Notes – The Art Of Profitability

Notes from The Art of Profitability, by Adrian Slywotzky

Chapter 1, Customer Solution Profit

The Customer Solution Profit (CSP) model encapsulates the idea of understanding the customers problems and then providing them with a solution to their problems.

In the narrow sense, the CSP model captures the idea of having an intense, personal and detailed understanding of the challenges a customer faces and then providing them with a unique, custom-tailored solution that meets their needs. Such a relationship requires upfront investment of time and resources from both parties (the business and the customer) and it entails high switching costs because finding a competing business who can offer that same level of personalized service would require the loss of previous investments made in the existing relationship. This helps to create a “moat” around a CSP model business. Some examples of a narrow-CSP business would be a software solutions firm (a company producing custom back-end software that an operating company runs off of), a consultancy business, the professional relationship of a trusted lawyer or doctor, or a manufacturer of custom fabrications. The recent rise of information analytics engendered in data mining through web browsing activity also represents a form of narrow-CSP business modeling– think about the way Google can track your browsing habits to serve up targeted ads, or the way Amazon tracks your browsing and purchasing history to suggest items you may be interested in purchasing from them.

In the broad sense, the CSP model actually applies to ALL businesses. Every business seeks to create customers, and the way businesses create customers is by finding problems customers have that the business can solve. In Chapter 1, the guru David Zhao asks the protagonist, Steve, “Can you be profitable without knowing the customer?” It’s possible to think of semantic games you could play to answer this question in the positive, and surely there are some businesses which know their customers better than others, but in a general sense the answer is clearly “No.” To provide someone with a solution, you have to know them enough to know their problem.

The context of this question is partly related to Chapter 1’s exploration of the company Steve works for, Delmore, which by Steve’s judgment is a business which has seen growth in the past but seems to be stumbling and may even be heading for a downfall. Steve believes Delmore has lost its way and is not focused on serving the customer. Zhao’s question resonates even more in this regard because Delmore’s management seems more focused on administering the business rather than knowing its customers. In the present, Delmore still appears to be profitable (though much less profitable than its heyday), which seems to suggest that even a company that doesn’t know its customer can be profitable. But the implication of Zhao’s questioning is that over the long-run, Delmore will not be profitable if it can not find a way to focus on understanding its customers better.

Another idea explored in Chapter 1 is the role of company culture. Zhao talks about consulting for a company after learning the secret sauce of their competitor. He says he hand delivered the total solution to the business he was advising and they only ended up implementing part of it– they saw a pick-up in their business as a result, but it was not as dramatic as it could have been if they had implemented his ideas wholesale. Why, Steve asks, do some businesses behave this way?

To succeed in business you need to have a genuine, honest-to-goodness interest in profitability.

This suggests that differences in margin structure and net profitability for companies in the same industry could come down to the “profit culture” of the business, likely established by the original founders and permutated by succeeding hires and executives. They could have the “technology” or strategic know-how to earn a profit, but simply be disinclined to work hard enough or with a unified purpose or without the ego necessary to fully capture the opportunity available to them. This idea also introduces additional context for why much M&A activity rarely seems to bring the “synergy” promised by combining two companies into one– if they have wildly disparate cultures, getting the same performance out of the new company as was available in the two separate companies may be impossible, and cultures may clash so wildly that the overall profitability is in fact harmed by corporate unification.

The subtext to the entire chapter on Customer Solution Profit models is that to really understand the value of a business, you must look at what customer problems the business solves, and how. By studying what is unique about the customer solutions the business offers, you are able to have a better analytical window into the durability of its competitive position, the source of its profitability and profit potential, its opportunities for growth and the stability of its margin structure.

Chapter 2, Pyramid Profit

The Pyramid Profit model consists of multiple quality and price tiers for products, targeted at multiple types of customers (and customer preference), which creates two powerful dynamics for the business:

  1. Protects them from competition from market entrants below (commodity market)
  2. Creates profitable “customer migration” opportunities as loyal customers move up the steps of the pyramid (franchise market)

Why is this model so powerful?

As guru David Zhao teaches,

Your pyramid has to be more than just a collection of different products at different price points. A true pyramid is a system in which the lower-priced products are manufactured and sold with so much efficiency that it’s virtually impossible for a competitor to steal market share by underpricing you. That’s why I call the lowest tier of the pyramid the firewall. But the most important factor is the nature of your customer set. The customers themselves form a hierarchy, with different expectations and different attitudes toward price.

The competitive environment all businesses would prefer to have is that of a franchise, where their product is deemed uniquely valuable and essential such that the business can capture a franchise premium in its margin structure, a premium which is enduring and protected from competition over time by the proverbial “moat.”

Simultaneously, the competitive environment all businesses fear is that of a commodity market, where the only way to distinguish your product from someone else’s and incite the customer to buy is by offering the lowest price. It is a true race to the bottom and the turnover for businesses in commodity markets can be quite high.

As discussed in Clayton Christensen’s classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma, most innovators arrive in a market as low-cost entrants. Incumbent firms see no problem in giving the low-margin business dregs to them as they’re happy to play in the higher-margin markets upstream. The hungry commodity firms are constantly looking above them at the juicy margins available in this other market– can they apply their innovative, low-cost practices to this higher-margin space and move in for the kill? As Christensen details, so often they try and succeed.

This is the genius of the Pyramid Profit model. Incumbent firms are protected from innovative, low-cost competition by offering a low-to-no margin product that creates a competitive “firewall” at the most vulnerable place in the market, the violently dynamic commodity space. Then, they are free to play in the middle and higher margin markets without stress.

There is an additional benefit, as well. By capturing new customers even at the low-margin end of the market, the firm is able to increase customer loyalty and brand familiarity over the customer’s lifecycle. Over time. these (presumably) younger, poorer customers turn into older, richer customers following the circumstances of life.

The value of a Pyramid Profit model depends on the shape of the pyramid. A pyramid with a wide base and a narrow top is relatively inefficient and less valuable as most of the business volume is captured in the low/no-margin mass market whereas the high-margin premium market remains under-promoted. An ideal shape would resemble something more like a skyscraper tower– the same width for all tiers, all the way up, with enough segmentation via price/quality tier to progressively move customers up the pyramid at a rapid pace. The more business that is concentrated at the upper levels of the pyramid, the better the margins and the more profit the firm can earn.

The Pyramid Profit model can be found in many well known businesses, even though it is a rarer circumstance than that of the Customer Solution Profit model discussed in chapter 1. A good example is the automobile industry with its “economy” and “premium” brands (for example, Honda and Acura, or Chevy and Cadillac). Even within each brand, many manufacturers have managed to create a “pyramid” of quality, price and even features/capabilities (for example, Honda has the LX base model, EX, EX with leather and EX-L with navigation; it also has the Civic for the entry buyer, the Accord for the more sophisticated, the Odyssey for the family buyer, etc.). Another example would be the airline industry, such as Virgin Atlantic’s “Economy”, “Premium Economy” and “First Class” seating and service tiers. However, no airline seems to have created separate brands/carriers that focus on one tier of the pyramid over another, instead this segmentation always occurs per aircraft (contrast this to a “single class” carrier such as JetBlue or Southwest Airlines, though notice that even these firms have begun to offer new passenger tiers for additional money such as early boarding, extra luggage capacity, etc.)

Speaking of the auto industry again, one of the most prodigious Pyramid Profit employers has been Toyota. Toyota offers three brands in the United States: Scion, Toyota and Lexus. Scion was a brand developed specifically for the young car buyer, initially offering lower price points, simpler model choices and a “no bargaining” purchase experience that was supposed to capture a first-time buyer and put them into the “Toyota system” for the rest of their automobile-buying lives. Then, there was the mass market, multi-trimmed and multi-segmented Toyota brand, offering cars, vans, SUVs and light trucks to the everyman. And finally, there was Lexus, the flagship brand for wealthy, older, image-conscious and highly-demanding customers.

Toyota’s pyramid is awkwardly shaped, however. It’s base, Scion, is minuscule and definitely low/no-margin. The middle step is enormous and fairly profitable relative to the rest of the industry. And the top is much wider than one would expect it to be, being both relatively high-volume for a luxury market and quite profitable despite ongoing margin erosion in the industry overall. Indeed, Lexus auto dealership franchises are consistently one of the most valuable and sought-after brands in the industry alongside BMW and Audi, commanding high market multiples reflective of their premium value.

The key to a successful and highly profitable pyramid is twofold. First, you must be lucky enough to operate in a market that is conducive to segmentation of customers (especially self-segmentation). Second, you must know your customers well– the Customer Solution Profit at work again! The better you understand your customers and their specific needs, the better you will be able to create custom quality and pricing tiers in your pyramid that will meet their subjective needs.

Chapter 3, Multi-Component Profit

The central idea to the Multi-Component Profit is “same product, several businesses,” in contrast to the Pyramid Profit which targets distinct customer sets with distinct product offerings (differentiated in terms of quality and price). The example given in the book is Coca-Cola, which may be offered at several prices in several different venues ranging from a 6-pack at a gas station to a 2-liter bottle at the grocery store to a glass at a restaurant. The price per unit is different in each case,  meaning variable margin structure, but the customer is captured nonetheless at each consumption opportunity.

While each of these margin structures and business opportunities combine to average out to one margin for the controlling firm, Coca-Cola, each product represents a unique business opportunity from the standpoint of marketing and advertising, competitive dynamics and ultimately, profitability. And this is where the secret of the Multi-Component Profit lies– just as an entire economy can benefit from the division of labor by breaking large tasks into smaller ones that individuals can specialize in, an individual firm can benefit from identifying ways to segment its large business into several smaller, distinct components, managing each one uniquely.

How is this possible? If the price of a firm’s good is set at one price regardless of the volume, and marketed in a uniform way, the firm can miss opportunities to sell their product to a.) people who don’t see value in marketing not aimed at their needs and tastes and b.) people who would be willing to buy the product at a different price and in different quantities than how it is normally offered. By catering to these preferences as distinct markets, the business is able to offer optimum combinations of price and quantity that meet each markets needs better, thus increasing total volume and profit.

Another example of a Multi-Component Profit model at work would be a software operating system company, such as Microsoft, which has different business units for Business/Enterprise, Government/Education and Retail and Wholesale channels. Each user buys a different amount of software licenses and pays a different price for them. This would also be a principle at work in a computer manufacturer’s business, such as Dell (same business lines), or a networking component company like Cisco.

Would an oil producer qualify, such as Exxon Mobil? An oil producer actually produces a number of slightly differentiated products depending on source and quality of the oil sold (West Texas Intermediate, Brent, etc.) which would seem to put it more into a Pyramid Profit model, though even that relationship is tenuous because oil is a nearly ideal commodity product in the sense that it is hard to create a “firewall” product as well as to move customers up a pyramid structure, especially with the fact that oil tends to trade at a uniform price across world markets no matter where it is produced (if it is of the same type). An oil firm probably does not give significant discounts to “different customers” based on quantity ordered, either.

