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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

All In

Immediately after World War II, Coca-Cola had 60% of the soft drinks market in the United States. By the early 1980s, it had about 25%. Not only had Coca-Cola been outmanouvered in product marketing (primarily by Pepsi), consumer concerns over sugar and calories drove consumers to diet soft drinks and to refreshment options outside of the soft drink category. The fear in the executive ranks was evidently so great that Coca-Cola felt it necessary to change its formula. Coca-Cola did the market research and found a formula that fizzy-drink consumers preferred over both old Coke and Pepsi. Coca-Cola launched the new product as an in-place replacement for their flagship product in 1985.

New Coke flopped.

Within weeks, consumer blowback was comprehensive and fierce (no small achievement when media was still analogue). Turns out there is such a thing as bad publicity if it causes people to stop buying your product. Sales stalled. Before three months were out, the old Coca-Cola formula was back on the shelves.

Why did Coca-Cola bet the franchise? The data pointed to an impending crisis of being an American institution that would soon be playing second fiddle to a perceived upstart (ironically an upstart founded in the 19th century). Modern marketing was coming into its own, and Pepsi sought to create a stigma among young people who would choose Coke by using a slogan and imagery depicting their cohort as "the Pepsi generation." Coca-Cola engineered a replacement product that consumers rated superior to both the classic Coke product and Pepsi. The data didn't just indicate New Coke was a better Coke than Coke, the data indicated New Coke was a better Pepsi than Pepsi. New Coke appeared to be The Best Soft Drink Ever.

Still, it flopped.

There are plenty of analyses laying blame for what happened. One school of thought is that the testing parameters were flawed: the sweeter taste of New Coke didn't pair as well with food as classic Coke, nor was a full can of the sweeter product as satisfying as one sip. Another is sociological: people had a greater emotional attachment to the product that ran deeper than anybody realized. Most of it is probably right, or at least contains elements of truth. There's no need to rehash any of that here.

New Coke isn't the only New thing that flopped in spectacular fashion. IBM had launched the trademarked Personal Computer in 1981 using an open architecture of widely available components from 3rd party sources such as Intel and the fledgling Disk Operating System from an unknown firm in Seattle called Microsoft. Through sheer brand strength, IBM established dominance almost immediately in the then-fragmented market for microcomputers. The open hardware architecture and open-ended software licensing opened the door for inexpensive IBM PC "clones” that created less expensive, equally (and sometimes more) advanced, and equally (if not superior) quality versions of the same product. IBM created the standard but others executed it just as well and evolved it more aggressively. In 1987, IBM introduced a new product, the Personal System/2. It used a proprietary hardware architecture incompatible with its predecessor PC products, and a new operating system (OS/2) that was only partially compatible with DOS, a product strategy not too dissimilar to what IBM did in the 1960s with the System/360 mainframe. IBM rolled the dice that it could achieve not just market primacy, but market dominance. They engineered a superior product. However, OS/2 simply never caught on. And, while the hardware proved initially popular with corporate buyers, the competitive backlash was fierce. In a few short years, IBM lost its status as the industry leader in personal computers, had hundreds of millions of dollars of unsold PS/2 inventory, laid off thousands of employees, and was forced to compete in the personal computer market on the standards now set by competitors.

These are all-in bets taken and lost, two examples of big bets that resulted in big routs. There are also the all-in bets not taken and lost. Kodak invented digital camera technology but was slow to commercialize it. The threat of lost cash flows from their captive film distribution and processing operations in major drug store chains (pursuit of digital photography by a film company meant loss of lucrative revenue to film distributors and processors) was sufficient to cow Kodak executives into not betting the business. Polaroid was similarly an leader in digital cameras, but failed to capitalize on their early lead. Again, there have been plenty of hand-wringing analyses as to why. Polaroid had a bias for chemistry over physics. Both firms were beholden to cash flows tied to film sales to distributors with a lot of power. While each firm recognized the future was digital, neither could fathom how rapidly consumers would abandon printed pictures for digital.

We see similar bet-the-business strategies today. In the early 2000s, Navistar bet on a diesel engine emission technology - EGR, or exhaust-gas-recirculation - that was contrary to what the rest of the industry was adopting - SGR, or selective catalytic reduction. It didn't pan out, resulting in market share erosion that was both substantial and rapid, while also resulting in payouts of hundreds of millions of dollars in warranty fees. Today, GM is betting its future on electronic vehicles: the WSJ recently reported that quite a few internal-combustion based products were cut from the R&D budget, while no EV products were.

All in.

The question isn't "was it worth betting the business." The question is, "how do you know when you need to bet the business."

There are no easy answers.

