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Mischief, managed – digital disruptors in need of legacy structures

Magic-Beans“Move fast and break things”. That is the motto of Facebook, and unofficially many of its contemporaries. While much of the most visible impact of new digital organisations has been on how they respond to, engage with and influence user behaviour, just as significant has been the extent to which these organisations have eschewed traditional business models, ways of working and other internal practices. This includes traditional measures of success (hence the above cartoon from The New Yorker), but also of transparency and leadership. Such issues will be the focus of this piece, to compare the old with the new, and where opportunities and challenges can be found.

What makes digital-first organisations different

It’s important to acknowledge the utterly transformative way that digital-first companies do business and create revenue, and how different this is from the way companies operated for the past century. Much of this change can be summed up in the phrase “disruptive innovation”, coined by the great Clayton Christensen way back in 1995. I got to hear from and speak to Clay at a Harvard Business Review event at the end of last year; a clear-thinking, inspiring man. There are few things today that organisations would still find use in from the mid-90s, and yet this theory, paradoxically, holds. The market would certainly seem to bear this concept out. Writing for the Financial Times in April, John Authers noted,

Tech stocks… are leading the market. All the Fang stocks — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — hit new records this week. Add Apple and Microsoft, and just six tech companies account for 29 per cent of the rise in the S&P 500 since Mr Trump was inaugurated.

The FANG cohort are entirely data-driven organisations that rely on user information (specifically user-volunteered information) to make their money. The more accurately they can design experiences, services and content around their users, the more likely they are to retain them. The greater the retention, the greater the power of network effects and lock-in. (Importantly, their revenue also make any new entrants easily acquirable prey, inhibiting competition). These are Marketing 101 ambitions, but they are being deployed at a level of sophistication the likes of which have never been seen before. Because of this, they are different businesses to those operating in legacy areas. These incumbents are encumbered by many things, including heavily codified regulation. Regulatory bodies have not yet woken up to the way these new companies do business; but it is only a matter of time. Until then though, the common consensus has been that, working in a different way, and without the threat of regulation, means traditional business structures can easily be discarded for the sake of efficiency; dismissed entirely as an analogue throwback.

The dangers of difference

One of the conceits of digital-first organisations is that they tend to be set up in order to democratise the sharing of services or data; disruption through liberalising of a product so that everyone can enjoy something previously limited via enforced scarcity (e.g. cheap travel, cheap accommodation). At the same time, they usually have a highly personality-driven structure, where the original founder is treated with almost Messianic reverence. This despite high-profile revelations of the Emperor having no clothes, such as with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey as well as Google, then Yahoo’s, now who-knows-where Marissa Mayer. She left Yahoo with a $23m severance package as reward for doing absolutely zero to save the organisation. Worse, she may have obstructed justice by waiting years to disclose details of cyberattacks. This was particularly galling for Yahoo’s suitor, Verizon as information came to light in the middle of its proposed purchase of the company (it resulted in a $350m cut to the acquisition price tag). The SEC is investigating. The silence on this matter is staggering, and points to a cultural lack of transparency that is not uncommon in the Valley. A recent Lex column effectively summarised this leader worship as a “most hallowed and dangerous absurdity”.

Uber’s embodiment of the founder-driven fallacy

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital group Andreessen Horowitz, once argued that good founders have “a burning, irrepressible desire to build something great” and are more likely than career CEOs to combine moral authority with “total commitment to the long term”. It works in some cases, including at Google and Facebook, but has failed dismally at Uber.

– Financial Times, June 2017

This culture that focuses on the founder has led to a little whitewashing (few would be able to name all of Facebook’s founders, beyond the Zuck) and a lot of eggs in one basket. Snap’s recent IPO is a great example of the overriding faith and trust placed in founders, given that indicated – as the FT calls it – a “21st century governance vacuum“. Governance appears to have been lacking at Uber, as well. The company endured months of salacious rumours and accusations, including candid film of the founder, Travis Kalanick, berating an employee. This all rumbled on without any implications for quite some time. Travis was Travis, and lip service was paid while the search for some profit – Uber is worth more than 80% of the companies on the Fortune 500, yet in the first half of last year alone made more than $1bn in losses – continued.

Uber’s cultural problems eventually reached such levels (from myriad allegations of sexual harassment, to a lawsuit over self-driving technology versus Google, to revelations about ‘Greyball’, software it used to mislead regulators), that Kalanick was initially forced to take a leave of absence. But as mentioned earlier, these organisations are personality-driven; the rot was not confined to one person. This became apparent when David Bonderman had to resign from Uber’s board having made a ludicrously sexist comment directed at none other than his colleague Arianna Huffington, that illustrated the company’s startlingly old-school, recidivist outlook. This at a meeting where the company’s culture was being reviewed and the message to be delivered was of turning a corner.

