It seems to me that businesses (and many other things) are often built on a series of epiphanies. Ray Kroc must have had one when as a milk shake mixer distributor he visited the incredibly busy restaurant of the McDonald brothers. He had a vision of a chain of McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) restaurants, each offering fast food -- and selling many milk shakes. He ended up building the chain of McDonald's eateries we're so familiar with today -- and in its day it was arguably a Rule Breaker: first-mover in an important, emerging industry; strong consumer brand; good management; etc.
Radio Shack (NYSE: RSH) traces its roots back to a leather company in the early 1900s. Someone must have had an epiphany somewhere for that leather company to buy a small company serving ham radio buffs. Similarly, Nokia (NYSE: NOK) was once a conglomerate involved in manufacturing things from paper to chemicals to rubber galoshes to televisions. Someone must have been puzzling over how best to grow the company in those days, as decisions were subsequently made transforming it into a major digital communication enterprise.
Perhaps just as prevalent as these epiphanies, though, are the epiphanies that remain elusive, the puzzles not yet solved, the small keystones to support the arches. Think of some companies that might have once been considered Rule Breakers. Think of Pointcast, the push technology darling of yesteryear. It had a lot going for it, but its path to success was, in retrospect, missing a few flagstones. (Depending on your point of view, it was crippled by inept management, consumers' unwillingness to download its technology, the masses' unreadiness for push technology, technological problems, or some other obstacles.)
Some Rule Breakers in our portfolio's past have missed out on finding the key missing link to their ultimate success. Consider 3dfx Interactive (Nasdaq: TDFX). It never managed to raise its offerings much above commodity level. The same has been said for Iomega (NYSE: IOM). Or take a gander at Excite@Home (Nasdaq: ATHM). The sell report we issued upon taking our losses said: "@Home has fulfilled on the promise it had when we bought it two years ago. It remains the top dog in broadband Internet service. Unfortunately, it changed its business substantially with the acquisitions of Excite and BlueMountain.com. It has done nothing with those expensive purchases. The company lacks direction." These are all companies that are short a few epiphanies.
Current holdings in our portfolio face similar challenges. Will Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) be able to figure out how to be, in a lasting fashion, more than just an ordinary retailer? Will Celera's (NYSE: CRA) business plan be proven correct in retrospect, or will we realize later that management lacked a particular epiphany or two? (Of course, most companies have both advocates and critics. Some people already have their doubts about these and other companies. That's a good thing. Responsible investors should consider not just our points of view, but opposing ones as well.)
Many epiphanies just out of reach are not company-specific, but instead perplex entire industries or groups of companies. Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz explored one such puzzle in a recent article subtitled "Web Sites Struggle Financially Despite Millions of Visitors." He noted: "To be sure, big media companies are drawing heavy traffic to such sites as MSNBC.com (9.8 million visitors last month), CNN.com (7.7 million), NYTimes.com (3.4 million), USAToday.com (2.7 million) and washingtonpost.com (2.6 million), according to Media Metrix. But with modest exceptions, the online material is mostly the same as in print or on the air. And most of these sites lose millions of dollars."
The Motley Fool itself is one of the companies mentioned in Kurtz's article. We are indeed revisiting our business model in the face of deteriorating advertising revenues. Yet ironically and happily enough, we're also experiencing record traffic on our website (nearly 3 million folks per month). So businesses such as ours aren't doomed by a long shot. There's much to be hopeful about. Yet there remain puzzles to be solved, such as: What's the best way to build a lasting service delivering content online?
I've been happy to see many Fools in our community discussing this topic on their own, bouncing ideas and suggestions off one another -- and us. Many of these discussions are happening on our Improve the Fool board. This strikes me as an interesting phenomenon.
For one thing, Fool strategizers and bigwigs get instant feedback and guidance from the community that knows the company well. (Indeed, readers like you probably know us better than most highly paid consultants.) But we're not the only company that has access to this thought-sharing. Many other major companies can drop in on existing online discussion boards to see what people are saying about them. They can take the extra step of asking for opinions. They might even set up their own discussion boards.
This is a bold suggestion, perhaps, and it may be that many companies don't want to discuss too much of their strategizing in public, as it may come to their competitors' attention. Still, for those enterprises that are searching for a missing piece of a puzzle, it might be that a combination of insider and outsider perspective is what precipitates a solution.
Permit me to point you to a few (of many) interesting posts by community members that offer valuable food for thought. (Click into the post to read the whole thing.)
- Sea1mra discusses many changes related to Amazon, and also lists what has not changed.
- RJMason points out some ways that Amazon's competition appears ahead of it.
- DNASurfer discusses Celera's opportunities.
- Goofyhoofy shares thoughts on an article about AOL Time Warner (NYSE: AOL).
- Sramseier, a Switzerland-based Fool, offers thoughts on the Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) move into that country.
- Regarding the Fool's business, MichaelRead suggests some advertising experiments.
- Trick offers some thoughts on seminars and Soapbox.com.
In summary, I suppose it's inevitable that some companies will never solve some critical puzzles. But perhaps more companies will find those elusive answers if they tap the thoughts of people outside the walls of their headquarters -- people who know them well and who would like to help.
At Selena Maranjian's potluck parties, guests have had to have pizza delivered. She owns some shares of Amazon.com, AOL Time Warner, Nokia, and Celera. To see Selena's complete stock holdings, view her profile. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.