Modern movie studio economics

A really fantastic three part analysis by Liam Boluk of modern movie studio economics as it pertains to blockbusters.

Future of Film I: Why Summer 2013 was Destined for Losses

Much has been said about the growing role of ‘tent-pole’ filmmaking, where the superlative performance of a major blockbuster supports the rest of the studio’s portfolio (including failed blockbusters). In practice, however, the strategy doesn’t ‘hold up’. Over the past decade, the Summer Blockbuster season has delivered a net theatrical profit only three times and the major studios have lost nearly $2.6B on $34B in production and marketing spend.

...

The Summer 2013 season was so jam packed with “blockbusters” that the industry seemed destined for historic losses containing:

  • 18 blockbusters – A historic high and 41% increase over the ten year average
  • 15 back-to-back weekends of blockbuster releases – A third more than ten year average and 25% more than a decade ago
  • 5 weekends with two blockbuster releases – 317% more than the average, 2.5x the previous record and 5x the number in 2003
     

Future of Film II: Box Office Losses as the Price of Admission

For all its glamour, theatrical entertainment is simply a rotten business to be in.

Though its products are not commodities, many of the industry’s competitive dynamics and characteristics suggest they could be:

  • Past success is not a predicator of future performance. Last year’s box office receipts do not influence current-year performance and year-to-year momentum translates into little beyond high spirits
  • Talent doesn’t ensure success. The most “valuable” stars, brand-name directors and veteran producers routinely produce box-office bombs
  • Hollywood brands are irrelevant. Aside from Pixar (whose brand is arguably in decline), consumers don’t pick films based on whether they were a Universal or Paramount production. Indeed, consumers rarely even know
  • All products are offered at the same market price. Regardless of the film’s production costs or target customers, end consumer pricing is largely identical

...

Why then, do executives continue making films? They have few (if any) levers they can reliably play with, the success of individual films causes massive disruptions in annual performance and in the long run, performance is unlikely to break-even, let alone outpace market returns.

The answer: ancillary revenue. In 2012, box office receipts represented only 52% of revenue for the average film, with the remainder comprised of home video sales, pay-per-view and TV/OTT licensing, syndication fees and merchandising. After appropriating for related costs, as well as backend participation (Robert Downey Jr. took a reported $50M from Avengers) and corporate overhead, the average Internal Rate of Returns (IRR) for the majors jumps to roughly 80%.

...

Since silent films first appeared on the silver screen, motion pictures has been primarily a B2C business, with film studios sharing revenue with theater operators. But over the past decade, the majors have transformed into an increasingly diversified B2B partner. Their job is not to bring eyes to their theatrical products, but to enable NBC to drive Sunday advertising revenue, ABC Studios to create a high-margin television series, HBO to collect monthly subscriber fees or Mattel to sell Cars toys. Entertainment, in short, has become both a platform and a service.
 

Future of Film III: The Crash of 'Film as a Platform'

More important, however, is the impending ‘Film as a Platform’ implosion. Looking at 2016′s dense release schedule, theatrical losses per blockbuster are likely to increase considerably. Not only will increased competition drive down average attendance, it could push studios to invest even more into their film properties in the hopes of standing out. This itself isn’t a fatal exposure – studios will simply need to rely more heavily on ancillary revenues. However, the real issue is that further audience fragmentation will make it even harder to achieve the critical mass audience needed to support ancillary revenue streams. Worse still, the growing number of franchise films may end up flooding ancillary channels.

Ancillary markets such as home video, merchandising and children’s television can only absorb so much content. A child, after all, will not want a Christmas comprised of various X-Men, Star Wars and Avatar paraphernalia and parents are unlikely to purchase multiple bedroom sets. Television audiences, can support only so many series in a given genre (the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have 7 in 2015 alone). Though themed sets have been a strong sales driver for the Lego Group, optimizing marketing and inventory investments will limit the number of franchises they will support – especially in the holiday season. As a result, the deluge of ‘platform films’ is likely to significantly reduce the ancillary revenues studios rely on for film profitability. To make matters worse, it would take at least two years for studios to emerge from this crunch due to the fact films are released 1-2 years after investment/production decisions are made.
 

I love my occasional summer blockbuster movie, but I already feel like I have pop movie diabetes. The latest Captain America movie has not one, but two extra scenes during the end credits, each previewing a different future Marvel movie. One day soon, after the credits of the latest Marvel movie, the extra scene will just be a house ad for the theme park ride based on the movie, and on the way out of the theater there will be a booth set up to sell toys from the movie. Theaters already make most of their profits on concessions, using the blockbuster movies as a loss leader, it's not all that different for the studios themselves.

