The Future Competitiveness of Corporate v Individual Medical and Veterinary Practice Models. Is AI the key?

Before Christmas I did some work on the future of veterinary surgeons and the education and regulatory changes that might have to occur to move with those changes. One of the things that occupied my mind with that work was the issue of artificial intelligence systems on the competitive position of veterinary practices. My belief is that artificial intelligence augmentation of medical/veterinary capabilities is coming quite quickly and a large scale corporate practice model has significant advantages in this space over the individual practice.

Increasingly we have seen a more large scale corporate model in the veterinary practice market in Australia and around the world. Examples in Australia include Green Cross for major city practices and Apiam Animal Health in rural practice.  This has followed similar trends in medical practices where you have organisations like Medical One and Tristar which started out in rural Australia but has expanded into the cities as well.

The basic business model and value proposition of the corporate model is:

  • Presenting a single branded product almost like McDonalds so a patient or client can be confident of going to the practice no  matter where they are.
  • Increasing purchasing power of all of the back end parts of the business from pathology services down to supplies of bandages, etc. This is more important in the veterinary model where practitioners are able to prescribe and supply vaccines and S4 drugs and make a profit from them.
  • Taking over the administrative and compliance parts of the business to allow practitioners to focus on patients. This can include the standardisation and delivery of training requirements, building management, OH&S requirements etc. It can also extend to the supply of consulting hours as a service package.
  • Networking and support for practitioners in smaller practices.
  • The spread of investment and risk over a larger geographic range and customer base.
  • A much more secure retirement/part time/business sale option for owners and practitioners. On a personal note my previous long time GP semi-retired by moving into a Medical One practice and then progressively handing over his clients to the other doctors in a very caring and professional manner.

These models have expanded quite significantly over the last decade which speaks to the financial viability of the model and while there has been the odd flare up and accusation of over-servicing in general the models seem to have worked. I originally started my working life as a general practice veterinarian and the corporatisation of veterinary practices is a hot topic at the reunions I have attended.

The competitive position of the individual practice has been built around personalised service and attempting to be portrayed as caring more for the animals they serve than the big corporate competitor. many of these practices are still doing quite well but the trend is towards the corporate practice.

Which brings us to future competitive positions. I believe that we are rapidly heading towards a future where augmentation of medical and veterinary skills via artificial intelligence is going to be  a ticket to play in the game. This is going to be a narrow focused intelligence rather than a general intelligence. In the medical space we are seeing story after story emerge of new models where AI systems are getting as good as human doctors or have an edge over human doctors:

This AI Can Diagnose a Rare Eye Condition as Well as a Human Doctor

eye image from motherboard vice artificial intelligence

Predicting non-small cell lung cancer prognosis by fully automated microscopic pathology image features

AI is nearly as good as humans in detecting breast cancer

Self-taught artificial intelligence beats doctors at predicting heart attacks

All of the examples above are based on variants of machine learning and one of the defining characteristic of machine learning artificial intelligence systems is they need large data sets. In the heart attack example above the artificial intelligence trained itself on almost 300,000 case records. As we currently understand artificial intelligence, that system is not transferable to cancer diagnosis, it remains a specilaised cardiac application. The non-small cancer system above was trained  on almost 3,000 images and subsequent patient follow up records.

There are two ways to get a large data set to train on in the medical/veterinary field. The first is to work on aggregated image and case records as in the examples above. That will certainly be a major part of the market. Large capital expenditures will be required to assemble the required images/case files and process them in a way that improves patient diagnosis and outcomes when used in conjunction with human doctors. So we will see services offered for specialised areas such as heart attack prediction, organ by organ cancer diagnosis, etc. As always the areas that have the largest and most affluent markets will be the services that are first offered.

However we are also moving in to a world where artificial intelligence systems can be harnessed by smaller players at much lower cost. Take this example of How a Japanese cucumber farmer is using deep learning and TensorFlow:

cucumber-farmer-14 tensor flow artificial intelligence

The son of a Japanese cucumber farmer (who admittedly had some very good tech skills) built an artificial intelligence based cucumber sorting system for his parents. The problem was training the system required a lot of images and the process took a lot of computing power. More and more in the future you will be able to plug into a cloud based machine learning platform that will enable you to harness much more computing power that is specialised to do this sort of a job for you.

So a large network of medical or veterinary practices could offer services that are not offered in the general market by collecting all the data on their patients across all their practices and using machine learning platforms to train a system that is specific to their patient database.

This will be impossible for the individual practice to match. Is this the killer application for the corporate model to almost completely squeeze out the individual practice?

