Category Archives: Blog

Boxed In

Caged Wild Man by gillfoto, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   via Flickr

The oft-repeated explanation for Box’s failure to IPO is that they somehow filed at a bad time and “missed the window”.

As usual with Box, the sound bites are better than the substance. They filed on March 24th of this year, a year that has seen the most IPOs since 2000. Since Box’s filing date there have been over 40 technology IPOs (with at least one in every month). These have included various software, SaaS and subscription companies like Hubspot, Yodlee and ZenDesk as well as HortonWorks and New Relic this week. What window exactly is closed?

Meanwhile, the stock market is not far off all-time highs, even as oil plunges, China slows, Russia invades and retrogrades, the Middle East burns, Europe self-immolates, and Ebola spreads, so it isn’t a macro problem.

The “Wall Street just doesn’t get it” argument is that because Box is a subscription business, they should get a free pass for their huge losses, because “lifetime customer value” means it will all turn out fine in the long run (this is of course counter to the Keynesian orthodoxy that in the long run we are all dead).

The people who generously have taken the time to educate us all on this topic (who coincidently often happen to be investors in Box) never seem to want to use Box’s own numbers to illustrate the virtues of a subscription business. Instead, they walk us through companies like Workday and imply that Box is somehow comparable in its subscription economics. They’re not.

There are good subscription businesses and bad subscription businesses. The spreadsheet-wielding denizens of Wall Street, despite their innumerable flaws, understand this quite well. They’ve been running the numbers on Salesforce, Workday and others for years, as well as subscription businesses in other industries.

High customer acquisition costs (traditional top-down enterprise sales model) combined with low revenue per customer (commodity file storage) doesn’t make for a good business. Add seemingly moderate churn and it can get ugly. There are some really crummy subscription businesses out there (TiVo and Vonage come to mind though it has been a while since I looked at their financials).

Add the very real cost of goods sold for petabytes of storage and the overhead of a freemium model (90% of Box customers don’t pay), and it gets even worse (I’ve wallowed in the storage economics and it can be ugly). To own Box stock, you have to believe they will retain their customers for a really long time to pay back the acquisition costs and/or significantly increase their revenue per customer. It is hard to make this case and Box notably doesn’t make much of an effort.

How will Box extract significantly more revenue per customer? They have neither moat nor unique technology (unless you count their “which one of these things isn’t like the others” participation in the Linux Foundation’s Dronecode Project). They don’t have an operations at scale cost advantage. Their “platform ecosystem” is superficial at best. They face giant competitors like Apple, Google and Microsoft with untold billions in the bank who are happily giving cloud-based storage away as a complement to their other services, as well as Dropbox which continues to ooze into the enterprise with a bottoms-up strategy which has dramatically lower customer acquisition costs. Box is still doing the same thing it always has, even as the market has evolved. They no longer have the luxury of just highlighting SharePoint’s inadequacies. Some argue Microsoft’s refusal to support Android and iOS has been the singular Box value proposition – obviously, that is a window that has closed.

The implicit financial bet/hope is Box will find a new and better business soon. But if you read the S-1, you discover Box doesn’t really know who they are or where they are going (though they do claim they’ll be really agile getting there). They’re happy to make a few jokes and compare themselves to all of Apple, Facebook, Zappos and Salesforce with a straight face, yet can’t describe their own raison d’etre (beyond giving good soundbite which I yield to no one in my respect for but tragically that competence is not a foundation for spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year):

We design our software with the passion and attention to detail that you’d expect from leading consumer companies like Apple. Similar to Facebook, we release updates to our product continuously, which allows us to act on user feedback to improve the Box experience and respond to opportunities with agility. We support our customers with the greatest care and attention, delivering Zappos-like support. And we’ve created an open ecosystem much like salesforce.com [sic], leveraging the talents and skills of tens of thousands of developers outside of our corporation to build value on Box.

What would it mean for someone to describe their company as “like Box” in a positive way?