The automatic corporation?

The intermediate step to a fully automated corporation is one where tasks requiring humans are performed not by employees but are broken into micro-tasks and fulfilled by crowdsourcing (using, for example, services like Mechanical Turk).

Corporations do not scale, and eventually die. That’s because they scale sub-linearly. Their productivity metrics scale by an exponent of ⅘ on the number of employees.

I hypothesize that the management overhead which makes corporations grow sub-linearly is due to the limited information processing capability of individual humans. People at the top do not have local on-the-ground information: how are individual products performing, what are customers’ complaints etc. And the rank-and-file folks on the ground do not have the relevant high-level information: how does what I’m doing translate to the value that the corporation as a whole seeks to maximize? In fact, the the flow of value and information is so complex that employees have pretty much given up on determining that relationship, and know of it only at a macro P&L-center level.

An algorithm will have no such problems with acting on both global as well as fine-grained local information. In fact, I suspect that the more information it gets to act on, the better decisions it will make, making automatic corporations grow super-linearly.
 

More here, all fascinating, on the concept of an automatic corporation.

When the idea of two-pizza teams was first proposed at Amazon, it was an attempt at accomplishing two thing simultaneously. On the one hand, keeping teams small was an attempt at giving them autonomy in figuring out what strategy and projects to pursue. On the other hand, since each team had to optimize on a fitness function agreed upon with senior management, it was a model for scaling Jeff Bezos and his senior management team's ability to coordinate activities across the company. If you have a limited number of people you trust to choose the fitness functions, that's still a bottleneck.

The idea of an automatic corporation would replace the humans in both the fitness function and project selection process with software which scales infinitely where humans cannot.

This may sound far-fetched, but the author Vivek Haldar notes it already exists in some forms today.

A limited version of what I’m describing already exists. High-frequency trading firms are already pure software, mostly beyond human control or comprehension. The flash crash of 2010 demonstrated this. Companies that are centered around logistics, like FedEx or Walmart, can be already thought of as complex software entities where human worker bees carry out the machine’s instructions.

This happens naturally, because over time more and more of the business logic of a company becomes encoded in software. Humans still have some control (or so they think) but mostly what they’re doing is supplying parameters to the computation. A modern corporation is so complex that it does not fit in the brain of a single person (or a small number of persons). Software carries the slack.

Big data and price discrimination

Adam Ozimek speculates that Big Data might bring about more price discrimination.  First degree price discrimination has always been a sort of business holy grail, but it was too difficult to get enough information on the shape of the price-demand curve to make it so.

For some time now, though, this has no longer been the case for many companies, and in fact one company did try to capitalize on this: Amazon.com. I know because I was there, and the reason that was a short-lived experiment is a real world case study of how the internet both enables and then kneecaps this type of price discrimination.

Amazon, until then, had one price for all customers on books, CDs, DVDs (this was the age before those products had been digitized for retail sale). A test was undertaken to vary the discount on hot DVDs for each customer visiting the website. By varying the discount from 10% up to, say, 40%, then tracking purchase volume, you could theoretically draw the price-demand curve with beautiful empirical accuracy. 

Just one catch: some customers noticed. At that time, DVDs were immensely popular, selling like hotcakes, and the most dedicated of DVD shoppers perused all the online retail sites religiously for the best deals, posting links to hot deals on forums. One customer posted a great deal on a hot DVD on such a forum, and immediately some other respondents replied saying they weren't seeing the discount.

The internet giveth, the internet taketh away. The resulting PR firestorm resulted in the experiment being cancelled right away. Theoretically, the additional margin you could make over such price discrimination is attractive. But the idea that different customers would be charged different prices would cause such distrust in Amazon's low price promise that any such margin gains would more than offset by the volume of customers hesitating to hit the buy button.

Ozimek notes this: "The headwind leaning against this trend is fairness norms." What's key to this is that the internet is the world's most efficient transmitter of information, and while it enables a greater degree of measurement that might enable first degree price discrimination, it also enables consumers to more easily share prices with each other. This greater transparency rewards the single low price strategy.

It's not a coincidence, in my mind, that Apple fought for a standard $0.99 per track pricing scheme with the music labels while Amazon fought the publishers for a standard $9.99 pricing for Kindle ebooks. Neither Amazon or Apple was trying to profit on the actual ebooks or digital music retail sales (in fact many were likely sold at break-even or a loss), they were building businesses off of the sale of complementary goods. In the case of Amazon, which is always thinking of the very long game, there are plenty of products it does make a healthy profit off of when customers come to its site, and getting users to invest heavily into building a Kindle library acted as a mild form of system lock-in. In the case of Apple, it was profiting off of iPod sales.

