It was the year 1973 that in many ways shaped my disposition on life. I was 18, just graduating from high school. In my senior year, we scrapped reading the history books as we watched it unfold real time on live TV. The Nixon administration — our government — was crumbling. There was the very real prospect of having my “number” be called for Selective Service. (The Vietnam War was still raging, but fortunately, the lottery draft ended in December 1973.) And then the Oil Crisis hit, as OPEC flexed its muscle by limiting supplies and causing shortages and gas prices to skyrocket. All this, unsurprisingly, led to a recession.
And that’s how my first year of adulthood started.
But here is the thing: my generation — the Baby Boomers — had it easy.
We knew we had it easy because our parents — the Greatest Generation — who went through the Great Depression and World War II, would never let us forget how much they sacrificed for us. And they were right.
Yes, our lives were shaped by those crises of confidence in our government, the realization that we did not control the world’s energy and hence didn’t have quite the dominance or independence we we thought we had, and, of course, by the quagmire in Vietnam. All these events and crises were significant. I still look at gas prices and I don’t even own a car. It’s a habit.
But those events, and the effect they had on my generation, are a mere pittance in comparison to how Corona Pandemic will shape the generation coming of age today.
This crisis is far from over. But I predict, that when it is, when we have survived and reflected and assessed what went wrong and what to do to prevent it again, the Boomers will be in their proverbial rockers.
The generations that follow — especially the Milennials and others who were old enough to remember this event and what life was like before — will have had their collective psyche altered.
And these generations will speak to their children and their grandchildren about it. They will have the stories to tell, for the rest of this century.
Another episode in the great consolidation of the shifting giants of automobile manufacturers has begun.
Fiat-Chrysler is proposing a merger with Renault to create the No. 3 automobile manufacturer in the world, behind VW and Toyota. This will knock General Motors into the No. 4 slot.
Tesla is more than a car company. This makes it unlikely an auto company will acquire them. So who is a likely buyer?
What’s driving the consolidation? According to reports, there are two things: the industry has to achieve economies of scale. Go big or go home. The other is the rapid acceleration (pardon the pun) toward electrification. The costs for moving to EV production are not insignificant.
And that raises an interesting question about Tesla, the little auto company that upset the entire industry by producing the first truly successful EV. Can it survive? Will it be acquired?
It is unlikely it will be acquired by another auto manufacturer. The numbers don’t work for car companies, because their market value — the price of their stock times the outstanding shares in the market place — doesn’t give them enough leverage to buy such a small company for such a hefty price, especially a company that is losing money.
Tesla’s stock has been sinking as of late, due to dire news reports that Tesla is running out of funding. But even still, the market cap for innovative California concern is $33 billion. By comparison, Ford is $12.8 billion.
Perhaps VW could pull it off. With a total market value of $73.4 billion, it has the market cap to make it work. But then, one might ask, “why bother?”
VW is planning 27 new electric vehicles in the next three years (by 2022). It has the economies of scale to crank these vehicles out at a much cheaper cost than Tesla.
It could be for the battery technology. Tesla has invested heavily here.
Or it could be for Tesla’s long lead in autonomous driving. Tesla has innovated far beyond any of the other manufacturers in “crowd sourcing” data from its drivings and from sensors on those vehicles on the road. Using AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning, it is able to provide over-the-air continuous improvements to the vehicles, and, perhaps of more significance, it is able to use that data to develop improvements in its autonomous driving capabilities.
As I have written earlier, I believe an Apple acquisition makes more sense. Apple has the market capitalization and cash on hand to swallow Tesla whole without making a dent in its reserves or market value.
I have taken some heat for these comments, mostly along the lines of: “Apple knows nothing about manufacturing cars.”
True. And this could be to their advantage. It knew nothing about the retail industry before disrupting that entire model with the Apple store. It knew nothing about phones before disrupting that entire industry with the iPhone.
Apple knows how to hire the right talent to move into a new industry, in my view.
And Tesla is not just a car company. It is into distributed energy storage (Powerwall), which is an ideal “vehicle” for Apple to get into the home (where it has failed to date against Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Nest) and to do so by “leapfrogging the competition,” rather than just following them.