Similarly, an oil refiner would seem to be a Multi-Component Profit model with its different kinds of refined products marketed in different ways (kerosene for lamps, or kerosene for jet engines) but again, these markets are so commoditized and regularized across world markets that it is hard to imagine these businesses creating separate marketing and pricing initiatives for differing customer demand, instead just dumping their product into various wholesale markets that then re-sell the products to end users (though perhaps these businesses are in the Multi-Component Profit model).

Over time if I think of other examples, which there undoubtedly are, I’ll post them but for now I will close out these notes with this summary from the book’s protagonist:

Different parts of a business can have wildly different profitability. The customer behaves very differently on different purchase occasions. Different degrees of price sensitivity.

The value of this lesson, as the book’s guru says, is that constant innovation is a key ingredient to maintaining and growing the profitability of any business, and one way to innovate is to find ways to break your existing business into smaller and smaller components which can be separately managed with unique marketing, growth and profit trajectories.

Chapter 4, Switchboard Profit

The Switchboard Profit model combines three essential elements to generate outstanding profit:

  1. Packaging; the provision of necessary component resources for a task in one place/package that can be hired together instead of separately
  2. Monopolization; control of a critical resource that all users need to hire
  3. Market share; control of a critical mass of the total market (approximately 15-20% minimum in practice) which gives the perception of dominance and incentivizes economic actors to utilize the switchboard firm, thereby creating a multiplicative network effect that enhances the value of the switchboard with every additional increase in market share

Those are the essential ingredients. The way they work together to create outstanding profit opportunities is like so: limiting competition and reducing transaction costs. Those are the primary principles at work. By putting together various resources which would normally be hired separately (and thus, would be exchanged each in their own competitive markets), the Switchboard Profit model brings these resources under one roof where they can be hired together (packaging), where they can be hired no place else (monopolization) and where other similar resources, typically skilled labor, are thus attracted to because they see the probability of being hired at advantageous rates themselves to be much higher by participating in the network effect of the Switchboard Profit model firm (market share).

The result is a constrained supply which can negotiate for a higher total hire price. It is valuable for those hiring the products of the Switchboard Profit model firm to pay this higher price because they save on search costs and they also face the alternative option of hiring lower quality substitutes. The more that the resources in question come under the control of the Switchboard Profit model firm, the greater profit the firm can generate from being the central hub for hiring the resource out.

One company that sounds like a Switchboard Profit model on its face is Amazon, a logistics giant that aggregates numerous consumer goods in one place. This satisfies the packaging criteria, and it almost satisfies the market share criteria as suppliers of goods want to participate in Amazon’s marketplace because it can increase their market exposure and thus the chance that the product will be purchased. But Amazon does not maintain anything close to a monopoly on these goods because they’re widely available “commodities” rather than unique or limited supply products carried only by Amazon.

The example given in the book was the Hollywood talent agency of Michael Ovitz. Ovitz combined top star power with “total production resources” (writers, actors, directors, etc., all in one place) and he commanded a large share of the market such that additional writers, actors, directors, etc., had a strong incentive to join his firm and thus increase his profitability as his market share grew. An obvious additional example would be any other large, dominant talent agency such as for sports stars, musicians or other celebrities who each represent unique products that can be easily “controlled” and “constrained” by one firm.

The network effect seems to be a key aspect to the profitability of the Switchboard Profit model. Google’s dominance in search means it is largely the central hub by which people conduct their internet searches, meaning a person buying ad space in the Google network is getting a better package deal than other search network ad buyers.

A television network might also qualify as a Switchboard Profit model: if you have the best shows on TV and a large market share with all the kinds of shows in one place that people might want to watch, advertisers will be more attracted to you and so will TV show producers and so, too, will TV viewers. And the more people who utilize your TV network, the more valuable it is to everyone involved.

Other examples might include a health insurance network which includes top medical professionals under the insurance plan; a legal association with the best legal minds in a market in one place; or even a top university or research institution known to have the brightest minds.

Something interesting about the Switchboard Profit model is that most of these businesses seem to revolve around human resources, rather than non-human resources (commodities which are common or rare alike).

Chapter 5, Time Profit

Many of guru David Zhao’s profit models come with simple illustrations which capture the essential ingredient of the profit model. The image of the Time Profit model is an X-Y axis with “$/unit” on the Y-axis and “time” on the X-axis. Plotted across this chart is one line, which runs from the top left corner toward the bottom right corner at a 45-degree angle reading “Price”, and another line below that labeled “Cost” at a more mild angle, eventually intersecting with the “Price” line near the right side of the chart and then overtaking it.

The concept is simple: Time Profit is generated by being the first to market a new product or service because over time imitators will compete and eventually drive price toward cost. Time, therefore, is of the essence.

In TAOP, Zhao and Steve discuss Time Profit models in the context of firms without special legal protections (such as patents or copyrights) on their works which serve to shield them from competition. However, whether such legal protections are permanent or limited in duration, the Time Profit model principle is the same– only by being first to market would you even be afforded such legal protections in the first place, so there is an incentive to be first else you finish last.

Zhao and Steve discuss the Time Profit model within the context of an investment bank constantly innovating with new financial products. But this model could also easily apply to pharmaceutical and software development companies (which enjoy legal protections on their products), as well as a tech product manufacturer, such as a smartphone manufacturer, whose core product features are likely not subject to legal protections. Here, the Time Profit model is essential as the first firm to get a product to market with a valuable innovation that creates a consumer craze can capture a premium for their products while competing firms figure out how to duplicate this technology and make it standard in their follow-up product offerings. These “second place” firms are doomed to earn commodity returns on their products, only the first-mover gets to enjoy a profit premium.

Like the Customer Solution Profit model, the Time Profit model is more than just a specific business model, it is something of an essential feature to the competitive conditions of any firm in any industry facing innovative development which, practically speaking, is all firms in all industries. Whether a new product, a new service or a new internal or customer-facing process, all businesses seek to adopt one another’s best practices to save costs and increase profitability. The first firm to innovate something that is eventually imitable by others gets a profit advantage during the period of time between innovation and imitation by others. Time Profit models can be thought of as temporary competitive advantages due to periodic innovation.

As David Zhao teaches, a key component of the Time Profit model that is often overlooked is the role diligence in the innovative process plays:

Tedium is the single greatest challenge for a business that’s built on innovation

The first act of innovation is thinking, the arriving at of a brilliant new idea. The second act, and far more important, is the doing, the translation of an innovative idea into an innovative product, service or process. This part requires the same rigmarole of standard business practice: making phone calls, sending emails, training people, holding meetings, crunching numbers, keeping people on task and pulling in the same direction, etc.

Innovating, idea-making, is sexy and fun. But turning innovative ideas into real profit is often boring, common and time-consuming. The people and firms that are able to apply energy and determination to this part of the process are the ones who can most consistently capture the Time Profit. As innovator Paul Cook says, “What separates the winners and losers in innovation is who can master the drudgery.”

Ancillary Notes

Chapter 5 had a few other points worth mentioning, some of which were connected to carryover discussions from earlier chapters.

The first point concerns the power of critical numerical thinking. When working through a number problem, Zhao advises,

Getting the order of magnitude right is what matters, not the details

This is similar to Buffett and Munger’s “approximately right versus precisely wrong” dictum. Zhao also talks about using the numbers to ask and answer critical questions; the numbers of business (assumptions, projections, actual results, etc.) can tell us a story, but we have to be curious about the numbers. It’s not enough to wonder, “Why are the numbers what they are?” we have to be able to put forth some effort to attempt to answer such questions ourselves. As Zhao says,

Being able to take the measure of the world is one of the most crucial skills we can develop

The second point, which is arrived at in a discussion of business innovation, is the “paradox” Zhao observes in the semiconductor industry, which is that the firms involved “copy each other’s chips, but not each other’s business models.” It is the business model which is responsible for mastering the Time Profit concept and other models discussed in TAOP– why don’t more managements focus on copying successful business models rather than imitating successful products and services?

It brings to mind a question for potential investors, too. Which businesses could see their value dramatically improved by focusing the company’s efforts on copying the leading business model in the industry rather than engaging in the rat race of perpetual product innovation/imitation?

The final point has to do with the nature of learning. Steve the student asks Zhao for a copy of his notes from a previous meeting. Steve wants to see how Zhao solved a problem they both worked on. Zhao suggests,

you’ve got to learn how to solve these problems in your own way

the idea being that true knowledge means being able to solve a problem in your own way, not by imitating somebody else. This is why some firms are innovators while the rest are imitators. Innovators are capable of solving problems their own way; imitators just copy the innovator’s solution. But it’s a lesson that’s important to the budding business analyst, as well. How will you solve problems when there is no guru there to teach you? You have to find your own path and do your own thinking.

Until you can do that, though, as Steve says, copying a few “Picassos” to practice a known master technique can be helpful.

Notes – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing

How To Think About Retained Earnings

  • Grab 15 years of data from EDGAR and compare receivables, inventory, PP&E, accounts payable and accrued expenses to sales, EBITDA, etc.; E.g., if receivables rise faster than sales, this is where “reinvestment” is going
  • For a quick comparison, look at:
    • Net income
    • FCF
    • Buybacks + dividends
  • Compare debt (total liabilities) between the start of the period and the end and subtract the difference to get growth in debt
  • Then, sum all dividends and buybacks over the period, and all net income over the period
  • Then, subtract the change in debt from dividends/buybacks; what is left is dividends/buybacks generated by the business, rather than growth in debt
  • Then, compare this to net income to see the ratio of earnings paid out to shareholders
  • You can compare the growth in net income to retained earnings to get your average return on retained earnings
  • Look at the change in net income and sales over 10 years and then the ratio of cumulative buybacks and dividends to cumulative reported earnings
  • You’re looking for the central tendency of return on retained earnings, whether it is approx:
    • 5%, bad business
    • 15%, good business
    • 30%, great business
  • Companies with single products easily generate high returns on retained earnings, but struggle to expand indefinitely

One Ratio to Rule Them All: EV/EBITDA

  • EV/EBITDA is the best ratio for understanding a business versus a corporate structure
  • Net income is not useful; FCF is complicated, telling you everything about a mature business but nothing about a growing one
  • General rule of thumb: a run of the mill business should trade around 8x EBITDA; a great business never should
  • Low P/E and low P/B can be misleading as it often results in companies with high leverage
  • P/E ratio punishes companies that don’t use leverage; they’re often worth more to a strategic buyer who could lever them up
  • The “DA” part of a financial statement is most likely to disguise interesting, odd situations; if you’re using P/E screens you miss out on companies with interesting notes on amortization
  • Control buyers read notes; why use screens that force you to ignore them?
  • FCF is safer than GAAP earnings or EBITDA because it’s more conservative and favors mature businesses
  • EBITDA misses the real expense in the “DA”, but FCF treats the portion of cap-ex that is an investment as expense, so they’re both flawed; investment is not expense
  • No single ratio works for all businesses in all industries; but to get started, EV/EBITDA is the best for screening
  • Example: cruise companies have huge “DA”, but no “T” as they pay no taxes
  • “Only you can calculate the one ratio that matters: price-to-value; there is no substitute for reading the 10-K”
  • Empirical evidence on ratios:

Blind Stock Valuation #2: Wal-Mart (WMT) – 1981

  • There is something wrong with believing a stock is never worth more than 15 times earnings
  • “Growth is best viewed as a qualitative rather than a quantitative factor.”
  • Buffett’s margin of safety in Coca-Cola was customer habit– repeatability
  • Buffett looks for:
    • Repeatable formula for success
    • Focus
    • Buybacks
  • “The first thing to do when you’re given a growth rate is not geometry. It’s biology. How is this happening? How can a company grow 43% a year over 10 years?”
  • Stable growth over a long period of time tells you a business has a reliable formula; look for businesses that behave like bacteria
  • Recognizing the value of changes after they happen is important, not predicting them ahead of time
  • You can’t post the kind of returns Wal-Mart did through the 1970s without a competitive advantage
  • Buffett gleans most of his info from SEC reports, things like 10-year records of gross margins, key industry performance metric comparisons, etc.

