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Month: June 2013

Another Battle In The Long War: The Solitron Shareholders Meeting ($SODI, #corpgov)

Another Battle In The Long War: The Solitron Shareholders Meeting ($SODI, #corpgov)

Something that has been impressed upon me over the years as I learn more about business and investing has been the invaluable role that bullshit-detection plays in money dealings. The jungle is everywhere and while man may have found a way to tame his baser desires and impulses enough to enjoy a broad civilization, individual men will always tease the edges of appropriateness by attempting force by other means, namely deceit, misdirection, opacity, feigned confusion, intentional blundering, etc. If you can’t smell bullshit and if you have no means to fight back against a bullshit-peddler, he will run you over and probably try to take you for all you’re worth along the way.

Some people say, “That’s just business!” but that’s been invalidated by numerous contrary, personal experiences where no bullshit occurred and business occurred nonetheless, and more efficiently and for more wealth for both parties, overall. Bullshit is just a grey-area form of aggression, a remnant of the jungle from which we can never fully emerge.

My attendance at the first annual Solitron Devices shareholders’ meeting in nearly 20 years was a descent into that jungle. Here I and several other shareholders came face-to-face with Shevach Saraf, President, Chairman of the Board, CEO, CFO and, among many other titles and distinguishments I should say, a highly intelligent, sophisticated bullshitter.

My personal predisposition is to assume a person is trustworthy until they demonstrate they clearly are not. This is a little different than treating a person as trustworthy– I maintain skepticism and try to be alert at all times, but I don’t start a person at 0 and then work up to 100 on a “trustworthiness” scale, but rather the opposite. As a result, in dealing with Saraf and other representatives of the company in the past, I tried to explain various indiscretions, unkindness and general belligerency displayed by these parties in terms of misjudgments, misperceptions and a potentially historical apprehensiveness, rather than some kind of malintent.

At this point, the veil has been lifted for me and I believe I can confidently state that the bullshit is a calculated tactic and it is laid on, thick, with due purpose.

In the particular case of the shareholders’ meeting, the bullshit started with the “rules for the meeting”, which restricted each participant to a maximum of two questions no longer than one minute in length, with a twenty minute maximum duration. As with most bullshit, this was done in the name of “giving everyone a chance to speak”, but was really a rather naked attempt to intimidate shareholders and prevent them from stating their minds and engaging in significant follow-up questioning. No shareholder present (all 9 of us!) ever demonstrated any concern about domination of the Q&A period by any other shareholder. At the end of the Q&A, Saraf attempted to enforce the twenty minute maximum but was ultimately stymied by a shareholder who requested a longer, informal, follow-up Q&A period, which after 5 minutes of deliberation outside the room with counsel, was ultimately granted.

The second strand of bullshit is woven through the scandalous insinuations that Saraf made of his shareholder base. He deemed it fit to specially remind the gathered investors that he had no plans to do anything illegal and so he would not offer any insider info during the meeting. This is a strawman Saraf seems to trot out often– ask the man anything about the company at all, no matter how innocent and legally-sanctioned it may be, and he proceeds to launch into accusations of villainy aimed at getting an illegal upperhand while putting himself and the company in legal jeopardy. He also made a warning about supposed shadowy elements that were spreading false rumors and lies about the company on the internet, but he did not think to mention who was doing this or what specific claims were made which he could clarify as to their falsity. The impression one is left with is that there are no false rumors or lies being spread and this is yet another attempt to intimidate via bullshit.

Then we had to wade through Saraf’s numerous self-contradictions and general evasiveness in answering questions, most of which began with the expression, “Let me put it this way…”, which in my experience has always preceded a barely-obscured threat, as in, “Let me put it this way, if you don’t do what I am asking you to do, someone might get hurt.” The infamous EPA liabilities which have left the company hamstrung to do anything with the company’s excess capital and which according to regulatory filings earlier in the year seemed to have been extinguished, or due to be extinguished completely, by or around March or April of 2013, were suddenly at one point 30, another point 60 and another time some 72 days away from being resolved.

More bullshit: Solitron has a “sunset technology”, but there’s also the possibility they spend $5M+ of the company’s cash stockpile retooling their factory for new silicon wafer standards; the sequestration has been bad for business, but the company has also gobbled up marketshare from competitors who have gone out of business; the company is at 50% of plant utilization, but wars in Syria and elsewhere are good for business because it means equipment will need to be replaced that Solitron services; the company has struggled with rising inputs costs, but they build everything on spec and have a guaranteed profit-margin built in by the Pentagon; shareholders are now “welcome to contact any board member and ask them questions about the company” but in the past “PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT ALL INVESTOR COMMUNICATIONS SHOULD BE DIRECTED TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF SOLITRON DEVICES, INC.”; Chinese and COTS parts have created huge price competition for the firm, but the firm’s buyers actually require specially-tested, high quality parts only Solitron can produce, and new DNA-marking of chips prevents the use/substitution of foreign knockoff parts, etc. etc.

