As Google Glass has made its way out of the Labs and into the earlier adopter community, there have been many strident reactions, policies drafted, and hands wrung. People wearing them are being christened “glassholes” and prominent early adopters are being skewered for playing with their new found toys. It reminds me of what’s about to happen with flying and floating drones. That’s another entry.
What is Google Glass? In short, it’s wearable computing that delivers first generation augmented reality capabilities. If you watched Pranav Mistry’s TED Talk of a few years ago, this is Google’s first attempt to make that world available to consumers and to move Android from phones/tablets into a new space.
I believe Google is to be commended for taking a big step into a brave new world on this technology. Wearable computing and augmented reality as part of our daily lives is inevitable and I like this as a first step. However, like all first attempts, there are going to be some growing pains and if history is any guide, Glass is more likely to flop than flourish.
When can you get yours? First you have to apply as to why you should get one and then pony up $1,500 for the privilege. Kind of like the early days of Gmail with invites on steroids.
Like all tools, these can be used for good or evil, that’s up to the person behind the lens. I’m curious to see how it will all play out over the next 5 years.
Amazon 2012 Financials (source EDGAR)
Click to Enlarge
One of the most fascinating things I’ve witnessed over the course of my career is the increased frequency and ease with which markets are changing. Technology is a catalyst in that and now we are seeing the change in markets accelerate from centuries to decades to single digit years just in the span of the last 50 years.
I’d like to zero in on one flavor of these changes in this post concentrating on two market change concepts: market disruption and market destruction. It’s difficult to tell which is happening until after the fact, so let’s start with some definitions/examples and then enter the discussion about their relative merits.
Market disruption is when a well established business or set of inter-dependent businesses which have been doing business in one way successfully for some period of time face a new set of conditions (materials pricing, technological changes, etc.) that force a fundamental change in relationships between these businesses and their suppliers, partners, competitors, and customers.
There are many examples of market disruption; my current favorite is the person-to-person ride share application Uber and how it’s impacting the taxi marketplace.
If you’ve ever ridden in a taxi, you know they are nasty, dirty, expensive, and unpleasant – at best. With Uber, individuals are able to connect to other willing individuals in near real-time to arrange a lift and the passenger then provides a “donation” to compensate the driver. Predictably, there are rooms full of taxi drivers whining about the fact that Uber drivers are de facto taxi drivers not subject to the same costs of doing business that they are forced to pay. If Uber and its competitors are successful, the notion of taxi companies, medallions, etc. are over. That’s a powerful market disruption being driven by the ubiquity of mobile devices and a clever application applied to a new business model in an existing inefficient market.
While taxi companies and traditional taxi drivers may suffer from this transition, taxi riders and “new” taxi drivers benefit from it having disintermediated the regulatory agencies and existing companies. The reason this is disruption is that after the event, there is still a viable market with profit available for participants post-disruption.
Market destruction shares many of the same characteristics of market disruption with the key difference being the lack of profit for remaining participants in the same market segment. The best current example I can provide for this is Amazon book selling. Back in the early days of internet 1.0 circa 199X, Amazon was disrupting the publishing market using electronic commerce coupled with volume purchase methods. The industry was old, inefficient, and brittle and was ripe for the picking. Amazon accelerated this change with the introduction of the Kindle and monetization of eBooks in the internet 2.0 era. Now post internet 2.0 you’ve got a company (Amazon) producing $61,093,000,000 ($61B) of sales in a single year (2012) incapable of producing a profit. They lost $39M in this same year (and admittedly, Amazon is much more than books these days, and yes, free cash flow does count for something.)
I would argue that what has happened to traditional book publishing and selling started as market disruption and morphed into market destruction as there is no remaining profit pool for participants. Unlike the Uber example, authors are not being directly connected to readers via technology with “publish on-demand” technology taking the cost out of production where we see a new, more efficient market driven by technology. Instead, we see a single company (Amazon) dominating a segment while producing no profit for shareholders and depressing prices artificially (because shareholders aren’t demanding a profit) so it’s impractical, probably impossible, for any other company to compete on an even footing.
Now in retrospect, it’s become clear that the book publishing/selling market has gone through a market destruction and will remain in that state until either Amazon shareholders demand consistent profitability or an Uber like approach can be used to create another market disruption that disintermediates Amazon. Fascinating to think about how that might come about.
For the record, I’m all for market disruption. In a very real way I’ve benefited from these transitions repeatedly throughout my career. I have very mixed feelings about market destruction. It reminds me of the dumping practices of semi-conductor companies in the 1980′s and smacks of anti-competitive practices. But, it’s tough to tell one from the other in real-time and frequently only becomes clear after the fact what we’re dealing with.
As a consumer and as an investor, you get to vote for which model you believe in. Next time you’re pressing the “Buy Now” button on Amazon, think for a moment if you want to continue to perpetuate their market destruction model. If you’re an Amazon shareholder, consider sending a message to Bezos and the Board that it’s time to provide a little ROI – the price per share can’t be sustained with the present course and speed.
