustering and a lot of legal challenges, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and it ushered in a new wave of economic growth as it freed resources to add to the American economy instead of being held back.  It was a game changer for the nation, and 40 years later, it’s hard to imagine an America without the gains made by the Civil Rights Act.

Looking 40 years forward, Obamacare – the ACA – may well be legislation that is seen as an economic game changer.  Although its passage was bruising to many in the nation, it changed health care from a system of patient abdication to one of patient accountability, and thereby directed health care toward greater affordability for the country and its citizens.



How Samsung Changed the Game on Apple

The iPad is now 3 years old.  Hard to believe we've only had tablets such a short time, given how common they have become.  It's easy to forget that when launched almost all analysts thought the iPad was a toy that would be lucky to sell a few million units.  Apple blew away that prediction in just a few months, as people demonstrated their lust for mobility.  To date the iPad has sold 121million units – with an ongoing sales rate of nearly 20million per quarter.

Following very successful launches of the iPod (which transformed music from CDs to MP3) and iPhone (which turned everyone into smartphone users,) the iPad's transformation of personal technology made Apple look like an impenetrable juggernaut – practically untouchable by any competitor!  The stock soared from $200/share to over $700/share, and Apple became the most valuable publicly traded company on any American exchange!

But things look very different now.  Despite huge ongoing sales (iPad sales exceed Windows sales,) and a phenomenal $30B cash hoard ($100B if you include receivables) Apple's value has declined by 40%! 

In the tech world, people tend to think competition is all about the product.  Feature and functionality comparisons abound.  And by that metric, no one has impacted Apple.  After 3 years in development, Microsoft's much anticipated Surface has been a bust – selling only about 1.5million units in the first 6 months.  Nobody has created a product capable of outright dethroning the i product series.  Quite simply, there have been no "game changer" products that dramatically outperform Apple's.

But, any professor of introductory marketing will tell you that there are 4 P's in marketing: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.  And understanding that simple lesson was the basis for the successful onslaught Samsung has waged upon Apple in 2012 and 2013. 

Samsung did not change the game with technology or product.  It has used the same Android starting point as most competitors for phones and tablets.  It's products are comparable to Apple's – but not dramatically superior.  And while they are cheaper, in most instances that has not been the reason people switched.  Instead, Samsung changed the game by focusing on distribution and advertising!

Ad spend Apple-Samsung
Chart courtesy Jay Yarrow, Business Insider 4/2/13 and Horace Dediu, Asymco

The remarkable insight from this chart is that Samsung is spending almost 4.5 times Apple – and $1B more than perennial consumer goods brand leader Coca-Cola on advertising! Simultaneously, Samsung has set up kiosks and stores in malls and retail locations all over America.

Can you imagine having the following conversation in your company in 2010?:

"As Vice President of Marketing I propose we take on the market leader not by having a superior product.  We will change the game from features and function comparisons to availability and awareness.  I intend to spend more than anyone in our industry on advertising – even more than Coke.  And I will open so many information and sales locations that our products will be as available as Coke.  We'll be everywhere.  Our products may not be better, but they will be everywhere and everyone will know about them."

Samsung found Apple's Achilles heel.  As Apple's revenues rose it did not keep its marketing growing.  SG&A (Selling, General and Administrative) expense declined from 14% of revenues in 2006 to 5% in 2012; of course aiding its skyrocketing profits.  And Apple continued to sell through its fairly limited distribution of Apple stores and network providers.  Apple started to "milk" its hard won brand position, rather than intensify it.

Samsung took advantage of Apple's oversight.  Samsung maintained its SG&A budget at 15% of revenues – even growing it to 24% for a brief time in 2009, before returning to 15%.  As its revenues grew, advertising and distribution grew.  Instead of looking back at its old ad budget in dollars, and maintaining that budget, Samsung allowed the budget to grow (to a huge number!) along with revenues. 

And that's how Samsung changed the game on Apple.  Once America's untouchable brand, the Apple brand has faltered.  People now question Apple's sustainability. Some now recognize Apple is vulnerable, and think its best times are behind it.  And it's all because Samsung ignored the industry lock-in to constantly focusing on product, and instead changed the game on Apple.

Something Microsoft should have thought about – but didn't.

