Saturday, August 30, 2014

Learn From Firms That Transformed In The Internet Era To Prepare for the Collaborative Era

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
  - George Santayana

photo credit: Hampton Roads Partnership via photopin cc
In my last post about the Collaborative Economy, we examined the companies that made mistakes at the beginning of the Internet era in order to learn what organizations can do differently today, at the beginning of the collaborative era. Many large companies were too confident in their existing brand strength and business models, so they did not see the need to innovate until new consumer behaviors were already diminishing revenue and income streams. The result was the collapse of companies that were household names with long histories of growth and profitability.

My friend Brett King, founder of Moven, challenged me to repeat the exercise, this time studying firms that succeeded with Internet transformation rather than those that failed. It is in an excellent idea, since not all established organizations were impacted equally. Even in industries where many strong companies crumbled, a few bucked the trend. What did they do that kept them solvent while others failed, and how can we apply these lessons as the Collaborative Economy emerges and grows? Here are the three examples we will explore:

  • Source: Piotr Cieślak
    Film and Photography: Kodak, the most powerful name in photography for many decades, died and emerged from Chapter 11 a different company dedicated to corporate digital imaging. Agfa-Gevaert spun off its consumer division in 2004, but less than a year later that company filed bankruptcy and today Agfa-Gevaert is entirely B2B. Of the three largest companies that were once known for film, only Fujifilm avoided collapse; its stock is down 10% in the past decade, a huge success versus the traditional competitors the company had at the start of the Internet era.
  • Bookstores: B. Dalton, Waldenbooks and Borders once operated more than 2,000 stores--all are gone. Today, Barnes & Noble is the only significant bookstore chain left in the US; it now owns two-thirds of the country's retail bookshelves. As with Fuji, B&N's success is relative--its stock is down 32% in the past decade and there is no assurance it will be around in five years--but it is worth considering how B&N managed to fail much more slowly than the competitors it had entering the Internet era.
  • Source: Daniel Oines
  • Electronics: Circuit City, CompUSA and hundreds of small computer and consumer electronics (CE) retailers are defunct, but Best Buy soldiers on in a subcategory that has been fundamentally altered by the Internet. NPD Group found that more than 27% of U.S. CE spending took place online last holiday quarter, and about 40% of U.S. shoppers say they have tested products in stores before buying them online; in fact, Best Buy is one of the top two stores for "showrooming." Despite the unique and profound challenges of tech retailing, Best Buy's stock is at almost the same price it was a decade ago.  

While many familiar companies vanished, Fuji, B&N and Best Buy have prospered (or at least survived). What can we learn from the way these companies adjusted to the Internet era? And how do we apply these lessons today, in the early years of the Collaborative era, another significant revolution in consumer purchasing and consumption habits?

Why Not Focus on the Successful Startups?

Before examining Fuji, B&N and Best Buy, it is worth explaining why we must look at these three companies--none of which have positive stock performance in the past ten years--instead of companies like Amazon, Ebay and Google, which have thrived. Too often, authors and bloggers hold up startups as examples for well-established companies to follow, but that naive approach is neither fair nor helpful.

VC investors have different expectations about
risk and return than do Fortune 500 shareholders.
Source: Amplifier Ventures
Startups operate with vastly different expectations than established firms, and the risk tolerance for Venture Capital (VC) investors is wildly divergent from that of Fortune 500 shareholders. Three out of four venture-backed firms fail, a survival percentage that no Fortune 500 company can emulate. Unlike VC investors, shareholders of public corporations do not reward expensive, high-risk investments that may (or may not) deliver fabulous profits years in the future.

For example, back in the early days of the Internet era, no leadership team at a Fortune 500 retailer would have been permitted to follow the lead of Amazon, which lost almost $3 billion between 1998 and 2002. With Amazon's stock down 90% and and eToys dead, the shareholders of traditional retailers were not demanding or interested in a costly Amazon-like approach.

