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Tag: business strategy

What I've Changed My Mind on Over the 2010s

I’ve been reading a lot of year-end/decade-end reflections (as one does this time of year) — and while a part of me wanted to #humblebrag about how I got a 🏠/💍/👶 this decade 😇 — I thought it would be more interesting & profound to instead call out 10 worldviews & beliefs I had going into the 2010s that I no longer hold.

  1. Sales is an unimportant skill relative to hard work / being smart
    As a stereotypical “good Asian kid” 🤓, I was taught to focus on nailing the task. I still think that focus is important early in one’s life & career, but this decade has made me realize that everyone, whether they know it or not, has to sell — you sell to employers to hire you, academics/nonprofits sell to attract donors and grant funding, even institutional investors have to sell to their investors/limited partners. Its a skill at least as important (if not more so).
  2. Marriage is about finding your soul-mate and living happily ever after
    Having been married for slightly over half the decade, I’ve now come to believe that marriage is less about finding the perfect soul-mate (the “Hollywood version”) as it is about finding a life partner who you can actively choose to celebrate (despite and including their flaws, mistakes, and baggage). Its not that passionate love is unimportant, but its hard to rely on that alone to make a lifelong partnership work. I now believe that really boring-sounding things like how you make #adulting decisions and compatibility of communication style matter a lot more than things usually celebrated in fiction like the wedding planning, first dates, how nice your vacations together are, whether you can finish each other’s sentences, etc.
  3. Industrial policy doesn’t work
    I tend to be a big skeptic of big government policy — both because of unintended consequences and the risks of politicians picking winners. But, a decade of studying (and working with companies who operate in) East Asian economies and watching how subsidies and economies of scale have made Asia the heart of much of advanced manufacturing have forced me to reconsider. Its not that the negatives don’t happen (there are many examples of China screwing things up with heavy-handed policy) but its hard to seriously think about how the world works without recognizing the role that industrial policy played. For more on how land management and industrial policies impacted economic development in different Asian countries, check out Joe Studwell’s book How Asia Works
  4. Obesity & weight loss are simple — its just calories in & calories out
    From a pure physics perspective, weight gain is a “simple” thermodynamic equation of “calories in minus calories out”. But in working with companies focused on dealing with prediabetes/obesity, I’ve come to appreciate that this “logic” not only ignores the economic and social factors that make obesity a public health problem, it also overlooks that different kinds of foods drive different physiological responses. As an example that just begins to scratch the surface, one very well-controlled study (sadly, a rarity in the field) published in July showed that, even after controlling for exercise and calories, carbs, fat, fiber, and other nutrients present in a meal, diets consisting of processed foods resulted in greater weight-gain than a diet consisting of unprocessed foods
  5. Revering luminaries & leaders is a good thing
    Its very natural to be so compelled by an idea / movement that you find yourself idolizing the people spearheading it. The media feeds into this with popular memoirs & biographies and numerous articles about how you can think/be/act more like [Steve Jobs/Jeff Bezos/Warren Buffett/Barack Obama/etc]. But, over the past decade, I’ve come to feel that this sort of reverence leads to a pernicious laziness of thought. I can admire Steve Jobs for his brilliance in product design but do I want to copy his approach to management or his use of alternative medicine to treat his cancer or condoning how he treated his illegitimate daughter. I think its far better to appreciate an idea and the work of the key people behind it than to equate the piece of work with the person and get sucked in to that cult of personality.
  6. Startups are great place for everyone
    Call it being sucked into the Silicon valley ethos but for a long time I believed that startups were a great place for everyone to build a career: high speed path to learning & responsibility, ability to network with other folks, favorable venture funding, one of the only paths to getting stock in rapidly growing companies, low job seeking risk (since there’s an expectation that startups often fail or pivot). Several years spent working in VC and startups later, and, while I still agree with my list above, I’ve come to believe that startups are really not a great place for most people. The risk-reward is generally not great for all but the earliest of employees and the most successful of companies, and the “startups are great for learning” Kool-aid is oftentimes used to justify poor management and work practices. I still think its a great place for some (i.e. people who can tolerate more risk [b/c of personal wealth or a spouse with a stable high-paying job], who are knowingly optimizing for learning & responsibility, or who are true believers in a startup’s mission), but I frankly think most people don’t fit the bill.
  7. Microaggressions are just people being overly sensitive
    I’ve been blessed at having only rarely faced overt racism (telling me to go back to China 🙄 / or that I don’t belong in this country). It’s a product of both where I’ve spent most of my life (in urban areas on the coasts) and my career/socioeconomic status (its not great to be racist to a VC you’re trying to raise money from 🤑). But, having spent some dedicated time outside of those coastal areas this past decade and speaking with minorities who’ve lived there, I’ve become exposed to and more aware of “microaggressions”, forms of non-overt prejudice that are generally perpetrated without ill intent: questions like ‘so where are you really from?’ or comments like ‘you speak English really well!’. I once believed people complaining about these were simply being overly sensitive, but I’ve since become an active convert to the idea that, while these are certainly nowhere near as awful as overt hate crimes / racism, they are their own form of systematic prejudice which can, over time, grate and eat away at your sense of self-worth.
  8. The Western model (liberal democracy, free markets, global institutions) will reign unchallenged as a model for prosperity
    I once believed that the Western model of (relatively) liberal democracy, (relatively) free markets, and US/Europe-led global institutions was the only model of prosperity that would reign falling the collapse of the Soviet Union. While I probably wouldn’t have gone as far as Fukuyama did in proclaiming “the end of history”, I believed that the world was going to see authoritarian regimes increasingly globalize and embrace Western institutions. What I did not expect was the simultaneous rise of different models of success by countries like China and Saudi Arabia (who, frighteningly, now serve as models for still other countries to embrace), as well as a lasting backlash within the Western countries themselves (i.e. the rise of Trump, Brexit, “anti-globalism”, etc). This has fractured traditional political divides (hence the soul-searching that both major parties are undergoing in the US and the UK) and the election of illiberal populists in places like Mexico, Brazil, and Europe.
  9. Strategy trumps execution
    As a cerebral guy who spent the first years of his career in the last part of the 2000s as a strategy consultant, it shouldn’t be a surprise that much of my focus was on formulating smart business strategy. But having spent much of this decade focused on startups as well as having seen large companies like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix brilliantly out-execute companies with better ‘strategic positioning’ (Nokia, Blackberry, Walmart, big media), I’ve come around to a different understanding of how the two balance each other.
  10. We need to invent radically new solutions to solve the climate crisis
    Its going to be hard to do this one justice in this limited space — especially since I net out here very differently from Bill Gates — but going into this decade, I never would have expected that the cost of new solar or wind energy facilities could be cheaper than the cost of operating an existing coal plant. I never thought that lithium batteries or LEDs would get as cheap or as good as they are today (with signs that this progress will continue) or that the hottest IPO of the year would be an alternative food technology company (Beyond Meat) which will play a key role in helping us mitigate food/animal-related emissions. Despite the challenges of being a cleantech investor for much of the decade, its been a surprising bright spot to see how much pure smart capital and market forces have pushed many of the technologies we need. I still think we will need new policies and a huge amount of political willpower — I’d also like to see more progress made on long-duration energy storage, carbon capture, and industrial — but whereas I once believed that we’d need radically new energy technologies to thwart the worst of climate change, I am now much more of an optimist here than I was when the decade started.