Of course, Apple's profits are far, far higher than Samsung's.  And Apple is still a great company, and a well regarded brand, with tremendous sales.  There are ongoing rumors of a new iOS 7 operating system, an updated format for iPads, potentially a dramatically new iPhone and even an iTV.  And Apple is not without great engineers, and a HUGE war chest which it could use on advertising and distribution to go heads up with Samsung.

But, at least for now, Samsung has demonstrated how a competitor can change the game on a market leader.  Even a leader as successful and powerful as Apple.  And Samsung's leaders deserve a lot of credit for seeing the opportunity – and seizing it!


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.

Yes, even you can innovate to grow – learn from Skanska

I like writing about tech companies, such as Apple and Facebook, because they show how fast you can apply innovation and grow – whether it is technology, business process or new best practices.  But many people aren't in the tech industry, and think innovation applies a lot less to them.  

Whoa there cowboy, innovation is important to you too!

Few industries are as mired in outdated practices and slow to adopt technology than construction.  Whether times are good, or not, contractors and tradespeople generally do things the way they've been done for decades.  Even customers like to see bids where the practices are traditional and time-worn, often eschewing innovations simply because they like the status quo.

Skanska, a $19B construction firm headquarted in Stockholm, Sweden with $6B of U.S. revenue managed from the New York regional HQ refused to accept this.  When Bill Flemming, President of the Building Group recognized that construction industry productivity had not improved for 40 years, he reckoned that perhaps the weak market wasn't going to get better if he just waited for the economy to improve.  He was sure that field-based ideas could allow Skanska to be better than competitors, and open new revenue sources.

Skanska USA CEO Mike McNally agreed instantly.  In 2009 he brought together his management team to see if they would buy into investing in innovation.  He met the usual objections

  • We're too busy
  • I have too much on my plate
  • Business is already too difficult, I don't need something new
  • Customers aren't asking for it, they want lower prices
  • Who's going to pay for it?  My budget is already too thin!

But, he also recognized that nobody said "this is crazy."  Everyone knew there were good things happening in the organization, but the learning wasn't being replicated across projects to create any leverage.  Ideas were too often tried once, then dropped, or not really tried in earnest.  Mike and Bill intuitively believed innovation would be a game changer.  As he discussed implementing innovation with his team he came to saying "If Apple can do this, we can too!" 

Even though this wasn't a Sweden (or headquarters) based project, Mike decided to create a dedicated innovation group, with its own leader and an initial budget of $500K – about .5% of the Building Group total overhead. 

The team started with a Director of innovation, plus a staff of 2.  They were given the white space to find field based ideas that would work, and push them.  Then build a process for identifying field innovations, testing them, investing and implementing.  From the outset they envisaged a "grant" program where HQ would provide field-based teams with money to test, develop and create roll-out processes for innovations.

Key to success was finding the right first project. And quickly the team knew they had one in one of their initial field projects called Digital Resource Center, which could be used at all construction sites.  This low-cost, rugged PC-based product allowed sub-contractors around the site to view plans and all documentation relevant for their part of the project without having to make frequent trips back to the central construction trailer. 

This saved a lot of time for them, and for Skanska, helping keep the project moving quickly with less time wasted talking.  And at a few thousand dollars per station, the payback was literally measured in days.  Other projects were quick to adopt this "no-brainer."  And soon Skanska was not only seeing faster project completion, but subcontractors willing to bake in better performance on their bids knowing they would be able to track work and identify key information on these field-based rugged PCs.

As Skanska's Innovation Group started making grants for additional projects they set up a process for receiving, reviewing and making grants.  They decided to have a Skansa project leader on each grant, with local Skansa support.  But also each grant would team with a local university which would use student and faculty to help with planning, development, implementation and generate return-on-investment analysis to demonstrate the innovation's efficacy.  This allowed Skansa to bring in outside expertise for better project development and implementation, while also managing cost effectively.

With less than 2 years of Innovation Group effort, Skanska has now invested $1.5M in field-based projects.  The focus has been on low-cost productivity improvements, rather than high-cost, big bets.  Changing the game in construction is a process of winning through lots of innovations that prove themselves to customers and suppliers rather than trying to change a skeptical group overnight.  Payback has been almost immediate for each grant, with ROI literally in the hundreds of percent. 

