There is a fundamental change already underway in the world of books and it just accelerated yesterday. I don’t know whether to be happy to sad.
I have a Kindle. I love it, but I know I am a bit of a geek. To me, evidence that the world of books was shifting forever came when my mother (who is over 70 but how much over is private!) stated that she wanted a Kindle. And then yesterday Steve Jobs announced the iPad which has my kids friends all a’twitter (actually a’texting would be more accurate since Twitter is for old people) about ebooks now.
A couple of days ago I starting researching Amazon in FirstRain and, thinking about this phenomenon, went hunting for interesting content. As with most of our users, I tend to read certain sources and types of content more than others because of I believe they have better insight and are more reliable. FirstRain helps me sort through the noise easily by choosing the content type or sources I want to read. By selecting blogs only, I noticed a story from November titled Amazon (AMZN): “The best is still ahead”
“Amazon announced that its Kindle e-book reader is now its most popular selling item, both in units and in dollars. That led to a big acceleration in revenue growth (28%, the fastest in five quarters), while earnings leaped 67%.”
Expectations are that the holiday season was extremely successful for Amazon as online retailers, by most accounts, took share from brick-and-mortar retailers. The economic disruptions of the past two years have actually meant an acceleration in consumers’ adoption and use of the Internet as a retail channel.
Amazon’s earnings call is today so I’ll be looking for the transcript on FirstRain tonight (I can’t take the time to listen but I will speed read it) since this change to ebooks is such a ground shift in my way of consuming books – which I do voraciously.
But Amazon has bigger plans than my reading addiction. “Amazon is no longer content to be the world’s biggest e-tailer. Its new goal is to become the world’s leading retailer. Period.”
Aside from the other markets that Amazon has aspirations to dominate, I believe the company will own the market for books, both hard copy and e-books, in the next few years. Sadly the independent bookstore will all but disappear – although maybe there is room for one large single chain for the older readers who like to walk the isles, touch and smell (Yes, one of our engineers at FirstRain actually used the word smell) the books.
From looking into this in our system, it looks like the winner here will be Barnes & Noble (BKS), but I don’t believe the company will grow organically. Over the next few years, Barnes & Noble can prosper by becoming the brick and mortar bookstore choice and Amazon and Apple will garner the rest of the market share for books with both online hard copy sales and e-book sales.
Borders is definitely in decline. It will close an estimated 240 stores during the three months ending January 31, 2010 for a total of roughly 300 Waldenbooks stores over the past 13 months, or close to 70% of all Waldenbooks outlets! Retail analysts at Davidowitz & Associates give Borders Group a 50-50 chance of survival. (Added note – right after I posted this I saw the CEO has announced he is leaving and they are cutting 10% of their corporate staff).
From the Barnes & Noble website, as of October 2009, the company operates 775 stores. However, keep in mind the number of stores Barnes & Noble had at the end of 2004 was 820 so they are also down a bit. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that analysts expect an avalanche of bookstore closings this year. A new report by Grant Thornton report says 10,000 retail stores will have closed by the end of 2009. Of that number, 400 will be bookstores, which is a 500% increase in bookstore closings over 2008.
Within large department stores like WalMart and Target, the small numbers of book titles are probably safe and books will continue to be sold in niche markets like the point-of-sale newsstands in the airport where Hudson Booksellers seems to have most of the market – unless everyone who flys gets an iPad the way everyone who flys today has a cell phone .
Sadly used bookstores will probably disappear as well as no industry undermined by its greatest partisans survives for very long. Remember when CD sales plunged after music could be downloaded? Today, we can find any used book in the World for pennies on the dollar on Amazon and on other sites. “With the Internet, nothing is ever lost. That’s the good news, and that’s the bad news” says author Wendy Lesser in a New York Times piece by David Streitfeld (12/28/08).” But would this mean when I buy a first edition as a gift (as I did for a dear friend’s 50th birthday last year) I would not be able to hold it first? Hmmm… not sure about that.
What is certain is that the earthquake for books has hit, the after shocks and still coming – the iPad being the latest – and ten years from now I will probably only be buying the really hard to find history books I read in hard copy. Everything else will be coming from the cloud… another area Amazon wants to dominate but for another post.
On the eve of the rumored Apple tablet announcement, after Apple has just announced the best quarter ever, it’s interesting to look at how we stay on top of a hot topic like Apple rumors.
FirstRain has a topic called “Apple Rumors” because there is an abundance of chatter on the Web trying to answer the question “What’s next for Apple?” and it takes our ranking algorithms to pull out just the interesting stuff and remove the junk, duplication and noise.