Which brings us to their updated S-1. The good news is Box has reduced their burn, but with it their growth. Box has been a poster child for the recent “excessive burn rate” startup critique. But this is not entirely fair, as Box’s massive spending is not sumptuous employee benefits or other discretionary items, but rather is baked into the business model for customer acquisition.

Then there are the details of the Series F (as in “F#&ked”) financing Box raised this summer when it became clear an IPO was not in the cards while they were still burning mountains of cash. The private equity investors dictated stark terms and will get “theirs” well before any other investor.

Given the Series F investor preferences ratchet up even further if Box doesn’t IPO by July 7, expect an all-out push to get this turkey over the finish line. Amid that push to ring the bell, I hope Box’s fans will explain to us how the company will become a viable and even decent business in the future as opposed to just chanting “LTV FTW” because they really want to get it out of their portfolios. Customers and investors beware.

Segmenting Virtual Reality

The Lawnmower Man (aging VR star)

When you say virtual reality today, most people think of Oculus VR. They singlehandedly resuscitated the ‘90s flash-in-the-pan that was virtual reality (with no small help from Moore’s Law). But the space is developing quickly and there are multiple segments emerging with very different capabilities, price points and challenges:

  • PC VR – the Oculus Rift DK2 headset famously utilizes mobile display technology but still relies on a PC to do the processing. The fact is it requires a very beefy, high-end PC to deliver the buttery smooth frame rates so important for great VR experiences. So while the headset is only $350, in practice you’re looking at out-of-pocket cost of over $2,000 unless you’ve bought a high-end gaming machine very recently. The Rift actually drove my first new desktop PC purchase in over five years (take note Intel and Microsoft). Ironically, even the latest generation game consoles may not have enough oomph to be competitive with PC-based VR, which explains Sony’s ambivalence around their Project Morpheus VR headset.
  • Smartphone VR – meanwhile the immense volumes of smartphone have driven rapid advances in CPUs and GPUs in addition to displays. The latest smartphones are very capable on the graphics front, though still materially behind PC GPUs (smartphones simply can’t consume the same kind of power). And as is typical of all things smartphone, there is a strong urge to get the PC out of the equation altogether. Google kicked things off with Cardboard. Even with Google Glass going the way of being “Segway for your face” (i.e. the uses are more mundane and commercial than consumer), they could not resist taking a shot at rival Facebook who had recently purchased Oculus for $2 billion. This cheap cardboard kit let you somewhat awkwardly affix an Android smartphone to your face. Suddenly overcoming their previous disdain for mobile VR, Oculus responded by partnering with Samsung (or perhaps found their display supply taken hostage until they agreed to partner) for what became Samsung’s Gear VR, a $199 headset to which you add a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phablet. Unlike other Samsung spec-driven sprints to be first to market without pausing to entertain so much as a single use case, the Gear VR is actually a surprisingly good product (no doubt due to Oculus’ deep involvement, which also means this is another class of device where Samsung is relying on someone else for the software). It eliminates the wired tether of the PC-based headset but is inferior to the Rift in performance as well as a number of functional dimensions (e.g. no positional head tracking). The big problem is it requires a new (and probably unsubsidized) phone, so it still has close to a four figure price tag. But why require a new and specific model of phone at all? Why not let people use their existing, recent model smartphones (say iPhone 5 and up as well as comparable Android phones, which quickly gets you to hundreds of millions of devices)? I invested in MergeVR which does exactly this, getting the price of smartphone VR down to $99 for a headset and controller that work with your existing phone. The test of this whole category is whether you can you run a “good enough” experience on a smartphone. Because of both the Gear’s 2014 ship date as well as Samsung handing out cash to developers, the center of gravity for VR software development has shifted to the smartphone.
  • Venue VR – while smartphone-based VR solutions are driving down the price by sacrificing quality of experience, there is another trajectory moving up-market to offer the most immersive experience possible. It turns out there are all kinds of industrial applications using vestiges of ‘90s VR technology that are ripe for upgrades. These venue-based experiences tend to use the Oculus headset as well as full motion capture systems (think a dedicated room full of Kinect-like sensors) that track all your movements. With no tether, they allow complete freedom of movement, unlike the headset-only solutions which while immersive for your field of view, suffer from an “arms and legs” problem (it is like you’re sticking your head through a hole into another world while the rest of your body remains awkwardly seated). The team at AtomicVR has built an incredible venue-based system that is far and away the most immersive virtual reality I’ve experienced. The freedom of motion is amazing. You put on the headset and you’re transported into another world (beware: there are drones out to get you…). These venue-based solutions have a wide range of entertainment, commercial and industrial applications and will sell for upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I am amazed at how fast this market is moving. Oculus, the uncontested leader in VR just a few months ago, backed by billions of Facebook’s dollars, is already in a bit of a strategic quandary. They have acknowledged PC-based headsets are too expensive for a high volume consumer product, while reversing their earlier antipathy to mobile-based VR. The Gear VR partnership with Samsung halves the cost but still requires a phone that very, very few people have (or will have). After years of selling the dream of the “consumer Rift”, Oculus has gotten very vague about when if ever we will see that oft-promised device. I suspect they are seriously contemplating an OEM business model whereby they license their technology to any and every interested manufacturer on the planet as opposed to building their own devices. The division of labor and branding around the Gear VR certainly supports this theory. Oculus has incredible talent and has set an extremely high quality bar for themselves as well as their competitors (they don’t want inferior products ruining the category for everyone). The risk is “good enough” smartphone VR trumps Oculus’ perfectionism.

