Plan for the Unseen Disruptions to Your Business…Now.

Plan for the Unseen Disruptions to Your Business…Now.

Market Threat Assessment

Recent studies of senior managers have shown that being blindsided by a disruption is the largest unresolved concern in strategy development today. 

That fear is too often real because disruption typically begins where it is least visible to management- on the fringes of the existing target markets.  And, once the disruption “pirate ship” is sighted on the horizon, not only is it probably too late, but companies react poorly.

Some research of corporate responses to disruption has shown that most companies ignore the threat, fortify existing positions or attempt to buy innovation.  The first choice is not an option for an ongoing business.  Fortification through distribution changes, product model proliferation and discounting only buys some additional time while wasting resources.  Once a disruption enters the market, there’s little time for organic innovation efforts so companies often make acquisitions attempting to buy innovation.  Sadly, given the risk profile and limited experience in innovation, these are often sustaining innovations which are swept aside by the wave of disruption.

A very large example is when Microsoft fell behind in the mobile market in 2014 and purchased Nokia, a weak player in mobile phones to get access to this market.  The joint project, the Lumina phone, failed to catch on and Microsoft’s share fell by 50%- fail.  Cisco tried to catch up with the photography trend by acquiring Pure Digital, the maker of low cost Flip cameras.  Unfortunately, shortly after the acquisition, the high-resolution sensors included in smartphones took photography to a new level.  Bye, Flip! Trend monitoring would have predicted this natural evolution as a high risk threat. 

To anticipate external changes, marketing departments have embraced big data as a powerful tool to help companies identify new markets and consumer preferences.  These tools use the past to predict the short-term future which is reasonable in a steady market.  The problem is that big data cannot anticipate dynamic disruption. 

But, you and your staff can.

As a key input to your next strategy workshop, use trends!  As a start, gather info from the people closest to your market and further using Porter’s five force model.  See my articles on Scenarios to expand these trends to actionable goals.

What’s on your company’s radar today?

We are here to help as your coach on trends and innovation. We bring years of experience studying trends, organizations, and how to implement. We bring nimbleness to your strategy, and help you maximize your ability to execute.

Go the www.adamhartung.com and view the Assessment Page. Send me a reply to this email, or call me today, and let’s start talking about what trends will impact your organization and what you’ll need to do to pivot toward greater success.

The Bitcoin Fad – Successfully Understanding Trends vs Fads

The Bitcoin Fad – Successfully Understanding Trends vs Fads

It was August 15, 2017 when I wrote the column “A Bitcoin Is Worth $4,000 – Why You Probably Should Not Own One.” At the time Bitcoin’s value had increased in value by 750% in just one year, and some investors were becoming very excited about Bitcoins. Journal articles were nearly all bullish, with some big Bitcoin owners projecting they would increase in value to over $250,000 each – or possibly into the millions!

But I was far more pragmatic. I pointed out that Bitcoins had no inherent value – unlike a Picasso painting, for example. There will be no more original Picasso’s, and no more signed Picasso prints. The supply is completely known, and the price is determined by what people will pay for the artistic history of them. But anybody can make a Bitcoin. And even though there was some theoretical limit of 21 million, why anybody would want to own these non-physical data bits was unclear. Were people going to say “come, look at this hard drive. It contains 400,000 Bitcoins. Isn’t it cool?” Bitcoins were a lot more like Pokemon cards. There are a LOT of them, more coming all the time, and their value was only to people who wanted to play the Bitcoin game.

And I had a very low opinion of the necessity of Bitcoins as a currency. Everyone is pretty happy to use dollars, yen, euros, etc. And if you fear inflation there is an open market to exchange any currency for any other, so you can quickly keep your savings in the currency of your choice. The only valuable use of Bitcoins was as a currency for illegal activity you don’t want traced – such as sex trafficking, drug trafficking or gun running. While the outlaws in those occupations my enjoy a non-government currency, those folks are relatively few and far between, and the need for such currency is therefore pretty weak. Not to mention illegal.