I could go on and on. The point is it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

And Saraf isn’t the only one peddling it. His vaunted board showed their own knack. Saraf was asked, as a large shareholder, if he was concerned about the price of the company in the open market hovering around cash value. Not only did he evade the question and not answer it, but his new appointee, Mr. Kopperl, piped in with the pithy “Does anyone really know what moves stock prices?” When asked how he makes his investment decisions, Mr. Kopperl said, “Sometimes I buy value, sometimes growth.” But if no one really know whats moves stock prices and you’re philosophically agnostic as to what kind of decisions a company could make that would be good or bad from a valuation standpoint, how could you even invest?

And how would this bolster the company’s claim that the current composition of the board represents people capable of maximizing shareholder value?

It was suggested to Saraf that more disclosures from the company about its business would help the market better understand the company and its prospects and arrive at a fairer valuation. Saraf did not acknowledge whether this transparency would be beneficial to shareholders interested in seeing the marketplace better assess the company’s prospects, but he did say that he wasn’t interested in putting out a press release every time the company got a new certification or secured a contract. Bullshit!

The most puzzling event of the day was the withholding of votes for Schlig and Davis (and their subsequent dismissal with no replacement nominees named), and the approval-by-vote of the two new directors, Gerrity and Kopperl. These guys are black boxes as far as I am concerned. They sound like country club buddies and there was no explanation as to why they were qualified to represent SHAREHOLDER interests though, Saraf was quite clear, their industry experience made them qualified in his mind to represent company interests, which essentially means Saraf’s interests as things have been run so far.

Large shareholders seem to be more confident. They’re convinced Saraf is more cooperative than he seems and that he will do the right thing when it’s the right time to do so. I think the laws of the SEC are a legal cover for bullshitmongers. From where I stand, it’s an almost impenetrable fog. But maybe when you own 5% or more, you have other methods of cutting through the bullshit.

It is indeed going to be a Long War without them.

If you want more, here’s Nate Tobik’s take at OddballStocks.com.

Review – Oglivy On Advertising (#advertising, #review, #books)

Review – Oglivy On Advertising (#advertising, #review, #books)

Oglivy On Advertising

by David Oglivy, published 1985

How to produce advertising that sells

  • Advertising doesn’t need to be “creative”, it needs to be so interesting that a person is compelled to buy the product
  • When Aeschines spoke, they said, “How well he speaks.” But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, “Let us march against Philip.”
  • The wrong advertising can actually reduce the sales of a product
  • Study the product you are going to advertise and look for a “big idea” that can sell it (a big idea whose genesis is found in your research of the product itself)
  • Find out what kind of advertising your competitors have been doing for similar products, and with what success, to get your bearings
  • Consumer research: investigate how they think about your kind of product, what language they use when they discuss the subject, what attributes are important to them and what promises would be most likely to make them buy your brand
  • Product positioning: what the product does, and who it is for
  • Decide what image (personality) you want for your brand
  • Your advertising should consistently project the same image, year after year
  • People don’t pick products, they pick images; few customers try all products within a space and compare before picking one they like best
  • Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night
  • When researching: stuff your conscious mind with information and then unhook your rational thought process and see what creative ideas flow in
  • Questions to ask about a potential “big idea”: did it make me gasp when I first saw it? do I wish I had thought of it myself? is it unique? does it fit the strategy to perfection? could it be used for 30 years?
  • Make the product itself the hero of your advertising
  • Just say what’s good about your product, and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it
  • If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling
  • A good advertisement can be thought of as a radar sweep, constantly hunting new prospects as they enter the market
  • Lessons from direct response: use 2-minute commercials (not 30-seconds), there are more sales late at night (not during prime time), use long copy (not short copy)
  • Do your homework, avoid committees, learn from research, watch what the direct-response advertisers do

How to run an advertising agency

  • If each of us hires people who are smaller than us, we will become a company of dwarfs; but if each of us hires people who are taller than us, we will become a company of giants
  • Everytime I give someone a title, I make a hundred people angry and one person ungrateful
  • Even a mature agency with a pool of potential leaders does well to refresh its blood occasionally by hiring partners from outside
  • Don’t hire: your friends, partners’ children, your own children, or clients’ children (ambitious people won’t stay in organizations following nepotism)
  • It is suicide to settle for second-rate performance
  • It is a good idea to start the year by writing down exactly what you want to accomplish, and end it by measuring how much you accomplished (you can pay people bonuses based on something like this)
  • Companies cannot grow without innovation
  • Be ruthless and let all the “chefs” feel that they work in the “best kitchen in the world”
  • The more centers of leadership you create, the stronger your agency will become
  • The final test of a leader is the feeling you have after you leave his presence after a conference; have you a feeling of uplift and confidence?
  • Every company should have a written list of principles and purpose
  • Agencies are seldom for sale unless they’re in some kind of trouble
  • Retirement planning: buy the building that houses your office with your excess capital
  • Never allow two people to do a job that could be handled by one
  • Never summon people to your office, go to see them in their offices, unannounced
  • If you want to get action, communicate verbally

