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 (AllThingsD.com)

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 (TheDaily.com).  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.

Will Meg Whitman be more like Steve Jobs, or Carol Bartz?

The media has enjoyed a field day last week amidst the ouster of Leo Apotheker as Hewlett Packard’s CEO and appointments of former Oracle executive Ray Lane as Executive Chairman and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman as CEO.  There have been plenty of jabs at the Board, which apparently hired Mr. Apotheker without everyone even meeting him (New York Times), and plenty of complaining about HP’s deteriorating performance and stock price.  But the big question is, will Meg Whitman be able to turn around HP?

Ms. Whitman is the 7th HP CEO in a mere 12 years.  Of those CEOs, the only one pointed to with any attraction was Mark Hurd.  He did not take any strategic actions, but merely slashed costs – which immediately improved the profit line and drove up the short-term stock price.  Actions taken at the expense of R&D, new product development and creating new markets, leaving HP short on a future strategy when he was summarily let go by the Baord that hired Apotheker. 

And that indicates the strategy problem at HP – which is pretty much a lack of strategy.

HP was once a highly innovative company. We all can thank HP for a world of color.  Before HP brought us the low-priced ink-jet printer all office printing was black.  HP unleashed the color in desktop publishing, and was critical to the growth of office and home printing, as well as faxing with their all-in-one, integrated devices. 

But then someone – largely Ms. Fiorina – had the idea to expand on the HP presence in desktop publishing by expanding into PC manufacturing and sales, even though there was no HP innovation in that market.  Mr. Hurd expanded that direction by buying a service organization to support field-based PCs. 

This approach of expanding on HPs “core” printer business, almost all by acquisition, cost HP a lot of money.  Further, supply chain and retail program investments to sell largely undifferentiated products and services in a hotly contested PC market sucked all the money out of new products development.  Every year HP was spending more to grow sales of products becoming increasingly generic, while falling farther behind in any sort of new market creation.

Into that innovation void jumped Apple, Google and Amazon.  They pushed new mobile solutions to market in smartphones and tablets.  And now PCs, and the printers they used, are seeing declining growth.  All future projections show an increase in mobile devices, and a sales cliff emerging for PCs and their supporting devices.  Simultaneously as mobile devices have become more popular the trend away from printing has grown, with users in business and consumer markets finding digital devices less costly, more user friendly and more adaptable than printed material (just compare Kindle sales and printed book sales – or the volume of tablet newspaper and magazine subscriptions to printed subscriptions.)  HP invested heavily in PC products, and now that market is dying. 

Now HP is in big trouble.  There are plenty of skeptics that think Ms. Whitman is not right for the job. What should HP under Ms. Whitman do next?  Keep doubling down on investments in existing markets?  That direction looks pretty dangerous.  IBM jumped out years ago, selling its laptop line to Lenovo for a tidy profit before sales slackened.  With all the growth in smartphones and tablets, it’s hard to imagine that strategy would work.  Even Mr. Apotheker took action to deal with the market shift by redirecting HP away from PCs with his announced intention to spin off that business while buying an ERP (enterprise ressource planning) software company to take HP into a new direction.  But that backfired on him, and investors.

Mr. Apotheker and Carol Bartz, recently fired CEO of Yahoo, made similar mistakes.  They relied heavily on their personal past when taking leadership of a struggling enterprise. They looked to their personal success formulas – what had worked for them in the past – when setting their plans for their new companies.  Unfortunately, what worked in the past rarely works in the future, because markets shift.  And both of these companies suffered dramatically as the new CEO efforts took them further from market trends. 

The job Ms. Whitman is entering at HP is wildly different from her job at eBay.  eBay was a small company taking advantage of the internet explosion.  It was an early leader in capitalizing on web networking and the capability of low-cost on-line transactions.  At eBay Ms. Whitman needed to keep the company focused on investing in new solutions that transformed PC and internet connectivity into value for users.  As long as the number of users on the internet, and the time they spent on the web, grew eBay could capitalize on that trend for its own growth.  eBay was in the right place at the right time, and Ms. Whitman helped guide the company’s product development so that it helped users enjoy their on-line experience.  The trends supported eBay’s early direction, and growth was built opon making on-line selling better, faster and easier.

The situation could not be more different at HP.  It’s products are almost all out of the trend.  If Ms. Whitman does what she did at eBay, trying to promote more, better and faster PCs, printers and traditional IT services things will not go well.  That was Mr. Hurd’s strategy.  “Been there, done that” as people like to say.  That strategy ran its course, and more cost-cutting will not save HP.

In 2020 if we are to discuss HP the way we now discuss Apple’s dramatic turnaround from the brink of failure, Ms. Whitman will have to behave very differently than her past – and from what her predecessor and Ms. Bartz did.  She has to refocus HP on future markets.  She has to identify triggers for market change – like Steve Jobs did when he recognized that the growing trend to mobility would explode once WiFi services reached 50% of users – and push HP toward developing solutions which take advantage of those market shifts.