You likely never heard of Skanska, despite its size.  And that's because its in the business of building bridges, subway stations and other massive projects that we see, but know little about.  They are in an industry known for its lack of innovation, and brute-force approach to getting things done.

But the leadership team at Skanska is proving that anyone can apply innovation for high rates of return. They

  • understood that industry trends were soft, and they needed to change if they wanted to thrive.
  • recognized that the best ideas for innovation would not come from customers, but rather from scanning the horizon for new ideas and then figuring out how to implement themselves
  • weren't afraid to try doing something new.  Even if the customer wasn't asking for it
  • created a dedicated team (and it didn't have to be large) operating in white space, focused on identifying innovations, reviewing them, funding them and bringing in outside resources to help the projects succeed

In addition to growing its traditional business, Skanska is now something of a tech company.  It sells its Digital Resource stations, making money directly off its innovation.  And its iSite Monitor for monitoring environmental conditions on sensitive products, and pushing results to Skanska project leaders as well as clients in real time with an app on their iPhones, is also now a commercial product.

So, what are you waiting on?  You'll never grow, or make returns, like Apple if you don't start innovating.  Take some lessons from Skanska and you just might be a lot more successful.


What Steve Jobs Would Tell Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg was Time magazine's Person of the Year in December, 2010.  He was given that honor because Facebook dominated the emerging social media marketplace, and social media had clearly begun changing how people do things.  Despite his young age, Mr. Zuckerberg had created a phenomenon demonstrated by the hundreds of million new Facebook users.

But things have turned pretty rough for the young Mr. Zuckerberg. 

  • Facebook was pretty much forced, legally, to go public because it had accumulated so many shareholders.  The stock hit the NASDAQ with much fanfare in May, 2012 – only to have gone pretty much straight down since.  It now trades at about 50% of IPO pricing, and is under constant pressure from analysts who say it may still be overpriced.
  • Facebook discovered perhaps 83million accounts were fake (about  9%) unleashing a torrent of discussion that perhaps the fake accounts was a much, much larger number.
  • User growth has fallen to some 35% – which is much slower than initial investors hoped.  Combined with concerns about fake accounts, there are people wondering if Facebook growth is stalling.
  • Facebook has not grown revenues commensurate with user growth, and people are screaming that despite its widespread use Facebook doesn't know how to "monetize" its base into revenues and profits.
  • Mobile use is growing much faster than laptop/PC use, and Facebook has not revealed any method to monetize its use on mobile devices – causing concerns that it has no plan to monetize all those users on smartphones and tablets and thus future revenues may decline.
  • Zynga, a major web games supplier, announced weak earnings and said its growth was slowing – which affects Facebook because people play Zinga games on Facebook.
  • GM, one of the 10 largest U.S. advertisers, publicly announced it was dropping Facebook advertising because executives believed it had insufficient return on investment. Investors now fret Facebook won't bring in major advertisers.
  • Google keeps plugging away at competitive product Google+. And while Facebook  disappointed investors with its earnings, much smaller competitor Linked-in announced revenues and earnings which exceeded expectations.  Investors now worry about competitors dicing up the market and minimalizing Facebook's future growth.

Wow, this is enough to make 50-something CEOs of low-growth, non-tech companies jump with joy at the upending of the hoody-wearing 28 year old Facebook CEO.  Zynga booted its Chief Operating Officer and has shaken up management, and not suprisingly, there are analysts now calling for Mr. Zuckerberg to step aside and install a new CEO.

Yet, Mr. Zuckerberg has been wildly successful.  Much more than almost anyone else in American business today.  He may well feel he needs no advice.  But…. what do you suppose Steve Jobs would tell him to do? 

Recall that Mr. Jobs was once the young head of Apple, only to be displaced by former Pepsi exec John Sculley — and run out of Apple.  As everyone now famously knows, after a string of Apple CEOs led the company to the brink of disaster Mr. Jobs agreed to return and completely turned around Apple making it the most successful tech company of the last decade.  Given what we've observed of Mr. Jobs career, and read in his biography, what advice might he give Mr. Zuckerberg? 