In the meantime, second and third order price discrimination continues to exist and thrive even with the advent of the internet so it's not as if the pricing playbook has dried up.

A skeptic might counter: didn't Ron Johnson get fired from J. C. Penney for switching them over to an everyday low price model? Didn't their customers revolt against the switch from sales and coupons and deals you had to hunt down? 

Yes, but everyday low pricing isn't a one-size-fits-all pricing panacea (as I wrote about in reference to the Johnson pricing debate at J.C. Penney). For one thing, there is path dependence. Once you go with a regular discount/deal scheme, customers create a mental price anchor that centers on that discount percentage and absolute price. It's hard to lift an anchor.

J. C. Penney was trying to go from a heavy sale-driven pricing scheme to an everyday low pricing model, and that's an uphill, unmarked path. Only the reverse path is paved. It's not clear whether the switch would have worked in the long run. Johnson ran out of runway from his Board soon after he made the switch and revenues declined. 

Everyday low pricing tends to work best when you're selling commodities since those items are ones your customers can purchase many places online. At Amazon we were far more interested in dominating one crucial bit of mental math: what website do I load up first if I want to buy something? We were obsessed with being the site of first resort in a consumer's mind, it was the core reason we were obsessed with being the world's most customer-centric company. Anything that might stand in the way of someone making a purchase, whether it be prices, return policy, shipping fees, speed of delivery, was an obstacle we assaulted with a relentless focus. On each of those dimensions, I don't think you'll find a company that is as customer-friendly as Amazon.com.

Ultimately, customers have a hard time figuring out intrinsic value of products, they're constantly using cues to establish a sense of what fair value is. Companies can choose to play the pricing game any number of ways, but I highly doubt Netflix and Amazon will choose to make their stand on the first order price discrimination game. There are many other ways they can win that are more suited to their brand and temperament.

Still, the peanut gallery loves to speculate that Amazon's long term plan is to take out all of its competitors and then to start jacking up prices. A flurry of speculation that the price hikes had begun spun up in July this year after an article in the NYTimes: As Competition Wanes, Amazon Cuts Back Discounts. After the NYTimes article hit, many jumped on the bandwagon with articles with titles like  Monopoly Achieved: An invincible Amazon begins raising prices.

If you read the NYTimes article, however, the author admits "It is difficult to comprehensively track the movement of prices on Amazon, so the evidence is anecdotal and fragmentary." But the article proceeds onward anyhow using exactly such anecdotal and fragmentary evidence to support its much more certain headline. 

Even back when I was at Amazon years ago we had some longer tail items discounted less heavily than bestsellers. However, pricing the long tail of books efficiently is not as easy as it sounds, there are millions of book titles, and most of the bandwidth the team had for managing prices was spent on frontlist titles where there was the most competitive pressure. All the titles listed in the NYTimes article sound to me like examples of long tail titles that were discounted too aggressively for a long period due to limited pricing management bandwidth and are finally being priced based on the real market price of such books. Where in the real world can you find scholarly titles at much of a discount?

The irony is that the authors cited in the article complain their titles aren't discounted enough, while publishers ended up in court with Amazon over Amazon discounting Kindle titles too much. This is to say nothing of the bizarre nature of book pricing in general, in which books seem to be assigned retail prices all over the map, with the most tenuous ties to any intuitive intrinsic value. The publishers set the retail price, then Amazon sets a price off of the retail price. If the publishers wants the discount on their books to be greater they could just increase the retail price and voila! The discount would be larger.

To take another category of products, DVDs, soon after we first launched the DVD store, long tail title like Criterion Collection DVDs were reduced from a 30% discount to a 10% to 15% discount. But just now, I checked Amazon, and most of its Criterion DVDs are discounted 25% or more. If I'd taken just that sample set I could easily write an article saying Amazon had generously decided to discount more heavily as part of its continued drive to return value from its supply chain to customers.

Could the net prices on Amazon be increasing across the board? I suppose it's possible, but I highly doubt that Amazon would pursue such a strategy, and any article that wanted to convince me that Amazon was seeking to boost its gross margins through systematic price hikes would need to cite more than just a few anecdotes from authors of really long tail books. 

It will remain a tempting narrative, however, because most observers think it's the only way for Amazon to turn a profit in the long run.

However, that's not to say big data hasn't benefitted them both in extraordinary ways. Companies like Amazon and Netflix know far more about each of its customers than any traditional retailer, especially offline ones, because their customers transact with them on an authenticated basis, with credit cards. Based on their customers' purchase and viewing habits, both companies recommend, better than their competitors, products their customers will want.