HP has under-invested in new market development for years.  It’s acquisition of Palm was supposed to somehow rectify that problem, only Palm was a failing company with a failing platform when HP bought it.  And the HP tablet launch with its own proprietary solution was far too late (years too late) in a market that requires thousands of developers and a hundred thousand apps if it is to succeed.  The investment in Palm and WebOS was too late, and based on trying to be a “me too” in a market where competitors are rapidly advancing new solutions. 

There are a world of market opportunities out there that HP can develop.  To reach them Ms. Whitman must take some quick actions:

  1. Develop future scenarios that define the direction of HP.  Not necessarily a “vision” of HP in 2020, but certainly an identification of the big trends that will guide HP’s future direction for product and market development.  Globalization (like IBM’s “smarter planet”) or mobility are starts – but HP will have to go beyond the obvious to identify opportunities requiring the resources of a company with HP’s revenue and resources.  HP desperately needs a pathway to future markets.  It needs to be developing for the emerging trends.
  2. A recognition of how HP will compete.  What is the market gap that HP will fulfill – like Apple did in mobility?  And how will it fulfill it?  Google and Facebook are emerging giants in software, offering a host of new capabilities every day to better network users and make them more productive.  HP must find a way to compete that is not toe-to-toe with existing leaders like Apple that have more market knowledge and extensive resoureces.
  3. HP needs to dramatically up the ante in new product development.  Innovation has been sorely lacking, and the hierarchical structure at HP needs to be changed.  White Space projects designed to identify opportunities in market trends need to be created that have permission to rapidly develop new solutions and take them to market – regardless of HP historical strengths.  Resources need to shift – rapidly – from supporting the aging, and growth challenged, historical product lines to new opportunities that show greater growth promise.

Apple and IBM were once given almost no chance of survival.  But new leadership recognized that there were growth markets, and those leaders altered the resource allocation toward things that could grow.  Investments in the old strategy were dropped as money was pushed to new solutions that built on market trends and headed toward future scenarios.  HP is not doomed to failure, but Ms. Whitman has to start acting quickly to redirect resources or it could easily be the next Sun Microsystems, Digital Equipment, Wang, Lanier or Cray

Status Quo Police – Innovation Killers

Nobody admits to being the innovation killer in a company.  But we know they exist.  Some these folks “dinosaurs that won’t change.”  Others blame “the nay-saying ‘Dr. No’ middle managers.”  But when you meet these people, they won’t admit to being innovation killers.  They believe, deep in their hearts as well as in their everyday actions, that they are doing the right thing for the business.  And that’s because they’ve been chosen, and reinforced, to be the Status Quo Police.

When a company starts it has no norms.  But as it succeeds, in order to grow quickly it develops a series of “key success factors” that help it continue growing.  In order to grow faster, managers – often in functional roles – are assigned the task of making sure the key success factors are unwaveringly supported.  Consistency becomes more important than creativity.  And these managers are reinforced, supported, even bonused for their ability to make sure they maintain the status quo.  Even if the market has shifted, they don’t shift.  They reinforce doing things according to the rules.  Just consider:

Quality – Who can argue with the need to have quality?  Total Quality Management (TQM,) Continuous Improvement (CI,) and Six Sigma programs all have been glorified by companies hoping to improve product or service quality.  If you’re trying to fix a broken product, or process, these work pretty well at helping everyone do their job better.

But these programs live with the mantra “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.  Measure everything that’s important.”  If you’re innovating, what do you measure?  If you’re in a new technology, or manufacturing process, how do you know what you really need to do right?  If you’re in a new market, how do you know the key metric for sales success?  Is it number of customers called, time with customers, number of customer surveys, recommendation scores, lost sales reports?  When you’re trying to do something new, a lot of what you do is respond quickly to instant feedback – whether it’s good feedback or bad.

The key to success isn’t to have critical metrics and measure performance on a graph, but rather to learn from everything you do – and usually to change.  Quality people hate this, and can only stand in the way of trying anything new because you don’t know what to measure, or what constitutes a “good” measure.  Don’t ever forget that Motorola pretty much invented Six Sigma, and what happened to them in the mobile phone business they pioneered?

Finance.  All businesses exist to make money, so who can argue with “show me the numbers.  Give me a business plan that shows me how you’re going to make money.”  When your’e making an incremental investment to an existing asset or process, this is pretty good advice. 

But when you’re innovating, what you don’t know far exceeds what you know.  You don’t know how to meet unment needs.  You don’t know the market size, the price that people will pay, the first year’s volume (much less year 5,) the direct cost at various volumes, the indirect cost, the cost of marketing to obtain customer attention, the number of sales calls it will take to land a sale, how many solution revisions will be necessary to finally put out the “right” solution, or how sales will ramp up quarterly from nothing.  So to create a business plan, you have to guess. 