Thanks to Nat Brown, Mike Lenzi and Franklin Lyons for reviewing a draft of this post.

Ballmer vs. Chambers: A Corporate Cage Match

Amidst adding Cisco to Dinosaur Row, I asked someone “If Steve Ballmer got run off by Wall Street, how does John Chambers still have a job?”

Both are/were long-tenured, non-founder CEOs of two of the biggest technology companies. Both have presided over erosion of prior dominance during the course of the 21st century, even as revenues and profits kept growing. Neither has been shy about making sweeping calls about the future, yet their predictions have stubbornly refused to come to pass. Both found themselves increasingly reacting to rather then driving key industry trends (although Ballmer will eventually get credit for not missing cloud computing, which is coming for Cisco, even as Chambers continues to ply ye olde enterprise playbook in response). Ballmer’s tenure as CEO began January 1, 2000 while Chambers took the CEO chair in January 1995.

I’ve related this story before, but Steve was acutely aware of the consequences of taking office almost exactly at the top of the dot com bubble. He would bellow, not proudly, that “I’ve lost more market cap than any CEO in history”. After a couple years, he could amend that with “Thank god for John Chambers”.

Lets look at their performance during their shared tenure (January 1, 2000 to February 4, 2014). Revenue and profits are generally up and to the right, but stock performance is negative – presumably their future performance was already priced into the stocks. Microsoft’s total return is better with all the dividends, but still in the red over Ballmer’s tenure.

Total Return: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft -15.3% vs. Cisco -56.8% )

CSCO Total Return Price Chart

CSCO Total Return Price data by YCharts

Market Capitalization: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft -49.7% vs. Cisco -68.2%)

CSCO Market Cap Chart

CSCO Market Cap data by YCharts

Revenue Growth: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft +333.5% vs. Cisco +156%)

CSCO Revenue (Quarterly) Chart

CSCO Revenue (Quarterly) data by YCharts

Profit Growth: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft +175% vs. Cisco 75.12%)

CSCO Net Income (Quarterly) Chart

CSCO Net Income (Quarterly) data by YCharts

Bigendian Suit: Advantage Chambers

John Chambers, chairman and chief executive officer of Cisco Systems

(A picture of Steve in his red v-neck sweater — or worse, forthcoming Los Angeles “America’s Team” Clippers garb — is omitted as a matter of common courtesy).

