Net Neutrality or Net Neutering?

Net neutrality has received surprisingly strong support from many Silicon Valley innovators, including Google. Given that the lack of regulation has enabled mind-blowing levels of innovation since the World Wide Web emerged in the early 1990s, why will imposing regulation to “protect innovation” help?  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Many industry veterans agree. Bob Metcalfe is co-inventor of Ethernet technology underlying the development of networks. Unlike Al Gore, his original work was instrumental in enabling use and growth of the internet. Opposed to net neutrality, he has often warned that government regulation could kill the open internet, a “golden goose” of  economic development.

Are supporters of net neutrality Pie Chart thinkers or Venn diagram thinkers? A recent 20/20 Outlook post contrasted these two worldviews in an admittedly oversimple way. “Pie Chart thinking constrains your vision to that which already exists… Pie Charts constrain us to a finite perspective; Venn Diagrams encourage us to include more factors… Venn Diagram thinking enables you to break out of the box by forcing you to consider which of several circles you will include.”

Two possible reasons come to mind for why many in the technology sector support more government regulation: (1) lack of knowledge of history, and (2) Pie Chart thinking.

Supporters raise the specter that, if the largest providers are able to charge higher rates for faster service, small businesses and consumers would be harmed by being unable to access the faster service. These supporters must not be aware of how regulatory actions that have hurt innovation over the past century and a half in the U.S. Decades of government regulation in the telecom industry, for example, have on balance stifled rather than helped innovation. Instead of protecting consumers, the government became the protector of the status quo for the largest companies.

While limited historical vision is one cause, Pie Chart thinking seems like a bigger problem. Is it surprising that some politicians and large companies want to gain economic control over the fast-growing technology sector by imposing regulations? No. But is it surprising is that so many of the current and future innovators are supporting it? Yes! They apparently view one of the most explosive technological drivers of economic growth in our nation’s history as a bounded system with finite capabilities.

Rather than imposing regulations, protecting our freedom to act would benefit consumers. Instead of regulating a finite number of players to constrain pricing (Pie Chart), allowing significant ongoing demand from consumers for higher speed traffic to drive the formation of a whole new set of competitors would grow the economic pie and add to the U.S. economy (Venn Diagram).

My 2 cents. If you disagree, I’d like to hear about it.

Fight, Flight, or Unite? Three Responses to Business Challenges

“…the availability of information about a threat or opportunity has little influence on who wins and who loses.            What makes the difference is what a company does with that information.”

  — Clayton M. Christensen, Scott D. Anthony, Erik A. Roth in Seeing What’s Next, 2004

Business challenges come dressed as high-impact threats and opportunities, and each demands a response. The strength of your ability to respond is the primary determinant of your next move,  whether you opt to:                                         1. compete (fight),           2.alter direction (flight), or           3. develop an alliance (unite).

The authors of Seeing What’s Next suggest that asymmetries of skills or motivation play a critical role in determining our next moves. “Asymmetries of motivation occur when one firm wants to do something that another firm specifically does not want to do. Asymmetries of skills occur when one firm’s strength is another firm’s weakness.”

In focusing businesses on growth-accelerating strategies, our consistent guidance has been to adopt a three-phase approach: “clarify, comprehend, connect.” Assuming that the CEO has aligned the company around a crisp, clear view of its own skills and weaknesses (i.e. clarify) as a foundation for effective execution, the second step is to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the competition (i.e. comprehend). When one firm demonstrates strengths in markets in which another firm’s capabilities are weaknesses, and vice versa, a self-fueling partnership (i.e. connect) may be an alternative to fight or flight.

The choices of responding to a significant threat or opportunity are:

Fight (asymmetric analysis highlights your company’s relative strength)

When your company’s processes and offerings are much stronger than competitors, leverage your unique capabilities to increase market share at the expense of competition.

Flight (asymmetric analysis highlights your company’s relative weakness)

When the cost is prohibitive of overcoming a competitor’s strengths that far outweigh your own, refocus on other markets or submarkets where your company can be a dominant player.

Unite (asymmetric analysis identifies complementary strengths and weaknesses)

If it’s clear that combining your resources with those of another company could make both stronger by compensating for weaknesses, the oft-overlooked third option is to create a symbiotic partnership.

The bottom line for any CEO? Develop an eye for asymmetries, then make a rational decision between fight, flight, or unite!

(A more detailed discussion of these alternatives are found in the excerpt “The Innovator’s Battle Plan” that is drawn from the book.)