  • Don't give up your job.  Not even partly.  If you create a "shadow" or "co" CEO you'll be gone soon enough.  Lead, quit or make the Board fire you.  If you had the vision to take the company this far, why would you quit? 
  • Nothing is more important than product.  Make Facebook's the best in the world.  Nothing less will allow a tech company to survive, much less thrive.  Don't become so involved with financials and analysts that you lose sight of your #1 job, which is to make the very, very best social media product in the world.  Never stop improving and perfecting.  If your product isn't obviously superior to other solutions you haven't accomplished your #1 priority.
  • Be unique.  Make sure your products fulfill needs no one else fulfills – at least not well.  Meet unserved and underserved needs so that people talk about your product and what it does – not how much it costs.  Make sure that Facebook has devoted, diehard customers that believe your products meet their needs so well they would not consider your competition.
  • Don't ask customers what they want – give them what they need.  Understand the trends and create future scenarios so you are constantly striving to create a better future, not just improve on history.  Never look backward at what you've done, but instead always look forward at creating what noone else has ever done.  Push your staff to create solutions that meet user needs so well that you can tell customers why they need your product in ways they never before considered.  
  • Turn your product releases into a show.  Don't just run out new products willy-nilly, or on a random timeline.  Make sure you bundle products together and make a big show of each release so you can describe the upgrades, benefits and superiority of what you offer for customers.  People need to understand the trends you are meeting, and need to see the future scenario you are creating, and you have to tell them that story or they won't "get it."
  • Price for profit.  You run a business, not a hobby or not-for-profit society.  If you do the product right you shouldn't even be talking about price – so price to make ridiculous margins by industry standards.  At Apple, Next and Pixar the products were never the cheapest, but they accomplished what customers needed so well that we could price high enough to make margins that supported additional product development.  And you can't remain the best solution if you don't have enough margin to keep developing future products.
  • Don't expect products to sell themselves.  Be the #1 passionate spokesperson for the elegance and superiority of your products.  Never stop beating the drum for the unique capability and superiority of your product, in every meeting, all the time, never ending.  People like to "revert to the mean" so you have to keep telling them that isn't good enough – and you have something far superior that will greatly improve their success.
  • Never miss an opportunity to compare your products to competition and tell everyone why your products are far better.  Don't disparage the competition, but constantly reinforce that you are first, you are ahead of everyone else, you are far better — and the best is yet to come!  Competition is everywhere, and listen to the Andy Groves advice "only the paranoid survive."  You aren't satisfied with what the competition offers, and customers should not be satisfied either.  Every once in a while give people a small glimpse as to the radically different world you see in 3-5 years so they buy what you are selling in order to prepare for that future world.
  • Identify key customers that need your solution and SELL THEM.  Disney needed Pixar, so we made sure they knew it.  Identify the customers who can gain the most from doing business with you and SELL THEM.  Turn them into lead customers, obtain their testimonials and spread the word.  If GM isn't your target, who is?  Find them and sell them, then tell us all how you will build on those early accounts to eventually dominate the market – even displacing current solutions that are more popular.  If GM is your target then make the changes you need to make so you can SELL THEM.  Everyone wants to do business with a winner, so you must show you are a winner.
  • Identify 5 of your competition's biggest customers (at Google, Yahoo, Linked-in, etc.) and make them yours.  Demonstrate your solutions are superior with competitive wins.
  • Hire someone who can talk to the financial community for you – and do it incredibly well.  While you focus on future markets and solutions someone has to tell this story to the financial analysts in their lingo so they don't lose faith (and they are a sacrilegious lot who have no faith.)  Keep Facebook out of the forecasting game, but you MUST create and maintain good communication with analysts so you need someone who can tell the story not only with products and case studies but numbers.  Facebook is a disruptive innovation company, so someone has to explain why this will work.  You blew the IPO road show horribly by showing up at meetings in a hoodie – so now you need to make amends by hiring someone who will give them faith that you know what you're doing and can make it happen.

These are my ideas for what Steve Jobs would tell Mark Zuckerberg.  What are yours?  What do you think the #1 CEO of the last decade would say to the young, embattled CEO as he faces his first test under fire leading a public company?

Why Tesla is Right, and GM and Ford are Not

The news is not good for U.S. auto companies.  Automakers are resorting to fairly radical promotional programs to spur sales.  Chevrolet is offering a 60-day money back guarantee.  And Chrysler is offering 90 day delayed financing.  Incentives designed to make you want to buy a car, when you really don't want to buy a car.  At least, not the cars they are selling.