Just last year, despite a six-year 80% drop in its stock, JCPenney's board canned CEO Ron Johnson after only 17 months when his aggressive plan to resuscitate the retailer resulted in a net loss of $552 million. Even in 2013, with everyone wondering about JCPenney's ability to survive, its shareholders were still unwilling to accept any sort of high-risk business strategy!

Today, with the Collaborative Economy growing, established companies may look to startups like Airbnb, Uber, Lyft and Lending Club for ideas and partnerships, but this does not mean they can adopt the same strategies or risk appetite. As today's publicly held companies consider how to react to the Collaborative Economy, they should look to the lessons of Fuji, B&N and Best Buy--firms that entered the Internet era as reputable and successful corporations with millions of shareholders, not no-names backed by a handful of high-risk investors.

What did Barnes & Noble do differently than Borders? How did Fujifilm outlive Kodak? And why is Best Buy alive while Circuit City is buried and Radio Shack is the walking dead? These are lessons worth considering at the dawn of the Collaborative Economy era.

Barnes & Noble vs Borders

Barnes & Noble may not be a success story--its stock is down and the company closed more than half the 1500 stores it operated in 1999--but B&N is the lone survivor in book retailing. What caused B&N to fail slower than all of its competition? If you are expecting a mention of the Nook at this point, you are right but perhaps for the wrong reason. The Nook was B&N's attempt to compete with Amazon on Amazon's turf, and it has not been successful.

Launched in 2009 against the already established Amazon Kindle, the Nook received some early praise, with The Atlantic calling it a "Kindle killer" and Wired predicting Kindle owners would have "buyer's remorse." But the Nook could not compete against the Kindle e-reader, much less the slew of even more powerful tablets that soon came to market.

In the last four years, the Nook division has bled more than $1 billion. In fact, twenty years into the Internet era, B&N is being sustained by bricks and mortar and dragged down by its digital offerings--Nook's $475M loss in 2013FY almost equaled the $485M profit on bookstores. Nook's days are numbered, as B&N has announced it will spin off the plunging Nook business.

B&N deserves credit for trying this innovative route, but its Nook strategy was more focused on the company's past than consumers' future. B&N saw the Nook as a way to extend the bookstore model into mobile whereas others aggressively pursued the full potential of tablets as more than just a replacement for paper books. Amazon's Kindle started as an e-reader, but in 2011 Amazon followed Apple's lead with a fully functional tablet computing device, the Kindle Fire. B&N was not prepared for the constant demand for hardware innovation, and its device was left behind, a common problem that has tripped even companies with deep tech roots such as Dell, Compaq, Palm and Blackberry.

While digital hardware and distribution is not B&N's future, the company still perseveres where its competitors failed. Part of B&N's continued survival is simply due to the reduction in competition, since many people still like to sit in a quiet bookstore, enjoy a latte and leaf through a paper book. Why is B&N the last bookstore standing?

    Borders CDs on closeout. Source:
  • B&N positioned itself against the Internet rather than trying to beat it: Borders beefed up its DVD and CD merchandising just as digital delivery was growing, plus Borders stayed committed to its traditional strategy of providing a very wide breadth of book titles, even though this was not valued by customers. While Borders lost to streaming services and the "long tail" efficiency of online bookstores, B&N took a different approach. It fell back from music and movie offerings that were shifting online and kept its product line narrow. In addition, B&N found a niche that online competitors could not undermine as quickly: As general market bookstores were failing, stores on college campuses still thrived. B&N operates almost 700 college bookstores, and this segment continues to deliver around a quarter of the company's revenue.
  • B&N demonstrated a will to innovate and to bring new skills inside the organization: Borders shut down its ecommerce operations and turned it over Amazon, and this turned Border's website into a "a customer-harvesting vehicle for Amazon." B&N's online operations may not be making major contributions to the bottom line, but the company chose to invest in new capabilities rather than voluntarily give up skills, data and customers to the competition. And although Nook may not be a long-term success, B&N's e-reader product gave the company the sort of digital strategy that Wall Street wanted to see--in the six months following the Nook's announcement on October 10, 2009, B&N's stock was up 20%, outperforming the Dow Jones index by more than 50%.
  • B&N leadership made better decisions about core operations: It is not as sexy as talking about tablets and online stores, but B&N was simply better run than Borders with respect to basic management of finances and real estate. B&N was conservative with its finances while Borders opted for a very ill-advised 2005 stock buyback program; the buyback initially pleased Wall Street and boosted the company's shares, but it only hastened Borders demise by leaving it under-capitalized. In addition, the reason that B&N is today sustained by its bricks and mortar presence is that B&N "paid close attention to where it put its outlets," while Borders, "grasping for growth," picked "B locations." Despite (or maybe because of) strong online competition, the old adage "location, location, location" has helped B&N survive. 