If so I will be watching for models emerging in the veterinary space because the regulatory hurdles and insurance requirements are much lower. If they are successful then I see those sorts of models flowing into medical practices.

 

 

The Future for Accountants

The story for accountants the last few years has been increasing levels of outsourcing tasks to low wage environments such as India, and increasing levels of automation for their tasks and their clients. The early stage of that process has been the automation in accounting software systems such as QuickBooks and Mint. Increasingly this automation will move into more and more of the accounting space including real time artificial intelligence auditing systems, automatic preparation of increasing complex tax returns, and structuring credit arrangements.

These things generally start out small and at the less complex end of things and accelerate into more complex areas before people realise it has happened.

So where is the new value for accountants. Primarily this has to be in the process of value creation for clients. Therefore accountants need to move up the value chain and Examples include:

1/ Transformation of business processes around technology changes and the re-training of staff for their SME clients.

As I wrote in Questions on the Future of Work a recent McKinsey report has stated that

According to our analysis, fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology. However, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated”

This supports the notion that apart from a few isolated cases (e.g. truck drivers with driverless trucks) technology does not replace jobs but replaces particular skills or tasks. More importantly business processes and the ways in which we serve customers are changed by the introduction of various forms of artificial intelligence into technologies. This can be a customised approach for vendors like Salesforce Einstein which is adding AI services to its sales, and customer service offerings at around US$50 to US$75 per user per month. Or it can be more fundamental changes to value propositions and business models and the underlying capabilities required to deliver them.

Either way we appear to be entering an era where the jobs people will do will change even more rapidly than they have over the last 10 years and will constantly change rather than be part of a single change management process. In my experience most organisations with under 1,000 employees have little idea on how to approach this problem. This is a huge opportunity for accountants who already have close contact with their clients.

2/ Assisting clients with understanding their strategic landscape

In a world that is moving faster and changing more rapidly than ever before operators of SME businesses are facing greater uncertainty than ever before. They are also facing a paradox. The pressure on them means that they must spend more time focusing on the operational matters in their business but they are doing so right at the time that looking around to see what is happening becomes more important. Just last week I was working with an SME business that is very well run and focused on all the right things that need to be done for the next 12 months. At the same time they were not thinking very deeply about the future and that their decisions (that were absolutely correct in a short term sense) might mean for their long term future.

This means that there is great value for an independent adviser that sees a wide range of other businesses and can:

  • Provide a better strategic understanding of the industry in which the client business operates. Examples include looking at possible industry scenarios for 5 years time and trying to understand what the interim competitive position might be.
  • Cross pollinate ideas and ways of doing things from other businesses in other business sectors. Sometimes very simple tools and approaches from somewhere else can significantly improve a businesses bottom line.
  • Look at the business from a dispassionate but involved perspective and ask questions the business is not asking itself. Examples might include – does your logical short term investment in cost improvements weaken your balance sheet and capacity to respond to x/y or z which are significant risks?  OR What custom built systems are you using which can be supplied via industry standard products or new utility services.
  • Run a structured red team/blue team process to attacking and defending the business from an outside perspective.

 

3/ In the future: utilisation of AI to augment their own capabilities

The reality of artificial intelligence is narrow expertise systems rather than a general intelligence. So we will see artificial intelligence systems that can aid sales people and customer service people but cannot do other things (see Einstein above). We will see narrow artificial intelligence systems that can assist doctors but not do much else. The list goes on.

The modern approach to artificial intelligence systems is basically on of machine learning which requires large training data sets and a large market to justify to expenditure on development and training. Therefore we will see AI systems developing in markets where there are either a lot of customers, or high margin customers, or both. Given how many accounting practices there are around the world the accountancy business is one that is ripe for such a development.

Veterinary Schools as a Platform (VSaaP)

Late last year we worked with the Australian Veterinary Board Council and the Deans of all the Veterinary Schools in Australia and New Zealand looking at what the future of veterinary education and regulation might look like in 2031.  The date was chosen to be the time when a 12 year old just starting secondary school now would be a graduate of 2-3 years standing. We looked at a whole range of issues including availability of smart phone based diagnostic kits for pet owners, artificial intelligence systems for diagnosis, urban densification and its effects on pet ownership, veterinary practice corporatisation, international trade requirements, and the need for wide or narrow scope veterinary degrees.

One of the ideas that emerged from the process has stuck in my head and I think has great scope to revolutionise how we provide a much wider range of education at universities and for education post graduation.

Essentially the is one where  the veterinary school acts as the primary site of education for those subject areas that need face to face contact and technical expertise that cannot be achieved in an online, video, or virtual reality environment.