How to get clients/how to find an agency

  • Only first-class business, and that in a first-class kind of way
  • What you should worry about is not the price of your agency, but the selling power of its advertisements
  • Tear out the advertisements you envy, and find out which agency did them
  • Pick the agency whose campaign interests you the most
  • Don’t haggle over price and if anything, offer to pay more to ensure extra attention and service
  • Don’t keep a dog and then bark yourself

Print advertising

  • Five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy
  • Unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90% of your money
  • Promise the reader a benefit
  • Headlines which contain news are sure-fire
  • Headlines that offer the reader helpful information attract above-average readership
  • Include the brand name in your headline
  • In local advertising, including the name of the city in the headline attracts better readership
  • The silliest thing of all is to run an ad without a headline
  • On illustrations: have a remarkable idea; the reader should ask, “What goes on here?” at a glance; illustrate the end-result of using your product; crowd scenes don’t pull; don’t show the human face scaled larger-than-life; babies, animals and sex catch the most attention; when you use photographs of a woman, men ignore the advertisement and vice versa
  • Remember: when people read your copy, they are alone
  • Copy should be written in a language people use everyday
  • Avoid analogies, stay away from superlatives, include a testimonial
  • An ad’s chance of success is directly proportional to the number of pertinent merchandise facts included in the copy
  • Until you have a better answer, copy others
  • Illustration at the top, headline underneath illustration, copy under headline
  • Capitals retard easy reading; don’t place periods at the end of headlines; use serifed fonts as they aid easy reading

How to make TV commercials that sell

  • The more amateurish the performance, the more credible
  • Commercials which name competing brands are less believable and more confusing
  • Provided they are relevant to your product, characters are above average in their ability to change brand-preference
  • Cartoons can sell things to children but they are below average in selling to adults
  • Use the name within the first ten seconds
  • Play games with the name
  • Open with the fire, you only have 30 seconds
  • Sound effects can make a positive difference
  • It is better to have the actors talk on camera
  • Show the viewer something she has never seen before
  • The only limit is your imagination
  • Make your commercials crystal clear
  • Because radio is a high-frequency medium, people get tired quickly of the same commercial so make several

Competing with Procter & Gamble

  • They use research to determine the most effective strategy, and they never change a successful strategy
  • They always promise the customer one important benefit
  • They believe that the first duty of advertising is to communicate effectively
  • All their commercials include a ‘moment of confirmation’
  • In 60% of commercials, they use demonstrations
  • Their commercials talk directly to the consumer, using language and situations which are familiar to her
  • They communicate the brand name, always within the first 10 seconds and an average of 3 times in addition thereafter
  • Their commercials deliver the promise verbally and reinforce it with supers
  • They show consumers what the product will do for them
  • They show the users of their products deriving some emotional benefit
  • They use slices of life, user testimonials and talking heads, all proven ad techniques
  • They do not spend their money naming competing brands
  • Continually test new executions of ongoing strategies
  • Continually test higher levels of expenditure
  • Almost all brands are advertised throughout the year

Miracles of research

  • Research lets you measure the reputation of your company
  • Research can estimate the sales of new products and the advertising expenditures necessary to earn maximum profits
  • Research can help you determine optimum positioning of your product
  • Research can define your target audience
  • Research can find out what factors are most important in the purchase decision and what vocab consumers use when talking about your kind of product
  • Research can save you time and money by ‘reading’ your competitor’s test markets
  • Research can determine the most persuasive promise; advertising which promises no benefit to the consumer does not sell, yet the majority of campaigns contain no promise; the selection of the promise is the most valuable contribution that research can make to the advertising process; try to find a process that is not only persuasive, but unique
  • Research can tell you which of several premiums work best
  • Use research to measure a commercial’s ability to change brand preferences; recall testing is a waste of time

What little I know about marketing

  • You can judge the vitality of a company by the number of new products it brings to market
  • Concentrate your time, your brains and your advertising money on your successes
  • In the long run, the manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined image for his product gets the largest market share
  • Sales are a function of product-value and advertising. Promotions can not produce more than a temporary kink in the sales curve
  • Regard advertising as part of the product, to be treated as a production cost, not a selling cost
  • The task of advertising is not primarily one of conversion but rather of reinforcement and assurance

3/5

This Just Blew My Mind: The Moneyball Secret & Warren Buffett (#investing, #baseball, #success)

This Just Blew My Mind: The Moneyball Secret & Warren Buffett (#investing, #baseball, #success)

I read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball a few months ago after having seen the film. I would’ve preferred to do it in the other order (if I had ended up seeing the film at all) but I hadn’t gotten to the book yet on my reading list and an opportunity to see the movie presented itself that I decided not to turn down.

As I understood the story, the basic premise was the principles of Grahamite value investing in baseball– buy cheap things rather quality things and wait for reversion to the mean to kick in. These cheap things may not be worth much, but you can buy them at such a discount it doesn’t matter as they’d have to be truly worthless for you to have made a mistake in the aggregate.