Offline retailers now all want the same type of data on their customers, so everyone from your local drugstore or grocery store to clothing retailers and furniture stores try to get you to sign up for an account of some sort, often by offering discounts if you carry a free membership card of some sort.

Amazon and the "profitless business model" fallacy

[DISCLOSURE: As always when I write about Amazon, I'll note I worked there from 1997-2004 and that I still own some shares in the company. I still have many friends who work there, though I have no more idea what Amazon is working on now than any of you in the public.] 

With every quarterly earnings call, my Twitter feed lights up with jokes about how Amazon continues to grow its revenue and make no profits and how trusting investors continue to rewards the company for it. The apotheosis of that line of thoughts is a quote from Slate's Matthew Yglesias earlier this year: "Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers."

It's a great quote, one that got so much play Amazon even featured it in its Annual Letter to Shareholders. But like much of the commentary about Amazon, it's a misreading of Amazon's business model.

Amazon is a classic fixed cost business model, it uses the internet to get maximum leverage out of its fixed assets, and once it achieves enough volume of sales, the sum total of profits from all those sales exceed its fixed cost base, and it turns a profit. It already has exceeded this hurdle in its past.

I'm fairly certain most of Amazon's retail businesses remain quite profitable. Some may not be, but they help to reinforce Amazon as the retail site of first resort. By the time I left Amazon in 2004 many of its retail businesses were already spinning off healthy profits. It is much harder to tell now from the outside because Amazon doesn't present a full P&L by business line to the outside world. You can see revenue by broad categories of the business, but most of its costs are lumped together in one giant blob on the income statement.

Very early in my career at Amazon, we could already easily model out and see when our revenue would give us enough income to exceed our fixed cost base. We could adjust when that would happen by choosing to invest more or less aggressively, but given our growth rates, it was always just felt like a matter of when, not if, we'd turn a profit.  Besides, we were most obsessed with free cash flow. Most armchair analysts love to dissect gross margin and net income because those are simpler to understand and easier to compute from public financial statements, but there are many problems with just looking at gross margin that any analyst worth their paycheck should understand.

Does Amazon lose money on sales of some individual items? For sure. The first Kindle ebooks that were priced at $9.99 when Amazon had to pay more than that per copy to publisher were one example. Giant, heavy electronics items that Amazon sometimes ships for free when the shipping cost is clearly non-trivial and cost more than the usual thin margins on such goods are another.

But while such exceptions in the catalog make for great copy (it's fun to link to such items in your story and let users see the evidence firsthand, especially when the item is some strange piece of machinery that maybe a handful of people in the world would ever order), but don't be mistaken. The vast vast majority of products Amazon sells it makes a profit on. Over time, more of these products that inadvertently sell at a loss will be corrected so that no longer happens, and what remains will be products Amazon intentionally uses as loss leaders.

The platform of Amazon is profitable, too. When other people sell products on Amazon Marketplace the gross margin is huge. I sell a used book on Amazon, it takes a cut of the transaction, I am the one packing and shipping that item to the buyer. You don't have to be a financial whiz to understand the cost of that transaction to Amazon is minimal. 

If Amazon has so many businesses that do make a profit, then why is it still showing quarterly losses, and why has even free cash flow decreased in recent years?

Because Amazon has boundless ambition. It wants to eat global retail. This is one area where the press and pundits accept Amazon's statements at face value.

Given that giant mission, Amazon has decided to continue to invest to arm itself for a much larger scale of business. If it were purely a software business, its fixed cost investments for this journey would be lower, but the amount of capital required to grow a business that has to ship millions of packages to customers all over the world quickly is something only a handful of companies in the world could even afford. Joey Chestnut doesn't just wake up one day and win the Coney Island hot dog eating contest every year, he has to spend months of training to prepare his digestive system for the feat. 

Amazon has seen that lowering its shipping costs and increasing the speed of shipping items to customers is like a shot of adrenaline to customer's propensity to buy from them, and so it has doubled down on building more and more fulfillment centers around the world. When I joined Amazon it had one fulfillment center. Today it has dozens just in the US alone, and I would not be surprised if it has more than 100 fulfillment centers worldwide now. 

That is a gargantuan investment, billions of dollars worth, and it takes a significant bite out of Amazon's free cash flow. Add in its investments in infrastructure to support a growing AWS client base, and Amazon has again hiked its fixed cost base to a higher plateau. But for Amazon this is nothing new, it's just the same typeface bolded. 

I'm convinced Amazon could easily turn a quarterly profit now. Many times in its history, it could have been content to stop investing in new product lines, new fulfillment centers, new countries. The fixed cost base would flatten out, its sales would continue growing for some period of time and then flatten out, and it would harvest some annuity of profits. Even the first year I joined Amazon in 1997, when it was just a domestic book business, it could have been content to rest on its laurels.

