NJ Governor Chris Christie has banned Tesla’s direct sales model in NJ. Now, I understand completely why an auto manufacturer would want to use franchise dealerships rather than tying up all that capital themselves — they can focus on what they do best. I have absolutely no idea, however, how one could argue that the decision to sell directly is anti-competitive. Selling electric cars is extremely complicated — it takes way more effort and education than selling traditional vehicles. There’s plenty of evidence that salespeople at traditional dealerships are not equipped to (nor interested in) investing the extra effort it takes to pitch electric cars. (Imagine your car salesman explaining how you get a city permit to install a 220 volt charger in your garage and you start to get the idea…) Thus there’s a strong case for Tesla deciding to run the dealerships themselves. They want to make the experience smooth, slick, and iPhone like. And when someone goes into a Tesla dealership, it’s not because they were hoping the salesperson would compare the Tesla’s benefits with those of the Volt or Leaf, so where is the harm to competition?
Christie, what gives? Did NJ ban GM Saturn dealerships in the 1990s? Strange move for a Republican…
New Jersey To Tesla: You’re Outta Here
The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission voted Tuesday to ban the direct sale of vehicles in the state, becoming the third state in the nation to prevent Tesla from selling to consumers. That would force Tesla, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, to sell its cars through dealers.
Instead, Tesla will stop selling cars in New Jersey on April 1, according to Dow Jones. That means the auto company won’t have access to one of the nation’s most lucrative markets for luxury vehicles, while well-heeled New Jerseyites will have to pick up their Teslas somewhere else.
The commission’s vote followed month of discussions between Tesla and members of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, according to a post on Tesla’s blog. The auto company said it thought that the commission and the administration were working to help it in the face of opposition from the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers.
Like many other dealer groups across the country, New Jersey dealers did not want Tesla to be able to sell cars directly to customers. On Monday, Tesla said it learned that “Governor Christie’s administration has gone back on its word to delay a proposed anti-Tesla regulation so that the matter could be handled through a fair process in the Legislature.”
Tesla said it had already been issued two licenses to open dealerships in New Jersey. “This is an issue that affects not just Tesla customers, but also New Jersey citizens at large, because Tesla would be unable to create new jobs or participate in New Jersey’s economic revival,” the Tesla blog said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Gov. Christie said Tesla officials would need to convince the state legislature to reverse the New Jersey ban on direct sales.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said, “Since Tesla first began operating in New Jersey one year ago, it was made clear that the company would need to engage the Legislature on a bill to establish their new direct-sales operations under New Jersey law. This administration does not find it appropriate to unilaterally change the way cars are sold in New Jersey without legislation, and Tesla has been aware of this position since the beginning.”
The other two states to have banned Tesla from direct sales are Arizona and Texas. Coincidentally, both states are on Tesla’s consideration list for its massive battery factory. The other states in the running are New Mexico and Nevada.
Texas’ auto dealers have said they would still fight to keep the company from being able to sell directly to customers, even though the $5 billion plant is considered one of the biggest industrial prizes ever.
The New Jersey action comes after the Tesla Model S was named the top car for 2014 by Consumer Reports magazine.
In the article below, Wired reports on a study of when researchers download articles (middle of the night? Yep! Weekends? Yep!) and concludes that scientists are workaholics. The article also opines that it is the intense competition and stress of the scientists’ jobs that cause them to engage in such obviously self-destructive behavior. I think they could have the causal mechanism wrong here. I believe many researchers work at odd hours, at least in part, because they find it pleasurable — not because of external pressure. People end up in these fields (and successful in these fields) because studying something is what they like to do and are good at. Information technology just enables them to more liberally indulge in this rewarding (and rewarded) behavior.
I was scolded just last weekend for the fact that I almost never read fiction anymore. I was afraid to admit that I am often too busy on non-fiction endeavors — like an internet scavenger hunt to figure out just why lobsters maintain telomerase activation throughout their lives, and may thus have a potential lifespan of…wait for it…FOREVER. That is seriously cool — how could a Grisham novel ever compete? But I might be biased because I like researching things, at any hour of the day. If you’re reading this, I bet you do too.
A great New York Times article this morning (link below) details ways in which the patent system gets used as both an offensive and defensive weapon, with billions of dollars of collateral damage to start-ups, consumers (see the “patent tax”), and innovation in general. The victim in the opening Vignette (Vlingo, a voice-recognition software start-up) might have been saved by a simple change in the rules: make the losers of patent lawsuits pay the legal costs of the winner. It turns out that it’s rather easy to kill small firms (or force them to sell to you) by launching a patent lawsuit against them that bleeds them dry with legal fees. You don’t have to win — you just have to force them to fight until they no longer have any money. Vlingo ultimately won the patent lawsuit that had been filed by a much larger rival, but had to loot its own meager coffers to pay the legal fees of doing so. Vlingo slumped home with its patent lawsuit victory and shut its doors for good. If losers of such battles paid the legal fees of winners, such fights might both be less common, and less likely to be fatal.
