Sears: Blame the Spreadsheets?

Is the Sears bankruptcy the fault of financiers, looking at the world through spreadsheets? 

Don’t blame the spreadsheets.

Logic is in the eye of the logician.

There is a core belief that is shared among financiers and MBAs: companies have natural cycles of Startup, growth, maturity, and death.

I was always sort of sad when we covered this in B-School. I guess it’s why I like the innovation side of the equation, but lately I’ve been questioning the dominant logic of decline.

How it works:


In the birth stage, there is more upside and little opportunity for downside. The job is to move from nothingness to taking the first breath of air. You don’t even ask about profits, or revenues – you look at non-financial metrics like user growth or adoption or sales cycles.


The growth stage is about searching for the upside, accelerating the growth. You have less to lose at this stage and all math formulas are optimized to spend into growth to get the company enough heft and advantage to shape the market.

KPIs shift to the balance between lifetime value and cost of customer acquisition. Value is best seen through the lens of comparisons to other companies, rather than detailed cash flow analysis.


Then the maturity phase kicks in – growth smoothes out. Time to move the efficiency experts in. The BCG framework tells us what to do – start managing the business to become a cash cow: repeatable steady growth, steady cash. Siphon the cash off to higher potential growth opportunities, and avoid overspending on the cows because no amount of spend can jump start that growth curve again.

Here’s where those classical financial models work best: discounted cash flows, using net present value to evaluate investments. Seen through this lens, big time marketing spend makes no sense. It’s time to reduce that brand and marketing spend to the most crucial promotion efforts that have provable ROI.


Then there is the decline phase. You know you’re in the decline phase when the financiers start to circle. They may attempt an investor activist move and take company private, while they leverage up on debt. There are one of two goals:

1/ Manage the last remaining years to siphon off as much cash as possible, and split up the company into salable assets. You can still make good financing fees and a return for your investors if you manage to not go bankrupt.

2/ Attempt a rebirth. A rebirth is nothing like a startup – it’s more of a controlled effort to restart and recharge. GM, Marvel Entertainment, and yes even Apple are examples of successful rebirths, emerging from bankruptcy, recharging, and now even thriving.

What can we learn from the Sears story? 

Lesson one: financiers’ short term benefits are not calibrated to the survival of the firms they manage

Eddie Lampert and his Greenwich CT-based hedge fund purchased Kmart out of bankruptcy, became its chairman, and merged it into Sears. The year of the merger, 2005, his hedge fund earned a 69% return. Lampert was the first hedge fund manager to earn more than $1 billion in a single year.

Lesson two: There is no rebirth if customers cannot see it 

Sears has not invested in revamping the stores, rebranding, investing in anything beyond bare bones customer service. Sears needed a more thorough revamping, beginning with things that customers could see.

Lesson three: It’s not the spreadsheet, it’s the mental model

Our mental model for decline is wrong, because our assumptions are wrong. Customers are not as captive and habit-based as in times before. Sears did not have a steady loyal customer base, so likely the revenue expectations were too “bullish” as they say.

The model was also missing critical context: flat customer income for a segment overlooked by recovery, the shift to online and mobile shopping, and the ever increasing expectations of customers (the Amazon effect).

All of the above needed to be factored into the decline phase for Sears – and to make a determination of whether to go big, or go home.

Decline, perhaps, is inevitable. Nothing lasts forever.

But our models for such thinking were created in the last century, when we had factories and plants and machinery.

We overlook employees who have ideas for innovation, but cannot act when the engines of creation are shut down by financiers looking to squeeze out the last bits of cash.

We kill marketing and brand efforts that accelerate the signal to customers that the end is near.

For those willing to take on a company that is past its prime, we need to take a systems view, building adaptive models to understand our complex times.

Jen van der Meer is the Founder of Reason Street and is an Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design Strategies. Jen is on a mission to measure the value of everything. She believes that business models can be designed to build the future we want to see.

