Curated Insights 2018.11.30

What’s next for marketplace startups? Reinventing the $10 trillion service economy, that’s what.

The service economy lags behind: while services make up 69% of national consumer spending, the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated that just 7% of services were primarily digital, meaning they utilized internet to conduct transactions.

In the a16z portfolio, Honor is building a managed marketplace for in-home care, and interviews and screens every care professional before they are onboarded and provides new customers with a Care Advisor to design a personalized care plan. Opendoor is a managed marketplace that creates a radically different experience for buying and selling a home. When a customer wants to sell their home, Opendoor actually buys the home, performs maintenance, markets the home, and finds the next buyer. Contrast this with the traditional experience of selling a home, where there is the hassle of repairs, listing, showings, and potentially months of uncertainty.

Managed marketplaces like Honor and Opendoor take on steps of the value chain that platforms traditionally left to customers or providers, such as vetting supply. Customers place their trust in the platform, rather than the counterparty of the transaction. To compensate for heavier operational costs, it’s common for managed marketplaces to actually dictate pricing for services and charge a higher take rate than less-managed marketplace models.

The last twenty years saw the explosion of a number of services coming online, from transportation to food delivery to home services, as well as an evolution of marketplace models from listings to full-stack, managed marketplaces. The next twenty years will be about the harder opportunities that software hasn’t yet infiltrated–those filled with technological, operational, and regulatory hurdles–where there is room to have massive impact on the quality and convenience of consumers’ everyday lives.

The services sector represents two-thirds of US consumer spending and employs 80% of the workforce. The companies that reinvent various service categories can improve both consumers’ and professionals’ lives–by creating more jobs and income, providing more flexible work arrangements, and improving consumer access and lowering cost.

Country stock markets as a percent of world

Keyence’s miraculous margins

The outsourcing reduces capital expenditure costs, and the associated depreciation, as there’s no machinery to purchase. It is also said to help Keyence to retain its valuable intellectual property. Suppliers, according to Morten Paulsen, Head of Research at CLSA Japan, have no visibility on how the respective pieces of the product puzzle fit together.

But Keyence are not the only business to run a “fabless” model. Apple, perhaps the most successful consumer brand of all time, outsources the creation of its iPhone to Taiwanese Foxconn. It reported operating margins of 26 per cent last quarter. Similarly, semiconductor designers such as Nvidia, Broadcom and Qualcomm also outsource to businesses like Taiwan Semiconductor. Their margins tend to range from 20 per cent to 40 per cent.

Keyence is also excellent at leveraging its suppliers, which it does “in a cleverer way than any other company I’ve seen”, he told us. Indeed, Keyence often has multiple suppliers manufacturing the same part, which stops one raising prices in fear of losing orders to competitors. Further to this, Keyence develops some of its manufacturing processes in house, then trains the suppliers, which means it can switch suppliers with greater ease than most if it begins to get strong armed, Paulsen argues.

What about its products? To its credit, Keyence has positioned itself right at the forefront of several key trends in an era of increasing factory automation, such as sensors which detect infinitesimal assembly-line mistakes. Customers, such as automakers — which make up roughly 25 per cent of its sales, according to Paulsen — are happy to pay top dollar for products that pay for themselves in 2 years, giving Keyence some degree of pricing power.

The reason for achieving high profitability is to maximise customer’s evaluation of products with high value added — that is, for customers, “I do not think it is expensive” and “I think it is cheap if it [our problem] can be solved” . . . As we explore the potential needs of our customers and develop them [the products] in advance, about 70 per cent of the new products of Keyence are the industry’s first and world’s first product as a result. Even in terms of management, we concentrate resources on product planning and design . . . we are trained to not only sell goods but also propose ideas that can solve customer’s problems.

Amazon, with little fanfare, emerges as an advertising giant

“The online retailer has ascended to the No. 3 spot in the U.S. digital ad market behind the dominant players, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. Though Amazon has just 4% of the market now, the company is expanding its avenues for marketers and hiring aggressively for its ad unit.

