Reshaping the Power Grid – The Tesla Way

Reshaping the Power Grid – The Tesla Way

Tesla has stuck a deal to put solar panels and Powerwall batteries on 50,000 homes in Southern Australia. The homeowners will not pay for the equipment. They won’t even own it. Instead the equipment will be owned by the utility company, and the 50,000 homes will become a “virtual” power plant – operating as independent pieces of a giant grid. For everyone in the system this will lower power costs by over 30%, and improve the performance where outages are a big problem.

This is really, really smart. The old way of thinking about power generation was a big plant, usually coal, gas or oil powered. Or, a giant group of solar panels in a desert, or a giant group of windmills. Or, a nuclear-powered plant. This centralized generation is then shipped over power lines to homes and businesses.

The problem is that transmission can lose anywhere from 20% to 80% of the power. Thus, the bigger the plant in theory the lower the power cost – but that is only for generation. After factoring in the cost of transmission losses, and the cost of building and maintaining transmission lines, the cost can be quite high. And thus the resulting never-ending increases in electricity prices even as traditional feedstocks go down in cost. Decentralized power generation, in a grid of small production, nearly eliminates transmission losses and uses renewable sources in the most favorable way.

Nobody should be surprised that Tesla is a leader in this program. Back in September, 2016 when Tesla took over (or merged) with Solar City I strongly made the case that this would be a good move. The ability to make solar shingles, solar panels and store large power amounts in whole-building batteries is a game changer for how we make, and consume, electricity. As utility commissions keep realizing the problems with building ever-larger centralized plants, decentralized systems that truly utilize grid management are simply a smarter, cheaper, better way to power our homes and offices.

Most people think of Solar City as “just another home solar system.” That would be wrong. Solar City has the ability to power entire towns and regions with their system of production, storage and grid management. And that is great for Tesla shareholders. Tesla has shown it is a game changer with products like the Model 3, and the combination with Solar City actually creates a utility industry game changer, as well as auto industry game changer, that could put a hurt on companies like Exxon. Now, like when I recommended buying Tesla in January, 2015, you should be thinking long term about the opportunity for outsized returns a game-changing company like Tesla provides.

Why the Top 20 R&D spenders waste their money – lessons from Microsoft & GM

Many people equate spending on R&D with investing in innovation.  The logic goes that R&D spending is lab spending, and out of labs come innovations.  Hence, those that spend a lot on R&D are innovative.

That is faulty logic.

This chart shows R&D spending from the top 20 companies in 2011:

Top 20 R and D spenders 2011
Chart reproduced with permission of Business Insider

Think of your own list of companies that are providing innovations which change your work, or life. Would you include Apple? Amazon? Facebook? Google? Genentech?  (Here's the link to Fast Company's 50 most innovative for 2012).  Note that none of these companies appear on the list of top R&D spenders. 

On the other hand, as you look at the big spender list some things might be apparent:

  • Microsoft is #5, spending $9B and nearly 13% of revenue.  Yet, for this money in 2012 the world received updates to their aging operating system and office automation software.  Both of which failed to register favorable reviews by industry gurus, and are considered far from innovative.  And Nokia, which is so floundering some consider it a likely bankruptcy candidate soon, is #7! Despite spending nearly $8B on R&D Nokia is now completely reliant on Microsoft if it is to even survive.
  • Autos make up a big part of the group.  Toyota, GM, Volkswagen, Honda and Daimler are all on the list, spending a whopping $36B.  Yet, even though they give us improvements nobody considers them (especially GM)  very innovative.  That award would go to little Tesla Motors.  Or maybe Tata Motors in India.
  • Pharmaceuticals make up the dominant industry.  Novartis, Roche, Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca are all here – spending a cumulative $54B!  Yet, they have all failed to give the world any incredible new drugs, all have profit struggles, and the industry is rife with discussions about weak product pipelines. The future of modern medicine increasingly is shifting to genetic solutions, biologics and more specific alternatives to the historical drug regimes from these aging pharma R&D programs.

Do you see the obvious pattern?  Most big R&D spenders are not really seeking innovations.  They are spending money on historical programs, following historical patterns and trying to defend and extend the historical business.  In other words, they are spending vast sums attempting to sustain (or recapture) historical success.  And, as the list shows, largely doing a pretty lousy job of it. 

If you were given $10,000 to invest would you select these top 20 R&D spenders – or would you look for other, more innovative companies.  From a profitability, rate of return and trend perspective, most of these companies look weak – or downright horrible.

Innovators don't focus on what they spend, but where they spend it.

The companies most known for innovation don't keep spending money year after year on their old business.  Instead of digging deeper into what they already know, they invest laterally.  They spend money putting the pieces together in new, unique ways.  They try to find new solutions to old problems, using new – even fringe – technologies.  They try to develop disruptive solutions that actually change the marketplace, rather than trying to make something that already exists better, faster or cheaper.

Lots of people like to think there is "scale" in research.  Bigger is better.  What's more important, for investors, is that there is "diminishing returns."  The more you research an area the more you have to spend to find anything new.  The costs keep escalating, as the gains shrink.  After investing for a while, continuing to research an area is not a good investment (although it may be very intellectually interesting.) 

Most of the companies on this list would be smarter to scrap their existing R&D programs, cut the budget in half (at least,) and then invest it somewhere very different.  Instead of looking deeper, they need to look wider – broader.  They need to investigate alternative solutions, rather than more of the same.  They need to be putting more money on fringe opportunities, and a lot less into the core.

Until they do, few on this list are very good investment bets.  You'll do better investing like, and in, the real innovators.


Avoid the 3 card monte – Sell Abbott

The giant pharmaceutical company Abbott Labs announced today it was splitting itself.  Abbott will sell baby formula, supplements (vitamins,) generic drugs and additional products.  The pharmaceutical company, (gee, I thought that's what Abbott was?) yet to be named, will spin out on its own.  Chairman and CEO Miles White will continue at the new non-pharma Abbott, and the Newco pharma company will be headed by the company's former COO, being brought back out of retirement for the job.

