Tag: business

Alphabet: Less Than Meets the Eye

By James Kwak

The reorganization of Google into Alphabet means … well, not very much, at least for now. Instead of everything being inside one big corporation called Google, now there will be a bunch of corporations (one of them called Google) all owned by a holding company called Alphabet. “Holding company,” in this case, means that Alphabet will have no operations of its own: it will be a corporation that simply owns all the other corporations.

This is supposed to have something to do with making the company “cleaner and more accountable,” “empowering great entrepreneurs and companies,” “improving transparency and oversight,” blah blah blah. In itself, however, it does none of this.

There is no substantive difference between a corporation with a bunch of divisions and a corporation fully owning a bunch of other corporations. In both cases, the CEO at the top of the pyramid has complete control over everything that happens within the entire structure, and is accountable to no one except the board and shareholders of the top-level corporation. As for transparency, there’s no rule saying that any corporation has to release audited financials, or have audited financials in the first place, or publish any financials at all (except for tax filings, which are not public). The rules requiring disclosures only apply to publicly traded corporations, and in the new structure, there is still exactly one of these: Alphabet, which still owns everything.

The new Alphabet is planning to release financial information for its new Google subsidiary, but that’s purely voluntary — and it’s something they could have done already. Any corporation always has the option of disclosing more information than it is legally required to, and most public corporations take this opportunity to release information that they think will help them with their investors (if only because many investors are unwilling to buy stock in companies that don’t say anything about how their numbers break out across product lines or regions).

Alphabet’s subsidiaries will each have a CEO and, presumably, a board of directors. This could be good, it could be bad, but most likely it won’t make a difference. There’s no reason you couldn’t call the head of an operating division its “CEO” instead of “president” or “general manager” as is the case today. Nominally a corporation has to have a board of directors, but in the case of an Alphabet subsidiary all of its members will be named by Alphabet. So to the extent that the board does anything, it will be less efficient than the current situation, in which Larry Page can simply call the head of, say, Nest, and tell him what to do. And to the extent that a subsidiary corporation duplicates any of the infrastructure that is currently handled at the top, Google level (finance, HR, IT, etc.), that’s simply a waste. However, the most probable outcome is that Alphabet will continue doing what Google is doing today: the various subsidiaries will be semi-autonomous, doing some things independently and drawing on shared resources for others.

While we’re at it, let’s clear away the too easily bandied about comparisons to Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire is a corporation that owns other corporations. But that’s because Berkshire is Warren Buffett’s investment vehicle: he uses it to buy companies that he thinks are undervalued, like most recently Precision Castparts. The companies that Berkshire buys have nothing to do with each other, or with Berkshire’s historical insurance business, so of course Buffett leaves them intact. That also makes sense because he may want to sell them someday, or at least preserve that option. Google, by contrast, has never bought a company solely as an investment play. It has always done so because of supposed synergies between the acquisition and Google’s other businesses. When Alphabet starts buying companies that have nothing to do with its existing companies, then you can start comparing it to Berkshire.

In short, the reorganization of Google into Alphabet doesn’t change anything about how the company has to behave, so any actual changes are things that could have been done without the reorganization. The corporate structure will only really matter if investors can own stock directly in the subsidiaries, so a subsidiary could have a different shareholder mix from Alphabet. Then a host of new rules could apply, including required financial disclosures on the subsidiary level and restrictions on transactions between the subsidiary, Alphabet, and the other affiliates in the group. Then the subsidiary would have to be run independently for the benefit of its shareholders — which is good from its shareholders’ perspective, but bad from the perspective of the conglomerate as a whole, because it limits flexibility.

This week’s reorganization could be a preparatory step in that direction — but, then again, it might not. It’s not clear if Larry Page and Sergey Brin have a master plan. And, if they have a master plan, there’s no particular reason to think it’s a good one. Page and Brin are obviously the technology world’s version of geniuses, having invented the original Google search algorithm and turned it into the world’s dominant search and online advertising business. But there’s no reason to think they have any particular insight into questions of corporate organization. For decades (if not centuries), everyone has known that there’s a basic trade-off between consolidation and autonomy, and that as you get bigger and bigger it gets harder to run everything on a fully consolidated basis.

These days institutional investors tend to distrust companies that combine too many businesses under a single corporate umbrella, so as time passes the pressure on Alphabet to break itself up for real will only grow. In the meantime, the new structure is not a best of both worlds, because there is no best of both worlds: you can’t have a corporate structure that provides maximum autonomy and transparency on the subsidiary level and also permits maximum coordination across the entire group. Not even if you are a Silicon Valley billionaire.

