A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge

In honour of Spreadsheet Day and the 35th Anniversary of Visicalc, Steven Levy republishes a piece from 1984, where he described how the spreadsheet was changing the business world. The piece foreshadows the rise of modern Silicon Valley: “Entrepreneurs and their venture-capitalist backers are emerging as new culture heroes, settlers of another American frontier.”

The article also shows us how costly spreadsheet errors have been practically part of the business since the spreadsheet’s inception.

In August 1984, the Wall Street Journal reported that a Texas-based oil and gas company had fired several executives after the firm lost millions of dollars in an acquisition deal because of “errors traced to a faulty financial analysis spread sheet model.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Medium: A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge

Ebola’s Economic Fallout Can’t Be Quarantined in Africa

As the IMF decreases its growth forecast for sub-Saharan Africa to 5.0% from 5.5%, Bloomberg drills down on the details, covering everything from tourism impact to companies with direct exposure in the region. Companies mentioned include: Resolute Mining (RSG), Dangote Group, Intercontinental (IHG), Marriott (MAR), Nestle (NESN), Diageo (DGE), SABMiller (SAB), and MTN Group (MTN).

Bloomberg: Ebola’s Economic Fallout Can’t Be Quarantined in Africa

Is great TV doomed to be niche?

As some viewers may be aware, summer is when the networks (even the internet ones like Netflix) are taking breaks from their anchor programming. We thought these doldrums were a good time to revisit some of the media industry’s inflection points as a way to put our era’s media disruption into historical context.

The late ’70s and early ’80s were a particularly groundbreaking time. We were digging up the archive on the NBC turnaround—in particular, Time Magazine’s “Cool Cops, Hot Show” and “Coming Up from Nowhere”—which became a commercial and critical success in the ’80s:

But Emmy winners, confoundingly, ranked extremely low in terms of raw ratings, even in this age of three network television:

Ratings notwithstanding, NBC was satisfied with these shows because they captured a more upscale demo:

Mad. Ave. ad mavens were discovering that a rule long applied to magazines–that 1,000 New Yorker readers are more valuable than 1,000 National Enquirer readers–made sense in prime time as well. Says Tartikoff: “When you pull a tab on the St. Elsewhere audience, you find that many of them don’t watch any other entertainment show on network TV. They’re well-educated, well-paid people whom certain advertisers are eager to reach because they can’t be reached in these numbers anywhere else on TV. So we can make a very good living off St. Elsewhere even though it earns only a 24 share.”

The shift in thinking from the blockbuster model to the long-tail model has reached its logical conclusion in our current era of high fragmentation.

As an example, take look at the AMC network. In upscale viewership, Mad Men ranks first with 50% of viewers having incomes greater than $100,000. And yet, Mad Men has never really had great Nielsen ratings.

Another factor leading to poor overnights is timeshifting. Viewers now have the option to suit TV to their schedule and not the other way around. And poor numbers don’t necessarily translate to poor engagement. On the contrary, viewers engaging with television much like they did with the novels and epic operas of earlier eras with a phenomenon known as “binge watching” shows viewers have amazing attention spans when it comes to great content.

In the upscale demos, the timeshifting seems particularly extreme. The Mad Men finale increased by triple-digits in key demos between the Live/Same Day (L/SD) and Live+3 Day (L+3) measurements. Compare that to mass market NCIS, whose L+3 lifts are a fraction of that percentage-wise.

Similarly, another show on AMC, Halt & Catch Fire, has had L/SD viewership dip as low as 550,000. Based upon that metric, this show should have been cancelled. However, with an L+3 timeshift bump of over 70% and ranking third in upscale viewers with incomes over $100,000 at 42%, AMC decided to renew the show.

In summary, headline Nielsen overnights mean very little when you are programming prestige television. Even the epic TV deck from Luma Partners earlier this year devoted a neglible amount of space to the Nielsen numbers.

On the big screen, one analogue is The Weinstein Company’s reluctance to give Snowpiercer a traditional blockbuster release because they were concerned audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma would not understand it.

Thirty years ago, St. Elsewhere was attracting upscale viewers other shows could not, influenced a generation of creatives, and yet barely anyone watched it. The case is the same with shows like Mad Men today, and it is arguably more pronounced. Is great TV doomed to be niche?

A few more thoughts
  • The one-line pitches of these NBC shows are simultaneously ridiculous and brilliant.
    • The A-Team: “Road Warrior, Magnificent Seven, Dirty Dozen, Mission: Impossible, all rolled into one, and Mr. T drives the car.”
    • The Cosby Show: “A black Family Ties.”
    • Miami Vice: “MTV Cops.”
  • A great sound bite, applying not just to programming, but also much of business: “All hits are flukes.”

Black Swan Seed Rounds

Sam Altman, the newly appointed President of Y-Combinator, describes the contrarian nature of his black swan seed rounds. He writes, “The most striking observation is that, in my experience, the ‘hot seed rounds’ that everyone is fighting to get in are anti-correlated with very successful investments. […] The hotly-competed seed investments I’ve made have underperformed. For all of the really good seed investments I’ve made, other investors I respected thought they were bad ideas.”

Sam Altman: Black Swan Seed Rounds

Most popular attractions

If you are thinking of doing a grand tour of motor meccas around the world, don’t expect to see much else outside of the racetrack.

