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After seven years of working with intellectual property and innovation in China, I’ve seen some of the ups and downs as well as the gross misunderstanding of Chinese innovation and IP in the West. I’d like to briefly summarize what I’ve seen.
First, when it comes to innovation in science and industry, graduates of Chinese universities are not the drones and clueless copyists that many in the West seem to think they are. Yes, they have been through intense educational processes that emphasize memorizing tons of material and respecting what teachers say, but this hardly means they cannot think for themselves or innovate. In fact, the mastery of material that they have obtained gives many of them the skills needed to apply sound principles in creative ways. he truth about innovation is that in many cases, skills and knowledge matter, and the more you have at your fingertips, the more you can do with it.
But yes, in an innovation session, a facilitator is likely to find a lot of people looking down at the ground and not contributing. This can often be due to having the wrong people in the room and not providing the right setting and incentives. If the boss is there, people might be afraid of showing him or her up or afraid of saying something risky and possibly wrong. So get the boss out of the room. Then turn your event into a competition. Have incentives for contributing. It can be as simple as “no bathroom break until we have 10 ideas in the board” or prizes for the team with the best concepts. But once it becomes clear that there are reasons to contribute and little risk in contributing, you’ll face the problem I see most now: getting the group to slow down and limit their responses. “I just needed 5 concepts, not 30, but thank you!” A friendly competition brings out the best in many Chinese innovators, and I’ve been deeply impressed with their creativity and insights.
Innovation is very healthy in China. China is leading the world in innovation in many targeted areas, greatly outpacing the West in areas such as nanotechnology, green energy, AI, etc. You haven’t seen the power of great smartphone apps until you’ve seen how people are able to use WeChat over here for so many things: paying utility bills, ordering and paying for meal, participating in free videoconferences, sending gifts, finding when the next bus is coming to your stop, reserving seats at a movie theater, easily forming groups to share text, photos, and videos for an upcoming or current event, etc.
China has wonderful brands, cool business models, increasing quality and safety, brilliant entrepreneurs, and a booming market in many fields. It’s a dazzling and beautiful place with great hope for the future.
On the other hand, there are some great “fatigue factors” that make things tough on some innovators and entrepreneurs. The biggest issue may be the uncertainty in regulations. Here in Shanghai, for example, thousands of entrepreneurs who have spent years building their businesses in small shops along many classic streets of Shanghai suddenly found that all the shops in certain areas would be torn down to beautify the street or convert it to high-end hotels or something. Many times all that happened was that a flourishing market was eviscerated and sterile walls were left lining a street that suddenly was missing the flavor it had nurtured for decades. The purging of small businesses has been painful to watch and has also been frustrating to local residents who can no longer get the goods and services that used to be around the corner. Now they have to travel to go to larger stores that are less convenient and often more expensive.
Last week, I was thrilled to learn that the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Beijing sent out a very wise directive to cities in China urging them to be cautious about unnecessarily closing shops and markets on their streets. It noted that this process is removing important economic zones that convey a crucial part of the flavor of China. Amen! I grieve for the thousands who lost their jobs over these painful sweeps, and hope healthy local businesses and markets can continue to thrive for the good of both the entrepreneurs and customers like me. How I miss some of those little shops and businesses that have been such a precious part of my experience in Shanghai.
Unpredictable rule changes can hurt innovators in many ways. Some innovators just get a business going only to learn that a new rule now forbids the import or sale of a product they brought to China. Others learn that an area that was zoned for industry is suddenly no longer open to their business and perhaps an entire factory has to move. These things happen in the West as well, but the process here is less visible and harder to cope with in many cases, in my opinion, so those creating businesses here need to be both flexible and diligent in understanding the needs and plans of government so they can foresee problems or adapt to them quickly. I’m not saying it’s overwhelmingly difficult, but innovators and entrepreneurs do need to be prepared watchful, and always have a plan B. That’s good advice for any nation, of course.
The challenges from rule changes may be most severe for large companies, where a policy change can affect huge areas of one’s business or involve formidable costs. On the other hand, large companies often benefit greatly from relationships with other entities that can give them great advantages in innovation. And fortunately, the government is often understanding of the impact that rule changes can bring, such as the requirement to move a factory, and will often offer incentives that take way much of the pain and make the change possible.
