Earlier this week, David Galland emailed you a link to a speech I gave in San Antonio. In it, I covered three of my favorite stock picks for today and why I like those companies. The central theme behind all of it was—no surprise to longtime readers—growth.
No matter how good a technology is, no matter how revolutionary, no matter how complex… if you cannot find buyers, then it matters little to me as an investor. However, those companies with a formula to steadily increase revenues quarter after quarter can surmount almost any market and overcome all sorts of hurdles. Figuring out which technologies will sell well is one of the most overlooked aspects of finding great investments. But how do you know which will sell and which won’t?
The answer to that question begs another. Have you ever noticed how much awful technology exists in the world? I do. Maybe I’m just too close to the subject, but I make it a point to personally check out every new technology I can manage to try safely, and to get a demo of or data on whatever I cannot use myself. So maybe that’s why I see it all the time.
Take automotive technology, for instance. I’m not talking engines and shocks and struts right now. This isn’t another lecture on Tesla’s game-changing innovations. I’m talking about the electronics in every other car on the road.
This year I’ve bought two new cars. Both suck. For those not familiar with that technical term, I mean to say that their usefulness, and thus marketability, is impeded by substandard design.
The first, a Nissan Rogue, is a wonderful car in many ways. We love the 360-degree cameras, lane-drift warnings, blind-spot detectors, and other safety features that have saved us from bumps and bruises many a time already. (Driving in Puerto Rico, where we spend most of our time, is hazardous to your health and paint job.)
But it also has a navigation system and “apps.” The radio has morphed into a hub for accessing Google, Pandora, and other services.
Sounds great on paper… and done well, it’s the kind of thing that gets you talking about and recommending a car to others. Problem is, it never works.
The system was designed with good intent but is both horribly buggy and poorly designed. Neither my wife’s nor my phone can reliably connect. When they do, the simple act of making a phone call almost never works—the other day, an attempt to call out froze the whole system and I had to “reboot” the car at a stop light just to get my radio back. Remember those old jokes about what if Microsoft made cars? Seems life is starting to imitate art.
Worse still, to make those more advanced apps work at all, we must install a middle-man application called Nissan Connect. It runs in the background on our phones and is supposed to make connections to the car better. But it doesn't. My phone recognizes the car maybe 1 out of 10 times. My wife’s sees it half the time, but it won’t ever let her connect regardless of recognition, because she apparently doesn’t have a paid subscription—to a service that cannot be signed up for anywhere we can find and for which I would never imagine anyone would pay. Instead of honing the experience and making it work, the engineers seem to have spent their time adding in hidden features for future monetization. Worse still, the navigation system lags, missing turn indicators, and crashing along with everything else. Thus, the “infotainment” system—or “telematics” as the car industry likes to call it internally—is beyond useless: it’s borderline dangerous.
Now, these features were all of a few hundred dollars of the total cost for my Rogue, included with a bunch of other options. It’s just simple software, so it makes sense it would be pretty cheap. Here’s what’s amazing: the company charges $7,000 extra to get the same options on an Infinity SUV (and about $5,000 on the Pathfinder, which is really just a bigger Rogue). I know because despite my frustration with the infotainment portion of the system, we absolutely love the cameras and sensors. For those alone we started looking at Nissan’s luxurious sister line to replace our other car.
That exorbitant add-on pricing sent us across the street to the Acura dealership, where we picked up an MDX. It’s a great truck that hauls all our people and stuff in luxury and style. And it, too, sports an awful electronics system.
Unlike the Nissan, I’m able to connect without a problem every time. Pandora works flawlessly, with full control over the app without the need for any special manufacturer application. Nothing ever crashes. It’s Honda reliable, as it should be. It even looks pretty cool.
But it’s infuriating to use. The system is comprised of not one, but two 7-inch screens. One’s a touchscreen, while the other isn’t. One is hidden from the sun under a hood; the other is invisible in the glare of sunlight. There are still a few physical controls, too… but only for some of the least often used things, like adjusting the auto-climate control, not for common things like changing the radio station.
These problems haven’t gone unnoticed by the automotive and technology press, which regularly deride the companies for falling so woefully short in the design department, letting gimmicks substitute for building it right. But that’s because these companies have taken on a herculean task, trying to build complex operating systems and third-party apps… a job that is best tackled by thousands of engineers as it is with Windows at Microsoft, iOS at Apple, and Linux’s hordes of volunteers and foundations.
With quite a bit of time logged behind the wheel of a Tesla, which boasts an amazingly easy to use, single giant touchscreen, it’s shocking to use the competition’s systems. They’re hastily assembled messes of whiz-bang features that don’t really work. In the age of the iPhone, that’s just not acceptable. And it’s an experience so bad that it’s beginning to hurt people’s perceptions of the traditional automotive companies, driving customers elsewhere or at least to opt for fewer features.