Now you may say “but lets look at Chambers’ full tenure”, as he assumed the big boy chair five years before Ballmer. And you’re welcome to do that, even in our what have you done for me lately culture, but the record is uglier than that of the much derided Microsoft (I won’t even start digging up all those acquisitions everyone has rightly forgotten about). Will Chambers declare victory and head for the exits before the future pain becomes more evident at Cisco, or will he overstay his welcome until the hounds of Wall Street start baying for his head? Stay tuned. And then we can have a discussion about whether Cisco’s next CEO should be a product guy or another sales guy…

Tweetstorm Digest: July 10, 2014

Reprising today’s @charlesfitz Tweetstorm:

1\ Some quick reactions to @satyanadella morning Microsoft missive (sprawling, like the company).

2\ A first step to answering the biggest question about the company: why does it exist beyond just perpetuating its past?

3\ Shift from vapid (realizing potential) or means (devices & services, cloud-first/mobile-first) to end (productivity) is long overdue.

4\ Company has been at a loss wrt mission since achieving BHAG of computer on every desk and in every home.

5\ Productivity is Microsoft’s core but still some awkward stretching to cover full portfolio

6\ Still waiting for major deviation – addition or deletion – from Ballmer’s Microsoft. Bing and Xbox not going away (and rightly so).

7\ HailStorm vision is back: individual as hub for all the technologies in their life. Should have done it a decade ago.

8\ Microsoft’s disastrous embrace of the ad economy remains unresolved (devalued personal computing franchise, got none of the upside).

9\ Privacy paeans weaker than Apple; lumping with security feels like afterthought. Privacy path fundamental question for company.

10\ Still no answers for the Windows business, Company must pivot from personal computer to personal computing.

11\ More changes coming soon, including probably some layoffs. Marketing rationalization has been deferred for long time.

12\ My preference is still to break the company up. Would unlock a lot of value.

13\ Satya continues to endear himself to literate press with literary references ;-)

(Somehow periods seem more necessary here).

Dinosaur Row

IBM’s cloudy predicament is now widely understood.

BusinessWeek made IBM’s existential crisis a cover story (a concept that doesn’t really exist any more if you read the publication online):

Bloomberg Businessweek (US)

Forbes then called out recently departed IBM CEO Sam Palmasaino for his financial engineering shenanigans with “Why IBM is in Decline”. Cringely went one better with the full Gibbon in his new book “The Decline and Fall of IBM”.

To which I say, welcome to the club!

IBM employees have been crawling out of the woodwork over the last year to defend the holy EPS roadmap (even as Wall Street tells them “um, you might stop the financial engineering games and optimize for survival at this point”). While I have listened patiently, not a single Big Blue booster made an argument based on their product portfolio or confidence in their ability to innovate or adapt. They have a bad case of assuming past performance guarantees future survival.

The most compelling argument I heard from any IBMer was “Well, at least we’re not HP”. HP is in a similar situation as IBM, except a few years behind. On the plus side, HP has less software legacy (there are positives to not being a software company period). I’m waiting for HP to buy Rackspace as their SoftLayer-like “Hail Mary”, except paying more and doing it a couple years later due to the need to rebuild their balance sheet “autonomy”. But a wise man once told me “life is too short to work with HP”, so enough about them. Unlike some other vendors, I don’t think anyone really cares whether HP make the next transition or not.

The storm clouds of creative destruction blow not just in Armonk and Palo Alto. Things also look blustery in San Jose, home of another dinosaur: Cisco (or as I like to call them, “the IBM of networking”).