Specifically, Billy Bean, the GM of the Oakland Athletics at the time, was recruiting players with no star power and no salary-negotiation power that could fill his roster with an above-average on base percentage. In contrast, all the big teams with the big budgets were buying the massive stars who were known for their RBIs and home run percentages. Billy Bean’s motto was “don’t make mistakes”, like a value investor who looks for a margin of safety. The other big teams with their massive budgets were operating with the motto “Aim for the stands, hit it out of the park”, like the huge mutual funds with their marketing machines and their reliance on investor expectations to add super fuel to the market.

That’s the story I thought I read, anyway, and it made a lot of sense. Inspiring stuff for a little value investor guy like me.

Today, I sat in a marketing presentation from a vendor who used Moneyball as a metaphor and he threw this image up on the projector during his slide show:

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This is a picture of the Oakland A’s stadium. It is a shared stadium meaning it is not dedicated to the A’s but also serves as the Oakland Raiders football team home field. As a result, the baseball diamond has a lot of extra foul zone on the first and home base lines, which you might be able to see if you get real close to your monitor and squint.

I had never seen the A’s stadium before. I had no idea it had extra large foul zones. I didn’t realize that in a 160-odd game series the As would play around half, or nearly 80 games, at a stadium that had extra large foul zones.

I had no idea that a lot of players who had high on-base percentages got there because they hit balls that would normally end up in the stands at most other stadiums, but at the A’s home field it’d end up in the extra large foul zone. I had no idea that this meant those kinds of players would be extra valuable only on the Oakland A’s baseball team. I didn’t realize, as the demonstrator told us, Billy Bean was building a “pitching team”, not just a cheap on-base team (whatever that means).

This blew my mind. Maybe I just missed this in the book, and the movie. I am not a sports fan so maybe Lewis mentioned it and it wasn’t a detail that stuck out to me (which is actually another important lesson from all of this, but I digress…). Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe Lewis, the consummate story-teller, focused on the point he wanted to make from the story even though the reality, while related, was really determined by something else– the extra large foul zone at the Oakland A’s home stadium.

It reminded me of one of those situations with Warren Buffett. The first time you read Buffett’s biography and learn about his investments, you get the hokey “Just buy good businesses at fair prices!” schtick and you think, “Hey, that sounds simple, makes sense, that’s all there is to it!” Then you learn a few years later that what he was ACTUALLY doing was gaming the tax system, or creating synthetic leverage for himself, or whatever. You find the REAL angle, and it’s a bit more sophisticated and a bit harder for the average Joe to replicate by following the “invert, always invert” mantra of Charlie Munger.

What I took away from this is that people tell the stories they want to tell and you should never, ever take something at face value that involves a story of a person becoming wildly successful, wealthy, etc., just by figuring out some seemingly obvious, simple trick like buying cheap baseball stats.

There’s always an angle, like, he was buying cheap baseball stats that worked especially well in his home stadium.

That’s still genius, no doubt, but there’s less there that anyone operating outside that specific context can learn from it.

 

Notes – Walter Schloss 1989 Interview With OID (#valueinvesting)

Notes – Walter Schloss 1989 Interview With OID (#valueinvesting)

A couple weeks ago I found the 1989 Outstanding Investor’s Digest interview with Walter and Edwin Schloss on Scribd and took a few notes as I read, which I reproduce below for later reference:

  • In The Merchant Bankers, the story is told of the Warburg family giving up their fortune to flee Nazi Germany, providing two lessons: be contrarian; and a family should lose its wealth every 3rd generation to ensure descendants don’t become lazy and entitled
  • When father and son can get along in a business venture, they can benefit from “compound interest” of accumulated knowledge and technique within the family
  • During the “first ten years you get acquainted with what you’re doing” so don’t expect to smash it out of the park the moment you set out in a new concentration
  • Companies will avoid LBO takeovers by levering up and acquiring other businesses (such as competitors) themselves
  • “Lot’s of times when you buy a cheap stock for one reason, that reason doesn’t pan out, but another one does because it’s a cheap stock.”
  • “Sometimes you have to sue just to keep your self-respect.”
  • “It’s easier to know when something’s cheap than when it’s overvalued.”
  • “Concentrate on what you know and forget about everything else.”
  • According to Buffett, “If you’re not disciplined in the little things, you can’t be disciplined in the big things.”
  • “Partners, it seems to me, should have somewhat the same point of view” Schloss says about the value of corporate culture
  • Focus on working capital stocks, then 50% of BV stocks, then 66% of BV stocks and then 1x BV stocks w/ franchises or special situations
  • Look out for managers in it for themselves, even when the stock is cheap

Notes – The Art Of Profitability (#profitability, #business)

Notes – The Art Of Profitability (#profitability, #business)

Notes from The Art of Profitability, by Adrian Slywotzky

Chapter 1, Customer Solution Profit

The Customer Solution Profit (CSP) model encapsulates the idea of understanding the customers problems and then providing them with a solution to their problems.