First, while it is easy to understand what happened after the fact, it is difficult to know what alternative would have succeeded. It isn't clear that either Kodak or Polaroid had the balance sheet strength to withstand a massive erosion in cash flows while flopping about trying to find a new digital revenue model. The digital photography hardware market was fiercely competitive and services weren't much of a thing initially. Remember when client/server software companies like Adobe and SAP transitioned to cloud? Revenues tanked and it took a few years for subscription volume to level up. It was, arguably, easier for digital incumbents to make a digital transition in the early 2010s than it was for an analogue incumbent to make the same move in the late 1990s. Both firms would have been forced to sacrifice cash flows from film (and Kodak in film processing) in pursuit of an uncertain future. As the 1990s business strategy sage M. Tyson observed, "Everyone has a plan until they're punched in the face."

To succeed in the photography space, you would have needed to anticipate that the future of photography was as an adjunct to a mobile computing device, twined with as-of-yet unimagined social media services. Nobody had that foresight. Hypothetically, Kodak or Polaroid execs could (and perhaps even did) anticipate sweeping changes in a digital future, but not one that anticipated the meteoric rise in bandwidth, edge computing capabilities, AI and related technologies. A "digital first" strategy in 1997 would have been short-term right, only to have been proven intermediate- and long-term wrong without a pivot to services such as image management and a pivot a few short years after that to AI. It's difficult to believe that a chemistry company could have successfully muddled through a physics, mathematics and software problem space. It's even more difficult to imagine the CEO of that company could successfully mollify investors again and again and again when asking for more capital because the firm is abandoning the market it just created because it's doomed and now needs to go after the next - and doing that three times over the span of a decade. In theory, they could have found a CEO who was equal parts Marie Curie, Erwin Schrödinger, Issac Newton, Thomas Watson, Jr., Kenneth Chenault, and Ralph Harrison. In practice, that's a real easy short position to take.

Second, it's all well and good when the threat is staring you in the face or when you have the wisdom of hindsight, but it's difficult to assess a threat let alone know what the threats and consequences really are, and are not. A few years ago, a company I was working with started to experience revenue erosion at the boundaries of their business, with small start-up firms snatching away business with faster performance and lower costs. It was a decades-old resource-intensive data processing function, supplemented with labor-intensive administration and even more labor-intensive exception handling. Despite becoming error-prone and slow, they had a dominant market position that was, to a certain extent, protected by exclusive client contracts. While both the software architecture and speed prevented them from entering adjacent markets with their core product, the business was a cash cow and financed both dividends and periodic M&A. They suffered from an operational bias that impaired their ability to imagine the business any differently that it was today, a lack of ambition to organically pursue adjacent markets, and a lack of belief that they faced an existential threat from competitors they saw as little more than garage-band operators. Yet both the opportunities and the threats looked very plausible to one C-level exec, to a point that he believed failure to act quickly would mean significant and rapid revenue erosion, perhaps resulting in there not being a business at all in a few years. Unfortunately, all unproveable, and by the time it would be known whether he was prophet or crazy street preacher, it would be too late to do anything about it: remaining (depleted) cash flows would be pledged to debt service, inhibiting any re-invention of the business.

Third, even the things you think you can take for granted that portend future change aren't necessarily bankable on your timeline. Some governments have already created legislation that all new cars sold must be electric (or perhaps more accurately, not powered by petroleum) by a certain date. A lot of things have to be true for that to be viable. What if electricity generation capacity doesn't keep up, or sufficient lithium isn't mined to make enough batteries? Or what if hydrocarbon prices remain depressed and emissions controls improve for internal combustion engines? Or what if foreign manufacturers make more desirable and more affordable electronic vehicles than domestic ones can? If they were to happen, it would increase the pressure that legislatures would feel to postpone the date for full electrification. For a business, going all-in too late will result in market banishment, but too early could result in competitive disadvantage (especially if a company creates the "New Coke" of automobiles... or worse still, The Homer). These threats create uncertainty in allocating R&D spend, risk of sales cannibalization of new products by old, and sustained costs for carrying both future and legacy lines for an extended period of time.

Is it possible to be balance sheet flexible, brand adaptable, and operationally lean and agile, so that no bet need be a bet of the business itself, but near-infinite optionality? A leader can be ready for as many possibilities as that person can imagine. Unfortunately, that readiness goes only as far as creditors and investors will extend the confidence, customers will give credibility to stretch the brand, and employees and suppliers can adapt (and re-adapt). To the stars and beyond, but if we're honest with ourselves we'll be lucky if we reach the Troposphere.

Luck plays a bigger role than anybody wants to acknowledge. The bigger the bet, the more likely the outcome will be a function of being lucky than being smart. The curious thing about New Coke is that it might have been the Hail Mary pass that arrested the decline of Coca-Cola. Taking away the old product - that is, completely denying anybody access to it - created a sense of catastrophic loss among consumers. Coca-Cola sales rebounded after its reintroduction. In the end, it proved clever to hold the flagship product hostage. Analyst and media reaction was cynical at the time, suggesting it was all just a ploy. Then-CEO Roberto Goizueta responded aptly, saying "we're not that smart, and we're not that dumb."

And that right there is applied business strategy, summed up in 9 words.