Is being ‘sticky’ the key to success.

Is being ‘sticky’ the key to success.

Those flogging business coaching to the owners of medium sized businesses seem to focus on one of the oldest sales techniques in the book, the ‘Before &  After’ pitch.

Describe the current situation, and make it as down and dirty as possible, then describe the new world, the joy of the state achieved by the application of their great coaching/technology/process, whatever it is they are selling.

No mention of the challenge in the middle, abracadabra, all is well, just $109/month, less than the cost of coffee and a roll every day and you are on your way to the ‘laptop lifestyle’.

Tangled up in the bullshit, never articulated, at least  to my hearing is a very valid notion, that of ‘Critical Mass’.

The critical mass in a nuclear reaction is the point at which the process becomes self- sustaining. It may take only a nanosecond, but there is that critical point, below which the process is not self-sustaining, and past which, it is.

At what point does a cloud, which is just an accumulation of moisture, suddenly change from being a cloud to dropping rain?

For small business owners, the point of critical mass, from where the business is self-sustaining, is usually that point from where they can take time out of the business, and enjoy the financial rewards of success.  The road to that point will be different in every case, and most in my experience never actually consider what the elements of critical mass may be in their particular business, and how they might influence them.

I think it might be about how ‘sticky’ you can become.

‘Sticky’ is not a term often seen in any form of business writing, it is more usual in kids books, but how is this for a definition:

‘Stickiness’ in business is the function of: Share of Wallet  X Propensity of customers to advocate for you.

The stickier you are, the more likely you will be to have your customers buy from you everything you can reasonably provide, and then go one step further and tell their friends, peers, and wider networks.

If you are  not sticky enough, you will be sub self-sustaining, but pass that sticky test, and the business will sustain itself, with some ongoing tweaking, which is different from the 80 hour weeks most small  business owners put in, to make a living, but often  not have a life.


Cartoon credit: Hugh McLeod and




9 questions for a ‘quick and dirty’ StrategyAudit.

9 questions for a ‘quick and dirty’ StrategyAudit.

In 1712 the British government started taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed. The predictable response was that newspapers started printing on what became known as ‘Broadsheet’ paper to minimise their tax. A rational commercial response, but by the time the tax was abolished in  1855, people had forgotten why they needed these huge, unwieldy pages, and somehow they became  a sign of a ‘serious’ newspaper.

Had the Sydney Morning Herald asked any commuter who still bought their broadsheet paper before March 2013,  would they prefer a smaller format, they would have answered with one word: Please.  Common sense caught up with them and the change was finally made, it only took 170 years.

This is just one example of thousands of a key strategic question that should always be asked, ‘Why do it that way”. When I get an answer to the question that sounds anything like, ‘because that is the way it has always been,’ I shudder, and when that say ‘customers prefer it that way’ I ask to see the research, which in most cases has been chewed by the dog.

There are 8 more common questions I work into conversations early on that give me a rough idea of the problems they face, and the ‘shape’ of  an assignment, should it eventuate.

  • What would a VC investor do? Those who put up capital with a view to an exit at a profit at an early date look for the 20% of every business that produces the 80% of profits, and having found it, tend to remove as much of the 80% of activity as they can in order to generate their return. It can be a bloody exercise when done by an outsider, but turning a managements mind to the question almost always opens up their minds to a far more critical analysis of their current business that had otherwise been done.


  • Are the organisation structure and capabilities capable of delivering the strategic outcomes planned?. There is a trick in the question, as many businesses do  not have a clear idea of their strategy, so are unable to articulate how the organisation can deliver on it. The correct sequence is to have a robust strategy based on the “why” or values of the business, however you choose to express it, followed by an analysis of  the structure and capabilities required to deliver. Which is the cart and which is the horse should be very clear.


  • Which pieces do not fit? To some degree, this is a similar question to the one about what a VC would do, just a bit less intimidating, and more sensitive to the cultural and operational shape of the business, and its capabilities. There are always bits that do not fit, that do not carry their own weight. Each part of a  business should add to the whole in a manner that is greater than just the sum of the parts. If a part does not add to the greater sum, either get rid of it, or  improve its performance very quickly so that it does.