You can explore the Business Model Library, read about the data-driven growth strategies of AmazonFacebookNetflix and Google, and other musings on business model dreaming: Do You Suffer from Value Proposition ConfusionIf You Have Innovation in Your Job Title, The Non-Linear Growth Competency Gap, and Models that We Live By

Corporate Innovation an Oxymoron?

Two words that don’t fit well together.



Said inside of startup circles, you’d hear a bit of a cynical chuckle. Heh. Innovation doesn’t happen in corporates.

The story we’ve been telling for years:

Corporate, large, giant, public companies are hampered by:

  • Investor expectations to deliver the short term
  • Large hierarchical organizational structures of management that limit autonomy and speed
  • The law of large numbers: expectations for innovations that meet or beat the revenue size and margins of the current business
  • Fear of risking the core business, brand, regulatory advantage, and reputation, limiting the possibilities for experimentation

So how to explain the fact that the leading innovators of today are the largest companies?

The largest companies of today have the biggest budgets in R&D.

Source: Meeker, Mary, Internet Trends, Kleiner Perkins, 2018

The largest companies of today are investing in moonshot bets.

Amazon Prime Air Drones

Google Self-Driving Car

Facebook Spaces

Of the largest companies, all are business model innovators and are able to swerve quickly into your market space.

But wait, you say, those companies are different. They are not “corporate.” They are the new breed of tech giants. They are tech-first companies.

We can’t be like them. We are only in year 3 of our digital transformation efforts. We are still trying to figure out how to adopt agile methods. We still haven’t figured out how to protect our innovation budget from being siphoned off to fill a Q4 revenue gap.

So yes that might be true today.

But what has changed in the innovation narrative.

We can no longer support the“corporate innovation is impossible” story, because of what’s happening at the top of the S&P.

So start telling that story inside of your company.

It will help you protect not just the core and adjacent innovation projects, but your breakthrough bets.

Wall Street expectations set your company up for a focus on short-term value, but that is because Wall Street can’t figure out your long-term vision, and sees the scant progress of your ability to deliver. Study the business model moves of the biggest companies on the planet today. Start demonstrating that progress through experimental efforts. Be willing to kill early stage businesses that don’t meet your growth and margin expectations.

If you’re a senior leader who got a proper MBA and did not grow up in an engineering culture – then it’s time to understand the distributed organizational methods and structures that at first sound trivial and counter-intuitive – Lean, Agile, Scrum, Optionality. As one line manager of a $36 billion dollar business told me, recently:

“Don’t use the word lean around budget season – I might get less budget next year.”

But underneath all of these buzzwords is a rigorous commitment to deep customer centricity, ongoing learning, and the opportunity for a meritocracy-based high accountability culture. You will have to shift from the false comforts of planning through Powerpoint, and learn how to cultivate new business models. You’ll learn how to model, and deliver, on non-linear growth outcomes, building markets and demand. You’ll find less value in sideshows like CES, and more meaning in talking to customers. And I promise you’ll have much more fun.

Data is Not Oil – Data is Love

Why do we still keep using the metaphors of the industrial age to describe the opportunities we see?

Data is not oil.

Data was not formed over millions of years.

Data was not extracted from deep underneath the earth’s crust.

Data is not derived from the fossilized remains of dead organisms.

Notice the words we use:

We extract data.

We mine data.

We monetize data.

We plumb the depths of the data.

These extractive industrial era metaphors create limiting beliefs, that reduce our possibilities for imagining a preferable future.

In your next brainstorm, trying to wrestle with digital business models – kill the oil metaphor that limits the imagination, upside, and optionality.

Let’s try a new metaphor for use in your next “how do we leverage digital business models” ideation session.

Data = love.

Love can be temporal.

Love can be fleeting.

But enduring love grows richer over time.

To love is to trust, to earn trust.

Love is available.

Love is accessible.

Love is not hidden away from the people that need it most.

Love gets stronger through interaction.

Love can be unrequited.

Love doesn’t always work out, and needs to be unwound.