Fujifilm vs. Kodak

In the early part of my career, there was no brand worthy of more respect than Kodak--the brand was about memories while the competition was merely about film. Kodak's towering brand delivered towering success; in the 70s, Kodak commanded 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the U.S.

The world's first digital camera, made
by Kodak in 1975. It took and wrote
0.01 megapixel pics to a cassette tape.
So how does one of the world's strongest brands flame out so quickly? Everyone seems to believe that Kodak failed to adapt to digital photography with sufficient haste, but that is not really true. Kodak created the world's first digital camera in 1975, and it realized in the early 1980s that digital photography was inevitable. In fact, Kodak beat many of its competitors to market with a consumer digital camera, the DC series, which debuted in 1995.

Fuji has enjoyed more success, but not because it was an earlier adopter of digital cameras. Both firms halfheartedly got into digital cameras in the mid 90s, and neither company truly jumped into the business with both feet until 2001--Kodak with the EasyShare line and Fuji with the FinePix line. So why did Fuji do better than Kodak?

A big part of the answer has to do with corporate culture. "Kodak acted like a stereotypical change-resistant Japanese firm, while Fujifilm acted like a flexible American one," notes The Economist. Even Kodak's CEO would agree, noting "If I said it was raining, nobody would argue with me, even if it was sunny outside." Fuji's chief, Shigetaka Komori, also agrees: Kodak was so self-assured that it "never bothered to look over its shoulder at what was coming up from behind." Kodak was culturally incapable of seeing its problems and reacting as necessary, but how did Fuji escape a similar fate?

Best Buy vs Circuit City and Radio Shack

Best Buy is the Energizer Bunny of retailers. It staved off competition from Circuit City in the 90s. In 2002, its stock hit a new low when investors questioned its viability in the dot-com era, but Best Buy's shares lifted almost 400% in the four years thereafter as investors sorted out the dot-com bust. In 2012 fears of showrooming rose, and Best Buy's shares plunged to prices even lower than in 2002. Today, the company claims it has "killed showrooming" and its stock is up 175% from its 2012 low

Best Buy has outlasted Circuit City and hundreds of local and national competitors that sold TVs, computers, audio gear and mobile devices, and the company will soon lose another competitor as Radio Shack is on its last legs. What caused Best Buy to survive challenge after challenge while bricks-and-mortar competitors succumbed?

What This All Says About Preparing for the Collaborative Economy

Even though they are in very different verticals, the stories of Fuji, B&N and Best Buy share some lessons for firms as they consider how to innovate for the growing Collaborative Economy:

  • Get the Customer Experience right: The demand to compete on Customer Experience has never been greater. Consumers have more choice, can switch more easily, and can share perceptions of positive and negative experience more widely than ever before. Kodak was not slower than Fuji in launching digital cameras, but Fuji's products provided the experiences customers desired. Circuit City eviscerated its bricks-and-mortar experience, seeing its most experienced employees as costs, while Best Buy knows its employees are experience creators. Kodak's and Circuit City's strong, resilient brands offered no protection when their Customer Experience failed to meet consumers' changing expectations.