Technology Is Changing the Face of Business

Although I’m not a professional futurist, it’s hard not to notice commonalities found within hundreds of conversations with diverse teams and individuals who are busy defining new businesses. Five interrelated trends seem to be rapidly changing the face of business by disrupting existing models:

Deepening Technology Dependence – Such an obvious observation certainly won’t garner me any futurist credentials. This reliance first began decades ago with large enterprises, but now even the smallest incorporate multiple forms of technology to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. As technology consumption increases among small companies, their influence on the evolution of new technologies will continue to increase.

Ubiquity and Mobility Enabling Distributed Operations – This second trend may be having the most profound impact. If you’re seeking an opportunity to form a new business, simply examine businesses that remain highly centralized and ask, “What if we broke this into parts that communicated with each other and were accessible by mobile devices?” You’ll find that opportunities abound in industries as diverse as utilities, healthcare, and manufacturing.

Loosely Coupled Systems – The decades-long conflict over the efficiency of deeply integrated systems versus the flexibility of modular systems is over, and the winner is… both. Distribution of function across reusable modules delivers economies of reuse. Loosely coupled systems employ web-based connection mechanisms that allow rapid communication while avoiding dependencies that often slow development.

Discovering Trusted Vendors – Large enterprises have maintained their dominance for decades because of their reach across diverse geographies and economic domains. Better solutions from smaller companies have eventually been acquired by companies could successfully sell into the huge bases of customers who’d grown to trust them. Finding a trusted vendor now has evolved into searching the world for products and services that match our requirements, and trust can be built based on massive and readily available customer ratings.

Increasing Irrelevance of Centralized IT – While a highly respected friend’s belief that IT groups will disappear may be overstated, The centralized IT group’s impact on business priorities will continue to diminish. Technology has become so central to distributed business units that they risk falling behind competitors if they wait for or look for direction from IT.  The issue is too central to their success to delegate it.

These trends and their effects are intertwined, reinforcing, and multiplicative. Awareness of them provides a context for both evaluating new business initiatives and estimating the life expectancy of existing enterprises.

[Thanks to A+ friends whose coffee conversations inspired this post, especially John Long of Trellis Partners and Jeffery Palermo of Clear Measure.]

 

 

Celebrating Another Anniversary

CEOs rarely (never?) google to find a consultant with ideas to accelerate their business. To help a CEO with strategy, you first have to get on his/her radar, then bring credibility to the initial conversation. The relationship always begins when a CEO tells a mutual friend about a particular business challenge, then that friend introduces 20/20 Outlook as a reliable and trusted source of breakout strategies.

Earlier this month, 20/20 Outlook LLC celebrated its fourth anniversary. While it’s hard to believe it’s been four years, it’s easy to understand enables success. In a business that relies 100% on referrals to gain new business, having wonderful friends and associates means everything. Thank you!

NOTE: In December I started sending the Accelerated Vision CEO Digest once a month to about 400 CEOs and a few other friends. It shares valuable articles of interest to CEOs in a rapidly consumable format, along with an inspirational saying or two. If you’re a CEO (or a wannabe) who’d like to be included, send a note to bob@2020outlook.com.  

2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit

Joel Trammell requested a guest post for his American CEO blog, and it’s called 2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit. You’ll find many other great thoughts for CEOs there, and since it’s a two-part article, subscribe there and/or here to make sure you get the second half next week.

Non-Tech Companies Are Buying Tech Startups. So What?

Think your non-tech company won’t be impacted by this trend? Has your market been around awhile? Are things likely to continue pretty much as they have? Think again. A recent article in TechCrunch suggests that the market has reached a tipping point that could affect you. Many non-tech companies acknowledge that success increasingly depends upon how well they leverage technology, and they’re making bold moves to acquire software and other technology companies to strengthen their competitiveness. If you’re in high tech, you should check it out; if you’re in another industry, it’s imperative to learn more.

CEOs are increasingly aware that the technology-based operations of their company are critical to gaining market share and growing revenue. Large companies shop for technology that will make them more competitive. Business combinations that would have seemed baffling in the past are becoming commonplace, for example:

  • a chemical and agricultural company bought a weather technology company;
  • an auto company bought a music app company;
  • an insurance company bought a health data analytics company.

As technology becomes increasingly accessible, astute organizations are leveraging this trend with several key business objectives:

  • Erase the hard line between online and brick-and-mortar commerce;
  • Deepen interactions with customers;
  • Gather and incorporate more data intelligence on their business;
  • Add critical technical talent.

