Curated Insights 2019.04.19

Making uncommon knowledge common

Part of the reason was that companies benefited from this credibility through obscurity. Real estate brokers have access to significantly more data about the specific houses and the general market via a set of data sources called the MLS. Historically, only brokers had access to MLS data, which gave them leverage over their customers and entrenched their importance as market makers. Similarly, lack of visibility into companies allowed bad ones to put on a good face until prospective employees had already joined. And only large companies could pay for data from compensation research providers, giving them advantage over the potential hires they negotiated with. Many incumbents are able to intermediate their markets and unfairly gain an edge from people’s lack of knowledge. And it’s scary to be the first to buck this trend on your own.

Before Zillow and Glassdoor, if you wanted to look up information about a specific home or company, there wasn’t a webpage for it. Barton’s companies created the definitive page for each house and company. Using a combination of data from authoritative sources (like all the various MLS systems) and user-generated data, they created high quality content unique to each company or listing. Being among the first to do this let them do a huge SEO land grab, which has been hard to displace since.

Barton’s companies take industries that are low frequency and use their Data Content Loops and SEO to acquire users for free and engage them more frequently. While most companies in real estate have super high customer acquisition costs, Zillow is able to get potential sellers even before they are ready to sell, so Zillow is already there when the sellers are ready.

Owning demand ultimately becomes its own compounding loop since becoming a trusted brand builds its own network effects. Consistently building this reputation increases people’s trust in them and makes them a go to destination.

Nobody had yet indexed all the homes in the US and brought them online. While sites like had started to do so for rentals, it wasn’t until Zillow (and Trulia) that this was done for homes. There was fertile search real estate to grab and Zillow rushed out to claim it all using the Zestimate as its spearhead.

Zooplus vs Amazon in battle for the European pet supply market

Many e-commerce companies go through this cycle where their customer acquisition costs look fantastic because early adopters are cheaper to acquire, but then marketing expenses later go through the roof. Ironically, many direct-to-consumer companies in the US have started opening physical stores because that is cheaper marketing than online ads.

Zooplus discussed this on their Q3 2018 call. They said online ad pricing has increased because their competitors are shifting more ad budget to online. Facebook and Google ads are auctions, so more competition means more demand and thus higher prices. Today, 80% of Zooplus’s marketing spend is online ads and Google Shopping. That makes them very susceptible to competitor pressure.

My concern isn’t so much that Zooplus loses share to Amazon, but that Amazon has the scale to price pet food at a lower margin (or loss) if they want to. This could cap Zooplus’s ability to ever earn a profit. Amazon doesn’t need to overtake Zooplus in market share to negatively affect them because Amazon already has enough market share that lowering prices would harm Zooplus. In this scenario, it’s possible that Zooplus keeps their market share, continues to grow along with the online pet supply market, and still never reaches their profitability goal.

Why I don’t think Amazon needs more market share to harm Zooplus is because of the lack of switching costs in Zooplus’s business. Even though Zooplus has a 95% retention rate with its customers, if Amazon lowered their prices 10%, there’s not much that keeps most of Zooplus’s customers using their website. Zooplus seems well aware of this issue and it has tied their hands when it comes to price increases. On the Q2 2018 call, management said they “don’t want to be the first [pet retailer] sticking their head out passing on manufacturer prices increases.”

Amazon 2018 letter to shareholders

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.

Uber Global Ridesharing Footprint
Percentages are based on our internal estimates of Gross Bookings and miles traveled using our currently available information.

Ensemble Capital: Landstar Systems update

The U.S. truck driver supply is structurally constrained. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of a U.S. truck driver is 55 years old. The core “trucking generation” aged 45 to 54 accounts for 29.3 percent of the labor force, while 25 to 34-year-olds are just 15.6 percent of truck drivers. We’ve seen trucking companies offering huge cash signing bonuses to licensed commercial drivers, without a noticeable jump in the driver pool. In short, there aren’t enough young drivers coming up to replace the older ones.

The average Landstar BCO driver earned a record $197,000 in gross revenue. Now, that’s before expenses like gas, maintenance, and tires, but still a great income. In fact, it was so good last year that some BCOs decided to take the last few weeks of December off – they’d already made more money than they needed for the year. The agent node of the Landstar network also had a record-setting 2018, with 608 agents generating more than $1 million of revenue – up from 542 in 2017.

Given this success, we think Landstar’s network is strengthening. It’s attracting more truckers and agents – indeed, Landstar recently said both the BCO and agent pipelines are full, despite a tight labor market. This creates a virtuous cycle. When Landstar adds truckers and agents, more shippers make Landstar their first and only call to move their freight. In turn, more shippers attract more truckers and agents to Landstar. And so on. An important point to make about Landstar is that it generates 70% incremental operating profit margins on net revenue and their market share is under 10%. We think they have plenty of room to drive profit growth in the decade to come.

As for recession risk, Landstar is a capital-light business with a mostly variable cost structure. Remember, BCO-derived gross margins remain steady throughout the cycle. Landstar’s gross margins fall in periods of strong demand, as lower-margin brokerage operations account for a greater percentage of revenue. Without the BCO structure, Landstar would be far more sensitive to the ebb and flow of the industrial economy. So, while far from recession proof, Landstar is recession resistant.

