3P Placement

There have been four eras of modern retail. 

Catalog era. In 1888 the Sears catalog begins. In 1896 the United States begins rural free delivery. Companies can mail catalogs directly to their customers and customers could mail their orders. It’s an important step in the Reconstruction Era. In 1908 the Sears kit house appeared. By 1915 the Sears catalog peaked in size. 

City era. By 1929 half of Sears’ orders are retail rather than catalog. Americans migrate to cities. Stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward get in front of them. Sears buys radio station WLS and locates stores in downtown areas. “Window shopping” begins. 

Suburbs era. Americans move again. Following World War II, Americans seek space and the automobile allows it. At the time Walter Cronkite noted, “When [Eisenhower] approved and pushed through Congress this great interstate highway network that we now have, he changed the entire face of America.” Sam Walton opens his first store in 1945. The American mall begins in 1950, a decade later there are almost five thousand. By 1975 malls account for 33% of all retail sales.

Internet era. In 1994 K-mart reaches its peak store count and Amazon.com begins. Though digital, early websites are niches of catalogs or newspapers: classifieds, shoes, clothes, used goods, and so on.

How a business distributes to customers affects how a business succeeds. The four eras of modern retail demonstrate how the placement of goods and services changed over time. 

A niche of the internet era, DTC, is a modern example of how the terms change. The DTC placement is, or used to be, quite cheap. Businesses warehoused goods away from expensive city centers or suburbs. Or dropshipped across the Pacific Ocean. They didn’t worry about fighting for shelf space when public and private and last-mile couriers were happy to work for them.

DTC brands also succeeded because they chose good products. Glasses, rings, clothes, razors, and makeup are all easy to ship, similar in scope, and don’t expire. They’re also products with favorable margins. 

Lastly, the internet provided unique promotion opportunities. The internet allowed cheap websites and cheap – though growing expensive – advertising on social media sites. There were no gatekeepers and they told their story on podcasts and in videos. 

What’s the next era? No one knows. What’s the question to ask? That’s easy. Where are my customers and how do I talk with them? 

There’s a longer look at the four eras here: From farm to city to suburb to circuit

The economics of iPhone cases

I tried, and failed, to get a photo of this issue.

For Christmas my youngest daughter got an iPhone. It was BOGO when you add a line, so I got a new iPhone too. For simplicity sake I ordered us Apple cases with the phones. And my case sucks. The silicon marigold iPhone 13 case is the worst I’ve ever owned.

But why?

Apple products are good. The computer I’m typing this on is an Apple product. If it’s read on a phone odds are one-in-three it’s an iPhone. Apple is one of the most valuable companies in the world – and has been for many years. What’s going on?

Well first, value is relative. If something is bad, it’s bad relative to what? My previous Smartish and Speck ($12 & $8 respectively) cases were more durable and provided prolonged protection on earlier inferior designed products. I think Apple cases are bad because they lack competition.

Apple, like Aldi, competes in a special way. Both are A+ companies and both compete outside the store. The goal is to get people inside, and if customers come in, they’ve got them. So Apple doesn’t convince me to buy the silicon marigold case rather than the leather case. No, Apple just wants me to buy Apple.

Aldi cereal is a visual example of this model, the boxes are bland (here in B&W) because they don’t have to grab the customer’s attention in the store. Contrast this with Walmart or Amazon where the competition is both inside and outside.

Smartish or Speck compete in the bedlam of Amazon. These cases have to throw sharp elbows in the arena of good, fast, and cheap. I found the Smartish case via a Wirecutter review, so it has to stand out as well. Ditto for Speck.

That said, I don’t know if the Apple case should even be good. Apple’s advantage is packaged hardware and software, not being best in class on accessories. Apple doesn’t sell a great phone case, instead the JTBD is ease and brand.

3P and pricing power

3P: Pricing power 

The best business has pricing power. Investor Charlie Munger noted that a business with pricing power is “the ultimate no-brainer.” 

How does that fit within the Placement, Promotion, and Product series

Product. Pricing power exists relative to production costs. A knowledge worker uses ‘information’ to create their service. If the price of the information increases and the worker cannot raise their prices they do not have pricing power. 

A coffee roaster might have a different perspective. If coffee is coffee, then one Brazilian farmer raising prices doesn’t affect the roaster. They shop around. Or, they can stick with the roaster and pass the cost increase onto the consumer. Which gets to…

Promotion. Pricing power exists relative to perceived value. If customers buy ‘milk’, a business has low pricing power. But if customers buy ‘milk, from grass-fed low hormone happy cows’, that is different. 