  • What does the long term look like? I ask this question at all levels, hoping to find consistent answers, which is a great sign, but unfortunately as rare as hens teeth. Assessing every major decision against the framework of the desired long term objective ensures at least some degree of alignment and consistency in decision making.


  • Why do customers do business with you? It always surprises how often the answer to that question is either “price” or “they always come back”. Neither is a sufficient answer. If you are the cheapest around, that is a good way to go broke eventually, and if you cannot articulate why someone does business with you, in other words, repeat back to you your value proposition, you are equally in trouble.


  • How much business comes from repeat customers, and what is your share of their wallet? Servicing an existing customer in any market is cheaper than finding a new one, so cherish the ones you have. Similarly, if you have a 10% share of wallet, the most effective way to increase sales is to increase your share of their wallet. When there is no credible answer, to either question, it is a danger neon sign.


  • Who are your major and potential competitors? Knowing your current major competitors and their capabilities is essential to survival in competitive markets, and in many, being able to see over the horizon sufficiently to see who the potential competitors may be is a great sign of strategic awareness.


  • What is the exit strategy? In most cases, public companies do not have one, and it is really not necessary for them, what they really need is a comprehensive succession plan, with the associated capability development activities. For everyone else, the lack of an exit strategy signals a lack of focus on outcomes. Even when the owners, who are generally also the managers in most of my clients, intend to work ‘forever,’ there needs to be an exit strategy as part of the strategic planning exercise, and often the succession planning is how to bring along young ‘Georgie’ the son/daughter of the owner, who might not make it in a meritocracy.

When you would like to have a conversation that goes a bit deeper, give me a call.

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Amazon, Whole Foods and the future of supermarkets in Australia

Amazon, Whole Foods and the future of supermarkets in Australia

Amazon would not have paid $13.8 Billion for Whole foods without a plan. The purchase came as a surprise to most, but it should not have, they have been evolving into bricks and mortar for some time, with books, Amazon Go, The Washington Post,  and a few other dabbles.

Most commentators look at Amazon as a digital retailer, but when you think about it, they are not: they are a Platform that manages supply chains. Those supply chains just happen to end with consumers, rather than a B2B transaction.

Looking at the purchase of Whole Foods through the lens of a supermarket retailer will lead you to wrong conclusions, as you will be looking for the efficiencies that can be squeezed out of the existing model, with a few wrinkles added in.

Wrong lens, wrong model.

Amazon will reinvent the Whole Foods supply chains, and extend them straight to consumers, probably using Blockchain technology. Wal-mart is experimenting with Blockchain in their Pork and Mango supply chains, and I would be astonished if the work Amazon has been doing developing Blockchain technology in finance markets leveraging Amazon web services in collaboration with IBM was not applied very quickly to Whole Foods.

Amazons success (I predict) with Whole Foods  will be enabled by their efficient systems, great technology, engaged workforce and all the other stuff parroted around, but the real reason is far more strategic.

In the ‘old world,’  whether it referred to supermarkets, newspapers, personal transport, or accommodation, success came with the control of supply, which required capital to be in the game. In the digital world, success comes from the control of demand.

Amazon has demonstrated its mastery of demand management, and has demonstrated that this mastery can be leveraged backwards into the physical world, as they deliver a huge range of goods from their warehouses.

The mission statement on Amazons site states:  “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”  No mention I can see of digital, or technology, just customers!

By any measure, Bricks and mortar is on the slide, but on-line sales still amounts to a small proportion of retail. Just what the percentage is depends on whose numbers, and what they classify as retail, but it is less than 10%, 8.3% according to this study but will be more based on the huge number of filings for bankruptcy current in the US. According to this 2017 Nielsen study, online sales of FMCG accounts for 8% of dollars.



The split sales between on line and in store is very wide across different categories, but the growth of 80% in digital while off a modest base, is a statistic that should scare the pants off Coles, Woolworths, and other ‘traditional supermarkets around the world. Sainsburys in the UK has suffered in the share price stakes as their profitability has slipped, while they seem to have done a pretty good job with home delivery, and digital generally. Amazon could buy them from cash flow. Just a thought!


