Was ‘Shareholder Value’ ever a good idea?

Joe Nocera had a great column recently on shareholder value, based in part on a recent feature we published in HBR. In it, he pauses to consider why the idea of putting shareholders first might ever have made sense to anyone other than investors:

It seemed like such a good idea at the time, back in the late 1970s and 1980s. For too long, the compensation of top executives was disconnected from any performance criteria, including whether they made money for shareholders. CEOs did pretty much whatever they wanted, with no fear of consequences. Thus, companies that needed to slim down, wouldn’t. Companies that needed to deploy capital more intelligently, didn’t. Executives who should have been fired, weren’t.

But, as Nocera writes, be careful what you wish for.

In “The Error at the Heart of Corporate Leadership” in HBR, Joseph Bower and Lynne Paine take issue with shareholders’ primacy, writing that:

We are concerned that the agency-based model of governance and management is being practiced in ways that are weakening companies and—if applied even more widely, as experts predict—could be damaging to the broader economy. In particular we are concerned about the effects on corporate strategy and resource allocation. Over the past few decades the agency model has provided the rationale for a variety of changes in governance and management practices that, taken together, have increased the power and influence of certain types of shareholders over other types and further elevated the claims of shareholders over those of other important constituencies—without establishing any corresponding responsibility or accountability on the part of shareholders who exercise that power. As a result, managers are under increasing pressure to deliver ever faster and more predictable returns and to curtail riskier investments aimed at meeting future needs and finding creative solutions to the problems facing people around the world.

Instead, they put forward a “company-centered” model:

A better model, we submit, would have at its core the health of the enterprise rather than near-term returns to its shareholders. Such a model would start by recognizing that corporations are independent entities endowed by law with the potential for indefinite life. With the right leadership, they can be managed to serve markets and society over long periods of time.

It is helpful to remember, as Nocera does, why shareholder primacy might have ever been appealing. But I’m squarely with Bower and Paine that it’s gone much too far. (Whether agency theory has been a productive academic framework for studying firms is a separate question.) I’m a bit less convinced that activist investors are the primary culprit (see here, here, here, here) and the question of whether firms are too short-term focused remains a matter of debate (see here, here, here) but these are quibbles. Shareholders are taking home a larger and larger share of the economic pie, and that’s a deeply troubling phenomenon.

My favorite formulation in the Bower/Paine piece is this one:

It is important to note that much of what activists call value creation is more accurately described as value transfer. When cash is paid out to shareholders rather than used to fund research, launch new ventures, or grow existing businesses, value has not been created. Nothing has been created. Rather, cash that would have been invested to generate future returns is simply being paid out to current shareholders.

This is the right way to think about companies’ job in the economy: to create real economic value, not just paper value, and not just to transfer value from one group to another. The main way to create value is through innovation. But would a move away from shareholder primacy help or hurt?

In one view, a move away from shareholder primacy helps innovation, as companies feel free to reinvest profits into R&D, and to spend more on training workers. In another view, absent pressure from shareholders incumbents get too cozy, and a “company-centered” model prioritizes the needs of existing organizations over the creation of new ones. That latter situation would be a problem, since we have good evidence linking firm entry and exit with economic growth and job creation.

I see no reason why a move away from shareholder primacy should lead to a less dynamic economy; the opposite seems more likely. You can imagine a 2×2 matrix, with Dynamic/Complacent on one axis and Shareholders-First/Balanced on the other. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. economy moved from the Balanced side of the grid toward Shareholders-First. There’s at least some evidence that the economy became less dynamic over that very same period of time.

Dynamic+Balanced clearly seems like the best part of the grid to be in. Putting the interests of shareholders on a more equal footing with the interests of employees, customers, and broader society seems like a step in the right direction.

More thoughts on Snap and digital strategy

I published a piece at HBR about Snap’s inability to keep Facebook/Instagram from copying its best features. It was pretty pessimistic about Snap’s “strategy” of building great, creative products. And I argued that CEO Evan Spiegel drew the wrong lessons from Google’s success in search.

That got me thinking about what the best strategic case for Snap would be. Before getting to that, here are a few other good reads on Snap and strategy. Joshua Gans on the tradeoffs between execution and control; Nathan Furr on turning products into platforms; and Ben Thompson on Snap and Apple.

So what would the best case be?

Architectural innovation

Here’s another quote from Spiegel on the first Snap earnings call:

“When Google came along, everyone really felt like they needed a search strategy. When Facebook came along, everyone felt they needed a social strategy. And now I think with Snap, with our company, we believe that everyone is going to develop a camera strategy.”

One (perhaps generous) reading of this would be that the shift to camera-based social applications represents a shift in the architecture of social products, not just in their components. In 1990, Rebecca Henderson (then of MIT now Harvard Business School) and Kim Clark (also HBS) published a key paper on innovation. In it, they suggested that “incremental” and “radical” innovation were insufficient categories. Instead, they differentiated between changes to the individual components of a product and changes to its architecture.

As they described it:

For example, a room fan’s major components include the blade, the motor that drives it, the blade guard, the control system, and the mechanical housing. The overall architecture of the product lays out how the components will work together. Taken together, a fan’s architecture and its components create a system for moving air in a room.