Customers don’t buy one thing. There’s always an intangible. Brands demonstrate this. A Rolex doesn’t just tell time. McDonald’s doesn’t just provide sustenance. 

Placement. Pricing power exists relative to distribution and retail options. Think about location. Landlords have pricing power over restaurant tenants. 

The internet (with shipping) removes the landlord – and their power. Website hosting, online shopping carts, and 3PL have minimal pricing power over their customers. So, online businesses can be quickly profitable. But not all internet services are created equal. Facebook has pricing power for Facebook communities, not so for email newsletters or websites. 

Another aspect is Wholesale Transfer Pricing. This is part-of-the-reason restaurants are terrible businesses

*Their* restricted action section

One idea around here is that of the restricted action section, and how to unlock it. Broadly the goal is to limit any reduction in the range of choices. For example, the willingness to look stupid is a way to reduce the restricted actions section.

A common cause of restriction are stakeholders. Employees are stakeholders, movie financiers are stakeholders, and institutional investors are stakeholders. In the case of DTC, the most underrated part of the success of companies like Dollar Shave Club, All Birds, or Warby Parker was their competitor’s stakeholders. It wasn’t that Gillette didn’t want to sell their razors for cheap, but that would undermine their retail partners. Stakeholders limit actions. What’s there to do? Tyler Cowen gave a 2022 talk at Yale and advised this:

“Never stop listening while you do this (advocate your position). Don’t make it a crusade, make it a way you are expressing your opinion but trying to learn at the same time. I think especially in university environments you will be more effective that way. If you’re a top line university administrator, the pressures you’re under and the number of constituents you have to cater to is so extreme. Those are frustrated people. A lot of them may be on your side way more than you think but they can’t say so.”

Tyler Cowen

Whenever I find myself flummoxed by someone’s action it’s a sign I don’t understand the incentives. Sometimes the incentives are satisfying the stakeholders. I like Cowen’s approach here: be curious and find the incentives.

Need a louder phantom Tyler Cowen? Here’s more.

Batman (part 2)

What do the following movies have in common? 

American Beauty, The Green Mile, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, Boys Don’t Cry, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, Toy Story 2, American Pie, and Star Wars Episode I. 

They were released in the same year. It was so good they wrote a book: Best. Movie. Year. Ever. 

Was it talent? Maybe. Good economics? Perhaps. Instead, let’s look at this using the Placement, Promotion, and Product Bullseye. If a business ‘hits the bullseye’ it succeeds. 

In 2000, Thomas Tull founded Legendary Entertainment. It was one of the first companies to combine private equity investments with Hollywood movie-making. 

It was good timing. The late 90s saw the highest number of movie screens in America. In 2004, Blockbuster’s store count peaked. A year later DVD sales did too.

The placement for movies was primo. There had never been more screens on which to place movies. Make enough of something and some of them will be very good. 

Tull also nailed the promotion for movies. Prior to Legendary, Hollywood used mass-market advertising – because it worked! Jaws pioneered and Star Wars exploded the model that with national advertising and distribution, movies could be huge. 

But Tull saw national consumers as three segments. There were huge fans, who would pay regardless of promotion. There was also the free tickets and twenty bucks crowd. These people wouldn’t go for free tickets and twenty bucks. Then there was the middle group. It was them Tull wanted to reach with the advertising. Persuade the persuadable and he did just that 

The final piece of the picture puzzle was a great product. Hire great directors – Nolan, Snyder, del Toro – and get out of their way. Legendary’s product was helped too by characters like Batman, stories like We Are Marshall, and laugh-fests like The Hangover. 

The product was also profitable. Movie studios controlled the pricing and theaters earned their keep on soda, sweets, and treats. Ditto for DVD, a product with a high upfront cost but zero marginal cost . 

Now flip it. Books are also media. Lee Child is a 3x NYT Best Seller and when Killing Floor was released in 1997 it had a limited audience, was hard to find, and was promoted in a review of books section of the newspaper. Not ideal. 

Books became a better business model. They’re better placed: physical or digital. Promotion is more focused, specifically with the rise of podcasts. But Child still has ‘his biggest fan’ come up on the street to ask when his next book is out. It’s out now, he tells them, go buy it!. The product, for the right authors too, has never been better. But best sellers are not blockbusters.

Businesses ask: Where to direct resources? Through contrast, the bullseye model highlights the trade-offs. 

Keep following along. 👇 

Part one of Batman was looking at the movie industry from 1975-Marvel in the Batman BATNA post.