The big question is, "why?"  The CEO gamely has described the businesses as having different profiles, and therefore they should be split.  But this is from the fellow that has been the most acquisitive CEO in his industry, and one of the most acquisitive in business, putting this collection together. He spent $10B on acquisitions as recently as 2009, including dropping $6.6B on Belgian drug company Solvay – which will now be espunged from Abbott.  Why did he spend all that money if it didn't make sense? And how does this break-up help investors, employees and all us healthcare customers? 

Or is this action just confusion, to leave us wondering what's going on in the company – and why it hasn't done much for any constituency the last decade.  Except the CEO – who's been the highest paid in the industry, and one of the highest paid in America during his tenure.

Mr. White became CEO in 1998, and Chairman in 1999.  Just as the stock peaked.  Since then, investors have received almost nothing for holding the stock.  Dividend increases have not covered inflation for the last decade, and despite ups and downs the share price is just about where it was back then – $50

Source:  Yahoo Finance 10/19/11

Abbott has not increased in value because the company has had almost no organic growth.  Growth by acquisition takes a lot of capital, and because purchases have multiple bidders it is really tough to buy them at a price which will earn a high rate of return. All academic studies show that when big companies buy, they always overpay.  And that's the only growth Abbott has had – overly expensive acquisitions.

Mr. White hid an inability to grow behind a flurry of ongoing acquisitions (and some divestitures) that made it incredibly difficult to realize that the company itself was actually stagnant.  Internally in a growth stall, with no idea how to come out of it.  Hoping, again and again, that one of these acquisitions would refire the stalled engines. 

This latest action is another round in Abbott's 3 card monte routine.  Where's that bloody queen Mr. White keeps promising investors, as he keeps mixing the cards – and turning them over? 

Because his acquisitions didn't work he's upping the financial machinations.  By splitting the company he will make it impossible for anyone to figure out what all that exasperating activity has been for the last decade!  He won't be compared to all those pesky historically weak results, or asked about how he's managing all those big investments, or even held accountable for the tens of billions that he spent at the "old Abbott" when he's asked questions about the "new Abbott."

But re-arranging the deck chairs does not fix the ship, and there's nothing – absolutely nothing – in this action which creates more growth, and higher profits, for Abbott shareholders.  Because there's nothing in this that produces new solutions for health care customers. 

And look out employees – because now there's 2 CEOs looking for ways to cut costs and create layoffs – like the ones implemented in early 2011!  Expect the big knife to come out even harder as both companies struggle to show higher profits, with limited growth prospects.

Along the way, like any good 3 card monte routine, Abbott's CEO has had shills ready to encourage us that the flurry of activity is good for investors.  Chronically, they talked about how picking up this business or that was going to grow revenues – almost regardless of the price paid or whether Abbott had any plan for enhancing the acquisition's value.  Today, most analysts applauded his actions as "making sense." Of course these were all financial analysts, MBAs like Mr. White, more interested in accounting than actually developing new products.  Working mostly for investment banks, they had (and have) a vested interest in promoting the executive's actions – even if it hasn't created any value. 

Meanwhile, those betting for the queen to finally show up in this game will just have to keep waiting.

Abbott, like most pharmaceutical companies, has painted itself into a corner.  There are more lawyers, accountants, marketers, salespeople and PR folks at Abbott (like all its competitors, by the way) than there are real scientists developing new solutions.  Blaming regulators and dysfunctional health care processes, Abbott has insisted on building an enormous hierarchy of people focused on a handful of potential "blockbuster" solutions.  It's a bit like the king and his court, filling the castle with those making announcements, arguing about the value of the king's court, sending out messages decrying the barbarians at the gate – while the number of people actually growing corn and creating value keeps dwindling!

Barely 100 years ago most "medicine" was sold based on labels and claims – and practically no science.  Quackery dominated the profession.  If you wanted something to help your ails, you hoped the local chemist had the skills to mix something up in his apothecary shop, using his mortar and pestle.  Often it was best to just take a good shot of opiate (often included in the druggist's powder;) at least you felt a whole lot better even if it didn't cure your illness.

But Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin (1928), and we realized there was the possibility of massive life improvement from chemistry – specifically what we call pharmacology.  Jonas Salk sort of founded the "modern medicine" industry with his polio vaccine in 1955 – eliminating polio epidemics.  Science could lead to breakthroughs capable of saving millions of lives!  The creation of those injections – and later little pills-  changed everything for humanity. And that created the industry. 

But now pharmacology is a technology that has mostly run its course.  Like all inventions, in the early days the gains were rapid and far, far outweighed the risks.  A few might suffer illness, even death, from the drugs – but literally millions were saved.  A more than fair trade-off.  But after decades, those "easy hits" are gone. 

Today we know that every incremental pharmacological innovation is increasingly valuable in a narrower and narrower context.  10% may see huge improvement, 30% some improvement, 30% marginal to no  improvement, 20% have negative reactions, and 10% hugely negative reactions.  And increasingly, due to science, we know that is because as we trace down the chemical path we are interacting with individuals – and their DNA has a lot to do with how they will react to any drug.  Pharmacology isn't nearly as simple as penicillin any more.  It's almost one-on-one application to genetic maps.

But Abbott failed (like most of its industry competitors) to evolve.  Even though the human genome has been mapped for some 10 years, and even though we now know that future breakthroughs will come from a deeper understanding of gene reactions, there has been precious little research into the new forms of medicine this entails.  Abbott remained stuck trying to develop new products on the same path it had taken before, and as the costs rose (almost asymptotically astronomically) the results grew slimmer.  Billions were going in, and a lot less discovery was coming out!  But the leaders did not change their R&D path.

Today we all hear about patients that have remarkable recoveries from new forms of biologic medicines.  We know we are on the cusp of entirely new solutions, that will make the brute force of pharmacology look as medieval as a civil war surgeon's amputation solution to bullet wounds.  But Abbott is not there developing those solutions, because it has been trying to defend & extend its old business model with acquisitions like Solvay – and a plethora of financial transactions that hide the abysmal performance of its R&D and new product development.

Mr. White is not a visionary.  Never was.  He wasn't a research scientist, deep into solving health issues.  He wasn't a leader in trying to solve America's health care issues during the last decade.  He never exhibited a keen understanding of his customer's needs, trends in the industry, or presience as to future scenarios that would help his markets and thus Abbott's growth. 