But Jeff is not wired that way. There are very few people in technology and business who are what I'd call apex predators. Jeff is one of them, the most patient and intelligent one I've met in my life. An apex predator doesn't wake up one day and decide it is done hunting. Right now I envision only one throttle to Jeff's ambitions and it is human mortality, but I would not be surprised if one day he announced he'd started another side project with Peter Thiel to work on a method of achieving immortality.

One popular thesis among Amazon profitability skeptics is that Amazon can't "flip a switch" and become profitable. The most common guess as to how Amazon flips the switch is that it will wait until it is the last retailer standing and then raise prices across the board, so Amazon skeptics argue against that narrative possibility.

But "flipping a switch" is the wrong analogy because Amazon's core business model does generate a profit with most every transaction at its current price level. The reason it isn't showing a profit is because it's undertaken a massive investment to support an even larger sales base. How does Amazon turn a profit? Not by flipping a switch but by waiting, once again, until its transaction volume grows and income exceeds its fixed cost base again. It can choose to reach that point faster or slower depending on how quickly it continues to grow its fixed cost base, but a simple way to accelerate that would be to stop investing in so many new fulfillment centers. 

One argument against Amazon is that it is investing for a revenue volume that will never come. That's a different argument, to me, than saying its business model isn't profitable. And even on that point, you can chart its quarterly revenue for yourself and tell me if it looks like it's flattening out.  Though it has not always been on an exact upward sloping curve (we can expect the curve's slope to adjust up or down as various lines of its retail business mature or accelerate depending on Amazon's market share and traction in each line), the long term arc bends up like the corner of a world-dominating smile.

Part of this problem comes from the limited visibility into the dynamics of its business finances. Why doesn't Amazon break out more detail in its financial reporting to help the external world understand all these intricacies? How many subscribers to Amazon Prime, how many Kindles have sold, what's the net income from different lines of business, how much of its asset base investment is for fulfillment centers versus technology infrastructure for AWS? Why doesn't Google break out its lines of business in more detail in its financials? Why doesn't Apple reveal more detail about exact sales of the various models of its iPads and iPhones?

Tech companies, in general, have dealt with the press, investors, and public long enough now to have decided that for the most part, disclosing less buys them the most strategic flexibility with the least amount of pain. Tech companies have an interesting ambivalence towards the public capital markets. They rebel against resource dependence theory because they don't believe their investors know how to run their businesses better than they do, but on the other hand, being public is a great boon to compensating knowledge workers who have a lot of job options.

Based on its stock price, more investors seem willing to buy Amazon's business story that they'll be able to replicate their historical playbook on a larger scale. 

You could argue that a business that has to invest so much of its free cash flow to grow is inherently a profitless business model. However, Amazon has known from its very earliest days that selling commodities, the core of Amazon's business, is inherently a low margin scale business. It won't ever approach the margins of, say, Apple's hardware business.

But to me, a profitless business model is one in which it costs you $2 to make a glass of lemonade but you have to sell it for $1 a glass at your lemonade stand. But if you sell a glass of lemonade for $2 and it only costs you $1 to make it, and you decide business is so great you're going to build a lemonade stand on every street corner in the world so you can eventually afford to move humanity into outer space or buy a newspaper in your spare time, and that requires you to invest all your profits in buying up some lemon fields and timber to set up lemonade franchises on every street corner, that sounds like a many things to me, but it doesn't sound like a charitable organization.

Some people get it.  When I had most of this post written, I started searching for articles analyzing Amazon's business model, and I found this fantastic post by Benedict Evans which already states much of what I've written above. He understands Amazon to be a portfolio of businesses of varied maturity. But Evans is the exception, and so you can continue to expect a torrent of jokes each time Amazon releases its earnings and shows revenue growth but a negative net income. I'd love to see more external analysis of Amazon begin to focus on trying to break down its various investments in more detail and less time spent arguing whether its basic business model is profitable. Does the world need another story marvelling at how much Jeff can invest in his business? Is it that difficult to fathom that investing to try to be the largest retailer in the history of the world takes billions of dollars in investment?

The irony of all this is that while Amazon's public financial statements make it extremely difficult to parse out its various businesses, it is extremely forthright and honest about its business plans and strategy. It's the reason Jeff continues to reprint its first ever letter to shareholders from 1997 in its annual report every year. The plan is right there before our eyes, but so many continue to refuse to take it at face value. As a reporter, it must be so boring to parrot the same thing from Jeff and his team year after year, so different narratives must be spun when the overall plan has not changed. 

