01 March 2014

A New Perspective on Net Neutrality

Net neutrality seems to have lost its momentum. Little by little (as evidenced by the latest federal court ruling), the reality of an unfiltered internet seems more and more remote. Once thought of as a sacrosanct protection from traffic prioritization by internet providers, the practicality of a usage based pricing model seems no longer out of the question. On the one hand, we shouldn’t give infrastructure incumbents free reign to charge whatever they want for internet traffic, but we can’t also expect the Napsters of the world to get a free pass given the network buildout costs. Despite the pendulum shift, it’s still a controversial and important issue; after 20 years of debate, where should society end up on net neutrality?

In the early days of broadband, pro-net neutrality was an easy position to have (see my perspective from four years ago). During those times, options such as DSL relied heavily on existing copper wire infrastructure to provide internet access. These legacy networks were owned by a single entity in each market (the Ma bell spinouts) and it was precisely because the government mandated that incumbents grant access to competitors is why early adoption flourished. A bustling industry of CLECs, ISP's and others that leased lines brought innovation to century old networks. As a result, email, AOL, and the web was brought to the masses. Internet based startups such as Google came to prominence. But more importantly, it permanently changed the way we live.

The world has significantly changed since the dial up days. The copper infrastructure was insufficient. Despite billions of investment into equipment and fiber cables to build the next generation of networks, supply cannot keep up with consumer demand. Distrubuted content is the new normal as a streamed Netflix video is as common as checking email. The strains on internet networks are real. Why shouldn’t infrastructure companies like AT&T and Comcast be able to charge more for increased usage? It also seems to make sense for bandwidth-intensive content companies that demand more of them to bear some of the burden. Further, our current fixed price arrangement in which all consumers pay the same inherently charges everyone equally rather than specifically to those that use more bandwidth. And perhaps by allowing content providers to subsidize some of the network costs (like in television), consumers might even see better rates. If providers were able to better match revenue to actual costs, we may benefit from a more efficient pricing scheme.

The problem is that the internet toll takers are the same companies that are the gatekeepers to the internet. And much like the older days, there isn’t much competition at a local level. A typical consumer may still only have one or two choices of providers at their home or business. Not only that, the bad actors that we knew from the monopoly days are the same ones that are making the investments and gating the entrance onto the superhighway. Should we trust AT&T and Comcast to do the right thing? Given history, it's a hard pill to swallow. And on the other side, content providers are starting to get bigger as well. As evidenced this week by Netflix's access deal with Comcast, well capitalized content companies can afford to "pay to play". Google, Facebook, and the like, despite their net neutrality advocacy (which seems to have subsided throughout the years), can afford to make sure their needs are met. But what about the next round of startups, how will they fare? Who will make sure those without deep pockets have fair access to consumers?

Are there lessons to be learned from the AOL days? Perhaps a middle ground solution could force the current infrastructure players to lease access to their networks much like the ILECs did. What if the likes of AT&T and Comcast could begin to charge content providers but in return were mandated to lease a portion of their networks to competitive access providers? New competition could bring new models and innovation much like the CLECs of the past. Perhaps AT&T could realize a utility type return on this leasing arrangement while at the same time promoting choice. This is probably an oversimplification of the issue, but this type of solution would not only keep the network companies' power at bay, but also help them monetize their networks better.

As an early net neutrality supporter, it would be hard for me to say that the incumbent telco and cable providers should have an unencumbered right to filter traffic, charge discriminately, and leverage their unique market position. We’ve seen that movie before. On the other hand, free market and changing times should also be factored into the equation. As we lean on the private sector to lay down the cash to buildout networks, we can’t expect them to work solely on altruistic motives. It also still remains to be seen how new technologies and innovations can change the paradigm; Google is building fiber networks, mobile infrastructure is becoming more prevalent, and even satellite talk is back. Consumers deserve unfettered access to any content they want. But as I have wrote throughout the years, the days of free are over. We all have to bite the bullet at some point.

