Curated Insights 2019.01.18

10 years since BNSF

“It’s a crazy deal. It’s an insane deal. We looked at Burlington Northern at $75 and I’ll give you the exact calculation we did. You don’t have a high earnings return. They are paying 18 times earnings, but it’s really much worse than that. They report maintenance cap-ex very carefully. They report depreciation and amortization, and they report only about 70% of the maintenance cap-ex.”

One very important fact of this transaction, was his level of conviction. In November 2009, there were a ton of cheap opportunities. Buffett picked BNSF, and paid a 30% premium to gain full ownership. Also, 40% of the total consideration was paid with arguably deeply undervalued BRK shares. So, safe to say he really wanted BNSF. The $34bn paid for BNSF, represented almost 25% of Berkshire’s equity! It was a huge bet, with significant repercussions.

Applying similar numbers, we get to an Enterprise Value of $125bn and an equity value of $105bn for Berkshire´s railroad. Once again, Buffett paid $34bn, took out $31bn in dividends and is left with +$100bn in value…Good job Warren.

So we know returns for this massive investment have been impressive, but let´s get to a number. And the number is…~18%. That is massive for an investment many thought at the time would produce mediocre returns. Remember many experts thought he was overpaying for a capital-intensive, regulated and cyclical business.

18% is 1.5x the return of the S&P 500 during a bull market. But it gets better…At the time of the acquisition, Berkshire already owned ~20% of BNSF stock…so he didn´t have to pay the takeout premium on 100% of the shares outstanding. In reality, he had to pay ~$26bn for the shares he didn´t own. Also, Berkshire employed a bit of leverage to fund the acquisition. The company issued $8bn in bonds, so we get, leveraged returns. If we take into account the leverage and the shares of BNSF Berkshire already owned, then the return on the equity would go…way up. But I think we get the point.

Fund manager: Why Amazon could double

The market is not correctly conceptualizing normalized profitability. It seems that the market views AMZN’s profitability primarily through a legacy e-commerce lens, viewing AMZN as a single-digit-margin business. Piecing apart the business, I think this is wrong. First, AMZN has not known the meaning of the word “operating leverage” for the past 10 years, but it is showing through recently with beautiful impact. In Q3 18, fulfillment as a percentage of sales actually declined for the first time time in five years (having gone from 8.5% in 2010 to 15% of sales in 2018). This is a nascent signal, but suggests that the fulfillment infrastructure expansion is nearing its final stages. There are supplementary data points to support this notion, including the slowing in new DCs and headcount. As a result of this operating leverage, operating margins went from 0.8% in Q3 17 to 6.6% in Q3 18, with incremental margins of 26%. Second, there is a real mix shift going on at AMZN that benefits GMs and fundamentally changes the OM outlook for the combined business. Core e-commerce (lower margin) grew revenue only 10% in Q3, but third party seller services grew 31% and AWS grew 46%. As a result of this positive mix shift, gross margins went from 37% Q3 17 to 41.7% in Q3 18, with incremental gross margins coming in at 57.5%. Amazon effectively has a powerful combination of mix-driven GM expansion and operating leverage driven OM expansion in play here, and my view is that this dynamic will hold for at least a number of years to come.

PayPal quietly took over the checkout button

In 2013, PayPal bought Braintree Payment Solutions LLC, which processes the credit card transactions on the mobile apps of Uber, Airbnb, StubHub, and thousands of smaller businesses. The acquisition brought in an influx of programmers and designers, as well as Venmo, which Braintree had acquired the year before. Venmo is a way to quickly settle small debts between friends: a dinner check, a get-well present for a colleague. With Venmo, informal financial interactions formerly governed by social norms about reciprocity, forgiveness, and passive-aggressive hinting could be easily recorded and quickly paid. (“I only have a twenty” is no longer a viable excuse.) You could even “bill” your friends. The app—complete with a feed of the payments your friends have made to each other—has proved enormously popular with millennials.

Over the next six months, Schulman negotiated similar partnerships with Mastercard and Citibank, committing to make it as effortless as possible for customers to use Citibank-issued credit cards and Mastercard’s network. “When PayPal first spun out of EBay, there was a lot of competition and a lot of negative sentiment,” says Heath Terry, an analyst who covers the industry for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “Basically, in 18 months on the job, Dan was able to completely change that narrative.” As with the Visa deal, PayPal was forgoing some profit but placating powerful and formerly antagonistic payments incumbents. Citi and Mastercard—along with Google, Apple, Amazon, and Samsung, each of which has an eponymous “pay” product—began steering customers to link their accounts with PayPal, seeing it not as a competitor but as a driver of transactions and the fees they generate. In short, as a pal.