[Also posted at Medium.]

The Cost of Comp Plans

By James Kwak

Enterprise software is the industry that I know best. Both of the real companies I worked for (sorry, McKinsey is a fine institution in many ways, but it isn’t a real company) were in enterprise software: big, complicated, expensive software systems for midsize and large companies that can take years to sell.

Although the development of enterprise software is (often) highly sophisticated, sales is typically governed more by tribal custom. One trait we probably shared with other big ticket, business-focused industries is the “comp plan”: the system for calculating salespeople’s commissions on sales. The comp plan is just about the most important thing to any red-blooded salesperson. (Its only competition would be the territory assignment, which determines what companies he is allowed to sell to—or, more specifically, for sales to what companies he will earn a commission.) It is the source of months of lobbying, the subject of intense executive- and even board-level scrutiny, and the target of almost every complaint.

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A Bit of Obvious Advice

By James Kwak

People occasionally ask me what it takes to succeed in the business world (since they assume at least that I know some successful people). Luck probably belongs at the top of that list. But I have a very clear idea of the most valuable skill to have in business (in part because I don’t really have it): the ability to pick up the phone, call someone, and convince her to do something that is in your interests—even though she has no other reason to do it.

I’m not saying this should be the most valuable skill in business. People like me would prefer it if all decisions were made on the basis of factual evidence and logical reasoning. But they’re not. And the people whom I have seen become very successful are the ones who are hard to say “no” to, whether in person or on the phone. How they do it can vary: some do it with charisma, some with logic, some with sheer stubbornness.  But they can all do it.

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Toxic Trait To Avoid #1

By James Kwak

I generally refuse to be drawn into the Yellen-Summers horse race because (a) everything that can be said, has been said, (b) I have no original information or insight, and (c) it’s all speculation anyway. But I’m going to comment on one parenthesis in Felix Salmon’s good summary post, since it has broader application:

Summers is, to put it mildly, not good at charming those he considers to be his inferiors, but he’s surprisingly excellent at cultivating people with real power.

In my personal experience, especially in the business world, this is absolutely the worst personality trait you can find in anyone you are thinking of hiring. You see it a lot, especially in senior executives. Unfortunately, at the time of hiring, you only see the ability to manage up—not the inability to treat subordinates decently. By the time you figure it out, you’ve already suffered serious organizational damage. (Thanks to my friend Marcus Ryu for identifying this problem so clearly.)

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Frat Boys and Tech Companies

By James Kwak

Matt Bai’s recent article on how Curt Shilling’s gaming company, 38 Studios, managed to secure a $75 million loan from the State of Rhode Island and then flame out into bankruptcy is a reasonably fun read. Bai’s main emphasis, which I don’t disagree with, is on Rhode Island’s Economic Development Corporation, which managed to invest all of its capital in a single company in a risky industry that, apparently, had failed to secure funding from any of the VC firms in the Boston area. Overall, this seems like another example of why government agencies shouldn’t be trying to act like lead investors.

But the story has another moral, which struck closer to home for me. Shilling apparently founded the company because he liked MMORPGs and because he wanted to become “Bill Gates-rich.” When the going got tough, in Bai’s words, Shilling “seemed to think that he could will Amalur into being, in the same way he had always been able to pitch his way out of a bases-loaded jam, even with a throbbing arm. His certainty reassured employees on Empire Street, who had no idea that he was running out of money.”

Software is hard. Really hard. And it’s even harder when you’re up against good competition. It has to be done right, and you cannot get it done twice as fast by working “twice” as hard. Too many software companies have been run into the ground by people who wanted to make a fortune but had no understanding of how software is built. Most of them are back-slapping frat boys who climbed the corporate hierarchy in sales, not world-famous athletes. But Curt Shilling, apparently, was just like them.

“Gut Instinct Doesn’t Matter”

By James Kwak

I’m no fan of the genre of CEO interviews published in the Sunday Times. But this past Sunday’s CEO-of-the-week column featured Marcus Ryu, a good friend and someone I’ve worked with at three different companies.

Marcus is not only very smart and someone who really knows what it’s like to build a company from the ground up, but he’s also someone who has thought very hard about what it takes to succeed as a company and what a company needs in its CEO. Unlike many CEOs, he doesn’t believe in gut instinct or the magical ability to judge character. He believes that success in business is hard and, as I’ve heard him say many times, there never is a day when suddenly everything becomes easy. If you are or want to be a CEO someday, I recommend it.