Love needs rituals.

To feel loved is to feel heard, understood, and cherished.

Then in your next “which workflows should we replace with AI and Machine Learning” customer journey mapping exercise remember:

Humans struggle to love well.

Machines can often predict better than humans.

Most would still rather be loved by a human than a machine.

What if data helped us love.

Alexa, Siri, answer this question:

How do we imagine preferable data-informed futures with more interaction, trust, openness, and love?

How do data interactions help us not just solve problems, but be our best selves, and achieve our human potential?


Amazon. The business supermodel that may end all business.

This post is part of a four-part series mapping the business model moves of the FANG stocks: Facebook Amazon Netflix and Google.

I tried to give Amazon up for 3 months last fall. It was hard. Let me tell you how I suffered.

I had to call local bookstores to order books for me and then I had to wait for the books to arrive.

I couldn’t listen to Audible books and fall asleep to theories of quantum physics. I had to find podcasts interviewing physicists instead.

I couldn’t order those strange requests from my daughter’s school – a beret, supplies for a “handmade” historical fiction costume, a specific type of protractor only found online. I had to go to retail stores and just make do with the local inventory.

Then during my Amazon diet, they bought Whole Foods. So – I had to go to smaller groceries and sometimes get non-organic strawberries.

The time lost. The huge burden on my life. The substandard workarounds.

#notproblems, I know.

I decided on my Amazon purge because I teach a class on sustainable business models at Parsons Strategic Design and Management program, and my colleague Raz Goldenik encourages each student to commit to a personal act of environmental sustainability.

I live in a small apartment in Manhattan with a well-managed heating system, I have no car, I enjoy ample public transportation and mostly get around on foot. After air travel, my next big carbon footprint action is ordering giant boxes with small objects from Amazon on a weekly basis. But my big insight came from the daily realization of Amazon’s business model plans. I believe Amazon is trying to be the only business. In the world.

Amazon’s Business Model Timeline

In fact, it’s hard to map Amazon’s moves in a simple 2-dimensional format

Investors like to talk about the big tech stocks as a bunch. The FANG stocks. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google and I’ve mapped them all. But when you see a company swerve through strategic decisions and business model shifts, there one company that stands out. Amazon is playing on different terrain.

Other companies practice game theory. Amazon is playing complexity theory.

Other companies are strong in B:C or B:B. Amazon is strong in B:C, B:B, B:G, B:B:C, C:B.

Other companies are simply trying and failing and building their models, attempting to optimize their core model and diversify into new markets and revenue streams. Amazon has massively successful models that are powerful because they combine – e-commerce with subscription and then Amazon Web Services and even machine-learning-as-a-service.

The only thing I can’t figure out is their aim, their moonshot. Sure, Jeff Bezos is investing in space travel and has a robot dog that follows him around at space conferences. But where is it all going? What’s the overarching ambition besides pleasing customers? Does Amazon aim to be the only business left?

Jen van der Meer is the Founder of Reason Street and is an Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design Strategies. Jen is on a mission to measure the value of everything. She believes that business models can be designed to build the future we want to see.

You can explore the Business Model Library, read about The Business Model Growth MapWhich One Page Strategy Tool Works BestDo You Suffer from Value Proposition ConfusionThe Customer Pain ScaleIf You Have Innovation in Your Job Title, The Non-Linear Growth Competency Gap, and Models that We Live By

Alphabet: Has Google Solved the Big Company Growth Trap?

This is the third in our series on FANG company business model narratives, including Facebook and Netflix (check next week for Amazon).

Typically, when companies get big, extremely mega big, $100 BN revenues big, they start to slow down.

Google is not slowing down.

Companies built on technology follow an S curve of growth. At the start of the curve, adoption is slow and development costs are high. At the inflection point of growth, a lead solution dominates and growth accelerates. Google is trying hard to find new business models for growth.