The result has been a surge in growth. “It took us 14 years to go from 50 million subscribers to 250 million,” Schulman says. “I mean, it’s impressive, but it’s a long time. We went from 200 million to 250 million in about 18 months,” tripling the rate at which the company added users, or what it calls “net new actives.” PayPal’s stock is up more than 100 percent since the start of 2017. However, PayPal’s most impressive statistic may be its conversion rate. People who design online and mobile shopping apps are obsessed with smoothing and shortening the path from idle browsing to purchase—humans are acquisitive and impulsive creatures, but they’re also easily distracted and bad at remembering their credit card numbers. Too many options hurts conversion, and so does having to type out stuff or wait for a page to load. PayPal’s conversion rate is lights-out: Eighty-nine percent of the time a customer gets to its checkout page, he makes the purchase. For other online credit and debit card transactions, that number sits at about 50 percent.

This differential was cited by the hedge fund Third Point in an investor letter last July: “We see parallels between PayPal and other best-in-class internet platforms like Netflix and Amazon,” it read. It applauded PayPal’s $2.2 billion purchase in May of IZettle, a Swedish payments processor known as the “Square of Europe.” The praise was particularly striking coming from Third Point, whose billionaire founder Dan Loeb, like Icahn, is better known for publicly excoriating the leadership of the companies in which he invests. Built into PayPal’s high share price is the expectation that the company will figure out a way to turn Venmo’s popularity into profit. Third Point’s letter predicted that the app will be contributing $1 billion in additional annual revenue within three years. Disagreements over how to do that, or how much to even try, have led to the departures of two Venmo heads in two years. Employees who have left in recent months describe mounting mutual frustration. According to multiple people familiar with the company’s finances, the app is still losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In an interview after the announcement of Venmo’s latest leadership change in late September, Schulman’s deputy, PayPal Chief Operating Officer Bill Ready, downplayed any suggestion of turmoil. “Any startup that goes through rapid growth is going to experience this,” he says. “You evolve, and you have to bring in different skill sets for each stage of the journey.”

Cancer deaths decline 27% over 25 years

Deaths from cancer dropped 27% over a quarter century, meaning an estimated 2.6 million fewer people died of the disease during that period, according to a new report from researchers at the American Cancer Society.

For most of the 20th century, overall cancer deaths rose, driven mainly by men dying from lung cancer, researchers noted. But since the peak in 1991, the death rate has steadily dropped 1.5% a year through 2016, primarily because of long-running efforts to reduce smoking, as well as advances in detection and treatment of cancer at earlier stages, when prognosis for recovery is generally better.

Curated Insights 2019.01.11

Disney’s Bob Iger talks streaming, park plans, and learning from Kodak

In the case of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucas, none of them were for sale. We were the only ones. Us identifying them as acquisition targets and my going out and meeting with Steve Jobs and Ike Perlmutter and George Lucas one on one. Just alone. And broaching the subject and ultimately doing a deal. In looking back, particularly with Marvel and Lucas—Pixar was different—we had an ability to monetize those assets better than anyone else. If someone came along, we would have had a competitive advantage. You can argue that in the Comcast case with Fox, they’re probably the only other company out there that can monetize. Whether they monetize as well as we do, I don’t know. I don’t think they’re quite where we are.

What we looked at there was partly the result of the strategy we’re deploying, which is to be in the direct-to-consumer space in a very serious way. In order to do that, we needed a few things, and one of them, really the most important, was intellectual property. And when we looked at the Fox assets and brands—National Geographic, FX, Searchlight, the movie Avatar, the Marvel properties that they licensed, I could go on, The Simpsons—they had a lot that we could use to feed the beast that we’re taking to the market. And the board has been great at articulating this back to me. Had we not defined this strategy and gone for it, they would not have figured out how the Fox assets would have been of value to us. Because on the surface, you’re buying traditional businesses—cable channels and the like—and what do you need that for?

And then on top of that there was a global element to it that was very important to us. For instance, the Star assets in India. And they have a very successful business across Latin America. Sky was obviously attractive to us too, but it got less attractive as the price went up.

Wiedower Capital 2018 Annual Shareholder Letter: Trupanion

The vast majority of companies would take these increased efficiencies and let them drop to the bottom line. Not Trupanion. Their goal when the business is more mature in a few years is to have an adjusted operating margin of 15% (which equates to a net margin of around 5%). Once they achieve maturity, they want to then share all savings above that with their customers, basically capping their net margin at around 5%. Trupanion’s current loss ratio is ~70%, but their longer-term goal is to increase that to 80% (essentially giving 10% more value back to their customers).

To be clear, even if Trupanion does succeed with the scaled economies shared flywheel, it will not be as effective as Costco’s has been. An insurance company increasing loss ratios is a much less tangible benefit to the consumer vs a retailer decreasing prices. This is because retail prices can easily be compared at Costco vs Walmart or Amazon, whereas insurance policy prices are generally harder to compare apples-to-apples. However, I still believe this will make life harder on other pet insurers if Trupanion is slowly increasing their loss ratios on a yearly basis. That is tough to compete with. Very few companies are willing to pass up higher short-term profits every single year in the hopes that decreasing their prices will increase long-term customer loyalty.