But I don’t make this point just to rant. It’s to demonstrate two things:
First, we’re nowhere near the end of the technological ramp. Even some of our most expensive and advanced technologies are absolutely awful. Anyone who’s tried to use one of those brand-new state health exchanges—actually, pretty much any product Oracle makes (and the company made quite a few of those health exchanges, I might add)—or Nissan’s new telematics system can attest to that. Add in all the other frustrating and inefficient aspects of our lives, and it’s abundantly clear there are still a great deal more technological advances to be made, letting alone the giant markets like health care and education that have only been grazed by tech so far.
Second, the success or failure of a technology has increasingly less to do with what it’s capable of. More and more often, it’s about how realistically accessible its benefits are. As buyers get used to the more elegantly designed and intuitive generation of smartphones and tablets, they expect the same simplicity in other areas.
I’m not saying that some minimalist mantra is taking over the corporate world or our home lives. We’re not going to start sitting down to dinner on tatami mats, using only one pair of shoes, and eschewing the big comfy chairs in the conference room. Rather, buyers are becoming savvier in understanding that a system’s design and the ease of use of its features are just as important a consideration in buying technology as its capabilities.
Better design can mean more productivity gains, or lower costs, or both. (For end users, it can also mean they don’t go off on rants about their awful new cars and just get that much closer to never buying a traditional vehicle again…)
And the companies that are embracing better design for their products seem to be winning the war for customers. The iPhone’s staying power amidst a cadre of competitors with lots of whiz-bang new features is an obvious example. So is Salesforce.com, which competes with big and expensive systems from Oracle and SAP by offering a “no software” pledge and easy-to-use website. The result: meteoric increases in revenue as Salesforce’s customers opt for less over more.
Or take a service like Dropbox. Despite an onslaught of fierce competition from giants like Google and Microsoft, the “little folder-sharing company that could” has been growing like a weed—official numbers are few and far between for the still-private company, but most surveys show it with penetration rates 2 to 10 times that of its larger rivals.
Success in technology involves more complexities than investing in the commodities with which we may be more familiar. If you dig a hunk of iron out of the ground, chances are your iron is a lot like everyone else’s. Sure, there will be minor variations in the quality or the cost of extraction, but at the end of the day, it’s just a hunk of metal. The same goes for a retail company selling brand-name products, like a car dealer selling the same Jetta as the next guy. The market sets the price, quality is irrelevant (it’s the same thing), and you spend your life trying to differentiate on service alone.
Once upon a time, Amazon’s pair of shoes was no different than Foot Locker’s. That led to “showrooming,” where a customer walked into Best Buy, picked out a TV or stereo, then bought it on his or her smartphone from Amazon for 12% less. Even though it pioneered the practice, Amazon saw the threat of showrooming to its own business, as more and more brands started to control channel prices. Amazon can bully the poorly run book publishers into letting it set the price, but not Microsoft on the Xbox.
Amazon’s advantage was lost when it couldn’t be cheaper, and so the company shifted gears and started making products of its own. From Amazon Basics cables that cost a fraction of those ripoffs at Walmart, to the Kindle readers and tablets, to original movies and series made just for its Prime subscribers, Amazon has moved beyond its status as just a middle-man retailer and also become a maker and marketer of products… products it hopes are superior enough to win and retain customers better than my Nissan radio will.
That new focus has helped Amazon grow from $5 billion behemoth into a $20 billion a quarter juggernaut over the past five years:
The company’s digital media sales, largely fueled by the Kindle product line, have now grown to be as big as the entire company’s revenues at the beginning of this shift.
Product design and differentiation is not the be all and end all for achieving the kind of success needed by a technology company that pays back for shareholders. There’s still a whole host of other factors that must properly align—the classic mix of people, promotion, and the other “Ps” of success that Doug Casey has espoused for years in natural resources investing, as well as a few that are unique to the technology markets, such as Intellectual Property. But when evaluating the prospects for success or failure of a new technology, it all begins with understanding the product and its target market: Who will buy it? How many of them are there? How much will they pay? How does it stack up to the competition? And so on…
That’s the first and most important difference between finding great technology vs. finding a company that makes for a great investment: the quality and usefulness of its products. However, it’s the least appreciated or understood… which is why we’ve written an all-new guide on how to evaluate speculative investments in the technology sector. Modeled on Doug Casey’s classic 8 Ps formula, it’s a step-by-step manual to the process we use when starting our own due diligence on a potential investment. We’re making it available completely free, no strings attached. Click here and give it a read for yourself.
At a minimum, it will help you understand how we’ve racked up market-beating returns year after year in Casey Extraordinary Technology. And if we’ve done our job with it, then it will help guide you through exploring the sector on your own, let you avoid some bad investments, and hopefully allow you to find your own personal Amazon, Salesforce, Netflix, or Google, and garner some 1,000%-plus gains to show for it.