12 January 2014

The Real Reason Big Businesses Fail

Inspired by holiday reading, i've decided to address a complex issue in a relatively short script (in the vein of Malcom Gladwell's latest opus). For leaders at large conglomerates, the risk of failure should turn heads. Only one of the original 12 Dow members still remain as does only a handful of the initial Dow 30 from 1928. And these were the best of the best. While there have been numerous explanations ranging from poor management execution to the Innovator's dilemma to explain this phenomenon, there is one simple commonality amongst all the companies gone bad. They stopped selling stuff that people wanted.

Blockbuster missed on mail order. Yahoo missed search. The list goes on across industries around the globe. These companies were acting complacently as new competitors were ramping up. But even had the incumbents acted flawlessly, they probably wouldn't have succeeded. Sure Yahoo had a chance to buy Google early on; but it was so focused on advertising that the company missed the fact that search mattered more. Someone with that insight would probably have outseated them anyway. There have been countless case studies on Blockbuster's miscues, but the bottom line was that its bricks and mortar offering failed to meet new customer demands. Its' half baked home DVD offering was too little too late compared with Netflix's execution. When a company is generating signficant cash, it is difficult for them to have enough foresight to recognize their offerings will soon become outdated.

Sometimes overall shifts in consumer demand dooms companies. Coke and Phillip Morris have a real problem as overall consumption of their products continue to slide. Price increases and international expansion can only mask this reality for so long. Incumbents also often miss subtelties of the markets they dominate. In the early 1990s, Walmart took a huge cut of the grocery market as its competitors relied on a loss leader strategy that consumers ultimately shunned. Today, Tesla is on the brink of taking material share from its rivals who have sat on high fuel efficiency technology for years. They didn't think people wanted it.

Large companies that use its position of power to stimulate market demand are the ones that succeed in the long-run. People did not know what they wanted out of portable stereos or smartphones until Apple educated them. IBM's customer-centric approach has helped it seemlessly moved from hardware, software to services (and also remain on the Dow from the original 30). IBM is spending a significant effort today teaching its customers how to implement Watson-based big data analytics to drive their businesses forward (albeit with only modest success so far). Facebook is doing a similar thing for clients who are new to social advertising.

The numerous texts designed to help corporations build their organizations are helpful playbooks. However, the fundamental problem that companies face as they grow is that they shift focus inwardly instead of on its customers. Things like stock price, hiearchy, and motivation saddle companies and mask the importance of the one thing that matters most. If companies simply keep up with consumer demand, everything else usually will fall into place. Successful new entrants are often singularly focused on what customers really want. With business cycles increasingly shortening, market share shifts are occuring more frequently and more rapidly. Successful organizations that fail often do so by not keeping up with consumers' tastes as internal deficiencies are usually symptomatic of them missing this critical point.

25 November 2013

Should we Crowdfund?

Angel List is one of the hottest capital sources around today. The benefits of crowdfunding sites like it are many - they offer a wide number of startups access to funds, gives small investors opportunities previously not available to them, and adds transparancy throughout the process. I am one of the biggest proponents of democratizing closed networks (Venture Capital is certainly on the list), but I can't help but wonder if the timing of the JOBS act could not be worse. Loosening regulations in a time of frothy valuations, high risk, and oversupply of undeployed capital reminds me of the Clinton-era push to make home financing more widely available. Will crowdfunding leave common investors in financial straits like those that were affected by the housing bust?

For one, early stage investing is hard. Even the experts get it wrong. According to some recent articles I read from Fortune's Dan Primack, almost 2/3 of tech Angel investors lost money and some 40% of early stage VC investments end up worthless. And remember - these are the professionals. Despite their expertise, exhaustive diligence, and access to exclusive deals, they still bet wrong more times than they do right. In fact, because of this difficulty, VC firms have systematically been shifting focus to later stage companies over the past few years. If the pros are moving away from this asset class, how do we expect individuals to fare better ? In the VC world, only 10-20% need to succeed for them to generate their required returns; there's not quite the same risk tolerance for Joe the Plumber who is investing his retirement funds.

Also, for the few that haven't noticed, we are in the midst of a capital bubble. Outsized pre-revenue valuations are back (really Snapchat, $3B wasn't enough?) as is hot public markets fueling a pace of IPO filings that hasn't been seen since the dot-com days. Large investors like corporations and private equity groups have never been flushed with more cash. Smaller companies have more choices as new angel groups, accelerators, and incubators compete fiercely for them. And if that isn't enough, the Fed continues to crank money into the system ensuring the record low interest rates remain. We are in an unusual environment in which capital is aplenty; if there was a shortfall in the market, it certainly isn't now.