What will the digital/bricks & mortar split be in 20 years?

Will the current 90/10 reverse itself?

Perhaps not, but 50/50 would not seem to be outrageous when you think of the developments in Virtual reality emerging, where you will be able to visit your supermarket from the convenience of your couch at home.

The future is in personalisation, we all seem to accept that. However, the existing supermarket business model is intent on homogenising the experience in the pursuit of low costs.

Do you see a paradox emerging in this? Retailers are doing exactly what consumers do not want, at least outside commodity categories, as is evident in the foregoing graph.

I think  the era of big box retail is coming to an end, and in its place will be experiential retail. Alibaba, the Chinese version of the combination of Amazon and Ebay has stayed away from owning anything beyond the platform that enables connection and sales, but that is also changing. There are now 13 Hema supermarkets around Shanghai, delivering a step towards experiential retail, and using technology to drive then enable the transactions.

If I was running Coles, I would be experimenting with ‘MasterChef’  sections in some stores. Have a chef, cooking the fresh produce in  the stores, simple recipes that shoppers can see in use, and certainly purchase pre packed bundles that have all  the ingredients along with prep notes. Similarly in the Coles owned Bunnings I would have workshops teaching ‘do it yourselfers’ how to use the tools and materials, running classes that use them to make something. Customers  can then buy the tools, blueprints and product packs to make a work bench, toys for the kids, or whatever they wish. In Bunnings currently, if you want to be stocked, you need to have merchandisers that fill the shelves. The next logical stage is to have branded sub stores, where there is only branded product on sale, and with an ‘advisor’ paid by the supplier, on hand.

A shop within a shop if you like, which is not a new idea, department stores have had fashion brands running sections in their stores for years. Experiential retail.

The supermarkets are going in the opposite direction, commoditising everything in the name of efficiency.

The industry has consolidated and consolidated, fewer brands, retail options, and producers. Perhaps there is a tipping point, and we are just passing it.

The consumer is increasingly looking for natural, local, assured provenance, and  environmentally sustainable product, all mixed in with a new shape of ‘value’ less dominated by price than has been in the past. Communicating and delivering these attributes are the foundations of branding, and the delivery of ‘value’ to a purchaser.

Woolworths will live to regret the closure of Thomas Dux. It started so well. Their in store  ‘Foodies’ were a hit in the stores I visited, but the weight of the Woolworths machine drowned them. Bring it back I say, it may be your saviour, or try and buy Harris Farm again before Amazon come in and offer the Harris family enough to retire in gilded luxury to Monaco.

I like Ray Kurzweil’s observation that ‘The future comes very slowly, then all at once’.

This is classically the emergence of AI and combined with the Gartner Hype cycle makes a compelling case. Gartner’s 2016 Hype cycle has several technologies that relate to and are integral to the development of all the AI and VR stuff being hyped. Amazon has the grunt to bring all this to the table and disrupt the comfortable supermarket duopoly that exists in Australasia.

If nothing else, it will be fascinating to watch


Header photo credit: Eli Christman via Flikr.

How big is the Strategic deficit of Australian FMCG retailers?

How big is the Strategic deficit of Australian FMCG retailers?

Strategic deficit is the amount of time, capability, commitment, and energy necessary to bridge the gap from where you may be right now, compared to the most advanced of your current and potential competitors.

A few weeks ago, if asked the question of Australian retailers, particularly the FMCG retail gorillas,  Woolworths and Coles, I would have said several years and more resources than they seem to be prepared to allocate, but more importantly, there is a complete shift in mindset that is required.

Now, if asked the same question, with the news last week of the $US13.8 billion purchase of Whole foods by Amazon, I would suggest the strategic deficit has just doubled, perhaps tripled overnight. Not only has the deficit blown out, but  the rate at which it is accumulating is accelerating given the huge $16 billion investment Amazon made in ‘Technology and Content’ in 2016, the horse has not just bolted, it is over the hill. Not all of that $16 billion will be directly impacting their ability to deliver groceries, but a fair chunk of it will be applicable, and the rest will be learning in other areas that they will be able to leverage over time.