Take this most recent article in The Atlantic, from Derek Thompson. It's a good read, comparing Amazon to Sears, but it's also a great example of how Amazon's basic strategy is always couched the same way, with a general veneer of skepticism.

At least, that’s the vision. Defenders say Amazon is trading the present for the future, spending all its revenue on a global scatter plot of warehouses that will make the company indomitable. Eventually, the theory goes, investors expect Amazon to complete its construction project and, having swayed enough customers and destroyed enough rivals, to “flip the switch,” raising prices and profits greatly. In the meantime, they’re happy to keep buying stock, offering an unqualified thumbs-up for heavy spending.

But this theory assumes a practically infinite life span for Amazon. The modern history of retail innovation suggests that even the behemoths can be overtaken suddenly. Sears was still America’s largest retailer in 1982, but just nine years later, its annual revenues were barely half those of Walmart. “The economic countryside is littered with the carcasses of companies that thought they had a [durable] competitive advantage,” says Alex Field, an economic historian at Santa Clara University. “Just look at BlackBerry or AOL.”

Amazon is not as insulated from its rivals as some think it is. Walmart, eBay, and a bounty of upstarts are all in the race to dominate online retail. Amazon’s furious spending on new buildings and equipment isn’t an elective measure; it’s a survival plan. The truth is that the company benefits from a beautiful but delicate tautology: Amazon has won investors’ trust with a reputation for spending everybody to death, and it can spend everybody to death because it has won investors’ trust. For now.

“Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers,” Slate’s Matthew Yglesias joked earlier this year.

It has every element of the classic Amazon coverage story. "Flip the switch." The faceless community of Amazon's naive and trusting investors.   The charitable organization quote, ™Yglesias 2013. And above all, a fairly clear and accurate statement of Amazon's actual business strategy. 

What a wonderful feeling, to be able to conceal a secret in plain sight. Laid bare before its competitors, its investors, the press, is the recipe and the blueprint, in plain language. I agree with Thompson and others that it is increasingly difficult to find real business moats or competitive advantages in the modern world, what with the internet eliminating many previous physical moats of time and space. What remains , though, is a footrace of beautiful simplicity, one in which Amazon is both tortoise and hare. It is patient, it plays for the long-term like no other company, it will take failure after failure and never lose heart, and yet it will sprint when it picks up a scent. And it will take the race to an arena with the thinnest of air.

If I were an Amazon competitor, I'd actually regard Amazon's current run of quarterly losses as a terrifying signal. It means Amazon is arming itself to take the contest to higher ground. The retail game is about to become more, not less, punishing.

Apple strategy and disruption

The Businessweek interview with Tim Cook is fascinating because it's not often you get to hear the tech titans talking about each other.  CEO's of most tech companies are fairly guarded when speaking to the press, and most won't address the competition head on, but Cook didn't shirk those subjects.

I think if I bought [an Android tablet] and used it, and I thought that was a tablet experience, I’m not sure I would ever buy another tablet. The responsiveness isn’t there. The basic touch is really off. The app experience is a stretched-out smartphone kind of experience. It’s not an optimized experience. However, that said, I have always said that the tablet market was going to surpass the PC market. I was saying that well before it was viewed to be sane to say that. It’s clear that we’re 24 months away from that.

On Android's market share: 

Has Android’s rise in market share surprised you in the time that it’s happened?

I don’t think of Android as one thing. Most people do. I mean, from a consumer point of view, if you look at what Amazon (AMZN) does with Android, forget the name Android for a minute. If you’re coming down from a different planet and you were going to name it, you wouldn’t name it the same thing as what another company does. If you compared that to what Samsung (005930:KS) does, I’m not sure you would name that the same thing either.

I think that the importance of that is overplayed. The truth is that there are more people using iOS 6 than there is any version of Android. And in days from now, iOS 7 will be the most popular mobile operating system. And so what does it really mean at the end of the day to show these share numbers and combine all of these disparate things as if they’re one thing? I’m not so sure it has a great meaning to it at the end of the day.

So your question, does it surprise me? I don’t look at it in the same way as you might. I think the way a consumer looks at this is different. Does a consumer that’s buying a Kindle think about it being an Android? Probably not. And so I think that’s a bit different than where Microsoft (MSFT) and Windows was.

On Android's OS fragmentation:

What’s your take on Android’s many versions? The “fragmentation” issue.

It’s a growing problem.

From a functional level?