And, oh boy, then it gets ugly.  “Where did this number come from?  That one?  How did you determine that?”  It’s not long until the poor business plan writer is ridden out of the meeting on a rail.  He has no money to investigate the market, so he can’t obtain any “real” numbers, so the business plan process leads to ongoing investment in the old business, while innovation simply stalls.

Under Akia Morita Sony was a great innovator. But then an MBA skilled in finance took over the top spot.  What once was the #1 electronics innovator in the globe has become, well, let’s say they aren’t Apple.

Legal – No company wants to be sued, or take on unnecessary risk.  And when you’re selling something, lawyers are pretty good at evaluating the risk in that business, and lowering the risk.  While making sure that all the compliance issues are met in order to keep regulators – and other lawyers – out of the business.

But when you’re starting something new, everything looks risky.  Customers can sue you for any reason.  Suppliers can sue you for not taking product, or using it incorrectly.  The technology could fail, or have negative use repercussions.  Reguators can question your safety standards, or claims to customers. 

From a legal point of view, you’re best to never do anything new.  The less new things you do, the less likely you are to make a mistake.  So legal’s great at putting up roadblocks to make sure they protect the company from lawsuits, by making sure nothing really new happens.  The old General Motors had plenty of lawyers making sure their cars were never too risky – or interesting.

R&D or Product Development – Who doesn’t think it’s good to be a leader in a specific technology?  Technology advances have proven invaluable for companies in industries from computers to pharmaceuticals to tractors and even services like on-line banking.  Thus R&D and Product Development wants to make sure investments advance the state of the technology upon which the company was built.

But all technologies become obsolete.  Or, at least unprofitable.  Innovators are frequently on the front end of adopting new technologies.  But if they have to obtain buy-in from product development to obtain staffing or money they’ll be at the end of a never-ending line of projects to sustain the existing development trend.  You don’t have to look much further than Microsoft to find a company that is great at pouring money into the PC platform (some $9B, 16% of revenue in 2009,) while the market moves faster each year to mobile devices and entertainment (Apple spent 1/8th the Microsoft budget in 2009.)

Sales, Marketing & Distribution – When you want to protect sales to existing customers, or maybe increase them by 5%, then doing more of what you’ve always done is smart.  So money is spent to put more salespeople on key accounts, add more money to the advertising budget for the most successful (or most profitable) existing products.  There are more rules about using the brand than lighters at a smoker’s convention.  And it’s heresy to recommend endangering the distribution channel that has so successfully helped increase sales.

But innovators regularly need to behave differently.  They need to sell to different people – Xerox sold to secretaries while printing press manufacturers sold to printers.  The “brand” may well represent a bygone era, and be of no value to someone launching a new product; are you eager to buy a Zenith electronic device?  Sprucing up the brand, or even launching something new, may well be a requirement for a new solution to be taken seriously.

And often, to be successful, a new solution needs to cut through the old, high-cost distribution system directly to customers if it is to succeed.  Pre-Gerstner IBM kept adding key account sales people in hopes of keeping IT departments from switching out of mainframes to PCs.  Sears avoided the shift to on-line sales successfully – and revenue keeps dropping in the stores.

Information Technology – To make more money you automate more functions.  Computers are wonderful for reducing manpower in many tasks.  So IT implements and supports “standard solutions” that are cost effective for the historical business.  Likewise, they set up all kinds of user rules – like don’t go to Facebook or web sites from work – to keep people focused on productivity.  And to make sure historical data is secure and regulations are met.

But innovators don’t have a solution mapped out, and all that automated functionality is an enormously expensive headache.  When being creative, more time is spent looking for something new than trying to work faster, or harder, so access to more external information is required.  Since the solution isn’t developed, there’s precious little to worry about keeping secure.  Innovators need to use new tools, and have flexibility to discover advantageous ways to use them, that are far beyond the bounds of IT’s comfort zone.

Newspapers are loaded with automated systems to collect and edit news, to enter display ads, and to “Make up” the printed page fast and cheap.  They have automated systems for classified advertising sales and billing, and for display ad billing.  And systems to manage subscribers.  That technology isn’t very helpful now, however, as newspapers go bankrupt.  Now the most critical IT skills are pumping news to the internet in real-time, and managing on-line ads distributed to web users that don’t have subscriptions. 

Human Resources – Growth pushes companies toward tighter job descriptions with clear standards for “the kinds of people that succeed around here.”  When you want to hire people to be productive at an existing job, HR has the procedures to define the role, find the people and hire them at the most efficient cost.  And they can develop a systematic compensation plan that treats everyone “fairly” based upon perceived value to the historical business.