Part of the good news is that officials at all levels in the country are increasingly recognizing the importance of aiding and not hindering innovation and entrepreneurs, and so in spite of some of the risks of rule changes, there is a general climate of encouragement and help for innovation. This can benefit large and small companies. It helps to be involved, to unite with good organizations to stay informed and build increasing influence, and to also be close to your community, making sure that your business is involved in bettering the community and lifting others. Such organizations and innovators who aren’t just looking out for themselves but recognize the greater good and seek to serve can have lasting impact on this nation.
Innovation is real in China and is becoming stronger and more important every year. It is a great place to pursue innovation and a great place to develop and enforce meaningful IP. More on the IP issues later. For now, give China a chance and look beyond the stereotypes that are often projected as if they were facts. China has changed greatly in the past two or three decades. Come see what’s really happening over here!
China’s housing market is in a bubble, in my opinion, for it seems to display some of the same excesses and questionable behavior that the United States had in real estate shortly before the big subprime mortgage crash in 2007. We have a flood of newly created cash flowing into the market at low interest rates for easy loans. We find unusual business models popping up to exploit the cheap credit and drive up housing prices and housing demand. And we will see rapid changes occur as the bubble pops in some way.
Easy credit from the banks of China and abundant new cash from China’s equivalent of “quantitative easing” have been used in an attempt to stimulate the markets, just as has been done with little success in the U.S., Japan, the European Union and Zimbabwe (before their cataclysmic crash with hyperinflation and economic chaos). Initially much of the new money being created was being used to drive the Chinese stock market. As that bubble popped, rich Chinese looked again to real estate as the traditional safe way to make lots of money. In popular cities, home prices have shot up. In Shenzhen, housing prices show a 57% increase over last year. That’s a ridiculous rate showing something is wrong.
Owners of apartments until recently were not too concerned about rent since they real money were making was coming from rapidly appreciating property values in cities like Shanghai. But with fear that recent rises were no longer going to be sustainable, rental prices are now getting more emphasis. This appears to be driven in part by the very large-scale actions of a giant force, the real estate company Lianjia (United Homes), according to a friend of ours who is a real estate agent. Lianjia has managed to obtained huge capital reserves that it has used to buy up many former competitors, giving them a stranglehold on the real estate market. They are also using large amounts of capital to make loans to customers who otherwise might not be able to afford the down payment of a new property. Further, they are actively working with property owners to push for significantly higher rental values. This increases their commissions and also make landlords happy.
In spite of China’s slowing economy, many renters are reporting significant jumps in rent this year. Our landlord, for example, wanted to increase our rent by 33%. Since we take good care of the place and don’t make many demands, though negotiation, she was willing to sacrifice to help us by just asking for a 24% raise in rent instead. But she has agents from Lianjia calling her and saying she could be getting 33% or even 40% more. This seems to be happening all over the city.
In looking for new, more affordable apartments, my wife found that when she went to the nearby Lianjia office and asked for places with a price similar to what we have been paying the past year, they said it wasn’t possible and that we would have to pay a lot more to get a place with the features we now have. When we went to one of the increasingly hard-to-find non-Lianjia dealers, we learned that there certainly were places in our price range that could meet our needs. While my wife and a non-Lianjia agent were looking at one apartment priced at 14,000 RMB, a Lianjia agent came to the same place with a Chinese girl who was looking to rent. She liked the place and asked how much it was. My wife heard the Lianjia agent say it was listed at 18,000, a full 4,000 RMB above the actual asking price. The girl was shocked and wondered how it could be so expensive. She turned to the agent my wife was with and asked what price he had been told. Not wanting to make another agent lose face, our agents just nodded his head and said it was 18,000. But this apparently was Lianjia’s attempt to drive up the price, deceiving a customer. Ugly.
By offering easy loans to customers who might not otherwise be able to get one, and by collaborating with landlords to drive prices up, the rental market in Shanghai has been booming at a crazy pace, the kind of pace that looks like a classic bubble. The housing bubble is already popping in Hong Kong, with a significant drop now in housing prices since the Sept. 2015 peak, said to currently be in “free fall.” That cold front may soon sweep northward to cities like Shanghai.
In bubble economies, it’s hard to tell precisely when the insanity will stop. With abundant injections of cash and other policy actions, the government could keep driving up prices for a while, but eventually (what, two more months? maybe six? a year?) economic reality has to kick in, and when it does, it can be painful and sudden. The bigger the steps taken to keep the bubble going, the worse the pain will be and the longer the correction will take.
