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The Flywheel Is a Lie! Distinguishing Between Ecosystems, Business Models, & Network Effects and How They All Impact the Streaming Wars

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling

This is probably the most popular image for business school students about Amazon. Heck, anyone describing Amazon has probably used this image. 

Amazon FlywheelIf we’re supposed to be neutral observers of businesses, you can’t help but notice after a moment of reflection how insanely positive this take is. Man, Jeff Bezos can really sell his positive vision and have it repeated universally.

If you were really cynical—hey, I am—what would the pessimistic version of this flywheel look like? The “Flywheel of Evil” if you will…

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.21.08 AM

What changed? Well, first, the idea that you “sell more things” is great, but if you lose money on every transaction, that’s “sub-optimal” in business speak. Or bad in human speak. And Amazon does in many cases. 

To fund these losses, you need to start a really successful company that is totally unrelated to your retail business or its membership program, which is where Amazon Web Services comes in. There’s an alternate history where an Amazon without AWS (cloud computing) doesn’t take over retail because it doesn’t have a cash flow engine driving its growth. (In that timeline, Ebay becomes our overlords.)

Even more potent, though, is combining already low prices with Amazon’s decades long refusal to pay local taxes. Could you point to the continued imprisonment of poor Americans to online companies not paying local taxes? Maybe! (As local tax bases erode, some communities turned to police forces to extract rents, like in Ferguson, Missouri. Seem relevant to our current times?) Amazon does pay some local taxes—now—but only after it became an advantage to them in furthering their monopoly power.

Now that it has this “flywheel” rolling, Amazon uses its size to both crush new entrants who want to compete and to punish suppliers, capturing all the value from their product creations.

Which flywheel is “right”, then? Well, both actually. Both describe valuable methods for how Amazon grew to the size it did. Some of those methods were good for customers; some were bad for society. You can’t tell their story without both.

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.21.39 AMWhat’s the lesson? Flywheels are simple whereas reality is complicated. As tools, flywheels are fairly inexact. They’re not even really tools, but narrative devices we use to help make sense of a complicated world. In other words, a “heuristic”. As behavioral economists like Kahneman and Tversky taught us, heuristics are useful, but can carry pitfalls if we aren’t careful.

What’s the point for the streaming wars? Well video has become a spoke on multiple company’s supposed “flywheels”. Everyone from Disney to Amazon, but most critically Apple last fall. Whether or not these were actual flywheels was less important than merely invoking the term and using it to justify nearly any amount of spending. 

Let’s call this another key piece of “terrain” in the streaming wars. The “Forest of Flywheels” if you will. The problem is the business and entertainment press has been fairly sloppy with our language when it comes these types of endeavors. Due to this sloppiness, we’ve allowed a lot of companies to launch video because they’ll “lose money on video to make money on X”. 

Today, I’ll explain the key terms. In my next article I’ll critique deficit-financing in particular. And then I’ll finish it off with an analysis of some of these business models to show their potential strengths and weaknesses. 

Summary

– Flywheels are the most overused term in business, and it’s important to know what different terms mean.
– Ecosystem is probably the most commonly confused term with flywheel. Ecosystems are also rare.
– A true flywheel is a self-perpetuating cycle of growth that is incredibly rare in practice.
– As such, in pursuit of flywheels, we’ve seen many digital players launch money-losing video efforts. I call these “deficit-financed business units”. And they’re one of the biggest factors in the streaming wars.

Defining Traditional Business Strategy Terms

You’ve read articles bemoaning jargon in the workplace. (This New York Magazine piece is the latest in hundreds on the subject.) Even I just denigrated “sub-optimal” above, a term I really don’t like. Still, I don’t take that extreme of a position on business nomenclature. Often, jargon really does have a role in explaining new concepts.

The problem comes in overuse. That’s what is currently happening with “flywheel”. It’s almost become synonymous with “successful business”. But it’s much more specific than that.

So let’s define our terms, so we can better understand what is and is not a flywheel.

Business Model 

It turns out if you want to stymie business school students, just ask them “what is a business model?” Indeed, they’re taking classes called “Strategy and Business Models”, but answering, “What is a business model?” can stump them. I’ve seen it.

At its most basic, a business model is a plan or process to make a good or service and sell it for more than it costs to make. Make a widget for $1, market it for $1 and sell it for $3. Or replace widget with service. The model is how you make money. On a financial statement, this is usually called the income statement. When I build a “model” for this website, that’s usually what I’m building. 

How do business models relate to flywheels? Well, you can have a successful business model that isn’t a flywheel! It’s just a good business. In the olden days, you would have probably described the dividend producing stocks as just good businesses. They don’t have huge growth prospects, but they still generate a return on investment. Cable companies in the 2000s fit this bill. They had good business models, but were absolutely not flywheels.

Where it gets complicated is usually a given company is actually a collection of many business models. Arguably for every product they sell. Or you have distinct models for different business units in the same conglomerate. Which is actually a good transition to our next definition.

Business Unit

Most companies on the S&P 500 aren’t just one business, but multiple types of businesses lumped together. This is the reality for most conglomerated businesses. When analyzing a compnay, it’s key to differentiate between its overall success and the success of its various pieces.

Amazon is a perfect example here. Retail is one business unit. But then it also has media businesses from live streaming to streaming to music. Then it also sells devices like Amazon Echo. Oh, and it has Whole Foods groceries too.

And then there is the cloud computing (AWS). Which I called out above. And it’s worth noting just how distinct that wildly financially successful enterprise is from the rest of Amazon’s consumer-focused retail efforts. It’s a business-to-business service that is powered by lots of fixed capital expenditure data warehouses. It barely relates. Yet, it’s part of Amazon.