The topic works particularly well since we crawl many of the sources of chatter for the company, which include 100s of blogs worldwide that seem to only discuss Apple’s future products. Anyone who has ever followed the blog the Boy Genius Report would know the valuable insight that select bloggers can provide. To reduce the noise on the Web, FirstRain uses a proprietary system to rank blogs in terms of authoritativeness and content quality.
This is how this topic is reported within FirstRain – and you can set up a saved search that will push the ranked web results to you in RSS or email.
In one quick summary using our signals on the right hand side or in the chart, you can see the rumors that may be interesting to follow up with additional research. Or, if you’re about to step into a meeting with Apple or listen to their conference call, the rumors could provide you with ideas for questions of the team.
And you’ll notice what appears to be a possible June launch date for a Verizon iPhone, which has been speculated about for quite some time.
Note – Apple does try to shut down rumors too – as when they sued Think Secret and got it to shut down because it seemed to have too much inside information.
FirstRain is starting out the year with some exciting news – we are expanding our relationship with FactSet and enabling FactSet to sell the FirstRain research engine directly to its customers.
You may recall that in 2008 we began our partnership with FactSet – allowing their users to access FirstRain directly in FactSet Marquee. Now, to coincide with the new FactSet interface, and our expanding mutual customer base, FactSet has the ability to sell and support FirstRain and we’ll support their customer support team.
It’s easy to get to FirstRain within FactSet now – you can see a recorded demo on our web site and see some screen shots – both here. We’ve implemented it in a way so that every FactSet user get’s a snapshot of web data on any company and then can click through to FirstRain easily from the snapshot.
Here is the link to our press release.
The three most recent Signals on FirstRain tell an interesting story:
Combine this with a look at volume of content on the web around Apple. This is a chart of web content volume for Apple – here you can see that the discussion on Apple went quiet for a while, it then heated up around the Mobile computing discussion, but despite all the considerable chatter on the much-rumored Tablet on the web, the Quattro acquisition generated an even larger spike in web content.
All signs are that 2010 is the year that marks the major transition in Mobile computing platforms. The explosion of smart phones, the rapidly growing tablet choices, ebooks etc. all free consumers from their PCs and even from their Macs.
If the new Apple “Tablet” is as sexy a product as the iPhone was (and there is no reason to believe it won’t be) – their new move will allow them to grab an interesting piece of the mobile ad market and put Apple again in a commanding position.
This is probably why the Quattro acquisition is such a hot topic on FirstRain.
We hired a new, senior sales rep at FirstRain this week. Very seasoned guy, has worked for our VP sales before, and I asked him to tell me why he joined.
I am always curious what motivates people to join us — how good a job do we do of sharing what’s in our crazy minds about what we’re trying to build when we interview people — and I like to capture it before they get mired into the daily challenges of growing a new company (which are considerable, especially if you are in sales).
Thomas sent me his list:
* FirstRain provides sales people competitive advantage (better info faster)
* Excellent leadership team and longstanding relationships
* Game changing vision
* Fantastic people and culture
* Significant market opportunity
Clearly he is not a loquacious guy. A year from now I’ll buy him a beer and ask “So… was it what you expected?”
We have a new customer that we have been deploying over the last few months and my sales person sent me an amusing customer commentary today.
The customer is a very large software company in the security business. They are using FirstRain in both sales and marketing to stay current on major customers and market developments, in just minutes a day, never missing any business developments so they can improve their sales performance.
Here’s the message I got:
Earlier this week an account director sent a marketing director the request “do you have anything to help keep me up to date about BP UK”.
The response he got was “We have this really cool service called FirstRain, it’s basically like Google Finance on steroids, with everything in one place” and allocated him one of their remaining licenses.
This customer team has only been actively using FirstRain for a couple of months so it’s great to get their endorsement so early in their deployment (although I am not sure Google Finance on steroids does us justice since we have so much more!).
We’ve made a terrific change this year to our vacation policy – which is basically not to have one. As of January 1 our employees can take as much vacation as they need provided they are getting their work done. The idea of doing this for all employees was pioneered by Netflix and we’ve decided to follow their excellent lead for our US team.
This change is one more thing we’re doing to build a great culture. We have a very intense culture today. People work hard, they work long hours inside and outside “normal business hours”, from home, from airplanes, and we don’t clock or watch the hours they work. So if we don’t clock the hours they are here, why should we clock the hours they are not? Why should we be tracking paperwork and forms when an employee takes the day off but we don’t do the same for when they work over a weekend.
