A value investor by the name of Vitaliy Katsenelson, whose blog I subscribe to, just posted his ideas on How to Fix Best Buy:
Best Buy cannot have lower prices than its online competitors, and its stores lack the breadth of selection of Amazon.com, putting it at a permanent competitive cost disadvantage.
The new strategy Dunn announced a few weeks before his resignation — of closing big stores and opening a lot of smaller stores — made little sense. It was basically turning Best Buy into RadioShack Corp. It would have been great if this approach had worked for RadioShack, but it hadn’t.
Katsenelson is correct. Best Buy’s business model is cooked. It provides a service that is increasingly out of touch with how consumers of its products shop, and it does it within a cost structure that is not price competitive with the other participants in its market.
So, Katsenelson proposes a solution for Best Buy:
Best Buy’s strategy for the brave new world requires thinking that cannot be delivered by somebody who spent 28 years in the Best Buy box. It requires the strategy of an Amazon or Netflix, where management was willing to bring forward and execute a disruptive new approach that undermined its current cash-cow business. Amazon did this by bringing electronic readers to the masses. Netflix did it by streaming movies and TV shows.
The rest of Katsenelson’s proposal, while creative and worth pondering on its own from a strategic value point of view, is unimportant for the purposes of our present discussion, which is actually to highlight the role of innovation.
According to our reading of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Katsenelson is suffering from two confusions in his analysis:
- He is confused about the difference between sustaining and disruptive technologies
- He is confused about the likelihood of success in a firm disrupting its own business model
Let’s tackle each confusion separately before reaching a new conclusion.
Confusion #1 – sustaining vs. disruptive technology
In building his analysis of Best Buy’s current predicament, Katsenelson cites the examples of Amazon’s Kindle and Netflix’s digital streaming technologies as examples of “disruptive” technology.
It might be useful at this point to revisit the definition of sustaining versus disruptive technology provided to us by The Innovator’s Dilemma before proceeding:
- 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
(A disclosure here, as well– I have not studied Amazon nor Netflix in depth, so I am making some conjectures here about margins and pricing which may be incorrect, and I realize they are central to the point I am making so it could weaken my argument slightly if I am speaking out of turn here.)
Now, judging by the definitions above, I’d say both Amazon’s Kindle and Netflix’s digital streaming service are actually sustaining technologies, not disruptive. A good clue to the truth of this might come in the fact that these technologies each were developed and implemented from within the firms in question, rather than being produced by an entrant, competitor firm.
But even if that is not the give away, sure both of these technologies improved their existing products and services (books and movie rentals, respectively) and both were appealing to existing customers. It is not my understanding that there were a bunch of people who were not buying books and not renting movies until Amazon and Netflix released their new services, at which point they jumped on board. In fact, it is my understanding that many customers who now use the Kindle or digital streaming were previously physical book readers or mail-order movie renters.
Additionally, my understanding is that these new businesses are either similar margin or better margin businesses than what came before. I understand Netflix has had issues with the cost of acquiring distribution rights to film properties but that seems a separate issue from the actual question of the cost of distribution– digital streaming seems far more cost effective than sending things through the mail. Same with e-readership; the question of acquiring separate rights for digital distribution is a different one than the cost of distribution, of which digital book distribution seems to be a far higher margin business than the one involving costs of inventorying and mailing physical copies of books.
This is another aspect of the sustaining vs. disruptive technology debate– firms on sustaining technological pathways look for higher margin business that satisfies their existing customers and provides them with improved, but similar service to what they had before. Disruptive technological pathways involve different (usually lower) cost structures and different products or services which are competitive on metrics or feature sets that were previously not an issue in the pre-existing competitive paradigm.
Best Buy was, in its heyday, an electronics and appliance retailer where customers not only shopped but transacted. Nobody wants to transact with Best Buy anymore. That truly is a disruption as now people just want to shop. Any proposal that involves Best Buy no longer being a retailer (shopping AND buying) is a proposal for disruptive innovation within Best Buy’s existing business model, and a change in cost structure that would go along with it.
