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Month August 2013

The rear view mirror

In the Innovator’s Curse I reflected on the fact that a serial innovator cannot be efficiently financed or even rewarded for having figured out how to repeatably create. If anything, a serial innovator has to suffer a discount to peers who do not habitually (or ever) innovate. The innovation process is the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs but is destined to perish due to the lack of faith in its existence.

So how can I back this up?

To start, this is partially evidenced in this graph of Apple’s price to earnings ratio since 2006 vs. the S&P 500’s. The S&P reflects the 500 largest companies in the US and is thus a proxy for the “average” company.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 8-30-6.36.23 PM

[I added Apple's P/E excluding cash for additional perspective.]

The graph shows that during the period of time when iPhone and iPad changed computing and telecommunications, Apple was mostly held in contempt: the profits it was generating were not considered of “sufficient quality” relative to an average company. Since markets look forward, not backward (one assumes), the vote cast is decidedly that success cannot be repeated. Put another way: you can trust that a soft drink maker like Coca Cola (P/E of 19) or a utility like ConEd (P/E of 18) will continue in the manner we’ve seen them perform in the last year more than Apple (P/E of 12) will.

I can offer yet another way to consider this curse.

High Density #3: Staying hungry with Ben Thompson

5by5 | High Density #3: Staying hungry with Ben Thompson.

The Parable of Microsoft

Show Notes & Links:

Stratechery

Written by Ben Thompson (@monkbent)

Asymcar 3: Road Trip

Horace Dediu and Jim Zellmer discuss the pleasures of traversing continents by road. This leads to a grand tour of powertrains, composites, fuel efficiency, regulation and Tesla’s luxury market entry. Which naturally leads to a conversation on emerging auto modularization, apps and ecosystems and where value will accrue.

via AsymCAR 3: Road Trip | Asymcar.

Steve Ballmer and The Innovator's Curse

The most common, almost universally accepted reason for company failure is “the stupid manager theory”. It’s the corollary to “the smart manager theory” which is used to describe almost all company successes. The only problem with this theory is that it is usually the same managers who run the company while it’s successful as when it’s not. Therefore for the theory to be valid then the smart manager must have turned stupid at a specific moment in time, and as most companies in an industry fail in unison, then the stupidity bit must have been flipped in more than one individual at the same time in some massive conspiracy to fail simultaneously.

So the failures of Microsoft to move beyond the rapidly evaporating Windows business model are attributed to the personal failings of its CEO. The calls for his head have been getting loud and rancorous for years. Taking this theory further, now that he’s leaving, the prosperity of the company depends entirely on the choice of a new (smarter) CEO.

It’s all nonsense of course.

The Innovator's Curse

When Clay Christensen discusses innovation (for example his talk at BoxWorks here) he puts forward theories on the causes of success and failure of innovation. Through a repertoire of case studies evoking David vs. Goliath he offers a convincing alternative to the management orthodoxy which prevents innovation, especially the meaningful disruptive kind, in established organizations. More importantly he asserts that innovation is not something that happens randomly or only through the incantations of a Chief Magical Officer. There is a process and even perhaps a repeatable process for successful innovation.

But one assumption that underlies this narrative is that innovation is good. Or more precisely, that innovation is rewarded–making its goodness desirable through market mechanisms. The happy ending to the story is that the innovator solves the dilemma, delivers the great innovation, perhaps more than once, and then basks in glory.

But my observation is that the way markets behave often contradicts this measure of worth of innovation.

Here’s the problem: If a company produces a string of successes, the conventional wisdom is that the chances of another success are precisely zero.  A company is valued based on its cash flows and foreseeable improvements to them. What it’s not valued on is its innovation flows (and foreseeable improvements to them).

In other words, if you’ve succeeded in the past, the only certainty is that you will not be able to succeed again. This assumption exists even if you’ve succeeded more than once. The wisest will offer as many excuses for being lucky more than once as they will for being lucky once. In fact, just as the illusion of a run of heads means the next coin flip must surely be a tail, a string of random successes is deemed to increase the probability that the next attempt will end in failure.