This will be one for the business textbooks for years go come. Unfortunately for Uber, it’s initial public offering (IPO) is the perfect case study for all the wrong reasons:
The company waited nine years before its IPO. If it had delayed in order to achieve some level of a true business model, that might have been one thing. But in this case, all signs of that being achievable are vague at best.
In fact, the company showed no signs of a roadmap to profitability, now burning $1.8 billion a year and a staggering $10.7 billion in losses over the lifespan of the company.
CEO Dean Khosrowshahi was handed a compensation package tied to an inflated valuation for the company at the time of IPO. If the company reached a $120 billion in market value at IPO and remained there for 90 days, he was to be awarded $100 million.
Much of the stock was in private hands already, through a network of investors, many of whom included those who were expected to buy again at the market price when the company went public. They weren’t thrilled about it, to say the least, which is why the IPO price dropped from $45 to $42 at the last minute.
Even the underwriters were wary of the price and were shorting employing “naked shorts,” a highly questionable tactic, which in most cases is illegal and in this case was detrimental to the overall IPO.
The market is souring on the Unicorns, companies with $1 billion+ valuations that emphasize gaining market share over profitability.
Lyft, which itself had just gone public and is Uber’s main competitor, had only days before Uber’s IPO posted less than favorable “earnings” (i.e. losses) statements.
Can Uber survive this? Buried deep in its S-1 prospectus, the company makes this rather pointed statement:
“Our business would be adversely affected if Drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors.”
Uber S1 filing with the SEC
What this means is that Uber, which is paying a median rate of $8.55 per hour to U.S. drivers, with female drivers making on average of $1.24 an hour less than their male counterparts, is essentially admitting it cannot stay in business if it must act like a regular, grown-up company.
Days before the Uber IPO, Lyft and Uber drivers went “on strike” by turning off their apps, to protest their low wages. Driver turnover will be a main concern. If Uber is not able to address this, it could ultimately affect user experience.
And now that the company is public, the pressure will be on. Under the glaring spotlight of earnings reports, Uber must continually convince shareholders, analysts and pundits that it is on the path to a sustainable business.
And while it is doing this, it has to bet big (via R&D investments) on autonomous driving, in the hopes it can do an end-run around (no pun intended) its driver problem. But it is highly unlikely that this is going to come soon enough. There are myriad regulatory hurdles, not to mention technological and social acceptance issues.The company claims it is modeling its business on Amazon, which focused on gaining market share and ran at a loss for 14 years before turning a profit. But Amazon started very, very modestly compared to Uber. (Amzon’s S-1, by comparison, had the goal of being “the bookseller to the world.”)
Also in Uber’s S-1 filing, the company states:
“We do the right thing, period.”
I guess we’ll see what that means in the coming months.
I have never been a big fan of mergers and/or acquisitions. What looks good “on paper” invariably ends in a much-less-than ideal situation. I can count on one hand the mergers I have seen or been involved in that had a semblance of success. I can’t calculate the number I have seen fail.
So, with that disclaimer, let me lay out the reasons I think it is a great time for Apple to buy Tesla.
Tesla is a consumer technology company. Apple is a consumer technology company. Both companies are making high-end gear that has comparatively high profit margins. It’s a perfect fit.
Tesla needs a White Knight. Elon Musk is a character and has done what no other human could, single-handedly changing the automotive industry and focusing the world’s attention on renewable energy as the future for transportation. But, as is the case with many founders, he has reached his capacity to govern. And with myriad other interests (The Boring Company, SpaceX), his attention span is spread thinly. Tim Cook knows operations. He can make Tesla work and make it work economically so that it can scale. And Apple has the deep pockets to make that happen.