When cheap mortgages to unqualified buyers begin to fail and threaten the banks, we could be in for a repeat of the subprime mortgage crisis the US faced a few years ago. When property owners begin to see that real estate values can drop significantly, they may look to the ultimate way of preserving capital in risky times: precious metals, particularly gold and silver. A dramatic pop of any kind in China could send shock waves throughout the world.
This is a good time to be prepared. Get out of debt. Have cash on hand to keep you going for two or three months in case there is a run on the banks (the available currency in the US is a tiny fraction of the vast amount of digital money that has been created, and if banks fail or are hacked, turning those digits into something you can spend may be a challenge that faces many delays, not to mention massive threats of hacking. Physical cash on hand may be an important part of your survival kit. Food and other supplies, and some gold and silver coins or bullion, may be a good idea.
On October 15, 2015, Appleton, Wisconsin’s Paper Industry International Hall of Fame will be inducting six people into the Hall of Fame. One of them is an innovator and leader from ancient China who can be considered as China’s answer to Gutenberg. Gutenberg is frequently honored in the West as one of the most important inventors ever for giving us the world’s first book printed with movable type, a remarkable achievement from around 1455. As with many inventions long thought to have had European origins, there’s a touch of Eastern flavor in this one, for Gutenberg’s Bible came 142 years after the world’s first mass-produced printed book made with movable type, the large Book of Farming (Nong Shu) from China, printed in 1313 by Wang Zhen.
Wang Zhen was a Chinese official who recognized that vast amounts of agricultural technology scattered across China needed to be preserved to help all of China reduce famine and be more productive. He took a Chinese invention, movable type, and improved upon it to make a practical way to print an entire book. He used carved wooden blocks for each character, and developed a sophisticated way of arranging them on two rotating tables to allow typesetters to quickly find needed characters to place them in his press. The Nong Shu was printed and preserved many notable inventions in China, including an early form of a blast furnace driven with a reciprocating piston attached to water works, something long that to be a later European invention.
Recognizing Wang Zhen for his important role in the advance of printing is a fitting step for the Hall of Fame, and I look forward to many more Asian inventors, scientists, and business leaders being recognized in the Hall of Fame in future years. The historical contributions of China in numerous fields have received far too little attention, and I’m delighted to see folks in Appleton taking the lead in rectifying this problem. Kudos to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame!
I’ve noticed that many companies tend to emphasize patents in their IP strategy. Sometimes that’s almost all they consider. Sound IP strategy, however, requires applying a variety of tools. A broad approach to intellectual assets is more important than ever. Patents of various kinds, trademarks, trade secrets, copyright protection, and low-cost publications can all play a useful role.
Utility patents can protect your products, their components, the machines for making them, the methods of making them, and methods of using them, among other things. Design patents can protect aesthetic elements. Copyrights can protect commercial expression (ads, for example) of that function. Trademarks protect the brands that are based on the consumer perception of the product. Packaging relevant to your products may also be protected with utility patents, design patents, trademarks, and copyright.
The power of trademarks in protecting a company is illustrated in a recent case involving Adidas, owner of trademark for a tennis shoe with three stripes on the side. In May 2008, an Oregon jury ruled that Payless Shoes should pay $308 million to Adidas for infringing that trademark. (Payless appealed but subsequently abandoned its appeal after agreeing to an out-of-court settlement with Adidas.) Payless may have hoped to evade the three-strip trademark of German-owned Adidas by using four stripes, but Adidas successfully argued that their stripes create a distinctive mark that is a sign of origin, and that both two-stripe and four-stripe shoes may cause confusion in the minds of consumers. Three simple parallel stripes have become a distinctive part of the Adidas brand. This coverage may last as long as the brand does, unlike the limited coverage afforded by patents. Adidas, of course, relies on both utility and design patents as part of its IA strategy.
In recent years, U.S. trademark rights have been expanded to cover not just traditional logos and names, but to also cover colors, scents, characteristic sounds, and three-dimensional shapes. Examples include:
- Yamaha’s distinct water spout from its WaveRunner® personal water craft. As U.S. Trademark 74321288 states, “The mark is comprised of a three-dimensional spray of water issuing from the rear of a jet propelled watercraft and is generated during the operation of the watercraft.”