On the other hand, the barely known, small and far from mainstream Tesla motors gave one of its new Model S cars to Wall Street Journal reviewer Dan Neil, and he gave it a glowing testimonial.  He went so far as to compare this 4-door all electric sedan's performance with the Lamborghini and Ford GT supercars.  And its design with the Jaguar.  And he spent several paragraphs on its comfort, quiet, seating and storage – much more aligned with a Mercedes S series.

There are no manufacturer incentives currently offered on the Tesla Model S.

What's so different about Tesla and GM or Ford?  Well, everything.  Tesla is a classic case of a disruptive innovator, and GM/Ford are classic examples of old-guard competitors locked into sustaining innovation.  While the former is changing the market – like, say Amazon is doing in retail – the latter keeps laughing at them – like, say Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Circuit City and Barnes & Noble have been laughing at Amazon.

Tesla did not set out to be a car company, making a slightly better car.  Or a cheaper car.  Or an alternative car.  Instead it set out to make a superior car. 

Its initial approach was a car that offered remarkable 0-60 speed performance, top end speed around 150mph and superior handling.  Additionally it looked great in a 2-door European style roadster package. Simply, a wildly better sports car.  Oh, and to make this happen they chose to make it all-electric, as well. 

It was easy for Detroit automakers to scoff at this effort – and they did.  In 2009, while Detroit was reeling and cutting costs – as GM killed off Pontiac, Hummer, Saab and Saturn – the famous Bob Lutz of GM laughed at Tesla and said it really wasn't a car company.  Tesla would never really matter because as it grew up it would never compete effectively. According to Mr. Lutz, nobody really wanted an electric car, because it didn't go far enough, it cost too much and the speed/range trade-off made them impractical.  Especially at the price Tesla was selling them. 

Meanwhile, in 2009 Tesla sold 100% of its production.  And opened its second dealership. As manufacturing plants, and dealerships, for the big brands were being closed around the world.

Like all disruptive innovators, Tesla did not make a car for the "mass market."  Tesla made a great car, that used a different technology, and met different needs.  It was designed for people who wanted a great looking roadster, that handled really well, had really good fuel economy and was quiet.  All conditions the electric Tesla met in spades.  It wasn't for everyone, but it wasn't designed to be.  It was meant to demonstrate a really good car could be made without the traditional trade-offs people like Mr. Lutz said were impossible to overcome.

Now Tesla has a car that is much more aligned with what most people buy.  A sedan.  But it's nothing like any gasoline (or diesel) powered sedan you could buy.  It is much faster, it handles much better, is much roomier, is far quieter, offers an interface more like your tablet and is network connected.  It has a range of distance options, from 160 to 300 miles, depending up on buyer preferences and affordability.  In short, it is nothing like anything from any traditional car maker – in USA, Japan or Korea. 

Again, it is easy for GM to scoff.  After all, at $97,000 (for the top-end model) it is a lot more expensive than a gasoline powered Malibu. Or Ford Taurus. 

But, it's a fraction of the price of a supercar Ferrari – or even a Porsche Panamera, Mercedes S550, Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, or Jaguar XF or XJ -  which are the cars most closely matching size, roominess and performance. 

And, it's only about twice as expensive as a loaded Chevy Volt – but with a LOT more advantages.  The Model S starts at just over $57,000, which isn't that much more expensive than a $40,000 Volt.

In short, Tesla is demonstrating it CAN change the game in automobiles.  While not everybody is ready to spend $100k on a car, and not everyone wants an electric car, Tesla is showing that it can meet unmet needs, emerging needs and expand into more traditional markets with a superior solution for those looking for a new solution.  The way, say, Apple did in smartphones compared to RIM.

Why didn't, and can't, GM or Ford do this?

Simply put, they aren't even trying. They are so locked-in to their traditional ideas about what a car should be that they reject the very premise of Tesla.  Their assumptions keep them from really trying to do what Tesla has done – and will keep improving – while they keep trying to make the kind of cars, according to all the old specs, they have always done.

Rather than build an electric car, traditionalists denounce the technology.  Toyota pioneered the idea of extending a gas car into electric with hybrids – the Prius – which has both a gasoline and an electric engine. 

