I’d wager that there is no adult in the world that has not heard the aphorism, “Guilty by association,” or a similar non-English version. Used as either a behavioral warning by parents throughout time, or as a condemnation of a person or company because of their association with some form or wrongdoing or ethical misbehavior, it is decidedly a negative connotation.
There is a positive version of this, “Success by association.” In business terms, companies that are associated with highly successful companies tend to get a positive lift in revenue and profitability. The ties that bind are mutually beneficial, but more so for the lesser known company in the relationship. Another way to look at this is to consider two companies, one that provides a component to the company that makes and sells the final product, the “wow” factor device, to the customer. The component maker is rarely identified to the customer, but it benefits from having its component in a device which has tens of millions of units sold. But the ties that initially bind the two companies can also be the clasps on a chain that can disproportionally drag down the smaller company when demand drops. And sometime, that component company may not be so small, making the disproportionate drag even more dramatic.
We have come to associate the names of legendary people in technology development with revolutionary products, ones that have had significant impact on the way people live their lives, and how businesses succeed or perish. We associate the name Steve Jobs with the iPhone (smartphone) and the iPad (tablet). Although these devices were not new to the consumer device market, his devices defined the standard by which all other devices would be judged. He also made them “cool”.
In the Apple iPhone and iPad, a primary component is the glass face on which you tap and slide your finger. It is made by Corning Inc. Corning is itself a legendary company, a 160-year-old technology leader in glass products including fiber-optic-cables that deliver the blazing download speeds you experience when you order a movie online, play online games and for just about everything you do when you are connected to your home network. The glass in Apple products is called Gorilla Glass, a chemically hardened type of glass that resists cracking.
The story of how Steve Jobs got Corning to make this glass for his products is apocryphal. Corning stepped up to the challenge and the outcome delivered a new and significant revenue stream to Corning, resulting in improved profits as iPhones and iPads flew off the shelves in stores.
Corning, as you might expect, is a significant patentee, which according to Patent Buddy, has more than 5,000 patents to its name (including those of its subsidiaries). So it is no surprise that in this week’s awards, it received six patents, of which one directly relates to improvements in the chemically hardened glass product. Patent 8,789,998 (“Edge Illumination of an Ion-Exchanged Glass Sheet”) describes improvements in surface illumination, both functional and ornamental, in the glass that goes into smartphone and tablets. Innovation is a constant process for Corning.
By coincidence, on Tuesday, the day of the weekly announcement of patent awards, Corning released its Quarterly earnings report, which reflected a drop in revenue from slowing tablet sales. Fewer tablets sold, fewer gorilla glass sheets sold, with the result that revenue from this component dropped. Corning’s stock value fell 9.3% after the announcement. Gorilla glass is one of a number of products made in Corning’s specialty-materials business unit, which accounts for only 11% of Corning’s overall revenue. Think, then, about the impact of lower revenue for a product in a small part of Corning’s total business resulting in its stock losing 10% of its value overnight. The ride up with Apple as iPhone and iPad sales skyrocketed, “Success by association” at work, created a market perception that so solidly tied gorilla glass to iPads that regardless of the relative impact on overall revenue, the heightened perception of risk incented investors to sell Corning stock.
Corning will bounce back as it deploys glass into other smart devices for other manufacturers. The lesson here is that success by association creates ties that are perceived to be so strong that they have a far greater impact to associated companies’ market valuation when sales of the devices in which components are used run out of fuel and fall back to Earth.