Speaking of Tim Cook, he needs a visionary, or at least a vision. Elon has laid it out for Tesla: to accelerate the world’s use of sustainable energy for transportation and the home and beyond. It’s simple, it’s bold, it’s brilliant, it’s do-able. Tim can get it done. And here’s the beauty of this scenario: Tim doesn’t need Elon to make it happen. Tim has already proven that. It has been 8 years since the inimitable Steve Jobs passed away. And Tim has done quite well by the vision that Jobs laid out. The problem is, that vision has reached the end of the road and Tim needs a new one. Tesla would set the company on the right path.
So what is that vision? It’s all about the home. That’s right. Tesla gets Apple in the home. Tesla is much, much more than a “car” company. It’s ultimate vision, with Solar City and Powerwall and Tesla is a system of renewable energy from home to auto and beyond. Apple has been a laggard in getting into the home. Amazon has Alexa. Google has Nest. Apple is a follower in this space. No other company has the holistic view of providing these kinds of technologies to the home owner.
It’s all about the car. OK, so No. 4 was a bit of a click-bait. Yes, acquiring Tesla gets Apple into the world that is rapidly heading to autonomous transportation. This is a no-brainer. It’s exactly the holistic systems approach to a whole new market that Apple needs. It’s way, way behind Uber, Google and others that have been investing heavily in this arena. Apple needs to not only catch up, but leapfrog the competition.
Closed ecosystems. Apple has built the largest consumer tech company on a closed ecosystem. As much as it pains me to say so (coming from the world of Unix and open source), it is a brilliant strategy. By controlling every aspect of its hardware, software and services, Apple can provide a user experience that is unparalleled in the industry. Mind you, I have many, many complaints — as do we all — about shortcomings that Apple needs to fix (iTunes, iCloud are woefully outdated, for starters). But it is showing promise. It’s now on a run-rate with services to be over $40 billion in revenue a year. That’s something like No. 236 on the list of Fortune 400 companies if Apple Services were a stand-alone entity. Meanwhile, Tesla has built its own ecosystem with massive reams of data on users’ miles driven. It can provide over-the-air updates based on Big Data analysis of what customers want and need. It is unbeatable in the automotive market today for continuous improvement. And this gives it a long, long lead in the world of autonomous driving.
Fiercely loyal customers. Ever talked to a Tesla owner?
They are proud, they are excited, they are adamant. Same with most Apple users, although this has dipped as of late. But each company has locked their users into an ecosystem. And the users love it, because the highly-integrated experience it provides cannot be matched by their respective competitors.
It’s all about “showing me the money.” Tesla is scrounging for funding, while Apple has a big, big problem to the tune of about $245 billion that it needs to invest wisely. How many stock buybacks can the company do? Investors want to see those funds used to increase their shareholder value. Apple could pay a super premium and purchase Tesla outright for about $100 billion and still have more money than most countries in the world. But more than that, it would be able to, pardon the pun, shine the headlights on the future.
Full disclosure: I own no shares personally in either company. My spouse is a former Apple employee and acquired shares during her tenure. I don’t know how many and don’t care to ask.
For every action, Newton tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction. True in physics. Not necessarily so in business.
In another case of a traditional industry reacting in traditional ways to an untraditional threat, we have incumbent Marriott, the largest purveyor of hotel rooms in the world, drawing a line in the sand against that pesky start-up, AirBnB. Marriott is launching its “Homes & Villas,” which is a premium home rental service, very similar to what AirBnB offers with its AirBnB Plus service.
The fact is, in just a few short years, AirBnB, which owns no properties, has turned a software platform into a network that can claim about 5 times as many rental nights as Marriott alone.
The fact is, AirBnB has turned the hotel industry upside down. And the hotel industry is trying to adjust to the new game. But is it enough?
As has been the case with myriad industries, the incumbent struggles with a major dilemma: How to protect its cash-cow-generating machine while cannibalizing that machine to combat the attacker.
It rarely works. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to come up with an example where it has worked.
Uber and Lyft can be annoying to use. But is there any comparison with taking a taxi? Does anyone enjoy a taxi more? At least with Uber and Lyft you know the price, the driver’s name, his/her ratings, the length of the trip, and you never, ever have to worry about being “taking for a ride” for an additional 45 minutes to drive up the fare.