- Tiffany’s famous robin-egg blue gift box (US Trademark 75360201).
- Intel’s five musical notes (US Trademark 78721830).
Trademarks can have an unlimited life, unlike the 14-year-life design patents have from the date of filing, or the 20-year life of regular utility patents. Under U.S. law, trademarks can be used to sue both manufacturers and distributors of infringing products.
We recommend that innovators look for creative combinations of both trademarks and patents, as well as other forms of intellectual assets.
One of those other forms can be called “digital intellectual assets,” a broad category that includes domain names. They may be trademarked, but if you don’t own the domain name, you’ll have an expensive battle trying to wrest it from someone else. As soon as you consider candidates for trademarks, quickly register the related domain names. Also consider getting the related Gmail accounts, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, Youtube channels, Pinterest accounts, etc. Those are free or inexpensive and can be worth a great deal if your brand name becomes important.
At the Marcus Evans Innovate 2014 Conference in Shanghai today, I met Rosalie Wu, the head of marketing in China for the rapidly growing startup, Uber. Rosalie was Uber’s first hire in China and exemplifies the energetic, entrepreneurial spirit that is driving Uber to global success. She spoke about the development of Uber’s innovative business model and the many innovations they continue to add in their unique approach to “glocalization,” wherein a company going global adapts its products and business model to the unique constraints and opportunities of each local market. I see Uber at the poster child for sound and innovative glocalization.
Uber began when one of its founders and first CEO, Travis Kalanick, attended Le Web in Paris in 2008 and struggled to get a cab in snowy weather. He realized there had to be a better way to use the free market to solve the basic problem of getting a ride. His passion for solving this problem resulted in forming a San Francisco start-up that began in 2010 with a mobile app for ride sharing in San Francisco. Today they offer a refined and clever business model with services in over 200 cities. Beijing was #200, and Uber is marching rapidly across China and other parts of the world. Rosalie’s enthusiasm for Uber is contagious and really stirred the audience here at the Hongqiao Marriott Hotel.
Uber’s business model innovation includes systems for registering, insuring, and rating drivers. It offers flexible pricing that helps tap the power of the free market much better than conventional taxi pricing and taxi systems can. With Uber you can select quality drivers and have simple, positive experiences getting to where you need to go when you want to be there. The business model is being extended with many other innovations such as delivery of products and even services (in China, they have even offered the service of having a traditional Chinese lion dance sent to be performed in your office). The innovate their offerings to meet local needs and adapt to local regulations and customs, while finding clever ways to continually make people’s lives better. This will inspire the competition to do more and bring ongoing innovation that will benefit us all. Amazing what a bad snowy night can do when an innovator is around.
Less than a year ago, Uber was valued at over US$3.5 billion. A few months ago in 2014, Uber was valued at around $17 billion. This is the power of doing something that brings people together in new ways.
Uber has faced and overcome a host of innovation barriers. Funding challenges, regulatory burdens, and stiff competition. But they have forged ahead with a relentless focus on making life better for its customers with green, energy saving, disruptive innovation . May the path before them remain wide open. Kudos, Uber!
Prisoners of Hope: How engineers and Others Get Lift for Innovating by Larry Vincent is an unusual book on innovation that I found to be a refreshing guide to strengthening innovation with great practical value. Part of what makes this book unusual and, for some, perhaps highly challenging, is that it is written from the perspective of a preacher turned innovation champion, filled with references to biblical material, including frequent passages cited from scripture and analogies, sometimes extensive and detailed, drawn from the Bible. Although I treasure the Bible, initially this approach caught me off guard. In fact, at first I felt the attempt to find practical secular lessons for innovators from Bible stories was strained, even to the point that I initially disliked the book after the first chapter or two. But after a few more pages, I began encountering many valuable insights and modern case studies that revealed the author really did understand the practical challenges of bringing innovation to life, especially in a corporate environment. Once I got past my initial challenges with the unique angle of the book, I found it well worth my time, even inspiring. I still struggle with some of the passages using scripture to explain innovation and its challenges, but others may enjoy that. On the other hand, I was impressed by his application of Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision in the Old Testament, where the prophet Ezekiel saw a valley of dried bones that became living humans again. His treatment made it a very apt and interesting analogy for the challenges inventors face in breathing life and commercial success into their inventions.