It was pretty clear that Bitcoin was a fad. Like the famous Dutch Tulip Bulb fad that drove the price of a Tulip bulb higher than a house. While a fad the value went up, but because there was no inherent value to the bulb greater than a flower, it’s value was sure to collapse. And the same would happen to Bitcoins. To a long-term trend watcher, and person skilled at understanding trends for planning, Bitcoin had all the signs of a fad.

I remember this well because when I published this column in Forbes there was a Bitcoin editor that went ballistic. This person had no background in economics, banking, currency, stock markets, or art; the editor was a journalist who had decided Bitcoin was “the next big thing.” Bitcoin was going to overtake traditional currencies, and save the world from central banks dead-set on destroying free trade and economic growth.

Honestly, I never understood the argument. Baseless, and senseless. Bitcoin was a fad, I said clearly, and no investor should be buying them – especially small investors. And it was a fools folly to spend money becoming a Bitcoin miner. Simply invest somewhere else where trends supported growth.

But the editorial staff at Forbes landed on me like a herd of elephants coming down the Himalayas. Apparently Forbes was buying into the Bitcoin craze, and they didn’t want anyone writing bad things about Bitcoin. I pointed out that in 9 years my predictions about the future of Netflix, Amazon, Tesla – and GE, Sears, and Windows 8 and 10 – had all turned out to be accurate.

I tended to be very early with my predictions, and quite contrarian, but within 2 years I was proven right. I knew the difference between a trend and a fad, and it was important to help readers understand the difference. Bitcoins had no inherent value, and they were/are not an investment vehicle.

In the end the rancor about my Bitcoin prediction, and my unwillingness to reverse my position, caused a break between myself and Forbes. Even as Bitcoins soared in value to $19,000 by December, 2017 I held firm to the position that no sound, long-term investor should touch them. If Forbes couldn’t understand my surety, then it was their problem.

This week Bitcoins traded for $4,400. Where they traded on August 20, 2017 just as my prediction went public. Bitcoins were/are a fad. Now, there are a slew of authors writing about the lack of any reason for Bitcoins to exist. Almost all are predicting the value will continue eroding, as more and more people see there was never any value in them to begin with. Many predict this will not end until Bitcoins are worth nothing, or possibly a few cents, and all the Bitcoin miners disappear.

The important lesson is that it is not impossible to know the difference between a trend and a fad. Trends are based upon behaviors that have a basis in gain. We trended away from physical stores and toward e-commerce because the latter was more convenient, and sometimes cheaper. We trended away from PC’s with hard drives and toward mobile devices connected to the cloud because they made our lives more convenient, and often cheaper. We are watching more entertainment via on-line downloads, and less on television, because it is more convenient, and often better. These are trends. They are observable, measurable and good trends generate a better outcome for people, while bad trends are due to consumer movement toward new solutions.

When you work a job all week trying to get more done better, faster, cheaper you may not have time to study trends. When you see something new it can seem hard to know whether it is a fad, or trend. Or if a trend, how fast it will “take hold” and alter behavior. That is understandable.

And that’s where people like me make a difference. I focus on trends. Demographics, regulations, technology – all kinds of trends. I watch them, measure them, and project outcomes for the trend, and those who adopt the trend. I build scenarios that stretch out the trend, and look for when more people are following a trend than doing things the “old way.” And because I do that all day, every day, for 20 years it is possible to forecast with high accuracy what the future will look like.

Almost always it takes a bit longer than I think, but likewise it almost always takes a lot less time than almost everyone else thinks. I didn’t think it would take 5 quarters for Bitcoins to peak and then fall back to $4,400. But most people were projecting the value of Bitcoins would go up for YEARS. They couldn’t visualize the peak. Even though it happened just 4 months after I said “don’t buy Bitcoins.” Only a very, very lucky trader would have bought in August, and sold in December. For true investors, this was a roller coaster ride with an unhappy ending.