Maybe It Was Apple

By James Kwak

A little over a year ago, iconic but fading department store J.C. Penney hired Ron Johnson as CEO. Johnson was head of retail operations at Apple—which, in case you didn’t know it, is just about the most successful retailer in the world by a bevy of metrics.

According  to today’s Wall Street Journal article, Johnson quickly eliminated coupons and most sales at J.C. Penney.

“Johnson bristled when a colleague suggested that he test his new no-discounts strategy at a few stores. . . . ‘We didn’t test at Apple,’ the executive recalled Mr. Johnson . . . saying.”

Well, yeah. Apple doesn’t discount because they sell stuff that people really, really want and that they can’t get anyplace else. And they don’t test because Steve Jobs refused to. At Penney? Sales have fallen by about 30 percent.

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The More You Pay, the Less You Get

By James Kwak

Schumpeter at The Economist pointed me to a paper by Richard Cazier and John McInnis on one of my favorite topics: CEO hiring. Cazier and McInnis first confirm, not surprisingly, that pay for new, externally-hired CEOs is positively related to the past performance of their previous firms. In particular, they measure EXCESS_COMP as the difference between actual first-year compensation and the compensation that you would predict just based on the characteristics of the hiring firm; EXCESS_COMP turns out to be positively associated with the CEOs’ prior firms’ stock returns. That makes sense, since you would think that people from successful companies would be able to command a higher price than people from less successful companies, and it isn’t obviously controversial, since you would think they would deserve it.

But what do the new firms get for this pay premium? It turns out that their future performance, measured in terms of return on assets and operating return on assets, is negatively associated with excess compensation based on prior performance.* In other words, people from successful companies don’t deserve the pay premium because the higher the premium they are able to command, the less well they are likely to do.

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Management Consulting Myths

By James Kwak

Two people forwarded me Johann Hari’s Huffington Post article about management consultants, provocatively titled “The Great Management Consultancy Scam — and How it Could Be Coming for Your Job.” It seems that someone is once again bashing management consultants as witch doctors and scam artists, and I, improbably, must come to their defense. “Improbably” because I am generally critical of management consulting, and I have spent many hours with former McKinsey colleagues talking about how little we knew back when we were consultants. I am frequently asked by other students whether they should become consultants, and my general answer is, in a nutshell, “It’s a lousy job, and not nearly as exciting as the recruiting pitch makes it out to be, but it’s a good thing for your resume if you actually want to be in the business world.” (If you know me and are actually considering becoming a consultant, feel free to call me.)

Hari’s article is largely based on books by former consultants, primarily David Craig’s “brave” memoir (written five years ago; David Craig is a pseudonym). Here’s a quote from Craig: “We were proud of the way we used to make things up as we went along. . . . It’s like robbing a bank but legal. We could take somebody straight off the street, teach them a few simple tricks in a couple of hours and easily charge them out to our clients for more than £7000 per week.” According to Craig (according to Hari), all of management consulting boils down to recommending that the client lay off thirty percent of its staff, after one week of observation and analysis.

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More Telecom Hell

By James Kwak

So, I wanted to transfer phone and DSL from one house to another. I went to Verizon’s web site, clicked on the promisingly named “Moving to a New Home” link, and walked through the step-by-step wizard. It said I could have unlimited domestic calling and 3 MB DSL for $55 per month, which was a better deal than I was currently getting, so I signed up. The only issue was that the scheduling calendar only allowed install dates in the next month and I wanted a date six weeks out, but the live chat representative said I could just call in later and change the install date.

A few days later I went online to check on the order status in their online system and saw that my DSL order was nowhere to be  found. So I called up and, after much misunderstanding and aggravation, I figured out that my order had been canceled by their back-end system. Even though the front-end (web) system knew that I was an existing customer (remember, I clicked on “Moving to a New Home”) and offered me a discounted bundle, the back-end (probably mainframe system) didn’t want to give discounts to existing customers and wouldn’t allow the order to be processed.* After a little arguing, the representative said that she would manually book the order at the higher price and then go in and give me the originally promised discount.

The next time I checked my order status I saw that I had three different DSL orders in their system, which made me nervous, but there was nothing to do but wait.

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The Private Sector Fallacy

By James Kwak

Felix Salmon highlights an important point to bear in mind when it comes to banks and short sales. Actually, it’s an important to bear in mind when you’re thinking about any big private sector company, be in Citigroup or British Petroleum. Yes, companies do things in their own self-interest that hurt other people and may not be net benefits to society. But they also do things that are not in their own self-interest all the time, because companies just aren’t all that efficient.