If you lead a non-Fortune company, following their lead in making startup acquisitions may be imprudent or impossible. However, frequent conversations with astute CEOs suggests taking three straightforward steps:

  1. Get an outside audit of current software systems to learn how dependent upon technology your company is and whether it’s time to modernize in order to compete more effectively.
  2. Talk to thought leaders in your network about how the intersection of business objectives and spending on technology work in your market.
  3. Recognize that, as each operating division begins to understand how critical technology is to their business, information technology (IT) departments are decentralizing (believe it or not, there was a time when mature companies had a mail and logistics department with an actual mailroom.)

Computing has changed the way every type of business happens. Savvy CEOs understand the value of technology to their businesses and are exploiting it in every functional area.

Mandela Story Offers Key Business Principle

In reading and listening to stories of Nelson Mandela’s life, one in particular jumped out at me. F. W. de Clerk told of Mandela’s focus on ensuring that Afrikaner desires were reflected in the agreement they negotiated to break up apartheid. Mandela apparently insisted that forming a successful partnership required adequately addressing the opposition’s needs, so he probed de Klerk to learn what they were.

Hearing this while driving away from consulting with a CEO and his leadership team about how to create partnerships, I found it fascinating that a political leader embraced a powerful principle that many business leaders miss. Strategic partnerships are often underutilized as a path to faster growth, and making them work requires the kind of transparency and active listening suggested by this story.

Leveraging another company’s resources (e.g., technology, branding, geographic presence) can accelerate growth (e.g., product development, market visibility, revenue), but three obstacles face any brave CEO who decides to drive a truly productive partnership:

  1. Stories of unsuccessful partnerships abound.
  2. Doing it right requires a high level of transparency.
  3. Deciding when to partner requires deliberate thought.

Stories of failed partnerships leads many CEOs to see diverting resources from organic growth to partnerships as overly risky. In fact, without adequate planning and process, they’re right. On the other hand, consider the huge payoff from a wisely crafted partnership like the one Apple consummated with AT&T to launch the iPhone. Apple got accelerated distribution into a large and growing customer base, while AT&T used the hottest product on the market to accelerate the growth of its base for several years before its competitors gained access to the iPhone. (By all accounts, Apple approached Verizon first but the two didn’t come to terms.)

The second issue of transparency is all-important in the partnership process. When do you play your cards? How many should you show? While controlling information is important in all negotiating, successfully initiating a partnership discussion requires a level of openness beyond the norm that doesn’t come naturally to many CEOs. Minimizing the risk requires investing the effort it takes to identify who best to partner with and how best to advance a compelling offer to them. That knowledge provides the confidence to move more openly toward a growth-enhancing relationship.

Timing a partnership can be tricky, but when two factors are simultaneously present, then it’s time to consider partnering: (1) a high-impact threat or opportunity has arisen, and (2) your company’s ability to respond is weak. In this dual circumstance, gaining access to the resources needed to respond faster becomes a matter of defining your organization’s needs very clearly, identifying and prioritizing a list of candidates with the right resources, and most importantly, being intentional about creating a highly compelling proposition before talking to anyone.

When you finally open the conversation, listen ala the Mandela story to confirm and refine your understanding of their needs in order to uncover where your resources can best help them in their areas of weakness.

Successful M&A Requires a Clear Vision

An astute CEO can often augment organic growth with acquisitions, but a majority of acquisitions fail to deliver expected returns. CEO Carol Koffinke of Beacon Associates says that “60 to 80 percent of all mergers and acquisitions fail to meet their merger goals.” Why do they fail?

Much has been written about acquiring companies’ failure to realize the value they envisioned for their acquisitions and the why’s: a lack of proper due diligence, cultural mismatch, lack of integration planning, unforeseen market factors, etc. However, of all the possible reasons for failure, M&A experts put the lack of a clear vision at the top of the list.

Source: “Creating and Executing a Winning M&A Strategy,” Merrill Data Site and The M&A Advisor, October 2013

While a clear vision can accelerate execution of any growth strategy, successful M&A demands a level of clarity most companies fail to achieve. Why do companies launch into an acquisition without sufficient vision and planning? Here are the most common reasons we’ve encountered in working with top executives:

  • Some CEOs don’t naturally think strategically. A CEO who’s risen through the operational ranks can end up with a “make stuff, sell stuff” philosophy and a view that strategy is merely a set of slides for board and investors, while in fact, a clear strategy drives revenue and profitability.
  • A CEO can be overwhelmed by the daily pressure of running the business. Periodically answering the question “are you working on or in your business?” can prevent the urgency of daily concerns that distract from the CEO’s paramount responsibility –  increasing shareholder value.
  • Pressure to make quarterly goals can diffuse and erode the shared view of a company’s purpose. A process called business entropy (e.g., repeatedly accepting non-core business) can eventually dilute the strength of a company’s brand and slow its ability to generate new business.

