Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on Profits

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about Profits.

♫ ♫ ♫

There was a modest rumble in the room. A flight had been called. It was not Daphne and Paul’s flight to Los Angeles, but both were heartened by the rustling of computer bags and rollaboards around them as fellow passengers-in-waiting began ambling to the door. It had been a long night, but now it appeared the delay would not go on forever, nor the conversation.

“We have hope,” proclaimed Paul. “We’re going to get out of here.”

“Hope is the strength that keeps us going,” said Daphne, watching people around her happily begin to leave the airport lounge. Since their flight wasn’t leaving, she had no reason to follow them, but she knew her remaining time with Paul would be limited.

“When you set out to determine strategy, how do you think about building the business so it keeps growing?” continued Paul. “No sane executive wants to lead a company into the Dead Brand Graveyard, yet so many end up there. Suppose they have the best people and the best products. How do they get their head around a business model that is going to both work now and expand into the future?”

“That’s the greatest enigma of all,” answered Daphne. “You have to think about recurring revenue alongside new revenue. Some transactions have to be there without your prodding, so you can add new transactions on top of them. If you’re going to spend money to acquire new customers, you have to balance that with what you’re spending to retain the ones you have. If all you do is spend to acquire new business, your margins will be perpetually squeezed. No fun, I assure you.”

“My boss says that all the time,” agreed Paul. “If every year you start the P&L from zero, it’s virtually impossible to grow. You have to know there is some business already on its way from your catalogue of products, and on top of that you add new product introductions.”

“Smart guy, your boss,” said Daphne. “He gets the mix a lot of us miss. Maybe he was at the same Paul McCartney concert I attended.”

“The same boss who isn’t going to can me for this lackluster sequel?”

“Yes, that clever fellow. Let me ask you something about that catalogue of products, the base of recurring revenue. Do you cannibalize your own markets before the competition does it for you?”

“Well, we don’t put out the same videogames, so it’s not exactly possible,” said Paul. “But if you’re asking do we sometimes leave one out there longer than we should to extract the last bit of profit from it, yeah, we do that sometimes.”

“How does it make you feel?”

“Queasy”

“Me, too,” winced Daphne. “I think we all do it to some extent, but the key to all of this is balance. Yes, you need a base of recurring revenue, but if you don’t give your customers something new and exciting before your competitors do, they will sweep your customers into their camp. You have to study and manage the ratios of evergreen and introductory endeavors at work in all your sales channels. Remember, constraints on distribution are low, choices are high.”

“It’s staggeringly hard to find the stamina to pull a product from the shelf when it’s still selling,” said Paul. “R&D costs are ridiculously high. We need all the sales we can muster for contribution margin to make sense.”

“One of the hardest choices in business is to pull a product while it’s still moving. Again, what we are talking about is strategy. Of course you don’t want to leave more money on the table than you should, but you’ll often find you need to leave some. If you don’t do it, your competitors will happily obviate your offerings. That can be the end of one brand and the birth of a new one that is no longer yours.”

♫ ♫ ♫

Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.

“Focus relentlessly on the extraordinary.” Pub Day

Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on Products

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about Products.

♫ ♫ ♫

Paul’s phone dinged. It was the text alarm. He was afraid to look, but he knew the Band-Aid had to be ripped off in one pull. He turned over the handset so they could both see it at the same time. The text read: “We’ll talk when you get back.”

“I’m not off the hook,” grumbled Paul. “Not even a little.”

“Did you expect you would be with a simple text?” asked Daphne. “He’s your boss, not your father. How much did your company invest in the sequel?”

“Millions. We’re not going to lose all of it. We may not lose any of it. We just aren’t going to make the kind of money we made on the original. Sequels in my business are supposed to do better than the originals as the brand and market expand. Everything we do can’t be a winner.”

“Would you let Randy or Helen off the hot seat for mediocre performance with just a text?”

“No, of course not,” said Paul. “I would remind them that there is no growth without risk, that we have to be willing to try things and fail, but when we fail we have to learn. It’s not failure if it’s learning, but there has to be learning. You have to capture that learning and harness it.”

“I suppose he’ll say something to the same effect,” said Daphne. “Of course, I’ve never met him, so you never know. He could mop the floor with you to make him feel better.”

“Thanks, I feel so much more chipper,” grimaced Paul.

“You should,” said Daphne. “Think about the opposite spectrum. Suppose you weren’t willing to risk failure and learn. Suppose you devoted all your energy to protecting the status quo. Think of a company that isn’t around anymore that tried that trick.”

“Kodak comes to mind,” said Paul. “I read somewhere that they developed the first digital camera in 1975, but kept it off the market because they were afraid of what it might do to their traditional film processing business.”

“Polaroid missed the shift to digital as well,” replied Daphne. “They didn’t have to stick with mechanical, self-developing prints. That was a choice.”

“It’s amazing how bad the blunders can be,” continued Paul. “Borders Books, Circuit City, Tower Records—they’re gone forever. With all the customers they had, the vast resources, all that talent and cash in the bank, these days they’re just names, empty shells. Businesses become nostalgia.”

