Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall

Several smart people I follow have talked about reading a book called Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall, so I figured I better have a look. It's a great read that's loaded with interesting stories and provocative perspectives.

I still have about 60 pages to go but I've already learned about how radar was almost completely overlooked as a breakthrough technology, why Pan Am is no more and how Polaroid met its demise. You might think you already know most, if not all, of these stories but I promise you the author presents new information you probably never previously heard or considered.

The most intriguing part of the book is where he talks about The Moses Trap:

[The Moses Trap is] when ideas advance only at the pleasure of a holy leader -- rather than the balanced exchange of ideas and feedback between soldiers in the field and creatives at the bench selecting loonshots on merit -- that is exactly when teams and companies get trapped. The leader raises his staff and parts the seas to make way for the chosen loonshot. The dangerous virtuous cycle spins faster and faster: loonshot feeds franchise feeds bigger, faster, more. The all-powerful leader begins acting for love of loonshots rather than strength of strategy. And then the wheel turns one too many times.

Bahcall distinguishes between what he refers to as P-type and S-type loonshots. The former is product-based whereas the latter is strategy-based. The S-types are similar to the examples Clay Christensen refers to in my favorite business book, The Innovator's Dilemma, which is probably another reason why I've thoroughly enjoyed Loonshots.


What are your adjacent business opportunities?

More often than not, the best growth and disruption opportunities can be found in some of the most unexpected places. We get so hung up studying our direct competitors that we completely lose sight of a potential marketplace newcomer who isn't just out to protect the status quo. I find it's best to look beyond your obvious competitors and consider what's going on in adjacent markets. I recently had an opportunity to do just that and it resulted in me advocating and leading the due diligence for an equity stake in a very exciting startup.

This particular startup, Biblezon, produces Android-powered tablets with models for adults and children. One of the cooler aspects of the latter is that there's no browser on the device, so you can safely give it to a child and never worry that they'll end up on an inappropriate website.

Our company isn't in the hardware business but we do produce a lot of content every year and we have a rich, deep backlist of timeless material. Biblezon and their tablets represent an entirely new distribution channel, one that we can help develop. We're only in the very early stages of this partnership but I'm excited to see how we can work together, as adjacent businesses, to extend the reach of both organizations in the years ahead.

Biblezon is definitely an adjacent business for me but it's not the only one I'm currently exploring strategic alliances and financial investments with. I'm fortunate to work in an organization where we recognize the fact that plenty of innovation and disruption happens outside our four walls. That's why it's so critical to look beyond the usual list of competitors for inspiration.

What would a short list of adjacent businesses look like in your segment and what are you doing to explore ways of working with them?


Revisiting "The Innovator's Dilemma"

What's the most impactful business book you've ever read? Mine is Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma. I first read it many years ago and I figure now would be a good time to read it again. I must have given my original copy away, so I stopped by the used book store and picked up another for $8.99.

What was so memorable about my first read of this classic? Christensen opened my eyes to think like a startup, an innovator and a disruptor. One of the key takeaways is that many innovators chip away at the low end of the market, causing entrenched market leaders to ignore them, figuring they can have that less profitable segment but they'll never truly compete with me in the more lucrative segment. By the time the leader realizes their mistake, the innovator has already stolen much of the market and is on their way toward total domination.

OK, it doesn't always end that way but this book describes many examples of significant disruption by new market entrants. I've referred to this book countless times in my career and I'm confident the lessons it offers are as relevant today as they were when it was originally published.

I'm looking forward to starting the reading journey again on this one and I hope you'll join me. I'll be sure to share my thoughts, as well as my preferred method of book highlighting in an upcoming article. (Hint: the highlighting approach involves Evernote...)


The digital content scalability problem

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 3.04.46 PMWhy are ebooks still stuck in the print-under-glass model? Why haven't we seen anything new and exciting in the digital book transformation process?

Those are questions I've been asking myself a lot lately. Ebooks are convenient in that you can carry an entire library on a phone or tablet. They're also more readily available for browsing or purchase, right from the comfort of home. But the reading experience features nothing more than a digital version of the print edition.

