When thinking about business, we immediately let our minds wander to profits. Great businesses generate tons of profit. Of course, but we have a profitability bias in that we use it as an early measure of judging how good a business is. Does it bring in substantially more money than it must spend to buy its raw materials, build its products and convince you to buy them? If there’s money left over, it’s a profitable company. And the bigger the profits, the better the company.
And why would anyone argue with that? We like profits, and the profitability bias is not necessarily a bad one to have. When you’re using a framework to understand and assess businesses, it’s fair that you would want your checklist to include profitability. But like so many frames we use to understand complex and fluid systems, we do ourselves a disservice using just one, in isolation, without considering other important concepts as we scratch through the qualities the best companies must possess.
Profits are good. They are best when they can be sustained, and they are misleading when they cannot be sustained. Unsustainable profits can trick you into believing a company is more valuable than it actually is when you assume those profits will continue coming in or that they will compound over time.
But what happens if the profits go away? A bigger-smarter-richer competitor comes sniffing around, attracted by those tasty profits your business is showing, and decides it might like to get in the game. It decides to build the same product, but to build it better and sell it for less. And the bigger-smarter-richer competitor has the ability to do this.
Now those tasty profits are beginning to slip away as your company is forced to defend its market, spending more to earn each new customer, and pricing products lower to keep existing customers from deserting for the bigger-smarter-richer competitor. Your business suddenly looks less valuable as the profits from yesterday don’t translate into profits tomorrow.
We need to check our profitability bias with another important concept that comes in handy when trying to gauge the quality of a business.
Enter the competitive advantage. That post is next…