3 Must-Heed Lessons From Peloton’s Decline

One of the most powerful ironies of business is that success can lead to failure. How so? People who run successful businesses are in danger of believing that what made their company successful in the first place will never change. So when new competitors rise up or customer needs evolve, leaders resist change until it is too late.

Figuring out how to keep that from happening is one of the most difficult challenges that leaders must face. It’s difficult because success causes leaders to fall prey to confirmation bias — the tendency to ignore information that is inconsistent with what leaders already believe to be true.

This is a topic about which I have been writing for decades. my first book, The Technology Leaders (1997) highlighted the characteristics of companies that avoided that peril. My most recent one — Goliath Strikes Back (2020) — concluded that only CEOs with a Create The Future mindset were likely to avoid falling victim to this company-killing confirmation bias.

A case in point is Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and executive chair, whose Day 1 philosophy (think of every day as the company’s first one) helped him turn an online book store into the leader in the highly profitable cloud services industry among many others.

This comes to mind in consideration of the fate of exercise bike and treadmill-maker Peloton. Since going public in September 2019, at about $25, its shares have taken a wild ride — ending 2020 at around $163 and since tumbling back to around $27 — some 9 percent higher than where they started out. (During that same time span, the S&P 500 rose 51 percent.)

Peloton’s basic problem is that its CEO, John Foley, lacks the Create the Future mindset that I think the company needs. Peloton is too dependent on selling more high-priced hardware to people who are tired of being cooped up at home and are going back to the gym.

Besides cutting prices and costs, Foley does not seem to have any compelling ideas about where to invest for future growth. And it may be too late for such investments because the company is light on cash.

How so? As I told YahooFinance last month, Peloton burned through $639 million in free cash flow in the September ending quarter when it had only $924 million in cash and short-term investments. It added over $1 billion in a November stock sale.

The final chapter in Peloton’s story has yet to be written. But it is highly likely that Foley — who was previously a Barnes & Noble executive — will be around for the final chapter since he gets 20 votes to every regular investor’s one.

Here are three lessons that your board of directors should take from Peloton’s woes.

1. Make sure your CEO can create the future.

Every company that introduces competitors a popular new product will attracts who offer a product that is nearly as good at a much lower price. To survive the maturation of its core product, a CEO must be able to create a new source of growth.

Peloton cannot cut its way to success. Sadly for investors, Foley’s board does not have the voting power to replace him. So the company’s future hinges on Foley’s willingness to acknowledge that he does not have what it takes to create a new future for Peloton.

Peloton needs a CEO who can invent new products and business models. If your company lacks such a CEO, its board should find one who excels at creating new growth vectors.

2. Invest in new growth markets before your current one matures.

A CEO should invest in a new growth market while their initial one is throwing off the most cash. By the time the original market matures — in the case of Peloton, it was hit with a plunge in growth last year coupled with price-cutting rivals — it may be too late to create the next growth vector.

The lesson to take from Peloton’s woes is to invest in new growth market before your current one matures.

3. Be on your strengths or create new ones.

Investing in new growth markets is challenging.

To gain considerable market share in a large market, you have to do things better than the competition does. Consider what Steve Jobs did when he decided to create the iPhone. At the time, the cell phone industry had some $600 billion in revenue and was dominated by companies like Nokia and Blackberry.

Apple built on its strengths in hardware design, supply chain management, marketing, customer service, and managing third-party partnerships to create a wildly popular new product that displaced those incumbents.

To survive, Peloton must do the same.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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