Craft strategy from both inside and outside

Craft strategy from both inside and outside

The economic playing field has gotten complicated enough that it’s foolish to step on the field without some idea of how you’re going to win. In sports, you have a playbook, which lists the plays you can make. In business, we call these “tactics.” You also need a strategy, a way to combine those plays so you win the game. While it’s possible to win without a formal strategy, having a good strategy can often give you a leg up. You’ll form the best strategy by looking both inward and outside.

Look inwards to your resources

Looking inwards tells you what you have to work with. Your strategy must deploy your resources to get the most from them. The book Top Management Strategy: What It Is And How to Make it Work by Tregoe and Zimmerman is my favorite book about creating at internal strategy. They list out twelve different ways you can concentrate your efforts.

For example, you may have invented an electric car that you sell to shipping companies. That’s given you expertise in creating electric cars, and you have expertise selling to shipping companies. You can grow your business by concentrating on bringing your technological expertise (electric cars) to new markets. You can also grow your business by developing new products to sell to shipping companies. In the first case, you’re organizing your strategy around your technology. In the second, you’re organizing around a particular set of customers. Which you decide to do is entirely up to you.

When I worked at Babson College in the team formulating the strategy of the school, Babson was ranked the #1 school for entrepreneurship, world-wide. This gave us an explicit decision: do we ignore the ranking, and (try to) build some other brand for the school, or do we concentrate in entrepreneurship. Babson chose to continue building on entrepreneurship. It didn’t have to, however. Making the choice explicit led to initiatives that would never have happened without that self-examination.

Look outwards to the environment

Great resources aren’t enough. You might have the biggest bank account in your industry, but if your competitor also owns your industry’s largest distributor, you’re going to get creamed. Your landscape determines which (if any) of your resources can help you win.

The most famous model for understanding the strategy landscape for crafting your business strategy is Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” model. My favorite is a later extension of Porter’s model, the “value net,” presented in the excellent book Co-opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. With a value net, you look at the world around you: competitors, substitutes, suppliers, customers, complementors, and barriers to entry. You design your strategy taking into account what each part of your value net brings to the table, and how that meshes with your business goals.

For example, your industry might be dominated by two or three suppliers. That gives the suppliers tremendous negotiating leverage, and the ability to cut you out of the market if you don’t agree to their demands. Furthermore, it makes your business vulnerable if one of the suppliers encounters a disruption, since you don’t have many alternatives.

Good business strategy sometimes happens by magic, but you don’t want to bet the farm on Tinkerbell being in the right place, at the right time. Formulate your strategy by deciding how you can best deploy your internal resources given how your industry’s value net looks today. Times change quickly these days, and an integrated approach to keeping your strategy current will keep you at the top of your game.

Cryptocurrencies for Investors and Entrepreneurs

Cryptocurrencies for Investors and Entrepreneurs

How ICOs and Cryptocurrencies Work for Entrepreneurs and Investors

With Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies all the rage, I was recently invited to participate in an ICO (an “initial coin offering”). Warren Buffett made his fortune by limiting his investments to businesses and investments he understood deeply. That seems sensible, so I’ve been delving into the ICO world to understand if it’s for real, if it’s a scam, or if it’s something genuinely new.

Much to my surprise, it doesn’t seem to be a complete scam. ICOs are a fund-raising play for a business. Coin-based entrepreneurship has aspects of equity, and aspects of … something new. It decouples the value of the organization from profit. If it’s sustainable, coin-based organizations could become a way to create markets whose bottom line is genuine societal value. The “triple-bottom line” could be an actual market reality. That’s exciting!!

Or, it could turn be unsustainable, and a fancy way for unskilled or unethical entrepreneurs to walk away with lots of investor cash and no obligation to do anything with it.

As you’ll read below, while the ICO mechanism has been invented in the context of crypto currencies, there’s no inherent reason that this has to be done with cryptography. The same structures could be put in place in the physical world, without needing to buy into blockchain or virtual currencies.

What I’ve Learned so Far About ICOs

Here’s my current understanding of “coins” and initial coin offerings (ICOs). While the concepts are being developed in the context of crypto currencies, as I mention below, they can be (and have been) implemented in ways that are totally independent of crypto, or even computers.

PLEASE CRITIQUE AND COMMENT! This understanding is about two or three hours old, so it’s my very first attempt to understand.