Hmm, no wonder that's more expensive than a similar sized (and performing) gasoline (or diesel) car.   And, like most "hybrid" ideas it ends up being a compromise on all accounts.  It isn't fast, it doesn't handle particularly well, it isn't all that stylish, or roomy.  And there's a debate as to whether the hybrid even recovers its price premium in less than, say, 4 years.  And that is all dependent upon gasoline prices.

Ford's approach was so clearly to defend and extend its traditional business that its hybrid line didn't even have its own name!  Ford took the existing cars, and reformatted them as hybrids, with the Focus Hybrid, Escape Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid.  How is any customer supposed to be excited about a new concept when it is clearly displayed as a trade-off; "gasoline or hybrid, you choose."  Hard to have faith in that as a technological leap forward.

And GM gave the market Volt.  Although billed as an electric car, it still has a gasoline engine.  And again, it has all the traditional trade-offs.  High initial price, poor 0-60 performance, poor high-end speed performance, doesn't handle all that well, isn't very stylish and isn't too roomy.  The car Tesla-hating Bob Lutz put his personal stamp on.  It does achieve high mpg – compared to a gasoline car – if that is your one and only criteria. 

Investors are starting to "get it."

There was lots of excitement about auto stocks as 2010 ended.  People thought the recession was ending, and auto sales were improving.  GM went public at $34/share and rose to about $39.  Ford, which cratered to $6/share in July, 2010 tripled to $19 as 2011 started. 

But since then, investor enthusiasm has clearly dropped, realizing things haven't changed much in Detroit – if at all.  GM and Ford are both down about 50% – roughly $20/share for GM and $9.50/share for Ford.

Meanwhile, in July of 2010 Tesla was about $16/share and has slowly doubled to about $31.50. Why?  Because it isn't trying to be Ford, or GM, Toyota, Honda or any other car company.  It is emerging as a disruptive alternative that could change customer perspective on what they should expect from their personal transportation. 

Like Apple changed perspectives on cell phones.  And Amazon did about retail shopping. 

Tesla set out to make a better car.  It is electric, because the company believes that's how to make a better car.  And it is changing the metrics people use when evaluating cars. 

Meanwhile, it is practically being unchallenged as the existing competitors – all of which are multiples bigger in revenue, employees, dealers and market cap of Tesla – keep trying to defend their existing business while seeking a low-cost, simple way to extend their product lines.  They largely ignore Tesla's Roadster and Model S because those cars don't fit their historical success formula of how you win in automobile competition. 

The exact behavior of disruptors, and sustainers likely to fail, as described in The Innovator's Dilemma (Clayton Christensen, HBS Press.)

Choosing to be ignorant is likely to prove very expensive for the shareholders and employees of the traditional auto companies. Why would anybody would ever buy shares in GM or Ford?  One went bankrupt, and the other barely avoided it.  Like airlines, neither has any idea of how their industry, or their companies, will create long-term growth, or increase shareholder value.  For them innovation is defined today like it was in 1960 – by adding "fins" to the old technology.  And fins went out of style in the 1960s – about when the value of these companies peaked.

Don’t leave ObamaCare to the Attorneys!

No businessperson thinks the way to solve a business problem is via the courts.  And no issue is larger for American business than health care.  Despite all the hoopla over the Supreme Court reviews this week, this is a lousy way for America to address an extremely critical area.

The growth of America's economy, and its global competitiveness, has a lot riding on health care costs. Looking at the table, below, it is clear that the U.S. is doing a lousy job at managing what is the fastest growing cost in business (data summarized from 24/7 Wall Street.)

Healthcare costs 2011
While America is spending about $8,000 per person, the next 9 countries (in per person cost) all are grouped in roughly the $4,000-$5,000 cost — so America is 67-100% more costly than competitors.  This affects everything America sells – from tractors to software services – forcing higher prices, or lower margins.  And lower margins means less resources for investing in growth!

American health care is limiting the countries overall economic growth capability by consuming dramatically more resources than our competitors.  Where American spends 17.4% of GDP (gross domestic product) on health care, our competitors are generally spending only 11-12% of their resources.  This means America is "taxing" itself an extra 50% for the same services as our competitive countries.  And without demonstrably superior results.  That is money which Americans would gain more benefit if spent on infrastructure, R&D, new product development or even global selling!