In the narrow sense, the CSP model captures the idea of having an intense, personal and detailed understanding of the challenges a customer faces and then providing them with a unique, custom-tailored solution that meets their needs. Such a relationship requires upfront investment of time and resources from both parties (the business and the customer) and it entails high switching costs because finding a competing business who can offer that same level of personalized service would require the loss of previous investments made in the existing relationship. This helps to create a “moat” around a CSP model business. Some examples of a narrow-CSP business would be a software solutions firm (a company producing custom back-end software that an operating company runs off of), a consultancy business, the professional relationship of a trusted lawyer or doctor, or a manufacturer of custom fabrications. The recent rise of information analytics engendered in data mining through web browsing activity also represents a form of narrow-CSP business modeling– think about the way Google can track your browsing habits to serve up targeted ads, or the way Amazon tracks your browsing and purchasing history to suggest items you may be interested in purchasing from them.

In the broad sense, the CSP model actually applies to ALL businesses. Every business seeks to create customers, and the way businesses create customers is by finding problems customers have that the business can solve. In Chapter 1, the guru David Zhao asks the protagonist, Steve, “Can you be profitable without knowing the customer?” It’s possible to think of semantic games you could play to answer this question in the positive, and surely there are some businesses which know their customers better than others, but in a general sense the answer is clearly “No.” To provide someone with a solution, you have to know them enough to know their problem.

The context of this question is partly related to Chapter 1’s exploration of the company Steve works for, Delmore, which by Steve’s judgment is a business which has seen growth in the past but seems to be stumbling and may even be heading for a downfall. Steve believes Delmore has lost its way and is not focused on serving the customer. Zhao’s question resonates even more in this regard because Delmore’s management seems more focused on administering the business rather than knowing its customers. In the present, Delmore still appears to be profitable (though much less profitable than its heyday), which seems to suggest that even a company that doesn’t know its customer can be profitable. But the implication of Zhao’s questioning is that over the long-run, Delmore will not be profitable if it can not find a way to focus on understanding its customers better.

Another idea explored in Chapter 1 is the role of company culture. Zhao talks about consulting for a company after learning the secret sauce of their competitor. He says he hand delivered the total solution to the business he was advising and they only ended up implementing part of it– they saw a pick-up in their business as a result, but it was not as dramatic as it could have been if they had implemented his ideas wholesale. Why, Steve asks, do some businesses behave this way?

To succeed in business you need to have a genuine, honest-to-goodness interest in profitability.

This suggests that differences in margin structure and net profitability for companies in the same industry could come down to the “profit culture” of the business, likely established by the original founders and permutated by succeeding hires and executives. They could have the “technology” or strategic know-how to earn a profit, but simply be disinclined to work hard enough or with a unified purpose or without the ego necessary to fully capture the opportunity available to them. This idea also introduces additional context for why much M&A activity rarely seems to bring the “synergy” promised by combining two companies into one– if they have wildly disparate cultures, getting the same performance out of the new company as was available in the two separate companies may be impossible, and cultures may clash so wildly that the overall profitability is in fact harmed by corporate unification.

The subtext to the entire chapter on Customer Solution Profit models is that to really understand the value of a business, you must look at what customer problems the business solves, and how. By studying what is unique about the customer solutions the business offers, you are able to have a better analytical window into the durability of its competitive position, the source of its profitability and profit potential, its opportunities for growth and the stability of its margin structure.

Chapter 2, Pyramid Profit

The Pyramid Profit model consists of multiple quality and price tiers for products, targeted at multiple types of customers (and customer preference), which creates two powerful dynamics for the business:

  1. Protects them from competition from market entrants below (commodity market)
  2. Creates profitable “customer migration” opportunities as loyal customers move up the steps of the pyramid (franchise market)

Why is this model so powerful?

As guru David Zhao teaches,

Your pyramid has to be more than just a collection of different products at different price points. A true pyramid is a system in which the lower-priced products are manufactured and sold with so much efficiency that it’s virtually impossible for a competitor to steal market share by underpricing you. That’s why I call the lowest tier of the pyramid the firewall. But the most important factor is the nature of your customer set. The customers themselves form a hierarchy, with different expectations and different attitudes toward price.

The competitive environment all businesses would prefer to have is that of a franchise, where their product is deemed uniquely valuable and essential such that the business can capture a franchise premium in its margin structure, a premium which is enduring and protected from competition over time by the proverbial “moat.”

Simultaneously, the competitive environment all businesses fear is that of a commodity market, where the only way to distinguish your product from someone else’s and incite the customer to buy is by offering the lowest price. It is a true race to the bottom and the turnover for businesses in commodity markets can be quite high.

As discussed in Clayton Christensen’s classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma, most innovators arrive in a market as low-cost entrants. Incumbent firms see no problem in giving the low-margin business dregs to them as they’re happy to play in the higher-margin markets upstream. The hungry commodity firms are constantly looking above them at the juicy margins available in this other market– can they apply their innovative, low-cost practices to this higher-margin space and move in for the kill? As Christensen details, so often they try and succeed.