All other subjects/modules are accessed by the students via the school platform and the teaching material and processes that form the basis of those modules can be supplied by any accredited service across the globe. The model looks like the following diagram if we just look at one module, in this case cat medicine at the vet school at the University of Melbourne:

Vet school as a platform image

On the supply side of the platform (above the line in the diagram) cat medicine courses are supplied by all the possible services globally that wish to provide that service and who are able to meet the curriculum needs.  The platform would be agnostic on delivery systems as long as outcomes where met.

On the demand side (below the line in this diagram) each student in this model can choose who their supplier of education in cat medicine is. In the picture above Isabelle has chosen Sydney University because they have a great reputation but also provide face to face services at the school in Melbourne. Ivy and Anne have chosen Seoul National University because they have a great reputation and their virtual reality applications suit their learning style and they have been offered lifetime professional development at a low cost as part of  the deal.

The school accredits multiple providers from interstate and/or overseas for each module (the school itself can provide modules in competition with these modules if it desires). Students can choose the best provider for the module or subject they wish to complete.

Competition on the platform fosters innovation in teaching content, support and methodologies that best meet the student’s needs.

Collaboration may occur between schools with centres of excellence formed to compete with international providers. E.g. Sydney University could be the cat medicine centre of excellence that allows economies of scale to be achieve on content creation and methodologies (for example virtual reality technology is still quite expensive but spread over 1000 students the costs come down).

Uncertainty about the future education and information needs is dealt with by the system working as “plug and play” with new subject matter being able to be added as flexibly as possible, and many providers producing a much larger resource base. This should allow more rapid adoption of new content as the world changes (e.g. big data systems/network facilitation for clients with home diagnostic tests).

On top of the pre-registration process it could also be used for post registration professional development with or without limited degrees. Currently vets have to learn and qualify across a massive range of animal species but many go into small animal practice and never see a cow, sheep, or pig again. Shorter narrow species based degrees could be supplemented by post graduation systems that allow vets to qualify in other areas if they wish to change careers or specialties.

By taking advantage of education technologies to improve the efficiency and quality of education a school as a platform system. There are multiple advantages to this beyond what has been discussed above:

  • The time and costs of delivering some content can be reduced.
  • Greater value can be created in other areas by increasing the time and resources applied to the teaching of those areas.
  • Self paced degree systems could be put in place where the pace of learning is determined by the student rather than the needs of the lecturers or the school.

Regulatory/Accreditation issues could be relatively straightforward if the existing schools are accredited and the content partners are required to meet content and/or competency based assessments. Combined with limited degrees, intern models, etc. the issues can become quite complex. The accreditation process itself may need to become more flexible and capable of responding faster to changes in technology.

Technology in delivery of course and maximising flexibility in systems is rapidly advancing. For example the University of Texas has a major collaborative project going on with Salesforce:

UT System partners with tech industry leader to develop next-generation learning platform

The future is coming faster than we think and it has the potential to radically change education models.

 

Are we entering a world of the new portals?

tim_tams

Yes we are, and it has serious possible consequences for a whole range of businesses.

Gather around children for a story when grandpa was young (in internet years anyway). Once in the deep dark history of the internet portals were all the rage. They were the place that companies hoped you would use as your stepping off point into the internet. If you were part of their portal and had it set up as your home page then they could offer you services, and make money from you being there rather than you wandering around on your own. Truly capable search killed off a lot of these efforts by allowing people to more easily find what they were looking for although portals still make sense in a number of areas. For example here in Australia the Our Community organisation which supports about 80,000 community organisations has a grants portal (Our Community) which aggregates all of the grant information across the country. Essentially it provides a specialised aggregation and search service. The government also offers a portal called myGov which aggregates a range of government services, offering both specialised search services but also common identification and log in systems.

Besides these sorts of services we seem to be moving into a new era of portals based primarily on mobile systems. On March 3rd TechCrunch stated that “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides“. I have long believed that Uber is a data and services company with the transport model being an interim stage, and this fits perfectly with that theory (confirmation bias anyone). As a transport company they are in a brutally competitive world. They have already signaled their intention to be in the autonomous car business, but I think that business is going to be an even more brutal fight that will require huge reserves of cash. That fight will include the existing car companies and a host of new competitors and some will inevitably lose, and have their whole business model destroyed. In those sorts of fights technology plays a role but quite often it is a last player(s) standing sort of a fight where people bleed cash until they can no longer operate. In that sort of fight it makes sense to have multiple possible strategies rather than a single win or lose one. If, in the interim period before autonomous cars are widespread Uber can build a huge trove of data and insight for autonomous cars, but more importantly insight into the movement of people, and what they do during and after their trip then they have a separate strategy. If they are not able to slug it out in the transport space then they can supply data and services across the whole sector instead.