ICOs make a different bet than stock investments

The ICO model is fascinating. Instead of betting on the success of a company, as you would with a traditional corporation, you’re betting on the creation of a market. The entrepreneur is then pitching their ability to create a market for the coin, which can be done in many different ways, depending on the company issuing coins.

This means that an ICO has two cases to analyze. While a traditional startup only needs to make a business case, an ICO needs to make a case for the creation of the coin market, and a case for the success (however that’s defined) of the organization being funded with the ICO.

There must be a market-making mechanism

The entrepreneur needs to present a compelling case:

  • that their endeavor can create a market
  • that the market created makes sense (that there’s a reason want the coin)
  • that there’s a way coins are exchanged for dollars or other value that is valuable enough that people will want to trade the coins

The primary function of the business being financed with the ICO is to create a market for the coins, rather than to make an economic profit. For example, an organization issuing an ICO may not do anything on an ongoing basis, as long as they can kick-start the market for their coin.

(There’s no inherent reason that any of this has to involve blockchain or crypto, by the way. You could be issuing frequent flyer points that are tracked in a spreadsheet in an “IFFPO” and it would basically be the same thing.)

For example, an airline could simply rename their frequent flyer points as “coins” and sell a bunch of those coins rather than issuing stock. People would want the coins because they could be exchanged for flights. If the only way to fly were by paying in frequent flyer points, then the market for the points would be created by anyone who wants to travel by air. Frequent flyer points would then be convertible to and from dollars based on the price in coins the airline charges for a flight, and the overall market demand for air travel.

But the airline would not rise and fall based on its ability to generate a profit; it would rise and fall based on its ability to keep the market for FFCs boosted. It would then presumably pay its employees in FFCs, which they could convert to cash.

Coin-based financing may resemble ongoing equity financing

This scenario resembles a company that is financing itself on the strength of its equity, by selling stock to pay any ongoing expenses, rather than financing itself on its underlying business fundamentals.

For an airline, which needs to pay salaries and has high ongoing expenses, it probably wouldn’t work. But as Amazon shows, a company can consistently generate lackluster business results and have its “coins” (shares of AMZN stock) continue to be valued quite highly.

Coins can fund one-time projects as long as they create ongoing markets

The thing about coins is that the organization that did the ICO might not be an ongoing business at all, but a one-time fund raise, as long as it kick starts the market. For example, if the coins created are done so as the only currency that can be used to access some resource, like time on the Hubble telescope, then one organization can create the coins and the protocol that requires them, while completely separate organizations accept the coins and thus generate demand for them.

[One historical example that comes to mind is the currency of green stamps, which survived for decades but eventually failed. An ICO could be likened to an Initial Green Stamp Offering.]

Coins dilute … the market

Coins are like equity in that issuing additional coins dilutes the value of the coins already in circulation. The one ICO I’ve seen closely puts a cap on the number of coins that can ever be issued, to preserve the coin scarcity. That makes sense for an ICO that finances a one-time, transient organization. But if coins will be used, rather than profit, as an ongoing source of an organization’s funds, then having a hard cap on the number of coins will put a cap on the total amount the organization can raise over its lifetime.

In the social enterprise world, coins could be issued to finance social good, as long as there were some mechanism to drive the demand and market for the coins. Rather than having social enterprise rely on constant begging, a social enterprise could drive demand for their coins by striking agreements with businesses or other organizations to use the social coins as a currency. To fund a social enterprise for years on coins, however, would require a substantial initial ICO or the ability to keep issuing coins when funds are needed, so the coin used for the funding probably shouldn’t be capped.

It’s fascinating! And I have no idea how to value a coin, or whether this will prove to be sustainable in any meaningful way.

Why business models matter: Understanding health insurance

When you’re making business decisions, one of your most powerful tools is to understand business models. A business model is, simply, how a company makes money. If you want an in-depth definition with examples, check out my article on business models that was written during the first internet bubble, back when PayPal was a startup, Amazon only sold books, and cameras still used film. Almost every example in the article has since captured its market or gone out of business. (Challenge goal: read the article and consider how the companies’ business models did or didn’t change, and how that led to success or doom. Hindsight is a powerful learning tool!)

Become a compulsive business model collector

Often, a company’s business model constrains what it can and can not do. That, in turn, gives it strengths and weaknesses. Learning to spot business models, and do quick back-of-the-envelope calculations on them, will help you become a ninja at spotting opportunity.

