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Does Steve Jobs Matter (to Apple Shareholders)?

Next week, Apple will announce its first earnings since Steve Jobs stepped down from his role as CEO of Apple on January 15, 2011 due to health reasons. So far, the market has taken a wait and see attitude as to what it means for the company. After a relentless rise where the stock has more than tripled over the last 2 years, it has been trading in a narrow range for the last 2 months. The market is undoubtedly waiting for the next earnings report and the future guidance that comes with it to reassure them that Apple will be okay without him. Or, to confirm their fears that it won’t.

Often the market overreacts to news like this. In the end, one person rarely makes a critical difference in a company as large as Apple. But this case may be an exception. Read on to hear why…and what the implications are for other companies.

To understand Steve Jobs and his unique position, first, let’s consider the cases of some of the other technology visionaries. Starting a world-changing company is a very, very difficult feat and in our view, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos and a few more deserve the billions that they have earned.

Yet, without diminishing their accomplishments in any way, greatness does not come from genius alone. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes a compelling case that timing is equally as critical to creating mega-success. Bill Gates was fortunate to have been ready when the PC was born, Jeff Bezos when the Internet first took off, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page as the Internet’s growth was making it too unwieldy for first generation search technologies to handle.

Strengthening Gladwell’s case is the fact that there are very, very few cases where companies, despite the presence of the same visionary founders, are able to replicate their initial success within an order of magnitude (or maybe even two orders).

Google is a great example. Google has probably tried harder than any other company to create new transformational innovations outside of its core business. Yet despite all the investment they’ve made in Google Mail, Google Docs, Google Books, Android, and countless other products, Google is still a one product company. Over 96% of their revenue in 2010 came from Internet advertising.  The only part of the business where they have achieved leadership outside of search is YouTube, which they bought.

Microsoft is a similar story. Practically all of the company’s success can still be tied to having DOS chosen as OS of the IBM PC. In 2010, the company earned over 73% of its operating profit from the sales of the Windows OS and Office Suite. If you include the contribution of the Backoffice tools (SQL Server, Sharepoint, Exchange, etc.), which could easily be considered extensions of the Windows Server OS, that percentage goes up to 93%. Everything else – Xbox, Windows Live, Bing, MSN, etc. – contributes just 7% of the operating profit.

This brings us back to Steve Jobs and Apple. What makes Steve Jobs truly unique is that he has done it more than once on a grand scale – In 1984 with the Mac, 1995 with Pixar, 2005 with iTunes, and 2007 with the iPhone.  My belief is that there are many individuals who can take what Steve Jobs has already created and take it forward. Assuming the company picks the right CEO to replace him, Apple should continue to soar on the strength of what Steve Jobs has already done. What is at risk is the next innovation that could take the company to new heights.

So what lesson should you take from Steve Jobs, Google, and Microsoft? The answer: Unless you have a Steve Jobs on your staff (not just a Bill Gates or Sergey Brin) you can't count on 'The Next Big Idea' to fuel your growth. Even if you do everything right, there is just too much uncertainty. Instead, what you should focus on is maximizing the opportunity you have. While Microsoft and Google may not have created a second transformational innovation, they made the most of the businesses they were in. They deeply understood their markets and competitors, strategically expanded into adjacent areas, made smart acquisitions, found new channels, expanded globally, and capitalized on new technologies.

In our Corporate Growth Planning practice, we work with executive teams on creating strategies to grow revenue 3x, 5x or more. While there are rarely shortages of good ideas, companies often struggle in sorting through and prioritizing them. In our experience, there seems to be a natural human reaction to pursue the 'Next Big Thing', especially in entrepreneurial companies. The real challenge is creating a disciplined and fact-based process that leverages all of the growth avenues available, not just the brightest shiniest objects.

This article was contributed by Jon Klein. Jon is the founder and general partner of The Topline Strategy Group, a strategy consulting and market research firm specializing in emerging technologies. Jon brings a unique blend of strategy consulting and hands on operating experience to The Topline Strategy Group and works closely with Semaphore on a variety of engagements.

Topics: due diligence, technology, market diligence, Corporate Growth Planning

Thoughts on Jeopardy Analysis

Blog 3 of 3 in the Due Diligence Often Discovers Discrepancies series

I expect that there are many folks out there who will challenge our analysis.  I’ve anticipated some of the objections and have addressed what I think are the three major ones below.

 1. Shouldn't some of the points that we reallocated from Watson to Ken have gone to Brad, lowering Ken's revised total? While that is true, Brad would have also taken additional points from Watson. If we had data from Brad, we expect that the gap between Watson and Ken would be narrower, but that Ken would still enjoy a solid lead.