Amazon’s ad revenue is on pace to double this year, to $5.83 billion, according to eMarketer. Its ad sales are expected to jump $28.4 billion over the next five years, according to Cowen & Co.—more than the combined increases in ad revenue for all television networks globally, according to figures from media-buyer GroupM.”

Amazon’s ad business now contributes to gross profit and is expected to generate more income than its cloud business—which currently provides the bulk of its profits—as soon as 2021, according to Piper Jaffray analysts.

Amazon is expected to collect 15 cents of each new dollar spent on U.S. digital ads in 2020, up from 5 cents last year, according to an analysis of data from research firm eMarketer.

Why doctors hate their computers

This, I discovered, was the real reason the upgrade cost $1.6 billion. The software costs were under a hundred million dollars. The bulk of the expenses came from lost patient revenues and all the tech-support personnel and other people needed during the implementation phase.

Optimize your programming decisions for the 95%, not the 5%

Without having a deep understanding of what you’re developing and have put in the time to come up with good abstractions based on real experience, you’re just shooting in the dark hoping your generic user system works for all cases when you haven’t even programmed it yet for 1 use case. How is that even possible to do?

When you blindly follow what Google and other massive companies are doing, you’re optimizing for the 5% in a slightly different way. Instead of just getting your app up and running and seeing how it goes, you try to make decisions so that your application can be developed by 100 different teams sprawling across 5,000 developers. Meanwhile it’s just you developing the app by yourself in nearly all cases for new projects.

As soon as you start trying to make it work for a real application, or more specifically, your application, it all falls apart until you spend the time and really learn what it takes to scale an application (which is more than just picking tools). The companies that created these tools have put in the time over the years and have that knowledge, but that knowledge is specific to their application.

Premature optimization is the root of all evil (or at least most of it) in programming.

Optimizing for the 5% is a type of premature optimization. Maybe not so much for your development environment choices, but certainly for the other cases. Base your decisions on optimizing for the 95%, keep it simple and see how it goes. In other words, optimize when you really need to not because of “what if”.

Curated Insights 2018.11.23

No more “struggle porn”

I call this “struggle porn”: a masochistic obsession with pushing yourself harder, listening to people tell you to work harder, and broadcasting how hard you’re working.

Struggle porn has normalized sustained failure. It’s made it acceptable to fly to Bali and burn through your life savings trying to launch an Amazon dropshipping business. Made it reasonable to keep living on your parents money for years after graduation while you try to become #instafamous. Made LinkedIn into a depressingly hilarious circlejerk for people who look way too excited to be having their headshot taken.

Working hard is great, but struggle porn has a dangerous side effect: not quitting. When you believe the normal state of affairs is to feel like you’re struggling to make progress, you’ll be less likely to quit something that isn’t going anywhere.

Rule #1 of #StrugglePorn: if someone is bragging about how hard they’re working, you can be sure their business is failing. I don’t know anyone running a multi-million dollar business who follows struggle pornographers like GaryVee. They don’t need the feel-good reassurance that beating their head against the wall is worthwhile. They’re making money, not LinkedIn posts. They’re busy, not struggle busy.


How software is helping big companies dominate

Economies of scale are certainly part of the answer. Software is expensive to build but relatively cheap to distribute; larger companies are better able to afford the up-front expense. But these “supply-side economies of scale” can’t be the only answer or else vendors, who can achieve large economies of scale by selling to the majority of players in the market, would dominate. Network effects, or “demand-side economies of scale,” are another likely culprit. But the fact that the link between software and industry concentration is pervasive outside of the tech industry — where companies are less likely to be harnessing billions of users — suggests network effects are only part of the story.

Research suggests that the benefits of information technology depend in part on management. Well-managed firms get more from their IT investments, and big firms tend to be better managed. There are other “intangible” assets that differentiate leading firms, and which can be difficult or costly to replicate. A senior executive who has worked at a series of leading enterprise software firms recently told one of us (Walter) that a company’s ability to get more from an average developer depended on successfully setting up “the software to make software” — the tools, workflows, and defaults that allow a programmer to plug in to the company’s production system without having to learn an endless number of new skills.