But innovators don’t know what kinds of people will be most successful. Often they need folks who think laterally, across lots fo tasks, rather than deeply about something narrow.  Often they need people who are from different backgrounds, that are closer to the emerging market than the historical business.  And pay has to be related to what these folks can get in the market, not what seems fair through the lens of the historical business.  HR is rarely keen to staff up a new business opportunity with a lot of misfits who don’t appreciate their compensation plan – or the rules so carefully created to circumscribe behavior around the old business.

B.Dalton was America’s largest retail book seller when Amazon.com was founded by Jeff Bezos.  Jeff knew nothing about books, but he knew the internet.  B.Dalton knew about books, and claimed it knew what book buyers wanted.  Two years later B.Dalton went bankrupt, and all those book experts became unemployed. Amazon.com now sells a lot more than books, as it ongoingly and rapidly expands its employee skill sets to enter new markets – like publishing and eReaders.

Innovation requires that leaders ATTACK the Status Quo Police.  Everything done to efficiently run the old business is irrelevant when it comes to innovation.  Functional folks need to be told they can’t force the innovatoirs to conform to old rules, because that’s exactly why the company needs innovation!  Only by attacking the old rules, and being willing to allow both diversity and disruption can the business innovate.

Instead of saying “this isn’t how we do things around here” it is critical leaders make sure functional folks are saying “how can I help you innovate?”  What was done in the name of “good business” looks backward – not forward.  Status Quo cops have to be removed from the scene – kept from stopping innovation dead in its tracks.  And if the internal folks can’t be supportive, that means keeping them out of the innovator’s way entirely.

Any company can innovate.  Doing so requires recognizing that the Status Quo Police are doing what they were hired to do.  Until you take away their clout, attack their role and stop them from forcing conformance to old dictums, the business can’t hope to innovate.


Buy Apple, Sell Microsoft

The Wall Street Journal  headlined Monday, “Apple Chief to Take Leave.”  Forbes.com Leadership editor Fred Allen quickly asked what most folks were asking “Where does Steve Jobs Leave Apple Now?” as he led multiple bloggers covering the speculation about how long Mr. Jobs would be absent from Apple, or if he would ever return, in “What They Are Saying About Steve Jobs.”  The stock took a dip as people all over raised the question covered by Steve Caulfield in Forbes’ “Timing of Steve Jobs Return Worries Investors, Fans.”

If you want to make money investing, this is what’s called a “buying opportunity.”  As Forbes’ Eric Savitz reported “Apple is More Than Just Steve Jobs.” Just look at the most recent results, as reported in Ad AgeApple Posts ‘Record Quarter’ on Strong iPhone, Mac, iPad Sales:”

  • Quarterly revenue is up 70% vs. last year to $26.7B (Apple is a $100B company!)
  • Quarterly earnings rose 77% vs last year to $6B
  • 15 million iPads were sold in 2010, with 7.3 million sold in the last quarter
  • Apple has $50B cash on hand to do new product development, acquisitions or pay dividends

ZDNet demonstrated Apple’s market resiliency headlining “Apple’s iPad Represents 90% of All Tablets Shipped.”  While it is true that Droid tablets are now out, and we know some buyers will move to non-Apple tablets, ZDNet predicts the market will grow more than 250% in 2011 to over 44 million units, giving Apple a lot of room to grow even with competitors bringing out new products. 

Apple is a tremendously successful company because it has a very strong sense of where technology is headed and how to apply it to meet user needs.  Apple is creating market shifts, while many other companies are reacting.  By deeply understanding its competitors, being willing to disrupt historical markets and using White Space to expand applications Apple will keep growing for quite a while.  With, or without Steve Jobs.

On the other hand, there’s the stuck-in-the-past management team at Microsoft.  Tied to all those aging, outdated products and distribution plans built on PC technology that is nearing end of life.  But in the midst of the management malaise out of Seattle Kinect suddenly showed up as a bright spot!  SFGate reported that “Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect beond hackers, hobbyists.”  Seems engineers around the globe had started using Kinect in creative ways that were way beyond anything envisioned by Microsoft! Put into a White Space team, it was possible to start imagining Kinect could be powerful enough to resurrect innovation, and success, at the aging monopolist!

But, unfortunately, Microsoft seems far too stuck in its old ways to take advantage of this disruptive opportunity. Joel West at SeekingAlpha.com tells us “Microsoft vs. Open Kinect: How to Miss a Significant Opportunity.”  Microsoft is dedicated to its plan for Kinect to help the company make money in games – and has no idea how to create a White Space team to exploit the opportunity as a platform for myriad uses (like Apple did with its app development approach for the iPhone.)

In the end, ZDNet joined my chorus looking to oust Ballmer (possibly a case study in how to be the most misguided CEO in corporate America) by asking “Ballmer’s 11th Year as Microsoft’s CEO – Is it Time for Him to Go?”  Given Ballmer’s massive shareholding, and thus control of the Board, it’s doubtful he will go anywhere, or change his management approach, or understand how to leverage a breakthrough innovation.  So as the Cloud keeps decreasing demand for traditional PCs and servers, Brett Owens at SeekingAlpha concludes in “A Look at Valuations of Google, Apple, Microsoft and Intel” that Microsoft has nowhere to go but down!  Given the amazingly uninspiring ad program Microsoft is now launching (as described in MediaPost “Microsoft Intros New Corporate Tagline, Strategy“) we can see management has no idea how to find, or sell, innovation.

