Friday, November 28, 2014

Google to Upend Healthcare Paradigms

Andrew Conrad's phrase is convert the paradigms of healthcare, but knowing Google and its geeky smart, underrated rebellious nature, I'd say the more apt verbs are upend, destroy (à la creative destruction), and replaceFrom reactive and episodic, to proactive to continuous is the aim for the Life Sciences business that Conrad heads.  Simple, right?

The nano-particle platform works on the notion that these tiny, tiny particles play at the nexus between biology and engineering.  Google wants to functionalize nano-particles, so these buggers do whatever Google wants them to do.  The theory and the technology behind the medical application that Conrad describes may be dizzying, but the objective is simple enough: Gather data about what is going on inside our body, in such ways and to an extent never before done.

Ray Kurzweil is a technologist, inventor and futurist, and is on board Google as Director of Engineering.  In a vision that he calls singularity, the time will come, by the end of the next decade, when technology capability will surpass human capability to keep up.  Right now, the brain, for one, is far, far more sophisticated that any artificial intelligence device.  But Kurzweil points out that scientists and developers are well under way in turning the tables and, in his words, in approaching singularity.  When asked if Google was working on death, Conrad admits that Google is on it by eradicating disease and does view death as an enemy.  He may simply be echoing what Kurzweil believes, namely, that immortality is a possibility. 

By the way, Joanna Stern, personal tech columnist for The Wall Street Journal, isn't the right interviewer for this subject.  Either she didn't prepare adequately, or she is simply way in over her head with the things Conrad talks about.  Which he has done a good job of translating into mainly non-technical language. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jack Ma on Alibaba as an Ecosystem

Jack Ma speaks with a fine blend of humility and confidence, seemingly apt to demure and diminish himself yet steely at the same time around what he has to do.  For example, he is extraordinarily wealthy, especially at the heels of a record IPO, but he has difficulty getting used to it.  He was more used to the small salary he garnered as a teacher. 

It is apparent that Alibaba is more than just a company:
Alibaba is an ecosystem, that is helping small business to grow.
Business owners can sell anything on the site, given that it draws 18 million people browsing on a daily basis.  So while WSJ interviewer Dennis Berman inquires about selling more Chinese products around the world, Ma counters that that is already happening.  Instead, he wants to import more American, Russian and Brazilian products to his formidable market.

Ma was in Hollywood to learn how American filmmakers create movies.  In Chinese movies, he says, the hero always dies.  So nobody wants to be a hero, and young people don't have people to look up to.  He adds that he learns a lot from watching the big screen, for instance, how to speak to an audience from The Bodyguard.  When asked to elaborate on his purpose for being in Hollywood, he relates that China is a huge market for movies.  Again Jack Ma is thinking import.

Because of sheer size, Alibaba has to think bigger and broader, in order to sustain itself over the next 10 years.  So, Jack Ma reasons, his company has to solve social problems.  For example, he anticipates serious health problems, because of pollution, but he envisions a China with clear air in 10 years.  What does he want to do, then?  Build more hospitals, draw more doctors, and develop more drugs.  Yet, another major opportunity for that Alibaba ecosystem.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Expanding Ecosystem for Tim Cook & Co.

Tim Cook is more candid and informative than personally I have seen him.  The thought came to mind was that he had studied interviews Steve Jobs gave, no doubt intensively, to learn how the Apple icon carried himself and what he divulged.  In any case, I found myself encouraged about how the company is doing and more importantly how well positioned it is for the future.   

iPhone will continue to lead Apple revenues and profits, but it is not by any means the only business.  Software services is an $18 billion business, for one thing.  Also customers love the bigger screen experience: Consequently iMac has grown 21% and Apple has kept innovating there.  Its overall ecosystem is getting larger, for example, with finances (Apple Pay) health and fashion (Apple Watch) added in.

TV is an interesting space for Apple, and no doubt other firms as well.  It is a 30-year old technology, so the contrast that Cook paints is compelling:  We work at our sophisticated PCs and work our mobile devices, then we head to our living room and it is a step back in time.  He demures on offering more information, but still TV definitely has a compelling business proposition.

What Cooks says on matters of privacy is instructive: Apple doesn't read our e-mails, texts or face-time communications.  So whether it's the good guy (government) or the bad guy (hackers) calling for personal data, they cannot provide anything.  It's a pointed jab at Google, among other technology majors. Apple business model is exquisitely crafted around hardware and software, unlike others where advertising revenues are huge and our personal data is an integral business proposition. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Shaping Strategies in Uncertain Times


I read a piece by Hugh Courtney - Making the Most of Uncertainty - in the McKinsey Quarterly (2001, no. 4, 38-47), the theme of which resonated with the post-September 11th outlook and landscape:

McKinsey found that between 1985 and 1995, 86% of the “50 stars” with the greatest sales, profit, and market capitalization growth used predominantly shaping strategies (as opposed to adapting strategies). Companies included Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and The Home Depot.

Adapting strategies rely on deep insight into the market and on the ability to act with speed and agility.  So that the company can spot opportunities quickly and turn on a dime to reorient themselves.

For example, in the 1980s, HP customized ink-jet printers for use in different non-US markets in the factory and then shipped them to its warehouses. The problem was, unpredictable fluctuations in demand from non-US markets resulted in mismatches in supply and demand. HP adapted quickly: It held off customizing the printers until after it had shipped them to the warehouses and had orders firmly in hand. This adaptation slightly increased production costs, but the net savings from a decreased stock-out and inventory-carrying costs was $3 million a month.

Shaping strategies rely on deep foresight, the ability to envision the future that the company wants to create. They require strong credibility and influence to move an industry. Scenario planning and game theory are tools to use. 

