Building Something People Hate

As I’ve been reading Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable-TV Business, I’ve gotten a clearer picture of John Malone. Malone is brilliant and shrewd. I’d consider him more of a financial engineer than anything else. He excelled at deal making, strategy, and capital allocation—but not at building a cable service customers loved or a company that was sustainable long-term.

Between 1973 and 1989, he completed 482 deals, or one every two weeks or so. From the company’s low in 1974, not long after Malone joined, through mid 1989, the stock rose 55,000 percent, a spectacular return.

Malone’s constant deal making created remarkable shareholder value. But it came at a cost. Customers hated TCI. Malone’s goal was to charge as much as possible for his service but spend as little providing it as he could get away with. This strategy maximized cash flow but resulted in notoriously poor customer service, massive rate hikes, unreliable service technicians, and inconsistent cable service. TCI’s poor reputation with customers and its business practices (including others not mentioned here) led to Malone being forced to appear before Congress to defend himself and TCI’s business practices. He and various state and federal politicians became enemies. TCI’s shareholders were happy, but Malone and the company were under constant attack.

Malone was in a service-oriented business selling to consumers, but he didn’t approach it that way. He focused on engineering financial outcomes, not making customers happy. He got the financial returns he wanted, but he and TCI were vilified by customers, politicians, and competitors. It all took a toll on Malone over the years. As I read this part of the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the hate he encountered was worth it. Couldn’t he have gotten a similar outcome if he built something people loved, not hated?

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