A content market place for Uber makes sense. According to the TechCrunch article they now are providing 10 million rides a day and to a large extent those riders are a captured audience for them. They also know in advance where you or I are going and when we will arrive which is enormously useful information. If they know you are going to a shopping centre then businesses at that shopping centre would really like to know that so they can send you offers in advance. If you are going to restaurant area at lunchtime, or an airport the same applies. If they can tie your trip data to what you do after the trip by tracking you through their application and partner applications then the value of the data increases astronomically.

In this new portal era they are the aggregators of customers for other businesses but they are also aggregators of data that increases in value as time goes on. In some ways it is the perfect business – profitable while it is building a new capital asset that is much more valuable.

There are lots of other companies that are pursuing this strategy. WeChat in China now has enormous capacity inside its app that is intended to keep you inside their ecosystem so they can aggregate demand and sell it to other companies ( WeChat is morphing so Chinese smartphone owners will never have to download an app again). Facebook is attempting to copy them while also trying to copy Snapchat and is a huge percentage of people’s mobile we traffic (Benedict Evans).

All of this raises a very serious question. Where will the profit accrue to in this new world? Here in Australia we have had retail dominated by two major supermarkets although this is slowly changing. As a result they  have had the highest retail supermarket margins in the world, which have now crashed back to earth due to competition (see my post: Are The Two Major Supermarkets in Australia Doomed?). Through that time the suppliers of food into the Australian markets have been mostly constrained by having to supply to those two companies in large volumes. If you are Coca Cola or Mars this has not mattered too much but it has mattered to most suppliers (hence the high margins).

The advent of the internet and the capacity to connect to anyone around the world even if you are a one person business was supposed to break some of this  down, to usher in a new age of commerce. To an extent that has been true. However I have been working with a couple of businesses that want to use some of the new technologies to connect directly to the customer rather than going through the major supermarkets as “the agent of the consumer”. One of the key concerns is whether they are swapping one master for another. If they end up with channels going through systems and applications like WeChat or Facebook does the profit accrue to them or the platform, and how much can they rely on the platform continuing to deal with them in a fair and consistent manner. In part that question is answered by platform economics – if the deal does not work for the customers on both sides of the platform then the platform disintegrates. On the other hand if you are not key to the relationship between the consumer and the platform itself it leaves you in a very weak position.

If we use that thinking and go back to Uber then I do not believe that a coffee shop at my local shopping centre is going to have the clout or expertise to efficiently partner with Uber to market specials through their App. It seems far more likely to me that another aggregation platform for coffee shops (and others) will partner with Uber and connect up the systems required to send me a notification of a special as I am on my way, or take my order via the Uber app as I travel . That means if there are three coffee shops at my local shopping centre, and Uber has a significant transport footprint, as soon as one of them has joined up the others are forced to do so or lose customer traffic. In that case none of the coffee shops actually wins because the actual customer levels between all of them are likely to be the same (ignoring any marginal traffic that may come from signalling). However the two aggregators (coffee shops and Uber) are going to want a cut of the action so it is likely that the profit margins of the coffee shops will fall.

So in a world that promised better contact and relationships with customers for small businesses the result may actually be less contact, more distant relationships, and less profits as a result. The advantages go back to the portal holders.

Of course in a modern world there is always the opportunity for the coffee shop to make a direct contact with me when I come to their shop. If they can establish a contact with me via my messaging App of choice (WhatsApp in my case) then they can form a direct relationship. However that relationship lacks a geo-location and proximity/arrival time context so unless my messaging App can supply that then the direct relationship is at a significant disadvantage. It also lacks the sophistication to be able to take my order, so unless another aggregator can link to my messaging app and provide those services the friction of the relationship will be too high. And so the dance continues.

The whole process is complicated by the fact that people actually use very few apps. In theory the coffee shop could have an App that does all these things and connects with me but given the limited real estate on my device and the fact that most people only really regularly use 5 apps that is not going to happen.

It is going to be very interesting to see where all this goes in the not too distant future.

p.s. – for those of you not from Australia the picture is one of Arnotts Tim Tams which one of the major supermarkets tried to force a price reduction on but was unable to do so because of their popularity. Therein lies a lesson. You should try them, they are awesome.

Addendum

An additional point is that this means that the brand reputation issues that are afflicting Uber today are far more important than might be thought. If one of your key strategy pillars is that people need to trust you to share their data with you then your culture, behaviour and leadership become critically important. Because of the network effects of the data collection and utilisation if volume falls in broad terms but data sharing falls more then capital value of the company falls far more rapidly. I am sure that the board is having that discussion with the CEO right now

 

 

Are The Two Major Supermarkets in Australia Doomed?