A report issued by the company on a turnaround recommended reducing Kalanick’s responsibilities and hiring a COO. The company has been without one since March. It is also without a CMO, CFO, head of engineering, general counsel and now, CEO. Many issues raise themselves as a start-up grows from being a small organisation to a large one. So it is with Uber – one engineer described it as “an organisation in complete, unrelenting chaos” – as it will be with other firms to come. There is only a belated recognition that structures had to be put in place, the same types of structures that the organisations they were disrupting have in place. The FT writes,

“Lack of oversight and poor governance was a key theme running through the findings of the report… Their 47 recommendations reveal gaping holes in Uber’s governance structures and human resources practices.”

These types of institutional practices are difficult to enforce in the Valley. That is precisely because their connotations are of the monolithic corporate mega-firms that employees and founders of these companies are often consciously fighting against. Much of their raison d’être springs from an idealistic desire to change the world, and methodologically to do so by running roughshod over traditional work practices. This has its significant benefits (if only in terms of revenue), but from an employee experience it is looking like an increasingly questionable approach. Hadi Partovi, an Uber investor and tech entrepreneur told the FT, “This is a company where there has been no line that you wouldn’t cross if it got in the way of success”. Much of this planned oversight would have been anathema to Kalanick, which ultimately is why the decision for him to leave was unavoidable. Uber now plans to refresh its values, install an independent board chairman, conduct senior management performance reviews and adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment.

Legacy lessons from an incumbent conglomerate

Many of the recommendations in the report issued to Uber would be recognised by anyone working in a more traditional work setting (as a former management consultant, they certainly ring a bell to me). While the philosophical objection to such things has already been noted, the notion of a framework to police behaviour, it must also be recognised, is a concept that will be alien to most anyone working in the Valley. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center of Corporate Governance, clarified, “The spoiled brats of Silicon Valley don’t know the basics. It is a revelation for Silicon Valley: ‘duh, you have to have HR people, you can’t sleep with each other… you have to be respectful’.”

Meanwhile, another CEO stepped down recently in more forgiving circumstances, recently but which still prompted unfavourable comparisons; Jeff Immelt of General Electric. As detailed in a stimulating piece last month in The New York Times, Immelt has had a difficult time of it. Firstly, he succeeded in his role a man who was generally thought to be a visionary CEO; Jack Welch. Fortune magazine in 1999 described him as the best manager of the 20th century. So no pressure for Immelt there, then. Secondly, Immelt became Chairman and CEO four days before the 9/11 attacks, and also had the 2008 financial crisis in his tenure. Lastly, since taking over, the nature of companies, as this article has attempted to make clear, has changed radically. Powerful conglomerates no longer rule the waves.

Immelt has, perhaps belatedly, been committed to downsizing the sprawling offering of GE in order to make it more specialised. Moreover, the humility of Immelt is a million miles from the audacity, bragaddacio and egotism of Kalanick, acknowledging, “This is not a game of perfection, it’s a game of progress.”

So while the FANGs of the world are undoubtedly changing the landscape of business [not to mention human interaction and behaviours], they also need to recognise that not all legacy structures and processes are to be consigned to the dustbin of management history, simply because they work in a legacy industry sector. Indeed, more responsibility diverted from the founder, greater accountability and transparency, and a more structured employee experience might lead to greater returns, higher employee retention rates and perhaps even mitigate regulatory scrutiny down the line. The opportunity is there for those sensible enough to grasp it.

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New realities of competitive advantage

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This week’s purchase of Yahoo suggests Verizon’s strategy department thinks much the same way as myriad other organisations; “size matters”. Whether it’s about minimising risk or increasing economies of scale, such logic has steered many companies to successful tenures. However, there are new trends in the marketplace that make such aphorisms more and more contentious.

It was a couple of years ago now that Rita McGrath wrote about “the end of sustainable competitive advantage”. Prior to this, the arrival of digital was, in general, supposed to have done away with such things. But perhaps the most recognisable face of the digital revolution over the past decade has been none other than Facebook. Facebook has consistently maintained competitive advantage through a savvy use of lock-in via network effects and an aggressive proclivity to buy out any competition (see Instagram, Whatsapp). Users spend about 50 minutes per day across these platforms.