Yes. And it’s just not growing in the—it’s not like a baby that becomes an infant. It’s not like that. It’s an exponential. It’s a compounding problem. And think about all these people that they’re leaving behind from a customer point of view. People do hold on. Most people hold on to their phones a couple of years. They enter a contract and honor that contract and then upgrade after that two-year period. So in essence, by the time they buy the phone, many of these operating systems are old. They’re not the latest ones by the time people buy. And so by the time they exit, they’re using an operating system that’s three or four years old. That would be like me right now having in my pocket iOS 3. I can’t imagine it.

It’s not because it was bad. It’s just because the world has changed and there is so much more. And so anyway, I think it is a growing issue. It will show up in developers. It will show up for people that no longer have access to certain apps. It will show up in security issues, because if you’re not moving your customer base to the latest version, then you have to go back and plug holes in all of this old stuff, and people don’t really do that to a great degree. So they are more susceptible to issues.

It just shows up in—I mean, name it. And that issue grows, and because the population is growing, it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. So we’ll see.

On market share generally:

While these phones represent the high end of the industry, there’s another part of the industry that’s racing toward the bottom. Chinese manufacturers, Indian manufacturers, $100 phones, $150 phones. What do you think about that? What does that mean for Apple?

I think it’s important that we grow, but I don’t measure our success in unit market share. So if there are a lot of $69 tablets sold that you’re just pounding on to get something to work and get some responsiveness, and it’s thick and fat and just a terrible experience, I don’t really weigh that unit of share like I do a different unit of share. I don’t weigh them to be equivalent.

So I think in most markets in consumer electronics, there’s always a large junk part of the market. We’re not in the junk business. We don’t want to make something for that. What we want to do is make a really great product and provide a great experience. And I’m sure we’ll get enough customers that want to buy that. We want to please them.

That other business, it’s not something—we don’t spend our time obsessed of how to make a product for that because that’s just not who we are and what we’re focused on.

The most common questions about Apple: why don't they come out with a lower price iPhone for non-subsidized markets? Why do they leave a price umbrella in phones and tablets? Is Android's growing market share concerning? Cook took them all head on and seems, at least to me, very candid. The next time someone poses these questions again they can just reference this interview.

The Cook interview pairs nicely with the Ben Thompson post What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong. Christensen is the intellectual of the moment in technology the past several years with his theories of disruption from his classic text The Innovator's Dilemma. Disruption has proven to have great explanatory power in many sectors of the technology industry. But Christensen has been wrong, repeatedly, about Apple's susceptibility to disruption. Many a time he has predicted Apple will be bitten at the heels, and time after time they've been fine.

Thompson believes he knows why. 

In the case of low-end disruption, the rational buyer considers the superior integrated offering and the inferior (but still good) modular offering, decides the latter is “good enough,” and buys it because it is cheaper. The buyer knows the integrated offering is better, but the buyer is unwilling to pay a premium for features the buyer does not need.

-----

EVERY ATTRIBUTE THAT MATTERS CAN NOT BE DOCUMENTED AND MEASURED

The attribute most valued by consumers, assuming a product is at least in the general vicinity of a need, is ease-of-use. It’s not the only one – again, doing a job-that-needs-done is most important – but all things being equal, consumers prefer a superior user experience.

What is interesting about this attribute is that it is impossible to overshoot.

Given how often the tech industry rushes to apply Christensen's theories of disruption (as in most walks of life, disruption is the hammer through which the tech industry sees an infinity of naials), Thompson's article is a must read. 

Sony without electronics?

Sony, it is suggested, might be better off just selling insurance.

Or just making movies and music. But not electronics.

A new report from the investment banking firm Jefferies delivered a harsh assessment of Sony’s electronics business. “Electronics is its Achilles’ heel and, in our view, it is worth zero,” wrote Atul Goyal, consumer technology analyst for Jefferies, in the report, released this week.

“In our view, it needs to exit most electronics markets.”

 Ouch. As a kid who grew up jogging with a Walkman clutched in one hand (later a Discman, later a Sony Minidisc player) it's very strange to imagine Sony ever exiting the electronics business. Of all the Asian countries, Japan is the one I would've expected to make the leap to this new age most successfully given their strong design history. And of their companies, it would have been Sony I would have put in the pole position.

But it turned out to be China and Korea who have surged ahead, the spark coming from their ability to manufacture devices cheaply at scale. In particular, Korea, most notably Samsung, have accumulated market share at an astonishing rate.

Among strange things I did not know which I learned from this article: Sony's most financially lucrative business over the last decade (measured by operating profit) is selling insurance.

One problem for Sony is that electronics is a bloody war in which margins are low and moats are difficult to build. Their best chance, perhaps, was to shift from a pure hardware sales model to an ecosystem in which Sony's music label and movie studio interacted with Sony's hardware to become some type of closed network. 

