Wise words on business strategy from another Seth

If you build your business around being the lowest-cost provider, that’s all you’ve got. Everything you do has to be a race in that direction, because if you veer toward anything else (service, workforce, impact, design, etc.) then a competitor with a more single-minded focus will sell your commodity cheaper than you.

Cheapest price is the refuge for the marketer with no ideas left or no guts to implement the ideas she has.

Everyone needs to sell at a fair price. But unless you’ve found a commodity that must remain a commodity, a fair price is not always the lowest price. Not when you understand that price is just one of the many tools available.

A short version of this riff: The low-price leader really doesn’t need someone with your skills.

That’s Seth Godin and that’s from his blog.

Something to consider when evaluating business opportunities

From Blake Masters’ notes of Peter Thiel’s (founder of PayPal) class on startups (emphasis added).

Suppose you want to start a restaurant in Palo Alto that will serve only British food. It will be the only such restaurant in Palo Alto. “No one else is doing it,” you might say. “We’re in a class of our own.” But is that true? What is the relevant market? Is it the market for British food? Or the restaurant market in general? Should you consider only the Palo Alto market? Or do people sometimes travel to or from Menlo Park or Mountain View to eat?

These questions are hard, but the bigger problem is that your incentive is not to ask them at all. Rather, your incentive is to rhetorically shrink the market. If a bearish investor reminds you that 90% of restaurants fail within 2 years, you’ll come up with a story about how you’re different. You’ll spend time trying to convince people you’re the only game in town instead of seriously considering whether that’s true.

You should wonder whether there are people who eat only British food in Palo Alto. In this example, those are the only people you have pricing power over. And it’s very possible that those people don’t exist.

Many bad business decisions are based on bad market analysis. There may be a reason why you’d be the only British food restaurant around — nobody wants it.

I see this mistake made often in the business world. Business leaders see something like ‘no British food restaurants around’ and mistake that opportunity for an opportunity like ‘the world really needs an iPod.”

Granted. It is hard to tell those two types of opportunities apart. But, so often is the case that the person making the decision doesn’t consider that they might be wrong, or see if it has already been tried and, if so, consider why it didn’t work the other times it was tried.

They should also deeply consider who will value their product and why, which gets to Thiel’s comment about pricing power. These are the only people who want it.

I can do without potato chips. They don’t do much for me. I never buy them for myself. I sometimes eat them if they come with a meal that was provided for me or if I just feel too lazy to ask for a substitution.

Potato chip companies have no pricing power over me. They can raise and lower their prices all they want, that won’t make me buy any less or any more potato chips. Fortunately, for them, there are plenty of people who do value potato chips and are willing to buy them.

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Why did you buy that?

Art Carden writes that Entrepreneurs Serve Public Better Than Politicians (H/T: Speedmaster at The Pretense of Knowledge).

I agree. I agree.

While on a trip to Vegas, Carden found a profit opportunity. Two nearby Starbucks were selling coffee at different prices. The higher priced Starbucks was busier (sounds like they got their pricing right). Carden bought two cups of coffee at the cheaper (and less busy Starbucks), brought them to the line at the busier and more expensive Starbucks and sold them for a profit to people standing in line.

As Carden sums it up:

The 97 cents I earned was my reward for taking a risk on my hunch that two cups of coffee would be more valuable downstairs than upstairs.

According to Deirdre McCloskey, this is the key to the wealth of the modern world. That we live in a world in which buying low and selling high is at least tolerated encourages economic growth. The great irony of this is that merchants tend to be scorned or otherwise not trusted. But who is the real public servant: the politician deciding he will take more of your money by force so that he can accomplish his goals, or the merchant who decides he wants more of your money and offers you a hot cup of tasty coffee in return?

I have one beef with the column. To make his great point that business folks do more to serve their fellow-man than politicians, he brushed over a key point on value creation.

Most people think of business people as McCloskey put it, someone who buys low and sells high.

That’s too simple.

Why were the folks in line at the more expensive Starbucks willing to pay Carden more than he paid for the coffee?

The answer to that is why business people can “sell high”, if they’re lucky. That is the value creation process.

And the beauty of that process is that it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the reasons we’re willing to pay what we pay for things.