The second technological threat is autonomous-driving trucks. While the technology is perhaps already there, we think regulations will require a human driver or engineer to be in the truck cab for some time to come. Airplanes, trains, and other heavy transportation vehicles, for example, use various amounts of “autopilot” but still have captains, conductors, and engineers at the ready. As we’ve seen with autonomous driving automobiles, there’s massive headline risk for any accident related to driverless vehicles, even if, on the whole they are safer than human-driven vehicles. Also, we expect that any initial shipments by autonomous trucks will carry commodity, low-cost items like boxes of diapers and food. Landstar carries a lot of special loads like automotive, machinery, and hazmat, where we think human drivers will remain the standard due to the costly freight and related liabilities.

Disney already has a booming streaming service. It’s called Hotstar

Disney is taking on Netflix with a new streaming service in the United States. But there’s an even bigger and hotter market where it’s already winning by miles — India. Hotstar, which Disney bought from 21st Century Fox last year, already has nearly as many users as the entire US population. And it’s growing incredibly fast.

The Indian platform now has 300 million monthly active users, Disney (DIS) revealed during its investor day on Thursday. That means its user base has quadrupled in a little over a year — Hotstar had around 75 million monthly active users in India at the end of 2017. Disney is already way out in front thanks to Hotstar. At the end of 2017, the Indian platform dwarfed Amazon and Netflix, which had 11 million and 5 million Indian users respectively, according to Counterpoint Research.

A breast milk ingredient is the hot new health supplement for adults

Global chemical giants DowDuPont Inc. and BASF SE are investing millions to ramp up production of an indigestible sugar found naturally in breast milk. Infant formula makers like Nestle SA can’t get enough of the synthetic ingredient. Now the companies are eyeing a potentially bigger customer: adults. DuPont estimates the annual market could reach $1 billion.

Human milk oligosaccharide is the third most common solid in breast milk, after lactose and fat. HMO escapes digestion, allowing it to reach the colon where it feeds beneficial bacteria. HMOs may explain why breast-fed babies tend to fare better than formula-fed, said Rachael Buck, who leads HMO research at Similac formula-maker Abbott Laboratories.

DuPont plans to spend $40 million building out its HMO production capacity this year, its second biggest capital investment after expanding a factory that makes Tyvek. Meanwhile, it’s partnering with Lonza Group AG to make enough product to meet current demand. DuPont will become a stand-alone company when it splits from DowDuPont on June 1.

After two decades of research, Abbott was first to bring HMOs to the U.S. baby nutrition market in 2016. It’s now expanded to 15 countries. Nestle last year rolled out HMO formula in Gerber and other brands across 40 countries. HMOs nourish bacteria that “train’’ immune system cells, 80 percent of which reside in the gut, said Jose Saavedra, Nestle chief medical officer. The health claims propelled about $600 million in sales of HMO formula last year for each of Abbott and Nestle SA.

Danish biotechnology company Glycom S/A is targeting the adult digestive health market with HMO supplements it began selling in the U.S. and Europe late last year. The company touts its Holigos IBS product as managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including abdominal pain, constipation diarrhea and bloating. It sells 28 doses on for $50.

Recycling isn’t about the planet. It’s about profit.

Oil had reached a two-year high, and soda bottles are made of PET, which, like all plastics, is basically just processed oil. As the price of “raw” plastic increased, recycled plastic—a natural substitute for manufacturers—became more expensive too. What was good for cities’ recycling programs was bad for the companies that did business with them. The Coca-Cola Company’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, which had opened in 2009 to recycle old soda bottles into new ones, idled as recycled PET plastic prices went through the roof.

Americans are still diligently filling our blue bags with everything we can, but there are fewer places for our dirty goods to go to find redemption. That’s in part thanks to China’s 2017 decision to shut the door on imports of recycled materials, ending a two-decade stretch during which the U.S. came to rely on the country to take and process about 70 percent of its used paper and 40 percent of its used plastic. In 2017, Republic Services, the second-largest waste collector in the U.S., was selling about 35 percent of its recyclables to China. By the end of 2018, China’s National Sword policy, which banned plastics outright and placed strict standards on paper imports, brought that number down to 1 percent.

After China stopped buying, a supply glut sent prices for recycled materials down, and fast. Recyclers found themselves dumping paper in landfills outside Seattle and incinerating plastic in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Glass recycling is local but expensive, and its reuse had often been subsidized by paper and plastic, so with paper and plastic prices in freefall, glass disposal became more of a burden too. In October, Northeastern recyclers were sending just 54 percent of the bottles they collected to processors for reuse. The rest were basically landfilled.

The hunger of Chinese manufacturers for wood pulp, plastic, and aluminum can’t be met by Chinese suppliers or even big commodity exporters like Brazil and Indonesia. Chinese importers solved this problem by buying enormous amounts of recyclables to substitute for raw materials. China went from bringing in 7 million tons of recycled material between 1994 and 1998 to 104 million tons between 2009 and 2013—a 15-fold increase.

Did capitalism kill inflation?

In other words, the capitalists killed inflation. In the decades after World War II, Polish economist Michal Kalecki depicted inflation as a product of the struggle between business and labor. If workers manage to extract big wage increases, their employers recoup the costs by putting through price increases, forcing workers to seek even more, and so on in a wage-price spiral. In contrast, if workers have little or no leverage, as is now the case in many industries, the wage-price spiral never gets started.

The importance of working with “A” players

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team. The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

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