What about organisations outside of TMT? For several years now, Zeitgeist has seen qual data showing the waning power of branding. As we’ve written extensively about in previous posts, this is partly to do with information asymmetry. In the early days of advertising, it wasn’t easy for an average person to be able to know much about a product like Colgate; a brand identity was a quick way to communicate what expectations a consumer should have. Nowadays, almost entirely due to the internet and digital communication, we are able to quickly ascertain what products meet our requirements (what size tube do I need), which are bullshitting (how much whiter teeth?) and which our friends use (still ranked as the most important data point for trying a new product). Companies like Colgate sit in the Consumer Packaged Goods [CPG] category, where most of the world’s most instantly recognisable brands reside. But according to research from Boston Consulting Group, between 2011 and 2015, CPG companies lost nearly three percentage points of market share in the US. Nestle has missed its sales growth targets for the past three years.

Part of what’s hitting the CPG sector is a sustained enthusiasm for “local”. Zeitgeist first saw this trend emerging in 2011 when he worked in a strategic capacity for retailers who were increasingly looking to tailor their store design and offering to the area they were in. This is happening in media too, where local content in the Chinese market is quickly adapting to the pyrotechnics and thrills of imported Hollywood fare, and reaping the rewards. Many of China’s businesses are built on being the home-grown version of x foreign product. Uber’s recent deal with Didi Chuxing is an example of this. Moreover, if you’ve decided you’re happy to pay a premium for a product, it is increasingly unlikely you’ll choose a mass produced one. A real treat would be buying a nice cheese from Jermyn Street’s Paxton & Whitfield, not from one of the thousands of Waitrose stores in the country. Deloitte report that US consumers would pay at least 10% more for the “craft” version of a good, a greater share than would pay extra for convenience or innovation.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, digital has had a profound impact on lowering barriers to entry. From The Economist,

[New entrants] can outsource production and advertise online. Distribution is getting easier, too: a young brand may prove itself with online sales, then move into big stores. Financing mirrors the same trend: last year investors poured $3.3 billion into private CPG firms, according to CB Insights, a data firm—up by 58% from 2014 and a whopping 638% since 2011.

Digital’s impact has also been to dovetail with the trends already mentioned. Consumers’ turning away from brand messaging and interest for local is a quest for authenticity in a crowded market. Rightly or wrongly, no other tactic has proved so successful to communicate a roughshod authenticity as the viral video over the past ten years. New entrants are communicating using different channels but also in different ways, that make incumbents uncomfortable. As pointed out though in an editorial from the FT this weekend, “It is tempting to see these young companies as miracles of branding. In fact, they expose outdated industry structures and offer dramatically more value to consumers.”

Large organisations, sensing the eroding advantage, are responding in different ways. P&G is increasingly focusing on its top tier brands, selling off or consolidating around 100 others. Unilever recently bought the famous Dollar Shave Club, and VC arms are popping up at companies like General Mills (think Lucky Charms) and Deloitte, which like other firms is also thinking about how to avoid disruption.

At the start of this piece we mentioned two reasons that going big could lead to sustained advantage: minimising risk and establishing economies of scale. In our eyes, the former is more at risk than ever, as firestorms on platforms like Twitter and Periscope can eviscerate a brand more quickly than ever; VW’s vast operations have not saved it from significant reputational damage. Economies of scale are also a risky proposition, as The Economist points out “Consolidating factories has made companies more vulnerable to the swing of a particular currency, points out Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets”.

But what about Facebook? At the start of the article we talked about its ongoing rule of the social world, but that definition seems too narrow for what the platform is trying to accomplish. Zuckerberg has talked about Facebook becoming a “utility” as part of a long-term vision over the coming decades. This is interesting given this is exactly what every mobile phone network operator in the world is trying to avoid. Reflecting on Yahoo’s demise last week, the Financial Times wrote that “the Achilles heel of each new wave of technology is that it eventually turns into a utility”. Teens don’t tend to find utilities exciting, and perhaps then it is no surprise that Pew reports declining usage and engagement with the platform from this age group. For Facebook then, commoditisation is as much a risk as disruption by a new entry.

 

Regulating in the face of digital disruption

April 30, 2014 1 comment

peter-c-vey--these-new-regulations-will-fundamentally-change-the-way-we-get-around-the…-new-yorker-cartoon_i-G-65-6596-IDO2100ZHaving studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).

Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.

Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.

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East and West shook up a regulatory framework with the recent release of “300: Rise of an Empire” via China’s Tencent website

Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,

“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”

Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,

“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”

While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.

The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.

UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.