I don’t meet many company executives that do future scenario planning. They are too busy running their business to do trend analysis, projections and make long-term forecasts. But that doesn’t mean these things aren’t important. It just means you need to look for outsiders, who specialize in trend analysis and long-term scenario planning, to help you guide your business in the right direction. Because you’d much rather be Microsoft, shifting from PC’s to cloud and holding onto your value, than GE or Sears. You need a partner to help you forecast – and grow.

Facebook Launches “Portal” – Why You Want to Pay Attention

Facebook Launches “Portal” – Why You Want to Pay Attention

As all readers know, I am a fan of owning Facebook’s stock. For years I have pointed out that Facebook has been incredibly innovative at bringing people together. First, it was Facebook.com, but then leadership added WhatsApp and Messenger to expand the ability to communicate, and after that, Instagram which augmented communications via pictures and video.  These capabilities, largely asynchronous, have expanded how easily we can communicate with friends, colleagues and business connections. It is this capability that made Facebook a success, because it brought people to the platforms – and as the audience grew advertising dollars grew as well.

(Watch my 2 minute video on Facebook the Innovation Engine)

Now, Facebook has launched “Portal.” It’s a piece of hardware, similar to a tablet in size. It has a speaker and a microphone, like a smart speaker on steroids, or like an enhanced tablet designed for communicating. Built on Android, it supports a plethora of apps, and it integrates with Alexa so you can not only talk to up to 7 people at the same time, but you can all listen to music via Spotify or Pandora, etc., and you can use it to make purchases on Amazon.com

At first you’d probably say this doesn’t sound very exciting. After all, aren’t we awash in hardware from smart phones to tablets to laptops to smart speakers and connected home devices? Why would we want another piece of hardware, when we already have so many that do so many different things? And didn’t Amazon infamously try to launch a enhanced smartphone (Fire Phone) and enhanced tablet (Fire Tablet) targeted at shopping, only to fail miserably? You could say Portal is likely to follow Fire into the tech archives.

And, on top of this, aren’t people paranoid about Facebook and privacy? After Cambridge Analytica manipulated Facebook data in the last election, and then the recent breach which could have revealed information on 50 million users, aren’t people going to quit using Facebook products?

There really isn’t much data to indicate people care about these breaches, or possibly illegal uses of data. Almost everyone now realizes that whatever they post on any Facebook platform, the information is public. And the reality is that by putting their information out there it actually makes users’ lives easier. Users get connections they want, information they want, and products they want that much faster, and easier. These platforms make their lives more convenient, and billions of people have no problem exchanging somewhat personal information for the convenience it provides. The more Facebook knows about them, the easier their lives are, and the richer their network communications.

That is why I’m optimistic that Portal will have an audience. Facebook Messenger has 400 million users. Those users generated 17 billion messages in 2017. Now, imagine if those users could use Portal to make those messages clearer, more powerful. And, as of June, 2018 Instagram has 1 billion monthly active users. If you have Portal it makes Instagram connecting much easier and more interesting.

Portal doesn’t have to replace an existing smartphone or tablet. It merely has to help the people who use Facebook platforms have a deeper, more powerful connection with those in their network. If it does that, there is an enormous installed base of users who could find Portal helpful, in many ways. More helpful than a stand-alone, limited use Echo (or Dot) speaker, for example, which have sold over 47 million units so far.

Facebook is good at understanding its value proposition which is connecting people in powerful ways. Facebook has shelved products that didn’t augment this value proposition – like a generalized smart phone. But Portal has the ability to further enhance user experiences, and that gives it a decent chance of being successful. And when Facebook adds its Oculus technology to Portal, allowing for 3D communications, Portal could become a one-of-a-kind product for communicating with your network.