“Tombstones, actually, all in the Dead Brand Graveyard,” said Daphne. “No Endless Encores there. The list goes on and on: Palm, Zenith, Blockbuster, CompUSA, Wang Laboratories—all once beloved brands, all now decaying tales of yesteryear. Now think of the once great brands about to fail, the ones you know will soon evaporate. What is their idea of risk?”

“Way too conservative,” answered Paul. “They’re afraid to take risks because they’re afraid of failing, when in fact they’re already failing by refusing to dance a little closer to the edge.”

♫ ♫ ♫

Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.

Dear RadioShack

RadioShackGreetings, my fellow nerdy friends. I read with concern last week in the business press that you are closing as many as 1100 stores, following your well-received Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. You are not alone. Sears is closing stores. Staples is closing stores. Quiznos is closing stores. There seems to be plenty of commercial real estate coming on the market in all shapes and footprints. I wanted to write to you because I used to love the RadioShack brand, and I would hate to see it join the other tombstones in the Dead Brand Graveyard. You see, I was a bit of a geek as a kid, still sort of am, mowed a lot of lawns and bought my first CB Radio at RadioShack way back when, then used to love to hang out with the other geeks in the store.

So I wonder if the big-salary strategy teams sitting around the table in your headquarters this modern moment have asked themselves the following ten very personal questions:

1) When was the last time they shopped unprompted as a customer in a RadioShack?

2) What did they love about walking into the store?

3) What did they love about the shelf displays in the store?

4) What did they love about the merchandise on sale in the store?

5) What did they love about the staff in the store?

6) What was in the store that was unique, perfectly priced, or presented so well they couldn’t say no to it?

7) How much did they spend of their own money in the store?

8) Did they tell a friend about the experience and urge that friend to also visit the store?

9) When they got home, did they think, oh wow, I should have bought something else while I was there?

10) Are they actually excited about visiting that store again as soon as they can?

The reason I ask is, I never worked at a RadioShack, but I used to be able to answer every single one of these questions in the affirmative. I was a brand evangelist for RadioShack. I actually loved your brand.

At the moment I have no clue what it stands for, except every once in a while I need an obscure electronics plug or unusually shaped battery, and I drop by because you’re paying top dollar for a great location right between my bank and a sushi place I enjoy. If it pops in my head, sometimes I drop off a bucket of old batteries for you to recycle, and if you have the gizmo I need, I gladly fork over about $3 to $8. The guys at checkout always ask for my zip code for some reason, even though I know you know it, because you used to mail me a catalogue several times a year with cool stuff to come see and at least one great coupon offer, but no one there seems to know me after 40-plus years of stopping by. I’m glad you still have the little wired metal gizmos when I need them, and I wish I could spend more money while I was in the store, but there’s really nothing I need or can’t get online cheaper, and the guy behind the counter doesn’t seem to want to swap stories about weird-shaped neon mini bulbs anymore. I miss that guy, he was a geek like me.

You were once the Tandy Corporation, remember? You sold leather goods. Then you reinvented and became RadioShack, and we geeks thought it was a cool place to gather, kind of like Egghead, before they became rent-free NewEgg. You had the TRS-80 and knew how to load software on it! Are some of those geeks at your conference table? Do they love your brand the way we did–not like, but actually love? If they don’t, are they able to articulate what happened to the magic?  Because if they can’t, and they don’t want to go to RadioShack like a real customer, then why should I? I mean, sure, anyone can hire an agency to do a killer commercial, and you can love a commercial, but that’s not the same as loving a brand. It’s also not the same as a reason to go into your store.

I do believe you have to eat your own dogfood if you want someone else to give it a taste. That’s just me. Call me a simpleton without an MBA, but when I love a brand, and I have reason to recommit my loyalty to that brand time and again, price is only one part of my decision funnel. I want a brand that comes with a promise. What’s yours?

I won’t be writing this letter to Sears or Staples or Quiznos, although I do occasionally frequent those stores, but I did want to share my thoughts with you, because there was a time not long ago when you meant something to me. Like Borders. Like Tower Records. Like Blockbuster. Those old friends are no longer to be found. I wonder if the people sitting around the table in their final year loved their brands as much as their customers once did, or if they just ran spreadsheets and focus tests.

There’s a lot going on in a store; it’s a great laboratory for learning. When there’s nothing going on there at all, you can learn even more.

It all begins with a promise.

Signing off now, that’s a big 10-4.

Brands in Memoriam 2013

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a spectacular impact recently when he went on 60 Minutes the day before Cyber Monday and gave us a glimpse at the future—a fleet of small delivery drones he branded Prime Air. It was a bold statement, and whether intended or not an incomparable public relations move that got much of the nation talking about his online retail company at precisely the most important time of year for consumer purchasing.

Yet I might be in the minority thinking that was not the most interesting thing Bezos talked about on television and in the zillions of video clips that got sent around the digital world in the days that followed. What I latched onto in the Bezos appearance was this little exchange with Charlie Rose:

Jeff Bezos: Companies have short life spans, Charlie. And Amazon will be disrupted one day.

Charlie Rose: And you worry about that?