Yes but it will be a slow train crash

Following stories in the Australian Financial Review and News Limited last week (Amazon delays Australian launch to September to include fresh goods and Amazon to ‘destroy’ Aussie retail ) I decided to complete this analysis which has been kicking around in draft form on my system for a few weeks.

It is not just Amazon that is the problem. A combination of threats on margin, volume, and customer traffic is threatening the existing business model of the major supermarkets. Not all have to be successful for there to be major effects. To understand how that is happening we need to understand the business model.

A long time ago I tried to get ex Woolworths Chief Executive Paul Simons to come on board to market Australian Pork by becoming Chairman of the Australian Pork Corporation. That bid failed but something he told me about the supermarket business when we met has always stuck in my mind. Paul told me that there were five things that attracted people into supermarkets and while they were there they bought a heap of other stuff. Those five things were discounted bacon, Coca Cola, Pal Dog Food, fresh meat and fresh vegetables. A quick look at the Woolworths weekly specials catalogue for Victoria for the week starting August 31st (when I first started putting together this article) shows discount bacon, a discounted leg of lamb and a discounted whole duck front and centre on the first page. That is followed by  a full page spread on fridge mate packs featuring Coca Cola and two full pages of double points on fresh fruit and veg.

woolworth special august 31 2016

Source: Woolworths

 

Given that was the early nineties we could probably add rotisserie chickens, specialty pet foods, Huggies, petrol vouchers, and reward points to the list. That does not change the point that there are major group of items that get us in the shop and we buy other stuff when we are there. We certainly might buy half price Edgell Red Kidney Beans when we are there over another brand or product because they are on special but it is not going to get us in the door.

Later I chaired a board where a senior executive of one of the major supermarkets was also a board member. He told me that the supermarkets did not make money out of selling things. Their main two sources of income were the cash difference between when customers paid and when suppliers got paid and selling prominent shelf space to suppliers. While the story is illustrative of the business model rather than a statement of fact it does help understand the model.

If we look at the cash from customers as a source of of revenue then inventory turnover is important. The faster the inventory turnover the more money the supermarkets get in before they have to pay their suppliers.There are various numbers available for supermarket inventory turnover rates. The Inland Revenue Department of New Zealand reports median turnover of 14 times with a range of 10-19 for large supermarkets and grocery stores). The ratio of sales to inventory in the Woolworths annual reports 2011-2015 vary from 12.46 to 14.81 although these are affected by their non supermarket sales. Because this is not an investment analysis I think that it is safe to assume that the inventory turnover for Woolworths and Coles supermarket business would be at the higher level of the IRD estimates. If we use 16 x turnover that is equal to turning over inventory every 22.8 days. If the average payment terms to suppliers is 90 days (personal experience) that means that on average the supermarkets have customer cash for 67 days before they have to pay suppliers. With daily sales of  Australian Food and Liquor of $115.4m that is a whole lot of cash in the bank. Of course lower interest rates will have damaged the revenue the supermarkets receive form having that cash on hand.

When we look at paying for products to be on shelves and supplier rebates it was reported in The economist last year that In Australia supplier rebates had boosted margins for the major supermarkets by 2.5% point to 5.7% over the past five years (Buying up the shelves)

The other part of the business model puzzle is that the supermarket business is generally a low margin business once all costs are taken into account, although margins in the Australian market have been higher than the rest of the developed world. The Woolworths five year financial summary  to 2015 shows that margins for the Australian Food, Liquor and Petrol operations have been between 6.63% and 7.20% before interest and tax. While this is generally a low margin for businesses it is 30-42% higher than the margins in the Woolworths New Zealand supermarkets in the same report.The margin before interest and tax for 2016 fell dramatically to 4.43% as Woolworths lowered prices to compete with Coles and Aldi. The margins before interest and tax for Coles supermarkets in 2016 and 2015 were 4.73% and 4.67% respectively ( http://www.wesfarmers.com.au/docs/default-source/Quick-guides/2016-full-year-results-shareholder-quick-guide.pdf?sfvrsn=2).

While this net margin is quite low the gross margin is much higher For example the gross margin for Woolworths was 25.37% and 26.19% for 2016 and 2015 respectively ( Woolworths Financial Reports (pdf )) .