For a look back at Facebook’s history, and my forecasts for the company, read my new ebook, “Facebook – The Making of a Great Company.” (At Amazon.com for just 99 cents!) It will help you take a longer look at Facebook’s leadership, and give you a different view on Facebook’s future than the current negative press is providing. With the stock $70 off its high, and trading at the same price it was a year ago, you just might think this is a buying opportunity.

Reports of Facebook’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated (Paraphrasing Mark Twain)

Reports of Facebook’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated (Paraphrasing Mark Twain)

On July 26, 2018 Facebook set a record for the most value lost in one day by a single company.  An astonishing $119B of market value was destroyed as the shares sank more than $40.  For many investors, it was the sky falling.

As most of you know, I’ve followed Facebook closely since it went public in 2012.  And, I’ve long been an admirer.  I said buy it at the IPO, and I’m saying buy it now. Click on the title of any of the posts to read the full content.

To summarize, Facebook may be under attack, but it is barely wounded.  And it is not in the throes of demise.  The long-term trends all favor the social media’s ongoing growth, and higher values in the future.  Below I’ll offer some of my previous blogs that are well worth revisiting amidst the current Facebook angst.

FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) investing is still the best bet in the market.  They have outperformed for years, and will continue to do so.  Why? Because they are growing revenues and profits faster than any other major companies in the market.  And “Growth is Good” (paraphrasing Gordon Gekko.)  If you have any doubts about the importance of growth, go talk to Immelt of GE or Lampert of Sears.

Don’t forget, for years now Facebook is more than Facebook.com.  It’s smart acquisition programs have dramatically increased the platform’s reach with video, messaging, texting and eventually peer-to-peer video.  Facebook’s leadership has built a very adaptable company, able to change the product to meet growing user (and customer) needs.

Facebook is on a path toward significant communication domination.  Facebook today is sort of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and about 90% of the rest of the nation’s newspapers all in one.  Nobody is close to challenging Facebook’s leadership in news distribution, and all news is increasingly going on-line.

For all these reasons, you really do want to own Facebook.  Especially at this valuation.  It’s getting a chance to buy Facebook at its value when the year started, and Facebook is that much bigger, stronger, and adapted to changing privacy regulations that were still a mystery back then.

Oh, one last thing (paraphrasing Steve Jobs.)  Facebook actually isn’t the biggest one day drop in stock valuation, despite what you’ve read.

Stocks are priced in dollars, and dollars are subject to inflation.  So we should look at historical drops in inflation adjusted dollars.  Even though inflation has been mostly below 3% since the 1990s, from 2000 to today the dollar has inflated by 46%.  So inflation-adjusted, the biggest one day value destruction actually belongs to Intel, which lost $131B in September, 2000.  And Microsoft is only slightly in third place, having lost $117B in April, 2000.  So keep this in mind when you think about the long-term opportunity for Facebook.

Now Published!  “Facebook- The Making of a Great Company” ebook by Adam Hartung.

Click for Info and Ordering

Harley Davidson Has Far Worse Problems Than President Trump or EU Tariffs

Harley Davidson Has Far Worse Problems Than President Trump or EU Tariffs

On Monday, Harley Davidson, America’s leading manufacturer of motorcycles, announced it was going to open a plant in Europe.

Ostensibly this is to counter tariffs the EU will be imposing on its products if imported from the USA. President Trump reacted vociferously on Tuesday, threatening much bigger taxes on Harley if it brings to the USA any parts or motorcycles from its offshore plants in Brazil, Australia, India or Thailand. He also intimated that Harley Davidson was likely to collapse.

Lots of heat, not much light. The issues for Harley Davidson are far worse than an EU tariff.

Harley Davidson has about 1/3 of the US motorcycle market. But in “heavy motorcycles,” those big bikes that are heavier and generally considered for longer riding, Harley has half the market. Which sounds great, until you realize that until the 1970s, Harley had 100% of that market. Ever since then, Harley has been losing share – to imports and to its domestic competitor Polaris.