Yes, the auto industry is swapping out internal combustion engines for batteries faster than you can say “rickety-split.” But in the meantime, Tesla has rewritten the rules by amassing millions of miles of user data to be able to provide over-the-air updates to their customers. The other guys aren’t close, at least not yet.
The reaction of Blockbuster to Netflix has become a Business 101 case study. Blockbuster’s reaction to Netflix is a beauty. Blockbuster actually thought customers would enjoy the experience of traveling to the store to pick up a USB drive, vs. clicking a few clicks on a website from the comfort of their own homes.
The list goes on, with Amazon (not only in books and everything else, but in cloud services, an industry it single-handedly created right under the noses of the biggest hardware and software companies in the world). Google did the same thing with online advertising.
The pattern for the challengers is very similar. They enter an existing market orthogonally, usually using technology to rewrite the business rules. Their strategy is to:
Disrupt the market with better, faster cheaper
Go for growth and scale over profits short term
Use that scale to reach a critical mass
Capture the market
Expand into new markets
Meanwhile, the incumbents react in similar ways:
Ignore the start-ups
Accept the start-ups by offering some low-end solution
Realize the offering isn’t working and then do some soul-searching as to how to truly protect their territory and preserve their cash-cow-machine.
Struggle with their hybrid business model and their legacy infrastructure while the new guys breeze through encumbered.
This pattern has repeated itself multiple times in the past 25 years or so and is documented in the brilliant book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Clay Christensen.
Having just spent the past three months traveling the world and using both AirBnB and VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owners) for about 80 percent of my nights, I can tell, unequivocally that the value that the challengers are providing to the hotel industry is noticeable. The average nightly cost is about half of what a comparable hotel would cost, and with that you get a kitchen, washer, dryer, a living room area. A hotel’s offering would be a square room with a bathroom and a Keurig coffee maker, if you’re lucky.
Now, I’m a big fan of Clay and the book, but I had the chance to have dinner with him some time back (2006) and I posed the question to the Harvard professor: “Why isn’t your industry (higher education) vulnerable to this challenge?”
He gave me a long, unsatisfying response.
This was long before Kahn Academy, Udemy, Teachable, even YouTube had come along that provide the ability to learn just about anything for free or a small fee. Yes, it’s not perfect by a long shot. But, as with all the other cases, you can see where it is heading.
Like it or not, this disruptive force is unstoppable in virtually every industry. If it can be disrupted, it will be disrupted.
Electricity, it is said, follows the path of least resistant. That might a more apropos “law” for business than any of Newton’s.
Links to products are on a referral basis, which means the author receives a commission — at no cost to you — should you decide to purchase using the link. You have the ability to bypass and go directly to any online retailer of your choice or your local book store. Regardless, it’s a great book!
It’s all about services. That’s the message from Apple Inc. these days. It’s a good line and it should be true. It’s the perfect opportunity for the world’s most recognized consumer technology brand.
But if this is a true pivot, then the best place for the company to start is with its mission statement. This is the sentence or two that should describe what a company’s vision, goals and aspirations are. Here’s Apple’s today:
Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad
Notice anything strange about that statement? To begin with, it’s not a mission statement. It’s about what Apple does today, not about what it wants to become. It doesn’t even mention services, at least overtly. And what’s with the bragging? Who needs that? How does that inspire any employee, customer or partner of this massive conglomerate?
Let’s look, in contrast, to the mission statement Steve Jobs put out in the 1980s:
“To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”
Whoa. Notice the difference? This isn’t about what they do but about what they desire to be. It’s positive, inspirational, aspirational, passionate, clear of purpose and bold.
And therein lies the difference between the “Steve Jobs” Apple and the “Tim Cook” Apple.
Tim seems to be a nice guy, a decent guy. He has done an admirable job keeping the engines running. So I wouldn’t go as far as to say Apple has lost its way since Jobs’s death; it has simply drifted aimlessly. It has no vision. It has no focus. It has no passion about making a “contribution to the world.”