The gross margin is essentially sales minus the costs of purchasing goods for sale. This means that the difference between gross margin and net margin is all the other costs such as property leases, energy, staff, etc. This is a critical point because it means that the contribution to profit of the last customer or the extra sale is much higher than the average across the business. What this means is that if I drive down the road and turn left to shop at Woolworths or turn right to shop at Coles the loss in sales to the one I do not choose is very high. Whether I turn right or left both those businesses still have to pay their staff, pay their energy bills, pay their property leases, etc. That means that if roughly 18% of customers disappear and they cannot adjust their costs then their profit disappears, and adjusting high fixed costs like leases, staff and energy is very difficult.

The same applies to sales volumes. If the same amount of customers go through the door but buy 18% less in volume the supermarkets do not make 20% less profit, they make virtually nothing if the same costs structure remains in place.

So the supermarkets run a high turnover, low margin, high fixed cost business where they make lots of money on inventory turnover and payments/rebates from suppliers. This gives is the basis to look at their strategic future. Attacks to their profitability can come from primarily three points:

  1. Lower margin business forcing them to reduce margins as Woolworths has done in 2016 to combat the threat of Coles and Aldi in particular. This may be extended further in a major Amazon push into fresh produce.
  2. Customers being drained away so the high costs structure causes problems for profitability.
  3. Customer numbers staying the same but buying less every time they go to the supermarket.

Lets look at each of those individually:

Customer numbers staying the same but buying less every time they go to the supermarket.

This is the most serious threat to the long term viability of the supermarket businesses. The threat is analogous to guerrilla warfare or asymmetric warfare. Only some of the attacks need to be successful for the supermarkets to be in trouble. People will still go to the supermarket but there purchases will be reduced.There have been lots of efforts to look at direct delivery models with varying success but we are now reaching the point where multiple models are developing that have a good chance of being successful. This is devastating for the supermarkets because if 40% of people reduce their purchases by 30% that is a 12% reduction in  overall sales. But the supermarkets will still have to operate their existing business model to retain the other 60%of customers  as well as to be able to retain the people that have reduced their purchases but are still coming into the store. Lets look at some of their threats:

Dollar Shaver Club

dollar-shaver-club

These guys run a direct delivery service for razors direct to your door. They combine an irreverent marketing attitude with social marketing that gives you free blades if you recommend a friend.  They promise to reduce your costs of shaving and take all the friction out of the process. I don’t use a razor any more as I use clippers to manage my George Clooney like designer stubble, but if I did use razor I would sign up today – no longer buying that product from the supermarket. A small individual purchase perhaps but they start to add up.

Blue Apron

blue-apron

Blue Apron promotes direct delivery of all the ingredients you need to prepare a healthy great tasting meal. I met with one of the Nokia trends scouts in Austin Texas a few weeks ago and she is an avid fan. As Blue Apron delivers the exact amount she needs to make a meal there is no waste and she said that the service is not costing her any more money than shopping for the ingredients. It is estimated that Australians throw away about $8 billion dollars of food a year (fact checked by the ABC) so certainly there is a cost saving there. While they are not yet in Australia the business model is one that is easily transferable here.

Youfoodz

youfoodz

Youfoodz is a company that will deliver a week’s worth of fresh (non frozen) meals direct to your door in Australia. You can choose all meals or a proportion of meals and snacks. I have done a cost comparison on their service and while they are slightly more expensive than making your own food for quality meals the difference is not large. Again there is no waste and for the time poor there is no shopping or preparation to be done. For people working long hours or running their own businesses where more time means more money this is a very viable alternative.

Amazon Dash

amazon-dash-button-washing-machineAmazon Dash is a programmable button that you can put in your house. The example here is one of putting one on your washing machine so that when you run out of washing powder you just push the button and washing powder is delivered into your house. It takes all the friction out of buying and I imagine them building in services integrated with Alexa (the interactive home system) so that rather than just buying your normal brand the system can queue up order requests and talk to you about special offers, etc at your convenience. Once adoption gets high enough then Amazon can use its considerable logistics and information system to package up multiple orders, supply weekly orders based on your usage, and give you special offers.  It has not really caught on yet but the system is adding more and more brands and Amazon is pushing it out to more countries (Amazon triples Dash Button brand lineup, orders surge 75% in Q1  andAmazon brings its Dash buttons to the UK, Germany and Austria for ordering staples with one touch). It has the smell of a long term strategy to harness all of their capabilities into an offering that makes sense, especially for dry goods.

So if we think of an example household of an above average income couple (the most attractive customer) that are busy with work or their own business you can imagine a combination of all of these services. They use a service like Youfoodz to have a couple of meals pre-supplied on their two busiest days of the week when a combination of work and commitments for kids activities have them stretched. They use a service like Blue Apron once a fortnight for a lunch or a dinner where they want to cook but want to eat healthy and not think about recipes or shopping. They use Dollar Shave Club for monthly supplies of razors. They install Amazon Dash buttons for washing powder, toilet paper, paper towels, dish washing liquid, and cereal and it all gets delivered. Gradually Amazon influences them through their Alexa to buy more dry goods because the marginal cost of freight is so low the system is cheaper. Convenient and lower cost is a killer combination.