Patents and copyright also make it harder for software innovations to spread to other companies, as do noncompete agreements that keep employees from easily switching jobs. But one of the biggest barriers to diffusion — and therefore one of the biggest sources of competitive advantage for the firms that excel at software — comes down to how companies are organized.

As Dixon, the VC, clearly recognized, these architectural innovations can create openings for startups. “Before [Lyft and Uber] were started, there were multiple startups that tried to build software that would make the taxi and limo industry more efficient,” Dixon has noted. If Uber had merely created software for dispatching taxis, incumbents would have been well positioned to adopt it, according to Henderson’s theory. One “component” of the service would have been changed by technology (dispatching) but not the entire architecture of the service. But ridesharing startups like Uber and Lyft didn’t didn’t just make taxis more efficient; they fundamentally changed the way the different pieces of the system fit together.

Lakhani’s answer is that Apple had the right architecture to bring phones into the internet age. Apple and Nokia both had plenty of the intangible assets necessary to excel in the smartphone business, including software developers, hardware engineers, designers. But Apple’s structure and culture were already based around the combination of hardware and a software ecosystem to which third parties contributed. It already had experience building hardware, operating systems, and software development kits from its PC business. It had built a software platform to deliver content to mobile devices in the form of iTunes. Steve Jobs initially resisted letting developers build apps for the iPhone. But when he eventually gave in, the app store became the iPhone’s key advantage. And Apple was able to manage it because of its existing “architecture.” Like any theory, architectural innovation can’t explain everything. If experience building operating systems and SDKs were so key, why didn’t Microsoft invent the winning smartphone? Apple’s particular acumen in product design clearly mattered, too. But architectural innovation helps explain why certain capabilities are so tough to replicate.

There is some good news: research suggests that cloud computing is helping smaller, newer firms to compete. Also, some firms are unbundling their advanced capabilities. For example, Amazon now offers complete fulfillment services including two-day delivery to sellers, large and small, on its Marketplace. It may be that Carr was right in principle but just had the timing wrong. But we wouldn’t bet on it. Some aspects of software will be democratized, including perhaps some areas where companies now derive competitive advantage. But other opportunities will arise for companies to use software to their advantage. One in particular stands out: even when machine learning software is freely available, the datasets to make it valuable often remain proprietary, as do the models companies create based on them. Policy may be able to help level that playing field. But companies that don’t invest in software and data capabilities risk being left behind.

Disney is spending more on theme parks than it did on Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm combined

Disney faces an enviable challenge: Even with steady price increases for peak periods — single-day peak tickets at Disneyland in California now run $135 — visitor interest often exceeds capacity at some properties. “You can only let so many people in a park before you start to impede on satisfaction level,” Mr. Chapek said.

So Disney’s expansion plan is more ambitious than building a “Black Panther” roller coaster here or introducing an “Incredibles” character there. The goal is transformation — adding significant capacity to Disney’s most popular parks (Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea) and giving others major upgrades (Epcot, Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris) to help attract visitors more evenly throughout the empire.

In terms of attracting crowds and creating excitement, nothing quite compares to the “Star Wars” franchise. In 2019, Disney World and Disneyland will open matching 14-acre “lands” called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. On one lavish attraction, guests will board an Imperial Star Destroyer, where roughly 50 animatronic stormtroopers await in formation. On another, guests will be able to pilot an interactive Millennium Falcon.

Even so, Ms. Reif said she was pleased that Disney was spending so heavily on its parks. “It’s the highest return on investment that Disney has,” she said.

Disney Cruise Line will also nearly double in size by 2023. Disney has ordered three new ships costing an analyst-estimated $1.25 billion apiece. It is buying 746 acres on a Bahamian island to build a second Caribbean port. (Disney already has one private island port.)

Rocket Lab’s modest launch is giant leap for small rocket business

Advances in technology and computer chips have enabled smaller satellites to perform the same tasks as their predecessors. And constellations of hundreds or thousands of small satellites, orbiting at lower altitudes that are easier to reach, can mimic the capabilities once possible only from a fixed geosynchronous position.