3 Years ago, the company reorganized with a holding company structure called Alphabet Financially, Alphabet reports on the progress of and split into two primary units:

  • Google, which includes the search engine and advertising business, Youtube, Android, and hardware like Pixel phones and Google Home. This division comprises 99% of revenue.
  • Other Bets, which includes Sidewalk Labs, Waymo, Verily, and other moonshot breakthrough investments. Other Bets delivers 1% of Google’s revenue

The benefit: Alphabet gets 99.5 percent of its revenue from Google and is expected this year to turn in its highest growth rate since 2011, even though its revenue will be nearly four times greater than it was then.

Google prior to the reorg has appeared to be a company spreading itself thin and over-investing in far-reaching moonshots. But by separating out how Google invests and spends on the core money-making technology (search, Youtube) vs. the future (Waymo, Fiber, Verily) investors now see more discipline and focus.

Particularly with Google’s most recent quarter, which posted outstanding gains in search advertising growth driven primarily by mobile ads.

The downside: Google is so big it’s become a target. Just last week 60 Minutes ran a story about its monopoly power and privacy policies. The stock was following the overall technology correct that started early this year when Facebook was put under the spotlight by regulators. But the day after the 60 Minutes story, the stock didn’t budge.

It’s hard to prove a theory of monopolistic harm in such a competitive industry. Despite the massive growth, Google and Facebook’s overall share of digital advertising declines as Amazon starts to take more share.

Compare Google to Facebook, and you see a company that has had more success incubating new business models in hardware, cloud storage, apps, in-app purchases, and the app marketplace Google Play.

The real test for Alphabet: will the Google dominant logic dominate as the primary mental model for how the company behaves?

Dominant logic is the disease that killed Kodak, Blockbuster, and Nokia, and it threatens every successful large-scale company facing disruption—which is all of them, including Google. The danger isn’t so much the disruption itself, a product of fierce new competition and shifts in the technology landscape; it’s the faulty mindset that hampers senior management when it’s preparing for and responding to non-linear change.

“Dominant logic consists of the mental maps developed through experience in the core business and sometimes applied inappropriately in other businesses.” —C.K. Prahalad, 

Prahalad, a management professor, was researching the failure of diversified conglomerates in 1986, not the Alphabet strategy of 2015. He found that a top executive group’s ability to manage a diversified firm is limited by the dominant general-management logic it already knows.

We’ll only know when Other Bets and Google’s non-advertising business models start to contribute to real revenue growth alongside advertising.

Jen van der Meer is the Founder of Reason Street and is an Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design Strategies. Jen is on a mission to measure the value of everything. She believes that business models can be designed to build the future we want to see.

The Facebook Narrative: Advertising to the Max

Is there any room for business model diversification?

Yesterday Facebook announced a re-org of their management team to improve communication and put more accountability for privacy decisions. But the company also needed a reorg to deal with the growing complexity of their business.

We all thought we understood Facebook’s advertising business model until it started to reveal itself to us following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Look under the hood at their business model timeline and you’ll see a company attempting to diversify into other forms of revenue, and business models, but finding that advertising is like bamboo – there’s no room for much else to grow and it takes over the entire back yard.

The re-org divides the company into three main divisions: the Family of Apps group (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger), a “New Platforms and Infra” group that includes AR, VR, AI, and exploration of Blockchain technology, and then “Central Product Services” which includes all of the shared services across apps and offerings.

What is Facebook up to?

In the most recent quarterly report, Facebook’s COO Cheryl Sandberg doubled down on the company’s commitment to the advertising business, and the company’s contribution to bridging the digital divide and supporting small businesses.

“We’re proud of the ads model we’ve built. It ensures that people see more useful ads, allows millions of businesses to grow, and enables us to provide a global service that’s free for all to use. The fastest way to bridge the digital divide – in the United States or around the world – is by offering services free to any consumer regardless of their circumstance. Advertising supported businesses like Facebook equalize access and improve opportunity.”