Design = Action

“We have scores about how much willpower some people have,” says Wendy Wood author of Good Habits Bad Habits, “and some people score really high on those scales. Those people are not denying themselves things, but instead they form habits that meet their goals. For example, my students study in the library or a place in their dorm and when they are there they put their phone away. There’s no distractions. They just work.”

There’s a lot in there!

Willpower might be a bad metric. Often we count, compute, and consider the things which are easy to count, compute and consider. But easy may not be the best way to judge a metric. Calories are easy to count, but how often does calorie counting lead to weight loss? So maybe ‘willpower’ – quantified or not – is the wrong thing to look at as well.

Instead Wood suggests habits which are helped by ease and ease is designed. Wood notes that her students go to a place that is designed for reduced distraction. They also take the advice of James Clear and put their phone just out of reach.

Design is part of writing Cal Newport told Tim Ferriss. We know this, Neil Gaiman’s writing cottage has been featured here, twice! What’s nice about it, Gaiman said, is that it’s just out of WiFi range. A separate place has been an ongoing study on Cal Newport’s blog.

Okay. We get it. But, here’s the twist. The design of “quiet space free from distraction” is only best for certain outcomes.

The starkest 2022 contrast is Twitter. Investing Twitter, for instance, is full of smart people trading ideas, giving commentary, and sharing thoughts. If the desired action is to be a better thinker in the markets the design must include Twitter. It just won’t work to sequester oneself just out of Wifi range. Even Charlie Munger joked about his kids thinking of him as a book with legs: but the book now is the timeline. Similar if the goal is public policy the design must include advocation. If the goal is sales the design must include talking to customers (and finding the JTBD).

The heart of design is intentionality. Here’s to all of us being a bit more intentional today.

‘WiFi’ BTW is just branding. Here is Wood’s full interview.

Placement, Promotion, Product (Genesis)

Businesses have to do many things to succeed. But three areas encompass those many things: placement, promotion, and product.

Where is this sold? The placement includes distribution, retail (shelf space), shipping, etc.

How is it promoted? Also known as ‘marketing’ but includes how the customers understand the value.

What is sold? The ‘thing’. What are the trade-offs in the creation?

Consider toothpaste. It’s universal in retail, it’s promoted with national, regional, and local advertising, and it is designed to feel good.

Or, your local accountant. They have an office (Main St. USA), sponsor a little league team, have a weekly newspaper ad, and do a service many people don’t want to, or can’t, do.

Even, Google. It’s located in the world of bits rather than atoms, it spreads through word-of-mouth, and is the best search engine ever built.

Remove one area (placement, promotion, or product), and each business changes significantly. What if toothpaste loses shelf space to deodorant, if the local accountant stops advertising, or if Google search results become worse? These three areas are ‘gotta haves’.

We’ll look more at how Placement, Promotion, and Product influence how a business succeeds or fails.

Some parts of this diagram we’ve covered. If Product is the goal, then job to be done is the means. If Promotion is the goal, then Alchemy is the means. If Placement is the goal – well – this one we’ve looked at less, and it’s because of the internet which makes getting bits of data to anyone so simple it’s overlooked. We’ll fix that.

Follow along 👇

Solving the EV problem

The EV problem is not range. The problem is charging time. “Most electric vehicles today,” said James Frith, “can do an 80% charge in twenty minutes or so. That’s probably slightly longer than people want to stop at a gas station on a long journey, but it’s not unreasonable.” 

While technically correct it is psychologically wrong. The problem isn’t “twenty minutes”. The problem is “gas station”. 

When I started driving, gas stations were dirty. In high school, I worked manual labor and we rated the gas stations on how horrible they were. They were bad even to a crew of teenage and twenty-year-old boys working for an asphalt company. 

But gas stations have gotten better as they have become less like gas stations. Buc-ee’s – a Texan invention – is a gas station that became a tourist destination. People want to stop. That seems like the kind of place someone could spend twenty minutes. 

So it’s not the wait, it’s the quality. 

There are different forms of twenty minutes. A twenty-minute wait in the McDonald’s drive-thru is different from a twenty-minute nap while your wife and daughters go to a craft store. You’re frustrated by the first and delighted by the second. 

The classic gas station is the wrong model and the industry changes reflect that. An ideal charging station then is a nice place to spend twenty minutes. It’s a place to buy coffee and food and use a nice bathroom. Maybe there’s a playground or park? It should have solar so customers get a psychic reward for their time. 

Another avenue is to ask where do people already wait twenty minutes? Fast-casual meals are at least twenty minutes. Twenty minutes is the length of an episode of The Good Place. Headspace could use charging stations as a customer acquisition channel – we all could use a little less stress on the not-so-open roads. 