Back in August 2013 when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million cash, many were asking “What does he know about the newspaper business’?

The Post had been one of the icons of journalistic excellence, one of the true ‘newspapers’, but had crashed into successive losses in the face of digital disruption.

Bezos bought the Post, not for Amazon, but from his own funds, it is a personal investment, and therefore perhaps better even that Amazon itself as a signpost of his commitment and what may come elsewhere.

In this National Public Radio report on progress at the Post, there are some useful signposts that may be applicable to Amazons recent purchase of Whole Foods. However, it can be summarised into a few words:

Technology that makes the customer the absolute focus of every single decision and action is the essential foundation for success.

Now, many of the same people are asking ‘What does Amazon know about the fresh produce retail business?  My response is ‘Wait for the implementation of  Amazons brand of technology directed at the produce consumer, and we will find out”.  I would be pretty sure that Amazon has a range of pretty good ideas to be tested at Whole Foods, that will see the hurdles of home delivery of fresh and frozen food overcome.

I am sure Coles and Woollies will be watching, but so was the newspaper business watching technology eat its lunch for a decade before they had any idea of how to address the challenge, and even now, seem incapable of doing anything about it.


Is Amazon about to hunt the Aussie retail gorillas?

Is Amazon about to hunt the Aussie retail gorillas?

Amazon has bought Whole Foods in a deal worth $13.7 Billion, around $18 billion Australian. The gorilla of the digital retail troupe has invested in an old fashioned, albeit trendy, bricks and mortar retailer.

This Whole Foods purchase makes it very clear that Amazon is setting out to be a significant player in grocery, and you would be brave to bet against Jeff Bezos.

In the US, listed retailers shares took a real dump, while here, Woollies and Coles shares dropped a bit on the announcement of the purchase, but seem to have largely recovered. Perhaps this is because share punters considered the considerable time frame of an impact by Amazon on the profitability of  Woollies and Coles, and the shorter term ‘Aldi effect’ is already priced in.

Amazon sells some grocery staples, and is experimenting with delivery options, including the Amazon Go store in Seattle, but this is a step further. What does this purchase gives them, beyond the small market share estimated at 1.7% ?

  • A footprint they would have found hard to replicate from scratch in a reasonable time,
  • A well known and liked brand that fits comfortably with the heavy users of their on-line services,
  • 20 years of experience in the creating of fresh supply chains from farm to the consumers plate.

I suspect this last one, not mentioned by the financial analysis that has happened in the last few days,  would have been a significant factor in the considerations. Being able to put Amazons tech capabilities alongside that experience could just be the game changer that grocery  home delivery  has been looking for.

Add this purchase to Amazon’s other activities and extensive list of experiments like Amazon Go, and you have the dynamic pricing capability of  Amazon being deployed into the centralised and rigid pricing system that drives the supermarket model.

Isn’t this what taxis used to look like?

In Australia Amazon are pretty well known to be recruiting, and they will not be doing that without some sort of  plan. Retail of any colour requires trade-offs between speed, variety, convenience and price. Home delivery has ‘taken off’ according to some pundits who have a horse in the race, but still has no more than 3 – 5% market share, depending on whose numbers you use. Whatever share it may be, it is heavily skewed towards shelf stable commodities.

These numbers do not seem to have dented the enthusiasm of Coles and Woolworths for store expansions. Their business model serves the last retail step better than  any home delivery has to date, albeit becoming a bit frayed at the edges. The combination of order size, delivery density, and labour and freight infrastructure costs has been toxic for home delivery to date.

Of particular concern to both sides of the equation are the perishable lines, fresh and frozen,  now a significant part of any households consumption. The cold chain requires very close management, and there is no room for error.   At some point I guess someone will ‘Uber’ it by enlisting the crowd in some way to pick up and deliver a packed order at a specific times for a small fee.

Perhaps history will repeat itself.

As a very small boy I remember Mum shopping at a small store in Avalon beach. There was one man in the shop who served from behind the counter, and pretty much knew what Mum bought, so assembled an order from memory as she walked into the store. These days the ranges of SKU’s has exploded, but that can be fixed with a data base on your phone and perhaps the supermarkets of the future will go the way of other capital intensive infrastructure and decentralise.