A Falcon Heavy can lift a payload 300 times heavier than a Rocket Lab Electron, but it costs $90 million compared to the Electron’s $5 million. Whereas SpaceX’s standard Falcon 9 rocket has no shortage of customers, the Heavy has only announced a half-dozen customers for the years to come.


Self-driving cars will be for sex, scientists say

“One of the starting points was that AVs will provide new forms of competition for hotels and restaurants. People will be sleeping in their vehicles, which has implications for roadside hotels. And people may be eating in vehicles that function as restaurant pods,” says Scott Cohen, deputy director of research of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey in the U.K., who led the study. “That led us to think, besides sleeping, what other things will people do in cars when free from the task of driving? And you can see that in the long association of automobiles and sex that’s represented in just about every coming-of-age movie. It’s not a big leap.”

Of the many conclusions the paper drew about the way AVs will reshape urban tourism, perhaps the most surprising was that they’ll also revolutionize red light districts, putting prostitution on wheels. In Amsterdam, the industry (which is far from the regulated sexual utopia it’s often purported to be) was an $800 million business in 2011.

Is there a new debt crisis on the horizon?

Historically, the cycle of interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve has been a key factor in the pricing and volatility of relatively risky and illiquid assets, such as fixed income securities issued and traded in emerging markets. If anything, recent turmoil in the global debt, equity and currency markets once again questions the viability and sustainability of the economic growth in some emerging economies and emerging financial markets.

If history can be a useful benchmark, three types of risks may emerge in emerging economies in response to interest rate hikes: 1. Capital flight; 2. Asset price fluctuation; 3. Currency devaluation.

Three charts that explain boom in Southeast Asia’s net economy

The region’s ride-hailing market will expand to about $7.7 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $28 billion by 2025, underscoring the ambition of Go-Jek and Grab to become Southeast Asia’s super apps. Google and Temasek began including online food delivery in this category for the first time this year, given the growing importance of that business.

Online travel is the largest and most established among the four sectors of the internet economy, accounting for about $30 billion in bookings in 2018. About 41 percent of all travel bookings made in Southeast Asia were completed online, up from 34 percent in 2015. By 2025, 57 percent of the bookings will be made online when the market is projected to reach $78 billion.

Online shopping has been the fastest growing sector of the internet economy, reaching $23 billion in 2018. It’s expected to exceed $100 billion by 2025.

Box CEO Aaron Levie thinks big companies are responding to disruption the wrong way

But the root of where that innovation comes from, whether it’s Netflix, Amazon, Lyft, or Airbnb, is that these businesses are run completely differently than the incumbents. A lot of incumbents attempt to either buy, acquire, or partner with those disrupters, but that’s not going to get to the root of actually solving the problem over the long run, which is that your company has to fundamentally run in a different way in the digital age.

That’s the fundamental difference between how most people are responding to disruption and how you realistically need to in the digital age. Yes, the business model is important. Yes, the consumer experience is incredibly important. But the sustainable way to make sure you’re always able to keep up with that is by looking at your organization and your operations. That’s the thing that most companies tend to miss.


Why it’s easier to make decisions for someone else

We should also work to distance ourselves from our own problems by adopting a fly-on-the-wall perspective. In this mindset, we can act as our own advisors—indeed, it may even be effective to refer to yourself in the third-person when considering an important decision as though you’re addressing someone else. Instead of asking yourself, “what should I do?” ask yourself “what should you do?”.

Another distancing technique is to pretend that your decision is someone else’s and visualize it from his or her perspective. This can be very easy when thinking of famous exemplars, such as how Steve Jobs would make your decision. By imagining how someone else would tackle your problem, people may unwittingly help themselves.

Perhaps the easiest solution is to let others make our decisions for us. By outsourcing our choices, we can take advantage of a growing market of firms and apps that make it increasingly easier for people to “pitch” their decisions to others. For example, people can have their clothes, food, books, or home decor options chosen for them by others.