Don’t get me wrong: Apple is an amazing company. It has amazing products. I use many of them every day. I am probably the best example of an Apple customer: loyal to a fault. I appreciate quality over price. I appreciate ease of use. I want everything to work seamlessly together and I’m willing to pay for that, too. (I am a musician and Apple makes the best tools for producing music today.) I have nearly every Apple product or service.
But what has the company truly done since September 2011? It has grown its user base of iPhone customers to 1.3 billion. It has launched Apple pay, the watch, Air Buds, acquired Beats, launched Apple Music. It has amassed $235 Billion in cash on hand. It’s still making money hand over fist.
With Jobs gone, Tim Cook has focused on running the company, that Jobs built. Meanwhile Jony Ive, the design genius, has gone off the deep end with form over function. Every product that Apple makes these days requires a handful of expensive dongles to make it work. But boy, are those products pretty to look at. So sleek, so simple.
What’s clear is that neither Tim Cook nor Jony Ive know where to go next.
With a closed ecosystem of 1.3 billion users, millions of app developers, and a fully integrated set of technologies, the obvious answer is services. Yes, it has built services into a $10 billion business over the past 10 years. That’s admirable. But it’s not nearly enough.
iCloud is dated, outdated even. While DropBox and Box innovate and create new offerings, iCloud still offers a measly 200 Gb of space and for that you have to pay. Every iPhone or Mac or iPad user ought to get this for free. And have you tried using Photos or iTunes and dragging and dropping files between those apps and iCloud? It’s a mess. Speaking of iTunes, it is even more of a mess. The user interface is completely unintuitive. And this is the umbrella product for TV, for apps, for music that you buy, but NOT for streaming music. Oh, no, that’s a different service.
Apple is supposedly relaunching a TV service. But Netflix, the preeminent video streaming service, isn’t playing along. Apple’s also trying to consolidate news organizations, but, again, not everyone wants to join. It has massive clout to make things happen. It is giving Spotify a run for its money, for instance. But it is still rudderless and these seem like toe-dipping exercises compared to what it could do with such a massive, locked-in user base.
And what about totally new markets? Autonomous vehicles? Virtual or augmented reality? Internet of Things? Well, they may or may not be working on these things. Apple is a very secretive company. But consider this: Right now, Amazon is spending about $23 billion in research and development. That’s about twice Apple’s budget. Twice the budget of a company that prides itself on making the “best personal computers in the world.”
Meanwhile, Amazon has launched several new products and services, including Kindle for reading and voice-activated digital assistants (Alexa). And it launched an entire new industry with Amazon Web Services for cloud computing. Love them or hate them, Amazon is focused. And guess what, they have a mission statement that reflects that focus:
“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company, to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
For a guy who spent the better part of his career in high technology, you might be scratching your head at the name of my blog. So let me explain it to you.
When I first started my career in tech, back in 1993, it was a golden time. The world looked so promising. Technology could solve so many problems. It could be the great equalizer. When the World Wide Web hit that year, we talked a great deal about the “democratization of information.”
How’s that working out do you suppose? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the world of technology, that reaction is usually in the form of what is known as an unintended consequence.
We build stuff. We put it into the market place. We have great hopes for the goodness it will bring mankind. Only problem is, we have no idea what the side effects are until we put it out there. Genetically modified foods (GMO), nuclear power, Facebook. They all sounded like good ideas at the time. Nobody expected for a moment anything bad to happen.
But, invariably and inevitably, it does.
That’s what this blog is about: Taking a critical look at the unintended consequences of our world of technology. So why the Iron Age Epilog? Well, we have been at this game a lot longer than just the past 25 or so years.
The word “smog” was coined in 1905 to describe the combination of fog and coal-generated pollution in the dampness of old London. Smog didn’t exist before then.
Well, actually it might have. In fact, it is theorized that humans first developed lung cancer shortly after taking their newfound skills of producing fire indoors, into a cave.
So we have been at this game a long time. Iron Age Epilog is just a way to describe that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Also, Iron Age Epilog happens to be an anagram for my first and last name. So welcome to my new blog. I hope you find it enlightening, insightful, thought provoking or at least entertaining.