Tag Archives: investing

Small Customers – A Neglected Resource

The efficiency focus of the past 18 months may well have added substantially to the risk profile of companies, while simultaneously reducing their profitability.

After all, efficiency for most means focusing on the largest customers – allowing one to reduce headcount (less people, managing fewer customers), reduce transaction costs (fewer, larger transactions) and, in many eyes, reduce risk (bigger customers are more trustworthy).

However, aren’t your biggest customers the ones that demand, and generally get, the best prices? Do your biggest customers not get the longer payment terms they request? Are your biggest customers really less work than others?

And what about the impact on your business of the failure to pay of one of your biggest customers? As we’ve seen, they’re far from invincible.

Conversely, most businesses will find that their smaller customers:
• Deliver better margins;
• Will pay more promptly (if for no other reason than you have more leverage);
• Are no more work than the larger ones, and often less so as they are less demanding;

On top of this, the impact of a failure on your business is far less severe, and you substantially reduce your overall business risk by spreading a given value across a number of customers, instead of concentrating it in one place.

What’s more, as business starts to pick up, the companies likely to grow most quickly will be the small ones – a 20% growth on $1 Million revenue is generally a good deal easier to find than a 20% growth on $1 Billion revenue. So having a good number of smaller customers will improve your growth prospects, too.

Analyse the true profitability (return on working capital, including all costs) by customer segment: you’ll find it a very interesting exercise.

I’m not for a moment advocating that you fire all your biggest customers, but rather that you not just focus on larger customers at the expense of smaller ones. As with all things in life, you need to achieve a balance.

Small customers should be embraced as much as large ones – after all, if you have a ready resource that will help you grow faster than the market average while improving your profitability and simultaneously reducing your risk, shouldn’t you make the best use of it?

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Keep it Simple, Stupid

What is it about the human race that while we all apparently prefer ‘a simple life’ we delight in adding layers of complexity to everything?

Much to nobody’s surprise, I imagine, a recent McKinsey article, “Consumer Electronics Gets Back to Basics” showed that something like 2/3rds of consumers valued simplicity and price over a more comprehensive set of features. And yet, product after product is designed to have more features than its predecessor – generally at an incrementally higher price or, at best, the same price.

Just look at today’s ‘bloatware’ as an example. Remember the days when Bill Gates declared that “640KB ought to be enough for anybody” referring to the, then, new PC’s maximum memory capacity? Nowadays, you’re lucky to get away with less than three thousand times that much (2GB)! And yet, how many of us use more than 10% of the features available in today’s ‘productivity suites?’ I don’t, and many consider me a ‘power user.’

Oh, and don’t believe that the complexity is simply as a result of more capacity – people have been calling for simpler PCs for decades. In a Newsweek interview back in 1995, Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison said that the PC was too complicated and difficult to use then, predicting the PC would soon be replaced by simpler desktop devices – the ‘network computer,’ a no-frills computer/terminal that performs basic chores easily and simply and sells for less than $500. Perhaps Oracle’s recent purchase of Sun Microsystems will enable him to move us all in that direction some 15 years later: Sun already sells this type of device – they call it a Sun Ray.

The big surprise for many vendors last year was the Netbook. Initiated by Asus, this basic notebook PC really set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. The form factor was first tried in the mid 90s with a notable lack of success (it was called the sub-notebook in those days), so there was a healthy dose of scepticism when it was announced last year. Acer, as the first major multinational vendor to see the opportunity, quickly produced its own line of netbooks and gained enormous market-share as a result: seeing a significant increase in unit sales last year, just as the downturn was biting most companies. Here was a classic case of people wanting simplicity – what a pity, then, that the software was not also available in ‘Lite’ versions, meaning that many early adopters of netbooks ended up returning to the larger, more powerful machines that could handle the software workload.

But it’s not just in PCs that simplicity is the watchword. A couple of years ago a start-up company, Pure Digital Technologies, introduced a simple, one-button solid state video camera that runs on a couple of AA batteries. This device, the Flip, quickly grabbed 14% of the US video camera market surpassing all but the long-time market leader in sales. It’s a wonderful little camera and perfect for recording those ‘moments’ of life – I know, I got one soon after launch and swear by it. Interesting, then, that Cisco acquired the company a few months ago – is simplicity to be Cisco’s driver now?

This desire for simplicity is evident in many other areas of life, too – look at how people are embracing simpler airline and hotel offerings: companies offering easy-to-use services that do what’s needed at a reasonable price. The same goes for other products, like the success of Tide Basic laundry detergent.
And here’s the key – to succeed, products and services must be well-made, practical, offer the set of basic features that people need (read: market research is critical) and be seen as offering great value. Properly done, this can be achieved at increased margins to the over-featured products we’ve become used to, so increasing shareholder satisfaction along with customer satisfaction.

As the saying goes, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

Isn’t this what we all want?

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Will your business survive the upswing?

An article I saw today in SmartPlanet.com confirmed what I’ve been feeling for some time: businesses have over-done the cost-cutting and are poorly placed for the economic upswing.

The fact that leading economists and business leaders around the world have declared an end to the recession is great news. However, even though nobody is talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery’ or quick upswing, the Forbes study of 200 large companies cited in the article showed that leading executives believe the level of cost cutting undertaken will severely restrict their future growth prospects.

As I posted a few weeks ago, short-term business thinking has done enormous damage – and unfortunately this thinking carried through the recession with companies cutting costs as hard and fast as they could with little thought for the future.

While I don’t have the statistics to hand that the Forbes study has, my own observations indicate that perhaps the report is conservative: it showed 22% of executives believing their recruiting/retention policies were not aligned with their strategic goals, while a quarter indicated their training and development programs were similarly misaligned. My observations indicate this figure to be significantly higher – here in the Middle East, training and recruitment all but ground to a complete halt for the first 3 quarters of this year, right at the time when forward-looking companies should have been upskilling and upgrading their staff.