This is the genius of the Pyramid Profit model. Incumbent firms are protected from innovative, low-cost competition by offering a low-to-no margin product that creates a competitive “firewall” at the most vulnerable place in the market, the violently dynamic commodity space. Then, they are free to play in the middle and higher margin markets without stress.

There is an additional benefit, as well. By capturing new customers even at the low-margin end of the market, the firm is able to increase customer loyalty and brand familiarity over the customer’s lifecycle. Over time. these (presumably) younger, poorer customers turn into older, richer customers following the circumstances of life.

The value of a Pyramid Profit model depends on the shape of the pyramid. A pyramid with a wide base and a narrow top is relatively inefficient and less valuable as most of the business volume is captured in the low/no-margin mass market whereas the high-margin premium market remains under-promoted. An ideal shape would resemble something more like a skyscraper tower– the same width for all tiers, all the way up, with enough segmentation via price/quality tier to progressively move customers up the pyramid at a rapid pace. The more business that is concentrated at the upper levels of the pyramid, the better the margins and the more profit the firm can earn.

The Pyramid Profit model can be found in many well known businesses, even though it is a rarer circumstance than that of the Customer Solution Profit model discussed in chapter 1. A good example is the automobile industry with its “economy” and “premium” brands (for example, Honda and Acura, or Chevy and Cadillac). Even within each brand, many manufacturers have managed to create a “pyramid” of quality, price and even features/capabilities (for example, Honda has the LX base model, EX, EX with leather and EX-L with navigation; it also has the Civic for the entry buyer, the Accord for the more sophisticated, the Odyssey for the family buyer, etc.). Another example would be the airline industry, such as Virgin Atlantic’s “Economy”, “Premium Economy” and “First Class” seating and service tiers. However, no airline seems to have created separate brands/carriers that focus on one tier of the pyramid over another, instead this segmentation always occurs per aircraft (contrast this to a “single class” carrier such as JetBlue or Southwest Airlines, though notice that even these firms have begun to offer new passenger tiers for additional money such as early boarding, extra luggage capacity, etc.)

Speaking of the auto industry again, one of the most prodigious Pyramid Profit employers has been Toyota. Toyota offers three brands in the United States: Scion, Toyota and Lexus. Scion was a brand developed specifically for the young car buyer, initially offering lower price points, simpler model choices and a “no bargaining” purchase experience that was supposed to capture a first-time buyer and put them into the “Toyota system” for the rest of their automobile-buying lives. Then, there was the mass market, multi-trimmed and multi-segmented Toyota brand, offering cars, vans, SUVs and light trucks to the everyman. And finally, there was Lexus, the flagship brand for wealthy, older, image-conscious and highly-demanding customers.

Toyota’s pyramid is awkwardly shaped, however. It’s base, Scion, is miniscule and definitely low/no-margin. The middle step is enormous and fairly profitable relative to the rest of the industry. And the top is much wider than one would expect it to be, being both relatively high-volume for a luxury market and quite profitable despite ongoing margin erosion in the industry overall. Indeed, Lexus auto dealership franchises are consistently one of the most valuable and sought-after brands in the industry alongside BMW and Audi, commanding high market multiples reflective of their premium value.

The key to a successful and highly profitable pyramid is twofold. First, you must be lucky enough to operate in a market that is conducive to segmentation of customers (especially self-segmentation). Second, you must know your customers well– the Customer Solution Profit at work again! The better you understand your customers and their specific needs, the better you will be able to create custom quality and pricing tiers in your pyramid that will meet their subjective needs.

Chapter 3, Multi-Component Profit

The central idea to the Multi-Component Profit is “same product, several businesses,” in contrast to the Pyramid Profit which targets distinct customer sets with distinct product offerings (differentiated in terms of quality and price). The example given in the book is Coca-Cola, which may be offered at several prices in several different venues ranging from a 6-pack at a gas station to a 2-liter bottle at the grocery store to a glass at a restaurant. The price per unit is different in each case,  meaning variable margin structure, but the customer is captured nonetheless at each consumption opportunity.

While each of these margin structures and business opportunities combine to average out to one margin for the controlling firm, Coca-Cola, each product represents a unique business opportunity from the standpoint of marketing and advertising, competitive dynamics and ultimately, profitability. And this is where the secret of the Multi-Component Profit lies– just as an entire economy can benefit from the division of labor by breaking large tasks into smaller ones that individuals can specialize in, an individual firm can benefit from identifying ways to segment its large business into several smaller, distinct components, managing each one uniquely.

How is this possible? If the price of a firm’s good is set at one price regardless of the volume, and marketed in a uniform way, the firm can miss opportunities to sell their product to a.) people who don’t see value in marketing not aimed at their needs and tastes and b.) people who would be willing to buy the product at a different price and in different quantities than how it is normally offered. By catering to these preferences as distinct markets, the business is able to offer optimum combinations of price and quantity that meet each markets needs better, thus increasing total volume and profit.