This discounting of repeatable success means that the reward for a process of innovation is zero and therefore that innovation itself is a priori value-free.[1]

This means that an innovator not only has to struggle with getting an organization to create something new (the gist of The Innovator’s Solution) but also to do so without the benefit of capital markets. When trying to raise financing for a sustainable innovation engine, the markets speak unanimously: you haven’t got a chance.

Therefore the only way an innovator can finance the next innovation is to use proceeds from a previous innovation, having faith in his engine of creation. Listening to the market would only convince the innovator that the new thing is pointless. In fact, the best idea is to stop trying.[2]

I call this The Innovator’s Curse: that building repeatable innovations provides the innovator no respite. There shall be no basking in glory, only expectations of imminent failure and attribution of success to good fortune.

When I first realized this I thought I chanced upon a remarkable paradox. That this must be some new insight into human nature. That realizing this will change everything.

But just like Disruption Theory is beautifully illustrated through the ageless David vs. Goliath parable, The Innovator’s Curse is but a retelling of this fable:

A cottager and his wife had a Goose that laid a golden egg every day. They supposed that the Goose must contain a great lump of gold in its inside, and in order to get the gold they killed it. Having done so, they found to their surprise that the Goose differed in no respect from their other geese.

Even if the cottagers were naive enough to have faith in the replicating miracle of golden egg laying geese, wise men would quickly advise them to kill it and get the gold more quickly. The Goose is doomed no matter what.

  1. A company will be priced according to products it created in the past, and that price might be significant, but as competitive pressures increase, the value itself is discounted. What is certain to be worthless however is the ability of any company to come up with something new.
  2. When managers give in to the temptation to stop trying they build great sustaining companies which are subject to disruption and invariably fail.

 

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The Revenue Table (imperial units edition)

Tim Cook famously said:

We can put all of our products on the table you’re sitting at. Those products together sell $40 billion per year. No other company can make that claim except perhaps an oil company.

For those of you laughing, that was three years ago. The revenues quadrupled since to a total of $170 for the last four quarters. But the more interesting thought is that the table has not gotten bigger. When Tim spoke the iPad had just been announced but was not yet for sale. So we can’t be sure if he thought it should be on the table or not, but it does not take up that much space.

It would be fun to actually lay out all the Apple products on a table to see how big it would be. The trouble is that there are many things Apple sells which take up no space at all. Things like iTunes content or services and AppleCare.

So rather than trying to imagine a table full of Apple products (some of which are non-phyisical) I thought a more fitting analogy would be to allocate the revenues from these products to a table and thinking about how much space relative to each other the products would take.

To make conversion easier, I picked a rather large table; 10 feet long, big enough to fit a small conference room. What would this table covered in product revenue look like?

My estimate is that it would look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 8-22-11.50.54 AM

AMP Index update

The following graphs show the most visible global phone brands and the approximate percent of value they captured since 2007.

Screen Shot 2013-08-21 at 8-21-6.17.19 PM

The graphs each show trailing four quarter average of shares of units shipped, revenues, operating profits and smartphones shipped. I also averaged the four shares into a single share number called the AMP index (Asymco Mobile Performance).

The last frontier

Tracking the mobile phone market hasn’t been getting any easier. The lack of published data from many incumbents (including the largest) is compounded by the lack of visibility into entrants. It’s not just ZTE and Huawei which are up-and-coming, but companies such as Lenovo, Xiaomi and Yulong make up an increasingly large part of the overall market. (Not to mention BBK, Meizu, OPPO and TCL).

Canalys suggests that China’s top five vendors make up 20% of the world’s smartphone shipments. This is mostly due to the rapid rise of the category in China and the advantages local vendors have in that market. Absent this large segment, a complete picture of the market is simply not possible. Nevertheless a fuzzy picture of the entire market can be still be painted.

Screen Shot 2013-08-20 at 8-20-12.44.02 PM

The Critical Path #93: The Innovator's Curse

Markets are expected to do one thing and one thing only: determine price. What happens when they fail? The tragedy and comedy of corporate raiders. Also more on what you can expect form Airshow New York.

via 5by5 | The Critical Path #93: The Innovator’s Curse.