Mr. White has been an expert in shuffling the cards – moving around the pieces.  Misdirecting attention to something new in the middle of the game.  Amidst the split announcement today it was easy to overlook that Abbott is setting aside $1.5B for settling charges that it broke regulations by illegally marketing the drug Depakote.   Changing investments, changing executives, changing  the message – now even changing the company – has been the hallmark of Mr. White's leadership. 

Now Abbott joins the list of companies, and CEOs, that when unable to grow their companies lean on misdirection.  Kraft and Sara Lee, both Chicago area companies like Abbott, have announced split-ups after failing to create increased shareholder value and laying off thousands of employees.  These efforts almost always lead to more problems as organic growth remains stalled, and investors are bamboozled by snake oil claims regarding the future.  Hopefully the remaining Abbott investors won't be fooled this time, and they'll find better places for their money than Abbott – or its Newco.

Postscript – the day after publishing this blog 24×7 Wall Street published its annual list of most overpaid CEOs in America.  #4 was Miles White, for taking $25.5M in compensation despite a valuation decline of 11.3%!

Where Bartz Blew It, and What Yahoo! Needs To Do Now

Carol Bartz was unceremoniously fired as CEO by Yahoo’s Board last week.  Fearing their decision might leak, the Chairman called Ms. Bartz and fired her over the phone.  Expeditious, but not too tactful.  Ms. Bartz then informed the company employees of this action via an email from her smartphone – and the next day called the Board of Directors a bunch of doofusses in a media interview.  Salacious fodder for the news media, but a distraction from fixing the real problems affecting Yahoo!

Unfortunately, the Yahoo Board seems to have no idea what to do now.  A small executive committee is running the company – which assures no bold actions.  And a pair of investment banks have been hired to provide advice – which can only lead to recommendations for selling all, or pieces, of the company.  Most people seem to think Yahoo’s value is worth more sold off in chunks than it is as an operating company.  Wow – what went so wrong?  Can Yahoo not be “fixed”?

There was a time, a decade or so back, when Yahoo was the #1 home page for browsers.  Yahoo! was the #1 internet location for reading news, and for doing internet searches.  And, it pioneered the model of selling internet ads to support the content aggregation and search functions.  Yahoo was early in the market, and was a tremendous success.

Like most companies, Yahoo kept doing more of the same as its market shifted.  Alta Vista, Microsoft and others made runs at Yahoo’s business, but it was Google primarily that changed the game on Yahoo!  Google invested heavily in technology to create superior searches, offered a superior user experience for visitors, gave unique content (Google Maps as an example) and created a tremendously superior engine for advertisers to place their ads on searches – or web pages. 

Google was run by technologists who used technology to dramatically improve what Yahoo started – seeing a future which would take advantage of an explosion in users and advertisers as well as web pages and internet use.  Yahoo had been run by advertising folks who missed the technology upgrades.  Yahoo’s leadership was locked-in to what it new (advertising) and they were slow with new solutions and products, falling further behind Google every year.

In an effort to turn the tide, Yahoo hired what they thought was a technologist in Carol Bartz to run the company.  She had previously led AutoCad, which famously ran companies like IBM, Intergraph, DEC (Digital Equipment) and General Electric owned CALMA out of the CAD/CAM (computer aided design and manufacturing) business.  She had been the CEO of a big technology winner – so she looked to many like the salvation for Yahoo!

But Ms. Bartz really wasn’t familiar with how to turn an ad agency into a tech company – nor was she particularly skilled at new product development.  Her skills were mostly in operations, and developing next generation software.  AutoCad was one of the first PC-based CAD products, and over 2 decades AutoCad leveraged the increasing power of PCs to make its products better, faster and relatively cheaper.  This constant improvement, and close attention to cost control, made it possible for AutoCad on a PC to come closer and closer to doing what the $250,000 workstations had done.  Users switched to the cheaper AutoCad not because it suddenly changed the game, but because PC enhancements made the older, more costly technology obsolete.

Ms. Bartz was stuck on her success formula.  Constantly trying to improve.  At Yahoo she implemented cost controls, like at AutoCad.  But she didn’t create anything significantly new.  She didn’t pioneer any new platforms (software or hardware) nor any dramatically new advertising or search products.  She tried to do deals, such as with Bing, to somehow partner into better competitiveness, but each year Yahoo fell further behind Google.  In a real way, Ms. Bartz fell victim to Google just as DEC had fallen victim to AutoCad.  Trying to Defend & Extend Yahoo was insufficient to compete with the game changing Google.

The Board was right to fire Ms. Bartz.  She simply did what she knew how to do, and what she had done at AutoCad.  But it was not what Yahoo needed – nor what Yahoo needs now.  Cost cutting and improvements are not going to catch the ad markets now driven by Google (search and adwords) and Facebook (display ads.)  Yahoo is now out of the rapidly growing market – social media – that is driving the next big advertising wave.

Breaking up Yahoo is the easy answer.  If the Board can get enough money for the pieces, it fulfills its fiduciary responsibility.  The stock has traded near $15/share for 3 years, and the Board can likely obtain the $18B market value for investors.  But “another one bites the dust” as the song lyrics go – and Yahoo will follow DEC, Atari, Cray, Compaq, Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems into the technology history on Wikipedia.  And those Yahoo employees will have to find jobs elsewhere (oh yeah, that pesky jobs problem leading to 9%+ U.S. unemployment comes up again.)

A better answer would be to turn around Yahoo!  Yahoo isn’t in any worse condition than Apple was when Steve Jobs took over as CEO.  It’s in no worse condition than IBM was when Louis Gerstner took over as its CEO.  It can be done.  If done, as those examples have shown, the return for shareholders could be far higher than breaking Yahoo apart.  