    Collaborative Economy Lesson:
    Today, Zipcar is a model of efficiency and ease with its online and mobile tools, while Enterprise CarShare's experience is absolutely terrible, requiring individuals to first set their state and "program" and then remember their member number before signing in. If Enterprise thinks this is good enough, it should consider the lessons of Kodak and Circuit City.
  • Position yourself against more nimble and lower-cost competition: Circuit City tried to take on online retailers at their own game while Best Buy positioned itself for future success in appliances. Borders tried to compete head-to-head with online stores with broad book and entertainment options while B&N focused on narrower in-demand offerings. These examples demonstrate that established companies must take a brutal look at their unique strengths vis-a-vis newer competitors and find ways to compete against, not with, those companies.

    Collaborative Economy Lesson:
    Hotel chains are currently slashing services in order to lower margins and increase profitability; this is short-term thinking that will hurt hotels in the future. Room service and daily housekeeping are features Airbnb cannot offer, and cutting those services only puts hotels on the same competitive playing field with their new competitors. Hotels do not need fewer services but more value-added services that differentiate hotels from collaborative lodging companies; for example, Airbnb is exploring experience packages, but hotels are much better prepared to offer these at scale since they have many guests staying one place rather than scattered over wide areas.
  • Diversify!  Current business philosophy demands companies narrow focus on core strengths and diversify everything else. There is value in this, but what happens when a company's narrow specialty is destroyed by innovative new offerings? Circuit City spun off Carmax and Kodak divested itself of Eastman Chemical, leaving both firms dangerously dependent on business models that would soon be threatened by Internet startups. Compare that Fuji, which today offers broad products and services to diversified B2B and B2C marketplaces, or B&N, which continues to get value from college bookstores long after bookstores disappeared from most malls.

    Collaborative Economy Lesson: 
    Financial services firms with narrow offerings must consider expansion options. Certain categories of financial services will be more challenged than others by the growth of collaborative and mobile models; for example, traditional auto insurance will decline as more people careshare, and the adoption of non-traditional peer-to-peer and mobile money management and transfer services will challenge core banking offerings. Now is the time for finserv firms to consider non-traditional products that align to their brand promise of helping consumers obtain, secure and grow assets and income.
  • Don't just partner; build! Kodak did not win by partnering with vendors on kiosks, nor did Borders succeed by giving up its online business to Amazon. Both Fuji and B&N prospered by developing new skills versus outsourcing them.

    Collaborative Economy Lesson: 
    Allowing an unknown startup to build its business while leveraging the strength of your existing brand may be collaborative, but perhaps not smart. Take, for example, the idea of a drugstore chain partnering with a local driver/delivery service (such as Walgreens partnering with TaskRabbit). In the short run, it provides the drugstore chain with an easy and risk-free way to add delivery service for customers, but what are the long-term consequences? If home delivery is the future, the drugstore should work on building its own capabilities. And once the driver/delivery service has obtained new customers thanks to the strength of the drugstore brand, why wouldn't it consider delivery of toiletries, cosmetics and OTC medications from lower-priced retailers? Not all partnerships are bad, of course, but established companies must carefully weigh the short-term gain against the risk of building a new competitor's skills, customer base and future growth potential.
  • Accept short-term pain for long-term financial gain: It is easy for traditional companies in stable categories to deliver steady growth of the top and bottom lines, but all this changes when the marketplace is upended. In many ways, when consumer habits and expectations begin to change significantly and rapidly, it turns every player--even traditional ones--into startups, and this means that future growth and survival may demand lower earnings today.

    We can see short-term, quarterly thinking in the actions of the companies that failed and long-term patience in the ones that succeeded. Kodak repeatedly abandoned products and shifted strategies trying to recover short-term profitability while Fuji reduced current profits to secure future return. Borders deserted its unprofitable online presence while B&N adopted digital strategies and built online skills. And Circuit City tried to maximize current profits by dumping experienced employees, leaving it unable to compete in the future.

    Collaborative Economy Lesson: It can be a bitter pill to swallow for companies accustomed to stable and growing earnings, but if the Collaborative Economy is altering the playing field in your industry, leadership focus must shift from maintaining constant earnings to securing the future of the company. As we saw with JCPenney, today's shareholders may care more for next quarter's earnings than the future survival of the company, but great leaders will not destroy today's strong brands in order to please shareholders who trade company shares in milliseconds.