Here’s to more worldview shifts in the coming decade!

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The Four Types of M&A

I’m oftentimes asked what determines the prices that companies get bought for: after all, why does one app company get bought for $19 billion and a similar app get bought at a discount to the amount of investor capital that was raised?

While specific transaction values depend a lot on the specific acquirer (i.e. how much cash on hand they have, how big they are, etc.), I’m going to share a framework that has been very helpful to me in thinking about acquisition valuations and how startups can position themselves to get more attractive offers. The key is understanding that, all things being equal, why you’re being acquired determines the buyer’s willingness to pay. These motivations fall on a spectrum dividing acquisitions into four types:

four

  • Talent Acquisitions: These are commonly referred to in the tech press as “acquihires”. In these acquisitions, the buyer has determined that it makes more sense to buy a team than to spend the money, time, and effort needed to recruit a comparable one. In these acquisitions, the size and caliber of the team determine the purchase price.
  • Asset / Capability Acquisitions: In these acquisitions, the buyer is in need of a particular asset or capability of the target: it could be a portfolio of patents, a particular customer relationship, a particular facility, or even a particular product or technology that helps complete the buyer’s product portfolio. In these acquisitions, the uniqueness and potential business value of the assets determine the purchase price.
  • Business Acquisitions: These are acquisitions where the buyer values the target for the success of its business and for the possible synergies that could come about from merging the two. In these acquisitions, the financials of the target (revenues, profitability, growth rate) as well as the benefits that the investment bankers and buyer’s corporate development teams estimate from combining the two businesses (cost savings, ability to easily cross-sell, new business won because of a more complete offering, etc) determine the purchase price.
  • Strategic Gamechangers: These are acquisitions where the buyer believes the target gives them an ability to transform their business and is also a critical threat if acquired by a competitor. These tend to be acquisitions which are priced by the buyer’s full ability to pay as they represent bets on a future.

What’s useful about this framework is that it gives guidance to companies who are contemplating acquisitions as exit opportunities:

  • If your company is being considered for a talent acquisition, then it is your job to convince the acquirer that you have built assets and capabilities above and beyond what your team alone is worth. Emphasize patents, communities, developer ecosystems, corporate relationships, how your product fills a distinct gap in their product portfolio, a sexy domain name, anything that might be valuable beyond just the team that has attracted their interest.
  • If a company is being considered for an asset / capability acquisition, then the key is to emphasize the potential financial trajectory of the business and the synergies that can be realized after a merger. Emphasize how current revenues and contracts will grow and develop, how a combined sales and marketing effort will be more effective than the sum of the parts, and how the current businesses are complementary in a real way that impacts the bottom line, and not just as an interesting “thing” to buy.
  • If a company is being evaluated as a business acquisition, then the key is to emphasize how pivotal a role it can play in defining the future of the acquirer in a way that goes beyond just what the numbers say about the business. This is what drives valuations like GM’s acquisition of Cruise (which was a leader in driverless vehicle technology) for up to $1B, or Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp (messenger app with over 600 million users when it was acquired, many in strategic regions for Facebook) for $19B, or Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com (an innovator in eCommerce that Walmart needs to help in its war for retail marketshare with Amazon.com).

The framework works for two reasons: (1) companies are bought, not sold, and the price is usually determined by the party that is most willing to walk away from a deal (that’s usually the buyer) and (2) it generally reflects how most startups tend to create value over time: they start by hiring a great team, who proceed to build compelling capabilities / assets, which materialize as interesting businesses, which can represent the future direction of an industry.

Hopefully, this framework helps any tech industry onlooker wondering why acquisition valuations end up at a certain level or any startup evaluating how best to court an acquisition offer.

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Why I Favor Google over Apple

image Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.

I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”

I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).

imageFirst thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).

So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:

  • image Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
  • Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number  of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. image Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
  • image Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
  • (More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’t perfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.

These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.

In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.

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