Americans seem to be fixated on the past.  How they used to obtain health care services 50 years ago, and the role of insurance 50 years ago.  Looking forward, health care is nothing like it was in 1960.  The days of "Dr. Welby, MD" serving a patient's needs are long gone.  Now it takes teams of physicians, technicians, nurses, diagnosticians, laboratory analysts and buildings full of equipment to care for patients.  And that means America needs a medical delivery system that allows the best use of these resources efficiently and effectively if its citizens are going to be healthier, and move into the life expectancies of competitive countries.

Unfortunately, America seems unwilling to look at its competitors to learn from what they do in order to be more effective.  It would seem obvious that policy makers and those delivering health care could all look at the processes in these other 9 countries and ask "what are they doing, how do they do it, and across all 9 what can we see are the best practices?" 

By studying the competition we could easily learn not only what is being done better, but how we could improve on those practices to be a world leader (which, clearly, we now are not.)  Yet, for the most part those involved in the debate seem adamant to ignore the competition – as if they don't matter.  Even though the cost of such blindness is enormous.

Instead, way too much time is spent asking customers what they want.  But customers have no idea what health care costs.  Either they have insurance, and don't care what specific delivery costs, or they faint dead away when they see the bill for almost any procedure.  People just know that health care can be really good, and they want it.  To them, the cost is somebody else's problem. That offers no insight for creating an effective yet simultaneously efficient system.

America needs to quit thinking it can gradually evolve toward something better.  As Clayton Christensen points out in his book "The Innovator's Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care" America could implement health care very differently.  And, as each year passes America's competitiveness falls further behind – pushing the country closer and closer to no choice but being disruptive in health care implementation.  That, or losing its vaunted position as market leader!

Is the "individual mandate" legal?  That seems to be arguable.  But, it is disruptive.  It seems the debate centers more on whether Americans are willing to be disruptive, to do something different, than whether they want to solve the problem.  Across a range of possibilities, anything that disrupts the ways of the past seems to be argued to death.  That isn't going to solve this big, and growing, problem.  Americans must become willing to accept some radical change.

The simple approach would be to look at programs in Oregon, Massachusetts and all the states to see what has worked, and what hasn't worked as well.  Instead of judging them in advance, they could be studied to learn.  Then America could take on a series of experiments.  In isolated locations.  Early adopter types could "opt in" on new alternative approaches to payment, and delivery, and see if it makes them happy.  And more stories could be promulgated about how alternatives have worked, and why, helping everyone in the country remove their fear of change by seeing the benefits achieved by early leaders.

Health care delivery, and its cost, in America is a big deal.  Just like the oil price shocks in the 1970s roiled cost structures and threatened the economy, unmanagable health care delivery and cost threatens the country's economic future.  American's surely don't expect a handful of lawyers in black robes to solve the problem.

America needs to learn from its competition, be willing to disrupt past processes and try new approaches that forge a solution which not only delivers better than anyone else (a place where America does seem to still lead) but costs less.  If America could be the first on the moon, first to create the PC and first to connect everyone on smartphones this is a problem which can be solved – but not by attorneys or courts!

Leadership Matters – Ballmer vs. Bezos

Not far from each other, in the area around Seattle, are two striking contrasts in leadership.  They provide significant insight to what creates success today.

Steve Ballmer leads Microsoft, America's largest software company.  Unfortunately, the value of Microsoft has gone nowhere for 10 years.  Steve Ballmer has steadfastly defended the Windows and Office products, telling anyone who will listen that he is confident Windows will be part of computing's future landscape.  Looking backward, he reminds people that Windows has had a 20 year run, and because of that past he is certain it will continue to dominate.

Unfortunately, far too many investors see things differently.  They recognize that nearly all areas of Microsoft are struggling to maintain sales.  It is quite clear that the shift to mobile devices and cloud architectures are reducing the need, and desire, for PCs in homes, offices and data centers.  Microsoft appears years late recognizing the market shift, and too often CEO Ballmer seems in denial it is happening – or at least that it is happening so quickly.  His fixation on past success appears to blind him to how people will use technology in 2014, and investors are seriously concerned that Microsoft could topple as quickly DEC., Sun, Palm and RIM. 