Lanny Vincent understands innovation and the life and challenges of innovators, especially those in corporations. Inventors and innovators are the “prisoners of hope” of the title, people driven and even held captive by their vision of changing the world with their innovation. It is their faith and hope that drives them forward, and this faith and hope allows for many biblical insights to be relevant. Whatever their feelings about scripture, this book can be valuable for them and for those who guide or influence them. Vincent understands how they can be more successful.
Aspects I especially enjoy are the numerous case studies and examples. While many come from the consumer products industry, especially from Kimberly-Clark Corp. where Lanny Vincent had a great deal of industrial experience, the lessons and practical guidance from the author will help engineers, scientists, and other inventors in many disciplines, and may be especially helpful to leaders responsible for innovation and business development. In these case studies, Vincent draws out key lessons to guide and inspire innovators today.
One of my favorite sections is in the middle of Chapter 6, “Inspiration and Appreciation,” where Vincent recounts how we worked with a team of automotive engineers in Michigan to help them innovate in the area of automotive suspensions. As he observed their responses and discerned that they were there because they had to be, not because they wanted to be, he departed from his normal process. He sought a way to help those jaded survivors of extensive downsizing become more inspired about the innovation task before them. He asked them to tell him the basics of the suspension system, including the history of its development. Admitting his naiveté and asking the engineers to share their knowledge seemed to engage them. They were then asked to draw a timeline of the development of related systems and then to characterize major epochs of the timeline as if they were historians. Then, in light of the past, how would they characterize the next era of development? They energetically and swiftly responded, and then Vincent simply explained that that was the area where they needed to invent. The invention workshop turned out to be highly productive.
One of the interesting insights regarding corporate barriers to innovation is the tendency for companies to promote successful innovators in their ranks to new positions where their rich innovation experience may be unused or essentially lost. The wheels of innovation are constantly being reinvented in companies as those who succeed are moved away from the field where they were able to create success.
Vincent also calls for corporations keep inventors and innovators close to projects as they become commercialized. There is a tendency in large corporations to hand off new products to others and leave those with the original vision and passion out of the picture by the time consumer feedback is being obtained, but Vincent identifies this as a huge missed opportunity. The inventors and innovators may have exactly the insights and knowledge needed to interpret and apply the feedback from the market, and they should play a pivotal role in refining and adapting the product as it moves forward.
A former technical expert at one of the world’s most famous consumer product companies told me of a hiring decision that made $80,000 for one executive, hurt several careers, cost the company millions of dollars, and crushed innovation in a once-promising unit of the company. This recipe for innovation fatigue has numerous variations, but they all combine poorly considered incentives coupled with selfishness in those who can exploit the incentives at the cost of corporate health.
In this case, the company had instituted an incentive program for senior management to promote its hiring goals. Unfortunately, the result of the incentives was that one executive realized that if he hired a particular unqualified outsider for a key leadership role, he would reach his goal and get a large bonus. On the other hand, if he were to select one of several experienced employees who were ready and qualified for the promotion, he would not get his bonus. He was blunt about that in ordering one of his direct reports to hire the unqualified candidate. “I meet my goal and $80,000 if hire that person. Do it.” The leader ordered to make the hire tried explaining that this position required a knowledge of science, technology, and markets that the unqualified candidate did not have. It required experience that the candidate did not have. It would hurt the company. But none of this mattered. What mattered was an incentive the company was offering, a perverse incentive indeed.
The outsider was hired and proved to be a disaster. Lacking the experience and knowledge needed to make key decisions, the division was run by stalling and passing the buck, with many diversions that wasted the time and efforts of numerous employees. Several highly talented people left in frustration, including one person who probably should have been given a chance to lead the group. Significant innovation projects essentially ground to a halt, a classic case of innovation fatigue and a painful reminder of how poorly considered incentives can harm a corporation.
Perverse incentives that encourage employees to harm the company for their own benefit one of the many factors that can block innovation and entrepreneurship in corporations
Related resource: A excellent business book, “The Science of Success” by Charles Koch of Koch Industries, has a good chapter on incentives that discusses the problem of perverse incentives.
