Friday, September 30, 2011

Disrupt Yourself Before Others Disrupt You: DVD To Streaming Transition Is Same As On-Premise To Cloud

Recently, Netflix separated their streaming and DVD subscription plans. As per Netflix's forecast, they will lose about 1 million subscribers by the end of this quarter. The customers did not like what Netflix did. A few days back, Netflix's CEO, Reed Hastings, wrote a blog post explaining why Netflix separated their plans. He also announced their new brand, Qwikster, which will be a separate DVD service from Netflix's streaming website. These two services won't share the queues and movie recommendations even if you subscribe to both of them. A lot has been said and discussed about how poorly Netlflix communicated the overall situation and made wrong decisions.

I have no insider information about these decisions. They might seem wrong in short term but I am on Netflix's side and agree with the co-founder Marc Randolph that Netflix didn't screw up. I believe it was the right thing to do, but they could have executed it a little better. Not only I am on their side, but I see parallels between Netflix's transition from DVD to steaming and on-premise enterprise ISVs' transition from on-premise to cloud. The on-premise ISVs don't want to cannibalize their existing on-premise business to move to the cloud even if they know that's the future, but they don't want to wait long enough to be in a situation where they run out of money and become irrelevant before the transition.

So, what can these on-premise ISV's learn from Netflix's decisions and mistakes?

Run it as a separate business unit, compete in the right category, and manage street's expectations:

Most companies run their business as single P&L and that's how the street sees it and expects certain revenue and margins. Single P&L muddies the water.The companies have no way of knowing how much money they are spending on a specific business and how much revenue it brings in. In many cases, there is not even an internal separation between different business units. Setting up a separate business unit is a first step to get the accounting practices right including tracking cost and giving the right guidance to the street. DVD business is like maintenance revenue and the streaming is like license revenue. The investors want to know two things: you're still a growth company (streaming) and you still have enough cash coming in (DVD business) to tap into the potential to grow.

Netflix faces competition in streaming as well as in their DVD business, but the nature of competition is quite different. For the enterprise ISVs competing with on-premise vendors is quite different than competing with SaaS vendors. The nature of business — cost structure, revenue streams, ecosystem, platform, anti-trust issues, marketing campaigns, sales strategy — is so different that you almost need a separate organization.

Prepare yourself to acquire and be acquired:

Netflix could potentially acquire a vendor in the streaming business or in the DVD business and that makes it easy for them to integrate. This is even more true in the case of ISVs since most of the on-premise ISVs will grow into the cloud through acquisitions. If you're running your SaaS business as a separate entity, it is much easier to integrate the new business from technology as well as business perspective.

Just as you could acquire companies, you should prepare yourself for an exit as well. Netflix could potentially sell the DVD unit to someone else. This will be a difficult transaction if their streaming business is intertwined with their DVD business. The same is true for the enterprise ISVs. One day, they might decide to sell their existing on-premise business. Running it as a separate business entity makes it much easier to attract a buyer and sell it as a clean transaction.

Take your customers through the journey: 

This is where Netflix failed. They did not communicate to the customers early on and ended up designing a service that doesn't leverage existing participation of the customers such as recommendations and queues. There is no logical reason why they cannot have a contract in place between two business units to exchange data, even if these two units are essentially separate business entities. The ISVs should not make this mistake. When you move to the cloud, make sure that your customers can connect to their on-premise systems. Not only that, you need to take care of their current contracts and extend them to the cloud if possible and make it easy for them to transition. Don't make it painful for your customers. The whole should be great than the sum of its parts.

Run your business as a global brand:

Learn from P&G and GE. They are companies made up of companies. They do run these sub-companies independently with a function to manage them across. It does work. Netflix has a great brand and they will retain that. As an on-premise ISV you should consider running your on-premise and cloud businesses as sub-brands under single brand umbrella. Branding is the opposite of financials; brand is a perception and financials is a reality. Customers care for the brand and service and the street cares for the financials. They seem to be very closely related to each other for a company looking inside-in but from an outside-in perspective they are quite different. There is indeed a way to please them both. This is where the most companies make wrong decisions.

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