So here’s what Yahoo needs to do now if it really wants to create shareholder value:

  1. Put in place a CEO that is future oriented.  Yahoo doesn’t need a superb cost-cutter.  It doesn’t need a hatchet wielder, like the old “Chainsaw Al Dunlap” that tore up Scott Paper.  Yahoo needs a leader that can understand trends, develop future scenarios and direct resources into developing new products that people want and need.  A CEO who knows that investing in innovation is critical.
  2. Quit trying to win the last war with Google.  That one is lost, and Google isn’t going to give up its position.  Specifically, the just announced Yahoo+AOL+Microsoft venture to sell ad remnants is NOT where Yahoo needs to spend its resources.  Every one of these 3 companies has its own problems dealing with market shifts (AOL with content management as dial-up revenues die, Microsoft with PC market declines and mobile device growth.)  None is good at competing against Google, and together its a bit like asking 3 losers in a 100 meter dash if they think by forming a relay team they could somehow suddenly become a “world class” group.  This project is doomed to failure, and a diversion Yahoo cannot afford now.
  3. In that same vein, quit trying to figure out if AOL or Microsoft will buy Yahoo.  Microsoft could probably afford it – but like I said – Microsoft has its hands full trying to deal with the shift from PCs to tablets and smartphones.  Buying Yahoo would be a resource sink that could possibly kill Microsoft – and it’s assured Microsoft would end up shutting down the company piecemeal (as it does all acquisitions.)  AOL has seen its value plummet because investors are unsure if it will turn the corner before it runs out of cash.  While there are new signs of life since buying Huffington Post, ongoing struggles like firing the head of TechCrunch keep AOL fully occupied fighting to find its future.  Any deal with either company should send investors quickly to the sell post, and probably escalate the Yahoo demise with the lowest possible value.
  4. Give business heads the permission to develop markets as they see fit.  Ms. Bartz was far too controlling of the business units, and many good ideas were not implemented.  Specifically, for example, Right Media should be given permission to really advance its technology base and go after customers unencumbered by the Yahoo brand and organization.  Right Media has a chance of being really valuable – that’s why people would ostensibly buy it – so give the leaders the chance to make it successful.  Maybe then the revolving door of execs at Right (and other Yahoo business units) would stop and something good would happen.  
  5. Hold existing business units “feet to the fire” on results.  Yahoo has notoriously not delivered on new ad platforms and other products – missing development targets and revenue goals.  Innovation does not succeed if those in leadership are not compelled to achieve results.  Being lax on performance has killed new product development – and those things that aren’t achieving results need to stop.  Specifically, it’s probably time to stop the APT platform that is now years behind, and because it’s targeted against Google unlikely to ever succeed.
  6. Invest in new solutions.  Take all that wonderful trend data that Yahoo has (maybe not as much as Google – but a lot more than most companies) and figure out what Yahoo needs to do next.  Rip off a page from Apple, which flattened spending on the Mac in order to invest in the iPod.  Learn from Amazon, which followed the trends in retail to new storefronts, expanded offerings, a mobile interface and Kindle launch.  Yahoo needs to quit trying to gladiator fight with Google – where it can’t win – and identify new markets and solutions where it can.  Yahoo must quit being a hostage to its history, and go do the next big thing! Create some white space in the company to invest in new solutions on the trends!

Of course, this is harder than just giving up and selling the company.  But the potential returns are much, much higher.  Yahoo’s predicament is tough, but it’s been a management failure that got it here.  If management changes course, and focuses on the future, Yahoo can once again become a market leading company.  Sure would like to see that kind of leadership.  It’s how America creates jobs.

Why Innovation Ain’t So Easy Mr. President – Look to Google, not GE


  • The President has called for more innovation in America
  • But American business management doesn’t know how to be innovative
  • Business leaders focus on efficiency, not innovation
  • America has no inherent advantage in innovation
  • To increase innovation we need a change in incentives, to favor innovation over efficiency and traditional brick-and-mortar investments
  • We need to highlight leaders that have demonstrated the ability to create jobs in the information economy, not the “old guard” just because they run big, but floundering, companies

It was good to hear the U.S. President call for more innovation in his State of the Union address this week.  And it sounded like he wants most of that to come from business, rather than government.  But I’m reminded the President is a lawyer and politician.  As a businessman, well, let’s say he’s a bit naive.  Most businesses don’t have a clue how to be innovative, as Forbes pointed out in November, 2009 in “Why the Pursuit of Innovation Usually Fails.”

Businesses by and large are not designed to be innovative.  Modern management theory, going back to the days of Frederick Taylor, has been dominated by efficiency.  For the last decade businesses have reacted to global competitive forces by seeking additional efficiency.  Thus the offshoring movement for information technology and manufacturing eliminated millions of American jobs driving unemployment to double digits, and undermines new job creation keeping unemployment stubbornly high. 

It is not surprising business leaders avoid innovation, when the august Wall Street Journal headlines on January 20 “In Race to Market, It Pays to Be Latecomer.” Citing a number of innovator failures, including automobiles, browsers and small computers, the journal concludes that it is smarter business to not innovate. Rather leaders should wait, let someone else innovate and then hope they can take the idea and make something of it down the road. Not a ringing pledge for how good management supports the innovation agenda! 

The professors cited in the Journal article take a fairly common point of view.  Because innovators fail, don’t be one.  Lower your risk, come in later, hope you can catch the market at a future time.  It’s easy to see in hindsight how innovators fail, so why take the risk?  Keep your eyes on being efficient – and innovation is anything but efficient! Because most businesspeople don’t understand how to manage innovation, don’t try.

As discussed in my last blog, about Sara Lee, executives, managers and investors have come to believe that cost cutting, and striving for more efficiency, is the solution for most business problems.  According to the Washington Post, “Immelt To Head New Advisory Board on Job Creation.” The President appointed the GE Chairman to this highly visible position, yet Mr. Immelt has spent most of the last decade shrinking GE, and pushing jobs offshore, rather than growing the company – especially domestically.  Gone are several GE businesses created in the 1990s – including the recent spin out of NBC to Comcast.  It’s ironic that the President would appoint someone who has overseen downsizings and offshoring to this position, instead of someone who has demonstrated the ability to create jobs over the last decade.

As one can easily imagine, efficiency is not the handmaiden of innovation.  To the contrary, as we build organizations the desire for efficiency and “professional management” impedes innovation.  According to in “Can Google Be Entrepreneurial” even Google, a leading technology company with such exciting new products as Android and Chrome, has replaced its CEO Eric Schmidt with founder Larry Page in order to more effectively manage innovation.  The contention is that the 55 year old professional manager Schmidt created innovation barriers. If a company as young and successful as Google struggles to innovate, one can only imagine the difficulties at traditional, aged American businesses!