The article also points out that software patents have proven particularly dangerous because they are prone to protecting vague claims like “a software algorithm for calculating online prices,” thereby granting the patent holder vast tracks of technological real estate. An interesting talk by Tilo Peters at the Strategic Management Society conference yesterday points to another useful tool for rationalizing some of this misuse of the patent system: Strategic disclosure. If, for example, you decided to publish a manifesto about all of the things you might do with software in the reasonable future (remember patents have a “usefulness” condition so you’re not allowed to claim something deemed non-feasible), you might be able to essentially proclaim that technological territory as unpatentable. It wouldn’t prevent competitors from developing in those areas, but it could keep them from patenting in those areas. In essence, it transforms a space in which property rights may be allocated into one in which property rights may not. I’ve left out some details but you get the idea.
Now it occurs to me that a fair amount of strategic disclosure in the smart phone space took place in the form of Star Trek episodes. I’m going to go look for references to prior art…
Alex Tabarrok’s pictorial commentary on patent policy, drawn on a napkin, posits that the current patent system is somewhat too strong and thereby decreases innovation (the link to his original post is below). I have to say, however, that I don’t think patent strength is the problem. The problem is that the growth in patent applications over the last two decades has vastly exceeded the growth in resources available to the patent office, resulting in 1) long delays between patent application and granting (which can render patents completely pointless in fast moving industries), and 2) inadequate ability to examine the patent applications for novelty, usefulness and non-obviousness. This lowers the value of good patents (because they aren’t granted quick enough or may be fallaciously challenged) and increases the likelihood of bad patents being granted. As a result, for many individuals and firms, the expected net gains from manipulating the patent system for the purposes of extortion (hostage taking, patent trolling) now exceeds the expected net gains from using the patent system to actually innovate.
It’s difficult to assess how patent strength affects innovation without first making sure that patents are being granted and used the way the system had originally intended.
Alex Tabarrok’s original post can be found here: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/09/patent-theory-on-the-back-of-a-napkin.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+marginalrevolution%2Ffeed+%28Marginal+Revolution%29
Because I write and teach about innovation and strategy, friends and students often ask me to evaluate their new business ideas. A relatively large percentage of these business ideas are about a product the individual somehow identifies with, but in an area in which the individual has no work experience. The mythology of entrepreneurship is that it’s all about great ideas. The reality is that great ideas are a dime a dozen; successful entrepreneurship is much more closely linked to the ability to execute. How do people learn to execute? In general, it’s through having deep experience somewhere in the value chain. In other words, most successful entrepreneurship is accomplished through exploring (or building) something adjacent to where you already are or have been. If, for example, you have worked for an interior design firm for several years, and you travel to South Africa and see beautiful and unusual textiles you would like to be able to use in your practice, but no one is importing these textiles, you are in a much better position to create such an import business (and to know what it’s worth, and how to reach the target market) than another tourist who sees the beautiful textiles and wonders why the interior designer she has hired hasn’t shown her anything so unique.
Adjacent positions give you insight into the value chain of your target area (Who are the likely suppliers? What is their cost structure like? Who are the buyers? How are they used to being presented with goods to choose from? How big is the market? How are the logistics typically handled?). Adjacent positions can also help you identify valuable problems to solve (What aspects of the currently available products or business model are inefficient or irritating? What new innovation would exceed customer expectations, and how much more would they pay for it?). Perhaps most importantly, occupying an adjacent position means you are more likely to have valuable network contacts to lubricate your entry – for example, already having a relationship and credibility with distributors will usually have a big impact on the rate at which you can enter a market.
What if you love an idea, and are motivated to execute on it, but aren’t in an adjacent position? Build one. Consider working (or interning) for a firm that is either upstream or downstream in the value chain you will be entering. If you can offer up your effort at a low cost (preferably free) for at least a few hours a day, you can usually edge your way into just about any business. You could also consider working for someone who will ultimately be your competitor, but working for someone who will be your supplier or your customer is more likely to engender goodwill in the value chain, and help you accrue valuable contacts that you will use in your new business.
A case in point: My good friend, Rick Alden, founded a company called Skullcandy in 2003 that makes, primarily, headphones with an edgy, extreme sports aesthetic. I was initially skeptical of his idea to enter headphones – to me it was a commoditized product category dominated by companies that operate in countries with significantly lower production costs. Rick, however, was deeply embedded in an adjacent industry – snowboarding. He had founded National Snowboarding Incorporated in the 1980s (which promoted the sport of snowboarding and offered lessons and competitions), and had designed and patented the first ever step-in snowboard boot and binding system. His brother Dave was a pro-snowboarder for Burton, and his father Paul Alden had been one of the founders of the North American Snowboard Association which helped to create guidelines for teaching snowboarding and developed the snowboarding World Cup. In short, Rick knew snowboarders – he knew their aesthetic, and he knew their habits. He knew most of the major snowboarding manufacturers, snowboard shops, and snowboard pro-riders. So when Rick launched Skullcandy, he was not only in a great position to evaluate what design features snowboarders would respond to, he was also able to get endorsements from the most famous snowboarders, and get on the shelves of the best snowboard shops. Once he had captured that market, the mass market (Best Buy, college bookstores, etc.) eagerly demanded product. Within two years Skullcandy had surpassed a million in sales, and by 201 1 Skullcandy’s sales had reached $231 million.
Had Rick started by developing a mass market product and approached Best Buy, it is unlikely the story would have turned out the same. It is equally unlikely that someone outside of the extreme sports industry could have replicated what Rick did. It was Rick’s adjacent position that gave him the knowledge, the contacts, and the credibility to enter and succeed in this market.