It was 2006 when I first wrote about Harley Davidson’s big demographic problem. Basically, its customers were all aging. Younger people were buying other motorcycles, so the “core” Harley customer was getting older every year. From mid-30s in the 1980s, by the year 2000 the average buyer was well into their mid-40s. In 2007, I pointed out that Harley had made a stab at changing this dynamic by introducing a new motorcycle with an engine made by Porsche, and a far more modern design (the V-Rod.) But Harley wasn’t committed to building a new customer base, so when dealers complained that the V-Rod “wasn’t really a Harley” the company backed off the marketing and went back to all its old ways of doing business.

Simultaneously, Harley Davidson motorcycle prices were rising faster than inflation, while Japanese manufacturers were not. Thus, as I also pointed out in 2007, it was struggling to maintain market share. Slower sales caused a lay-off that year, and despite the brand driving huge sales of after-market products like jackets and T-shirts, which had grown as big as bike sales, it was unclear how Harley would slow the aging of its customer base and find new, younger buyers. Harley simply eschewed the trend toward selling smaller, lighter, cheaper bikes that had more appeal to more people – and in more markets.

Globally, the situation is far more bleak than the USA. America has one of the lowest motorcycle ridership percentages on the globe. Americans love cars. But in more congested countries like across Europe or Japan and China, and in much poorer countries like India, Korea, and across South America motorcycles are more popular than automobiles. And in those countries Harley has done poorly. Because Harley doesn’t even have the smaller 100cc,200cc, 400cc and 600cc bikes that dominate the market. For example, in 2006 (I know, old, but best data I could find) Harley Davidson sold 349,200 bikes globally. Honda sold 10.3 million. Yamaha sold 4.4 million. Even Suzuki sold 3.1 million – or 10 times Harley’s production.

But, being as fair as possible, let’s focus on Europe – where the new Harley plant is to be built. And let’s look exclusively at “heavy motorcycles” (thus excluding the huge market in which Harley has no products.) In 2006, Harley was 6th in market share. BMW 16%, Honda 15%, Yamaha 15%, Suzuki 15%, Kawasaki 11% and Harley Davidson 9%. Wow, that is simply terrible.

Clearly, Harley has already become marginalized globally. Outside the USA, Harley isn’t even relevant. The Japanese and Germans have been much more successful everywhere outside the USA, and every one of those other markets is bigger than the USA. Harley was simply relying on its core product (big bikes) in its core market (USA) and seriously failing everywhere else.

Oh, but even that story isn’t as good as it sounds. Because in the USA sales of Harley motorcycles has been declining for a decade! Experts estimate that every year which passes, Harley’s customer base ages by 6 months. The average rider age is now well into their 50s. Since Q3, 2014 Harley’s sales growth has been negative! In Q2 and Q3 2017 sales declines were almost 10%/quarter!

As its customer demographic keeps working against it, new customers for big bikes are buying BMWs from Germany – and Victory and Indian motorcycles made by Polaris, out of Minnesota (Polaris discontinued the Victory brand end of 2017.) BMW sales have increased for 7 straight quarters, and their European sales are growing stronger than ever – directly in opposition to Harley’s sales problems. Every quarter Indian is growing at 16-20%, taking all of its sales out of Harley Davidson USA share.

Going back to my 2016 column, when I predicted Harley was in for a hard time. Shares hit an all-time high in 2006 of $75. They have never regained that valuation. They plummeted during the Great Recession, but bailout funds from Berkshire Hathaway and the US government saved Harley from bankruptcy. Shares made it back to $70 by 2014, but fell back to $40 by 2016. Now they are trading around $40. Simply put, as much as people love to talk about the Harley brand, the company is rapidly becoming irrelevant. It is losing share in all markets, and struggling to find new customers for a product that is out-of-date, and sells almost exclusively in one market. Its move to manufacture in Europe is primarily a Hail-Mary pass to find new sales, paid for by corporate tax cuts in the USA and tariff tax avoidance in Europe.

But it won’t likely matter. Like I said in 2006, Harley Davidson is a no-growth story, and that’s not a story where anyone should invest.