While many will trumpet America’s leadership in all business categories, Forbes‘ Fred Allen is correct to challenge our thinking in “The Myth of American Superiority at Innovation.”  For decades America’s “Myth of Efficiency” has pushed organizations to streamline, cutting anything that is not totally necessary to do what it historically did better, faster or cheaper. Innovation inside businesses was designed to improve existing processes, usually cutting cost and jobs, not create new markets with high growth that creates jobs and economic growth.  Most executives would 10x rather see a plan to cut costs saving “hard dollars” in the supply chain, or sales and marketing, than something involving new product introduction into new markets where they have to deal with “unknowns.”  Where our superiority in innovation originates, if at all, is unclear.

Lawyers are not historically known for their creativity.  Hours spent studying precedent doesn’t often free the mind to “think outside the box.”  Business folks have their own “precedent managers” – internal experts who set themselves up intentionally to block experimentation and innovation in the name of lowering risk, being conservative and carefully managing the core business.  To innovate most organizations will be forced to “Fire the Status Quo Police” as I called for last September here in Forbes.  But that isn’t easy. 

America can be very innovative.  Just look at the leadership America exerts in all things “social media” – from Facebook to Groupon! And look at how adroitly Apple has turned around by moving beyond its roots in personal computing to success in music (iPod and iTunes), mobile telephony and data (iPhone) and mobile computing (iPad).  Netflix has used a couple of rounds of innovation to unseat old leader Blockbuster! But Apple and Netflix are still the rarities – innovators amongst the hoards of myopic organizations still focused on optimization.  Look no further than the problems Microsoft – a tech company – has had balancing its desire to maintain PC domination while ineffectively attempting to market innovation. 

What America needs is less bully pulpit, and more action if you really want innovation Mr. President:

  • Increase tax credits for R&D
  • Increase tax deductions and credits for new product launches by expanding the definition of what constitutes R&D in the tax code
  • Implement penalties on offshore outsourcing to discourage the efficiency focus and the chronic push to low-cost global resources
  • Lower capital gains taxes to encourage wealth creation through new business creation
  • Manage the deficit by implementing VAT (value added taxes) which add cost to supply chain transactions, thus lowering the value of “efficiency” moves
  • Make it much easier for foreign graduate students in America to receive their green cards so we can keep them here and quit exporting some of the brightest innovators we develop to foreign countries
  • Create more tax incentives for investing in high tech – from nanotech to biotech to infotech – and quit wasting money trying to favor investments in manufacturing.  Provide accelerated or double deductions for buying lab equipment, and stretch out deductions for brick-and-mortar spending. Better yet, quit spending so much on road construction and simply give credits to people who buy lab equipment and other innovation tools.
  • Propose regulations on executive compensation so leaders aren’t encouraged to undertake short-term cost cutting measures merely to prop up short-term profits at the expense of long-term viability
  • Quit putting “old guard” leaders who have seen their companies do poorly in highly placed positions.  Reach out to those who really understand the information economy to fill such positions – like Eric Schmidt from Google, or John Chambers at Cisco Systems.
  • Reform the FDA so new bio-engineered solutions do not follow regulations based on 50 year old pharma technology and instead streamline go-to-market processes for new innovations
  • Quit spending so much money on border fences, DEA crack-downs on marijuana users and giant defense projects.  Put the money into grants for universities and entrepreneurs to create and implement innovation.

Mr. President,, don’t expect traditional business to do what it has not done for over a decade.  If you want innovation, take actions that will create innovation.  American business can do it, but it will take more than asking for it.  it will take a change in incentives and management.



Attacking Culture to Address Problems – British Petroleum

I weighed in late on the Gulf Coast disaster – and my impressions of British Petroleum.  I wanted to be thoughtful, as the ramifications of this will be with us for decades.  Compared to the hurricane that wrecked New Orleans this situation is far worse.  Many more businesses are being shut down, the ecological disaster is far worse, and the clean-up will take much longer – even though New Orleans is far from a full recovery from hurricane Katrina.  And there was lots (lots) of finger-pointing going around.  It is going to take a lot of money and energy to deal with this mess – and lots of blame-laying (lawsuits) are inevitable

But I'm always the guy looking forward, and that's why my Forbes article, "BP's Only Hope for Its Future," focused on what BP needs to do now to recapture the more than $100B of lost value its investors have suffered – not to mention out-of-pocket cash costs still rolling up.  

There is a raging debate about what investors can expect, as typified by the article "Where is BP Headed:  $70 or $0?" Unfortunately, most of these articles focus on 2 factors: (a) what are the estimates of cash out to fix the mess and legal battles compared to historical cash inflows from revenues, and (b) contrarians typically think no situation is ever as bad as it initially looks so surely BP is worth more than it's currently depressed value.

Addressing the latter first, I'd recommend investors look at GM, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers and Circuit City.  Things definitely can get worse.  Problems created across years of sticking to an outdated Success Formula, remaining Locked-in to following historical best practices, wiped out their investors.  Things can definitely get worse for BP.  It will not be acceptable for the company to remain focused on "business as usual" hoping to "weather the storm" and allow "things to get back to normal."  That scenario is a death sentence.  We haven't yet seen what new regulations, taxes and restrictions – nor the eventual cost of 20 years of dead seas charged to BP and its industry brethren – will cost.  BP has to make changes if it wants to regain growth – and most likely if it wants to survive.  

And this leads to item (a).  Nobody knows the long-term costs chargeable to BP.  Nor do we know what the future cash inflows will look like.  We don't  know the brand impact.  Nor do we know how changes in regulations or industry practices will hurt cash flowing in the door.  It's the inability of the past to predict the future that makes efforts at cash flow planning mute.  Lots of number crunching isn't the answer – it's understanding that the assumptions could well be seriously changing. There are more unknown variables than known right now.  Which makes it all the more important BP realize it must change it's Success Formula to make sure it not only avoids another disaster, but finds a way to profitably grow in the aftermath of this event and its changes on the industry.