Confusion #2 – the likelihood of success in self-disruption
The other thing that’s clear from reading The Innovator’s Dilemma is that responding to a disruptive threat from an entrant firm is hard enough, but successfully disrupting one’s own business model is nearly impossible.
There are myriad reasons why this is so but what it essentially boils down to is that, as Geoff Gannon says, businesses have DNA and part of their DNA is their cost structure. Asking a business to change its cost structure is like asking it to change its DNA; it’s akin to expecting a megalodon to transform itself into a tick.
Another part of a business’s DNA is its management culture and accumulated experience. Just as certain animal species seem to have integrated various memory experiences into their DNA which are expressed as subconscious, instinctive behavior that comes naturally and effortlessly to the animal, a business develops a management culture (tightly interwoven with and often times predicated on the business’s cost and incentive structures) that possesses a kind of collective memory, or instinct. Management culture is “evolutionary”– it’s highly specialized and adaptive, designed to excel in the conditions unique to that business’s industry but which may prove maladaptive in conditions dominating outside of the industry.
Expecting a company’s management to successfully adapt its culture, its DNA, to new competitive circumstances is like expecting a polar bear to hunt successfully after air dropping it into the African savannah, or a jungle on the Indian subcontinent.
Getting rid of the top executive is not enough. CEO Brian Dunn might be gone, but all his lieutenants remain. They’re like mini-Brian Dunns, the children of Brian Dunn, they might not be exact replicas but they’ve undoubtedly learned a lot and probably “grown up” believing in his authority and vision the way children have trouble question their parents. They bring all that along with them. (David Merkel discussed this phenomenon in his bond manager series where he talked about the way a corporate debt team will come to be subtlety but surely influenced by the PM, and it applies in other business organizations outside the world of corporate bond management.)
Everyone who works at Best Buy is used to succeeding (and failing) a particular way. It is unlikely they’ll find themselves succeeding in a new paradigm that’s completely foreign to them when they are failing to sustain their business in a paradigm they’re intimately familiar with and once dominated.
A third way? Dissolution, sub-disruption, liquidation?
Katsenelson’s two examples don’t shed much light on what Best Buy should do because they’re examples of successful adoption of sustaining, not disruptive technologies. Best Buy is facing disruptive competition, it is beyond the point where its business could be improved by a sustaining technology.
And self-disruption doesn’t appear to be a viable strategy because Best Buy has built-in business DNA which can not be easily mutated, if it can be changed at all.
So, what should Best Buy do?
One perfectly reasonable strategy could be dissolution (aka liquidation by change in ownership)– Best Buy could sell itself to a strategic buyer who values Best Buy more as a sum-of-parts than as its currently operating whole. The new owner could salvage and re-orient what it can and then re-sell the rest as “scrap”. Just because the Pinto explodes when it gets rear-ended doesn’t mean the metal and upholstery in the vehicle couldn’t be used elsewhere. This is an option.
Another strategy is for the company to liquidate itself– managed, slow-motion suicide. The company could cut cap-ex to zero, start winding down its inventory buying and other business activities in line with the maturation of its existing facilities leases and then close out the stores one by one (selling property, plant and equipment when possible as this process continues). The proceeds could be distributed as periodic dividends to shareholders or be distributed as a lump-sum cash payment in exchange for shares at the end of the process several years from now.
But there is a third way and it actually does involve self-disruption: Best Buy could set in motion the slow-motion suicide or not, and at the same time use some of its capital to set up a small subsidiary to either compete in the world of Amazon, or work at discovering another disruptive technology which could re-jigger the industry even more and prove a disruptive threat to Amazon. This subsidiary would have completely separate management, completely separate capital and a completely separate cost structure which would be appropriate to the new market it is attempting to compete in.
That’s one way Best Buy could successfully respond to innovation in its industry. But it’s most likely far too late for that.
Which is why I think it’s pretty clear Best Buy is a value trap outside a strategic buyer coming into the picture (Schulze might be a little slow to the draw, but at least he’s got the good sense to go for his revolver before his opponent six-shoots him into a shallow grave), or the current management dedicating itself to a program of self-liquidation over the next several years.