When you see a hot pretzel vendor at a ballgame, ask yourself: what’s that person’s business model? How do they make money? How much product or service do they need to sell to make that money? How much does it cost them to make it? Is it a good business? Hot pretzels being one of my favorite foods as a college student, I was astonished to learn that the hot pretzel vendor cleared a six-figure income.

When you pass the neighborhood bookstore, ask how they stay in business? What’s their business model? Why does it work for them, and not for the bookstore down the block that went out of business five years ago?

When you use Facebook, ask and consider: what’s their business model, and what does that imply about the actions they’ll take? Or eBay? Or Uber?

Business models give policy insights

In a recent Facebook flame war, we were discussing different kinds of health insurance systems. Understanding the business model of an insurance company might give you some insight into their incentives and potential actions:

Health insurance companies make money through underwriting profits (premiums minus payouts and expenses) and investment income on the premiums they collect.

Insurance must ALWAYS be priced higher than needed to pay out because all that administrative overhead, salaries and buildings, needs to be covered.

Furthermore, a for-profit insurance company wants to grow profits. That means raising revenues and/or cutting costs.

How can they cut costs? By streamlining operations and finding ways to avoid paying out on existing policies.

How can they raise revenues? By increasing premiums above what’s necessary to pay out on their pool of premiums.

(They can also find ways to increase their investment income, but that’s longer-term and much less under their control. They can even play in the the $1.2 quadrillion derivatives market, which no one really understands, and Warren Buffett considers a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’.)

Now, when we formulate our own opinions about healthcare policy (which we all do, rather than simply parroting our favorite pundit, right?), we can at least understand that the business model of insurance companies constrains their actions.

Your assignment:

Every time you interact with a business today, ask yourself:

  1. How do they make money? Where does their cash come from?
  2. In order to make that money, how much do they have to spend, and from where?
  3. What are the levers that their business models allows? What are the risks and benefits of their model?

Pretty soon, you’ll discover you can spot opportunities to bring business models to places they’ve never been used. Often, you’ll discover there’s a reason they weren’t used there. But other times, you’ll find that a shift in business model just might make you the next PayPal.

If you want to read more about [my thoughts on the insurance example implications, keep reading…

Health Insurance Business Models Drive Policy

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This is intended as an example of how understanding a business model leads to confidence in predicting the behaviors of people who use that model. This post reflects my layman’s understanding of insurance business models. If anyone knows better, please please correct me.

For you gentle readers who also don’t know the inner workings of the industry, read this to understand how a business model leads to predictions of behavior. Do not read this for accurate information about the insurance industry.

For-profit health insurance companies must overcharge

I’m guessing that competition will not produce efficient health insurance. Health insurance companies make money only two ways: through underwriting profits (premiums minus payouts and expenses) and investment income on the generated float.

Insurance will always be priced higher than needed to pay out because all that administrative overhead, salaries and buildings, needs to be covered.

Furthermore, as long as we have a market that defines “healthy” profits as profits that grow yearly, there will be ever-increasing pressure to raise profits. That means raising revenues and cutting costs.

You can only cut costs so far on the admin side. But you can reduce your payouts by writing ever more complicated policies that in fact cover less and less. You can also challenge payouts, make the reimbursement process deliberately more cumbersome, lower the ceilings of what you will cover, etc.

And of course, regulation caps permitting, you can always raise revenue by raising premium prices.

Every year, due to the market expectation of continually growing profits, all these forces will come into play. (Premium prices will rise, and people will blame Obamacare or the lack of Obamacare or greed or whatever. It’s just the way growth-oriented markets work.)

Any for-profit insurance company will feel all those forces as a simple matter of doing business. So any for-profit insurance company in a competitive market will be pressured over time to do these things.

Even if their investment income is reliably positive, they can’t control that nearly as quickly, easily, and reliably as all these other forces. And if the company is heavily invested in derivatives (which Warren Buffett calls “Weapons of Mass Destruction”), well, at some point there may be a “correction.”

There are competitive pressures at play, as well. Price wars. When a competitor lowers premium prices below the actual rational value for a given policy, a company is pressured to match that pride and write unprofitable policies in order to compete … resulting in pressure to make up profits from one of the other sources1.

That’s why private mutual insurance companies are a good thing. They still have these pressures, but at least the policyholders own the company so the company’s goals are more aligned with the goals of its members.


  1. This is one source of Warren Buffett’s wealth. When he acquire an insurance company, he gives them permission to stop pricing policies below expected payout values, even if there’s a competitive price war going on. ↩︎

The Fourth Circle of Focus: Scaleability

In my article on focusing your life around what you’re good at, what’s needed, what you love, and what’s scaleable, the “what’s scaleable” is a piece that’s new to me, and may be new to you. It’s worth talking about, though.