Cisco has many parallels to IBM:

  • Revenue has plateaued and oscillates between flat and down.
  • Competitive threats abound including fundamental technical and economic disruption.
  • They can’t innovate and have relied on buying R&D for even longer than IBM and to a greater degree.
  • Lots of acquisitions that haven’t had much discernable impact. One can argue IBM has done better with its acquisitions, where they at least milk the installed base for revenue even if the acquired products go immediately into maintenance mode.
  • They have lost the leading edge customers who prefer to build their own switches or rely on other vendors.
  • Their biggest customers may face an existential threat by continuing to rely upon them, facing competitors who don’t have that legacy dependency.
  • Their core competencies have shrunk to browbeating the press (and watch the press pay it back that the dam has finally broken on IBM after years of oppression) and manipulating Wall Street expectations (revenue only down 5.5% – it’s a beat!!!).
  • They are dismissive of the threats they face (a la “it is early days for cloud”) and take their survival and market position for granted.
  • Their product efforts focus on trying to pull innovation back into the old way of doing things (see Cisco’s ACI, which kind of misses the whole SDN point).
  • They believe they can play with the big boys in cloud but on a bonsai budget. Cisco’s Intercloud is another “multi-year, one billion dollar investment” in cloud capex that amounts to about six weeks of Google’s capex spending.

Cisco is flailing all over the place when it comes to communicating their strategy:

  • Competitive bluster and/or schizophrenia: they plan to “crush” VMware who is “enemy number one for Cisco” (but also maintain this SDN thing is not a big deal…). Yet VMware doesn’t even make their slide of competitors today or in 2018, when it seems they plan to compete exclusively with the cream of the late 20th century NASDAQ:

Cisco competitors prediction

  • Misdirection and/or distraction: “Hey, look at this $14 TRILLION dollar market over here. It isn’t just the Internet of Things, it is the Internet of Everything!” I’m a big believer in the Internet of Things (hold the “Every”) but am hard-pressed to understand what Cisco is going to do to capture any disproportionate part of that. Cisco’s IoT executives are so impressed with the opportunity they keep bailing out.
  • Safety in numbers: they would like you to believe their challenges are not unique to Cisco, but plague the whole “industry” (aka Big Old Tech with no appearances from the companies taking share). John Chambers forecasts “brutal” times ahead and provides this handy chart by which to track his self-selected cohort’s misery:

Cisco Chambers Keynote 5 Tech Revenue

Cisco picked the right peers with HP and IBM (aka Dinosaur Row), but Microsoft and Oracle are in a different class as I am sure this time series will prove out over time. We’ll be tracking the “Chambers Chart” going forward.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, Not the Copywriter

I have given this speech at least three times this month so it is time to commit it to permalink:

You don’t get to proclaim your product is beautiful.

Beauty is subjective. If your labor of love really is beautiful, people will notice and may even say so (feel free to quote the hell out of them) or spontaneously petition to have your product inducted in the Museum of Modern Art. But you don’t get to make that claim.

Please don’t tell me “beautifully designed” is one of your top three benefits. “Easy to use” – sure. “Intuitive” – hopefully even true. “So easy even a CEO can use it” – probably a stretch but go for it. But don’t tell me being beautiful is part of your value proposition unless you’ve developed some kind of robotic supermodel hybrid of Petman and Samantha from Her.

When you’re one of those startups that shows headshots and titles for everyone in the company, people may notice the team lacks a designer but has a deep bench of data scientists, DevOps dudes and even a dog.

And if you’re peddling an enterprise B2B app, which is where this problem seems most acute, recognize that enterprise customers will put up with <blink> tags and Comic Sans if the app gets the job done (TK check if this is the secret behind Salesforce’s beautiful user experience). But the opposite is not true.

Feel free to say your app is less ugly than anything ever created by Oracle or Salesforce. Or that you wish you had the design sense of Steve Jobs, or less ambitiously, even one of his self-appointed disciples. Or that you have aesthetic guilt about your tenure at Microsoft. Or that you just really like the color orange. Those are all factual statements. But claiming your product is beautiful is not. Don’t waste precious attention and put off readers with such verbiage.

Next time on marketing prose pet peeves and polemics: power made easy!