Google and Amazon: Doing It All Wrong

on March 13, 2013

Google Glasses (Google)



By the conventional standards of business, it would be hard to find two companies with a greater tendency to do things wrong than Google and Amazon. Yet both are regarded as outstanding success story. What is going on here, and what does it tell us about how corporations ought to be run.

Each company violates a fundamental rule of business. In the case of Google, it’s a failure to diversify its sources of revenue and profits while at the same time displaying a woeful lack of discipline in how it enters new businesses. For Amazon it’s a persistent, almost stubborn refusal to maximize profits.

A glimpse at Google’s income statement reveals just how narrow the company’s success is. Google took in $50.2 billion in the year ended Dec. 31. Of that revenue, $31 billion came from advertising on Google Web sites and another $12.5 billion from ads on Google Network affiliate sites. This means that Google’s original revenue-producing activities, AdWords and AdSense, accounted for 87% of its gross. Motorola brought in another $4.1 billion Everything else–the Google Play Android store, sales of Google Nexus branded Android devices, paid Google Apps, whatever else the company does to produce revenue–generated a mere $2.4 billion. Considering that Motorola suffered a heft net loss from continuing operations, it’s safe to say that search-based advertising was responsible for well over 100% of Google’s revenues.

The unprofitability of everything Google has tried does not seem to discourage the company. Under CEO Larry Page, Google has purged a number of its least successful products. But it continues to add efforts that have little hope of generating profit in the near-term, or perhaps ever. It is spending a good bit of money developing self-driving cars, though the technology seems years away from commercialization. It’s from from clear that many people away from such hotbeds of geekdom as the Googleplex or the MIT campus will ever be willing to wear, let along pay for, Google Glasses (above.) Who but a Google engineer is going to put down $1,299 for a Chromebook Pixel, a laptop that cannot run any programs other than a Chrome browser? And why is it messing around with same-day-delivery retail, a business that seems far outside its core competency–and a logistical and business challenge that no one has cracked?[pullquote]Classical economic theory says corporations try to maximize profits. Amazon and Google prove there are exceptions.[/pullquote]

Of course, the ad business is so profitable that Google doesn’t have to worry in the near term. It’s net margin was 21%, down from recent years but still very healthy. And investors seem happy. It’s stock is trading just a bit below its 52-week high of 844 and the price is 26 times 12-month trailing earnings, a sign that investors believe growth will be healthy into the future.

So while Google’s attention deficit approach to new projects may defy business school wisdom, it isn’t hurting the company. And it is certainly benefiting consumers. We get goodies like Google Maps and Gmail for free, while Google funds the sort of research–self-driving cars–that once was the province of the government and that could have a big payoff for society, if not for Google.

If Google’s problem is a flurry of innovation that has produced little revenue and no profit, Amazon is a tale of profitless growth. Classical economic theory says the purpose of a corporation is to maximize profits, and while the research of scholars like A.A. Berle and and Herbert Simon long ago dismissed taking that notion too literally, profit motivation is still supposed to have something to do with business decisions.

Not, it would seem, at Amazon. The company’s revenues in the fourth quarter of 2012 grew 21%, and that was the worst performance in three and a half years. But profits are another story. In its best year, 2010, it netted just over 4% of sales while it actually recorded a loss last year. Amazon has relentlessly pursued growth with little regard to profitability. It has disrupted one market after another by undercutting the prices and business models of competitors.

And its investors love it. Like Google, it is trading near a 52-week high. Its trailing EPS can’t be calculated because of the loss, but Amazon is trading at a staggering 76 times expected 2013 earnings.

And  customers love it too. Unless you are in a retail business that Amazon has demolished, you are most likely the beneficiary of Amazon’s predatory nature. Amazon has not only saved me money, it has saved me countless hours I would have wasted shopping. (Once you get Amazon Prime, the tendency to order stuff online rather than pick it up at the store become overwhelming. It’s a rare day we don’t get at least one Amazon package.) And while Amazon’s impact on retailing has been the most obvious, Amazon Web Services has drastically lowered the cost of starting any sort of online business.

So let’s hear it for Amazon and Google and their impossible business models. Eventually, Google will to find a moneymaking business to supplement search ads, whose growth is slowing. And Amazon investors’ patience with tiny or nonexistent profits won’t last forever. But for the rest of us, let’s enjoy it while we can.