Amazon has picked on the retailer who does fresh best in the US. In Australia, there may be a couple of options for  them to do the same thing. I wonder if the Harris family is prepared to sell out this time?

Online also misses the impulse sale, the one made as you wait in the queue, although Amazon has a pretty good handle on the personal preferences of their customers. My wife of 35 years ‘never knows’ what to buy me for Xmas and birthdays, but Amazon sends me invitations to buy stuff several times a week, some of which I would genuinely like. The irony of that!

The challenge of traditional retail is the very high fixed costs involved. Retailers seek to convert as much of those fixed costs to variable ones so at least  they can match their costs to activity to some extent. They do this by casualising the workforce, and deploying technology. In contrast, the on line retailers have way lower fixed costs, but their variable costs in the order construction and delivery are much higher.

Even that may not be the major hurdle faced by the established retailers. That hurdle is the capacity Amazon brings to the table for innovation, at high speed. While Woolies and Coles are contemplating a new store layout to trial somewhere, Amazon has trialled, optimised and dumped or implemented several iterations of the best ideas they have at any one time.

Retailers seem to me to have thought that merging their legacy operations with some level of ‘digital transformation’ is something they can do over an extended period, with all the risk modelling that has evolved to supp0rt their existing business model. However, that assumption now seems to have gone out the window.

I do  not know the percentage of revenue that Coles or Woolies spends on anything genuinely new, but suspect it will go nowhere even in sight of the 11.8 % Amazon spends on ‘technology and content’ on their revenue of $135billion.  The major part of that massive amount will not be directed at FMCG, but the lessons will be directly applicable.

I may  not be around to see this all finally play out, but I know for sure that grocery retailing will  not look anything like it does now when my baby granddaughter is buying for her family.


How to wield Occam’s Razor to build robust strategy.

How to wield Occam’s Razor to build robust strategy.

In its simplest form, ‘Occums Razor‘ is code for seeking the simplest explanation possible that fits all the facts. In Einstein’s words: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler

Development of Strategy is usually made overly complicated by all sorts of factors that should not really play a role, mostly to do with the status quo, sunk costs, emotional assessments of risk and reward, and the distortions our own psychology makes on what we see and understand.

Strategy is all about making choices about what you will do, and what you will not do, but it is not about the detail of how it will be done, and should always be based as far as possible on facts. Where facts are unavailable or ambiguous, as in new and fast developing markets, there is no substitute for experience and wisdom born of domain knowledge.

No strategy conversation should be immune to discussion of what others may do. You can choose what you do, but you cannot choose what others may do, independently, or perhaps as a result of what you do. This is game theory, and is important in developing your strategy, as no initiative is implemented in a vacuum. In its pure form, game theory is a mathematical set of relationships, used extensively in economic modelling, but in life responses are rarely just logical and predictable, which is why economic modelling is so often seen to be wide of the mark with the benefit of hindsight.

In building strategy, there is a third tool that is extremely useful, but most often ignored: Options theory. This emerged out of work done modelling financial markets, specifically derivative products  in an effort to price them to maximise returns, and is now standard practise. In its simplest form, it means that you never take an action until you absolutely have to in order to move to the next step. In the vernacular, it is ‘keeping your options open’ a term we would all have used extensively without necessarily thinking about the implications.

To avoid too much unproductive complication, you can ‘Occum’ scenarios that have elements of both game theory and options theory in your strategy deliberations.

How do you make this mumbo Jumbo work for you?

  • Use Occum’s razor to remove all the extraneous factors that are simply not significant to the outcomes. Break everything down into its simplest form. Einstein achieved this monumentally with E=MC2.
  • Consider the implications of game theory. ‘When we do this… they will do that’. A word of warning here, it is very easy to see this in a tactical manner, and that would be the wrong thing to do, as it will give you an incomplete big picture.
  • Apply Options theory to the steps you are modelling, considering the latest point at which you have to make a decision that determines the direction of later ones.

Do all three together in a collaborative and data rich series of conversations and you will emerge with a robust strategy, at least one that can be articulated simply, and implemented in logical sequence with known performance measures.