GTSI: Why Net-Net Investing Is So Hard

  • The challenge of net-nets is you often have no catalyst in sight and no wonderful future to visualize as you hold a bad business indefinitely
  • Graham’s MoS is integral– you can be off in your calculation of value by quite a bit but Mr. Market will often be off by even more
  • Focusing too much on time could be a problem in net-net investing
  • Two pieces of advice for net-net investing:
    • Put 100% of focus on buying and 0% on selling
    • Put 100% of focus on downside and 0% on upside
  • Money is made in net-nets not by the valuing but by the buying and holding
  • “You want to be there for the buyout.”
  • The hardest part of net-net investing: waiting
  • Graham and Schloss were successful likely because they built a basket, so they were always getting to buy something new that was cheap instead of worrying about selling
  • Focus on a process that keeps you finding new net-nets and minimizes your temptation to sell what you own

Can You Screen For Shareholder Composition? 30 Strange Stocks

  • Shareholder composition can help explain why a stock is cheap
  • A company’s shareholder base changes as the business itself changes; for example, a bankruptcy turns creditors into shareholders
  • Shareholders often become “lost” over the years, forgetting they own a company and therefore forgetting to trade it
  • Some companies go public as a PR ploy, so investors may be sleepy and inactive
  • Buffett understood this and understood that a stock could be a bargain even at 300% of its last trade price– National American Fire Insurance (NAFI) example
  • Buying a spin-off makes sense because many of the shareholders are stuck with a stock they never wanted
  • An interesting screen: oldest public companies with the lowest floats (in terms of shares outstanding); a lack of stock splits combined with high insider ownership is a recipe for disinterest in pleasing Wall St

How My Investing Philosophy Has Changed Over Time

  • Info about Geoff Gannon
    • high school dropout
    • bought first stock at 14
    • read [amazon text=Security Analysis (1940 Edition)&asin=007141228X] and [amazon text=The Intelligent Investor (1949 Edition)&asin=0060555661] at 14
    • over time, became more Buffett and less Graham
    • made most money buying and holding companies with strong competitive positions trading temporarily at 6, 10 or 12 times earnings
  • I like a reliable business with almost no history of losses and a market leading position in its niche
  • Geoff’s favorite book is Hidden Champions of the Twenty-First Century, which is part of a set of 3 he recommends to all investors:
    • You Can Be a Stock Market Genius (by Joel Greenblatt)
    • The Intelligent Investor (1949 Edition)
    • Hidden Champions of the Twenty-First Century
  • Everything you need to know to make money snowball in the stock market:
    • The Berkshire/Teledyne stories
    • Ben Graham’s Mr. Market metaphor
    • Ben Graham’s margin of safety principle
    • “Hidden Champions of the 21st Century”
  • Once you know this, if you just try to buy one stock a year, the best you can find, and then forget you own it for the next 3 years, you’ll do fine; over-activity is a major problem for most investors
  • Bubble thinking requires higher math, emotional intelligence, etc.; that’s why a young child with basic arithmetic would make a great value investor because they’d only understand a stock as a piece of a business and only be able to do the math from the SEC filings
  • There are always so many things that everyone is trying to figure out; in reality, there are so few things that matter to any one specific company
  • One key to successful investing: minimizing buy and sell decisions; it’s hard to screw up by holding something too long
  • Look for the most obvious opportunities: it’s hard to pass on a profitable business selling for less than its cash
  • Extreme concentration works, you can make a lot of money:
    • waiting for the buyout
    • having more than 25% of your portfolio in a stock when the buyout comes
  • I own 4-5 Buffett-type stocks (competitive position) bought at Graham-type P/E ratios
  • “There is a higher extinction rate in public companies than we are willing to admit.”
  • Most of my experience came through learning from actual investing; I wish I had been a little better at learning from other people’s mistakes

Would You Buy This Business? A Bargain In The Videogame Industry

The Nintendo investment thesis in one paragraph

At Y9020/share (June 1, 2012), you are buying a strong global entertainment franchise for Y1278T which has earned Y126B on average over the last ten years and generated Y120B in average FCF, with Y1191B in book value, Y958B in cash and investments and no debt. Global financial market pessimism coupled with hyperventilating technology futurist forecasting and a recent misstep by management that is now behind the company can be used to your advantage to buy this good business at a fair price.

The Nintendo investment thesis in several paragraphs, with links and charts

Nintendo ($NTDOY – ADR, JP:7974), the cherished childhood video game icon and global IP behemoth behind such hit game franchises and characters as Super Mario Bros., Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda and more, has stumbled recently. The company rolled out its new 3D handheld video game system, the Nintendo 3DS, around the world in the spring of 2011 at a price point that proved out of reach to many consumers.

To sale initial sales were disappointing would be an understatement– the system was a flop and with little software support from Nintendo out the gate, gamers had even less reasons to purchase this pricey new system. Realizing their mistake, the company quickly slashed the retail price of the system and offered retroactive credits and concessions to select customers who had purchased the system prior to the price drop.

With a new slate of software titles by Nintendo and premium 3rd party developers released in the 2011 Holiday season and thereafter, and the new price point, the system has finally caught momentum and software and hardware sales are both impressive. As of March 2012, worldwide sales of the Nintendo 3DS reached 17 million units and sales of related software amounted to over 45 million units. Consider this in comparison to the 151 million hardware units and 900 million software units sold over the last 7 years with the predecessor system Nintendo DS and its generations, and the 95 million hardware units and 818 million software units sold over the last 5 years with the smash hit Wii home game console (data source PDF).

Game console hardware and software sales tend to grow and then peak 3-4 years after release (software especially, as its dependent upon a hardware install base for growth, while hardware is in turn dependent on hit software releases to coax gamers to purchase the system to play their favorite games). Even with the poor initial release, the Nintendo 3DS has already outsold the wildly popular Nintendo DS over a comparable time period.

The world’s biggest game expo, E3, starts the first week of June and Nintendo will make a new announcement about their 2nd generation Wii system, currently named Wii U. Sales of the predecessor, revolutionary motion-controlled system have continued to show strength as the company has strategically discounted the system over its lifecycle to maintain sales and the hardware install base, thus driving software transactions as well, although they are slowing as any game system will after long enough after its introduction into the market.

The pessimism about the initial 3DS rollout and the uncertainty about the potential success of the new Wii U system mean that the market is not looking forward to anything good for Nintendo. The stock has been left for dead as the company trades near book value of Y1,191B with a current market cap of Y1,278B.

The fear and pessimism about this company is not just related to the hardware issues (which appear to be solved). Nintendo’s fortunes have been swept up in the whirlwind Tech Bubble 2.0, where everyone insists that all old things will be torn down and ruined and new, cloud-based (and primarily Apple owned and operated) variants will rise in their place. Analyst opinions, professional and amateur alike, have revolved around an obsession with the idea of Nintendo giving up its hardware business completely and selling itself to Apple and focusing on its software franchises. The company’s stated disinterest in following any course resembling this option has left many to conclude it is an absurd dinosaur, cluelessly waiting for the asteroid apocalypse to arrive and destroy its once powerful and profitable franchise in a massive thermonuclear explosion.

That’s what’s being imputed into the stock price, which has continued to plummet like a rock. But, the reality is quite different. Nintendo’s hardware is not being abandoned en masse by former fans. Nor is the world moving to a permanent, entrenched and exclusive model of casual gaming via cell phone apps. The value of the “casual gamer” is likely severely overblown to begin with (which, by the way, calls into question the value of Nintendo’s strategy of “games for everybody” and expansion of the gaming population, as noble as it may be and as successful as it may appear with the blockbuster sales numbers of the Wii). And Nintendo, while initially hesitant and reluctant to jump into the online transaction and gaming space, is by now doing much more than just dipping a toe in.

A few choice quotes from the latest President’s address by Nintendo head honcho Satoru Iwata are below.

On digital downloads and digital game delivery:

it is true that downloading software with 10 gigabytes of memory cannot be done in an instant today, even with broadband connections. So, compared with the situation of portable gaming devices, where comparatively compact-sized software can be downloaded, we have to ask our consumers to wait for a longer time before the download process is completed. However, consumers will be able to use the Wii U effectively by finding convenient times to download software such as when they are sleeping at night. Some consumers prefer to download digital software so that they can play with them on their system anytime without the need to exchange the games’ storage media. Some other consumers find it easier to purchase the medium at a retailer and play it as soon as they insert it into the game hardware. These consumers think it advantageous that they can exchange games with their friends. In order to offer consumers options to choose from, it is important for the company to first make the situation (where digital downloads of packaged software are offered to our consumers in addition to the existing packaged software sales) a reality, and we are ready to offer these options now.

Nintendo is taking a flexible approach, trying to allow gamers a variety of options for receiving games and game content ranging from traditional retail distribution to digital distribution, all with respect for the current limitations of average broadband connections.

On digital versus retail pricing:

we are proposing the two formats of sales mechanisms from which our consumers can make their own choices. The needs of society shall be determined by the choices to be made by the consumers. We do not hold such a premise that digitally distributed software has less value. In fact, as we have discussed this with a number of software publishers around the world, we have found that their opinions are completely divided on the topic of the price points of the digital distribution of packaged software. Some publishers believe that the digital versions should be cheaper while others insist that both versions must be set at exactly the same price. So, it is not only Nintendo’s idea. Each publisher has various ideas on this point and, among them, Nintendo is now offering both versions at the same price point (the same suggested retail price).