-Cheryl Sandberg, COO, 1Q2018 Earnings Call

Yet Facebook has experienced friction in the model – evidenced by the frequent strategic pendulum swings – tilting the platform in favor of users to encourage more engagement and growth, and then back to advertisers again to provide better service and targeting. See the away Beacon was launched, then canceled, then aspects of Beacon built into the ad platform outside of the public spotlight.

Yet we can see in their company history they have run many experiments to try to expand beyond into product sales and payments. Each time an experiment was run, and then canceled. The ill-fated attempt to launch a Facebook phone happened within one short year. Facebook fell back to tweaking their core product and acquisitions to achieve global domination, and therefore advertising.

Whereas China’s Weibo successfully launched a payments platform off of their core social networking app, Facebook has only seen failed experiments and then modest growth in payments. The original Facebook Marketplaces fizzled out and was recently relaunched. Facebook Credits for games was phased out. Facebook Payments is a small percentage of the company’s otherwise extraordinary growth.


Does Facebook’s launch first, see user reaction, then retreat and relaunch strategy we’ve seen best position them for growth? Is advertising like bamboo – leaving little room for any other species? Will Facebook’s growth be limited by the size of the global advertising industry? Or are they able to do what few in the blockchain world have been able to achieve – successful new business models beyond advertising?

Learn more about the Advertising Business Model in our Library, read another posts preparing Facebook for the end of advertising, or read about the Netflix Business Model Narrative.

The Netflix Narrative: Subscription Superstar

Swerving and pivoting a business model story for customer joy and massive shareholder value 

Thinking of a switch to a subscription model? We have much to learn from the swerves and pivots of today’s leading subscription company: Netflix.

Of the top 5 tech companies, only Netflix depends entirely on a subscription revenue model for success, keeping it free and clear from impending regulatory threats for data usage with advertisers.

“NFLX continues to execute extremely well, emphasizing its case as the best global, secular growth story in tech.” J.P. Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth

The company at first glance appears to be executing the subscription business model flawlessly. But take a look under the hood and you see bold, risk-taking bets and swerves by the founder that continue today.

What you can see in the Netflix business model narrative is how the company adapted and subscription model by adding new levers for growth, customer experience amazement, user lock-in, and world domination.

Driver 1: From Rentals to Subscription

The first big bet was to start the company on a new media type that had just emerged: the DVD. The founders had run a few experiments with the lead technology of the day, the VHS tape, but found the format too bulky and costly to ship. Slim, durable, and lightweight, DVDs could be shipped in envelopes and the founders believed that browsing the internet would be just as effective as shopping in a store. After first attempting one-time rental fees (with no late fees) and shifted to also offer a subscription model by 1999.

Subscription, be forewarned to those admiring the model from afar, is not that attractive in the early years. Netflix had to spend to acquire content, and then spend on huge US Postal Service fees as the service grew popular but before the longevity of customer cash flows arrived. The company was increasingly unprofitable as they grew. In 2000, the founders offered the company for sale to Blockbuster, and in a true Kodak moment, the board of Blockbuster rebuffed to a sale price of $50 MM, only to declare bankruptcy 10 years later.

Driver 2: From Envelopes to Streaming

The adoption of DVDs kicked in and the company continued to grow, but Netflix kept an eye on the rise of streaming technology as the next wave of media use. In 2008, the founders started to invest in streaming as if they were a pure-play streaming company. Most companies going through digital transformation tend to favor the leading revenue generating business. Instead, Reed Hastings demoted the DVD execs off of the core management team and executed a hard shift to offer streaming experiences. Netflix’s famous “culture” philosophy of high accountability originated at this time.

The streaming roll-out was accompanied by increased prices, which caused customer protests and a decline in stock value. In the long run, however, the bet paid off. The company is the global market share leader in streaming subscribers and affords the opportunity for almost limitless global market expansion.

Driver 3: From Licensing to Original Content

As content owners started to squeeze Netflix in content licensing negotiations, incumbent media companies started to increase their investments in streaming offerings such as Hulu and HBO Go. In order to keep their subscribers and attract new customers, Netflix had to up their game and create content not seen anywhere else. The company decided to invest in original content.