A component is defined here as a physically distinct portion of the product that embodies a core design concept (Clark, 1985) and performs a well-defined function. In the fan, a particular motor is a component of the design that delivers power to turn the fan. There are several design concepts one could use to deliver power. The choice of one of them-the decision to use an electric motor, for example, establishes a core concept of the design. The actual component-the electric motor-is then a physical implementation of this design concept.

The distinction between the product as a system and the product as a set of components underscores the idea that successful product development requires two types of knowledge. First, it requires component knowledge, or knowledge about each of the core design concepts and the way in which they are implemented in a particular component. Second, it requires architectural knowledge or knowledge about the ways in which the components are integrated and linked together into a coherent whole. The distinction between architectural and component knowledge, or between the components themselves and the links between them, is a source of insight into the ways in which innovations differ from each other.

In a recent book and HBR article, Joshua Gans of the University of Toronto has dubbed this theory of architectural innovation “supply-side disruption.”

Henderson and Clark argue that architectural innovation creates problems for established firms:

Architectural innovation presents established firms with a more subtle challenge. Much of what the firm knows is useful and needs to be applied in the new product, but some of what it knows is not only not useful but may actually handicap the firm. Recognizing what is useful and what is not, and acquiring and applying new knowledge when necessary, may be quite difficult for an established firm because of the way knowledge-particularly architectural knowledge-is organized and managed

Perhaps the move to make smartphone cameras the center of social applications represents such an architectural innovation. If that’s true, maybe it’s enough to trip up incumbent players, offering Snap the chance to become the market leader.

This doesn’t seem likely, for two reasons. First, Instagram is already a camera-first company. Second, Facebook showed with its shift to mobile that it’s committed to and quite good at adjusting to architectural innovation.

The Snap paradox

Another possibility, mentioned in my original piece, is segmentation. Maybe Snap can be the market leader among a subset of users. That’s totally plausible, but at odds with Spiegel’s view that “Longer term, obviously, we really believe that Snapchat is for everyone.” He could argue that buy-in from a certain segment will allow him to get there — maybe you win millennials first, and later everyone else follows them — but that argument is self-defeating. That’s what Facebook did, and if that advantage is so fleeting that Snap can come along and do the same thing a few years later, what does that say about the value of Snap?

That is the Snap paradox. If it shows it can beat Facebook, it shows that social networks aren’t as valuable as they might seem, because, as Thompson put it, “Snap is declaring that moats no longer exist.”

One final thought: there may still be room for Snap to follow in Apple’s footsteps. In my piece I wrote that:

Thompson has compared Snap favorably to Apple, an extremely successful company known for its hard-to-imitate product expertise. But Apple has benefited from controlling key ecosystems, like iTunes and iOS. And it has benefited from focusing on a particularly lucrative part of the hardware market: high-end, high-margin devices aimed at wealthier customers. It’s not clear what the equivalent is in Snap’s case.

Just because Spiegel isn’t fully articulating Apple’s actual strategy doesn’t necessarily mean Snap can’t get there. It may be that the combination of branding, constant attention to design and product innovation, and segmentation on the advertising side — some way to offer high-end ad experiences in a way that other firms find hard to imitate or otherwise unappealing — could work.

But that last part still requires some theory why Facebook can’t or won’t copy you. It still requires strategy.

Gig work as a symptom of economic insecurity

Over the last 40 years, America has gradually shifted risk from government and other large institutions like businesses back onto its citizens. (For much of the previous century, it was going in the other direction.) This shift was political as well as economic. 

It’s tempting to see the gig economy as furthering this shift, moving risk from companies to workers, and that’s clearly part of the story.

But the risk shift was well underway before Uber, Lyft, and Taskrabbit arrived on the scene. So it seems more accurate to think of these jobs at least largely as a consequence of risk shifting, and only secondarily as a cause.

Consider Uber. The majority of Uber drivers have another job, and more than half of UberX drivers drive less than 15 hours a week.  In their 2015 paper on Uber drivers, economists Jonathan Hall and Alan Kreuger conclude that “Uber’s driver-partners also often cited the desire to smooth fluctuations in their income as a reason for partnering with Uber.” 

That makes sense, since incomes have become significantly more volatile in recent decades. And as Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider wrote on HBR:

Our first big finding was that the households’ incomes were highly unstable, even for those with full-time workers. We counted spikes and dips in earning, defined as months in which a household’s income was either 25% more or 25% less than the average. It turned out that households experienced an average of five months per year with either a spike or dip. In other words, incomes were far from average almost half of the time. Income volatility was more extreme for poorer families, but middle class families felt it too.

Uber drivers are responding to this phenomenon, using gig work to “top off” their income as necessary.

How you feel about this likely depends on your comparison. If you take the great risk shift as a given, this might be a mild improvement on the status quo since gig work can help supplement incomes in times of need. But if you compare it to a world where incomes are less volatile and/or risk is shifted back to government or large institutions, this arrangement looks lousy. 

The real culprit here is politics. Yes, Uber should treat drivers better, and companies in general can do more to make work less precarious. But the enthusiasm for gig work is made possible by a political system that has failed a large number of people.