The unfair advantage of discomfort

The most uncrowded path to profound wealth is often subtle improvements in an existing industry so beautifully boring as to not attract attention from those attempting to sharpen a unicorn horn instead.

Curated Insights 2018.11.16

The Experience Economy

What makes this possible is the paradigm shift I just described: consumers are always connected, which means reaching them is dramatically cheaper than it used to be. Even seemingly basic channels like email are very effective at driving surveys that show exactly how consumers are feeling immediately after interacting with a company or buying their product.

This gives an entirely new level of insight to management: while ERP showed what was happening in the main office, and CRM what was happening in offices all over the world, experience management promises the ability to understand what is happening with customers directly. It is a perfect example of business using new technology and paradigms to their advantage.

To win in the experience economy there are two pieces to the puzzle. SAP has the first one: operational data, or what we call O-data, from the systems that run companies. Our applications portfolio is end-to-end, from demand chain to supply chain. The second piece of the puzzle is owned by Qualtrics. Experience data, or, X-data. This is actual feedback in real-time from actual people. How they’re engaging with a company’s brand. Are they satisfied with the customer experience that was offered. Is the product doing what they expected? What do they feel about the direction of their employer?

Think of it this way: the O-data tells you what happened, the X-data tells you why it happened. At present, there is not technology company that brings these two worlds together. In particular, this exposes the structural weaknesses of CRM offerings, which are still back-office focused. Experience management is about helping every person outside of companies influence every person inside a company. So SAP and Qualtrics will do just that: the strategic value of this announcement is rivaled only by the business value.

Inside John Malone’s world

“Malone has long been focused on economic return,” says Vijay Jayant, an analyst with Evercore ISI. “He’s not an empire builder for the sake of owning assets. His strategy has worked out well for the people sitting on the same side of the table as him—the shareholders in his companies.”

Warren Buffett is often a point of comparison. Among the major differences is that Malone favors creating pure-play companies, while Buffett keeps everything under one roof at Berkshire Hathaway. Malone is comfortable with financial leverage, while Buffett shuns it. “Our businesses are rationally levered with cheap money,” Malone says. “It creates a higher return on equity for our investors. There’s no reason to think the leopard will change its spots.”

Here’s Malone’s take: “We’re not out there competing to buy Red Hat for $35 billion, but we have always been an opportunistic company. We try to position ourselves so that we can take advantage of opportunities through timely investments, good management, and synergies with our existing businesses.”

His method of control through supervoting stock is ingenious. He leverages relatively small economic stakes in Liberty companies—all fall below 10%—with a total value of about $5 billion into an influential voice or effective control of virtually all of them through ownership of supervoting stock. The beauty of Malone’s approach is illustrated by Liberty Broadband, which holds a 20.6% stake in Charter. Malone’s stake in Liberty Broadband of less than 4%, worth about $500 million, gives him a strong voice at Charter—a company with a market value of $75 billion—and effective veto power over important strategic decisions.

Why technology favors tyranny

Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. We might willingly give up more and more authority over our lives because we will learn from experience to trust the algorithms more than our own feelings, eventually losing our ability to make many decisions for ourselves. Just think of the way that, within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust Google’s search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: finding relevant and trustworthy information. As we rely more on Google for answers, our ability to locate information independently diminishes. Already today, “truth” is defined by the top results of a Google search. This process has likewise affected our physical abilities, such as navigating space. People ask Google not just to find information but also to guide them around. Self-driving cars and AI physicians would represent further erosion: While these innovations would put truckers and human doctors out of work, their larger import lies in the continuing transfer of authority and responsibility to machines.

Lethal bacteria help power kidney drug to beat 1-in-1,000 odds

Doctors believe they’ve found an answer for patients like Romero in a protein that is produced by lethal bacteria. The protein, which temporarily wipes out antibodies, was crafted into an experimental drug called imlifidase to give donated organs a fighting chance against the immune system’s defenses. Developer Hansa Medical AB says imlifidase could make transplants possible for about 35,000 U.S. patients who currently have poor odds, and increase matches for others.