Thankfully for consumers, perhaps, Sony's media or "software" groups never walled off their content that way. That those divisions are all housed under the same roof really doesn't seem to be benefiting Sony much. 

Fundamental attribution error and tech mercenaries

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one's own behavior—where situational factors are more easily recognized and can thus be taken into consideration. This discrepancy between attributions for one's own behavior and for that of others is known as the actor–observer bias.

From Wikipedia. I've always heard fundamental attribution error used to describe people. But more and more, I believe it's applicable to companies as well.

That's not to say it isn't also still a problem when applied to people in technology. For example, a common belief is that tech workers in Silicon Valley are more mercenary than in other tech markets like Seattle or New York.

When I moved up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in mid 2011, I was curious to experience this supposedly venal culture firsthand.

Having worked in all three of those markets over many years now (and also having been at Hulu for three and a half years in Los Angeles), I'm not so sure the people are more mercenary in Silicon Valley. Much of the short tenures in the Bay Area may be explainable by the environment rather than some intrinsic ruthlessness on the part of the people living in the area.

For one thing, the number of tech companies in Silicon Valley just dwarfs that in any of those other tech markets. Sure, fewer people left Amazon than I would have expected , but if you wanted to stay in Seattle, where else would you go? To Microsoft? Real Networks?

The number of startups in the Bay Area also exceeds that of any other tech market by a huge margin. Since startups have such a high failure rate, inevitably it drags down job tenures.

If you control for those two factors, would the Bay Area still rate as having a more mercenary culture? Someone with access to more data would seem to be able to answer this question quite easily (maybe LinkedIn has enough data to run such an analysis). My hypothesis, just based on my personal experience, is that the Bay Area's supposedly mercenary culture is just a technology version of the fundamental attribution error.

If you're operating outside of the Bay Area and feeling fairly secure with your workforce, though, beware. The world is changing, and the fight is coming to your doorstep. For one thing, LinkedIn and other such services have made it easier and easier for other companies all over the place to reach your employees with enticing offers. If you don't think every one of your employees is receiving multiple offers a week, if not per day, from recruiters and headhunters and LinkedIn, you may be living in the 90's.

Think you're safe because your employees don't want to relocate? More and more companies are going to where the people are, opening satellite offices in any market with a good base of talent. Shoppers in many states may not be the only ones lamenting the fact that they now must pay sales tax on Amazon purchases. Competitors are also feeling the hit as Amazon now has free reign to open offices in those states and staff them with abandon. There are three major Amazon offices in the Bay Area already, and they're recruiting aggressively. But the same thing is happening in Seattle, Amazon's home court; Facebook and Google, among others, have opened offices there. 

This is not to mention the fact that some of the best employees can choose to work from wherever they want. It's rare, but not as much as it once was. Almost every company I've worked at in my career now has some employees who work by themselves out of some random place. They're good enough, and the demand for their skills so far outstrips supply, that they spend most of their work year in a remote destination of their choice, maybe a home office in their hometown in North Dakota.

All of this is good news for employees, who now have more options as the liquidity and efficiency of the labor market surges. For employers, it's difficult to say whether it's a positive or negative thing. If you treat it as a zero-sum game versus employees, it must by definition be a negative if employees are gaining.

Within the tech sector, though, one might hypothesize that companies that can offer more cash benefit from being able to compete for employees anywhere. Startups who need compete on the uncertain benefits of stock options more than cash now must contend with the tech giants, if even if the startups locate in more remote markets. However, this might just filter out those who who are risk averse and who'd flee at the first sign of adversity.

I began this post as an examination of the myth of the Bay Area mercenary culture, but the larger theme may really be the reduction of labor arbitrage in the tech industry. By no means has it disappeared entirely, I am not advising you start your next startup in Kansas City. If Jeff Bezos were starting Amazon.com in today's environment, though, it's not a slam dunk that he'd still choose Seattle.

The Oligopoly Problem

I wrote about oligopoly power in the telecom and cable TV industry back in January. The issue is not any one particular way they price gouge you but the structure of the sector as a whole. As an oligopoly all the firms involved can really choose to gouge you any number of ways, you don't have any other options.

Tim Wu's latest post at the New Yorker suggests a potential regulatory solution:

The rise of the American oligopoly makes it an important time to reëxamine how antitrust enforcers and regulators think about concentrated industries. Here’s a simple proposal: when members of a concentrated industry act in parallel, their conduct should be treated like that of a hypothetical monopoly. Of course, that doesn’t make anything necessarily illegal, but abusive or anticompetitive conduct shouldn’t get a free pass just because there are three companies involved instead of one.