We often hear advice to buy shares of a company.  Rarely recommendations to sell.  But Apple is the best positioned company to maintain growth for several more years, while Microsoft has almost no hope of moving beyond its Lock-in to old products and markets which are declining.  Simplest trade of 2011 is to sell Microsoft and buy Apple.  Just read the headlines, and don’t get suckered into thinking Apple is nothing more than Steve Jobs.  He’s great, but Apple can remain great in his absence.

Disrupt to Thrive in 2011 – Model Facebook, Groupon, Twitter


  • Communication is now global, instantaneous and free
  • As a result people, and businesses, now adopt innovation more quickly than ever
  • Competitors adapt much quicker, and react much stronger than ever in history
  • Profits are squeezed by competitors rapidly adopting innovations
  • But many business leaders avoid disruptions, leading to slower growth and declining returns
  • To maintain, and grow, revenues and profits you must be willing to implement disruptions in order to stay ahead of fast moving competitors
  • Amidst fast shifting markets, greatest value (P/E multiple and market cap) is given to those companies that create disruptions (like Facebook, Groupon, Twitter)

All business leaders know the pace of competitive change has increased. 

It took decades for everyone to obtain an old-fashioned land line telephone. Decades for everyone to buy a TV.  And likewise, decades for color TV adoption.  Microwave ovens took more than a decade. Thirty years ago the words “long distance” implied a very big cost, even if it was a call from just a single interchange away (not even an area code away – just a different set of “prefix” numbers.) People actually wrote letters, and waited days for responses! Social change, and technology adoption, took a lot longer – and was considered expensive.

Now we assume communications at no cost with colleagues, peers, even competitors not only across town state, or nation, but across the globe!  Communication – whether email, or texting, or old fashioned voice calls – has become free and immediate. (Consider Skype if you want free phone calls [including video no less] and use a PC at your local library or school building if you don’t own one.) Factoring inflation, it is possible to provide every member of a family of 5 with instant phone, email and text communication real-time, wirelessly, 24×7, globally for less than my parents paid for a single land-line, local-exchange only (no long distance) phone 50 years ago! And these mobile devices can send pictures!

As a result, competitors know more about each other a whole lot faster, and take action much more quickly, than ever in history.  Facebook, for example, is now connecting hundreds of millions of people with billions of communications every day.  According to statistics published on Facebook.com, every 20 minutes the Facebook website produces:

  • 1,000,000 shared links
  • 1,323,000 tagged photos
  • 1,484,000 event invitations
  • 1,587,000 Wall posts
  • 1,851,000 Status updates
  • 1,972,000 Friend requests accepted
  • 2,716,000 photos uploaded
  • 4,632,000 messages

Multiply those numbers by 3 to get hourly. By 72 to get daily. Big numbers!  Alexander Graham Bell had to invent the hardware and string thousands of miles of cable to help people communicate with his disruption. His early “software” were thousands of “operators” connecting calls through central switchboards. Mark Zuckerberg and friends only had to create a web site using existing infrastructure and existing tools to create theirs.  Rapidly adopting, and using, existing innovations allowed Facebook’s founders to create a disruptive innovation of their own!  Disruption has allowed Facebook to thrive!

Facebook has disrupted the way we communicate, learn, buy and sell.  “Word of mouth” referrals are now possible from friends – and total strangers.  Product benefits and problems are known instantaneously.  Networks of people arguably have more influence that TV networks!  Many employees are likely to make more facebook communications in a day than have conversations with co-workers!  Facebook (or twitter) is rapidly becoming the new “water cooler.” Only it is global and has inputs from anyone.  Yet only a fraction of businesses have any plans for using Facebook – internally or to be more competitive!

Far too many business leaders are unwilling to accept, adopt, invest in or implement disruptions.

InnovateOnPurpose.com highlights why in “Why Innovation Makes Executives Uncomfortable:”

