I had a conversation recently with a banker friend of mine, who’s skeptical about the ‘new’ economy (“there is nothing new about the new economy”, he claims). While I’m ranting on about great opportunities and how the new assets are essentially ‘invisible’ he interrupted and said: “But Robert we can’t bank that stuff, there‘s no intrinsic value there. Its not real like land, or plant and machinery.”
After that, I had to stop and catch my breath for a moment. Apart from the horror of absorbing this shocking statement, I was beginning to see how difficult it is for many knowledge-rich businesses today to get banking facilities – they might just as well be talking to a brick wall.
David and Goliath
After I recovered my composure, I said, “Matthew, let me tell you a little story about how attitudes just like yours almost destroyed the most powerful company in the world.”
I don’t know of you remember at all, but during the ’60s and ‘70s IBM owned the computer business. It was the biggest and most powerful technology business on the planet. IBM began its life in the 1880’s as International Business Machines, and had grown up during the 20th century as a machine-maker ‘extraordinaire’. By the late ’70s, IBM was unsurpassed in terms of technology development, but was even more dominate in reputation, in the power of its brand. It was often said in those far away days “nobody was ever fired for buying IBM.” In other words they were, and were perceived to be, the best in the business. They owned the computer market by virtue of their brand reputation and the excellence of their hardware, selling frighteningly expensive mainframe computers.
With success came a kind of arrogance and complacency, a fatal flaw very evident in their negotiations with start-up software pioneer Bill Gates. Bill was so young and Microsoft so small in the late ‘70s that neither registered on IBM’s radar screen. Good fortune, however, was just around the corner. Early in 1981 Microsoft was approached by IBM to produce some operating software for IBM’s ground breaking, soon to be released PC, the Personal Computer.
As it happened Bill and Microsoft didn’t have a ready operating system to sell to IBM, so they went out and purchased a basic operating system from software developer Tim Paterson for $50,000 and adapted it. The renamed version eventually became IBM’s PC-DOS.
New Approach to Software
Developing software and selling it outright to customers was standard operating procedure in the software world of that day. Remarkably, in Microsoft’s case, something quite amazing happened. Bill recognized that his simple operating system was more than a toss away service for IBM’s hardware; his software had great utility and value. Bill Gates pondered on how best to sell his operating system to IBM, but also retain the right to sell it to other customers as well.
Bill Gates launched Microsoft and (almost accidentally) created the modern software industry by ring-fencing his computer code with a legal agreement and licensing its use to IBM instead of selling it outright. Under the agreement Microsoft retained the right to independently develop and market its own version of PC-DOS under the brand name MS-DOS. Signing this agreement was a colossal blunder for IBM, a mistake that in very short order catapulted this titan of industry to the point of ruin; meanwhile Microsoft, a global superstar, was born.
The lesson for bankers today is this. The launch of Microsoft might never have happened if IBM had not brought an antiquated industrial mind-set to the negotiating table.
IBM, of course, played by the existing rules of business; they KNEW that only ‘real‘ tangible assets were important. For IBM, software was unimportant; it was simply an expendable service. As a result of this blindness IBM didn’t see the opportunity or the danger and therefore did not object to the licensing arrangement.
Microsoft KO’s IBM
In the stoke of a pen, IBM abandoned two of the most valuable (if non-traditional) assets of the 20th century; simply left them on the boardroom table. And (bankers take note) what were these assets: the MS-DOS software assets, and more importantly a relationship-based customer equity asset that would dominate the world of computing for the next quarter century.
Ownership of the MS-DOS software platform soon paid handsome profits for Microsoft. With its unique capabilities MS-DOS helped launch IBM clones, competitors to IBM in (clone pioneer) Columbia Data Products, Eagle Computer, Compaq and others. This however was only the beginning, soon MS-DOS became Microsoft Windows and the world had a ubiquitous new software operating system for a generation of personal computer users. Microsoft’s ownership of this non-traditional asset, one of the most profitable assets of the 20th century, was – ironically – only made possible through ignorance and neglect: software-as-asset being a contradiction in terms for IBM.
But MS-DOS was not the biggest asset IBM left on the table that day. Customer equity, the magic ingredient that catches customers’ desires, that informs the ‘Why of the Buy’ for computer purchases soon passed from IBM’s hardware to customers’ familiarity with the Window’s operating system. PC buyers were loyal to Window’s (and to a lesser degree Apple’s) operating system, not the hardware platform. Armies of computer buyers flocked to Microsoft based computers regardless of the hardware platform. (Note to Microsoft, today customer equity is moving to Apple’s platform, beware!). This customer equity asset was, until recently, the most valuable asset in the history of computing – more than anything else it created the myth of Microsoft and almost cratered IBM as a viable business.
“So, Matthew, there is something new about the new economy, value is driven in new ways, from unfamiliar, intangible sources that most bankers don’t understand. How can bankers hope to keep pace with all these changes? I don’t know but burying your head in the sand and pretending that nothing has changed won’t help, that’s for sure. “