How do business units relate to flywheels? Well, flywheels often fail to take into account entire business units. Take the Amazon flywheel of success…it totally ignores AWS! For years Amazon survived because it had an incredibly high margin business in cloud computing that could provide necessary capital that enabled Amazon to continue building its retail business. This also kept Wall Street happy.

That makes the Bezos flywheel not just wrong, but almost negligently wrong. 

It’s business malpractice to point out that a flywheel helped Amazon to succeed if you don’t include AWS’s role in propping up the balance sheet!

I would add, many of the “flywheel” charts you see out there are often just describing a company with multiple business units. (I’ve seen this with Disney and Epic Games.) Every business can benefit from owning multiple business units, from lowering costs or providing learnings. That used to be called “synergy”. Now we call them “flywheels”.

Ecosystem

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A TV Murder Mystery: Who Killed Game of Thrones?

Most of the time, when Hollywood kills off one of its TV shows, we know why. The ratings had been sinking or the talent asked for too much money. (Or recently, it was produced by a rival TV network/conglomerate.)

And yet, HBO killed off Game of Thrones, a TV series that was getting more popular with every season and making its parent company billions in the process. Meanwhile, other long-running series—with worse ratings—from The Simpsons to Grey’s Anatomy to The Walking Dead march on like, well White Walkers. The corpse of Game of Thrones is now—spoiler alert—as cold as Jon Snow’s after season 5.

Why? Who had the motive? And who issued the order?

We Officially Have a Murder Mystery

Frankly, there isn’t a great explanation for why HBO cancelled this series. In the past, I’ve estimated that this series was making an estimated $300 million a season for HBO. (And potentially much more. Read the original, and my director’s commentary here, here and here.) Sure, HBO has a great (on paper) slate premiering the rest of this year and next year, but you know what helps launch a great slate? The biggest show on TV.

Have no doubts this series was growing. The number of viewers rose in every territory that I could find that releases data. Over 44 million were tuning in per episode in America alone, up from 9.3 million in season 1.

GoT Viewership

Of course, in some circles—like HBO creator circles—the story is what matters. Maybe the creators wanted to wrap it up nicely. Except most of the criticism of the last season related to the fact that the series felt rushed. Here is just a sampling of critics and fans complaining that season 8 felt rushed. More episodes and more seasons would have solved this problem, and who knows, by a hypothetical season 9 maybe 50 million people are tuning in in America each year!

Who kills off a money making show? Who are our suspects?

The Suspects

HBO

The buck stops there. So we should start with HBO. Their motive in killing this show would be simple: It’s the most expensive show on television. And since it is already insanely profitable, any additional profits have to be split with talent who are negotiating tougher and tougher deals with more and more back end. Each additional season is less lucrative for HBO, and if the marginal benefits meet the additional costs, well economically HBO should cancel the series.

George R.R. Martin

Listen, George, you’re a part of this. You probably didn’t finish the plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, because if you had, you’d have published that book. Which you haven’t. Maybe you told HBO to stop the series. Or you never provided enough details to fully flesh out 3 to 5 more seasons of the show.

The Actors

When in doubt, blame temperamental actors. Am I right? “Talent” is what you bitterly mumble in Hollywood when you can’t control the situation.

The motives for these suspects—and really I’m talking the big five actors of Jon nee Kit, Cersei nee Leda, Jaime nee Nikola, Daenerys nee Emilia and Tyrion nee Peter—is pretty simple: they’re sick of working on this series. Or more precisely, as artists, they’re ready to make other movies about Greek Gods, Han Solo and Terminators. (Too far?)

Further, even if you don’t mind working on a TV show for the rest of your life—including shoots in both scorching deserts and freezing tundras—you do know how valuable you are. You can’t have a GoT without a Daenerys and Jon Snow/Stark/Targaryen. Knowing that, the actors negotiated phenomenally expensive payments per episode, over $1 million per actor. They also likely demanded higher back end percentages.

The Showrunners

If the actors are sick of this series, imagine the two people at the lonely top of the creative pyramid, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (D&D in Reddit parlance). I can’t describe adequately how insanely time consuming this series was for these two individuals. They wrote a majority of the episodes, supervised the entire production from set design to costumes and oversaw all the editing and post-production; and oh by the way (NFL announcer voice), it was the largest TV production in history. 

Meanwhile, they had plenty of opportunities to do other things, from Star Wars to a new overall deal to ideas in their notebooks we can only imagine. If you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars (my tentative figure for D&D once they collect GoT royalties), do you want to keep spending your winters in Iceland and dealing with the most demanding fans in television history? That would be enough to say, “Eight seasons and we’re done!”

AT&T

Is there a thing that AT&T hasn’t managed to screw up since it acquired Time-Warner turned into Warner Media? Since taking over, they’ve lost the head of their movie studio, the head of HBO and plenty of other executives. Meanwhile, they named their new streaming service HBOMax, which was universally derided, and DirecTV is hemorrhaging subscribers. Oh, and AT&T is the most indebted company in America. Maybe they killed GoT to keep the losses from piling up. 

Netflix

When you discuss TV on the internet, you’re contractually obligated to mention Netflix at least once. While we give Netflix a lot of credit and blame for, they’re not involved here. 

The Evidence

Like a detective in Law & Order, it’s time to interview the witnesses. Which in this case means various articles that describes the suspect’s state of mind. Supply your own “dum dum”.

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