I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Late Mover Advantage

Many years ago, I worked with a company that helped big pharma companies distribute free medical samples to doctors. Having pharma products on-hand is a convenience for doctors and patients alike, mainly because a doctor can initiate immediate treatment for a patient. Having pharma products on-hand is also good for big pharma, as starting somebody on a medication is highly likely to lead to a prescription. So pharma manufacturers were motivated to avail free samples of medicines to doctors.

It's a regulated activity. Doctors can only get medicines appropriate for their practice (e.g., a pediatrician cannot get free samples of Cialis) in limited quantities for specific lengths of time (usually every x number of days). Pharma companies keep track of which doctor got what product on what date. Because doctors exhaust their supply of free product within the allocation time frame, doctors create standing re-order requests. The pharma company decides whether or not to fulfill a doctor's reorder request primarily based on when the last order was fulfilled and the quantity supplied. A pharma manufacturer would not supply more free product to a doctor who had received the maximum volume just a week ago if the reorder window is 21 days.

Because doctors obtain pharma samples from multiple manufacturers, a lot of intermediaries popped up to provide a consolidated service. The value prop of the intermediary was that a doctor need only visit one site to replenish samples from multiple drug manufacturers. Again, because doctors exhaust their supply of free product every few weeks, they were encouraged to set up recurring orders through the intermediary, so a doctor might request multiple products from multiple manufacturers with different replenishment rules. The intermediary made money by charging the pharma company for each free sample request they fulfilled. The pharma company treated it as a marketing expense, effectively treating these intermediaries as a channel partner and paying them a commission. The volume aspect made every doctor acquired very valuable indeed.

The theoretical market numbers were eye-popping. Just one of the big pharma firms measured the total product value they gave away in the form of samples, coupons and vouchers to be nearly $2 billion through all channels of distribution. At the time there were about a dozen or so bulge bracket pharma firms. The free pharma product business was big business indeed.

The company I was working with had a division that was one such intermediary. It was supposed to be a growth business in the portfolio: as mentioned above, pharma samples were a big business and the order volume had plenty of room to grow. But the performance was never all that impressive. When intermediaries made enough mistakes (e.g., process the reorder too early or not at all and doctors don't replenish their sample stock in a timely fashion), and the doctors will sign up with another intermediary. Since the pharma companies were the ones managing the replenishment data (what doctor received what product in what quantity on what date) and enforcing the replenishment rules, and since the pharma companies had no exclusive distribution agreements with any intermediary, a doctor could set up the same reorder profile with a dozen different intermediaries. The first intermediary to process the reorder successfully won the business that day. And, not only were there lots of intermediaries competing for the same business, the pharma companies operated their own direct-to-doctor channels as well - and distributed the bulk of the product that way.

Being a crowded field, intermediaries had no pricing power with the pharma companies. By way of example, at the time the internet travel booking business had a take rate of somewhere between 5 and 10% of the value of the travel services they were selling; intermediaries had a take rate of a tiny fraction of a percent of the value of the product order they were submitting.

In short, there was no customer loyalty, no vendor exclusivity, and no pricing power in this business. There was a market, but no obvious winning strategy. Infrequent site visits meant that user experience wasn't going to provide an edge. Orders duplicated across multiple intermediaries meant that even the smartest algorithms and the fastest technology would provide only a fleeting edge as competitors would quickly catch up. Acquisition wasn't an option as every seller would demand too high a price for little value in the form of assets or cash flow. Industry consolidation would simply formalize the value destruction that had already taken place but not been accounted for.

An intermediary couldn't crush the competition with customer love, innovation, tech firepower, or scale. They were in a state of mutually assured destruction. The only strategy was to hope that your competitors ran out of cash before you did.

Recent analyses in the financial press on the ride sharing, home meal kits and food delivery industries got me thinking about that company again. They compete in crowded fields amid the challenges of low switching costs, low margins, little differentiation, and no customer loyalty. As the Wall Street Journal put it, these companies are now engaged in "a land grab for overlapping customer bases". Every ride from Lyft and Uber is still subsidized by investor capital. There wasn't enough of a market for home meal kits to support the number of firms competing for it.

The Journal makes the point that the would-be disruptors in home meal kits have done more to disrupt one another than they have to established players in retail food, and that's an important point. That these firms are "disrupting" in a different competitive landscape to their technological forebears: building a business at the expense of sleepy competitors in legacy industries (as firms such as Amazon and Expedia benefited from in the 1990s) is much different than trying to do so with evenly-matched competitors.

This casts doubt on the investment case. The long play for all of these companies is winner-take-all: all the chips go to the last player standing. Reuters Breakingviews estimates that the total current market cap of food delivery firms prices in optimistic growth, profitability and value multipliers. Breakingviews goes on to point out that an "... optimistic ending would be one firm knocking out rivals and boosting its pricing power. A more likely one may be that valuations, far from getting hotter and rewarding venture capitalists, grow cold." And what if it isn't a contest worth winning? Groupon won the online coupon competition. It didn't work out too well on a total-return-on-capital basis.

As mentioned above, I've seen this movie before. The Journal article was titled "Mutually Assured Destruction in Silicon Valley." That's apt.

The chattering classes and management consultants advocate for incumbents get into the disruption game themselves. It's certainly good for the pontificators and suits if the incumbents do, because it generates clicks on articles and contracts for services. But doing so asks established firms to enter into very expensive gambles that don't play to any of their strengths, and may offer no payoff whatsoever. Pundits and consultants are very good at spending other people's money - on themselves. Incumbents need to concentrate on their strengths, not their weaknesses.

The incumbent's response to disruption in financial services offers some insights. Clearly, Fintech has had an impact: things like loan origination are far more efficient at banks today than they were just a few years ago. But the disruption storyline in finance is far more muted, in large part because of the way the incumbents responded to it. Incumbent financial services firms didn't try to enter as competitors to the startups, but employed a combination of tactics including infiltration (experienced bankers dominate FinTech boards), co-option (licensing and integrating new technology), and economic might (buying loan books). It should come as no surprise that today, FinTech lenders look more like banks than banks look like FinTech lenders.

Rather than taking a high-risk position well outside of a firm's comfort zone and competencies, patience can be a better strategy. Enter into non-exclusive partnerships and licensing deals and lightly finance the entrants to encourage competition, penetrate their boards to influence their strategy, and alter their book of business to make them economic dependents, all while cleaning up your balance sheet to have more equity and less debt. The incumbent that can do that will have a stronger risk footing when the time is right to strike in changing market dynamics.