Disclosure: I have no financial interest in the companies mentioned in this post. However, my Spouse is a writer and I’d like to see her compensated for her efforts rather than simply “donate” her work into the current system.
Disclosure: I am a Yahoo shareholder.
Last week Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer declared remote workers obsolete at the portal company. You can read all about the decision if you simply do a search on “Yahoo remote workers” and read until your heart is content.
About 15 years ago in Silicon Valley, it became possible to work outside the office environment effectively due to an increase in bandwidth, better mobile devices (laptops and phones primarily,) and a move toward software as the primary workspace for innovation. In the right circumstances, work from home (WFH) is a powerful tool that unleashes creativity, boosts productivity, enables a company to tap into talent that wouldn’t be accessible under normal “office” rules, and allows the company to save big $$$ on real estate and associated costs by having a smaller work space dedicated to staff.
Sun Microsystems was an early proponent of WFH and “flexible offices” where an employee could become essentially a floater and choose to work where they like. Options included full home office setups, the coffee shop, on the road, or in special on-site hotel-like environments where work space could be reserved for a temporary stint. Things have progressed since then with actual working video conference software, online collaboration tools, etc. and companies, large and small are depending upon WFH as a tool to help grow their business.
But WFH is not all puppy dogs and rainbows, there is a tradeoff. As worker and work are distributed, one loses a “center” and “community” associated with the joint activity in question. Serendipity of ideas drop steeply. The cultural aspect of the organization is strongly diluted or potentially lost.
Earlier on I said the circumstances have to be right for WFH to make sense. There are 3 aspects to the circumstances: the worker’s capability, the requirements of the job, and the state of the company.
Let’s start with the worker. An ideal candidate for a WFH worker is competent, confident, and independent. This worker does not heavily rely on others to learn on the job or teach on the job. This worker has the self-discipline to create structure and boundaries between their personal and professional lives and is not a “high touch” / “think out loud” kind of person in their work habits. The person is happiest when working independently and is highly productive in that mode. Many information workers fit this bill exactly.
Even if the worker is an ideal candidate, the role must also be conducive to WFH. Ideally, the role would require minimal physical interaction with others to begin with. The content of the role enables the worker performing the job to be largely successful through the fruits of their own labor. The results delivered by the role are tangible in some way – measurable minimally – and form the basis for judgment in the relative performance of the person in the role. Visibility requirements of the person performing the role should be minimal. Interaction required by the role should be manageable via technology – audio/video conference, web meetings, mail, etc. Many information technology roles fit this requirement.
Finally, even if the worker and the role are right, the company must be in the right state for WFH. If the company is in a fundamental transition or has high uncertainty, it’s tough to be remote and still be connected as the company navigates the changes. If the company is shrinking or failing, it’s tough to be remote and help change the trajectory. If the company has allowed “retirement in place” or has hired and/or retained a disproportionate number of “B” players, WFH is a death knell and will accelerate the deterioration of the company and its prospects.
If any one of these circumstances of worker, role, or company is not right, one misses the benefits of WFH and still experiences the downside of WFH.
Despite all the ink about how Ms. Mayer’s decision is regressive and will hurt Yahoo, I think she is being realistic about where the company is in its lifecycle and is taking steps to transform it from where it is toward a better future. There are sure to be negative effects from the decision. Yet in balance, I believe she is making a tradeoff to avoid the downside risks of WFH while refocusing the company and moving toward a turnaround.
No one likes it when freedoms previously available are taken away, especially those employees affected by decisions like this. But when the choice is same speed and trajectory leading toward no employment vs. unpopular decisions that make survival at least possible, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the difficult choice and support the leaders driving the change.
As a fractional owner of Yahoo, this decision is the latest data point that demonstrates to me that Ms. Mayer is serious about changing the prospects of the company and reaffirms my decision to hold a long position in the company.
Recently I had a conversation with an intern we have working with us at Coastside Ventures about a business she is considering. An interesting sub-topic of the conversation revolved around keeping costs low, which is a pretty good business practice all around. However, as we were having the dialogue, it became clear that we were mixing costs in our conversation which led to a point where we explicitly worked to separate them and talk about their relative merits.
Generally speaking, keeping costs low in your business is a path to increased profitability. It’s healthy, it’s a good thing. But not all costs are created equal. Some things, like the paper towels in your bathroom, are just that costs. Other things, like the packaging that surrounds your products are something other than simple costs. And other things, like your business cards, may have attributes shared between the paper towels and packaging.
When I think about costs, I tend to think about the things that are required to make the business run. Aside from paper towels referenced above, things like checking accounts, credit card processing, payroll services, storage shelving, shipping, etc. fall into this category. Without them, business is not possible, but aside from having them present, available, and usable, they don’t add any value to your intrinsic business. When it comes to costs, I advise being the biggest cheap-skate you can be and without crossing the line into products/services that are so cheap they don’t work. If you are by nature a penny-pincher, this is the place to be absolutely brutal and non-compromising.