I've spent a lot of time evaluating content transformation platforms over the past several years in the hopes that I'll discover the path forward from today's world of dumb books on smart devices. I'm disappointed to say we're at roughly the same stage as we were at more than 10 years ago when the Kindle first hit the scene.

The problem? Scalability.

There are countless books which could be greatly enriched by leveraging technology. Everything from the simple insertion of video to the addition of more interactive elements would turn a static experience into a much more memorable (and probably more effective) experience. These enrichment platforms are becoming easier to use, enabling drag-and-drop functionality so you don't have to be a programmer to create a rich user experience. However, the cost of creating these next-gen products is typically more than what the publisher invested in the creation of the original print product.

Think about that for a minute. As a publisher, you have a pretty good sense of the ROI for your next new title. Most of the variables involved operate within a fairly tight range (e.g., author advance, editing expense, manufacturing cost, sell-in level, etc.) Even the total sales, and therefore resulting revenue, are fairly predictable, within a given range. All this predictability provides the publisher with a P&L model without a lot of surprises.

Now think about asking a publisher to spend two or three times that initial product investment to create an enriched version of the same title. The product development expenses are higher, and may even result in cost overruns due to the newness of the approach. More importantly, the resulting revenue projection is a total shot in the dark. Until the publisher has created enough of these new products, they have no idea what sort of sales range to project.

Scalability should lead to better efficiencies. We saw this with ebooks; an ebook can be created today at a fraction of what publishers used to pay for the service 5-10 years ago. The same thing needs to happen with enriched content. Vendors need to have a path to a model where the transformation cost is less than half the original print/ebook product cost. If they're unable to get there, they might as well abandon ship and get into a different business.


Whatever happened to innovation in the publishing industry?

Creativity-819371_1920Remember the excitement surrounding the launch of Amazon’s Kindle eight years ago? It was a clunky device, even by 2007 standards, but it was revolutionary. One of the original Kindle’s breakthrough features was the ability to download books via cellular network. The eInk display and extremely long battery life also led to its popularity despite the device’s hefty $399 price tag.

That was eight years ago and it’s hard to name even two or three other innovations that have had as significant an impact as the first-gen Kindle. Sure, the iPad was noteworthy but it didn’t exactly reinvent reading. And while today’s devices are faster and cheaper than yesterday’s they feature incremental improvements, not groundbreaking innovations.

The same can be said for all aspects of the digital publishing ecosystem, not just devices. The most interesting development over the past few years is probably the all-you-can-read subscription model. But any momentum there has been halted as Oyster is about to disappear and Amazon’s offering has no Big Five content. FWIW, I still believe in all-you-can-read models but only if they’re focused around a topic/genre and they avoid the unsustainable business model that crushed Oyster.

Why has there been almost no innovation in the book publishing industry since the original Kindle?

As I meet with publishers I hear a lot of conservatism and anxiety in their voices. Many are just trying to survive revenue shortfalls and staff downsizings. They’re also afraid of doing anything that might be perceived as a threat to the key retailers.

I believe most publishers are relying too much on the industry leader, Amazon, to also serve as innovation leader. Given that books (print and e) represent less than 10% of Amazon’s overall revenue I’m not convinced they’re motivated to innovate. Amazon is more focused on building other areas of the business and not so much on the book industry they currently dominate. They want to protect and grow their book market share, of course, but I doubt they want to pour a lot of money into reinvention breakthroughs. Amazon didn’t invent the all-you-can-read model, for example; they simply launched a service in reaction to Oyster and Scribd.

This is why I’ve always been a huge fan of the startup community. But it seems as though there are fewer and fewer new, interesting startups in the publishing space. Perhaps it’s because techies see more upside in other industries or maybe they too are afraid of getting squashed by the dominant player. Whatever the reason, there seems to be less startup innovation focused on publishing than ever before.

One interesting development on this front is the Ingram Content Group’s 1440 accelerator program. It’s great seeing an industry leader like Ingram stepping in to help drive and encourage innovation. I plan to keep a close eye on the startups who make the 1440 cut and I hope other publishers and leaders in the publishing ecosystem will work to support and develop similar initiatives.