Following up on the mind-numbing failure of Thompson-Reuters to include ANY Chinese or Taiwanese company on their list of the 100 Top Global Innovators, let me mention one more that should be there: Lenovo. This Chinese multinational company had 402 US patents granted from 2005 to 2010, well above the numbers obtained by some other companies on the TR list supposedly based on patent activity. They have international scope and are now the world’s 2nd largest maker of personal computers. Annual sales are over $20 billion. This puts them above many of the less-known companies on the TR list. OK, Lenovo inventors listed on patents are more likely to be from the US or Japan than from China, so Lenovo’s IP situation arguably doesn’t speak to innovation in China per se, but based on the stated criteria of TR, one would think that this Chinese company should still merit attention as a global innovator, regardless of which part of the globe their R&D centers are located.
Allergan (NYSE: AGN), the major multi-specialty pharmaceutical company with expertise in ophthalmology and beauty, has been on a tear in the stock market, driven by its bold approach to innovation. The market cap, now $25 billion, has roughly doubled in the past year. I heard CEO David Pyott speak to Jim Cramer on Mad Money last night and am impressed with the financial commitment to innovation. I am also impressed with the new product development work that is done in extending great products to new fields. For example, Botox® (Botulinum Toxin Type A), used so successfully for cosmetic surgery, also has potential to modify hyperactive bladders or juvenile cerebral palsy. Their expertise in neuroscience is also being applied to migraine headaches, where a promising product is in Stage 3 clinical trials. The Botox® approach to skin beauty is being enhanced with Juvederm® hyaluronic acid (HA) dermal filler formulation, a material that can be injected into the skin to fill some wrinkles. They are also addressing the challenge of obesity with their FDA-approved laproscopic band, a less invasive approach to bariatric treatment. In ophthalmology, one of their most profitable segments, a host of products treat eye conditions such as glaucoma or dry eye.
Allergan’s products are well suited for the needs of the aging baby boomer population and appear to be riding a wave of technical success well matched to a demographic wave. Many growth opportunities still exist, and with the heavy investment in innovation and research, Allergan appears poised to continue growing, something that is unusual for many large pharmaceutical companies these days.
The company began in 1950 when chemist Chemist Stanley Bly developed anti-allergy nose drops and got the help of his friend, Gavin S. Herbert Sr., who owned a pharmacy. Two years later, after listening to advice from a pharmacist about patient needs, they developed an eye drop with anti-histamine, the first such eye drop in the United State. Sales skyrocketed and Allergan became a major player in ophthalmology, which today makes up almost half of their business still.
Listening to market feedback and acting on clues and suggestions from knowledgeable people like a pharmacist allowed Allergan to quickly shift its focus and its product array in the early days to address an important unmet need. This led to eye products, not just nose drops, and the opportunity in ophthalmology that will continue to be huge for Allergan, now representing nearly 50% of sales, if they can keep an eye on innovation.
A painful message from the CEO of Nokia, shared below, reminds us that the pain of disruptive innovation often catches major incumbents unaware. As they listen to their existing customers and improve existing products and services, often incrementally, they may not sense the tsunami of change that is coming from afar. The innovations that will disrupt them often seem not good enough to threaten their core business. By ignoring the threats and opportunities around them, they continue to focus on core competencies and core markets and feel little pain until the new competition, ignore too long, has developed the skills and competencies to strike at the core itself. When the pain is felt, it is often too late. When the heat of a raging fire is finally felt and awakens you from your dreams, it is often too late. You may escape if you are lucky, but the building is likely to be lost. How will Nokia cope? Read the speech below, then we’ll discuss their newly announced plans.
Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, gave this speech to employees last week and the transcript has been posted on several sites such as Casey’s Daily Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal’s TechEurope Blog, Ongo.com, MSDN.com. It is brutal and painful. A few years ago tech stock experts recommended Nokia as one of the leaders in the business and best investment opportunities. But by focusing on their existing markets and competencies, they missed the changes that would envelope the market and misallocated their innovation resources. They are now on a “burning platform.”
There is a pertinent story about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea. He woke up one night from a loud explosion, which suddenly set his entire oil platform on fire. In mere moments, he was surrounded by flames. Through the smoke and heat, he barely made his way out of the chaos to the platform’s edge. When he looked down over the edge, all he could see were the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters.
As the fire approached him, the man had mere seconds to react. He could stand on the platform and inevitably be consumed by the burning flames. Or he could plunge 30 meters into the freezing waters. The man was standing upon a “burning platform,” and he needed to make a choice.
He decided to jump. It was unexpected. In ordinary circumstances, the man would never consider plunging into icy waters. But these were not ordinary times – his platform was on fire. The man survived the fall and the waters. After he was rescued, he noted that a “burning platform” caused a radical change in his behaviour.