Again, the focus is on flexibility– not wedding the company to one model but taking a wait-and-see approach that alienates neither consumers nor distribution partners and allows the market consensus to finally guide the company to the best process over time.

On management’s responsibility for the flop:

with the financial results that we have announced, it is natural that I am being criticized. I do not feel that I have been experiencing something unreasonable. I am making efforts so that the situation can change as soon as possible.

How often do you see the president of a public company accept responsibility for a problem, and, better yet, still feel like there’s hope for a resolution?

On the lessons learned from the failed 3DS launch that will be applied to the Wii U launch:

As we look back, when we launched the Nintendo 3DS, we failed to prepare a software lineup which could satisfy our consumers in addition to other factors, and the Nintendo 3DS could not initially increase the sales as we had originally expected. This is why the company needed to carry out such a drastic markdown measure by sacrificing the profitability. As a result, and supported by a strong software lineup, the Nintendo 3DS was able to regain momentum during the year-end sales season of 2011. We laid out such a drastic measure by understanding that regaining the momentum which had been once lost, is much harder than trying to create momentum from scratch. Without it, the Nintendo 3DS could not have realized positive results at the end of last year or the current sales pace in Japan. It did hurt our financial results, but it was a necessary measure. So, how will we be able to use this lesson for the Wii U? There is always a limit to our internal resources. The company now has to develop software for the Nintendo 3DS, has to prepare for the Wii U launch and has to finalize the hardware functionalities. With these circumstances in mind, if I said that an overwhelmingly rich software lineup would be prepared from day one, it would be too much of a promise to make. On the other hand, we are making efforts so that we will be able to make several proposals even from the launch period that can eventually become evergreen titles for the Wii U. We have learned the lesson that we have to make that kind of preparation for the Wii U, or the Wii U will not gain enough momentum to expand its sales.

On the role of their 3rd party software publishing partners in the success of their systems:

It is imperative for Nintendo that our new hardware offers new proposals and potentially new play experiences so that developers will be interested in this hardware and be motivated to make attractive software. At the E3 show this June, you will be able to experience not only Nintendo’s Wii U software but also the titles being prepared by the third-party publishers. As a result, I think you will be able to notice that a number of developers are creating software (for the Wii U) even today. As for the Nintendo 3DS, there may appear to be fewer commitments from the U.S. and the European software publishers than those of their Japanese counterparts. This is due to the different timing (between Japan and overseas) when they noticed that the Nintendo 3DS would surely expand widely into their markets and, thus, the different timing when they started the actual development of the Nintendo 3DS software. You will also notice a change in this situation when a richer Nintendo 3DS software lineup in the overseas markets is announced around the time of the E3 show.

The first bold part is critical– this is one of Nintendo’s competitive advantages. The company has a purposeful policy of creating new play experiences that will provide incentive for software publishers to publish for their hardware and not others.

The second part is an explanation for why it appears that non-Japanese publishers have not been excited to produce software for the 3DS after the failed launch. They were last to see the sales momentum for the system turn in their markets so they’re behind on the development schedule as a result.

On the “gaming population expansion” philosophy:

Without making efforts to increase the number of new consumers and make video games accepted positively by society, we cannot expect a brighter future than now, so we will continue to make these efforts.

Once consumers have a notion that “this system is not for us,” we have learned that it is extremely difficult to change their perceptions later. Therefore, in promoting the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U, we have announced that we would like “width” and “depth” to coexist. With the Nintendo DS and the Wii, the approach of “width” was well accepted by many people; however, what we did in terms of “depth” was not satisfactory for some consumers. This time, we would like consumers to be satisfied in both aspects. In order to do so, we started to work on the “depth” aspect first, and the current and existing software you can see for the Nintendo 3DS is based on that idea. In the future, the approach will evolve. By exploring the development both from width and depth standpoints, it is our intention to satisfy a wider audience with one gaming platform. Our approach for the Wii U is basically the same. By doing so continuously, we are expecting that the number of game users per household will increase and as the gaming population increases, we believe we can create a sustainable video game market.

Nintendo is not going away. It’s not a clueless dinosaur. It made some mistakes with the 3DS launch that it has learned from. The industry may have some challenges, headwinds and uncertainties as the distribution model transitions to digital over time, but none of this changes the integral value of this business drastically, which is that it is a premium provider of desired game IP on innovative 1st party hardware platforms that a growing audience of gamers enjoy using.

It might be a different story if Nintendo were in a different financial position than the one it actually occupies but the reality is as of Q4 FY2012 (Mar 2012), the company had Y958B of cash and short-term investments against TOTAL LIABILITIES of Y177B. The company has no debt. According to this link on the Nintendo IR website, at a current share price of Y9020 the company actually is selling below book (NAV) of Y9313/share.

If you’re not yet getting an idea of how cheap this company is, consider the following table:

Nintendo Trading Multiples
10yr 5yr Pre-Wii
Market cap 1277863 (millions Yen)
EV 319541 (millions Yen)
P/S 1.3 1.0 2.5
EV/EBIT 1.5 1.2 2.7
P/E 10.2 8.0 17.9

I created three periods to consider– 10 year average (full system cycle from 2003-2012), 5 year average (since the global recession started, 2007-2012) and the pre-Wii era (these are average earnings generated by the company prior to release of the hit Wii console, 2003-2006).

As you can clearly see, the company is trading for abnormally low multiples of sales, operating and net earnings. The future for Nintendo will probably be better than the pre-Wii era (it is a larger company with an even more expansive market and fan base than then) but may not be as successful as it was with the Wii. That remains to be seen.

Here is the company’s historical margins over the last 10 years:

  • Gross – 40%
  • Operating – 22%
  • Net – 13%
  • FCF – 12%

I think these margins demonstrate Nintendo is a good business with stable earnings power and strong ability to generate FCF from sales.

Relative to its average earnings power and franchise potential, the company seems to be unreasonably priced. Businesses like Nintendo do not deserve to trade below book or anywhere close to 1.5-2x sales. The stumble on the 3DS was temporary and the company is moving on. It’d be nice if the company was even cheaper, and with all the pessimism in global financial markets it might still be. But at these prices, it’s “cheap enough” for a business like this.

Notes – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing

Is Negative Book Value Bad?

  • Negative equity itself is meaningless (could be good or bad)
  • Compare net financial obligations to EBITDA
  • Think of borrowed money as the price of time; ask yourself if you’d rather they borrow money or spend time
  • Stocks in Geoff’s portfolio tend to:
    • have positive FCF
    • have unusually high ratios of FCF to reported earnings
    • buy back shares
    • pay dividends
    • have excess cash after the above
  • “I have found I do not make good decisions when I have to juggle 10 or more opportunities in my head at once”
  • “I don’t believe in taking a risk where I think if everything goes perfectly the upside is still going to be in the single digits”
  • How much debt is too much debt is a separate issue from whether the debt is being used productively
  • When soaring over the market trying to find bargains, these are useful as screening tools:
    • tangible book value
    • EV/EBITDA
  • If an entire country’s market has a low P/TBV or EV/EBITDA, this is important to know; you can buy indexes on this info alone
  • However, ultimately the following matter more:
    • liquidation value
    • market value
    • replacement value
    • Owner Earnings
  • Move beyond being a record keeper — an accountant — and become an appraiser
  • The assets that matter most on the balance sheet:
    • cash
    • investments
    • land
    • intellectual property
    • tax savings
    • legal claims
  • Cash flow protection is much better than asset protection
  • Businesses with special assets that are not separable from the operating business are most likely to not be reflected on the balance sheet and present hidden value
  • Being in a strong, safe liquidating position does not necessarily mean you are in a strong, safe operating position
  • Working capital needs and capital spending needs are part of the DNA of a business; “you can’t turn a railroad into an ad agency”
  • Negative equity itself is not a risk; poor interest coverage is
  • Non-aggressive long-run return assumptions:
    • stocks – 8%
    • bonds – 4%
  • When looking at companies with negative equity and stock buybacks, ask yourself the following:
    • Earnings yield of stock buybacks > interest rate on borrowed money?
    • Need to adjust financial obligations (such as unfunded pension liability) to determine true extent of liabilities?
    • Are net financial obligations (debt and pensions minus cash) a low enough multiple of their EBITDA?
    • How many years of FCF would it take to pay off all financial liabilities?
    • Is the price of the entire company in terms of EV/EBITDA low enough to justify investment?
    • How reliable is EBITDA, FCF, etc?
  • Common concerns in these situations:
    • Moat not wide enough
    • High risk of technological obsolescence
    • No pricing power/cost cutting potential to support margins
  • The right company can have negative equity and be investable if it is a wide moat business with almost no need for tangible investment:
    • Negative working capital
    • Minimal PP&E
    • A wide moat

Is It Ever Okay For A Company To Have No Free Cash Flow?

  • Four cash flow measures:
    • Owner’s Earnings (most important)
    • EBITDA
    • CFO
    • FCF
  • You can get a hint where a company is tripping up in delivering cash to shareholders (FCF) when:
    • EBITDA is positive
    • CFO is positive
    • Net income is positive
  • EBITDA measures the capitalization independent cash flow of the business; it doesn’t take into account spending today for benefits that won’t be realized until tomorrow; also misses working capital changes
  • Look for companies that are growing quickly in an industry that is not
  • Avoid companies that are fast growing in a fast growing industry; it will face more competition every year
  • To judge the future ROI of FCF reinvestment with a company that has no FCF, look at:
    • Will they be competitive?
    • Will competitors over expand?
    • Do they have a moat?
  • When a company spends so much on growth for so long, you really are betting on what the ROI will be way out in the future
  • “There isn’t necessarily a prize for being the last one to succumb to the inevitable. It’s usually more of a moral victory than an economic one”
  • Don’t short a great brand; if you want to short something, short a company:
    • with a product with inherently poor economics
    • a bad balance sheet
    • with deteriorating competitiveness
    • preferably in an industry with a high morality rate
  • When a company reinvests everything, you need to worry about what they’ll earn on their capital many years out

Value Investor Improvement Tip #1: Settle For Cheap Enough

  • A lot of people look for:
    • lowest P/Es
    • lowest P/Bs
    • highest div yields
    • new lows
  • This creates lists of companies that are quantitative outliers, instead of companies you know something about
  • You should feel comfortable throwing out 7/10 names found on a screen
  • Better to cast a wider net and then focus on companies you can learn a lot about by reading 10-Ks
  • Try a screen that combines (Ben Graham-style):
    • above average div yield
    • below average P/E
    • below average P/B
    • fewest unprofitable years in their past
  • Start with the company that sounds simplest, then move out slowly and carefully to those you understand less well; stop when you find something cheap that you know you can hold as long as it takes
  • Another screen:
    • EV/EBITDA < 8
    • ROI > 10%
    • 10 straight years of operating profits
  • You need a good reason for picking stocks that don’t meet this criteria
  • It’s hard to figure out companies with a lot of losses in their past; so don’t try
  • Familiarize yourself with a few stocks; what insiders have is familiarity
  • You want to find companies where you can think more like an insider
  • For long-term investing health, it’s better to find a slightly less cheap — but still cheap enough — stock you can get familiar with than a super cheap one that is a mystery
  • Anything less than NCAV is cheap enough
  • “Some of value investing is in the buying; most of value investing is in the holding; almost none of value investing is in the selling”