  1. Innovation is part art, and not all science.  Many execs would like to think they can run a business like engineering a bridge. They ignore the fact that businesses implement in society, and innovation is where we use the social sciences to help us gain insight into the future.  Success requires more than just extending the past – because market shifts happen.  If you can’t move beyond engineering principles you can’t lead or manage effectively in a fast-changing world where the rules are not fixed.
  2. Innovation requires qualitative insights not just quantitative statistics. Somewhere in the last 50 years the finance pros, and a lot of expensive strategy consultants, led business leaders to believe that if they simply did enough number crunching they could eliminate all risk and plan a guaranteed great future.  Despite hundreds of math PhDs, that approach did not work out so well for derivative investors – and killed Lehman Brothers (and would have killed AIG insurance had the government not bailed it out.) Math is a great science, and numbers are cool, but they are insufficient for success when the premises keep changing.
  3. Innovation requires hunches, not facts.  Well, let’s say more than a hunch.  Innovation requires we do more scenario planning about the future, rather than just pouring over historical numbers and expecting projections to come true.  We don’t need crystal balls to recognize there will be change, and to develop scenario plans that help us prepare for change.  Innovation helps us succeed in a dynamic world, and implementation requires a willingness to understand that change is inevitable, and opportunistic.
  4. Innovation requires risks, not certainties.  Unfortunately, there are NO certainties in business.  Even the status quo plan is filled with risk. It’s not that innovation is risky, but rather that planning systems (ERP systems, CRM systems, all systems) are heavily biased toward doing more of the same – not something new! Markets can shift incredibly fast, and make any success formula obsolete.  But most executives would rather fail doing the same thing faster, working harder, doing what used to work, than implement changes targeted at future market needs.  Leaders perceive following the old strategy is less risky, when in reality it’s loaded with risk too!  Too many businesses have failed at the hands of low-risk, certainty seeking leadership unable to shift with changing markets (GM, Chrysler, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Brach’s, Sun Microsystems, Quest, the old AT&T, Lucent, AOL, Silicon Graphics, Yahoo, to name a few.)

Markets are shifting all around us.  Faster than imaginable just 2 decades ago.  Leaders, strategists and planners that enter 2011 hoping they can win by doing more, better, faster, cheaper will have a very tough time.  That is the world of execution, and modern communication makes execution incredibly easy to copy, incredibly fast.  Even Wal-Mart, ostensibly one of the best execution-oriented companies of all time, has struggled to grow revenue and profit for a decade.  Today, companies that thrive embrace disruption.  They are willing to disrupt within their organizations to create new ideas, and they are willing to take disruptive opportunities to market. Compare Apple to Dell, or Netflix to Blockbuster.

Recent investments have valued Facebook at $50B, Groupon at $6B and Twitter at almost $4B. Apple is now the second most valuable company (measured by market capitalization).  Why? Because they are disrupting the way we do things. To thrive (perhaps survive by 2015) requires moving beyond the status quo, overcoming the perceived risk of innovation (and change) and taking the actions necessary to provide customers what they want in the future!  Any company can thrive if it embraces the disruptions around it, and uses them to create a few disruptions of its own.

Look for Disruption, not Consistency, to Find Superior Returns – Kraft v Groupon


  • Business leaders like consistency
  • Consistency leads to repetition, sameness, and lower rates of return
  • Kraft's product lines are consistent, but without growth
  • Kraft's value has been stagnant for 10 years
  • Disruptive competitors make higher rates of return, and grow
  • Disruptive competitors have higher valuations – just look at Groupon

"Needless consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds" – Ralph Waldo Emerson

That was my first thought when I read the MediaPost.com Marketing Daily article "Kraft Mac & Cheese Gets New, Unified Look." Whether this 80-something year old brand has a "unified" look is wholly uninteresting.  I don't care if all varieties have the same picture – and if they do it doesn't make me want to eat more powdered cheese and curved noodles. 

In fact, I'm not at all interested in anything about this product line.  It is kind of amusing, in an historical way, to note that people (largely children) still eat the stuff which fueled my no-cash college years (much like ramen noodles does for today's college kids.)  While there's nothing I particularly dislike about the product, as an investor or marketer there's nothing really to like about it either.  Pasta products always do better in a recession, as people look for cheaper belly-fillers (especially for the kid,) so that more is being sold the last couple of years doesn't tell me anything I would not have guessed on my own.  That the entire category has grown to only $800M revenue across this 8 decade period only shows that it's a relatively small business with no excitement!  Once people feel their finances are on firm footing sales will soon taper off.

Kraft's Mac & Cheese is emblematic of management teams that lock-in on defending and extending old businesses – even though the lack of growth leaves them struggling to grow cash flow and create a decent valuation.  Introducing multiple varieties of this product has not produced growth that even matched inflation across the years.  Primarily, marketing programs have been designed to try keeping existing customers from buying something else.  This most recent Kraft program is designed to encourage adults to try a product they gave up eating many years ago.  This is, at best, "foxhole" marketing.  Spending money largely just to keep the brand from going away, rather than really expecting any growth.  Truly, does anyone think this kind of spending will generate a billion dollar product line in 2011 – or even 2012?

What's wrong with defensive marketing, creating consistency across the product line – across the brand – and across history?  It doesn't produce high rates of return.  There are lots of pasta products, even lots of brands of mac & cheese.  While Kraft's product surely produces a positive margin, multiple competitors and lack of growth means increased spending over time merely leaves the brand producing a marginal rate of return. Incremental ad spending doesn't generate real growth, just a hope of not losing ground.  We know people aren't flocking to the store to buy more of the product.  New customers aren't being identified, and short-term growth in revenues does not yield the kinds of returns that would enhance valuation and make the world a better place for investors – or employees.