Perhaps Carden’s buyers were in a hurry, he had what they wanted, so he saved them time. Maybe Carden looks like a trustworthy fellow, had a big smile on his face and his buyers got some value out of his charm. Or maybe, they saw him speak the day before, and thought that he was up to something clever, so they thought they’d play along.

If the reason they bought Carden’s coffee had anything to do with saving time, then Carden had solved what economist Friederich Hayek called the knowledge problem. Carden had knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. He knew of a nearby Starbucks with lower prices and shorter lines.

This is knowledge that most of the folks waiting in line at the other Starbucks did not have or did not value enough to act on.

Two people valued it and bought out Carden’s inventory.

Carden took a risk. He could have wound up with no takers, in which case he would have two grande cups of coffee to drink.

Since Carden wasn’t sure whether anyone would buy from him, he didn’t invest much.  He exhibited prudence, as I wrote about in the previous post, by limiting his risk to two cups of coffee.

Business people experiment all the time. They usually don’t know what people will value any more than you or I. They are following their hunches, observing and trying things to find something people value.

It doesn’t always work. Most business owners have experienced failures. They bought two cups of coffee and couldn’t find buyers.

The businesses we trade with every day are the few experiments that worked. For each one, there were likely dozens or maybe even hundreds that failed.

Further, once a business has established its success, we tend to take its success as a given and forget the failures and risk the business owners took to find the success. We have a tendency to question their profits rather than praise the value they bring us.

We forget that even Carden’s customers profited. Most likely, they gained time that was valuable to them.

“I’m not your best friend, I’m your only friend”

Mitt Romney should adapt this speech from Larry the Liquidator, from the movie Other Peoples Money, for his campaign.

I especially like Larry’s 10-year analysis. Here’s Larry’s version (to shareholders):

For the last ten years, this company has bled your money. Did this community ever say, ‘we know times are tough, we’ll lower taxes, reduce water & sewer.’ Check it out. You’re paying twice what you did 10 years ago.

And our devoted employees, who have taken no increases for the past 3 years, are still making twice what they made 10 years ago.

And our stock? 1/6th what is was 10 years ago.

Here’s a version for Romney:

For the last 10 years, our government has bled our money. Did they ever come to you and say, ‘we know times are tough, we’ll share your pain, we’ll lower government spending so you can invest more and grow the economy, that way we’ll all do better?”

No. They increased spending in the good times and increased it more in the bad. They don’t care about you. They care about growing their power and telling you its for your own good.

Check it out. They’re spending twice as much as ten years ago.

Our debt? It’s tripled in the last 10 years. It was about $16 thousand for every man, woman and child back then. That was plenty. Did you just have a baby? Congratulations! She was born owing $50 thousand.

Other parts of Larry’s speech that I really liked:

  • It doesn’t pay to grow market share in shrinking market. The last buggy whip maker was probably the best, but you wouldn’t have invested in it.
  • Take the buyout, then go invest your money in growing businesses. You’ll help the economy, you’ll create jobs and “God forbid, you’ll make a couple bucks!”

That last one is another good one for Romney.  “God forbid that I pursued the American dream and SUCCEEDED. You can too!”

Spoiler alert: Other Peoples Money had a happy ending. Larry the Liquidator gained control of the company off the strength of his speech (hint, hint Romney), but discovered that the company could produce something useful.  I believe it was kevlar or gore-tex fabric, or something like that. So everyone got to keep their jobs and the company became a success again, without being liquidated.

Short lesson in value proposition

I find that many folks don’t quite understand what I mean when I talk about value proposition. Value proposition is the complex web of reasons that you may choose one product over another or may not choose any product at all.

I don’t care for potato chips. I would eat no more potato chips if potato chip companies gave them to me for free. For me potato chips have no value proposition.

I thought of another example to illustrate value proposition with something I use often: iPod/iPhone ear buds. I have three sets.

The first set came with the iPhone. They sound nice and I use them when I listen to podcasts while working around the house where there isn’t a lot of background noise.

The second set I bought because I quickly discovered that the standard ear buds fall out of my ears when I exercise. This set has hooks that go over my ears to hold the ear buds in place.

The third set I bought because I quickly discovered that my other two sets were not good for situations with lots of background noise, like flying in an airplane or mowing the lawn. This set insulates the background noise with cushy buds that I stuff into my ears.