Four intersecting circles

The Myth of Hard Work says that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. And if you work harder, you’ll get aheader. If you work super-hard, you’ll be Bill Gates. (And if you work hardest of them all, you’ll be Batman.) Sadly, that’s wrong.

The Industrial Revolution enabled fortunes to be made because it allowed scale. A lone blacksmith could only make a single horseshoe an hour. In a horseshoe factory, however, a lone machine operator can make dozens of horseshoes an hour. What makes the riches possible is that machines and technology allow us to scale.

Scaleability matters to whatever you do

When I’m working with a coaching client around any project that involves a lot of people (generally it’s a business), we often spend some time honing in on scaleability. The business buzzword “leverage” comes into play here. We look for ways they can scale their results without scaling the work and cost to the same degree.

Some businesses don’t scale well at all. To add one more diner’s worth of revenue, a restaurant needs more kitchen capacity, more food, more server capacity, and time to cook that diner’s meal. Some of those elements can be squeezed out. By offering a limited meal, cooking in advance, and dispensing with servers, fast food restaurants can serve more customers with fewer resources. But even so, scaling still requires a lot of effort and systems.

The internet allows unprecedented scale

The internet’s joys and woes come from the fact that it makes new kinds of scale possible. Craigslist, a single website, can handle all the classified ads. All of them.

How does your business scale? In non-information company, growing a business requires resources up front. If Ben and Jerry’s wants to add a new product like Oreo Ice Cream cake, they have to buy honkin’ truckloads of Oreos, then find customers for all that delicious Oreo goodness.

But in information businesses, growth happens by reaching more people.

How the internet enables scale

Before the internet, some people who sold information sold it in physical form, books and reports. Scaling required more physical resources. Other people sold it electronically, but charged for the access points. Bloomberg made his billions by renting out Bloomberg terminals, over which he was able to cheaply send his real product, the information.

The internet provides a common access point that anyone can use: the web. And everyone already has the physical stuff they need to read the information, monitors and computers. So internet businesses don’t require hard, upfront investment to scale.

That’s why, when revising our company strategy, we shifted from a coaching-driven model to an online course driven model. It fulfills that fourth circle. It scales better.

A 20-minute video about online businesses and scale

I’m helping my mentor Danny Iny achieve scale by introducing him and his products to my list. I happen to believe very strongly in him and what he has to say, so we’ve become affiliates. We introduce each others’ products and services to our audiences, allowing us to reach more people without the kind of investment that would be needed for a traditional business to scale. (WalMart, for instance, grows by having to buy or rent a new store location. Then they have to sweep it. And then hang curtains. And get the utilities connected… Who wants to work that much?)

Danny has a video that lays out the fundamentals of why online businesses are a good thing from a business perspective. Danny grew a seven figure business in just a couple of years, and I’ve found his grasp of business to be superb.

Danny’s video explains the fundamentals of online business. You can check it out here:

Entrepreneurs aren’t primarily risk-takers; their main mindset is something else entirely

Entrepreneurship isn’t about taking risks

Entrepreneurship is all the rage these days, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me if they have “the right personality type” to be entrepreneurs. They think entrepreneurship is about risk-taking. Entrepreneurs must love risk, right? Since obviously, corporate employees love safety, and they’re the opposite of entrepreneurs. This sounds like a great story and a great rationale. It’s just wrong.

Entrepreneurs generally are not huge risk takers. Indeed, non-monetary considerations are often more important. In fact, many entrepreneurs try to minimize risk. What makes them different from corporate employees is that entrepreneurs maximize experimentation.

A business starts with an idea for a product or service that benefits some market: pink widgets. The business launches the widgets, trying to sell them to football players. No one buys. So they make some blue widgets. Some football players buy, but unexpectedly, many teenage goth girls buy. The next year, the company tries selling blue widgets to teenage goth girls in a different country. They sell tons. They’ve found their product (blue widgets) and their market (teenage goth girls). Now they expand into more and more countries, creating billions of the same products to sell to the same market.

In the early lifecycle, the startup is rapidly experimenting and testing the product idea and the market. Once they’ve found the combination that works, the mindset shifts from rapidly-experiment to scale-the-business. Scaling requires getting good at doing the same things over and over and over. Suddenly, it’s all about doing the same thing over and over, getting better as it goes.