In Alchemy Rory Sutherland suggests that we invest too much in physics rather than psychological solutions. Physics, like battery technology, is hard because the rules don’t change. Psychology is easier because sometimes the rules change. What’s a long wait in one case is a short one in another. That’s how to solve the EV equation. 

I wrote about Headspace here and “personal recharging” is a great opportunity. 

Vaccine ease

The most powerful decision hack is ease. Make something easy to choose (ex. social proof), make it easy to execute (ex. now), make it easy to justify (ex. let the person tell a good story) and so on. Economist John List joined Tim Ferriss (Overcast) and talked about how we do that with childhood vaccinations.

“You’re going to be in the delivery room. Your kid is going to come out. Everyone is going to be happy. The doctors and nurses will make sure you wife is happy and the baby is healthy. Then the doctor is going to give you a playbook that says: We are going to give these vaccinations today and when you bring your baby back in six months it’s going to get a checkup and some new vaccinations. In twelve months, same thing. In eighteen months, same thing. The polio vaccination occurs in that time period. Any parent is going to do well by their kid and bring them to the doctor checkups, so it’s not an extra cost and you automatically get it.”

John List

Ease, make it easy. Inverted it’s the same plan: make undesirable behaviors more difficult. A few others:

What else is easy? Getting these posts delivered right to your inbox:

Blumhouse business model

“So how do you win, how can you make money if the dumbest guy in the room is the one setting the price?” – Jerry Neumann 

Every business has better or worse business models. Pixar only worked as a movie company thanks to the extensions offered by Disney. John Lassiter told Steve Jobs that each movie they made had to be the highest-earning animated movie of all-time every time. Unless of course there was theme park, merchandise, and licensing revenue too.

Another movie model is Thomas Tull’s experience at Legendary Pictures. There the goal was to “stand as close as you can to absolute talent” and be mindful with the marketing. Great directors (Nolan, del Toro, Jonze, Snyder) with established characters (Batman, Superman, Jurassic Park) and good marketing meant Legendary worked. 

A third movie model is the Blumhouse model. How does it work? 

1/ Horror is the minivan of Hollywood. One day I went to a friend’s house to play pickleball. They love pickleball and painted a court on their driveway. I parked in the grass, got out of the car, and was welcomed by the question you bought a minivan?!?!?!

Yup. Besides the practical aspects, minivans are don’t include a “signaling premium”.  It looks cool to ride in a Suburban. A minivan is much much much less cool. Because it is ‘hired’ to do fewer things it’s cheaper for the other jobs. 

In Hollywood action movies are Suburbans and horror is the minivan. “It’s very hard for producers and executives in Hollywood,” Blum said, “to get out of their way.” Horror movies don’t have an ego reward.

2/ Control the costs. Blum does this three ways.

  1. Actors get the minimum plus bonuses. “Few locations, few speaking parts, and we shoot 90% of our movies in Los Angeles. It’s twenty to twenty-five days and everyone works for the least they’re allowed to be paid from the union.” It’s a venture capital model. 
  2. There’s no meddling. “I’m not an artist,” Blum said, “I leave that to the directors.” If you hire the right people they don’t need to be told what to do. At Seinfeld, they celebrated the 100th episode with an enlarged list of requests from NBC – none of which had been made. People are willing to work for less because there’s also no “note tax” on their psyche.
  3. Moneyball hiring. “James Wan and Leigh (Whannell) had done Saw together and they came in my office and pitched Insidious,” Blum said, “Leigh and James had done two movies for Universal that hadn’t worked very well and I think Hollywood judges all of us too harshly on our last work as opposed to our body of work.” Blum found metrics that were underpriced by the market due to recency.

3/ Total addressable market. The movie business model affects how many and what kind of movies there are. The 1990s saw a bunch of movies because there were many screens. The 2000s saw a bunch of DVDs because of their high margins. The 2010s saw a bunch of superhero action movies because they easily translated across languages. Horror does too.  

4/ Sequels. Each movie is a test. If the ‘proof of concept’ works, Blum and his team add to it. The Purge was made for $3M and earned $90M in 2013. The sequel, Anarchy, was made for $9M and earned $110M in 2014. There have been five Purge films (so far). 

Is there such a thing as a bad business? There are poorly run businesses. Some businesses attempt the wrong thing. There are business cycles. But every business has a model that works. Jason Blum utilizes ego and lack of to compete and compensate in a unique way. Much like a CAC of zero changes the unit economics, Blum’s approach opens up a business model that works.

Seriously, 1999.