We too, are standing on a “burning platform,” and we must decide how we are going to change our behaviour.
Over the past few months, I’ve shared with you what I’ve heard from our shareholders, operators, developers, suppliers and from you. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned and what I have come to believe.
I have learned that we are standing on a burning platform.
And we have more than one explosion – we have multiple points of scorching heat that are fuelling a blazing fire around us.
For example, there is intense heat coming from our competitors, more rapidly than we ever expected. Apple disrupted the market by redefining the smartphone and attracting developers to a closed but very powerful ecosystem.
In 2008, Apple’s market share in the $300+ price range was 25 percent; by 2010 it escalated to 61 percent. They are enjoying a tremendous growth trajectory with a 78 percent earnings growth year over year in Q4 2010. Apple demonstrated that if designed well, consumers would buy a high-priced phone with a great experience and developers would build applications. They changed the game, and today, Apple owns the high-end range.
And then there is Android. In about two years, Android created a platform that attracts application developers, service providers and hardware manufacturers. Android came in at the high end, they are now winning the midrange, and quickly they are going downstream to phones under €100. Google has become a gravitational force, drawing much of the industry’s innovation to its core.
Let’s not forget about the low-end price range. In 2008, MediaTek supplied complete reference designs for phone chipsets, which enabled manufacturers in the Shenzhen region of China to produce phones at an unbelievable pace. By some accounts, this ecosystem now produces more than one-third of the phones sold globally – taking share from us in emerging markets.
While competitors poured flames on our market share, what happened at Nokia? We fell behind, we missed big trends, and we lost time. At that time, we thought we were making the right decisions; but, with the benefit of hindsight, we now find ourselves years behind.
The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don’t have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.
We have some brilliant sources of innovation inside Nokia, but we are not bringing it to market fast enough. We thought MeeGo would be a platform for winning high-end smartphones. However, at this rate, by the end of 2011, we might have only one MeeGo product in the market.
At the midrange, we have Symbian. It has proven to be non-competitive in leading markets like North America. Additionally, Symbian is proving to be an increasingly difficult environment in which to develop to meet the continuously expanding consumer requirements, leading to slowness in product development and also creating a disadvantage when we seek to take advantage of new hardware platforms. As a result, if we continue like before, we will get further and further behind, while our competitors advance further and further ahead.
At the lower-end price range, Chinese OEMs are cranking out a device much faster than, as one Nokia employee said only partially in jest, “the time that it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation.” They are fast, they are cheap, and they are challenging us.
And the truly perplexing aspect is that we’re not even fighting with the right weapons. We are still too often trying to approach each price range on a device-to-device basis.
The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we’re going to have to decide how we either build, catalyse or join an ecosystem.
This is one of the decisions we need to make. In the meantime, we’ve lost market share, we’ve lost mind share and we’ve lost time.
On Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s informed that they will put our A long term and A-1 short term ratings on negative credit watch. This is a similar rating action to the one that Moody’s took last week. Basically it means that during the next few weeks they will make an analysis of Nokia, and decide on a possible credit rating downgrade. Why are these credit agencies contemplating these changes? Because they are concerned about our competitiveness.
Consumer preference for Nokia declined worldwide. In the UK, our brand preference has slipped to 20 percent, which is 8 percent lower than last year. That means only 1 out of 5 people in the UK prefer Nokia to other brands. It’s also down in the other markets, which are traditionally our strongholds: Russia, Germany, Indonesia, UAE, and on and on and on.
How did we get to this point? Why did we fall behind when the world around us evolved?
This is what I have been trying to understand. I believe at least some of it has been due to our attitude inside Nokia. We poured gasoline on our own burning platform. I believe we have lacked accountability and leadership to align and direct the company through these disruptive times. We had a series of misses. We haven’t been delivering innovation fast enough. We’re not collaborating internally.
Nokia, our platform is burning.
We are working on a path forward — a path to rebuild our market leadership. When we share the new strategy on February 11, it will be a huge effort to transform our company. But I believe that together, we can face the challenges ahead of us. Together, we can choose to define our future.
The burning platform, upon which the man found himself, caused the man to shift his behaviour and take a bold and brave step into an uncertain future. He was able to tell his story. Now we have a great opportunity to do the same.