How Ants Kill Elephants – The Amazon.com, Sears & Walmart Story

How Ants Kill Elephants – The Amazon.com, Sears & Walmart Story

The US e-commerce market is just under 10% the size of entire retail market. On the face of it this would indicate that the game is far from over for big traditional retail. After all, how could such a small segment kill profits for such a huge industry based on enormous traditional players?

US ecommerce Statista

Yet, Sears – once a Dow Jones component and the world’s most powerful retailer – has announced it will close 100 more stores. The Kmart/Sears chain is now only 894 stores – down from thousands at its peak and 1,275 just last year. Revenue dropped 30% versus a year ago, and quarterly losses of $424M were almost 15% of revenues.

But, that ignores marginal economics. It often doesn’t take a monster change in one factor to have a huge impact on the business model. Let’s say Sales are $100. Less Cost of Goods sold of $75. That leaves a Gross Margin of $25. Selling, General and Administrative costs are 20%, so Operating Income is only $5. The Net Margin before Interest and Taxes is 5%. (BTW, these are the actual percentages of Walmart from 1/31/18.)

Now, in comes a new competitor – like Amazon.com. They have no stores, no store clerks, and minimal inventory due to “e-storefront” selling. So, they are able to lower prices by 5%. That seems pretty small – just a 5% discount compared to typical sales of 20%, 30% even 50% (BOGO) in retail stores. Amazon’s 5% price reduction seems like no big deal to established firms.

But, Walmart has to lower prices by 5% in response, which lowers revenues to $95. But the stores, clerks, inventory, distribution centers and trucks all largely remain. With Cost of Goods Sold still $75, Gross Margin falls to $20. Fixed headquarters costs, general and administrative costs don’t change, so they remain at $20. This leaves Operating Income of …$0.

(For more detailed analysis see “Bigger is Not Always Better – Why Amazon is Worth More than Walmart” from July, 2015.)

How can Walmart survive with no profits? It can’t. To get some margin back, Walmart has to start shutting stores, selling assets, cutting pay, using automation to cut headcount, beating on vendors to offer them better prices. This earns praise as “a low cost operation.” When in fact, this makes Walmart a less competitive company, because it’s footprint and service levels decline, which encourages people to do more shopping on-line. A vicious circle begins of trying to recapture lost profitability, while sales are declining rather than growing.

Walmart was (and is) huge. Even Sears was much bigger than Amazon.com at the beginning. But to compete with Amazon.com both had to lower prices on ALL of their products in ALL of their stores. So the hit to Walmart’s, and Sears’, revenue is a huge number. Though Amazon.com was a much, much smaller company, its impact explodes on the larger competitor P&L’s.

This disruption is felt across the entire industry: ALL traditional retailers are forced to match Amazon and other e-commerce companies, even though there is no way they can cut costs enough to compete. Thus, Toys-R-Us, Radio Shack, Claire’s and Bon-Ton have declared bankruptcy in 2018, and the once great, dominant Sears is on the precipice of extinction.

All of which is good news for Amazon.com investors. Amazon.com has 40% market share of the entire e-commerce business. The fact that e-commerce is only 10% of all retail is great news for Amazon investors. That means there is still an enormously large market of traditional retail available to convert to on-line sales.

The shift to e-commerce will not be stopping, or even slowing. Since January, 2010 the future has been easily predictable for traditional retail’s decline. The next few years will see a transition of an additional $2.5 trillion on-line, which is 5X the size of the existing e-commerce market!

As stores close new competitors will emerge in the e-commerce market. But undoubtedly the big winner will be the company with 40% market share today – Amazon.com. So what will Amazon’s stock be worth when sales are 5x larger (or more) and Amazon can increase profits by making leveraging its infrastructure and slow future investments?