Felix’s post is largely about two factors. One is that big company executives are prone to exactly the same sort of cognitive fallacies as ordinary people, and hence make stupid decisions routinely. The second is that the incentives of individual people who make decisions (or provide information to people who make decisions) are only tangentially related to the interests of the company as a whole, and certainly not when you think of those interests over the long term.

A third factor is simply that companies are big, dumb, poorly designed institutions. There’s lots of talk about how individual human beings do not resemble the rational actors of textbook economic theory. The same is at least as true of big companies, of which I have seen many, from various perspectives.

Yet the belief that the private sector is the answer to all our problems remains deeply rooted. One might even call it an ideology. I would hope that the financial crisis (and the BP disaster) might cause people to question that ideology, at least a little bit.

The Ballad of GM

By James Kwak

Once again proving that they do in-depth business reporting as well as anyone on the radio, This American Life did an episode this past weekend on NUMMI, the auto plant in Fremont, California that is jointly operated by Toyota and GM. Well, since the GM bankruptcy it’s been operated by Toyota. And Toyota is closing it this week — the first plant to be closed in the history of the company, according to TAL.

I listened to the episode this morning in my car, a 1999 Chevrolet Prizm that was built at NUMMI and that was the first car my wife and I bought. (It has 111,000 miles and has only required minor repairs, like a power steering pump and a muffler strap.) I’ve passed by the plant itself many times on 880, driving between the East Bay and the southern end of Silicon Valley. So it was a sad and poignant story for me.

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The Art of Selling

By James Kwak

This morning I was listening to an especially brilliant This American Life episode from 1999, titled “Sales.” I spent a lot of the past decade selling — first pitching my startup company to venture capitalists (not very well), then pitching software to potential customers (a bit better). The first segment — Sandra Tsing Loh listening in as a screenwriter pitches his story to two movie producers — absolutely nails the the staging of a sales call, including the forced casualness of pretending that huge amounts of money aren’t at stake, the small talk (is it good for there to be a lot of small talk?) and the water bottles, the seller talking uncomfortably fast when he doesn’t get feedback cues from the buyers, and the uncomfortable close and the confused debrief. (However, Loh and the screenwriter broke one of the cardinal rules we used to follow: don’t say a word about the meeting until you are safely out of the building, not even — especially not — in the bathroom.)

The third segment — in which a reporter reflects on his time as a radio advertising salesman — also perfectly illuminates the interpersonal dynamics and moral ambiguities of being a successful salesperson. Is it right to sell someone a product he doesn’t need and that isn’t actually good for him? Of course it’s legal, but is it right? If he buys it, is it his fault . . . or yours? What do you do when your skill at getting people to like you* causes your potential clients to open up to you in ways that are not in their interests?

Once someone came to our office to give me a sales pitch. By the end of the pitch, I had the feeling that we were good friends. Later, thinking about that, I felt used. How could this person manipulate me into thinking we were friends in just forty-five minutes? Then I realized this was the best salesperson I had ever seen. And we are friends now. (Or at least I think so.)

In between, the second segment is screamingly funny.

* A skill I don’t really have, by the way.

Update: I should say that I don’t actually have the negative opinion of sales and salespeople that some of the comments below seem to assume I have. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of my time selling, and I don’t think I’m a bad person. For one thing, sales is as critical to the economy as design and production. The rituals of sales — particularly high-touch selling of very expensive products, which is what I was involved in — were established before any of us got into the business, and all salespeople have to conform to them, more or less. Many if not most salespeople really believe that most of their customers will be better off if they buy their products. On the other hand, this is one way that salespeople justify pushing at the envelope of truth on occasion — it’s for the customer’s good, after all. (The other big reason for this behavior is that the market for certain products has settled into an equilibrium where all the competitors are exaggerating, and the customer assumes that you are exaggerating, too, and discounting everything you say, so if you don’t play the game you have no chance.)

Entrepreneurs and Risk

I planned to write about Malcolm Gladwell in this post a couple of days  ago, but I had rambled on long enough, so I deferred it until later. Well, Felix Salmon beat me to the punch, which is all for the best anyway, since the connection was going to be John Paulson, and Felix knows much more about hedge funds than I do.

The topic is Gladwell’s still-subscription-only article, “The Sure Thing: How Entrepreneurs Really Succeed,” in which Paulson plays a starring role. The sub-sub-head in the table of contents says, “The myth of the daredevil entrepreneur,” so even though I expected Gladwell to be annoyingly contrarian again, for once I expected to agree with him. The conventional wisdom, in this case, is that successful entrepreneurs get that way by taking big risks.

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