Many are calling for firing the CEO, as 24×7 Wall Street does in "BP Can Deny CEO Departure Story; But Fate Already Set."  I call this the hero and goat syndrome.  Americans like to think that the CEO should be lionized as a hero when results are good, and blamed as a goat when results are bad.  Unfortunately companies rely on lots more than CEOs (despite their pay) for results.  The problems at BP are with the Success Formula – now some 100 years old – and the inability of the total management team to attack old Lock-ins in order to develop something new.  As my last blog pointed out, even HBR doubted there was any reality in the "Beyond Petroleum" headline.

BP must attack its historical ways of doing business.  This isn't just a short-term crisis.  The Gulf disaster is the result of pushing an old Success Formula too far.  Of going into deeper and deeper water, at greater and greater risk, for less and less yield in order to keep finding oil.  Unfortunately BP seems to be viewing this not as an example of what happens when marginal economics keeps you doing the same thing, over and over, even as returns decline.  Too bad, because this is the kind of event that highlights a serious change is needed in BP's future direction.

I was impressed with a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge survey result in "How Do You Weigh Strategy, Execution and Culture in An Organization's Success?"  Respondents overwhelming voted that success requires managing "culture."  And that is largely what BP now needs to do.  The Beyond Petroleum strategy was clearly enunciated, but execution remained focused on the old direction because the culture did not change.  And that's what attacking Lock-ins and implementing White Space is designed to do – move an organization's culture forward by addressing behaviors, decision-making structures and old cost models.

When I was a boy I'd see a tree show foliage problems and my father would say "we might as well cut it down, that tree is dead."  I'd be shocked, the tree looked fine.  But my father, a farmer, knew that the roots had been damaged.  We were just seeing the slow process of death, that might take a year or two.  Fortunately, BP isn't a tree. And although its Success Formula roots are in trouble, unlike a tree they can be changed.  Let's hope the Board takes action to make changes quickly so BP's future doesn't remain completely imperiled.

For more on using Disruptions to address problems listen to my radio Interview "Disrupt to Win." Or listen to a short podcast on how to "Drive Innovation by Disrupting the Status Quo." Or read my CIOMagazine column on how to "Use Disruptions to Move Beyond Legacy" in thinking and planning.

Puma is NOT “an iPod on wheels” – GM, Segway

"GM, Segway unveil Puma urban vehicle" headlines  The Puma is an enlarged Segway that can hold 2 people in a sitting position.  Both companies are hoping this promotion will create excitement for the not-yet-released product, thus generating a more positive opinion of both companies and establish early demand.  Unfortunately, the product isn't anything at all like the iPod and the comparison is way off the mark.

The iPod when released with the iTunes was a disruptive innovation which allowed customers to completely change how they acquired, maintained and managed their access to music.  Instead of purchasing entire CDs, people could acquire one song at a time.  You no longer needed special media readers, because the tunes could be heard on any MP3 device.  And your access was immediate, from the download, without going to a store or waiting for physical delivery.  People that had not been music collectors could become collectors far cheaper, and acquire only exactly what they wanted, and listen to the music in their own designed order, or choose random delivery.  The source of music changed, the acquisition process changed, the collection management changed, the storage of a collection changed – it changed just about everything about how you acquired and interacted with music.  It was not a sustaining innovation, it was disruptive, and it commercialized a movement which had already achieved high interest via Napster.  The iPod/iTunes business put Apple into the lead in an industry long dominated by other companies (such as Sony) by bringing in new users and building a loyal following. 

Unfortunately, increasing the size of a product that has not yet demonstrated customer efficacy, economic viability or developed a strong following and trying to sell it through an existing distribution system that has long been decried as uneconomic and displeasing to customers is not an iPod experience.  And that is what this GM/Segway announcement is trying to do.

Despite all the publicity when it was first announced, the Segway has not developed a strong following.  After 7 years of intense marketing, and lots of looks, Segway has sold only 60,000 units globally – a fraction of competitive product such as bicycles, motorized scooters, motorcycles and mass transit.   Segway has not "jumped into the lead" in any segment of transportation. It has yet to develop a single dominant application, or a loyal group of followers.  The product achieves a smattering of sales, but the vast majority of observers simply say "why?" and comment on the high price.  Segway has never come close to achieving the goals of its inventor or its investors. 

This product announcement gives us more of the same from Segway.  It's the same product, just bigger.  We are given precious little information about why someone would own one, other than it supposedly travels 35 miles on $.35 of electricity.  But how fast it goes, how long to recharge, how comfortable the ride, whether it can carry anything with you, how it behaves in foul weather, why you should choose it over a Nano from Tata or another small car, or a motorscooter or motorcycle — these are all open items not addressed.

And worse, the product isn't being launched in White Space to answer these questions and build a market.  Instead, the announcement says it will be sold through GM dealers.  This simply ignores answering why any GM dealer would ever want to sell the thing – given its likely price point, margin, use – why would a dealer want to sell Puma/Segways instead of more expensive, capable and higher margin cars? 

Great White Space projects are created by looking into the future and identifying scenarios where this project – its use – can be a BIG winner that will attract large volumes of customers.  Second, it addresses competitive lock-ins and creates advantages that don't currently exist and otherwise would not exist.  Thirdly, it Disrupts the marketplace as a game changer by bringing in new users that otherwise are out of the market.  And fourth it has permission to try anything and everything in the market to create a new Success Formula to which the company can migrate for rapid growth.

This project does none of that.  It's use is as unclear as the original Segway, and the scenario in which this would ever be anything other than a novelty for perfect weather inner-city upscale locations is totally unclear.  This product captures all the current Lock-ins of the companies involved – trying to Defend & Extend one's technology base and the other's distribution system – rather than build anything new.  The product appears simply to be inferior in almost all regards to competitive products, with no description of why it is a game changer to other forms of transportation.  And the project is starting with most important decisions pre-announced – rather than permission to try new things.  And there is absolutely no statement of how this project will be resourced or funded – by two companies that are both in terrible financial shape.

The iPod and iTunes are brands that turned around Apple.  They are role models for how to use Disruptive innovation to resurrect a troubled company.  It's really unfortunate to see such wonderful brand names abused by two poorly performing companies without a clue of how to manage innovation.  The biggest value of this announcement is it shows just how poorly managed Segway has been – given that it's partnering with a company that is destined to be the biggest bankruptcy ever in history, and known for its inability to understand customer needs and respond effectively.