While Kraft is trying to create headlines with more spending in a very tired product, across town in Chicago Groupon has created a $500M revenue business in just 2 years!  And new reports from the failed acquisition attempt by Google indicate revenues are likely to reach $2B in 2011 (CNNMoney.com, Fortune, "Google's Groupon Groping Reveals the Shifting Power of the Web World.")  Where's Kraft in this kind of growth market?  After all, coupons for Kraft products have been in mailers and Sunday inserts for 50 years.  Why isn't Kraft putting money into a real growth business, which is producing enormous value while cash flow grows in multiples?  While Groupon has created somewhere around $6B of value in 2 years, Kraft's value has only gone sideways for the last decade (chart at Marketwatch.com.)

Kraft has not introduced a new product since — well — DiGiorno.  And that's been more than a decade.  While the company has big revenues – so did General Motors.  The longer a company plays defense, regardless of size, trying to extend its outdated products (and business model) the riskier that business becomes.  While big revenues appear to offer some kind of security, we all know that's not true.  Not only does competition drive down margins in these older businesses, but newer products make it harder and harder for the old products to compete at all.  Eventually, the effort to maintain historical consistency simply allows competitors to completely steal the business away with new products, creating a big revenue drop, or producing such low returns that failure is inevitable.

Lots of business people like consistency.  They like consistency in how the brand is executed, or how products are aligned.  They like consistency in the technology base, or production capabilities.  They like consistency in customers, and markets.  They like being consistent with company history – doing what "made the company famous."  They like the similarity of doing something again, and again, hoping that consistency will produce good returns. 

But consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.  And those who are more clever find ways to change the game.  Xerox figured out how to let everyone be a one-button printer, and killed the small printing press manufacturers.  HP's desktop printers knocked the growth out of Xerox.  Google figured out a better way to find information, and place ads, just about killing newspapers (and magazines.)  Apple found a better way to use mobile minutes, taking a big bite out of cell phone manufacturers. Amazon found a better way to sell things, killing off bookstores and putting a world of hurt on many retailers.  Netflix found a better way of distributing DVDs and digital movies, sending Blockbuster to bankruptcy.  Infosys and Tata found a better way of doing IT services, wiping out PWC and nearly EDS.  Hulu (and soon Netflix, Google and Apple) has found a better way of delivering television programming, killing the growth in cable TV.  Groupon is finding a better way of delivering coupons, creating huge concerns for direct mail companies.  Now tablet makers (like Apple) are demonstrating a better way of working remotely, sending shivers of worry down the valuation of Microsoft. These companies, failed or in jeapardy, were very consistent.

Those who create disruptions show again and again that they can generate growth and above average returns, even in a recession.  While those who keep trying to defend and extend their old business are letting consistency drive their behavior – leading to intense competition, genericization, and lower rates of return.  Maybe Kraft should spend more money looking for the next food we would all like, rather than consistently trying to convince us we want more Mac & Cheese (or Velveeta).

You Should Love, and Buy, Netflix – the next Apple or Google


  • Most leaders optimize their core business
  • This does not prepare the business for market shifts
  • Motorola was a leader with Razr, but was killed when competitors matched their features and the market shifted to smart phones
  • Netflix's leader is moving Netflix to capture the next big market (video downloads)
  • Reed Hastings is doing a great job, and should be emulated
  • Netflix is a great growth story, and a stock worth adding to your portfolio

"Reed Hastings: Leader of the Pack" is how Fortune magazine headlined its article making the Netflix CEO its BusinessPerson of the Year for 2010.  At least part of Fortune's exuberance is tied to Netflix's dramatic valuation increase, up 200% in just the last year.  Not bad for a stock called a "worthless piece of crap" in 2005 by a Wedbush Securities stock analyst.  At the time, popular wisdom was that Blockbuster, WalMart and Amazon would drive Netflix into obscurity.  One of these is now gone (Blockbuster) the other stalled (WalMart revenues unmoved in 2010) and the other well into digital delivery of books for its proprietary Kindle eReader.

But is this an honor, or a curse?  It was 2004 when Ed Zander was given the same notice as the head of Motorola.  After launching the Razr he was lauded as Motorola's stock jumped in price.  But it didn't take long for the bloom to fall off that rose. Razr profits went negative as prices were cut to drive share increases, and a lack of new products drove Motorola into competitive obscurity.  A joint venture with Apple to create Rokr gave Motorola no new sales, but opened Apple's eyes to the future of smartphone technology and paved the way for iPhone.  Mr. Zander soon ran out of Chicago and back to Silicon Valley, unemployed, with his tale between his legs.