Notes – Sanborn Maps, Dempster Mills, Nintendo’s Rise

Warren Buffett & Sanborn Map: An Early Balance Sheet Play

  • Buffett first got involved with Sanborn Map in 1958 because it represented a relative undervaluation compared to his then current holding in “Commonwealth”, even though he still thought “Commonwealth” was undervalued
  • Beginning in 1958, it represented 25% of the partnerships assets and BLP was the largest shareholder which “has substantial advantages many times in determining the length of time required to correct the undervaluation”
  • By 1959, represented 35% of partnership assets
  • Buffett recognized that the business operated in a “more or less monopolistic manner, with profits realized in every year accompanied by almost complete immunity to recession and lack of need for any sales effort”
  • Sanborn faced a changing business environment which beginning in the 1950s which “amounted to an almost complete elimination of what had been sizable, stable earning power” (after-tax profits: 1930s, $500,000; late 1950s, <$100,000)
  • Buffett estimated the reproduction value of Sanborn’s map assets at tens of millions of dollars
  • In addition, Sanborn Map carried a valuable portfolio of marketable securities which it began accumulating in the 1930s
  • Buffett: “Our bread and butter business is buying undervalued securities and selling when the undervaluation is corrected along with investment in special situations where the profit is dependent on corporate rather than market action”
  • The margin of safety was based on the fact that the investment portfolio was worth far more than the company was selling for in the market
  • Additionally, Buffett took a control position which gave him an added margin of safety
  • Buffett made roughly a 50% profit, according to Roger Lowenstein

Warren Buffett & Dempster Mills: Control Investing And Asset Conversion In A Net-Net

  • In 1962, BLP owned 70% of Dempster Mills’ shares (with another 10% controlled by associates), representing approximately 21% of partnership assets
  • Buffett: “Control situations, along with work-outs, provide a means of insulating a portion of our portfolio from [general market overvaluation during a strong bull market]”
  • Buffett: “When control is obtained, obviously what then becomes all-important is the value of assets”
  • Buffett chose to value the partnerships shares based on a discounted estimate of what the assets would gather in a prompt sale (discounted liquidation value)
  • Buffett originally hoped he could turn around the company with existing management; when this failed, he brought in Harry Bottle on the advice of Charlie Munger
  • Bottle, at Buffett’s behest, proceeded to liquidate the balance sheet, converting assets from the manufacturing business (a poor business) into marketable securities, which BLP saw as a good business
  • Buffett: “Never count on making a good sale. Have the purchase price be so attractive that even a mediocre sale gives good results. The better sales will be the frosting on the cake”
  • Buffett’s first purchases of DMM began in 1956 when it was a net-net trading at $18 with $72 in book value and $50 in NCAV per share; the company had had profitable operations in the past but was a break even at the time of purchase
  • Buffett: “Experience shows you can buy 100 situations like this and have perhaps 70 or 80 work out to reasonable profits in one to three years… [due to] an improved industry situation, a takeover offer, a change in investor psychology, etc.”
  • Harry Bottle’s effect:
    • Reduced inventory by 75%, reducing carrying costs and risk of obsolescence
    • Correspondingly freed up capital for investments in marketable securities
    • Cut SG&A by 50%
    • Cut factory overhead expenses by 25%
    • Closed 5 unprofitable branches leaving the company with 3 profitable branches
    • Eliminated production lines tying up capital but producing no profits
    • Adjusted prices of repair parts to yield additional annual profits
  • Buffett: “It is to our advantage to have securities do nothing price wise for months, or perhaps years, while we are buying them. This points up the need to measure our results over an adequate period of time. We suggest three years as a minimum.”
  • Other notes:
    • In 1961, Buffett committed $1M to DMM (his biggest investment yet), buying the controlling interest and staking 20% of BLP’s assets in the process
    • Sold the company as a going concern in 1963 for a $2.3M profit, nearly tripling his investment
    • Bottle’s employment agreement was based on a percentage of profits

Harvard Business School: Nintendo’s Competitive Advantage In The Early Home Video Game World

  • Prior to Nintendo’s dominance, the home video game market was led by Atari and suffered a number of boom-bust cycles where as much money was lost on the way down as was made on the way up
  • The cost of video game consoles has been falling in real terms since the 1980s:
    • 1977, Atari VCS $200, game cartridges $25-30 retail, $5-10 cost to mfger
    • 1983, Commodore, Casio and Sharp game systems sold for around $200-350
    • 1983, Nintendo launches Famicom system at $100 retail price (believed to be at or below cost), and had extracted a rock-bottom chip price of $8/chip by placing an order for 3M units
  • Home video game systems were a growing market:
    • 1982, 17% of US households had a video game system
    • 1990, Nintendo Famicom/NES console was in 1 out of every 3 households in the US and Japan and home video games represented a $5B worldwide industry
  • Nintendo’s development costs were up to $500,000 per title (Y100M) and marketing expenses were several hundred million yen
  • Nintendo’s approach was to focus R&D on developing one or two hit titles per year rather than several minor successes
  • Manufacturing of cartridges was subcontracted at a unit cost of $6-8, which then retailed for $40
  • Part of Nintendo’s value was in hit franchises such as Super Mario Brothers (1985), the Legend of Zelda (1987) and Metroid (1987), the first two of which were developed by hit designer Shigeru Miyamoto
  • Demand for games soon outstripped supply, so Nintendo allowed six firms to be licensed software makers, paying royalties of 20% of the $30 wholesale price per game:
    • Namco
    • Hudson (later acquired by Nintendo and brought in-house)
    • Taito
    • Konami
    • Capcom
    • Bandai
  • By 1988, 50 licensees, who were also charged the 20% royalty rate and had to absorb Nintendo’s manufacturing costs
  • Cumulative sales of Famicoms from 1983-1990 = 17M, Nintendo had gained 95% market share of 8-bit home video game market
  • On average, Japanese consumers bought 12 games for every Famicom system purchased
  • Nintendo, via Nintendo of America subsidiary, rolled out NES (Famicom) in the US in 1985 at $100/system
  • NOA limited licensees to producing 5 NES titles per year; had to place orders for manufacture through NOA at a cost of $14/game cartridge which wholesaled for $30 and were then marked up an additional $15 at retail
  • By 1991, 100 licensees with only 10% of software development in-house at Nintendo
  • Nintendo began licensing Mario and other characters to TV shows, cereal packets, T-shirts, records and tapes, books, board games, toys and other media
  • NOA’s highly targeted ad budget was about 2% of sales and promotional partners were utilized extensively
  • WMT did not stock competing video game systems
  • In 1989, NOA proposed creating a proprietary online network for its game consoles, allowing users to play games, trade stocks, do e-banking and other activities that would later become common place throughout the late 90s but which Nintendo itself failed to capitalize on with its own later systems repeatedly!
  • 1989, Nintendo releases Game Boy handheld game console in Japan, retail price $100, games $20-25, designed to broaden the appeal of their systems (another strategy Nintendo would later utilize with the Wii)
  • By 1992, 32M Game Boys shipped worldwide and consumers bought on average 3 games per year
  • In 1991, Nintendo signed a consent decree with the FTC ending many of their dominant licensing, manufacturing and wholesaling/retailing practices, completely changing the economics of Nintendo’s business

Review – The Innovator’s Dilemma

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business

by Clayton M. Christensen, published 1997

Technological innovation always means change, but which kind?

In the world of business technology, innovation can be thought of as coming in two distinct flavors:

  • sustaining, which are new technologies that improve a product or service in a way that is valuable to existing customers or markets
  • disruptive, which are new technologies that are uncompetitive along traditional performance metrics, which are unusable or undesirable to existing customers or markets but which nonetheless can eventually come to replace the traditional market over time

Throughout history, it is the best-in-class businesses which have the most difficult time with disruptive technologies to the point that disruptive technologies are usually the death knell for the leading businesses at the time. But this raises a question: if they’re such good businesses and they’re so well-managed, how come they can’t manage their way around disruptive technology in their industry?

The answer lies at the heart of what the author refers to as the “innovator’s dilemma”:

the logical, competent decisions of management that are critical to the success of their companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership

Why do good management teams and competent decision-making processes miss disruptive technologies? Disruptive technologies:

  1. are normally simpler and cheaper, promising lower margins, not greater profits
  2. typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets
  3. are usually unwanted and unusable to leading firms’ most profitable customers

But good management teams with excellent decision-making processes are fine-tuned to search out:

  1. higher margin opportunities at best, and opportunities with minimum margin requirements based upon their existing cost structure
  2. opportunities that market research and querying of leading customers show there is a present demand for
  3. markets and growth opportunities which can have a significant impact on their business relative to their current scale

In short, every successful firm has a unique “value network” DNA that allows them to be especially dominant within a certain set of competitive circumstances.

the value network — the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures inputs, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit

But disruptive technologies present a paradigm shift of a market into a completely different “value network” that the firm has not been evolved to survive in which results in, similar to biology, an extinction event for firms with the wrong type of value network DNA.

Crafting a response to disruptive technology

But the reality of disruptive technology is not entirely depressing for successful firms, and they can develop successful strategies for coping with disruptive technologies if they first make themselves aware of the five principles of disruptive innovation:

  1. Companies depend on customers and investors for resources
  2. Small markets don’t solve the growth needs of large companies
  3. Markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed
  4. An organizations capabilities define its disabilities
  5. Technology supply may not equal market demand

Each of these principles holds within it a potential misstep for successful firms within their traditional value networks trying to respond to a disruptive technology. Because firms depend on their customers (primarily their leading, most profitable customers) and investors for their resources, they are often incentivized to ignore the low margin disruptive technology because their customers initially don’t want it. And because disruptive technologies start in emerging or insignificant markets, successful firms often ignore them in favor of better growth opportunities. Meanwhile, firms that DO try to take disruptive technologies seriously often commit themselves to particular investment and marketing patterns based off of market research for a market that is dynamic and prone to sudden and rapid change. At the same time, that which makes a company excellent at doing A simultaneously makes the company horrible at doing B (where B is the opposite of A), and often disruptive technologies require B responses when successful firms are honed to operate at A. The final frustration for these successful firms occurs when they attempt to enter a disruptive market with a solution that technologically exceeds the needs of its current users, causing them to withdraw in defeat only to watch the market then take off anyway!