For example, Minnetonka successfully reshaped the soap market in the 1980s when it introduced Softsoap. It knew that its big competitors, such as Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever could act quickly in response. So in anticipation of this, aggressively “locked up” suppliers of key parts for the liquid soap. At the time, only two companies made plastic pumps, so Minnetonka ordered 100 million of the pumps to support its national rollout for Softsoap. It took competitors 18 to 24 months to make a full-scale entry into this market.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Breakthrough Ideas for the 21st Century

It was November 9th 2001, just at the heels of that horrific morning of September 11th.  I remember traveling to New York City on client business just a couple of days before.  Interestingly while that client managed high end property, such as the (former) Sears Tower in Chicago, we didn't talk about September 11th.  At least not that I recall.

Instead, I remember two different conversations.  One business colleague who said that the stench around Ground Zero, site of the collapsed twin towers, was horrible.  I strained through the airplane window, as we descended, but couldn't fit Ground Zero.  I wanted to go there, but I was advised not to even try, because there was no way I could get even remotely close to it.  Then, I went to our New York City office, and spoke to the General Manager.  He related that some of his staff saw the crash directly out of their window, and were traumatized by it.  They were a safe distance away, but I imagine it all felt dangerously and shockingly close that morning.

Leonardo da Vinci sketch and notes on a helicopter idea

That preamble may not have anything to do directly with the following notes, but as I reflect now on what I wrote, clearly the ground beneath our feet and the landscape in front of us were like the shifting sand on shore at the very edge of a vast, turbulent ocean.  So that November 9th I took notes on the 2001 HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for Today's Business Agenda (Harvard Business Review, Vol. 79, no. 3, pp. 123-128):
  • Even a great business model is not enough.
  • Change is changing. It is more about evolution than revolution, that is, about gradual, incremental change.  This is precisely how we framed, coached and practice leadership development. It was about “Dynamic stability.”
  • Ego makes the leader.
  • Only connect.
  • The biology century dawns. I like the research on sharkskin to come up with sleek, minimal-drag bodysuits for swimmers; on leaves to build more efficient solar cells; on butterfly wings to cool computer chips.
Here is the introduction to that HBR list:
Business is shaped by ideas. But how do you separate enduring ideas from passing fancies? In this, the first edition of the annual HBR List, our editors spotlight five breakthrough ideas that are truly shaping the future of business. [1] Even a great business model is not enough. The rise and fall of dot-coms left markets reeling and CEOs scratching their heads. The most important lesson of the debacle: squishy thinking about "business models" is no substitute for a distinctive strategy. [2] Change is changing. In recent years, pundits have urged executives to incite revolutions within their companies. But a growing group of experts now suggests that the best companies actually evolve through incremental change--change that builds on rather than subverts their heritage. [3] Ego makes the leader. By looking deeply into executives' psyches, we are beginning to unlock the enigma of leadership. While there will never be a single recipe for successful corporate stewardship, an understanding of the human ego can shed light on leadership's most fundamental components. [4] Only connect. In business organizations, what's really important about people is not their individual skills but the relationships they form with one another. By investing in "social capital," companies can often push their performance to a whole new level. [5] The biology century dawns. In the twentieth century, product innovations tended to spring from physics. But in the new century, biology may be the central source of innovation. From genomics to biomimicry, the study of life promises to change what companies sell and even how they operate.
Also reference: The Secret to Great Breakthrough Ideas - Ask Why?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Women Entrepreneurs Advancing their Companies

Three star entrepreneurs - Shunee Yee [CSOFT International], Susan Coelius Keplinger [Triggit], and Debbie Sterling [GoldieBlox] - on the challenges, lessons, and rewards in taking their businesses to the next level.
Shunee Yee

Yee takes a broader, more philosophical view of growth, but when asked, admits to pragmatic challenges of expanding her company globally (e.g. server going down at crucial times).
It's sort of like, once you pass the adolescent stage in life, growth is not all about just growing taller or bigger.  It's more about redefining your space, shaping out the view and strategy, and developing a community to be ready for making a bigger impact in the market.
Yee also emphasizes the all in or nothing tact, which, to me, is about committing fully and unwaveringly.  I once advised a friend about this very thing: He had a job, but was working diligently on a business concept on the side.  Going forward, I said, He had to define himself as either an employee or an entrepreneur.  It didn't need to be a cut-and-dry proposition, but he couldn't sit on the fence either.

Susan Coelius Keplinger

Keplinger relates the reality challenges of diversity.  Despite her vision of, and commitment to, gender balance, she found a reality of (a) few women candidates applying for jobs and (b) business exigencies of growth preoccupying her.
I'm going to create a company that is very diverse, that has just as many women as there are men, and that did not happen.
Keplinger met a woman who had very similar interests as she did and to whom she came to feel close.  This woman (Joy) told her mentoring was about friendship, not so much about business advice per se.  That makes sense to me: A mentor is someone with whom you can let your hair down and talk candidly about things, which may be business or may be personal.

Debbie Sterling

Sterling thought her toy concept for girls was so elementary, that she wondered why no one else had thought about it.  Then, as she brought it to industry people, she found responses that pointed to sexism among them. 
They all kind of crinkled their nose, and looked at me, and whispered "This won't sell" and "There's no market for it."  "Look at the pink aisle, this is what's popular, this is what girls like."  "You can't fight nature."
Sterling also speaks to an important move early on her entrepreneurial efforts with GoldieBlox: create a circle of advisers and mentors.  To her credit, she understood that doing something new meant getting diverse views from others, because clearly people weren't so warm to her toy concept at first and, I imagine, she needed ideas on a way through or past this.