The introduction of the David Fincher series House of Cards about the charming Underwood couple changed how we watch media. Providing the full series all at once, Netflix gave us the opportunity to watch the whole series in one sitting, an experience now commonly referred to as binge watching. From a subscription model perspective, Netflix amped up their ability to achieve growth and customer lock-in. After last week’s earnings call, analysts estimate Netflix’s current customer retention in the 85%-91% range.

Today the company is one of the top 5 buyers of media and plans to spend over $8 billion next year to develop original content. As you can see in the Business Model Narrative above, the decision to invest in original content was the value supercharger that has driven growth in customers and company value. To be sure, the company has taken on substantial debt in order to fuel this international expansion. One day, revenue generated by customer may start to pay ahead of content required. For now, investors carefully watch ratios of spend-to-revenue and reward Netflix for over-delivering on growth.

Driver 4: From Hollywood to Bollywood and beyond

International growth plans have been brewing for some time, and recently paid off. This past quarter, of the 7.41 MM subscribers, 5.46 million were international, and last year the company doubled its customer base despite raising prices in all regions. Netflix combines local market strategies with an understanding of “taste communities” that the company mines from actual user behavior and determines what you might like based on activities of other people that like similar shows.

Netflix plans to spread the enormous content budget on local market production, while also finding shows to back that would have deep local appeal, giving high talent local creators access to a global market. Thus, Netflix achieves a virtuous circle of subscription lock-in and growth. For now, the rate of growth justifies the costs of original content, marketing in local regions, and global expansion.

Lessons for Future Subscription Business Modelers:

The best practices of business models cannot be easily copied. It’s not just about transforming your business from box or product sales to subscription. Look back to the origin stories of the more successful subscription models and you will see key decisions. How did the company strengthen user lock-in and ongoing investment in creating extraordinary experiences, to achieve massive customer growth and high customer retention? How will your company do the same? Are you prepared for the commitment to continuous investment in the customer experience? What will you do to earn the benefits of recurring revenues – the holy grail of the subscription model?

Learn more about the promises and pitfalls of the subscription model in Reason Street’s business model library.

Predicting the Preposterous: Scenario Planning the End of Advertising


One day, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page woke up and realized they were in the advertising business.

And they were sad.

All of that technical prowess, all of those high IQ Stanford grads, all of that bold experimentation to optimize people buying more stuff.

Sergey and Larry did something about it. They aimed at moonshots: internet balloons, working Tricorders, self-driving vehicles, eternal life, energy kites. In 2015 Alphabet was born, a creation of a new superstar CFO from Wall Street, Ruth Porat. Investors could now see what the company was spending on moonshots, verses the core advertising business, and suddenly rewarded the company with a big bump in valuation. Google’s brilliant people have the space to tinker, but all within the confines of discovering new business model opportunity for all.

It was fun to get up in the morning again.

“If you’re changing the world, you’re working on important things. You’re excited to get up in the morning.”—Larry Page

Meanwhile at Facebook Mark worked hard with his friend Cheryl to optimize the core business and imagine a better future. Facebook made bold bets on their own, buying Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus. Many guessed that Facebook would make the move into payments, and more physical products and other business model moves away from advertising. But  Facebook just got better at advertising.

Facebook has its own moonshot factory, “Area 404,” a reference to the error you get when a Web page can’t be found. Clever to name your innovation lab after something that does not exist. But the lab is structured in the style of the break-fast-move-things developer. Build great things first, find business model later. But that two step process is exactly what got Facebook the advertising model that may be limiting its ultimate growth.

It’s now April, 2018 and everyone who runs a major tech platform is now going to have to testify before congress for leaving their systems open to psychologically manipulative efforts and violations of user data laws. The owners of the systems are now being held accountable for not having safeguards to the full range of human behavior. Much like the car and healthcare industries, it seems that the internet is now going to get regulated. How much regulation?