An ironic twist

As hinted at above, it is ironic that the very strengths of leading firms in adapting their business to sustaining technologies (improvements in performance in relevant metrics that their best customers demand) are the exact things that cause them to fail to respond to disruptive technologies in a profitable, dominant way. And to make a bad story worse, it is these strengths-as-weaknesses that allow entrants in disruptive technological markets to capture important first-mover advantages for themselves, constructing barriers to entry which are later often insurmountable for established firms.

To a dominant firm, disruptive technology looks like low-margin, small market business that neither their customers nor anyone else seems to be interested in. But for entrants in the disruptive market, with radically different cost structures than dominant firms and with organizational sizes and resources better matched to the opportunities presented, disruptive markets are a wild playground full of unchallenged opportunity.

And while the dominant firms look down at lower-margin, smaller market business and shake their heads dismissively, entrant firms look up above at higher-margin, huge market opportunity and lick their chops. Every business ultimately looks upstream for higher-margin opportunities than the ones they have at present.

Is it any wonder why dominant firms are continually defeated by surprise attacks from below?

How dominant firms can successfully respond to disruptive technology

The position of the dominant firm in the face of disruptive emerging technology is not hopeless. For every yin, there is a yang. By inverting the five principles of disruptive innovation outlined earlier, dominant firms can find five guidelines for successfully responding to disruptive technology:

  1. Give responsibility for disruptive technologies to organizations whose customers need them
  2. Match the size of the organization to the size of the market
  3. Discover new and emerging markets through a flexible commitment to “plans for learning” rather than plans for implementation
  4. Create organizational capabilities and strengths which are complementary to the unique demands of the disruptive market place
  5. Resist the temptation to approach the disruptive technology with the goal of turning it into something existing customers can use, rather than serving the customers unique to the market and searching out new markets entirely

Conclusion

This book was published 15 years ago. The subtitle is, “The revolutionary book that will change the way you do business.” I don’t know if 15 years is long enough in the business world for the ideas of a book like this to be fully adapted into the mainstream but I would guess it is not. I am no business expert but this material was completely uncharted territory for me.

Frankly, I never thought I’d enjoy reading something written by a Harvard business school professor as much as I did with this book. Whereas case studies, quirky charts and statistical evidence usually bore me to the point that I often skip over them, this book was something of a page-turner for me and I found myself eager to find out “what happens next” in each subsequent chapter.

As faddish as it has become as of late to hype the increasingly rapid change of markets and business practices in general, the reality is that most markets don’t change that quickly and most business practices are timeless themselves. But for those unlucky enough to find themselves, suddenly or otherwise, in a market or business that is changing due to disruptive technology, this book could be a lifesaver at a minimum and a handbook for profiting immensely from that change at best.

You can get the essential points of the book entirely from reading my review, or skim-reading the introduction and final chapters of the book (which present a comprehensive summary of the ideas outlined above). But the case studies are invaluable in driving the point home and there are numerous nuances to Christensen’s argument that are worth savoring and considering on their own. Because of this, I unequivocally recommend that every interested reader purchase their own copy and read it in full, and thereby grant themselves an invaluable competitive advantage in the market place, whichever value network they might happen to be competing within.

Review – The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing

The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing: Violate Them At Your Own Risk

by Al Ries & Jack Trout, published 1993

The redundant and contradictory laws of marketing

The 22 Laws is a helpful quick-read book for those looking to dip their toe into the waters of marketing. It takes a high level approach to the strategy of marketing and is definitely a “how-to-do” not “what-to-do” title. As such, my goal in this write-up is to focus on the laws I found to be most reasonable and deserving of consideration, the combine several laws that seemed to be versions of one another or the same concept examined from different angles, and dropped a number of laws I thought were too crude to be of any use.

An abridged journal of immutable marketing laws

My abridged version of The 22 Laws is as follows:

  1. It’s better to be first than it is to be better
  2. If you can’t be first in an existing category, introduce a new one in which you can be first
  3. Target mindshare, not marketshare
  4. Perception is reality; focus on perception, not products
  5. Own an exclusive word or attribute; your product and a category keyword or attribute should be inseparable in people’s minds
  6. The only positions that count in the market are first and second, and second’s marketing strategy is dictated by first’s
  7. Marketing categories will continually bifurcate over time
  8. There is a temptation to extend brand equity to new product lines, which simply dilutes the brand and invites additional competition
  9. You must be willing to give up product line, target market or constant change in order to dominate a market
  10. Failure is to be expected and accepted
  11. Trends, not fads, are the key to long-term marketing success

Putting the 11 laws into practice

Hopefully each of the 11 abridged marketing laws above are self-explanatory. But even as simple as they are, each holds a wealth of additional implications.

Law 1 is related to the concept of competition and is tied to laws 3 and 4. If you are the first product into a market you will not only likely benefit from a first-mover advantage but, if done correctly, you will have positioned yourself to define the market. People form habits and tend to make up their mind once and then not change it. When you’re first into the market you have a fortress position within people’s minds that entrant firms must assault if they hope to dislodge you. People tend to remember those who did things first, not best. It is easier to entrench than dislodge.

This is why law 2 is important– you want to avoid being an entrant in the competitive landscape as much as you can. Much better to create a category where you are the only supplier at best, or force your competitors to be No. 2, 3, 4, etc. at worst. Once you’ve created a category you are first in, promote the category, not your brand.

Marketing is a deeply psychological enterprise, which is why laws 3-5 focus on the role perception and mental imagery play in good marketing practice. But the specific application of these psychological rules is once again strategic in nature– they are each about how you compete and limiting your competition. By owning a word or attribute, as law 5 suggests, you deny your competition the benefit of identifying their product with that word and you often get a halo effect as related words and benefits get associated with your product in the consumer’s mind as well. The most effective words are simple and benefit oriented.

Furthermore, your word should be exclusive and precise, and you should only have one. If you pick something like “quality” you haven’t said anything about your product, because everyone intends to create a product with quality. You haven’t differentiated. And if you try to pick “value and safety”, you’ll lose because you’re now competing with two opponents– the one which prides itself on value and the one which prides itself on safety. It’s harder to fight two people than one. And it should go without saying that, if available, you should always choose the most important word or attribute to focus on.

Law 6 is important to understanding the concept of relativity in marketing. Your marketing strategy should always take account of “which rung of the ladder” you’re on as certain claims and strategies won’t make sense or will sound inauthentic if given from the wrong place on the market share ladder. Further, it will never be appropriate to market as if you’re No. 1, when you’re No. 2. The advantage of No. 1 is telling everyone you’re the best. The advantage to No. 2 is telling people they have an alternative to No. 1.

Laws 7-9 deal with the concept of marketing focus, or concentrating your marketing strategy to a narrow band where you can actually be competitive. Category bifurcation is a natural process (eg., computers –> laptops vs. desktops; automobiles –> family sedans vs. economy compacts, etc.) in market evolution. Many firms make the mistake of trying to maintain leadership in all resulting markets as initial markets bifurcate, instead of sticking to the market they have an advantage in where their brand is trusted most.

Worse, they dilute their own brand by bifurcating their market themselves (eg., 7UP –> cherry 7UP vs. original 7UP). The market that 7UP made for itself as an “uncola” and the marketing strategy it followed to enable that success does not carry over to derivative products and it ends up just competing against itself. Sometimes, you simply expose yourself to more competition in the process as competitors mimic you and you further slice up a slice of the market.

This is why a successful marketing strategy entails “sacrifice”, either of product line, target market or the impetus to constantly change. Expanding product lines mean expanding competition. According to earlier marketing laws, a brand can’t mean everything or it means nothing. Expanding product lines under a brand means movement toward “meaning everything/nothing”.

Similarly, few products will appeal to everyone. Attempts to appeal to everyone usually result in appealing to no one. Focus on the target markets where your product has the strongest appeal and then dominate those markets. And when you have a marketing strategy that works and results in market dominance, leave it alone, don’t go out in search of a new market you might not dominate (while giving up your dominant position in the process!)

The eleventh law highlights the long-term nature of successful marketing strategies. Good marketing is about coming up with an angle or word that differentiates your product and then establishing a long-term marketing direction to maximize the idea or angle over time. This implies avoiding hype and the temptation to market your product as a fad and instead seek to create a trend, which is more enduring and has more competitive inertia making it harder for your opponents to fight.

The law of failure (10) is the one likely most forgotten and least appreciated. Failure will happen. Not every strategy will work out. In the event of a failure, it’s best to cut your losses early and change directions. At the same time, it’s critical to understand that the first several laws of marketing entail risk-taking (for example, being first at anything involves sticking your neck out) so occasional failure is part of the territory.

Videos – Interviews With Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Jim Grant And Joel Greenblatt

I found the following interviews and lectures at John Chew’s CSInvesting blog and decided to repost and embed here for my convenience and later retrieval.

Buffett on investment philosophy and the Four Filters

Buffett lectures to UGA students (Buffett’s life and investing principles)

Buffett lectures to students in India (valuation and moats)

Charlie Munger at University of Michigan

Joel Greenblatt interviewed by Steve Forbes (problems with mutual funds and indexing)

Jim Grant lectures to students at Darden

Best of value investing (Pt 1)

Best of value investing (Pt 2)

Best of value investing (Pt 3)

Best of value investing (Pt 4)

Best of value investing (Pt 5)

Notes – Distilled BuffettFAQ.com Investment Wisdom Of Warren Buffett

All quotes were originally collected and compiled at the outstanding BuffettFAQ.com

On Learning Businesses

Now I did a lot of work in the earlier years just getting familiar with businesses and the way I would do that is use what Phil Fisher would call, the “Scuttlebutt Approach.” I would go out and talk to customers, suppliers, and maybe ex-employees in some cases. Everybody. Everytime I was interested in an industry, say it was coal, I would go around and see every coal company. I would ask every CEO, “If you could only buy stock in one coal company that was not your own, which one would it be and why? You piece those things together, you learn about the business after awhile.

Funny, you get very similar answers as long as you ask about competitors. If you had a silver bullet and you could put it through the head of one competitor, which competitor and why? You will find who the best guy is in the industry.

On The Research Process

It’s important to read a lot, learn about the industries, get background information, etc. on the companies in those piles. Read a lot of 10Ks and Qs, etc. Read about the competitors. I don’t want to know the price of the stock prior to my analysis. I want to do the work and estimate a value for the stock and then compare that to the current offering price. If I know the price in advance it may influence my analysis.