This really points to the core of the issue – the study showing that nearly all (93%) companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, but only 51% admitted to having a plan in place to guide strategy once the economy turns. Granted, the almost all rest said they were working on a plan, but is it not too late?

Certainly it seems that companies around the globe have missed great opportunities to position themselves strongly for the upturn and this is sure to lead to many failures as those that have done so take new leadership positions – as has been the case following every previous recession. The difference this time being, of course, that the recession was far deeper than any we’ve seen in a couple of generations, so the post-recession fall-out is likely to be worse, too.

Perhaps some companies can still save themselves by moving quickly to position for the upswing – taking on top-performing staff, embarking on aggressive training and taking advantage of the opportunities for mergers and acquisitions – but they can’t afford to wait any longer. Investors, too, are likely to severely punish those companies they see as being unprepared for the upswing.

The question now is whether your company will be one of the new leaders or will fail to survive?

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Putting a Spring into Business Models

Are we thinking wrongly about business models and, for that matter, about the models that apply to many other activities, too?

While most of us think in linear terms, we respond to stimuli in a very non-linear way and this is why our models fail us.

A good example is that of traffic – the way it bunches up and stretches out as drivers slow and speed up, with each reacting to the vehicle in front – it’s much more like a spring or elastic band being stretched and let go, than linear.

Look at how consumers react to shortages of items. It really is much the same – an impending shortage leads to people purchasing a little more to tide them over, while a stock-out position either leads to brand switching or to buying extra once the item is back in stock, so the consumer doesn’t run out again. This, of course, means demand that follow a wave pattern, rather than a straight line.

However, every inventory-ordering system I’ve seen works in a linear fashion, leading to inevitable periods of over-stock after a shortage and accelerated stock-out if an impending shortage is discerned.

Doesn’t this equally apply to investors? Think about how the stock market reacts to news – it almost always over-reacts, whether positively or negatively, and then settles down. Again, although, we expect a “rational” (read: linear) response and our models are built in this way, the actual pattern of prices is anything but linear.

I have little doubt that it is this that leads to huge market “melt-downs” as automatic sales are triggered in response to the over-reaction to an event which leads to more automatic sales, and so on. Look at global stock markets early this year – do we honestly believe that the total value of companies was half (or less) what it had been six or seven months earlier? There’s no question they were worth less as earnings were impaired, but were they really worth so much less? The answer might be found in the big increase in share prices from March – perhaps it wasn’t a bull market as some were calling, but simply a correction to the over-reaction during the last half of last year, and things seem now to have stabilised. At least until the next piece of news…

The answer, it seems to me, is to rework our models to allow for human response to situations: the inevitable over-reaction and consequent wave patterns in demand, share prices, traffic and just about everything else. By allowing for this sort of response and predicting the effects, we can dampen them in the same way that a car’s shock absorbers dampen the effect of a bump on the suspension/springs.

The Perils of ‘Quarteritis’

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE (Photo credit: Financial Times photos)

It appears that one potentially good thing to emerge from the global economic meltdown is a return to sensible business planning and cycles.

One of the scourges of many businesses – this started in the US and spread out from there – is ‘Quarteritis.’ Not strictly speaking a disease, but something that has probably resulted in a lot more suffering than most diseases, ‘Quarteritis’ is about an overarching focus on ensuring each quarter’s financial results are significantly better than those of the quarters that went before.

While we all want to be part of, and invest in, businesses that have good growth, the fact is that business, like most things in life, moves in cycles and the best long-term businesses are those that plan for the long-term, not just the next quarter. A short-term focus leads to rash decisions, decisions that might be good to “save this quarter” but disastrous in the medium term.

To illustrate: in the IT industry two popular results of this are distributors being forced to take huge amounts of excess inventory in a quarter (“channel stuffing”), or new distributors/resellers appointed suddenly to get a new stock order into the current cycle.

Both of these have similar results over succeeding quarters – reduced profitability for all concerned, stretched payment terms, credit limit issues meaning needed products cannot be ordered and, potentially, delays in releasing new products while excess inventory is moved out of the channel.

By taking the longer-term approach to ensuring that all parties in the channel can grow profitably, vendors may not grow as quickly in the short-term but will ensure happier customers – at all levels in the supply chain – and so more loyalty and a more sustainable growth well into the future.

Wasn’t it this short-term focus – albeit in the financial markets this time – that ultimately caused the current crash? Executives and others were induced by means of massive bonuses to find ways to grow well above the market average and so started giving mortgages to those that could never afford them, and repackaging these as “high quality” loans. Frankly, this would have been considered fraudulent in many places – it’s certainly ethically very bad anywhere – and it was only a matter of time before implosion happened.

However, those involved had already taken their money and run… Isn’t it this short-term bonus-driven culture that’s behind the trend to shorter and shorter tenure by CEOs of public companies? Can CEOs really be effective when they’re only in place for a few years?

It’s time we started looking at the longer term sustainability of business, and rewarding people in ways that encourage this and I, for one, am pleased to see a number of governments leaning in this direction. Authorities and shareholders should claw back bonuses paid for fraudulent practice, especially when taxpayers have to bail out the companies as a result. CEOs, and other officers, should be rewarded, and lauded, for long tenure and sustained growth.

Business needs to get back to a solid footing and good practice – we should support those that are trying to move in this direction.

Amazon

Amazon (Photo credit: topgold)

This blog piece was first published in Sep 2009, so it’s good to see that there’s growing acceptance of the need to look longer-term as this video from INSEAD clearly points out – Prof. Javier Gimeno talking about how “short-termism” undermines a company’s long-term competitiveness.