Saturday, November 17, 2018

Bezos is right; every company will fail; why is this news?

So Amazon had an all-hands meeting in Seattle over a week ago, and while my professional interests were concentrated on Amazon's answers to one particular question, there's another answer to a question that has gotten a lot of press.

At an all-hands meeting last Thursday in Seattle, an employee asked Bezos about Amazon's future. Specifically, the questioner wanted to know what lessons Bezos has learned from the recent bankruptcies of Sears and other big retailers.

"Amazon is not too big to fail," Bezos said, in a recording of the meeting that CNBC has heard. "In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years."

The key to prolonging that demise, Bezos continued, is for the company to "obsess over customers" and to avoid looking inward, worrying about itself.

"If we start to focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end," he said. "We have to try and delay that day for as long as possible."

And now everyone is reporting this like if it's news or something.

It's not.

Sure, it's easy to name companies that have been around for hundreds of years. But most companies haven't.

And in tech, even Bezos' 30 year timeline is somewhat generous. Go back 30 years - incidentally before Amazon, Google, or even Yahoo existed - and look at the Fortune 500. Here are a few of the tech and tech-ish names on that 1988 list.

8 AT&T
25 Eastman Kodak
38 Digital Equipment
61 TRW
62 Motorola
79 Martin Marietta
127 Grumman
208 Polaroid
272 Norton
282 Compaq Computer
318 Tandem Computers
463 Sun Microsystems
483 Atari

I should note that the historical Fortune 500 list is difficult to read because it sometimes uses the companies' current names, rather than the names they were using at the time. (For example, both ExxonMobil and Mobil appear on the list.)

And yes, I intentionally included both AT&T and Motorola on this list. The 1988 AT&T was acquired by a Baby Bell that subsequently renamed itself AT&T, and the 1988 Motorola split in two, with one half going through several subsequent owners.

But these were big companies in 1988. My current employer was around at the time (itself under a different corporate ownership), and it was busily putting systems on Digital Equipment Corporation computers. (A decade later, by the time I joined, we were using more Compaq computers, and we had just bought a company using the Tandem platform.) There were proud workers at Martin Marietta and Grumman, taking on competitors such as Lockheed and Northrop. Come to think of it, the 1988 De La Rue Printrak was taking on North American Morpho Systems, Identix, Digital Biometrics, and other firms. We're all one happy family today, as part of IDEMIA.

(I can't show it to you, but several years ago I created a chart that traced the formation of the company that eventually became MorphoTrust. My chart documented the lawsuit between Identix and Digital Biometrics, and listed an investor's opinions on the merits and demerits of three separate finger and face biometrics companies. All of them became part of MorphoTrust, which de facto merged with MorphoTrak when Oberthur bought Safran Morpho to create IDEMIA. And that, my friends, is why one of my new favorite acronyms is "MVA.")

But enough about the 1988 view of biometrics, or of photography (you only had 36 shots; use them wisely!).

My list of tech companies that are no more may be anecdotal, but the American Enterprise Institute assembled statistical evidence of the transitory nature of companies.

Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues). Most of the companies on the list in 1955 are unrecognizable, forgotten companies today (e.g. Armstrong Rubber, Cone Mills, Hines Lumber, Pacific Vegetable Oil, and Riegel Textile).

Back in the day, no one could picture a time when Montgomery Ward, Kodak, Polaroid, or Sears would hit financial hard times. And even a few years ago, General Electric was a model corporation.

And those with long memories will realize that there were times when (then-named) Apple Computer's continued existence was in doubt.

So Bezos is right. Someone's going to come along at some point and make Amazon look like a stodgy has-been that hasn't done enough to cut costs.

It's only a matter of time.
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