Digging for iPad Gold with Simplicity
We live in a hyper global competitive world, yet some companies manage to find gold while others unsuccessfully dig for their dreams. What is a major determinant of great companies? Apple Inc. (AAPL), and other companies, may include “simplicity” as a key ingredient. Take the iPad for example. Already the company has successfully exceeded iPad sales target thanks to the shrewd marketing of the simple touch-screen technology. Some call it a glorified iPhone because the iPad uses a very similar interface on a larger scale. Nonetheless, the device is getting rave reviews from the likes of US Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Newsweek, and as Stephen Colbert smartly pointed out in his video (below), the iPad even makes salsa to boot. Many estimates point to more than a half million units sold in the first few weeks, making the 2010 estimates of 3-4 million units sold likely too low.
Competition Not a Game Killer
How much more competitive can the personal computer and cell phone markets be? According to the United Nations, we will reach 5 billion subscribers in 2010. With pricing pressure galore, and new Asian competitors popping up all over the place, how can companies grow, let alone make profits? Ever since the revolutionary iPhone was introduced in 2007, rivals have attempted to copy-cat the device. In the meantime, Apple continues to gain market share while they sit on close to $40 billion in cash, not to mention the flood of new cash rolling in the doors ($10+ billion in free cash flow generated in calendar 2009).
Innovation and the Remote Control
One key driver of profitability is innovation, but an elegant solution driven by an out-of-touch engineer with consumer demands will only lead to share losses and headaches. I mean how many times have you pulled your hair out trying to navigate through a 100-button TV remote control or screamed in frustration from attempting to learn a non-Wii videogame?
But Apple is not the only company to find simplicity in its quest for profit domination. In order to be a massive juggernaut like Apple Inc., a company’s product or service must gain mass appeal. A key determinant for mass appeal is simplicity. Beyond Apple, think of other dominant franchises that also operate in massively competitive markets like Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) in retail; Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) in coffee; Google Inc. (GOOG) in internet advertising; Coca Cola Co. (KO) in soda; Netflix Inc. (NFLX) in video rentals, among a host of other category killers. Many of these corporate giants offer products we cannot function or live without. I still find it utterly amazing that my children will never know what life was really like without an internet search on Google or a Caffe Misto Caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks.
All Good Things Come to an End
It’s not clear how much longer these titans of corporate America can thrive. By innovating new products that improve lives in some way, these Dancing Elephants will continue to prosper. But nothing in the stock market is static, so investors should pay attention to several potential derailing factors:
- Valuations: Valuations are extremely important in determining long-run appreciation potential, and chasing winners solely based on momentum (see related article) can lead to problems.
- Market Share Losses: What will be the next computer, cell phone, or e-reader killer? I don’t know right now, but eventually the day will come where these leaders will lose market share to a new kid on the block.
- Rising Costs: Competition is not the only factor in leading to slowing sales and declining profit margins. Inflation either related to labor or other input costs can crimp profits and decay investor appetites.
- Too Big to Succeed: There has been a lot of talk about “too big to fail,” but I strongly believe companies reach a point where they become “too big to succeed.” Either the law of large numbers catches up with these companies making simple math more challenging (think of the supertanker Wal-Mart growing its $400+ billion revenue base), or regulatory scrutiny kicks in (think of Microsoft Corp. [MSFT] and Intel Corp [INTC]).
Size: Peeling More of the Onion
Success can continue for these giants, however at some point “size” becomes a headwind rather than a tailwind. Just as simply as a train can speed down a railway at over 100+miles per hour, under the right conditions the train can derail as well. As Warren Buffett states, when referring to a company’s growth prospects relative to size, “Gravity always wins.”
However, investors should remind themselves that gains can last longer than expected too. Finding “ginormous” winners in many ways is like finding a needle in a haystack. But even if you find the needle in the haystack relatively late in a company’s growth cycle (see Equity Life Cycle story), in many instances there can be a lot of appreciation potential still available. Take Wal-Mart (WMT) for example. If you bought Wal-Mart shares after it rose 10-fold during its first 10 years, you still could have achieved a 60x return over the next 30 years.
Time will tell if Apple will strike additional gold with its iPad introduction, nonetheless Steve Jobs has found an element present in many long-term successful companies…simplicity.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, WMT, GOOG, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in MSFT, SBUX, KO, INTC, NFLX, Nintendo or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.