It is much more trusting and respectful to simply say:
Work the hours you need to to get the job done,
Take the time off you need to take care of yourself and your family and
Talk to your manager about the time you need and how to fit it in with your work.
After all – if we entrust an employee with critical algorithm design, or with talking to customers – why wouldn’t we trust them to manage their own time? And one of our five values is “Take ownership for the company’s success” so people managing their own time is really consistent with that – I trust them to do what’s right.
This is a very popular move as you can imagine and one I am really pleased to be able to do. I asked Ana to give me a Letterman list – the Top Ten reasons this is a great move for our team – here is her list:
1. Each employee gets to make their own decision about when it makes sense to take time off
2. Each employee gets to decide how much time off they need
3. It rewards folks for working smarter, not longer
4. It places trust in our employees – trust gains trust back
5. It differentiates us from our competition – especially when hiring
6. Vacation is good for physical and mental health – so this supports good health
7. It reduces administrative paperwork – always a good thing!
8. It’s one less policy we have to document and explain
9. No more accrued vacation liability on our balance sheet
10. It’s just very cool to say, “at FirstRain we take as much time as we need, as long as your work is done”
p.s. This last Christmas we shut down between Christmas and New Year to encourage people to take vacation and take a break. It was so popular – both restorative and productive – we’re doing it again at the end of 2010 even within this new policy to encourage the break.
p.p.s. The basic idea of not clocking vacation has been around for “executives” for years but for financial reasons – if you store up vacation then the company has to accrue the financial obligation of paying for that vacation on the balance sheet and so, since executives typically cost more, companies often did not accrue or track vacation for VPs and above so they could reduce the accrued liability.
Ringing in the New Year I decided to send an email out to all my employees – the Rainmakers – to recognize the tremendous progress that we made in 2009, but also to get us all looking forward.
2009 was a hard year for almost every company – especially the first half – but 2010 is starting out with a bang. Some orders came in today (our fiscal year end is January 31 so the sales team is supremely focused), the stock market is up, pundits continue to forecast a recovery, especially in tech (although there are still some respectable analysts on the negative side…) and our customers are giving us good feedback on their use of the research engine.
So my objective is both to acknowledge last year, honor the hard work we did, and then put it behind us so we focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday. And more importantly to thank everyone.
Here is the email I sent out (with just a few edits to remove unannounced customer wins):
As we enter 2010 I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for your hard work and the tremendous progress we made in 2009.
When I wrote to you at the end of last fiscal year I reflected that “2008 was all about our algorithms, automation and the quality of our datasets…” and that “2009 is going to be [about] self-service”.
As I reflect on 2009 it is exciting to see that we have more than exceeded the goals we set out a year ago:
- We made our product significantly more powerful when the research engine interface came up in beta in June and went into production in September. It is the first of its kind for business search, it reveals the depth of business structure, topics and content that we have spent the last 4 years developing and it expands the available market we can sell to by appealing to a broad, general business market.
- Although we have been selling to marketing teams all along we were able to start selling aggressively to sales and marketing teams across all types of business-to-business companies. The early positive feedback from sales customers is very encouraging and in 2010 we’ll continue to invest in the workflow for sales teams. Our first Dreamforce show and the demonstration of how we integrate with salesforce.com CRM was an important milestone for us in this market.
- We introduced several very powerful innovations which make our product valuable to our customers – like signals, the company brief, the faceted search engine and the workflow to use the search engine to develop personal email and RSS feeds – and while we will always want to make the research engine easier, we did make significant progress so that now customers can be independent – they can start by themselves and make their own changes. This is a huge step forward from where we were a year ago.
- The recession was very difficult for almost every company and it is to the credit of every one of you, and our sales and support teams, that we came through it stronger than before. We made some difficult staffing decisions during the recession and our finance and HR team worked hard both in the US and in India to bring our costs down and make sure we ran as lean a company as we could.
- We developed and grew our traditional customers like Axxx, Gxxx and Bxxx; we developed important new relationships at Mxxx and Dun and Bradstreet. Our corporate customers continued to use our product, Dxxx substantially grew their use of our reports and the new work with Fidelity.com pushed us to make our event detection truly exiting.
As we enter the New Year I believe we are building momentum both in our product and in our channels. In 2010 we will use the investment and innovation of the last few years to continue to grow our bookings and revenue. Our goal is $xxxx and it is going to take hard work, creativity and team work to achieve the goal – and we can and will do it!
I hope you have all had some time with your families and friends over the New Year and are recharged for the exciting opportunity we have in front of us.
Thank you again – it is my privilege to work with you all.