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Car Wars and the Fate of Tesla

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.

VRBO

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.

The Path of Least Resistance Has a Habit of Prevailing

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:

  1. Disrupt the market with better, faster cheaper
  2. Go for growth and scale over profits short term
  3. Use that scale to reach a critical mass
  4. Capture the market
  5. Take profits
  6. Expand into new markets
  7. Never stop

Meanwhile, the incumbents react in similar ways:

  1. Ignore the start-ups
  2. Accept the start-ups by offering some low-end solution
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


VRBO

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.


Luxury properties. VRBO Vacation Rentals.

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!

The Apple Has Fallen Far From the Tree

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.”