    At the beginning this blog post, I said it was naive to compare established companies to startups, and now I am being purposefully naive, as well. I am suggesting that corporate leaders in verticals where the Collaborative Economy is growing put the company's intermediate- and long-term interests ahead of shareholders'. This has been done before: Apple's Tim Cook told shareholders “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.” And, as we saw with Fuji, its CEO opted for decisions that were "damaging" to the firm's short-term profitability in order to secure long-term viability.

    It takes a strong CEO to lead the company in a way that does not maximize today's shareholder equity, but times of change require strong leadership. No one looks back at the leaders of Kodak, Circuit City and Borders with admiration for maintaining profitability as long as possible while driving the brands into the ground. The leaders that will be lauded in the future will be the ones that can make decisions that enhance 2020's annual report and not just next quarter's 10-Q. 

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Unknown said...

Great article Augie. I've been interested in the fact that in the same year Kodak filed for bankruptcy that Instagram sold for $1B. Following innovation means staying relevant to consumers. This is not an easy task for large companies.

Unknown said...

Once again, Augie, well-done -- a very perspicacious look at lessons -- indeed, they're out there -- about how threatened incumbents can keep their franchise and at least avoid bankruptcy and dinosaur-status. If I had to point at *just one* lesson -- w/o of course claiming that it's a let alone the Magic bullet -- it would be employee-empowerment: As you astutely note, "Best Buy, more than its competitors, has counted on informed employees to be a differentiator from the online competitors." Okay, yes, you still need to do a lot of other things right, but my guess is that if you don't get employee empowerment right, the other right moves won't help much in the end, anyway.

Augie Ray said...

Hello Unknown,

I would caution you from making that comparison. You're not wrong to point out that innovation keeps companies relevant, but I think we can mixup TRUE value with acquisition value. Yes, Instagram's $1B acquisition was good for its investors, but that company is a long, LONG way away from delivering stable profits for Facebook.

It's damn easy for startups to put old-line corporations out of business by offering something for free, but that doesn't mean the startups have yet proven their long-term value to shareholders. If Instagram fails to deliver an income stream that justifies its $1B cost because consumers are unwilling to pay or put up with ads, then Instagram will have a much shorter lifespan than Kodak ever did.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks so much, Ken. I know it was a long post, and I appreciate you reading it an sharing your one lesson. I agree employee empowerment is huge, but I think my "one lessons" might be about the power of Customer Experience over brand strenth. Then again, we might be talking two sides of same coin--how can a company put Customer Experience first without empowering employees?

Thanks for the feedback and dialog!

Anonymous said...

Hi Augie - I bookmarked this to read when I had the time to really focus. Once again, I'm impressed with the detail and analysis in this post.

I'm always fascinated by why some companies manage to build while others can't seem to innovate inside their organization.

What does it take for the successful ones to pull it off? A slow transformation or a quicker more painful one (in the short term)?

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Amrita. It was a long post, and believe it or not, it was about a third longer eight hours of work before it was published!

You ask a great question that may or may not be answered by my blog post: A slow transformation or a quicker more painful one (in the short term)?

I don't think publicly held companies get the option of doing quick, painful transformations. Investors won't stomach great pain, plus, while we can look at the successes of today and marvel at the past sacrifice that created today's strong results, we forget that a lot of other companies just like today's successes didn't survive. As I say in the blog post, it's easy to look at Amazon and ask why Sears or JCPenney couldn't have done the same, but with eToys, and Webvan having flamed out, no shareholder in Sears or JCPenney would have wanted an Amazon-like approach.

While startups can make all-in bets that leave them at risk of bankruptcy (or wild success), Fortune 500s don't get the same option. All they can do is transform at a relatively slow pace, because to do otherwise is to risk too much--more than shareholders are willing to stomach.

Those are my two cents. Feel free to share your thoughts after you get the chance to read the post.