Posts Tagged ‘adaptability’

A Blockbuster closing

July 9, 2009

The Blockbuster closed in our town last week, in the “out of business” sense.  I heard a lot of folks attribute this to the popularity of Netflix.

About a year ago our post office (looks like the one in Mayberry RFD) put a sign above their “Out of town” mail slot, saying “Please put Netflix envelopes in the “Packages” drop box.”  Apparently Netflix has gotten so popular that the post office has had to make an adaptation just to handle the volume, and the reflection of the shift in consumer behavior couldn’t have been written more plainly.

But the more I think about it, Netflix didn’t single-handedly kill our Blockbuster.

About six months ago our (only) supermarket got one of those “Redbox” DVD rental kiosks, and slowly it’s taken over the activity at the front of the store.

People are lined up at it all the time, and when I thought it was just a stand-alone machine, I didn’t consider it all that novel until I realized that you can reserve movies, at an individual machine, over the internet. That’s when I thought “this is really cool.”  No wonder folks are jammed there, they’re going to the store anyway, and they can get their movie too, and reserve what they want.  Wow.

So, I did a quick Google search on “Redbox Netflix” and this was the third citation, the headline says it all: Blockbuster CEO: Redbox, Netflix “Not On Radar Screen” as Competition.  The article was from December.  And this is a publicly traded company.  How in the world does someone say this?  What detachment from the customer (and reality) does that broadcast?  It certainly provides a more grounded understanding of why our local Blockbuster went down the drain.

But while Netflix may have pushed Blockbuster to the brink, Redbox may have sent them over the edge.  Not because Redbox was targeting Blockbuster: they were collateral damage.  It’s Netflix who’s in the cross-hairs of Redbox.  And the best part?  Netflix paved the way for Redbox to hollow them out.

How?  Netflix fundamentally changed consumer behavior.  Until they arrived you were at the mercy of your local video store: you had to actually make a separate trip there, choose from their inventory,  and had to remember what you came in there for.

Netflix created a whole new behavioral model of how you rent and experience movies and tv shows.  Infinite inventory to choose from, your own queue on a website, and they mail your movie to you.  How simple, how convenient.  And as I wrote earlier, a change in behavior like this takes time – like a decade.

Convenience is nice, but where Netflix really grabbed hold of people was by also embracing people’s existing behavior: they don’t return movies on time.  Eliminating late fees was the rallying cry that created incredible word of mouth.  And started that hollowing effect for Blockbuster.

So how does this apply to Redbox?  Well, they just applied Netflix’s playbook:  focus on consumer behavior and where the economic leverage is.  They recognized most people rent the current releases, and thanks to Netflix, they also expect to be able to use the web to choose as well as know they’ll get what they want.  Critically, they also realized that having the movie mailed to you meant for many consumers just not having to make a separate trip to get  it.

So Redbox embraced this existing behavior in a clever way.  They just  rent the top movies from a vending machine located in a supermarket.  You can reserve your movie over the web.  So you get what you want, with no special trip.

And the fact it’s a kiosk also means expectations are automatically set that the selection is limited.  This reflects a nuanced understanding of consumer psyches, while dramatically reducing the complexity of inventory management.

And while convenience is nice, where Redbox really gets its leverage is with the economics, just like Netflix did with Blockbuster.  $1 per movie.  Sure there are late fees, but at this price it makes Netflix seem expensive and really tough for digitally delivered movies to pencil out from a margin perspective.  Ouch.

So, against this backdrop, it’s hard to fathom the statement from the Blockbuster CEO.  He’s right, Netflix and Redbox really weren’t on his radar screen.  He wasn’t even in the same business, wasn’t even in the fight.

And if I were Netflix, I’d be working my bankers, hard, to figure out how to acquire Redbox.

Peripateia and the value of getting it wrong

March 9, 2009

One of my kids favorite TV shows is “Dirty Jobs”, and I have to say that what I’ve seen of it, I have liked, because the host Mike Rowe comes across as genuine and inquisitive.  He’s there to understand, not to judge.  That alone is a wonderful set of values for children to see and explore, regardless of medium.

So, when a friend forwarded a link to Mike Rowe’s TED talk  (embedded below) on the merits of hard work, my intellectual curiosity was high.  His job is to question assumptions and to get all of us to understand the real, human aspects of jobs that other people are unaware of or assume just get done. 

He talks about how he’s “gotten it wrong” a lot, but that getting it wrong informs the essence of what he does and how he does it.  He shares the meaningful failure he encounters as an apprentice on a sheep ranch where it’s his job to castrate the lambs. 

He does his research ahead of time and determines the “humane” way to perform said castrations (with a rubber band).  Then he gets to the ranch, and finds the castration performed there is quite different (with a knife, and more); on the surface a more grisly method than he or we could have imagined.  Let’s just say that this would make killing an actual chicken seem simple and an easy choice.