Pick out five to ten companies in which you understand their products, get annual reports, get every news piece on it. Ask what do I not know that I need to know. Talk to competitors and employees. Essentially be a reporter, ask questions like: If you had a silver bullet and could put it into a competitor who would it be and why. In the end you want to write the story, XYZ is worth this much because…

Narrowing the Investment Universe

They ought to think about what he or she understands. Let’s just say they were going to put their whole family’s net worth in a single business. Would that be a business they would consider? Or would they say, “Gee, I don’t know enough about that business to go into it?” If so, they should go on to something else. It’s buying a piece of a business. If they were going to buy into a local service station or convenience store, what would they think about? They would think about the competition, the competitive position both of the industry and the specific location, the person they have running it and all that. There are all kinds of businesses that Charlie and I don’t understand, but that doesn’t cause us to stay up at night. It just means we go on to the next one, and that’s what the individual investor should do.

Q: So if they’re walking through the mall and they see a store they like, or if they happen to like Nike shoes for example, these would be great places to start? Instead of doing a computer screen and narrowing it down?

A computer screen doesn’t tell you anything. It might tell you about P/Es or something like that, but in the end you have to understand the business. If there are certain businesses in that mall they think they understand and they’re public companies, and they can learn more and more about them…. We used to talk to competitors. To understand Coca-Cola, I have to understand Pepsi, RC, Dr. Pepper.

The place to look when you’re young is the inefficient markets.

Investment Process

  • Read lots of K’s and Q’s – there are no good substitutes for these – Read every page
  • Ask business managers the following question: “If you could buy the stock of one of your competitors, which one would you buy? If you could short, which one would you short?”
  • Always read source (primary) data rather than secondary data
  • If you are interested in one company, get reports for competitors. “You must act like you are actually going into that business, and if you were, you’d want to know what your competitors were doing.”

Four Investment Filters

Filter #1 – Can we understand the business? What will it look like in 10-20 years? Take Intel vs. chewing gum or toilet paper. We invest within our circle of competence. Jacob’s Pharmacy created Coke in 1886. Coke has increased per capita consumption every year it has been in existence. It’s because there is no taste memory with soda. You don’t get sick of it. It’s just as good the 5th time of the day as it was the 1st time of the day.

Filter #2 – Does the business have a durable competitive advantage? This is why I won’t buy into a hula-hoop, pet rock, or a Rubik’s cube company. I will buy soft drinks and chewing gum. This is why I bought Gillette and Coke.

Filter #3 – Does it have management I can trust?

Filter #4 – Does the price make sense?

Finding Bargains

The world isn’t going to tell you about great deals. You have to find them yourself. And that takes a fair amount of time. So if you are not going to do that, if you are just going to be a passive investor, then I just advise an index fund more consistently over a long period of time. The one thing I will tell you is the worst investment you can have is cash. Everybody is talking about cash being king and all that sort of thing. Most of you don’t look like you are overburdened with cash anyway. Cash is going to become worth less over time. But good businesses are going to become worth more over time. And you don’t want to pay too much for them so you have to have some discipline about what you pay. But the thing to do is find a good business and stick with it.

Don’t pass up something that’s attractive today because you think you will find something way more attractive tomorrow.

Defining Risk

We think first in terms of business risk. The key to Graham’s approach to investing is not thinking of stocks as stocks or part of the stock market. Stocks are part of a business. People in this room own a piece of a business. If the business does well, they’re going to do all right as long as long as they don’t pay way too much to join in to that business. So we’re thinking about business risk. Business risk can arise in various ways. It can arise from the capital structure. When somebody sticks a ton of debt into a business, if there’s a hiccup in the business, then the lenders foreclose. It can come about by their nature–there are just certain businesses that are very risky. Back when there were more commercial aircraft manufacturers, Charlie and I would think of making a commercial  airplane as a sort of bet-your-company risk because you would shell out hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars before you really had customers, and then if you had a problem with the plane, the company could go. There are certain businesses that inherently, because of long lead time, because of heavy capital investment, basically have a lot of risk. Commodity businesses have a lot of risk unless you’re a low-cost producer, because the low-cost producer can put you out of business. Our textile business was not the low-cost producer. We had fine management, everybody worked hard, we had cooperative unions, all kinds of things. But we weren’t the low-cost producers so it was a risky business. The guy who could sell it cheaper than we could made it risky for us. We tend to go into businesses that are inherently low risk and are capitalized in a way that that low risk of the business is transformed into a low risk for the enterprise. The risk beyond that is that even though you identify such businesses, you pay too much for them. That risk is usually a risk of time rather than principal, unless you get into a really extravagant situation. Then the risk becomes the risk of you yourself–whether you can retain your belief in the real fundamentals of the business and not get too concerned about the stock market. The stock market is there to serve you and not to instruct you. That’s a key to owning a good business and getting rid of the risk that would otherwise exist in the market.

Valuation Metrics

The appropriate multiple for a business compared to the S&P 500 depends on its return on equity and return on incremental invested capital. I wouldn’t look at a single valuation metric like relative P/E ratio. I don’t think price-to-earnings, price-to-book or price-to-sales ratios tell you very much. People want a formula, but it’s not that easy. To value something, you simply have to take its free cash flows from now until kingdom come and then discount them back to the present using an appropriate discount rate. All cash is equal. You just need to evaluate a business’s economic characteristics.

[Highly qualitative, descriptive and verbal, has little to do with the numbers in justifying an investment]

The Ideal Business

WB: The ideal business is one that generates very high returns on capital and can invest that capital back into the business at equally high rates. Imagine a $100 million business that earns 20% in one year, reinvests the $20 million profit and in the next year earns 20% of $120 million and so forth. But there are very very few businesses like this. Coke has high returns on capital, but incremental capital doesn’t earn anything like its current returns. We love businesses that can earn high rates on even more capital than it earns. Most of our businesses generate lots of money, but can’t generate high returns on incremental capital — for example, See’s and Buffalo News. We look for them [areas to wisely reinvest capital], but they don’t exist.

So, what we do is take money and move it around into other businesses. The newspaper business earned great returns but not on incremental capital. But the people in the industry only knew how to reinvest it [so they squandered a lot of capital]. But our structure allows us to take excess capital and invest it elsewhere, wherever it makes the most sense. It’s an enormous advantage.

See’s has produced $1 billion pre-tax for us over time. If we’d deployed that in the candy business, the returns would have been terrible, but instead we took the money out of the business and redeployed it elsewhere. Look at the results!

CM: There are two kinds of businesses: The first earns 12%, and you can take it out at the end of the year. The second earns 12%, but all the excess cash must be reinvested — there’s never any cash. It reminds me of the guy who looks at all of his equipment and says, “There’s all of my profit.” We hate that kind of business.

Making Mistakes In Investments

We bought it because it was an attractive security. But it was not in an attractive industry. I did the same thing in Salomon. I bought an attractive security in a business I wouldn’t have bought the equity in. So you could say that is one form of mistake. Buying something because you like the terms, but you don’t like the business that well.

The Market and Its Price

The NYSE is one big supermarket of companies. And you are going to be buying stocks, what you want to have happen? You want to have those stocks go down, way down; you will make better buys then. Later on twenty or thirty years from now when you are in a period when you are dis-saving, or when your heirs dis-save for you, then you may care about higher prices. There is Chapter 8 in Graham’s Intelligent Investor about the attitude toward stock market fluctuations, that and Chapter 20 on the Margin of Safety are the two most important essays ever written on investing as far as I am concerned. Because when I read Chapter 8 when I was 19, I figured out what I just said but it is obvious, but I didn’t figure it out myself. It was explained to me. I probably would have gone another 100 years and still thought it was good when my stocks were going up. We want things to go down, but I have no idea what the stock market is going to do. I never do and I never will. It is not something I think about at all.

Forecasting

People have always had this craving to have someone tell them the future. Long ago, kings would hire people to read sheep guts. There’s always been a market for people who pretend to know the future. Listening to today’s forecasters is just as crazy as when the king hired the guy to look at the sheep guts. It happens over and over and over.

What’s going to happen tomorrow, huh? Let me give you an illustration. I bought my first stock in 1942. I was 11. I had been dillydallying up until then. I got serious. What do you think the best year for the market has been since 1942? Best calendar year from 1942 to the present time. Well, there’s no reason for you to know the answer. The answer is 1954. In 1954, the Dow … dividends was up 50%. Now if you look at 1954, we were in a recession a good bit of that time. The recession started in July of ’53. Unemployment peaked in September of ’54. So until November of ’54 you hadn’t seen an uptick in the employment figure. And the unemployment figure more than doubled during that period. It was the best year there was for the market. So it’s a terrible mistake to look at what’s going on in the economy today and then decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on it. You should decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on how much you’re getting for your money, long-term value you’re getting for your money at any given time. And next week doesn’t make any difference because next week, next week is going to be a week further away. And the important thing is to have the right long-term outlook, evaluate the businesses you are buying. And then a terrible market or a terrible economy is your friend. I don’t care, in making a purchase of the Burlington Northern, I don’t care whether next week, or next month or even next year there is a big revival in car loadings or any of that sort of thing. A period like this gives me a chance to do things. It’s silly to wait. I wrote an article. If you wait until you see the robin, spring will be over.

Managers Should Be Investors

Charlie makes a good point. Managers should learn about investing. I have friends who are CEOs and they outsource their investing to a financial advisor because they don’t feel comfortable analyzing Coke and Gillette and picking one stock vs. the other. Yet when an investment banker shows up with fancy slides and a slick presentation, an hour later the CEO is willing to do a $3 billion acquisition. It’s extraordinary the willingness of corporate CEOs to make decisions about buying companies for billions of dollars when they aren’t willing to make an investment for $10,000 in their personal account. It’s basically the same thing.

The Value of Accounting

I had a great experience at Nebraska. Probably the best teacher I had was Ray Dein in accounting. I think everybody in business school should really know accounting; it is the language of business. If you are not comfortable with the lan- guage, you can’ t be comfortable in the country. You just have to get it into your spinal cord. It is so valuable in business.

Staying Rational

One thing that could help would be to write down the reason you are buying a stock before your purchase. Write down “I am buying Microsoft @ $300B because…” Force yourself to write this down. It clarifies your mind and discipline. This exercise makes you more rational.

Review – The Big Picture: Money And Power In Hollywood

The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood

by Edward Jay Epstein, published 2005

What the movie business was like in 1947

The central theme of “The Big Picture” is that the economics of the film industry and the profitability of Hollywood (both mechanistically and proportionally) have changed significantly from 1947 to the present day. By way of comparison, consider a few of the following starting statistics:

  • In 1947, the major film studios produced 500 films; in 2003, the six major studios produced 80 films
  • In 1947, 90M people out of a total population of 151M went to a theater each week in America at a cost of about $.40/ticket; in 2003, less than 12% of the population saw a movie in a given week
  • In 1947, 4.7B movie tickets were sold in America; in 2003, 1.57B were sold
  • In 1947, “feature films could be shot in less than a month, and some B films were shot in a week”; today, the average live action film takes over a year to produce and the average animated film takes 2-3 years to produce
  • In 1947, “virtually all [studio] films” made money, with the average cost of making a film at $732,000, and average net receipts of around $1.6M; in 2003, “a relatively good year, the six studios lost money on the worldwide theatrical release of most of their titles”

By 2003, the cost of producing the average film had risen to $63.8M. Although the dollar fell 7x from 1947-2003, the cost of producing a film rose 16x! Clearly, when the trend in film production is studied over time it is obvious that film production has become a substantially more capital-intensive business, it is a higher risk business (in terms of the chance and cost of failure) and it is substantially less profitable, at least in terms of theatrical release.