Loving new White Space – GE and Intel

Since before writing Create Marketplace Disruption I've been a fan of GE.  The company is the only company to be on the Dow Jones Industrial Average since started 100 years ago.  While so many other companies have soared and failed, GE has continued to adapt and grow.  But it's been hard to be a GE proponent the last year.  Even though GE continues to follow The Phoenix Principle, fears about the recession, GE's massive commercial real estate holdings, and risks in GE Capital drove the stock from $40 a year ago to $6.50!!!  A whopping 84% decline!!!

I've also long been a fan of Intel.  Intel transformed itself from a memory chip company facing horrible returns into a microprocessor company by maintaining a healthy paranoia about markets and competitors.  The company has worked with Clayton Christensen over the years to not only keep up with sustaining innovations, but to implement Disruptive ones as well.  But Intel was recession-slaughtered over the last year, losing half its value. 

It's been enough to make an innovation lover cry.  But, simultaneously, it's not clear that over the last year ever stock has been accurately priced for its long term value by the market.  As we know, fears about bank and real estate failures have simultaneously destroyed investor confidence while pushing up cash needs.  Don't forget that Warren Buffet made an insider deal to provide money to GE with warrants to buy the stock at $23 – about double the current value.  So perhaps the bloodbath in these two companies went beyond what should have been expected?

Today there's more heartening news.  "GE and Intel join forces on home health" is the headline. 

GE and Intel both have identified that health care will be a growing market into the future, expecting the home health monitoring business alone to grow from $3B today to $7.7B by 2012.  By keeping their eyes on the future, both companies are showing that they are investing based on future expectations, not just historical performance.  And, both have identified opportunities that reside outside their existing health care markets, such as the medical imaging market where GE is currently strong.  Thus, they are investing $250million into a new joint venture company to develop new markets.

This shows the earmarks of good White Space.  It's focused on developing a growing future market, not trying to preserve an existing market position.  It's outside the existing business manager's control, thus given permission to develop a new Success Formula rather than operate within existing constraints of existing businesses.  And the project is given enough resources to succeed, not just get started

Maybe now is a great time to buy stock in these companies?  GE has gone out of its way recently to divulge information about its real estate and finance units to analysts in order to be more transparent.  And the company is demonstrating a commitment to the behaviors, future-oriented planning and White Space, that have long helped the company grow. 

Now, if we could just start seeing the kind of disruptive behavior out of Chairman Immelt that former Chairman "Neutron Jack" Welch demonstrated my comfort level could go up even more…..

Admit shift happened – then invest in the future, not the past

The headlines scream for an answer to when markets will bottom (see article from headline "10 signs of a Floor" here) .  But for Phoenix Principle investors, that question isn't even material.  Who cares what happens to the S&P 500 – you want investments that will go up in value — and there are investments in all markets that go up in value.  And not just because we expect some "greater fool" to bail us out of bad investments.  Phoenix Principle investors put their money into opportunities which will meet future needs at competitive prices, thus growing, while returning above average rates of return.  It really is that simple.  (Of course, you have to be sure that other investors haven't bid up the growth opportunity to where it greatly exceeds its future value — like happened with internet stocks in the late 1990s.  But today, overbidding that drives up values isn't exactly the problem.)

People get all tied up in "what will the market do?"  As an investor, you need to care about the individual business.  For years that was how people invested, by focusing on companies.  But then clever economists said that as long as markets went up, investors were better off to just buy a group of stocks – an average such as the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrials.  These same historians said don't bother to "time" your investments at all, just keep on buying some collection (some average) quarter after quarter and you'll do OK.  We still hear investment apologists make this same argument.  But stocks haven't been going up – and who knows when these "averages" will start going up again?  Just ask investors in Japan, where they are still waiting for the averages to return to 1980s levels so they can hope to break even (after 20 years!).  These historians, who use the past as their barometer, somehow forgot that consistent and common growth was a requirement to constantly investing in averages. 

When the 2008 market shift happened, it changed the foundation upon which "constantly keep buying, don't time investing, it all works out in the end" was based.  Those days may return – but we don't know when, if at all.  Investors today have to return to the real cornerstone of investing – putting your money into investments which will give people what they want in the future.

Regardless of the "averages," businesses that are positioned to deliver on customer needs in future years will do well.  If today the value of Google is down because CEO Eric Schmidt says the company won't return to old growth rates again until 2010, investors should see this as a time to purchase because short-term considerations are outweighing long-term value creation.  Do you really believe internet ad-supported free search and paid search are low-growth global businesses?  Do you really believe that short-term U.S. on-line advertising trends will remain at current rates, globally, for even 2 full years?  Do you think Google will not make money on mobile phones and connectivity in the future?  Do you think the market won't keep moving toward highly portable devices for computing answers, like the Apple iPhone, and away from big boxes like PCs? 

When evaluating a business the big questions must be "is this company well positioned for most future scenarios? Are they developing robust scenarios of the future where they can compete?  Are they obsessing about competitors, especially fringe competitors?  Are they willing to be Disruptive?  Do they show White Space to try new things?"  If the answer to these questions is yes, then you should be considering these as good investments.  Regardless of the number on the S&P 500.  Look at companies that demonstrate these skills – Johnson & Johnson, Cisco Systems, Apple, Virgin, Nike, and G.E. – and you can start to assess whether they will in the future earn a high rate of return on their assets.  These companies have demonstrated that even when people lose jobs and incomes shrink and trade barriers rise, they know how to use scenario planning, competitor obsession, disruptions and white space to grow revenue and profits.

You should not buy a company just because it "looks cheap."  All companies look cheap just prior to failing.  You could have been a buyer of cheap stock in Polaroid when 24 hour kiosks (not even digital photography yet) made the company's products obsolete.  Just because a business met customer needs well in the past does not mean it will ever do so again.  Like Sears.  Or increasingly Motorola.  Or G.MThese companies aren't focused on innovation for future customer needs, they prefer to ignore competitors, they hate disruptions and they refuse to implement White Space to learn.  So why would you ever expect them to have a high future value? 