But in the process of telling the story he introduces the concept of peripateia – the sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation (remembering it from his days studying Greek classics).  What a wonderful way of describing meaningful failure. 

Mike’s castration dilemma is so clearly framed, his assumptions apparent (“the ‘humane’ way is the right way”) and then, through first-hand experience, not only questions that assumption, he casts it aside when he realizes the definition of “humane” needs to be questioned. 

He describes in twenty minutes what some entrepreneurs I know have taken years to internalize, and he draws on some key themes I’ve explored:

  • Getting it wrong is something you need to embrace, it’s what enables you to both perform better and to comprehend your purpose and goals more insightfully.  It’s meaningful failure from another point of view.
  • You need to know when to stop what you’re doing, and question your core assumptions.  This is hard, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  When he stops what he’s doing, he demonstrates incredible integrity and purposefulness.
  • Facing up to the unfamiliar, the unpleasant, is precisely what presents you with the opportunity for discovery and learning, and improving the quality of your results.  This is a benefit of chicken-killing I hadn’t thought about.

But the impact of Mike Rowe’s honesty doesn’t stop there. 

He has a transparent methodology (no takes, no scripts, it’s all real) that underpins the credibility of his “product”.  What I loved about this anecdote is that he even had to question that foundational element of his show; he had to stop the filming because his core assumptions about the subject matter were so precarious.   That takes experience and a confidence in your process and values.  He didn’t rationalize, he didn’t talk about the cost of stopping production, he just did it because he knew he needed to.

Back to peripateia.  That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but what an elegant term to describe how you bring meaning to failure, from getting it wrong. and finding meaning from the doing.  I want Mike Rowe on the board of the next company I fund too.

Anticipation and resiliency

February 3, 2009

Big and unexpected changes are frequently less “unexpected” than we would like to admit sometimes, whether they occur in our personal lives or in our professional lives.  Sure, there are true shocks whose probability of occurring are so slim that they’re hard to anticipate, but much more often, the times when you have to confront an unpleasant change is something you knew was coming.

Henry Blodgett wrote a sober and ego-free article about why market bubbles happen, and will continue to happen.  A key point he makes is that bubbles happen naturally, for factors that in the long run will never be fully predicted or avoided, even though they may be anticipated.   He quotes investor Jeremy Grantham who sums it up well.  “We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term, and absolutely nothing in the long term.”  The anticipation referred to here is anticipation of a bubble bursting, and the fear of the loss that will result. 

I love Henry Blodgett 2.0 (his role Merrill Lynch analyst was version 1.0).  He’s honest and humble, in a “serious scar tissue” kind of way.  I found his article refreshing because he was so direct about knowing the housing bubble was there, but that awareness provoked only a messy and clumsy understanding about what he should personally do about it that was best made sense of only with hindsight.  But by anticipating it he was able to see beyond the here and now, to the more pleasant and hopeful medium term, regardless of his near term decision making or consequences.

Early in 2008 we were advising our companies to expect a very hostile fundraising and operating environment in the second half of the year.  All we knew was something bad was coming, didn’t know the magnitude of the shock or the timing, just that it was coming.  What did we do differently?  Well, a lot, and nothing. 

Our companies applied a lot of scrutiny on expenses and revenue, for sure.  But they also continued to sell aggressively and keep product development schedules tight. 

So when October happened?  That was beyond bleak, but the companies in our portfolio methodically revised 2009 plans, optimized around a different set of variables (cash conservation, getting to profitability), and they addressed the very unpleasant tasks of expense and headcount reductions.  The entrepreneurs I was meeting with who were incubating new companies or raising money? They had a tough time of it, but by November, they were back, also with revised plans, showing how they could envision success even with so much less of everything to count on in their plans and assumptions.

Anticipation of an unpleasant outcome didn’t inhibit the responses of those of us in the startup community, anticipation enhanced the response.  It helped sharpen the focus more firmly on the fear of not succeeding, and fostered the resiliency we all need so very badly now, and enabled us to see beyond the near term. 

Over the holidays I confronted an earth-shattering shift in my personal life, and an unpleasant one I’d anticipated for many months.  What did I do?  Well, I focused myself on how to work through this, and to understand that the medium and long term are where to apply my focus.  Did the anticipation affect me or my response?  I think it did, I think it helped me move more quickly to focus on where success could be found beyond the near term. 

I find life in the world of startups fascinating and inspiring, where productively making use of anticipating an unpleasant outcome, having it serve as a means to provoke adaptability, provide a “stretchiness” to your thinking and ability to respond all comes so naturally.  We’re in a world where resiliency will matter a lot, and where for the foreseeable future there will be much to anticipate, a lot of it unpleasant.  But in the medium term there is much inspiration and excitement to be found, and resilience will help speed us from here to there.

[the holidays and ensuring rapid start to the year took me off line, blog-wise, so I am glad to get this first post off for the year, and look forward to resuming the active pace of November and December.  Thanks to all of you for your patience!].


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