Alex Daley’s commentary at Casey’s Daily Dispatch on this memo is among the best. A few excerpt from Alex follow:
But one of the mobile world’s most celebrated early stars is fading, and fast – Nokia. The Finnish mega-company traces its roots all the way back to the rubber industry in 1865. But it evolved over nearly a century and a half into the largest mobile phone supplier in the world. At its peak, the company accounted for the majority of all phones in the world. However, lately things have begun to unwind. Market share for the company has slipped from 39% in 2008 to 35% in 2009, and again to 30% in 2010.
Not only is their global market share decreasing, they’re being assaulted from every side and find themselves with shrinking influence, shrinking margins and shrinking options. Apple, RIM, and the contingent of Android phone manufacturers around the world have gulped up the overwhelming majority of the high-end smartphone market, where profit margins are high. On the other end of the spectrum, Chinese technology outfits have begun to lock up the massive lower end of the market, turning out designs and equipment at a breakneck pace.
Desperate to find relevance in a market moving on without the company, last year they appointed former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop to the position of CEO. He has been pretty quiet since he joined the company, taking his time to learn the business and get to the root of the issues that cause the market to value this technology giant at less than the $43 billion in revenue it generated last year. Quiet until now….
And [Elop’s] use of the term “platform,” while symbolic, seems like a calculated choice for a company that staked its future on a failing developer platform known as Symbian, and a long delayed smartphone platform called MeeGo yet to even launch nearly four years after the iPhone was originally released….
The question of the hour is not just whether or not that will happen, but whose platform it will be. Apple doesn’t license. HP has locked up WebOS with its Palm buy. That really only leaves Google, whom Elop cites as a competitor, and Microsoft, his Alma Mater, which goes completely unmentioned in the damning note….
Elop’s failure to mention Microsoft was certainly deliberate, for a few days later he announced a major partnership with Microsoft aimed at saving the company. See “Microsoft, Nokia Agreement Signals New Smartphone Game,” a Feb. 14, 2011 story from EWeek.com.
Microsoft and Nokia announced a wide-ranging partnership Feb. 11, which will include running Windows Phone 7 on Nokia smartphones, in a combined bid to blunt the competitive momentum of Google Android and the Apple iPhone.
“We have a formidable plan to ensure our collective leadership in the smartphone market and in the ecosystem that surrounds it,” Nokia CEO Stephen Elop told a London press conference. “Our long-term strategic alliance will build a global ecosystem that creates opportunities beyond anything that currently exists.”
Now comes the hard part: actually building that ecosystem.
A formidable plan? I’m sorry, but part of me cringes when anyone declares that the plan they created is “formidable.” Too close to “fool-proof.” And we went from desperation on the brink of ruin on a burning platform one day to a formidable plan the next? Eweek mentions some reasons to restrain enthusiasm:
“Microsoft wins big in this arrangement, having gained a partner for an OS that is struggling in the market and losing share even among its current device suppliers (e.g., HTC),” Jack Gold, principal analyst of J. Gold Associates, wrote in a Feb. 14 research note. “Nokia brings huge scale and can dramatically increase WP7 market share beyond its traditional reliance on vendors with much lower market share. And this precludes Microsoft from having to enter the device market directly (as it did with its Kin disaster).”
However, some analysts see the deal as a decidedly negative one for Nokia, particularly in the longer term.
“We think Nokia has created a new set of issues—a lack of ecosystem control, margin decline and a raft of new royalty payouts—in return for a ‘unique relationship,'” Lee Simpson and Andrej Krneta, analysts with Jeffries & Co., wrote in a Feb. 14 research note. “With WP7 as Nokia’s new primary smartphone OS, why would any operator take an end-of-life product (Symbian)? This can only cap the top line for Nokia going through 2011 and much of 2012.”
The analysts believe that Nokia’s first Windows Phone 7 devices will be “hollowed out ‘N8s’ or the like,” referring to one of the manufacturer’s higher-end smartphones. “Despite longer-term assertions of speedy time to market designs, the overhauling of road maps (and cancellations near-term) will likely dent near-term progress and leaving Nokia dangerously exposed to further market-share erosion.”
I wish Nokia success, but feel that it will take more than Microsoft to bring them success. Innovation fatigue needs to be addressed at multiple levels in the company and the culture radically strengthened to reach their destination. Otherwise, further fatigue may stand in the way.