All do well for their specific niche, but not so well for other niches. I purchased two additional sets of ear buds. The makers of the exercise ear buds could not have persuaded me to buy my third set from them if all they did was lower the price of their exercise ear buds.  I already have a set of exercise ear buds, I don’t need another.

The best way for that manufacturer to persuade me to buy their brand is to make what I want for my third set — a set of noise insulating ear buds.

Good thoughts on business strategy

I agree with what Chris Zook, head of Bain Capital’s strategy practice, had to say about business strategy on a recent Harvard Ideacast.

His advice (in my own words):

  1. Know why customers choose your product.
  2. Make sure everyone in your organization knows why customers choose your product.
  3. Make sure your organization can learn and respond to what your customers want.

I’ve dealt with a number of business managers who think they know why customers choose their products, but are dead wrong and they make disastrous business decisions and often lose their jobs because of it. Then they go to the next organization and repeat.

Such organizations tend to be bureaucratic and set up to follow the leaders’ commands and satisfy the leaders’ egos instead of learning what satisfies customers. These organizations are the vast majority of companies.

In an organization that does well on the three principles above, you’ll tend to see decentralized management and an environment that encourages lots of little experiments with the customers. Customer response drives which of these rise and expand. McDonald’s and Starbucks are a couple of good examples.

Zook used Enterprise Rent-a-Car as an example. Each Enterprise location is rated and ranked each week against each other on one simple metric: what percentage of customers would recommend Enterprise. This is the “Ultimate Question” that Fred Reichheld developed. It’s simple and telling. Customers won’t recommend your business unless you satisfy them.

The branches review their scores and rankings and try to learn from their better ranked locations what they can do to improve their scores. This is a good example of decentralized management.

In bureaucratic organizations, you’ll see more centralized control with the “troops” executing the new-fangled and untested strategy designed by the bureaucrats and their consultants. Little experiments will languish and innovation resources will be directed at the whim of the bureaucrats to satisfy whatever they think sounds good — until they’re fired.

Discovering why customers choose your product can be tricky. We tend to over simplify and over complicate these reasons. More on that in a future post.

Walmart emerged from a willingness to try new things and learn

Thanks to Mark Perry at Carpe Diem for the link to this video illustrating Walmart and Sam’s Club growth.

We see the success stories after they’ve become successful and don’t often think how they got to that point.

I recommend reading Sam Walton’s book Made in America. It paints a good picture of how Walmart emerged from Walton’s constant experimentation and trial-and-error learning, in the store, store location and in the supply chain. It took him years to evolve the retailing model into something that would fund its own expansion by simply pleasing its customers.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read it (~15 years), but a few stories are stuck in mind.

Walton started his first store in a town on the eastern side of Arkansas. He grew it into a success and when it came time to renew his lease, the landlord kicked him out to take Walton’s store for himself. There Walton learned to build renewal options into his leases.

When Walton opened his store right across from a competitor in Bentonville, most people thought he was crazy, but Walton relished the competition and would try things to get people to try his store and keep them coming back, which was great for the customer. Walmart still gets a lot of resistance to this strategy — generally from people who care less about the customer.

He wasn’t too proud to borrow ideas from competitors. When he read an article about a store with a self-serve model in Minnesota or Wisconsin, he hopped on a bus (or train) and visited to see how it worked and then adopted the model in his stores and changed the retailing industry forever.

As he opened more locations, he tinkered with various ownership structures and incentives to drive the right behavior. He discovered joint ownership was the best incentive structure, which carried through all the way to employees of the eventual Walmart earning shares of stock. Early stores were partnerships between him and the store’s general manager.

Even after Walmart was getting larger, they tried new things. They took on a massive project in the warehouse in the 1980s to improve product distribution efficiency. It took years and a few costly mistakes, but it eventually paid off. I often think about that when I see companies ditch a project after the first failure. I wonder if it could be successful with some more learnings applied.

Businesses emerge from the interactions of customers and business owners. They aren’t designed by consultants in board rooms.

Market Share Myth

Company managers love to chase market share.  They like it because it’s a competitive head-to-head score, like a score to a baseball game. If you “take” market share from your competitors, then you’re beating them up and that’s good. If they take it from you, that’s bad.