They still go to the supermarket they always went to but slowly but surely the amount they buy there until it is down to 50%. Some families at that level then start questioning the trip to the supermarket and start changing their total shopping habits.

The problem with all this from the major supermarkets point of view is that they don’t really have a strategic response that makes sense because of their legacy model. They cannot abandon the majority of their customers so their model stays the same and their margins get steadily eroded.

If they reduce stock lines then they slide more towards an Aldi/Costco model and they don’t want to go there. If they move to more and more online systems they can sort of compete but they still have to supply their standard customers and that model is based on big stores based in solid catchment areas. If they close one of them or move to a small store model a lot of customers probably end up with their competitor who did not close. So neither wants to be the first to do that. It is a little like the banking branch model problem. Less and less transaction are being carried out in branches but people will not travel far to conduct those less frequent transactions so banks keep branches open for fear of losing customers.

At every step of the way their business model is eroded:

  • Lower customer traffic/less spend per customer reduces cash held in the money market.
  • Lower customer traffic/less spend per customer erodes margins as there are less customers/customer dollars to spread non cost of goods costs over.
  • Lower customer traffic erodes the capacity they have to charge for shelf space. It is a bit like television advertising rates. If you have less eyeballs watching your shows you cannot charge as much for advertising.

The final straw in this nightmare scenario for the major supermarkets may be Amazon moving its vision to applying its impressive logistics and intelligence systems to support a national network of independent specialty shops. This is where the high margin customer of the future, who has already reduced their supermarket purchases as described above, may be headed. If that is the case then the major supermarkets are caught trapped in a legacy business model they cannot get out of and assailed on all sides.

Only 5% of each attack has to be successful. No-one has to destroy them.

What Happens When all the Friction has Gone?

The quick answer of course is that you slide right off.

friction sole-115156_640

I am fascinated by the continuing questions of what is the collective result of us making logical individual decisions that make economic sense. Adam Smith of course would say that this is the invisible hand of the market where we all benefit from everyone acting in their own self interest.

I am constantly telling clients and conference attendees that they need to remove the friction in relation to their interaction with customers and stakeholders. Through our level of connectedness and the developments in mobile technology we are training a generation of people that they can get what they want now. Want to be reading a book? Search on Amazon and it can be on your reading device before you board the plane. Want a TV show, click on your Netflix app, want to reach someone call them on their mobile. The list goes on and on.

Friction is anything that gets in their way about the capacity to do something, and especially if they have made a decision to act rather than just browsing. This is both a customer retention strategy and a talent retention strategy. If inside your organisation people cannot get the same level of capacity to do stuff they can in their daily lives they are less likely to stay.

It is  a clear economic benefit to reduce friction and increase the likelihood that someone will buy your products or services or will stay with your organisation. There are clear first mover advantages but the question is what happens when we have all done it and response time is down to milliseconds.

My thinking on this today was prompted by an article in MIT Technology Review:

Buy buttons are coming to Pinterest and will reinvent online commerce, the company claims.

The article describes the possibility of you seeing a recipe on Pinterest that you like and the capacity for you to click on a buy button that will buy the ingredients on Instacart which has a one hour delivery service. That theoretically means if you feel like it you can scan for recipes on your train trip home, click on the buy button and have the ingredients delivered for you to make dinner. This all makes sense from an logical economic part from Pinterest who will obviously make a cut for that transaction. If you see the recipe and leave the site without making a buy decision they get nothing. There are a number of other implications to this as well:

  • It is likely to be higher margin business for both Pinterest and Instacart (and other providers that participate) because your purchase is partly an impulse buy and you are not comparing prices.
  • It is aimed at the time poor consumer as much as anybody. You may have planned to shop on the way home but a late client call or an unexpected meeting with your boss had delayed you so this service provides a way for you to deal with this problem.
  • It means that the competition to attract and retain platform users for this sort of business is likely to get even more brutal. Accessing those high margin customers who may contribute 80% of your net profit will be vital.
  • Tracking and data profiling of the customers will become even more important and probably more invasive.

More and more organisation are going to be heading down this path in order to reduce any barriers for their customers.

So back to my original question.

