Curated Insights 2018.05.20

The spectacular power of Big Lens

There is a good chance, meanwhile, that your frames are made by Luxottica, an Italian company with an unparalleled combination of factories, designer labels and retail outlets. Luxottica pioneered the use of luxury brands in the optical business, and one of the many powerful functions of names such as Ray-Ban (which is owned by Luxottica) or Vogue (which is owned by Luxottica) or Prada (whose glasses are made by Luxottica) or Oliver Peoples (which is owned by Luxottica) or high-street outlets such as LensCrafters, the largest optical retailer in the US (which is owned by Luxottica), or John Lewis Opticians in the UK (which is run by Luxottica), or Sunglass Hut (which is owned by Luxottica) is to make the marketplace feel more varied than it actually is.

Now they are becoming one. On 1 March, regulators in the EU and the US gave permission for the world’s largest optical companies to form a single corporation, which will be known as EssilorLuxottica. The new firm will not technically be a monopoly: Essilor currently has around 45% of the prescription lenses market, and Luxottica 25% of the frames. But in seven centuries of spectacles, there has never been anything like it. The new entity will be worth around $50bn (£37bn), sell close to a billion pairs of lenses and frames every year, and have a workforce of more than 140,000 people. EssilorLuxottica intends to dominate what its executives call “the visual experience” for decades to come.

For a long time, scientists thought myopia was primarily determined by our genes. But about 10 years ago, it became clear that the way children were growing up was harming their eyesight, too. The effect is starkest in east Asia, where myopia has always been more common, but the rate of increase has been uniform, more or less, across the world. In the 1950s, between 10% and 20% of Chinese people were shortsighted. Now, among teenagers and young adults, the proportion is more like 90%. In Seoul, 95% of 19-year-old men are myopic, many of them severely, and at risk of blindness later in life.

Del Vecchio paid $645m (£476m) for Ray-Ban. During the negotiations, he promised to protect thousands of jobs at four factories in the US and Ireland. Three months later, he closed the plants and shifted production to China and Italy. Over the next year and a half, Luxottica withdrew Ray-Ban from 13,000 retail outlets, hiked their prices and radically improved the quality: increasing the layers of lacquer on a pair of Wayfarers from two to 31. In 2004, to the disbelief of many of his subordinates, del Vecchio decided that Ray-Ban, which had been invented for American pilots in the 1930s, should branch out from sunglasses into optical lenses, too. “A lot of us were sceptical. Really? Ray. Ban. Banning rays from the sun?” the former manager said. “But he was right.” Ray-Ban is now the most valuable optical brand in the world. It generates more than $2bn (£1.5bn) in sales for Luxottica each year, and is thought to account for as much as 40% of its profits.

The Moat Map

Facebook has completely internalized its network and commoditized its content supplier base, and has no motivation to, for example, share its advertising proceeds. Google similarly has internalized its network effects and commoditized its supplier base; however, given that its supply is from 3rd parties, the company does have more of a motivation to sustain those third parties (this helps explain, for example, why Google’s off-sites advertising products have always been far superior to Facebook’s).

Netflix and Amazon’s network effects are partially internalized and partially externalized, and similarly, both have differentiated suppliers that remain very much subordinate to the Amazon and Netflix customer relationship.

Apple and Microsoft, meanwhile, have the most differentiated suppliers on their platform, which makes sense given that both depend on largely externalized network effects. “Must-have” apps ultimately accrue to the platform’s benefit.

Apple’s developer ecosystem is plenty strong enough to allow the company’s product chops to come to the fore. I continue to believe, though, that Apple’s moat could be even deeper had the company considered the above Moat Map: the network effects of a platform like iOS are mostly externalized, which means that highly differentiated suppliers are the best means to deepen the moat; unfortunately Apple for too long didn’t allow for suitable business models.

Uber’s suppliers are completely commoditized. This might seem like a good thing! The problem, though, is that Uber’s network effects are completely externalized: drivers come on to the platform to serve riders, which in turn makes the network more attractive to riders. This leaves Uber outside the Moat Map. The result is that Uber’s position is very difficult to defend; it is easier to imagine a successful company that has internalized large parts of its network (by owning its own fleet, for example), or done more to differentiate its suppliers. The company may very well succeed thanks to the power from owning the customer relationship, but it will be a slog.

How much would you pay to keep using Google?

Part of the problem is that GDP as a measure only takes into account goods and services that people pay money for. Internet firms like Google and Facebook do not charge consumers for access, which means that national-income statistics will underestimate how much consumers have benefitted from their rise.