I don’t think we should worry much about market share.  I have several reasons.

First, it isn’t necessarily a good read on the measure of business health.

Consider a simple ad absurdum: Would you be better off by doubling market share by cutting price in half?

No. You may be worse off. What if you cut your salary in half and got two jobs?

Sure with more clients, you’re less dependent on any one client. But, it will cost twice as much to serve those clients. So, you’ve doubled your costs while keeping revenue flat. And, you may have attracted a less loyal client that is more likely to leave you.

Several years ago, a company I worked with exited a line of business that had given it some market share and consistent financial losses for six years. It showed no signs of producing profits. There’s another name for such a line of business: unnecessary cost.

The managers kicked themselves on the earnings conference call for losing that market share. Rather than kicking myself, I would’ve celebrated giving up that line because it would mean getting rid of an unnecessary cost and more money for shareholders.

Getting rid of unprofitable market share, as in the example above, can be good. Acquiring unprofitable market share can be bad.

Earnings is a better measure of health.

Second, focusing on market share keeps managers too focused on their existing product lines. The best makers of buggy whips probably acquired significant share of the buggy whip market as the automobile was replacing the buggy.

Third, the “market” is to easy to get wrong. Is McDonald’s market share its share of hamburgers sold, its share of fast food hamburger restaurant sales, its share of fast food restaurant sales, its share of all restaurant sales or its share of all food and beverages sold?

Why pick one definition over the other? Should McDonald’s be bothered that you chose to buy a Coke at the vending machine in your office building instead of one its restaurants? Should they get into the office vending business in order to “capture” that market share?

I don’t think so.

Fourth, the market share paradigm turns the business world into a caricature of a “battle for control of the market”.  Company managers even try to act like that’s how it works as they bludgeon their troops to deliver results.

I think that’s an inaccurate and damaging representation of the business world.

Companies that gain profitable market share are those that provide products that clients value enough to buy at a price that more than covers the company’s costs.

Rather than a heartless battle for market share, the business world is really a trial-and-error lab that looks for ways to delight customers. Rather than Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s more like Starbucks.

Rather than gaining market share, businesses should be focused on pleasing customers and growing profits.

Growing profits is less like war and more like convincing a girl to go on a date. The secret to doing that is to give a girl what she wants. Figuring out what that is a trial-and-error process and can change at any time.

Library ebooks hit snag

My local library reports that one reason their ebook selection is low is because four out of the “Big Six” publishers do not allow libraries to purchase their ebooks and the other two either have restrictive purchase policies are charge libraries more for ebooks.

In other words, these publishers are acting like Blockbuster in the early days of Netflix.

Change is a bear.  I understand wanting to cling on to profits from your traditional business model as long as possible.  But, just as Blockbuster learned, it works out better to be the change agent than the stick-in-the-mud.

Where do great ideas come from?

In the commercial below, Domino’s Pizza CEO, Patrick Doyle demonstrates a value destructive bias held by many big company execs when he starts the commercial off saying:

In a big company, good ideas don’t usually come from the local store level…

In this case they didn’t let that bias get in the way, because the commercial features a good idea that came from a Domino’s store owner in Findlay, Ohio, Brian Edler: Parmesan Pizza Bites.

Doyle is right in his follow-up sentence:

…but, a great idea can come from anywhere.

Just look at the beginning of Domino’s Pizza, or most successful companies.  Very few were designed in a boardroom at a corporate headquarters.  Two brothers founded Domino’s Pizza when they bought a single shop for $900 in 1960.

Subway Sandwich Shops and Subway’s $5 foot-long are other good examples.   The founder of Subway borrowed $1,000 to open his first store (again not designed in a boardroom).

And Subway’s $5 foot-long promotion was discovered by a franchisee in Miami.  Executives at HQ were not fans of the promotion, but other franchisees began adopting it on their own, because it produced results for them.  Eventually these franchisee results convinced corporate.

I’ve seen this attitude at many companies.  I’ve seen quite a few failures resulting from business models designed by bureaucrats and consultants in HQ.

Good ideas can come from anywhere, sometimes even competitors (Blockbuster?).  I would advise companies to cast their idea net as wide as possible and be as open-minded as possible.

Here I wrote about McDonald’s approach to innovation.  They have a test kitchen and they let their franchisees experiment.