Why did recent prices of real estate go up in California, New York, Massachusetts and Florida faster than in Detroit?  People want to live and work there more than southeastern Michigan.  For a whole raft of reasons.  In 1920 the price of a home in Iowa or Kansas was worth more than in California.  Why?  Because an agrarian economy favored the earth-rich heartland over parched California.  In the robust industrial age from 1940 to 1960, the value of real estate in Detroit, Chicago, Akron and Pittsburgh was far higher than San Francisco or Los Angeles.  But in an information economy, the economics are different – and today (even after big price declines) California homes are worth multiples of Iowa homes.  And, as we move further into the information economy, manufacturing centers (largely on big bodies of water in cool climates) have declining value.  The market has shifted, and real estate values reflect the shift.  Unless you know of some reason for lots (like millions) of health care or tech jobs to develop in Detroit, the region is highly over-built — even if homes are selling for fractions of former values.

We seem to have forgotten that to make high rates of return, we all have to be "market timers" and "investment pickers."  Especially when markets shift.  Because not everyone survives!!!!!  All those platitudes about buying into market averages only works in nice, orderly markets with limited competition and growth.  But when things shift – if you're in the wrong place you can get wiped out!!  When the market shifted from agrarian to industrial in the 1920s and '30s my father was extremely proud that he became a teacher and stayed in Oklahoma (though the dust storms and all).  But, by the 1970s it was clear that if he'd moved to California and bought a house in Palo Alto his net worth would have been many multiples higher.  The same is true for stock investments.  You can keep holding on to G.M., Citibank and other great companies of the past — or you can admit shift happened and invest in those companies likely to be leaders in the information-based economy of the next 30 years!

Financial Machination to hide poor performance – Pfizer

Two weeks ago I blogged about R&D layoffs at Pfizer (chart here), and warned that all signs were indicating Pfizer was nearing really big trouble because it had missed the boat on new technologies as it road out its patent protection looking for new ways to extend its outdated Success Formula. 

Now we hear rumors that Pfizer is planning a mega- acquisition by purchasing Wyeth (chart here) for some $65B (read article here).  That's about 3 times revenue for a company growing at less than 10%/year.  This acquisition will most likely keep Pfizer alive – but it's benefits for shareholders will probably be nonexistent – and probably a negative.  And the impact on employees is almost sure to be a net loss.

Pfizer missed the move to "biologics" – which is the term for the new forms of disease control products that use genetics, bio-engineering and nano-technology as their basis rather than a heavy reliance on chemistry and pharmacology.  As a result, its new product pipeline has not met company growth needs.  So now that Pfizer is buying a company with significantly biologic solutions, Pfizer leadership is sure to argue that it is filling its pipleline gap with the new solutions and all will be good going forward.

But the reality is that there are much cheaper ways for Pfizer to get into biologics than spending $65billion – a big chunk of it cash – on a huge acquistion.  With banks stopped and investors realing, there are dozens of projects in universities and small companies that are begging for funding.  These range from invention stage, to well into clinical trials.  If Pfizer wanted to become a successful company it would

  1. Tell investors and customers its scenario for the future, with insights to how the company sees growth and the investments it needs to make
  2. Telling investors and employees the competitors that are most important to watch, and how they plan to deal with those competitors
  3. Disrupting its old Success Formula.  Leadership would make sure all employees and management are stopped, and recognize the company needs to make a serious change if it is to catch up with market shifts and regain viability
  4. It would invest in multiple solution areas and multiple projects, and the allow them to operate independently as White Space where Pfizer could learn how to modify its Success Formula in order to regain growth and success in the future.

This clearly is not what is happening at Pfizer.  Instead, the company is planning to take a big cash hoard, which if it doesn't want to invest in White Space it could return to investors, and spend it on a huge acquisition.  We all know that almost all big acquisitions do not achieve desired goals, and that the buying investors get the short end of the stick as the selling investors achieve a premium.  Why?  Because the buying leaders, like those at Pfizer, are without a solution and looking for the acquisition to cover over past sins and make them look smart and powerful.  So, driven largely by ego, they overpay to get a company as if that makes them the "winner."

But what happens? We can expect that Pfizer will find out it has to do something drastic to make the overpayment potentially work, and staff cuts will quickly ensue.  Probably across-the-board employee cuts in the name of "synergy", but which weakens the acquired company.  Then, as it absorbs Wyeth, Pfizer will push to force its old Success Formula onto Wyeth – after all, Pfizer is the "winner".  But Pfizer needed Wyeth, not vice-versa.  As it cuts cost, it cuts into the value they ostensibly paid for.  Many of the best at Wyeth will go elsewhere to continue competing as they know produces better results.  The value of the acquisition will go down as Pfizer "integrates" the acquisition, rather than raise it.

But in a year, Pfizer will declare victory, no matter what.  Pfizer's revenue has been flat for at least 4 years (stuck in the Swamp) at about $48B.  Wyeth's revenue has been growing at about 10%/year and is about $22B.  So in a year, Pfizer can say "Revenues are now $65B, an increase of 30%".  Of course, the reality would be that revenues were down 7%.  Of course they will brag about their integration project, and brag about various cost cuts implemented to streamline "execution."  Pfizer leadership will say they made the right move, even if all they did was use up a cash hoard in order to delay changing the company.  That, by the way, is what I call "financial machination".  If you can't dazzle the investor with brilliance, make a big enough acquisition so you can baffle them with bulls***.

If you're a Wyeth investor, take the money and run.  You don't want to stick around for a takeover destined to lower total value and reduce the excitement of new R&D programs and medical solutions.  Go find alternative companies that need cash, and help them move forward with their new solutions.  If you're a Pfizer investor, don't be fooled.  If the analysts cheer the takeover, and the stock pops, it's unlikely you'll get a better time to sell.  The leadership has demonstrated the last 5 years, as growth has been nonexistent and the equity value has steadily declined, that they don't know how to regain growth.  This acquisition is not changing the leadership, managers nor Success Formula of Pfizer that has long been producing lower returns.  This acquisition is the latest in Defend & Extend moves to protect the outdated Success Formula.  If this gives you an opportunity to get out – take it!  Within 2 years the "new" Pfizer will be a lot more like the old Pfizer than Wyeth.