Jeff Bezos: I don’t worry about it ’cause I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.

Charlie Rose: And your job is to make sure that you delay that date?

Jeff Bezos: I would love for it to be after I’m dead.

Well, if Jeff Bezos who is currently sitting on top of the business world knows that sooner or later his company is toast, I think that is about as telling a tale of creative destruction as I can imagine! With that, here is this year’s short list of additions to the Dead Brand Graveyard:

BlockbusterBlockbuster: Aptly named for its status as the big bust of this year, Blockbuster is a sad loss for me. Harken back to the early days of video home rental and there were thousands of mom and pop stores in neighborhood strip malls. It seemed inevitable that these shops would fall victim to industry consolidation to achieve buying power and scale where margins were thin, and Blockbuster came to rule the day. My experience of Blockbuster was that it somehow held onto that mom and pop feel of a local video store, and at least where we rented they always were friendly, helpful, movie nuts, and the checkout line moved pretty quickly. Then as VHS gave way to DVD, along came the startup Netflix to reinvent the space, and Blockbuster went to sleep. By the time they woke up and decided that Netflix was onto sometime with their mail order subscription programs, Netflix was already reinventing itself as a digital distributor, and Redbox had figured out how to pick up the kiosk business with zero personnel vending machines. Blockbuster was two generations behind the innovation curve, and when Dish Network bought Blockbuster ostensibly as a storefront competitive tool in its battle with DirecTV, it was too little cavalry too late to justify the ongoing operating costs.

Current TV: It is hard to argue that Current TV ever acquired much momentum as a brand unto itself, although it’s hard not to draw a certain amount of attention when one of your masthead investors is former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, coming off a nail biter contested single state vote count that almost made him President of the United States. If you poke around the web for remnants of Current TV’s brand strategy, it was to be something like a news network for ages 18 – 34, where much of the content would be user-created, uploaded to a destination online site, and then curated for television cable audiences. I think the notion that I have to say something like denotes that the ill-formed brand strategy never got much resonance, which might have been reinforced when the strategy suddenly shifted to hiring high-profile former ESPN star turned MSNBC darling Keith Olbermann—at a big salary, with even bigger expectations. The concept of building a line-up around a tent pole Olbermann anchor also never resonated, so when Al Jazeera America came knocking with a monster payday for the founders of the 60 million subscriber reach network, it was an easy call for our former VP to call it a win and walk off the field. Not surprisingly, Olbermann went back to sports.

MetroPCS: Remember when we could look forward to airwaves of virtually unlimited choice and price competition due to the wonders of telecom deregulation? No, you forgot, too? MetroPCS is another brand that probably didn’t leave behind a lot of emotional longing with customers, but it is interesting to note that its founding dates back to 1996 and it came to position itself as a carrier with unlimited wireless communications for a flat fee and without an annual contract. The company was a pioneer in 4G LTE rich communication services, and with more than 9 million subscribers grew to become the fifth largest carrier in the United States—both good reasons for it to be acquired by T-Mobile which cemented its position as the fourth largest carrier in the nation. Still feeling good about all the many companies out there fighting hard for your smart phone bill?

What are the key takeaways from this year’s exit crop that might inform a Bezos-like objective of bolstering your brand to outlive your own era? First, speed is everything in the digital age, rest even a millisecond too long on your laurels and it will probably be too late to catch up with that company that leapfrogged you (Blockbuster). Second, a confused brand strategy results in a confused product strategy (and vice-versa) and swinging at that with pricey tactics doesn’t clear the confusion (Current TV). Third, an undifferentiated commodity without sufficient scale will not stand solo long in a consolidating market (MetroPCS).

Last year in my Brands in Memoriam post I went out on a limb and called Blackberry dead. I took a little heat for that, what I probably should have said was RIM (Research in Motion), the holding company for Blackberry was dead, and Blackberry was on deathwatch. Honestly, I feel okay about calling Blackberry dead, to me it’s spiritually dead, and while some loyals are still pounding thumbs on their mini-keyboards, it’s hard not to believe the clock is tick-tick-ticking to Final Jeopardy on this one. Slammed by creative destruction and inexcusably poor management—a very tough critique because it was a visionary company much beloved that lost vision—it is today a zombie brand at best.

Going out on less a limb this year, I don’t think I would be alone in calling for grave concern around the survival of Sears, J.C, Penney, and Radio Shack. I will climb out a little further and hope that Dell finds a fruitful path soon, as it is hard to believe the PC or laptop business is on the mend, or there is much room on the shelves for another flavor of tablets or tablet/keyboard combos. U S Airways is also likely to evaporate when its merger with American Airlines is completed. I hope I am wrong about all of these because we are talking an awful lot of jobs at risk in our too fragile economic recovery if we lose any let alone all of these. Let’s hope management is inspired with some leapfrog ideas for reinvention and revitalization.

Did I miss any for this year or in the near term gun sights of creative destruction? Feel free to chime in below and add your assessments, predictions, and prognostications. Just remember, if you tiptoe out on the limb, forward judgments of demise have an excellent history of being proven wrong!