Let’s prepare by developing an alternative scenario.

In foresight strategy, there are sensible futurists who generate possible scenarios, even preferable scenarios, but sometimes it’s more insightful to generate a preposterous scenario.

Preposterous Prediction: By 2020, Advertising will be outlawed globally.

I proposed this scenario to two groups at Parsons School of Design Strategies  – one undergrad and one master’s degree students.

The undergrads moaned. “What would the world be without advertising.” These students have no interest in deleting their ties to Facebook. They live on Instagram and some help cover their tuition through influencer marketing. “It would be a sad and colorless world.”

The master’s students cheered. “What a wonderful world that would be.” Having already worked in the world, they see a freeing possibility space if we imagine business models unconstrained by the need to persuade.

Yet both groups were quickly able to identify new business model opportunities:

First – ask for forgiveness, and then make a hard pivot to extreme user-centered data ownership in all data policies and internal practices. Here are 5 of 20 we came up with in a mad sticky note ideation process:

Granted, these ideas may have already wound up on stickies, crunched up and thrown on the floor of many a Facebook brainstorm. And to be sure, Google’s Alphabet structure has yet to launch a business model to rival the size and profits of the advertising core. But like Facebook’s and Google’s businesses, moonshots start small. A deliberative exercise to pivot sharply away from advertising may be the best creative constraint for both companies.

Searching, discovering, and nurturing alternative business models won’t be easy. to quote Clayton Christensen:

We’ve gotten locked into Google and Facebook. So we ask them to create a preposterous corner inside of Alphabet and 404 and accelerate the serious search for a future world that may or may not include advertising, but hopefully won’t creep us out so much. We wish them both well in their search for a more human-enlightened business model.

Pitching for Value

Telling your narrative + growth story to attract the people, resources, and everything else you need.

Impressed by the Female Entrepreneur contingent – women entrepreneurs from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Germany at this Nordic Innovation House event.


2018: The Year Wall Street Became Socially Active

A call to articulate your long-term view

We have this story we tell in business: a vicious loop of misaligned expectations and unrealized dreams.

  • Investors, we tell ourselves, want short-term quarterly results.
  • Visionaries have no place in large public companies because all decisions are optimized for the short term win.
  • Unicorns, companies valued at a billion dollars or more, shy away from their IPO and public spotlight.
  • Startup founders aim to take advantage of this weakness and disrupt.
  • VCs tell startup founders to aim for an exit – the moment when they are subsumed back into the hamster wheel of public company performance and short-term investor expectations.

But what if investors were to shift their time horizon to the long term, and to society?

On January 6, 2018, activist hedge fund JANA Partners and CalSTRS (California State Teacher’s Retirement System) sent a letter to Apple asking them to take responsibility for children’s cellphone use. Citing expert research the company pointed out that overuse of iPhones results in declining mental health among children and teenagers, and is linked to poor attention in the classroom, difficulty empathizing with others, depression, sleep deprivation, and a higher risk of suicide. Together JANA and CalSTRS own $2 billion in Apple stock.

Yesterday, Laurence Fink, the founder, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, demanded that public companies must make a positive contribution to society in addition to making profits, or risk losing support from his firm. As BlackRock has over $6.3 trillion assets under management and holds the world’s largest position in companies, his annual letter is taken seriously.

We’ve seen this language before from academia, scientists, the medical community, sustainability experts, social justice advocates. Now it’s coming from an activist hedge fund, the world’s largest asset manager, and one of the largest pension funds in the US.

What’s changed?

On one side of the economy, we have the stock market reaching all-time highs and massive tax breaks creating huge cash flows for global corporations. On the other side, we have low wage growth, inadequate retirement systems, and job insecurity among the majority of people.

Fink calls it the paradox of high returns and high anxiety.

Add the failure of government to adapt and respond to issues of infrastructure, AI and automation, and continuous worker retraining. Acknowledge the sudden awareness that our addiction to technology innovation may have pernicious social and economic side effects.