Comparatively, across town, Mr. Bezos leads the largest on-line retailer Amazon.  That company's value has skyrocketed to a near 90 times earnings!  Over the last decade, investors have captured an astounding 10x capital gain!  Contrary to Mr. Ballmer, Mr. Bezos talks rarely about the past, and almost almost exclusively about the future.  He regularly discusses how markets are shifting, and how Amazon is going to change the way people do things. 

Mr. Bezos' fixation on the future has created incredible growth for Amazon.  In its "core" book business, when publishers did not move quickly toward trends for digitization Amazon created and launched Kindle, forever altering publishing.  When large retailers did not address the trend toward on-line shopping Amazon expanded its retail presence far beyond books, including more products  and a small armyt of supplier/partners.  When large PC manufacturers did not capitalize on the trend toward mobility with tablets for daily use Amazon launched Kindle Fire, which is projected to sell as many as 12 million units next year (

Where Mr. Ballmer remains fixated on the past, constantly reinvesting  in defending and extending what worked 20 years ago for Microsoft, Mr. Bezos is investing heavily in the future.  Where Mr. Ballmer increasingly looks like a CEO in denial about market shift, Mr. Bezos has embraced the shifts and is pushing them forward. 

Clearly, the latter is much better at producing revenue growth and higher valuation than the former.

As we look around, a number of companies need to heed the insight of this Seattle comparison:

  • At AOL it is unclear that Mr. Armstrong has a clear view of how AOL will change markets to become a content powerhouse.  AOL's various investments are incoherent, and managers struggle to see a strong future for AOL.  On the other hand, Ms. Huffington does have a clear sense of the future, and the insight for an entirely different business model at AOL.  The Board would be well advised to consider handing the reigns to Ms. Huffington, and pushing AOL much more rapidly toward a different, and more competitive future.
  • Dell's chronic inability to identify new products and markets has left it, at best, uninteresting.  It's supply chain focused strategy has been copied, leaving the company with practically no cost/price advantage.  Mr. Dell remains fixated on what worked for his initial launch 30 years ago, and offers no exciting description of how Dell will remain viable as PC sales diminish.  Unless new leadership takes the helm at Dell, the company's future  5 years hence looks bleak.
  • HP's new CEO Meg Whitman is less than reassuring as she projects a terrible 2012 for HP, and a commitment to remaining in PCs – but with some amorphous pledge toward more internal innovation.  Lacking a clear sense of what Ms. Whitman thinks the world will look like in 2017, and how HP will be impactful, it's hard for investors, managers or customers to become excited about the company.  HP needs rapid acceleration toward shifting customer needs, not a relaxed, lethargic year of internal analysis while competitors continue moving demand further away from HP offerings.
  • Groupon has had an explosive start.  But the company is attacked on all fronts by the media.  There is consistent questioning of how leadership will maintain growth as reports emerge about founders cashing out their shares, highly uneconomic deals offered by customers, lack of operating scale leverage, and increasing competition from more established management teams like Google and Amazon.  After having its IPO challenged by the press, the stock has performed poorly and now sells for less than the offering price.  Groupon desperately needs leadership that can explain what the markets of 2015 will look like, and how Groupon will remain successful.

What investors, customers, suppliers and employees want from leadership is clarity around what leaders see as the future markets and competition.  They want to know how the company is going to be successful in 2 or 5 years.  In today's rapidly shifting, global markets it is not enough to talk about historical results, and to exhibit confidence that what brought the company to this point will propel it forward successfully. And everyone recognizes that managing quarter to quarter will not create long term success.

Leaders must  demonstrate a keen eye for market shifts, and invest in opportunities to participate in game changers.  Leaders must recognize trends, be clear about how those trends are shaping future markets and competitors, and align investments with those trends.  Leadership is not about what the company did before, but is entirely about what their organization is going to do next. 

Update 30 Nov, 2011

In the latest defend & extend action at Microsoft Ballmer has decided to port Office onto the iPad (  Short term likely to increase revenue.  But clearly at the expense of long-term competitiveness in tablet platforms.  And, it misses the fact that people are already switching to cloud-based apps which obviate the need for Office.  This will extend the dying period for Office, but does not come close to being an innovative solution which will propel revenues over the next decade.