Trends & time lapses

The most common age in the U.S. right now is 27. In fact, by 2020, the 10 most common ages in the U.S. will all be 35 and under. A wave of young people will be saving, investing, and buying houses in the coming years. This fits with my theory that baby boomers will not destroy the stock market as they retire en masse because millennials actually outnumber them now.

The housing market will always have its ups and downs but based purely on this demographic data my inclination would be to conclude real estate across the country will continue to rise in the coming decades as millennials begin settling down and starting families. That will put some massive pressure on the housing market where supply is relatively constrained following the real estate boom and bust of the 2000s.

The relative stability of the United States as the largest economy in the world is impressive. People have been calling for a downfall of the American empire for some time now but the U.S. has a lot of built-in advantages — a diversified, dynamic economy, a vibrant technology industry, a better demographic profile than the rest of the developed world, diversity and immigration (people still want to come live here), and our increasing role as a big player in the energy space to name a few.

When things get wild

There are three legal investment strategies: You can be smarter than others. You can be luckier than others. Or you can be more patient than others. Know your edge and how hard it is to maintain.

If investing were all about math, mathematicians would be rich. If it were all about history, historians would be rich. If it were all about economics, economists would be rich. If it were all about psychology, psychologists would be rich. In reality it’s a mix of many disciplines, but some of the brightest people specialize in one topic and can’t see the world through another lens.

Your lifetime results as an investor will be mostly determined by what you do during wild times.

How this all happened

People measure their well being against their peers. And for most of the 1945-1980 period, people had a lot of what looked like peers to compare themselves to. Many people – most people – lived lives that were either equal or at least fathomable to those around them. The idea that people’s lives equalized as much as their incomes is an important point of this story we’ll come back to.

Quantitative easing both prevented economic collapse and boosted asset prices, a boon for those who owned them – mostly rich people. The Fed backstopped corporate debt in 2008. That helped those who owned their debt – mostly rich people.

Tax cuts over the last 20 years have predominantly gone to those with higher incomes. People with higher incomes send their kids to the best colleges. Those kids can go on to earn higher incomes and invest in corporate debt that will be backstopped by the Fed, own stocks that will be supported by various government policies, and so on. Economist Bhashkar Mazumder has shown that incomes among brothers are more correlated than height or weight. If you are rich and tall, your brother is more likely to also be rich than he is tall.

None of these things are problems in and of themselves, which is why they stay in place. But they’re symptomatic of the bigger thing that’s happened since the early 1980s: The economy works better for some people than others. Success isn’t as meritocratic as it used to be and, when success is granted, is rewarded with higher gains than in previous eras.

How do you help a grieving friend?

Cheering people up, telling them to be strong and persevere, helping them move on…it doesn’t actually work. It’s kind of a puzzle. It seems counterintuitive, but the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain.

Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.

Curated Insights 2018.11.02

Steve Jobs had an incredible definition of what a company should be

The company is one of the most amazing inventions of humans, this abstract construct that’s incredibly powerful. Even so, for me, it’s about the products. It’s about working together with really fun, smart, creative people and making wonderful things. It’s not about the money. What a company is, then, is a group of people who can make more than just the next big thing. It’s a talent, it’s a capability, it’s a culture, it’s a point of view, and it’s a way of working together to make the next thing, and the next one, and the next one.


Fossil fuels will save the world (really)

That fossil fuels are finite is a red herring. The Atlantic Ocean is finite, but that does not mean that you risk bumping into France if you row out of a harbor in Maine. The buffalo of the American West were infinite, in the sense that they could breed, yet they came close to extinction. It is an ironic truth that no nonrenewable resource has ever run dry, while renewable resources—whales, cod, forests, passenger pigeons—have frequently done so.


Gundlach: People want to be told what to think. I don’t

My biggest lesson that I’ve learned… I have the same flaw that every human being has and that is: As you’re growing up and getting older, you believe that everybody’s like you. You just extrapolate your personality traits and proclivities on other people. Then you start to realize increasingly, that that’s not true. And I believed, therefore, that everybody was intellectually objective and honest and wanted to figure things out for themselves. And I didn’t understand, for probably as long as 20 years, why I couldn’t convince people of almost mathematically analytical arguments regarding markets. And it was finally after years of this that I realized that people actually want to be told what to think.