Once everyone has removed every possible friction with customers it ceases to be a key competitive advantage. In my work with clients on business models we differentiate between survive competencies and thrive competencies. The survive competencies are the ones that you need to have just to play in the game. Thrive competences are the ones that will grow your organisation and its success. Over time many thrive competencies transfer into the survive category. A sort of commoditisation process. My work is partly about helping people think what the future will look like so they can refine their strategy and allocate resources. Lack of friction will no longer differentiate you in the future.

So what should you do:

  • First of all by all means continue to work on removing friction. It will give you short term advantage the faster you do it and you will need it just to survive in the future.
  • Think through the sorts of organisations and platforms that are likely to capture the attention of your high margin customers or your key stakeholders. You will need to figure out how to maximise your presence there while minimising your dependence on them. If you give up your key contact to the customer to someone else you are handing over power. If you have arrangements with them like Instacart might have with Pinterest make sure that you are in a position to collect customer data.
  • Think through how you support and maintain contact with those customers who are the ones that will promote your business and recommend your product. You may even want to support them establishing profiles on sites like Pinterest.
  • Concentrate on the one enduring competency. Delighting the customer. Removing friction will help that but in the end it is the experience that the customer (in the widest possible sense of the word) has with your product or service that counts.

Tell me what you think

Paul Higgns

The Smart Business Model Play in Solar Energy Solutions

In conjunction with the announcement by Tesla on April 30th that they are supplying home battery storage systems (Tesla launches a stationary battery aimed at companies with variable electricity rates and homes with solar panels.) Solar City in the USA has announced that

Using Tesla’s suite of batteries for homes and businesses, SolarCity’s fully-installed battery and solar system costs are one-third of what they were a year ago

Just think about that for a moment. A model which has dropped in price by 67% in 12 months. That is disruption on a major scale.

The solar panel business and the battery storage business is likely to be a continually brutal Darwinian space and require huge capital to supply the necessary scale because of the structure of the technology and the cost reductions that are occurring.

This raises the question of what is the smart play in this space and I think it is in staying away from the panel and battery technology space and playing in business model innovation at the layer above that.

There has been considerable comment on what is happening in the cost curve reductions in solar panels and battery storage including:

Why Moore’s Law Doesn’t Apply to Clean Technologies

and a counterpoint from one of my favourite analysts/writers Ramez Naam:

Is Moore’s Law Really a Fair Comparison for Solar?

who embedded the following graphic from Nature Climate Change

Nature-Climate-Change-Batteries-Cheaper-than-2020-Projections-800x488

looking at the falling prices in battery storage.

I think both articles make excellent points but the main issue is the cause of price change over time which has been 60% annually for transistors and 14% annually for solar (over 37 years) according to Naam. Analysis of the two articles indicates that the change in transistors has been far more driven by technological innovation while the pace in solar has been more by the classic cost learning curve and move to scale.

Which brings us to the smart play. My view on the key drivers when thinking about business strategy:

  1. Just as many solar manufacturers have bitten the dust over the last decade the same will apply to battery manufacturers and start up battery companies in the next decade, as well as being a continuing issue in the panel industry.
  2. One of the main problems with Lithium Ion batteries is the charge and discharge cycle lifetime. From a cost per kWh storage point of view the shorter the life cycle then the higher the cost as the initial capital costs have to be depreciated over less energy usage. Therefore alternative battery storage options have to be a key competitor in the space. There is lots of investment going on in technology development. So to win you either have to have the capital backing that companies like Tesla boast or pick the right technology and take the development risk.
  3. Particularly at a household level the costs are related as much to installation and deployment model as to cost of the technology (just as transistors are only a fraction of smartphone or tablet costs).
  4. At the household level adoption issues beyond costs will also be critical.

So while there will be clearly winners in the panel and battery space the risks and capital required are enormous. There are better opportunities in deploying innovative business models in the space including:

  • Models for landlords that get around the issues of the landlords bearing the capital costs and tenants gaining the cost reduction on their power bills. This includes leasing and income sharing models driven by algorithms.
  • Efficient and low cost installation models that drive down the costs of installation and maintenance.
  • Financing models that allow installation for people that otherwise could not afford installation.
  • Community models that integrate use of the grid into distributed generation, storage and consumption models that reduce costs to consumers while improving the income for local generators and renewable energy systems

There are parallels for this in other sectors. The sports clothing company Under Armour is pursuing a strategy for fitness apps to complement its sports clothing sales. That strategy is hardware technology agnostic in that it integrates with a range of technologies that users are adopting. This means they do not tie themselves to any particular hardware solution and avoid riding on top of a technology that fails.

That is the smart play here

Paul Higgins

 Full disclosure: I have recently worked for the sugar milling industry here in Australia on energy transition scenarios. I may in the future have a financial interest in community models.