This is a profound shift. Experimentation needs quick decision-making, creative thinking, and a willingness to cut corners as long as you get the learning you need. Scale requires rigor, process improvement, and a willingness to have single-minded focus, and tweak the details so you can be as efficient at mass-production as possible.

That is what you need to assess when deciding whether to pursue something entrepreneurial. Yeah, it’s risky if you don’t control your costs. But that’s only part of the equation. Think less about taking risks, and more about doing experiments. Because at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about minimizing your risk while maximizing the learning you get from rapid experiments with your product and market.

President Trump, viewed as a CEO, part 4

President Trump CEO, part 4: Allocating Capital

 

This is part 4 in a series on President Trump viewed through the lens of being a CEO. Part of President Trump’s great appeal is that he’s perceived as a successful businessperson. He’s even been talked about as being a President with CEO experience.

My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Capital allocation is the CEO’s fourth main duty.

Allocating capital is the ultimate expression of strategic priorities.

Trump manages money

So far Trump has shown that he takes money very seriously. His position on many international bodies and on America’s role in the world is that all countries should help foot the bill for international costs. His stance so far has, indeed, prompted some countries to step up and contribute more to the U.N.

Domestically, Trump has instituted a hiring freeze on the Government and is presumably going to look at spending within the government.

Like everything else, this is more complicated than it seems. Government spending is a huge driver of the economy, and the government is the largest employer in the country. A business certainly wants to lay off as many employees as it possible can and still keep functioning. That’s how we boost profits.

A government, however, is walking a trickier line. A business is generally not affected by the employees it lays off, or by any reduction in its own spending. But not so, a government. Stop spending too quickly and lay too many people off and it simply drives up unemployment and slows down the economy.

Will spending cuts be done wisely?

In companies, spending cuts can be done by declaration: “cut 30% costs across the board.” This is an attractive way to do things. It’s easy to understand and easy to calculate. But it’s a bad way.

This kind of cutting assumes that there’s 30% waste across the board, and it assumes that all cuts are equal. All cuts are not equal. If you consider a company like Microsoft, cutting 30% of their administrative expenses might be a reasonable goal. But cutting 30% of their programming staff would boost their quarterly earnings while probably destroying their ability to fix bugs and develop products to stay competitive.

Spending cuts + process improvement = win?

The fundamental way to reduce costs in an ongoing business is through process improvement, finding ways to do existing things better.

While the stereotype of the Government is that it is extremely wasteful, that is an oversimplification. Some Government programs (e.g. Medicare) are extremely efficient, much moreso than their private counterparts. Other Government programs (e.g. famously, the Defense Department) have huge amounts of waste.

What matters isn’t whether or not the Government runs a program. What matters is whether there are incentives and structures in place that encourage people to work smarter, work better, and improve continuously.

What gets measured gets … measured

George W. Bush was a Harvard MBA who famously was going to bring business principles to the Government. It’s not clear he did much of that. No Child Left Behind introduced measurement into the educational system, but did so in a way that many teachers view as hindering education, not helping it. The Total Quality movement of the 1970s and 1980s showed that simply setting numeric goals without adding process improvements to reach those goals isn’t, in practice, particularly effective.

The business practices that might help the government use its money more efficiently are those of aligning incentives, re-engineering processes, tying employee pay and promotions to customer feedback, and so on. If Trump implements this kind of thinking in the government, it could, indeed, signal a major shift in how efficiently we use our money.

Big allocations reveal priorities

The capital allocation I was referring to in the CEO job duties article weren’t just cost efficiency. The most important capital allocation decisions are the ones that decide which strategic initiatives stay, and which go.

Whether Trump’s spending will be thoughtful or abrupt remains to be seen. He has already declared his intent to increase military spending, while freezing other budgets. He has given directions for us to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has stated we will increase infrastructure spending, while possibly withdrawing from international bodies (such as the U.N.) to which we pay dues.

The President doesn’t control the budget

Though Trump can control how capital is allocated within the Executive branch, it’s Congress that sets the overall budget (or often doesn’t, in the cases where we’ve had a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled legislature). Trump can fund or defund the efforts to implement programs created by Congress, but there are limits to how much control he has over the national budget.

Summary

At this point, it’s too early to tell how Trump will allocate capital. If his skills match his claims as a successful businessman, he may well find ways to steamline the government and put it on a path to being more efficient. His larger capital allocation decisions remain to be seen, however.

 

Return to Part 1 of President Trump CEO