On the other hand, before crowdfunding, a typical entrepreneur had very places to go. Local banks were out of the question given the risk. VC's and Angels were almost impossible to connect with. Friends and family, which is the typical route, is limited and sometimes complicated. As social, sharing, and mobile drive rapid efficiency in communication, it's only natural that those benefits extend to the investing world. Kiva brought microfinance to the masses helping millions of entrepreneurs; so why shouldn't Angel List do the same in the for-profit world? The notion of the Facebook next door that can't get funded should not be a reality nowadays.

In some ways, democratizing capital should level the playing field for entrepreneurs that aren't tied exclusive clubs like the Silicon Valley network or NY elite. But on the other hand, the landmines of early stage investing may not be well understood by smaller investors. I personally think the pros of crowdfunding outweigh the cons, but i hope the timing of its incubation during the capital boom doesn't shorten its life cycle. Buyer beware - just because your teenage kid is allowed to take the keys to the car doesn't mean you should give them to him.

18 October 2013

Can Startups beat the Lobbyists ?

What the ongoing circus in our nation's capital shows us is that special interests and lobbyists still rule the day. As upstarts bring new business models in to change broken industries, they face significant hurdles by incumbents and artificial forces trying to protect existing turf. Broken laws, deep pocketed industry leaders, and politicians are at play against the upstarts - Can they ultimately survive the long and expensive battle they will endure?

Uber has faced the threat of a ban in almost every market it has entered. A hodgepodge of federal and state lawsuits as well as motions by taxi and limo lobby have essentially tried to shut them down (even the ultracool city of Austin tried to pass an ordinance during SxSW). Why are they trying to protect the revenue of the taxi oligopoly if there are cheaper, more effective alternatives? Let's not be naive to think this resistance is with consumer protection in mind - just look at who is funding the legislation. AirBnB faces similar challenges as it faces threats from hotels, realtors, and taxing authorities. The city of New York, for example, has recently requested their entire database in order to vet out long-term housing hosts. I understand the need to collect taxes if appropriate - but let's not try to save Marriott from individuals renting out their rooms.

Many incumbents try to hide behind ill-conceived laws that they try to uphold. Tesla, which has brought a step change of innovation into a slow moving industry, is surprisingly facing resistance in its market rollout. The culprit is outdated state franchise laws that mandate cars be sold through franchisees. While originally designed to protect small business franchise owners, the laws seem ridiculous nowadays. Imagine if we were forced to buy diapers or a stereo from a certified outlet? A question to the states - have you heard of ecommerce?

To be sure, bizarre regulations are nothing new. Southwest Airlines has faced an incredibly long road to unwind the "Wright" amendment which limited its flights out of Dallas. The law, designed to protect American Airlines and DFW Airport, failed to do so. American still went bankrupt while Southwest thrived since it was passed. In hindsight, the city bet on the wrong horse. Consumers have realized low fares because of Southwest(try pricing non-SW city pairs if you don't believe me) and the company is the only one in the industry to refrain from layoffs, even post 9/11. As Southwest finally can count down the days until the Wright amendment elapses, I commend its patience and high road tactics by keeping its headquarters in Dallas.

So are the new entrants winning so far? Despite some early wins, the road will be long and bumpy. While AirBnB initially won a ruling in New York, the city is going aggressively after them to collect forgone occupancy taxes. Uber seems to continue to operate in most of the markets they want, despite the political noise. The good news, particularly in the new sharing economy, is that the fight has become increasingly more public as the newbies take it to the streets (virtually). They have smartly created online petitions and other consumer-driven campaigns to forward their cause. It also helps that some of the startups are backed by huge valuations that can arm them for the legal hurdles. If the rhetoric from Uber's CEO and others is any indication, these startups will not shy away from battle anytime soon.