It took me a long time to understand that. Not me, see, I don’t want to be told what to think. And so I figured nobody wants to be told what to think. But indeed, I think almost everybody wants to be told what to think. That creates a tremendous advantage in managing money. Because in that window of time between a fact and people being told what the fact means, you have a window if you’re capable of figuring out what it means – and don’t need to be told what it means – where you can actually act before other people and I found I’ve made a lot of money that way.

I remember when Ben Bernanke announced the Fed funds rate was going to stay at 0% for three years, and the markets didn’t move. And I had my traders look for this asset class in the bond market that would be the primary beneficiary of rate staying at zero for three years. And I said, “How much of the prices up?” And they said, “They’re not up at all.”

Assessing IBM’s $34 billion Red Hat acquisition

Dan Scholnick, general partner at Trinity Ventures, whose investments have included New Relic and Docker, was not terribly impressed with the deal, believing it smacked of desperation on IBM’s part. “IBM is a declining business that somehow needs to become relevant in the cloud era. Red Hat is not the answer. Red Hat’s business centers around an operating system, which is a layer of the technology stack that has been completely commoditized by cloud. (If you use AWS, you can get Amazon’s OS for free, so why would you pay Red Hat?) Red Hat has NO story for cloud,” he claimed in a statement.

Forrester analyst Dave Bartoletti sees the cloud native piece as being key here. “The combined company has a leading Kubernetes and container-based cloud-native development platform, and a much broader open source middleware and developer tools portfolio than either company separately. While any acquisition of this size will take time to play out, the combined company will be sure to reshape the open source and cloud platforms market for years to come,” he said.


IBM’s old playbook

The best thing going for this strategy is its pragmatism: IBM gave up its potential to compete in the public cloud a decade ago, faked it for the last five years, and now is finally admitting its best option is to build on top of everyone else’s clouds. That, though, gets at the strategy’s weakness: it seems more attuned to IBM’s needs than potential customers. After all, if an enterprise is concerned about lock-in, is IBM really a better option? And if the answer is that “Red Hat is open”, at what point do increasingly sophisticated businesses build it themselves?

The problem for IBM is that they are not building solutions for clueless IT departments bewildered by a dizzying array of open technologies: instead they are building on top of three cloud providers, one of which (Microsoft) is specializing in precisely the sort of hybrid solutions that IBM is targeting. The difference is that because Microsoft has actually spent the money on infrastructure their ability to extract money from the value chain is correspondingly higher; IBM has to pay rent:

The threat of Amazon’s content strategy

Even if content is created by a publisher and merely distributed through the tech platform, the tech company still captures its data; Netflix, for example, doesn’t share ratings data with TV producers, and Amazon doesn’t share Kindle readership data with the publishing industry. Meanwhile, Facebook actually shared false data with brands about their video’s viewership for years.

  • Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired a stake in RateBeer, a leading beer review platform, and October, a beer culture website.
  • Popular makeup startup Glossier initially launched as a content site; it then used insights gathered from users to develop its own line of cosmetics. Now, it aims to launch a new social commerce platform to encourage user reviews and feedback.
  • L’Oreal invested in Beautycon Media, which creates digital beauty content and hosts festivals for influencers
  • Mattress startup Casper even launched its own magazine; the current issue includes features like “A skeptic’s guide to crystals” and an adult coloring book.

Social Capital’s Chamath Palihapitiya says ‘we need to return to the roots of venture investing’

“The dynamics we’ve entered is, in many ways, creating a dangerous, high stakes Ponzi scheme. Highly marked up valuations, which should be a cost for VCs, have in fact become their key revenue driver. It lets them raise new funds and keep drawing fees.”