Another example of a Multi-Component Profit model at work would be a software operating system company, such as Microsoft, which has different business units for Business/Enterprise, Government/Education and Retail and Wholesale channels. Each user buys a different amount of software licenses and pays a different price for them. This would also be a principle at work in a computer manufacturer’s business, such as Dell (same business lines), or a networking component company like Cisco.

Would an oil producer qualify, such as Exxon Mobil? An oil producer actually produces a number of slightly differentiated products depending on source and quality of the oil sold (West Texas Intermediate, Brent, etc.) which would seem to put it more into a Pyramid Profit model, though even that relationship is tenuous because oil is a nearly ideal commodity product in the sense that it is hard to create a “firewall” product as well as to move customers up a pyramid structure, especially with the fact that oil tends to trade at a uniform price across world markets no matter where it is produced (if it is of the same type). An oil firm probably does not give significant discounts to “different customers” based on quantity ordered, either.

Similarly, an oil refiner would seem to be a Multi-Component Profit model with its different kinds of refined products marketed in different ways (kerosene for lamps, or kerosene for jet engines) but again, these markets are so commoditized and regularized across world markets that it is hard to imagine these businesses creating separate marketing and pricing initiatives for differing customer demand, instead just dumping their product into various wholesale markets that then re-sell the products to end users (though perhaps these businesses are in the Multi-Component Profit model).

Over time if I think of other examples, which there undoubtedly are, I’ll post them but for now I will close out these notes with this summary from the book’s protagonist:

Different parts of a business can have wildly different profitability. The customer behaves very differently on different purchase occasions. Different degrees of price sensitivity.

The value of this lesson, as the book’s guru says, is that constant innovation is a key ingredient to maintaining and growing the profitability of any business, and one way to innovate is to find ways to break your existing business into smaller and smaller components which can be separately managed with unique marketing, growth and profit trajectories.

Chapter 4, Switchboard Profit

The Switchboard Profit model combines three essential elements to generate outstanding profit:

  1. Packaging; the provision of necessary component resources for a task in one place/package that can be hired together instead of separately
  2. Monopolization; control of a critical resource that all users need to hire
  3. Market share; control of a critical mass of the total market (approximately 15-20% minimum in practice) which gives the perception of dominance and incentivizes economic actors to utilize the switchboard firm, thereby creating a multiplicative network effect that enhances the value of the switchboard with every additional increase in market share

Those are the essential ingredients. The way they work together to create outstanding profit opportunities is like so: limiting competition and reducing transaction costs. Those are the primary principles at work. By putting together various resources which would normally be hired separately (and thus, would be exchanged each in their own competitive markets), the Switchboard Profit model brings these resources under one roof where they can be hired together (packaging), where they can be hired no place else (monopolization) and where other similar resources, typically skilled labor, are thus attracted to because they see the probability of being hired at advantageous rates themselves to be much higher by participating in the network effect of the Switchboard Profit model firm (market share).

The result is a constrained supply which can negotiate for a higher total hire price. It is valuable for those hiring the products of the Switchboard Profit model firm to pay this higher price because they save on search costs and they also face the alternative option of hiring lower quality substitutes. The more that the resources in question come under the control of the Switchboard Profit model firm, the greater profit the firm can generate from being the central hub for hiring the resource out.

One company that sounds like a Switchboard Profit model on its face is Amazon, a logistics giant that aggregates numerous consumer goods in one place. This satisfies the packaging criteria, and it almost satisfies the market share criteria as suppliers of goods want to participate in Amazon’s marketplace because it can increase their market exposure and thus the chance that the product will be purchased. But Amazon does not maintain anything close to a monopoly on these goods because they’re widely available “commodities” rather than unique or limited supply products carried only by Amazon.

The example given in the book was the Hollywood talent agency of Michael Ovitz. Ovitz combined top star power with “total production resources” (writers, actors, directors, etc., all in one place) and he commanded a large share of the market such that additional writers, actors, directors, etc., had a strong incentive to join his firm and thus increase his profitability as his market share grew. An obvious additional example would be any other large, dominant talent agency such as for sports stars, musicians or other celebrities who each represent unique products that can be easily “controlled” and “constrained” by one firm.

The network effect seems to be a key aspect to the profitability of the Switchboard Profit model. Google’s dominance in search means it is largely the central hub by which people conduct their internet searches, meaning a person buying ad space in the Google network is getting a better package deal than other search network ad buyers.

A television network might also qualify as a Switchboard Profit model: if you have the best shows on TV and a large market share with all the kinds of shows in one place that people might want to watch, advertisers will be more attracted to you and so will TV show producers and so, too, will TV viewers. And the more people who utilize your TV network, the more valuable it is to everyone involved.

Other examples might include a health insurance network which includes top medical professionals under the insurance plan; a legal association with the best legal minds in a market in one place; or even a top university or research institution known to have the brightest minds.