Survey respondents said that they would have to be paid $3,600 to give up internet maps for a year, and $8,400 to give up e-mail. Search engines appear to be especially valuable: consumers surveyed said that they would have to be paid $17,500 to forgo their use for a year.


There is another

Spotify has better technology, merchandising (like discovery playlists), and brand. Unlike Apple Music, being a pure-play (as opposed to being owned by a tech giant) gives Spotify more cred among purists, young people, and influencers. The instinct / T Algorithm cocktail has resulted in a firm with 170M users, 75M of whom are premium subscribers. The firm registered €1B this quarter, representing 37% growth. Spotify accounted for 36% of premium music subscribers globally.

What takes Spotify to $300B, and true horseman status? They launch video, and become the most successful streaming entertainment firm, full stop. Netflix’s legacy is on the second most important screen, TV. Spotify was raised on the most important – mobile. Netflix needs to become Spotify before Spotify becomes Netflix. Nobody has cracked social and TV, and as half of young people no longer watch cable TV, if Spotify were to launch video and captured any reasonable share and engagement via unique playlists, then cable and Netflix would begin ceding market cap to Spotify.


Subscriptions for the 1%

The problem with these minuscule conversion rates is that it dramatically raises the cost of acquiring a customer (CAC). When only 1% of people convert, it concentrates all of that sales and marketing spend on a very small sliver of customers. That forces subscription prices to rise so that the CAC:LTV ratios make rational sense. Before you know it, what once might have been $1 a month by 20% of a site’s audience is now $20 a month for the 1%.

There is a class of exceptions around Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime. Spotify, for instance, had 170 million monthly actives in the first quarter this year, and 75 million of those are paid, for an implied conversion of 44%. What’s unique about these products — and why they shouldn’t be used as an example — is that they own the entirety of a content domain. Netflix owns video and Spotify owns music in a way that the New York Times can never hope to own news or your podcast app developer can never hope to own the audio content market.

The Apple Services machine

It is this hardware dependency that makes it impossible to look at Apple Services as a stand-alone business. The Services narrative isn’t compelling if it excludes Apple hardware from the equation. Apple’s future isn’t about selling services. Rather, it’s about developing tools for people. These tools will consist of a combination of hardware, software, and services.

Apple currently has more than 270 million paid subscriptions across its services, up over 100 million year-over-year. Apple is in a good position to benefit from growing momentum for video streaming services including Netflix, HBO, and Hulu. It is not a stretch to claim that Apple will one day have 500 million paid subscriptions across its services. Apple isn’t becoming a services company. Instead, Apple is building a leading paid content distribution platform.

Tencent Holdings Ltd. delivered two major milestones when it reported its earnings Wednesday: record quarterly profits and more than one billion monthly active users on its WeChat platform. The social media and gaming giant, which has been leery of barraging its users with ads, also declared it had raised the maximum number of ads that customers see on WeChat Moments from one a day to two. The app has become China’s most popular messaging service and is integral to driving everything from gaming and payments to advertising for Tencent.

MoviePass: the unicorn that jumped into Wall Street too soon

“The growth-at-all-costs strategy is being funded these days by the venture community, not the public market. The last time we saw the public markets fund a growth-at-all-costs strategy was the 1999 internet bubble, and we all know how that ended.”

The prospect of steep declines in a company’s valuations once it hits the public markets is one reason why U.S. companies are waiting longer to go public. Overall, U.S. companies that have gone public this year have done so at an average market capitalization of $1.1 billion, according to Thomson Reuters data, a 44 percent increase from the average market cap during the height of the dot com craze in 1999. At the same time, companies are now going public 6.5 years after receiving their first venture capital backing on average, more than double the three years between initial funding and going public in 1999.

Cerebras: The AI of cheetahs and hyenas

The specialist starts out with a technology optimized for one specific task. Take the graphics-processing unit. As its name denotes, this was a specialist technology focused on a single task–processing graphics for display. And for the task of graphics, graphics-processing units are phenomenal. Nvidia built a great company on graphics-processing. But over time, the makers of graphics-processing units, AMD and Nvidia, have tried to bring their graphics devices to markets with different requirements, to continue the analogy to hunt things that aren’t gazelle. In these markets, what was once a benefit, finely tuned technology for graphics (or gazelle-hunting), is now a burden. If you hunt up close like a leopard and never have to run fast, having your nose smooshed into your face is not an advantage and may well be a disadvantage. When you hunt things you were no longer designed to hunt, the very things that made you optimized and specialized are no longer assets.