Twenty years ago, Amazon was a retail ant. And retail elephants ignored it. But that was foolish, because Amazon had a different business model with an entirely different cost of operations. And now the elephants are falling fast, due to their inability to adapt to new market conditions and maintain their growth.
_________________________________________________________________________

Author’s Note: In June, 2007 I was asked to predict WalMart’s future. Here are the predictions I made 11 years ago:

  • “In 5 years (2012) Walmart would not have succeeded internationally” [True: Mexico, China, Germany all failed]
  • “In 5 years (2012) Walmart would no new businesses, and its revenue will be stalled” [True]
  • In 5 years (2012) Walmart would be spending more on stock repurchases then investing in its own stores or distribution” [True – and the Walton’s were moving money out of Walmart to other investments]
  • “In 10 years (2017) Walmart would take a dramatic act, and make an acquisition” [True: Jet.com]
  • “In 10 years (2017 Walmart’s value would not keep up with the stock market” [from 6/2007 to 6/2017 WMT went from $48 to $75 up 56.25%, DIA went from $134 to $180 up 34.3%, AMZN went from $70 to $1,000 up 1,330% or 13.3x]
  • “In 30 years (2037) Walmart will only be known as “a once great company, like General Motors”
Amazon Alexa Is Becoming Ubiquitous – And That’s an Apple Threat

Amazon Alexa Is Becoming Ubiquitous – And That’s an Apple Threat

One in five American homes with wifi now has an Amazon Alexa. And the acceptance rate is growing. To me that seems remarkable. I remember when we feared Google keeping all those searches we did. Then the fears people seemed to have about Facebook knowing our friends, families and what we talked about. Now it appears that people have no fear of “big brother” as they rapidly adopt a technology into their homes which can hear pretty near everything that is said, or that happens.

It goes to show that for most people, convenience is still incredibly important. Give us mobile phones and we let land-lines go, because mobile is so convenient – even if more expensive and lower quality. Give us laptops we let go of the traditional office, taking our work everywhere, even at a loss of work-life balance. Give us e-commerce and we start letting retailers keep our credit card information, even if it threatens our credit security. Give us digital documents via Kindle, or a smart device on the web grabbing short articles and pdf files, and we get rid of paper books and magazines. Give us streaming and we let go of physical entertainment platforms, choosing to download movies for one-time use, even though we once thought “owning” our entertainment was important.

With each new technology we make the trade-off between convenience and something we formerly thought was important. Such as quality, price, face-to-face communications, shopping in a store, owning a book or our entertainment – and even security and privacy. For all the hubbub that regulators, politicians and the “old guard” throws up about how important these things were, it did not take long for these factors to not matter as convenience outweighed what we used to think we wanted.

Now, voice activation is becoming radically important. With Google Assistant and Alexa we no longer have to bother with a keyboard interface (who wants to type?) or even a small keypad – we can just talk to our smart device. There is no doubt that is convenient. Especially when that device learns from what we say (using augmented intelligence) so it increasingly is able to accurately respond to our needs with minimal commands. Yes, this device is invading our homes, our workplaces and our lives – but it is increasingly clear that for the convenience offered we will make that trade-off. And thus what Alexa can do (measured in number of skills) has grown from zero to over 45,000 in just under 3 years.

And now, Amazon is going to explode the things Alexa can do for us. Historically Amazon controlled Alexa’s Skills market, allowing very few companies to make money off Alexa transactions. But going forward Amazon is monetizing Alexa, and developers can keep 70% of the in-skill purchase revenues customers make. Buy a product or service via Alexa and developers can now make a lot of money. And, simultaneously, Amazon is offering a “code-free” skills developer, expanding the group of people who can write skills in just minutes. In other words, Amazon is setting off a gold rush for Alexa skills development, while simultaneously making the products remarkably cheap to own.