Artificial barriers to entry fail to protect the companies they are supposed to and usually hurt consumers in the long-run. Given the accelerating rate of change and strength of market forces, they tend to be speed bumps for entrepreneurs trying to gain market share. But as Washington shows us loud and clear is that lobbying and inertia are here to stay. Let's hope that market-based concerns such as a mobile taxi app can force trasparency and efficiencies within the system. Unfortunately, elections do not change the game - and it's a game that needs a significant makeover if the US wants to stay the center of technological and business advancement.

03 October 2013

Can JVs work for small business?

Generally speaking, joint ventures have a finite shelf life. There are numerous examples of JV's winding down, such as Verizon's recent acquisition of Vodafone's wireless stake. Bringing two parties together with different capabilities seems to make sense on paper, but more often than not, most large ones end in failure, dispute, or a partner buyout. With a similar thesis in mind, are small businesses bound to a similar fate when attempting joint ventures? Or are entrepreneurial companies more adept in successfully navigating partnerships better than big conglomerates?

First off, small businesses have much more to lose than larger concerns. When big companies do it, they generally have limited options for that particular business. For example, an oil & gas company cannot enter a middle east country without some sort of government or local JV. In other instances, JV businesses are non-core or underperforming which makes the risk less. For smaller companies, the stakes are much greater. They don't have idle cash or business lines to throw into the mix. It's usually the entire business that would be impacted by the potential partnership. So the bar is much higher to engage in one.

A traditional JV, which may involve a merger with a similarly situated company, is hard to pull off. The required exchange of information to consummate a deal is often difficult as head to head competitors will be relunctant to disclose business secrets. And even if a deal can be completed, the operational risks are great. Cultural division, power struggle, or misalignment of goals are often hard to overcome. While there are things you can do on the front end to stave off potential conflict, the odds of a successful merger are long.

Partnering with a large industry player might be a way to mitigate some of this risk. Large companies can often provide the most sought after benefits for a small business (such as capital and distribution) with potentially less conflict of interest. They often have different goals than a small business, so the risk for overlap is less. Large suppliers, for example, are often good choices for product companies.

The downside, however, is that the terms of a proposed JV might be very expensive. If they feel they have bargaining power, they may try to extract more equity or better terms than you are willing to offer. Further, large companies tend to overestimate the amount of support they can provide as part of the JV; these companies have numerous priorities that fluctuate and can't make critical decisions as quickly as the business may require. On the other hand, if you offer something they really want (such as a new product line or channel), they will be much more willing to give you a greater piece of the pie.

Financial sponsors are another potential avenue. From a JV perspective, examples are very rare. Financial investors generally want control (or a path to control) or have too large investment hurdle rates for it to make sense to engage in a partnership. There are less synergies compared with industry players and can generally help only on the growth capital or leveraging their vast network. While possible, a financial based JV would need to have a limited scope and finite timeframe.

The irony is that despite the long odds for a successful joint venture, many businesses small and large continue to attempt them. The upside could potentially be great, especially for entrepreneurial concerns that are at an inflection point in their business. I think that more established companies may be a better fit as a JV partner, but taking control around the governance and commercial terms is paramount in the discussions. In addition to JVs, other options such as joint cooperatives may yield some results without giving up any control. In the end, it's important to keep an open mind about them but certainly tread carfefully.

01 September 2013

The Overhyped Business Buzzwords

The business community, like most others, thrives on convenience. Complex changes in the market or new concepts get reduced to simple phrases like "big data" or "infomediary" (remember that one?) to fit into executive summary style investement theses. As with any trend, by the time it gets institutionalized, it has become overhyped, overvalued, or too late.

I recently wrote about the rise of ACOs in health care. In addition to the billions of deals done by payors and hospital systems, private equity invested nearly $4B in health care services in 2012 alone. As I surmised that if ACOs are no more than HMOs or closed payor systems of the past, then how will they ultimately prove in their current valuations? Reform has failed to make any significant changes to the health care delivery system, so how will the ACO's fair better than their predecessors? ACOs are merely a term for large future bets without a clear path to better outcomes at lower costs.