Something interesting about the Switchboard Profit model is that most of these businesses seem to revolve around human resources, rather than non-human resources (commodities which are common or rare alike).

Chapter 5, Time Profit

Many of guru David Zhao’s profit models come with simple illustrations which capture the essential ingredient of the profit model. The image of the Time Profit model is an X-Y axis with “$/unit” on the Y-axis and “time” on the X-axis. Plotted across this chart is one line, which runs from the top left corner toward the bottom right corner at a 45-degree angle reading “Price”, and another line below that labeled “Cost” at a more mild angle, eventually intersecting with the “Price” line near the right side of the chart and then overtaking it.

The concept is simple: Time Profit is generated by being the first to market a new product or service because over time imitators will compete and eventually drive price toward cost. Time, therefore, is of the essence.

In TAOP, Zhao and Steve discuss Time Profit models in the context of firms without special legal protections (such as patents or copyrights) on their works which serve to shield them from competition. However, whether such legal protections are permanent or limited in duration, the Time Profit model principle is the same– only by being first to market would you even be afforded such legal protections in the first place, so there is an incentive to be first else you finish last.

Zhao and Steve discuss the Time Profit model within the context of an investment bank constantly innovating with new financial products. But this model could also easily apply to pharmaceutical and software development companies (which enjoy legal protections on their products), as well as a tech product manufacturer, such as a smartphone manufacturer, whose core product features are likely not subject to legal protections. Here, the Time Profit model is essential as the first firm to get a product to market with a valuable innovation that creates a consumer craze can capture a premium for their products while competing firms figure out how to duplicate this technology and make it standard in their follow-up product offerings. These “second place” firms are doomed to earn commodity returns on their products, only the first-mover gets to enjoy a profit premium.

Like the Customer Solution Profit model, the Time Profit model is more than just a specific business model, it is something of an essential feature to the competitive conditions of any firm in any industry facing innovative development which, practically speaking, is all firms in all industries. Whether a new product, a new service or a new internal or customer-facing process, all businesses seek to adopt one another’s best practices to save costs and increase profitability. The first firm to innovate something that is eventually imitable by others gets a profit advantage during the period of time between innovation and imitation by others. Time Profit models can be thought of as temporary competitive advantages due to periodic innovation.

As David Zhao teaches, a key component of the Time Profit model that is often overlooked is the role diligence in the innovative process plays:

Tedium is the single greatest challenge for a business that’s built on innovation

The first act of innovation is thinking, the arriving at of a brilliant new idea. The second act, and far more important, is the doing, the translation of an innovative idea into an innovative product, service or process. This part requires the same rigmarole of standard business practice: making phone calls, sending emails, training people, holding meetings, crunching numbers, keeping people on task and pulling in the same direction, etc.

Innovating, idea-making, is sexy and fun. But turning innovative ideas into real profit is often boring, common and time-consuming. The people and firms that are able to apply energy and determination to this part of the process are the ones who can most consistently capture the Time Profit. As innovator Paul Cook says, “What separates the winners and losers in innovation is who can master the drudgery.”

Ancillary Notes

Chapter 5 had a few other points worth mentioning, some of which were connected to carryover discussions from earlier chapters.

The first point concerns the power of critical numerical thinking. When working through a number problem, Zhao advises,

Getting the order of magnitude right is what matters, not the details

This is similar to Buffett and Munger’s “approximately right versus precisely wrong” dictum. Zhao also talks about using the numbers to ask and answer critical questions; the numbers of business (assumptions, projections, actual results, etc.) can tell us a story, but we have to be curious about the numbers. It’s not enough to wonder, “Why are the numbers what they are?” we have to be able to put forth some effort to attempt to answer such questions ourselves. As Zhao says,

Being able to take the measure of the world is one of the most crucial skills we can develop

The second point, which is arrived at in a discussion of business innovation, is the “paradox” Zhao observes in the semiconductor industry, which is that the firms involved “copy each other’s chips, but not each other’s business models.” It is the business model which is responsible for mastering the Time Profit concept and other models discussed in TAOP– why don’t more managements focus on copying successful business models rather than imitating successful products and services?

It brings to mind a question for potential investors, too. Which businesses could see their value dramatically improved by focusing the company’s efforts on copying the leading business model in the industry rather than engaging in the rat race of perpetual product innovation/imitation?

The final point has to do with the nature of learning. Steve the student asks Zhao for a copy of his notes from a previous meeting. Steve wants to see how Zhao solved a problem they both worked on. Zhao suggests,

you’ve got to learn how to solve these problems in your own way

the idea being that true knowledge means being able to solve a problem in your own way, not by imitating somebody else. This is why some firms are innovators while the rest are imitators. Innovators are capable of solving problems their own way; imitators just copy the innovator’s solution. But it’s a lesson that’s important to the budding business analyst, as well. How will you solve problems when there is no guru there to teach you? You have to find your own path and do your own thinking.

Until you can do that, though, as Steve says, copying a few “Picassos” to practice a known master technique can be helpful.