2. What about Game 1? Watson did even better in Game 1 than it did in Game 2. Wouldn't that have kept Watson the winner? Probably not. The reason Watson racked up such a huge total on Game 1 was that it answered 29 of 32 questions correctly in Double Jeopardy.  I didn't have a tape, but I believe Ken and Brad also knew many of those answers and were shut out by the buzzer. Allocating those responses across players would have put one or both players within striking distance when they got to Final Jeopardy. Watson blew Final Jeopardy with a comically bad answer to an easy question.  So, what would likely have happened is it would have been in second if not third place heading into Game 2

3. What about the humans' own "unfair advantage".  Humans tend to ring in before they know the answer and then have several seconds to figure it out. If they had to answer right away like Watson, wouldn't Watson cream them?  While this is true, I take exception to the notion that this represents an advantage for the humans.  Instead, this represents a fundamental difference in how computers and humans process information.  While it can take humans a few seconds to work out the right answer, we can intuit nearly instantaneously whether or not we will be able answer the question. Great Jeopardy players have great intuition and rarely get questions wrong after they ring in, as Ken Jennings demonstrated by getting just 1 question wrong in Game 2. Watson on the other hand seemed to either come to an answer very quickly or never got there. It doesn't have intuition and more time didn't appear to help it significantly. Changing the rules to take out the intuition factor would shift the advantage to Watson but would be counter the goal of the contest - figuring who is better at answering questions.

Let us hear your objections and observations.


This article was contributed by Jon Klein. Jon is the founder and general partner of The Topline Strategy Group, a strategy consulting and market research firm specializing in emerging technologies. Jon brings a unique blend of strategy consulting and hands on operating experience to The Topline Strategy Group and works closely with Semaphore on a variety of engagements.


Topics: due diligence, diligence, market, analysis

The Real Jeopardy Story

Blog 2 of 3 in the Due Diligence Often Discovers Discrepancies series.

As I said in my previous Watson blog earlier this week, Watson, a computer built by IBM, faced off against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two greatest Jeopardy players of all time and trounced them.  In a two day match, Watson earned $77,174 to Ken Jennings' $24,000 and Brad Rutter's $21,600. While the results seem to show that the human race's crown as Jeopardy masters has been passed, a deeper analysis of the facts tell a different story.  I have no doubt that one day a computer will be Jeopardy champion, but that day isn't today. What you saw wasn't a fair match among opponents but rather something that was closer to an infomercial demonstration where the product produces "too good to be true" results based on a tilted playing field.

Now back to the game...In Jeopardy, you're not allowed to push the buzzer right away. You have to wait until Alex finishes reading the question.  At that point, a light goes off and then you can ring in to answer.  If you try and anticipate the light and ring in too early, you are locked out for a quarter second, meaning that there is next to no chance to win the buzzer race. This is where Watson's unfair advantage comes in.  If during the period Alex is reading the question, Watson comes up with an answer that it thinks is right (based on my observation, that would be an answer that it has scored as having an 80% or more probability), it can ring in just 10 milliseconds after the light goes off - enabling it beat the human contestants, with their mere mortal reflexes, to the buzzer every time.  So, even when the human contestants know the answers, Watson gets all of the points. The Jeopardy results didn't accurately reflect Watson's question answering ability, they reflected the combination of its question-answering ability plus its superhuman reflexes.

So how would Watson have fared if it had to rely on just its question-answering ability?  To answer that question, we analyzed the results of Game 2 of the two-game series (Ideally we would have analyzed both games, but since we only TIVO'ed Game 2 and the match isn't available online, it'll have to do). In Game 2, the three contestants scored as follows:

-                Watson: $41,413

-              Ken Jennings: $19,200

-              Brad Rutter: $11,200

 However, final scores aren't necessarily a good measure of how each player fared. They are highly dependent on how players bet in the Final Jeopardy, who gets Daily Doubles and how much they bet on Daily Doubles. Taking out Final Jeopardy and Daily Doubles, the players scored as follows:

-                Watson: $25,200

-              Ken Jennings: $14,600

-              Brad Rutter: $5,600

In watching the game, it was pretty easy to tell when Ken Jennings wanted to ring in but was beaten to the buzzer by Watson.  He held the buzzer chest high and you could see when he pressed the trigger and lost. Since Brad Rutter kept his buzzer below the podium, it wasn't possible to tell when he tried to ring in.  But, the data from Ken Jennings is enough to figure out the impact of reflexes.  Of Watson's $25,200, $19,200, all but $6,000 worth, was won on questions where Ken Jennings tried to ring in.  Had Watson and Ken had equal reflexes, it stands to reason that Ken would have buzzed in first in half those cases.  Adjusting for reflexes (including the possibility that Ken would have rung in first and gotten it wrong, hurting him instead of helping him) would add $9,088 to Ken's score and taken off $9,344 from Watson, giving revised scores for those two players of:

-                Watson: $15,856

-              Ken Jennings: $23,688

Since both Watson and Ken Jennings got the Final Jeopardy question right, instead of losing, Ken would have had a sizable victory over Watson.  In conclusion, we’ll end this post with our own game of Jeopardy.

Category: Man vs. Machine  

$1,000 Clue: As of February 16, 2011, although not the fastest to the buzzer, these biological beings were still the best at answering Jeopardy questions.

Question: What are Humans?

Look for our next blog and the final on this series where our partner and colleague Jon Klein of The Topline Strategy Group explores what he feels are the three top objections.

This article was contributed by Jon Klein. Jon is the founder and general partner of The Topline Strategy Group, a strategy consulting and market research firm specializing in emerging technologies. Jon brings a unique blend of strategy consulting and hands on operating experience to The Topline Strategy Group and works closely with Semaphore on a variety of engagements.

Topics: due diligence, diligence, market diligence

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