The 24 heures du Mans is far more popular than the Cathedrale de Saint-Julien de Mans in Le Mans, France. And the top three attractions in Nürburg, Germany include the Nürburgring itself, a company that lets you rent out cars to drive on the Nürburgring, and the Aston Martin Test Centre.

This seems to be the case in most cities with racetracks, where the top attractions are as follows:

  1. The Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, Japan.
  2. The Mugello circuit in Scarperia, Italy.
  3. The Hockenheimring in Hockenheim, Germany.
  4. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, California.
  5. The Simraceway Performance Driving Center in Sonoma, California.
  6. Road America Raceway in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

Exceptions, of course, include Monte-Carlo, which has been a destination for the jetset for decades. There is an opera house, a casino, and one of the most famous harbors in the Mediterranean. Austin, Texas more than makes up for its rather short Formula 1 legacy by being a premiere tourist destination, hosting festivals such as SXSW and ACL.

Though, worry not that the racetracks are not ranked supremo. They have rather stiff competition when it comes to leisure opportunities. Although track time can be arranged at the Austin venue, driving through Monaco at race speeds might be a bit harder to arrange.


References

Featured image is the home stretch of the Nürburg GP course. By Steffen Gebhart (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Next Breadbasket

National Geographic discusses how closing the crop yield gap in Africa could turn the continent could feed the world. Closing the yield gap could change the lives of villagers for the better—but the competition for land rights has a dark side as well.

National Geographic: The Next Breadbasket

Jaguar’s Project 7 Confirmed for Production

Although British Leyland, the eternally beleaguered manufacturer, was best exemplified by its uninspired marques such as Austin and Morris, it nevertheless had a few treasures in MINI, Land Rover, and Jaguar. After the breakup of the British behemoth, MINI found itself in the hands of BMW. Although it was essentially a residual of the disastrous Rover acquisition, MINI sales have been revived in past decade and a half, which saw after the launch of a new generation Cooper. Especially compared to Daimler’s Smart brand, MINI has been a smashing success.

Land Rover and Jaguar, on the other hand, eventually made their way over to Ford’s ownership. Unfortunately, under Ford’s ownership, Jaguar went through a phase that really solidified its reputation as a vessel to ferry oneself to the golf course as opposed to the track.

All that has changed since the sale of Jaguar & Land Rover to Tata Motors in the throes of the 2008 financial crisis. Tata has finally been willing to reposition Jaguar as a true performance brand, seeking to adapt tastes to a newer generation of consumers. And the way they have gone about this is focusing on rebuilding its reputation for performance coupled with beauty.

The release of the F-Type was really the first indication that Jaguar was seriously considering going head-to-head with default performance marques such as Ferrari and Porsche. Initially released as a convertible grand tourer, it seemed to be a good alternative to those considering the Ferrari California. Though you are not truly on the road to the racetrack until you’ve created a coupe version, where the higher rigidity provides better handling. That debut happened during the 2013 L.A. Auto Show.

Nevertheless, to compete professionally, Jaguar has fielded the XKR, with the F-Type being too green and unproven. It looks like things are about to change. The F-Type Project 7, which debuted at Goodwood Festival of Speed, is being positioned as the spiritual successor to Jaguar’s successful D-Type, even though that era of domination is nearly 60 years old.

A return to podium domination is long overdue. While British Leyland may not have had the ability to compete, Ford never had the willingness to compete. Tata has shown it has the ability and willingness to rebuild Jaguar & Land Rover into leading world class companies. Porsche and Audi, which have contributed to parent company Volkswagen’s ascension to market leadership, lends credence to the automotive adage, “What wins on Sunday sells on Monday”.

The release of Project 7 makes us hopeful that a comeback awaits in the wings. We shall see whether success in vintage hill climbs is a precursor to success in competitive race conditions. There is one thing that is clear though: while the F-Type does not unseat the E-Type in terms of sheer beauty, it sure would be prettier on the podium than the XKR.


Footnotes

The original press release announcing the Project 7 is available at Jaguar USA.

A Gilded Motor Carriage for Our Age: Maybach & Pullman Are Back

Daimler AG recently announced that Pullman and Maybach variants of the S-Class are being developed at Mercedes-Benz.

While the Pullman has traditionally been a coachbuilding moniker for Mercedes-Benz cars, in the boom decades of the 2000s, Daimler attempted to revive the Maybach brand as competition for BMW’s then-newly developed Rolls Royce Phantom. The Maybach came in two variants, the Maybach 57 and Maybach 62, which referred to the decimetric length of each model. In other words, the topline Maybach was a 6.2 metre long mobile luxury experience.

While in the 1980s, Paul Fussell described Mercedes-Benzes as cars made for “dictators and Beverly Hills dentists”, the revived Maybach was owned by celebrities such as Simon Cowell—but not too many other people. The Maybach brand, struggling amidst the cultural shift towards austerity in the Western world, was quietly shuttered after the financial crisis of the late 2000s.

Why revive these gilded monikers? Emerging markets are hungry for cars, where their status is far more aspirational than in the United States, whose car culture is undergoing a generational change. China in particular is such a strong market that it is affecting car development at the multinationals. To accommodate the Chinese cultural preference for more rear leg room, Cadillac will be selling a lengthened version of the ATS whilst Audi sells only the long wheelbase version of the A8 in that market.

Hence, between the rebound in developed market equities and the minting of billionaires in the emerging markets, it seems like the perfect time to bring back the Maybach and Pullman brands.