Where one needs to be thoughtful is when the cost in question touches or could touch your customer. For instance, packaging as listed above. Fixtures, bags, labels, lighting, sounds, temperature, etc. Each of these are real costs that may not be directly attributable to your product as cost-of-goods-sold (COGS) but have a direct impact on how your customer or prospective customer experiences your company. This is a place where cheap can frequently have an unintended negative impact on your business. The key for this sort of cost is to view it as an investment in the customer experience seeking a balance between achieving the objective of advancing your business vs. the cost of the items required to deliver that experience as a percentage or ratio of sales. This is a place to be thoughtful, compromising, and consistent in terms of what you want your experience to be and what you want your brand to project.
There is a third aspect of this which is to understand when something from a “pure cost” category moves into something closer to an investment in customer experience. This is tricky because there are no hard and fast rules to adhere to. I’ll give 2 examples. If you have a public restroom available to customers, procuring the cheapest paper towels and soap might not be such a good idea. Why? Because your customers will experience that as part of your business and will notice the relative lack of quality in this area which could be a net negative impact to their experience. The second example is credit card processing. Sure, you can go get the lowest possible rate with a soul-less, common swiper/printer machine. However, think about the impact of having a customer use an iPad coupled with a Square reader – it could be the first time that this customer ever touches such a device and it says something about your business. There are clearly cheaper approaches to these topics, but at what price to your customer experience and brand?
So, to summarize this post: not all costs are created equally. Separate your costs into true costs to be cheap about, costs that you might want to make tradeoffs on for customer experience, and be sensitive to costs that may change over the course of your business and anticipate/respond accordingly. Good luck in your business!
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While the politicians in Washington were busy playing brinksmanship with the national economy, the “real” world went through the same cycle seen each January. For those lucky enough to make more money than the Social Security threshold (about $110,000 in 2012) started paying into the system again taking their net pay down. In addition this year, the “payroll tax holiday” was revoked so that everyone who pays into the social security system faced a 2% increase in their deductions or rather, a 2% reduction in their net income.
What does this mean in real terms? For an individual making $60,000/year their contribution rises from around $2,500/year to about $3,700/year. The employer, which must match the contribution sees the same increase in real dollars to pour into the system. While the debate raged on about raising taxes on those making more than $250,000/year and up, a real tax increase slipped through with very little in the way of public discourse or outcry. Curious that.
In addition, in California we saw sales tax rates increase state-wide by 0.25% in January, and many local governments had sales tax measures pass as well. For instance, in Half Moon Bay, the City had a 0.5% sales tax increase pass and San Mateo County had another 0.5% sales tax increase pass on the ballot. Practically, this means as of April 1, 2013, the sales tax rate will have increased from 8.25% to 9.5% for those who shop in Half Moon Bay, the second highest sales tax rate in California as an aside.
While payroll taxes are painful, sales taxes are doubly so. Why you ask? Because the money you are using to purchase those goods and services have already been taxed through the payroll system. I’m not an anti-tax nut, I believe we need to have money that we contribute into a common pool to provide for infrastructure and services that make society possible. However, I do think we need to make some fundamental choices about how we pay tax and what rates are sustainable for the average tax payer out there.
To start, we ought to make a choice about the total tax load (Federal, State, and Local) that will provide for the infrastructure and services we desire. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to determine what one’s tax rate is because we have payroll taxes, mandatory payroll deductions, “insurance” deductions, property tax, bond measures, sales taxes, use taxes, use fees, etc. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that over 50% of the average person’s wages are allocated to taxes, fees, and the like and that is not sustainable in the long run.
What we should consider is what can afford with 25% of GDP as a tax/fee/whatever threshold and then allocate that 15% to the Feds, 5% to the State, and 5% to the localities to pursue the people’s business. Once we have that in view, make a decision about how to levy those taxes – property taxes and use taxes might be the most equitable way of generating that funding (people do tend to have shelter and do tend to buy things to survive.) Do away with the other hidden taxes and fees and exempt no one (inclusive of corporations with person status) from contributing.
On the flip side, our public servants would need to do the work to sequence, prioritize, and optimize the shared investment we’re making in our government to ensure that the people’s priorities are reflected in that investment. With the rates we’re talking about, government at all levels would be forced to shrink. An additional side benefit of this approach, is it would like remove government interference on topics the government shouldn’t be engaged in anyway. It would also likely force some actual decisions on things like the efficacy of pennies, paper bills, drug policy, etc.
This will likely never happen, but it doesn’t hurt to dream. Right?
Coming back to the real world, we see this situation reflected in the shop at a micro-economics level. If an average month of sales has a value of 1, December was fantastic with 1.8 performance. On the flip side, consumers feeling a holiday hangover and the bite of less available cash have helped turn in a 0.4 performance in January. Even worse, the cost of labor has increased by 2% with the expiration of the payroll holiday. Couple lower sales and consumer confidence with higher costs and taxes, and you don’t have a recipe for great fiscal performance.
At over 700 words, this entry is done. I’ll rant again some other day. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.