How and why did the economics of the film industry change, and how have film studios managed to stay in business today if their main product (theatrical film releases) are money losers on average? The answer consists of two elements: changing government regulations, and changing strategic dynamics.

Government intervention

The new studio system is the product of three government interventions. (The old one was a product of one– patents and intellectual property laws that caused movie studios to flee the Edison Trust on the East Coast, where the ET’s lawyers had a harder time pursuing patent infringement claims.)

  1. In 1948, the Justice Department issued a consent decree to the major film studios, “give up control over major retail outlets [the theater distribution system] or face the consequences of a criminal antitrust investigation”
  2. In 1970, the FCC passed the fin-syn rule on studios’ behalf, giving Hollywood an advantage over the networks in the syndication business, laying the seeds for and eventual studio takeover of the television network industry and the rise of the international, corporate media conglomerate business model
  3. In the 1990s, fin-syn was weakened and in 1995, abolished altogether by the FCC, allowing studios and networks to become part of vertically integrated conglomerates controlling production, distribution, stations, networks, cables, satellites and other means of TV transmission

A few other intervention-related items of note: the Nixon administration asked studios to portray drug users as menaces to society rather than victims of addiction, resulting in the start of perpetrators of crime frequently being depicted as drug users in film and television productions. Additionally, in 1997 Congress passed a law allowing studios to be paid through a formula for integrating antidrug messages into the plots of television series that were approved by White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Your tax dollars at work!

Disney changes the game

The second major change to the old studio production and profitability model was Walt Disney’s decision to focus on young children and families as the primary audience for his film and television productions. This strategy began with development of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which began in 1934. Between 1937 and 1948, 400 million children’s tickets at an average cost of $.25 had been sold. The film was the first to gross over $100 million. It was also the first film to have a commercial soundtrack, the first film to have merchandising tie-ins and the first film with multiple licensable characters.

Disney’s strategic decision was brilliant– he created a niche market (children’s entertainment) that the other studios refused to enter. He had this new and growing market all to himself for a long period of time, during which he established his brand as essential and synonymous with family entertainment. He  and his successors pioneered the idea of film releases as simply the starting point in establishing a long-lived exploitable IP asset which could generate additional cash flows outside the box office through merchandising and licensing arrangements.

The way Hollywood works today

Today, the major movie studios have either been subsumed into massive, international corporate conglomerates, or else they’ve become one (like Disney). Movies are just one of their many businesses, and the role of the box office has dwindled. Many movies lose money at the box office. But this is okay because the corporate studios issue their content and IP across their other media (TV, merchandising, music, home entertainment products, etc.) to make back their money, and then some.

As one example of new studio economics, consider the film Gone in 60 Seconds— worldwide box office gross of $242M, $103.3M paid by Disney to produce the film, $23.2 for physical distribution into theaters (prints and insurance), $67.4M on worldwide advertising, $12.6M in residual fees, all in costs of $206.5M to get the film into the theater and to generate an audience to see the film. The theaters then kept $139.8M of the box office gross. Disney’s distribution arm (Buena Vista) collected $102.2M. Disney’s overhead of $17.2M for employee salaries in production, distribution and marketing and interest payments of $41.8M mean the film lost over $160M by 2003.

But that isn’t the end of the story for a film like Gone in 60 Seconds, as the film IP takes on a new life once it leaves the theatrical market and enters the world of home entertainment, where it is sold as a personal home library title, rented and licensed for syndication through major domestic and foreign TV and other media networks. For animated films (and some live action titles), there is also the opportunity to merchandise relevant IP and license the film’s IP as a movie tie-in for the products of other companies.

As can be seen from the numbers above, the two primary drivers of increased film production costs are related to the competitive aspects of film advertising and distribution and the end of the “chattel talent” system whereby studios essentially owned their stars and laborers (producers, directors and film crews), compared with the “star power” arrangements of today. According to the author,

In this new era, stars, not studios, reap the profit their brand names bring to a film.

One reason that advertising costs have risen is due to the fact that in the previous era, one admission got you in for multiple screenings and every moviegoer essentially watched every screening shown during their admission. Today, movie audiences are highly segmented. This means that studios have to “create” a new audience for each and every film, they can not count on a moviegoer purchasing a general admission ticket which will result in them watching all of their films. As one Sony marketing executive put it:

If we release twenty-eight films, we need to create twenty-eight different audiences which necessitates twenty-eight different marketing campaigns.

Additionally, the transformation of the film industry into a global market with simultaneous releases means higher advertising costs (no way to reuse promotional prints and media as films no longer have “rolling releases” across the country) and higher physical film production and distribution costs (every theater needs its own copy of the film which must be shipped there and back). And because the studios no longer “control” their talent and labor, they must be willing to pay top dollar for the name-brand stars that draw the biggest crowds.

However, the studios have also gotten savvier at advertising and cross-marketing in the age of ownership by global, corporate media conglomerates. Major Hollywood studios cross-promotionalize across their various media. A studio can get actors, directors, etc. to be interviewed on the corporate parent’s TV networks to promote an upcoming film. Corporate sponsors with TV rights for certain sports and national events can get additional advertising and exposure for the corp parents film studios as well.

Film studios have also learned how to leverage their promotional efforts through tie-in marketing and merchandising partnerships. In these relationships, a leveraged marketing and advertising budget results because your partners pay to promote your characters and content for you. For example,

[McDonald’s] invested more than $100M — four times Disney’s own advertising budget– in just one film, Monsters, Inc.

The clearinghouse system

Another essential element of the modern film business that must be understood is the “clearinghouse system.”

Studios now outsource the making and financing of most of their movies and television series to off-the-book corporations

Movies used to return almost all of their money in a year; now, revenue flows in over the lifetime of licensable rights, often lasting many decades.

When revenue flows in, it is the studio that decides (initially at least) who is entitled to what part of it, and when, and under what conditions

which works to the studios advantage because

the studios usually control the information on which the payments are based

Theaters, distribution and merchandising

Today’s theaters have three primary businesses: concessions vending, movie-exhibition, and corporate advertising. However, contrary to popular belief and news headlines, the box office is not the primary source of profits for theaters– the selling of refreshments is.

Theaters want a film with broad appeal so there are more people attending who will buy more refreshments. Additionally, they want films no longer than 128 minutes in length because every film which exceeds that limit causes them to lose a potential evening showing.

Film studios, meanwhile, simply want their films to succeed at the box office because there has historically been a connection between success at the box office and later success in the home entertainment market, which is much more profitable for them as studios end up with only 45-60% of the box office revenues on average.

Non-domestic box office and non-theatrical release have long been critical to the Hollywood model. As early as 1926, Hollywood studios represented 3/4 of European box office and 1/3 of Hollywood revenues came from Europe. In the 1950s, Hollywood film studios had a 30% share of European and Japanese box office which grew to 80% by 1990. American film studios seem to flagrantly violate the Greenwaldian strategic mantra of “compete locally”!

Paramount and Universal jointly control the largest overseas distributor, United International Pictures (UIP). Pay-per-view TV earned the six major studies $367M in 2003, a relatively modest sum of money despite the hype of the model. Other major sources of revenues in nontheatrical release are airline in-flight entertainment, hotel pay-per-view and US military theaters overseas. One of the benefits of television syndication of studio content is that almost all marketing expenses are paid by the broadcaster and the network.

Merchandising is another critical element of film studio profitability. For example, merchandising alone adds an estimated $500M profit to Disney’s bottom line each year.And The Lion King produced $1B in retail sales by itself. Streams of licensing revenues can enrich a studio’s clearinghouse for many decades.

Critical competitive dynamics of the film industry

It’s a well-known fact within the industry that “the date on which a film will open can make or break a movie.” Traditionally, the 9 months between September and May when school is in session promises only a fraction of the audience possible during the three months in the summer season. Studios must compete for a limited number of big-release slots and face a distinct “prisoner’s dilemma” strategic framework in which the refusal to cooperate in selecting movie release dates can result in massively diminished box office performance for each studio.

The studio whose film has the weaker appeal to the target audience has a strong incentive to change its slot, since if the NRG numbers prove correct, it stands to get a smaller share of a confused and cross-pressured audience and will probably fail.

A key competitive strategy for film studios is the creation of franchise films. Franchise films are more stable sources of revenue, because they’re more consistent performers at the box office and in the sell-through of the home entertainment market. Additionally, they ostensibly help to lower the costs of advertising and marketing because there is already a fan-base/audience in place which does not need convincing anew to see a franchise sequel film or buy related merchandise. Additionally, television and other syndication networks are willing to bid higher for franchise films because of their consistency and predictability.

One key to creating franchise films is close adherence to the “Midas formula.”

The Midas formula

Only a very few films account for the lion’s share of a studio’s earnings. The film’s that succeed most often and most extremely typically follow the “Midas formula”. Films which follow this lucrative formula have the following features:

  1. based on children’s stories, comic books, serials, cartoons or a theme-park ride
  2. child or adolescent protagonist
  3. fairy-tale like plot
  4. strictly platonic relationships
  5. appropriate for toy and game licensing
  6. a rating no more restrictive than PG-13
  7. end happily
  8. use digital animation
  9. cast actors who are not ranking stars (do not command gross-revenue shares)

The Disney empire is largely the result of Disney’s successors closely hewing to this formula. R-rated and live action films have far less chance to reach their break-even compared to films adhering to the Midas formula. In act, non-formula films have little, if any, possibility of becoming billion-dollar-club members.

Other facts and figures and final comments

First, a few stray facts and figures:

  • the average cost of American distribution in 2003 was $4.2M per film for the major studios, while independent films averaged $1.87M per film
  • the six major studios spent more than $1B in 2003 on film prints
  • in 2003, the average advertising expense per film was $34.8M, compared to 1947 when $60M was spent on distribution and advertising by ALL major film studios combined
  • in 1947, movies were America’s third largest retail business and the six major studios collectively earned $1.1B, or 95%, of all film “rentals” at the domestic box office
  • in 1947, there were 18,000 neighborhood theaters
  • in 1947, Clark Gable made less than $100,000 per film

Studios are moving away from physical film in favor of digital projections. This could save millions in distribution costs as there will be no more cost of producing, shipping, storing and retrieving prints from film exchanges all over the world.

A critical summary of the film studio business model from Richard Fox, a vice president at Warner Bros.:

The studios are basically distributors, banks and owners of intellectual copyrights.