Who can address these systemic challenges? Companies.

“…the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

-Laurence Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, in his annual letter to CEOS.

To be sure, the reign of the Friedman Doctrine is not over.

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” – Milton Friedman, 1970

Friedman was arguing a point of view, not describing the natural order of the universe, but it was a position widely adopted by investors and regulators over the last 48 years.

Is BlackRock being hypocritical?

It seems that the Wall Street establishment likes the passivity of the ETFs. Matt Levine at Bloomberg called Fink’s threat hollow, “..contribute to society or you’ll lose BlackRock’s support — rings a bit hollow since BlackRock’s index funds can’t sell.” ETFs are just indexes of funds with no active money management, so how, exactly will Blackrock tell company management to do better? Sam Zell, an investor, calls Fink a hypocrite for making what amounts to a public policy statement when BlackRock is a rubber stamping passive investor (who should stay that way, in Zell’s opinion).

Most investors still subscribe to these beliefs, and most company executives and boards fear the arrival of activist investors. Last year Nelson Peltz went after P&G, Bill Ackman went after ADP, and Ed Garen after GE. Acronyms are under attack.

What’s interesting is that BlackRock, typically known as a passive investor as the largest provider of ETFs or Exchange Traded Funds, changed their stance and began siding with Peltz and Ackman in the proxy fights with P&G and ADP. BlackRock also took an active stance against Exxon last year, supporting a shareholder proposal to enhance disclosures on climate impact and long-term strategy.

While the biggest asset manager in the world may be changing the rules of the game, it’s not like short-term activist investors are going away.

Lawrence Fink has advice for executives and company boards:

“Tax changes will embolden … activists with a short-term focus to demand answers on the use of increased cash flows, and companies who have not already developed and explained their plans will find it difficult to defend against their campaigns.”

Companies are at fault for not explaining their long-term strategy so that the context of short-term decisions can be better understood by investors.

While Fink’s letter is worth the entire read, I’ll highlight his words for your next strategy meeting:

“Your company’s strategy must articulate a path to achieve financial performance. To sustain that performance, however, you must also understand the societal impact of your business as well as the ways that broad, structural trends – from slow wage growth to rising automation and climate change – affect your potential for growth.

“These strategy statements are not meant to be set in stone – rather, they should continue to evolve along with the business environment and explicitly recognize possible areas of investor dissatisfaction. Of course, we recognize that the market is far more comfortable with 10Qs and colored proxy cards than complex strategy discussions. But a central reason for the rise of activism – and wasteful proxy fights – is that companies have not been explicit enough about their long-term strategies.

… But when a company waits until a proxy proposal to engage or fails to express its long-term strategy in a compelling manner, we believe the opportunity for meaningful dialogue has already been missed.”

What does this mean for your company? The hidden killer of innovative ideas and bold visions is the fear of the activist investor. CEOs remain torn between staying the course of predictable performance and taking longer-term bets that increase risks. They believe that investors are wary of this kind of change. But investors are more open to risk than CEOs believe. The principle idea that drives the hedge fund industry is that well-managed risk (and greater risk well leveraged) yields a greater return.

In your next board meeting, innovation offsite, or budget planning session, review whether your company has publicly articulated your vision, your moonshot, and your path to get there. Investors are more likely to want more investment in potentially disruptive business models if it’s part of a long-term play.

Investors are now becoming more active in understanding how you’ll achieve not just shareholder returns, but the needs of society, community, and the environment will If your strategy is not visible, adaptive to the changing environment, and open for discussion, it’s time to act.

Jen van der Meer is the Founder of Reason Street and is an Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design Strategies. Jen is on a mission to measure the value of everything. She believes that business models can be designed to build the future we want to see.

You can explore the Business Model Library, read about The Business Model Growth MapWhich One Page Strategy Tool Works BestDo You Suffer from Value Proposition ConfusionThe Customer Pain ScaleIf You Have Innovation in Your Job Title, The Non-Linear Growth Competency Gap, and Models that We Live By