“VCs bid up and mark up each other’s portfolio company valuations today, justifying high prices by pointing to today’s user growth and tomorrow’s network effects. Those companies then go spend that money on even more user growth, often in zero-sum competition with one another. Today’s limited partners are fine with the exercise in the short run, as it gives them the markups and projected returns that they need to keep their own bosses happy.”

“Ultimately, the bill gets handed to current and future LPs (many years down the road), and startup employees (who lack the means to do anything about the problem other than leave for a new company, and acquire a ‘portfolio’ of options.)”

The coming storm for consumer staples dividends

AB InBev argued that by taking its leverage down to 2x net debt/EBITDA, it will reduce its cost of capital and “maximize total enterprise value.” All else equal, a lower cost of debt would in theory increase enterprise value, yet AB InBev already has solidly investment-grade credit ratings (e.g., A- from S&P). A ratings upgrade within the investment-grade space would likely only have a marginal impact on lowering cost of debt. Deleveraging could even increase its cost of capital, as more expensive equity takes a greater share of the capital structure.

Ultimately, a company’s dividend should be affordable, reflect the growth in shareholder value creation, and help management more prudently select high-return projects rather than pursue wasteful “empire building” deals. Dividends can be a problem, however, when they become too generous and handcuff management’s ability to invest in high-return projects and defend or widen the firm’s economic moat. When this happens, a dividend “rebasing” or “cut” would benefit long-term shareholders.


Uber-inequality

Uber received proposals from investment banks that pegged the ride-hailing firm’s IPO valuation at $120B. So, that posits Uber’s value is greater than the value of the US airline industry or the US auto industry (excluding Tesla). I love Uber and think the firm is genius. But that valuation is insane. Uber’s model doesn’t have the moats of an auto firm or even Airbnb, which must create global demand and supply (a local competitor to Airbnb doesn’t work, as visitors from other countries wouldn’t know about it). In contrast, local on-demand taxi services abound, even if without an app. The 120K readers of this newsletter could each put in $250, and boom — we have the number-three ride-hailing firm in Miami. Who’s with me?

In today’s economy, innovation means elegant theft: robbery of your data, privacy, health insurance, or minimum-wage protection. Uber has 16K employees and 3M driver partners. “Driver partner” means some great things. It means you don’t have to show up to an office. And it means you can work whenever you want — this is key. When I speak to Uber drivers, I always ask, “Do you like working for Uber?” The overwhelming majority say yes and reference the flexibility. I’ve been especially struck by how many need the flexibility, as they’re taking care of someone who’s sick. So many people taking care of others. So many people loving other people. And it comes at a huge cost. Many of them used to have jobs with benefits. Many had to move to a strange place to take care of their sister, mother, nephew.

The economic value of artificial intelligence

In the near term, around $6.6 trillion of the expected GDP growth will come from productivity gains, such as the continued automation of routine tasks. Over time, increased consumer demand for AI-enhanced offerings will overtake productivity gains and result in an additional $9.1 trillion of GDP growth by 2030.

China is expected to see the greatest economic gains from AI, a $7 trillion or 26% boost in GDP growth. One reason is the high proportion of China’s GDP that is based on manufacturing, where AI is expected to have a particularly big impact between now and 2030. Even more important over the longer term is China’s higher rate of AI investments compared to North America and Europe.

China is expected to see the greatest economic gains from AI, a $7 trillion or 26% boost in GDP growth. One reason is the high proportion of China’s GDP that is based on manufacturing, where AI is expected to have a particularly big impact between now and 2030. Even more important over the longer term is China’s higher rate of AI investments compared to North America and Europe.

In North America, the economic gains from AI are expected to reach $3.7 trillion or 14.5% of GDP growth by 2030. North America will see the fastest growth in the near term, given its current lead in AI technologies, applications, and market readiness. But China will likely begin to catch up by the middle 2020s given its accelerating AI investments.


A.I. is helping scientists predict when and where the next big earthquake will be

Some of the world’s most destructive earthquakes — China in 2008, Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011, among them — occurred in areas that seismic hazard maps had deemed relatively safe. The last large earthquake to strike Los Angeles, Northridge in 1994, occurred on a fault that did not appear on seismic maps.