Software as a service, and offshoots such as mobile, has been flush with investment in recent years. I still can't figure it out what exactly people are investing in. The AAAS (anything as a service) model gives little regard to the underlying product by instead focusing on unproven startups in a new distribution platform. Microsoft might have missed the boat on mobile and the shift away from client-based installations, but if consumers ultimately like their spreadsheet and operating systems best, why would SaaS based competitors succeed? No question the incumbent has given rivals a huge window to catch up, but if Microsoft can maintain product superiority in the long run than it won't matter (it is Microsoft, so I won't hold my breath). The medium in which users consume software is important, but certainly the underlying products and services will be more valuable over time.

Similarly, cloud computing seems to a nascent, growing phenomenon, right? When I was in telecom ten years ago, we called them Storage Area Networks. Nowadays, any outsourced IT infrastructure is in the "cloud" and commands huge premiums. What is most perplexing to me is how the companies that are enabling the shift such as server makers and internet infrastructure are seeing their businesses squeezed, while cloud-based consumer concerns like Dropbox command billion dollar valuations. Dont get me wrong, I love Dropbox's interface and ease of use, but there is nothing groundbreaking in a modern day FTP website.

TQM was going to eliminate US auto manufacturers. Ecommerce was going to kill retail industry. The new business buzzwords have always failed to reach the levels of the initial hype. These technological shifts and efficiency gains have significantly altered distribution, democratized broken industries, and changed market leadership; but they haven't been the category killers originally thought by investment pundits. Perhaps a more realistic title to "video killed the radio star" should have been mtv took market share from unsuspecting incumbents. But then again, everyone likes the Buggles version better.

19 July 2013

How should GPO's help small business ?

Services that help small business compete better are very important to the capitalistic ecosystem.  One of the most common is general purchase organizations (GPO's) that essentially pool purchasing power to lower costs for their members.  GPO's are broad across industries, vary in organization, and realized differing levels of success throughout the years.  I've often wondered what the optimal structure of a GPO should be to yield the largest impact for the most number of small businesses they support.

Historically, GPO's took shape in the form of cooperatives.  Each member generally paid a fee to buy an ownership stake and then paid monthly dues to support the co-op's infrastructure.  Local grocers,  distributors and other small businesses now had leverage over manufactures and other suppliers to exert lower prices, better service, and other incentives.  It also helped the small guys compete with larger, more sophisticated corporate competition.  There were limits to their success however.

The problem was that co-ops were no more than a loose associated of individually-owned businesses with no real capital or governance to change business models to adapt to market conditions.  Ace Hardware, one of the largest ever created, is now a fraction of what it once was thanks to the rise of chains like Home Depot.  Associated Press was poised to thrive during the migration to digital news consumption, but could not get their media outlet owners to move quick enough (Innovator's Dilemma at play as well).  For an individual member who might have lost their small ownership stake in a declining cooperative, the real impact was on its underlying business that could not successfully compete.

Not all of them have been failures.  REI, which did close to $2B in revenue in 2012, has thrived as a member-owned coop.  REI is unique in that it operates similar to a public company with a board and governance provisions similar to larger concerns. Other successes can be seen in the meteoric rise of hospital system GPO's that address rising healthcare costs. The top six GPO's alone account for almost $750M in aggregate purchases serving close to 14,000 hospitals.  As the GPO's act as separate entities from their members, they are able to move quicker and focus better on its business objectives. 

There is a continuum of needs being addressed ranging from small discount plans to full service GPOs.  On the one hand, while the historic cooperatives may have be limited in their reach, they provided benefits with little commitment or loss of control from their members.  Large, successful GPOs offer a wider array of services, but take a larger cut of the pie (MedAssets, for example, operate at 30% EBITDA margins).  The risk in a broad shift to for-profit concerns is that the central focus turns away from member needs and towards padding individual bottom lines.

Small businesses have a hard time reacting to macro trends in their industry given their general internal focus and lack of resources required.  GPO's fill some this void but often come at a heavy price tag.  While this is probably no different from MSO or franchise organizations, the notion of a highly effective industry cooperative seems appealing.  Imagine if an entity like Associated Grocers was able to build a world-class distribution system to thwart the massive Walmart market share grab starting in the late 1990s.  It could've provided competitive equalization and perhaps kept more of the value chain with small businesses.  Or perhaps this is just summer nostalgia kicking in longing for childhood walks to Piggly Wiggly.