Netflix is a far different story from Motorola, and although its valuation is high looks like a company you should have in your portfolio. 

Ed Zander simply took Motorola further out the cell phone curve that Motorola had once pioneered.  He brought out the next version of something that had long been "core" to Motorola.  It was easy for competitors to match the "features and functions" of Razr, and led to a price war.  Mr. Zander failed because he did not recognize that launching smartphones would change the game, and while it would cannibalize existing cell phone sales it would pave the way for a much more profitable, and longer term greater growth, marketplace.

Looking at classic "S Curve" theory, Mr. Zander and Motorola kept pushing the wave of cell phones, but growth was plateauing as the technology was doing less to bring in new users (in the developed world):

Meanwhile, Research in Motion (RIM) was pioneering a new market for smartphones, which was growing at a faster clip.  Apple, and later Google (with Android) added fuel to that market, causing it to explode.  The "old" market for cell phones fell into a price war as the growth, and profits, moved to the newer technology and product sets:

The Motorola story is remarkably common.  Companies develop leaders who understand one market, and have the skills to continue optimizing and exploiting that market.  But these leaders rarely understand, prepare for and implement change created by a market shift.  Inability to see these changes brought down Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems in 2010, and are pressuring Microsoft today as users are rapidly moving from laptops to mobile devices and cloud computing.  It explains how Sony lost the top spot in music, which it dominated as a CD recording company and consumer electronics giant with Walkman, to Apple when the market moved people from physical CDs to MP3 files and Apple's iPod.

Which brings us back to what makes Netflix a great company, and Mr. Hastings a remarkable leader.  Netflix pioneered the "ship to your home" DVD rental business.  This helped eliminate the need for brick-and-mortar stores (along with other market trends such as the very inexpensive "Red Box" video kiosk and low-cost purchase options from the web.)  Market shifts doomed Blockbuster, which remained locked-in to its traditional retail model, made obsolete by competitors that were cheaper and easier with which to do business.

But Netflix did not remain fixated on competing for DVD rentals and sales – on "protecting its core" business.  Looking into the future, the organization could see that digital movie rentals are destined to be dramatically greater than physical DVDs.  Although Hulu was a small competitor, and YouTube could be scoffed at as a Gen Y plaything, Netflix studied these "fringe" competitors and developed a superb solution that was the best of all worlds.  Without abandoning its traditional business, Netflix calmly moved forward with its digital download business — which is cheaper than the traditional business and will not only cannibalize historical sales but make the traditional business completely obsolete!  

Although text books talk about "jumping the curve" from one product line to another, it rarely happens.  Devotion to the core business, and managing the processes which once led to success, keeps few companies from making the move.  When it happens, like when IBM moved from mainframes to services, or Apple's more recent shift from Mac-centric to iPod/iPhone/iPad, we are fascinated.  Or Google's move from search/ad placement company to software supplier.  While any company can do it, few do.  So it's no wonder that MediaPost.com headlines the Netflix transition story "Netflix Streams Its Way to Success."

Is Netflix worth its premium?  Was Apple worth its premium earlier this decade?  Was Google worth its premium during the first 3 years after its Initial Public Offering?  Most investors fear the high valuations, and shy away.  Reality is that when a company pioneers a growth business, the value is far higher than analysts estimate.  Today, many traditionalists would say to stay with Comcast and set-top TV box makers like TiVo.  But Comcast is trying to buy NBC in order to move beyond its shrinking subscriber base, and "TiVo Widens Loss, Misses Street" is the Reuters' headline. Both are clearly fighting the problems of "technology A" (above.)

What we've long accepted as the traditional modes of delivering entertainment are well into the plateau, while Netflix is taking the lead with "technology B."  Buying into the traditionalists story is, well, like buying General Motors.  Hard to see any growth there, only an ongoing, slow demise.

On the other hand, we know that increasingly young people are abandoning traditional programing for 100% entertainment selection by download.  Modern televisions are computer monitors, capable of immediately viewing downloaded movies from a tablet or USB drive – and soon a built-in wifi connection.  The growth of movie (and other video) watching is going to keep exploding – just as the volume of videos on YouTube has exploded.  But it will be via new distribution.  And nobody today appears close to having the future scenarios, delivery capability and solutions of Netflix.  24×7 Wall Street says Netflix will be one of "The Next 7 American Monopolies."  The last time somebody used that kind of language was talking about Microsoft in the 1980s!  So, what do you think that makes Netflix worth in 2012, or 2015?

Netflix is a great story.  And likely a great investment as it takes on the market leadership for entertainment distribution.  But the bigger story is how this could be applied to your company.  Don't fear revenue cannibalization, or market shift.  Instead, learn from, and behave like, Mr. Hastings.  Develop scenarios of the future to which you can lead your company.  Study fringe competitors for ways to offer new solutions. Be proactive about delivering what the market wants, and as the shift leader you can be remarkably well positioned to capture extremely high value.