How can a CEO be more intentional about growing the company through acquisition?

  1. Find a way to set aside time to think and discuss new directions. In this new social media world, it’s easy to develop a chronic short attention span. Focused thought is required to create breakout strategies.
  2. Take an honest look to make sure you’re not hanging onto more than you should. How to cross the second chasm, i.e. growing a company from small to big, is described in Doug Tatum’s insightful book, No Man’s Land. Pick up a copy and read it this weekend. (If you think you don’t have time, you need to read it.)
  3. Discuss growth challenges with objective trusted advisors. Use CEO peers at Vistage and experienced consultants as soundingboards to call out any “elephants in the room.” They will help you establish the clear vision needed to drive your acquisition initiatives.

Backstory: What’s the Genesis of Self-Fueling Partnerships?

The word “coopetition” has been around much longer than most people think. I first encountered it when my boss Ray Noorda, Novell CEO, brought it back into use in the early 1990s to describe his insight about the then-emerging market for local area networks (LANs).

Novell was one of a number of companies competing to become the LAN market leader. Ray decided to encourage his competitors to focus on “growing the pie”, i.e. the networking market, rather than continuing to fight for a bigger slice of a small market. We created the Networld trade show (later renamed Networld/Interop) and invited every company related to the networking industry to participate, including our closest competitors. The show rapidly grew to become the largest tech gathering of its time, engulfing Las Vegas for a week every year.

Working in and leading a group of a dozen highly talented people who built partnerships with the largest companies in the industry was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my career. During that time, Novell’s partnership efforts helped it hit a billion dollars in revenue faster than any company to that point. In addition to a network of over 20,000 resellers who depended upon us for a significant share of their revenue, we grew partnerships that aligned leading companies (e.g. CA, Compaq, HP, IBM, Lotus, Oracle) behind our network operating system and encouraged them to develop new solutions for our customers.

Observations made during that time led me a few years ago to coin the term “self-fueling” to describe partnerships carefully constructed to last. Like most useful concepts, the definition of a self-fueling partnership is simple:

“a relationship structured so that positive results for the first party drives it to act in ways that increase positive results for the second party, and vice versa.”

The partnership between ATT and Apple is an excellent example. It lasted several years enabled each to them to capture significant market share. We all owe a debt to the late, great Ray Noorda for pointing the way to self-fueling partnerships by selling the idea of coopetition to the industry.

 

Self-Fueling Partnership: Apple and AT&T

“In this new wave of technology, you can’t do it all yourself; you have to form alliances.”                           -Carlos Slim Helu 

Addressing startup entrepreneurs at RISE Week Austin, I asked, “If the richest man on the planet thinks alliances are critical, shouldn’t you?” (As a four-time startup survivor – 1985, 1995, 2000, 2002 – I’m driven to give CEOs the knowledge and passion they need to accelerate growth through partnerships.

The Apple/AT&T partnership was a classic: Apple sought broad distribution while AT&T needed new technology. Together they demonstrated how to create a self-fueling partnership, i.e. one that is structured such that positive results for the first party drives it to act in ways that increase positive results for the second party, and vice versa.

Let’s dissect this well-known business case to identify a few principles of “self-fueling partnerships”:

Principle #1   “Partner when the impact of a threat or opportunity is high, and your ability to respond is weak.” 

Apple had an innovative product that needed to be deployed rapidly in order to grab the top spot in the emerging smartphone market. The opportunity was huge, but the carriers controlled access to the customers. AT&T, on the other hand, wanted to grow its data services revenue, and a killer product would help to capture more subscribers.

Principle #2   “Develop a compelling approach before approaching the other party.” 

Apple based their approach to AT&T on its need to capture new subscribers by raiding other carriers. Since people are reluctant to change carriers, AT&T could afford to heavily subsidize the iPhone in exchange for the long-term annuity they’d build from people who switched to their network.

Principle #3   “Be willing to provide exclusivity if you can limit the time and geography.” 

While Apple wanted to grab the #1 spot with rapid deployment, they knew they’d later have to extend distribution through other carriers after significantly penetrating AT&T’s base.  A good bet is that Apple agreed to extend exclusive access to iPhone for as long as AT&T continued to meet aggressive growth goals, then at a later date, Apple would be free to sell through other carriers.

If you have other interesting partnership examples, let us know!.  

 

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