This is horrible news for Apple. Apple’s revenue stagnated in 2016, declining year over year for 3 consecutive quarters. I warned folks then that this was a Growth Stall, which often implies a gap is developing between the company and the market. While Apple revenues have recovered, we can now see that gap. Apple still relies on iPhone and iPad sales, coupled with the stuff people buy from iTunes, for most of its revenue and growth. But many analysts think smartphone sales may have peaked. And while focusing on that core, Apple has NOT invested heavily in Siri, its voice platform. Today, Siri lags all other voice platforms in quality of recognition, quality of understanding, and number of services. And Apple’s smart speaker sales are a drop in the ocean of Amazon Echo and Echo Dot sales.

By all indications the market for a lot of what we use our mobile devices for is shifting to voice interactivity. And Apple is far behind the leader Amazon, and the strong #2 Google. Even Microsoft’s Cortana quality is considered significantly better than Siri. If this market moves as fast as the smartphone market grew it will rob sales of smartphones and iTunes, and Apple could be in a lot of trouble faster than most people think. Relevancy is a currency quickly lost in the competitive personal technology business.

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.

Japan Demographics- A “Trend Bomb”

Japan Demographics- A “Trend Bomb”

“Business Insider says Japan has become “a demographic time bomb.” I guess it’s about time somebody realized that demographic trends are important, and that they can be effective for planning!

Japan demographic trends, National Institute of Population and Social Security Research

It was September, 2016 that I pointed out how important using demographic trends was for planning – and made it clear that Japan was facing a huge problem due to an aging population and unwillingness to allow immigrants. In January, 2017 I reiterated the importance of incorporating demographic trends into planning, demonstrating how they can be important for predicting workforce availability, cost of living, taxation and other critical business issues.

Take for example the NFL. In 2017 the league took another big ratings decline. The second consecutive year. But this was not hard to predict. In September, as the season started, I made it clear that kneeling players were not the problem for the NFL – the demographics of its primary viewers was the big problem. And I predicted that ratings would take a hit in 2017. Demographics have been clearly working against the league, and unless they find a way to bring in younger viewers – probably through rules changes – things are going to get a lot worse, affecting revenues and thus owner profits and even player salaries.

Are you incorporating demographics in your planning? If not, why not? Don’t know which demographic trends are important, or how to apply demographic trends to your business? If you’re stuck, not understanding this critical trend and how it will impact your business, why not give us a call?”

Retail Transformation Continues and Will Impact Your Portfolio

Retail Transformation Continues and Will Impact Your Portfolio

Business Insider is projecting a “tsunami” of retail store closings in 2018 — 12,000 (up from 9,000 in 2017.) Also, the expect several more retailers will file bankruptcy, including Sears.

Duh. Nothing surprising about those projections. In mid-2016, Wharton Radio interviewed me about Sears, and I made sure everyone clearly understood I expect it to fail. Soon. In December, 2016 I overviewed Sears’ demise, predicted its inevitable failure, and warned everyone that all traditional retail was going to get a lot smaller. I again recommended dis-investing your portfolio of retail. By March, 2017 the handwriting was so clear I made sure investors knew that there were NO traditional retailers worthy of owning, including Walmart. By October, 2017 I wrote about the Waltons cashing out their Walmart ownership, indicating nobody should be in the stock – or any other retailer.

The trend is unmistakable, and undeniable. The question is – what are you going to do about it? In July, 2015 Amazon became more valuable than Walmart, even though much smaller. I explained why that made sense – because the former is growing and the latter is shrinking. Companies that leverage trends are always worth more. And that fact impacts YOU! As I wrote in February, 2017 the “Amazon Effect” will change not only your investments, but how you shop, the value of retail real estate (and thus all commercial real estate,) employment opportunities for low-skilled workers, property and sales tax revenues for all cities impacting school and infrastructure funding, and all supply chain logistics. These trends are far-reaching, and no business will be untouched.

Don’t just say “oh my, retailers are crumbling” and go to the next web page. You need to make sure your strategy is leveraging the “Amazon Effect” in ways that will help you grow revenues and profits. Because your competition is making plans to use these trends to hurt your business if you don’t make the first move. Need help?