Intel is the classic example of a generalist. For more than 30 years the x86 CPU they pioneered was the answer to every compute problem. And they gobbled up everything and built an amazing company. But then there emerged compute problems that specialists were better at, and were big enough to support specialist companies—such as cell phones, graphics and we believe AI. In each of these domains specialist architectures dominate.

We are specialists, designing technology for a much more focused purpose than the big companies burdened with multiple markets to serve and legacy architectures to carry forward. Specialists are always better at their target task. They do not carry the burden of trying to do many different things well, nor the architectural deadweight of optimizations for other markets. We focus and are dedicated to a single purpose. The question of whether we—and every other specialist– will be successful rests on whether the market is large enough to support that specialist approach. Whether, in other words, there are enough gazelle to pursue. In every market large enough, specialists win. It is in collections of many modest markets, that the generalist wins. We believe that the AI compute market will be one of the largest markets in all of infrastructure. It will be the domain of specialists.


This $2 billion AI startup aims to teach factory robots to think

What sets Preferred Networks apart from the hundreds of other AI startups is its ties to Japan’s manufacturing might. Deep learning algorithms depend on data and the startup is plugging into some of the rarest anywhere. Its deals with Toyota and Fanuc Corp., the world’s biggest maker of industrial robots, give it access to the world’s top factories. While Google used its search engine to become an AI superpower, and Facebook Inc. mined its social network, Preferred Networks has an opportunity to analyze and potentially improve how just about everything is made.

At an expo in Japan a few months later, another demo showed how the tech might one day be used to turn factory robots into something closer to skilled craftsmen. Programming a Fanuc bin-picking robot to grab items out of a tangled mass might take a human engineer several days. Nishikawa and Okanohara showed that machines could teach themselves overnight. Working together, a team of eight could master the task in an hour. If thousands — or millions — were linked together, the learning would be exponentially faster. “It takes 10 years to train a skilled machinist, and that knowledge can’t just be downloaded to another person” Fanuc’s Inaba explained. “But once you have a robot expert, you can multiply it infinitely.”

China buys up flying schools as pilot demand rises

In September Ryanair axed 20,000 flights due to a rostering mess-up made worse by pilot shortages. This forced the low-cost carrier to reverse a longstanding policy and recognise trade unions and agree new pay deals — a move that it said would cost it €100m ($120m) a year from 2019.

China is on course to overtake the US as the world’s largest air travel market by 2022, according to the International Air Transport Association.

US aircraft maker Boeing predicts China will need 110,000 new pilots in the years through to 2035, and its airlines are expected to purchase 7,000 commercial aircraft over the next two decades.

China’s aviation market grew by 13 per cent last year, with 549m passengers taking to the skies, double the number who flew in 2010. Growth is being driven by the rising middle class, an expansion of routes by Chinese airlines and the easing of visa restrictions by foreign governments keen to attract Chinese tourists.

California will require solar power for new homes

Long a leader and trendsetter in its clean-energy goals, California took a giant step on Wednesday, becoming the first state to require all new homes to have solar power.

The new requirement, to take effect in two years, brings solar power into the mainstream in a way it has never been until now. It will add thousands of dollars to the cost of home when a shortage of affordable housing is one of California’s most pressing issues.

Just half a percent

If you save $5,000 a year for 40 years and make only 8% (the “small” mistake), you’ll retire with about $1.46 million. But if you earn 8.5% instead, you’ll retire with nearly $1.7 million. The additional $230,000 or so may not seem like enough to change your life, but that additional portfolio value is worth more than all of the money you invested over the years. Result: You retire with 16% more.

Your gains don’t stop there. Assume you continue earning either 8% or 8.5% while you withdraw 4% of your portfolio each year and that you live for 25 years after retirement. If your lifetime return is 8%, your total retirement withdrawals are just shy of $2.5 million. If your lifetime return is 8.5% instead, you withdraw about $3.1 million. That’s an extra $600,000 for your “golden years,” a bonus of three times the total dollars you originally saved.

Your heirs will also have plenty of reasons to be grateful for your 0.5% boost in return. If your lifetime return was 8%, your estate will be worth about $3.9 million. If you earned 8.5% instead, your estate is worth more than $5.1 million.

Keep your investment costs low.
Slowly increasing your savings rate over time.
Consistently saving while treating investment contributions like a periodic bill payment.
Bettering your career prospects to increase your income over time.
Avoiding behavioral investment mistakes which can act as a counterweight to the benefits of compounding.

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