The PE tech stock chasm

Tech has been back for a while now. Tech IPOs and M&A activity has been back at boom levels but contrary to the theory that a high tide rises all boats, it would seem that the improved attitude of Wall Street to the tech industry has benefited some more than others. Of course you would expect that given each company is different but there appears to be a chasm that some tech stocks can’t cross in terms of the PE ratios. If you look at the major tech firms such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, HP, Intel and Cisco they all have PE ratios that go from 16 to 27. Indeed you can find a LOT of firms in the tech sector with this kind of rating. However, there is another large group that seems to have broken from the pack and have ratings a full twenty points higher, or more! Apple is at 47, Google at 53 and then there’s Amazon at a staggering 104 and VM Ware at a head scratching 242. What differentiates these groups would appear to be a mixture of perceived management strength and of course growth potential. The markets clearly believe we will all buy another ‘i something’ from Apple, search like crazy for things on Google, do our holiday shopping on Amazon and get all our computers to all use VM Ware’s virtualization technology (yes that last example doesn’t sound terribly exciting I know). So why do they believe Apple and Google are a better bet than IBM and Cisco? Is it because they view the likes of IBM and Cisco as old school tech? I think there is some truth here and it’s a challenge for these guys which is why if you look at most of the big tech firms with the lower ratings you will see they have all been reinventing their business models. IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and Intel all have huge investments in manufacturing and development efforts in places such as India and China. These investments help reduce their cost base which should improve their earnings. But these changes also allow them to look at how products get to market. If you make the kinds of changes these businesses have then you get the chance to rethink everything when it comes to the way you design and manufacturer your products. It is almost like starting again in some ways as you have masses of new brains getting involved. My hunch is that in the next few years you will see the fruits of these changes not just in the costs of the company but in innovation levels. Maybe by then the chasm will have narrowed and maybe the likes of Google will have jumped back across. In the meantime the big tech firms on the lower PEs do face a communications challenge as they try and show that the businesses they are running today bear no resemblance to the ones they ran just a few years ago (which is true) AND that this change is very good news indeed.

Clean conscience

Like many people in California I drive to and from work. In truth there is little choice unless you want to embark on a public transport system that would take twice the time and cost pretty much the same amount. I am due to change my car in a few months and have been getting my mind around the idea of buying a Toyota Prius. For the record I can’t say I like these cars very much. I fall in to the group that thinks they are relatively ugly. However, as someone that believes we need to do our part for the environment, a Prius seems the best bet. That said, when you look at the cost of a Prius, which is after all a pretty basic car, you realize that you are paying about a $10,000 premium to drive a car that is more eco friendly. As someone who typically owns a car for about three years that isn’t too bad when spread over the cars life – or is it? I’ve been looking at which, like in the UK, gives you a chance to buy carbon credits for all the nasty emissions your life produces. For example, you can pay about $200 and that will apparently make your home carbon neutral for a year, a similar sum would handle emissions from most people’s annual air travel. When it comes to cars the TerraPass site estimated the cost of clearing out my emissions to be $50 a year for my current vehicle or $30 a year for a Prius. You can see where this is going can’t you? So for $150 I could make up for my car’s emissions during its time in my hands. Put another way if I bought a slightly more attractive car that actually cost less than the Prius but wasn’t as eco friendly I could use the saving to buy a massive amount of carbon credits. Indeed I’d likely have enough credits for all the people that read this article. So what do I do? Should I buy the Prius and feel good about it’s eco stats or get something cheaper and buy each of you a carbon credit?

Technology PR or Energy PR?

In the last six months we have seen the environment come back on the agenda with a bang. This has caused almost every major company to look at its ‘green quotient.’ Now for some businesses this simply means making themselves carbon neutral but for others it means changing the products they sell and some cases rethinking the competition. Take companies such as Cisco and Polycom who both offer pretty sophisticated video conferencing solutions. Whereas these systems were at best hokey (and horribly expensive) a few years ago, they are fast becoming usable and affordable, thus causing the airlines to take note. Now if you had said a few years ago that United Airlines biggest competitor would be a technology company people would have patted you on the back and changed the subject. Of course just about every major tech company is now looking at its product set and asking: “can we make it use less energy?” or “will this solution save the customer some energy?” This is changing the very messaging of the major tech firms and many smaller ones, putting energy up near the top of the list. The other big shift has been the shifting interests of the major VCs towards clean tech investments. John Doerr and Vinod Kholsa in particular are making big steps in this direction with huge investments in areas like bio fuels. These people are of course expecting their marketing partners to make the same shift, meaning that PR businesses that were announcing servers and embedded chip controllers a few years ago are now discussing the merits producing ethanol from corn, versus sugar cane or even trees.

Now this could all just be a passing phase and as one senior PR executive said to me yesterday, the media is already getting a little tired of writing about how company x is going green. But what does appear to be clear is that the tech market and energy market are converging. So any self respecting PR executive that is currently making a living from tech PR had better start learning about the dynamics of the energy market, because in one way or another its going to affect them quite significantly in the years ahead.

The next big thing

Spent the last few days at TED, a pretty amazing event that feels a bit like a meal. Presentations from movie producers, software engineers, poets, physicists, Paul Simon and Bill Clinton. The reference to the meal being that some of this has been like ‘having to eat your greens,’ while other parts have been like being given a great dessert. If there’s one theme that has pervaded the event so far it is again that we all need to work on saving the planet. This was very much the message of John Doerr who ended his speech in tears and has been a passing reference by almost all the other speakers. From a communications perspective it’s hard not to walk away from this feeling that for brands to succeed they must put greater emphasis on this aspect of their social responsibility if they are to succeed. Of course you may argue that consumers are the ones that will be the judge of that. I’d argue, having been bathed in the ‘we have to save the planet’ message for a few days by leaders from all walks of life, that this is not a passing fad. equally it’s a message that is getting the attention of some pretty important minds. Therefore I’d argue that what we have here is something really important. It’s what VCs have been searching for since the dot com bubble burst. It is the next big thing. Kind of funny when you think about it. The next big thing isn’t some amazing new algorithm or financial model, it’s the thing you’ve been standing on for most of your life – the planet.

Text 100 to tell the Truth

The inevitable truth that is. Today Text 100 is launching its Clean Tech Practice which will aim to help organizations in the areas of energy efficiency and renewable power. The team already has some good client experience with people like: PARC, Philips, GE Wind Energy, Altran, npower renewables, National Physical Laboratory (NPL), TOTAL, Envirowise and Whirlpool. I also note their release talks about how much VC spending is going into this scetor. There is no doubt that fear of global warming has put some heat (pardon the pun) into the sector…