For Healthy Paws (the #3 pet insurer, but the competitor I worry about the most) to have a meaningful effect on Trupanion’s customer acquisition strategy, they would have to hire and train a hundred salespeople all over the country and those people would have to spend years getting inroads into vets. And vets that already have Trupanion Express installed will have an even higher barrier to entry. Over 10% of vets in North America already have Express installed and that number is growing quickly (install growth was 42% in 2017 and over 50% in 2018).

Because of their customer acquisition cost, Trupanion loses money in the first year of all new pets they sign up. However, the average pet stays with Trupanion for over eight years, so that initial loss is made up over time. But because Trupanion is growing so fast, the cost of those new pets every year make the reported financials look worse than the progress of the underlying business. If customer acquisition costs are amortized over the life of a pet, the financials look much better.

This means that for every dollar spent on sales and marketing, Trupanion gets a 30-40% return on that invested capital. Very few businesses can maintain that return on capital for very long. Trupanion has been doing this for years and, given the industry penetration is just over 1%, they may be able to continue achieving this high return for many more years. Trupanion has the best unit economics of any company we own and, just as important, I believe these returns can continue because they are very defensible.

In addition to valuation, I believe the regulatory risks to Trupanion are overblown. The most touted regulatory risk is that many of Trupanion’s territory partners are not licensed to sell insurance—even though they don’t sell insurance and ideally never even interact with potential customers. There are fringe cases where this can be iffy though. For example, an unlicensed territory partner who talks to her friend about the benefits of Trupanion could potentially cross the line. Even in the scenario where regulators rule that all territory partners need to be licensed, I don’t believe the risk is large to Trupanion. From talking to insurance regulators about this, I expect a modest fine at worst.

The regulatory risk that I think is a bigger concern, but that gets discussed less often, is if veterinarians were required to get licensed. The veterinarians are the main conduit that connect pet owners to Trupanion. If veterinarians were required to get licensed, this would kill Trupanion’s current business model as very few vets would go through the effort of getting licensed. Here, it’s important to note that veterinarians who work with Trupanion do not explain the insurance specifics to their pet owner clients. The vets are allowed to recommend the concept of pet insurance broadly, and then discuss their personal experience with Trupanion, but that’s it. The vets do not get into insurance coverage details because that is when they would be required to get licensed.

Dureka Carrasquillo long Ferrari: Sohn London Conference

In 2017 the luxury car market was valued at $570bn. Estimates suggest it will grow at about 9% for the next 5 years. Ferrari sits in the category of luxury goods that is considered an ‘experience’ and that category is projected to grow at an even higher rate.

Special cars have historically been about 2% of sales but they will become a larger part of the business. She estimates that by 2022 special cars will represent 20% of revenues. These cars which are limited editions – often 500 cars – sell for more than $1m each and sometimes sell out on the day they go on sale. Gross margins on special cars are about 3x base cars. If the number of special cars is increased in the way that Carrasquillo predicts EBITDA margins for the whole group could increase from 33% to 38%.

Another hallmark of a luxury goods player is careful management of supply. Current product capacity is about 16,000 cars per year yet only 9000 are made. In comparison, Porsche sells 25,000 to 30,00 911s per year. Carrasquillo thinks that Ferrari could increase production to 16,000 cars per year and still sell them. Ferrari intends to launch 15 new models in the next 5 years – that’s a lot more than in the past. It takes about 40 months to produce and launch a new car.


Luke Newman long Rolls Royce: Sohn London Conference

At its heart Rolls Royce is a razor to razorblade business model – the razors – or the engines in this case – cost billions of dollars to design, deliver and install and come with an obligation to buy razorblades – service contracts – for the next 25 years. The gross margins on the service contracts are high between 50% to 70% but the engines are sold at a loss.

The secular trends in air travel are supportive driven by increasing wealth and emerging markets. Air passenger kilometres over the last 70 years have grown at 6% CAGR. If passenger growth continues at 4.5% and assuming planes have a 25-year life, 425 new wide body planes are required every year to keep up with demand. That’s 37 new wide-bodied planes every month. The production schedules for Boeing and Airbus for next year are slated at 34 per month creating positive pricing dynamics for all participants.

Over the last 20 years what was a 3-player market has become a duopoly. Pratt and Whitney took the rationale decision to concentrate on narrow body engines and ceded their market share to Rolls Royce. That did not come for free because Rolls Royce had to spend billions of dollars developing new engines to take the market share. The good news is that this year is the first year in which most of the revenue will come from the high margin aftermarket business. The company has reached a critical inflection point.

GE, the other member of the duopoly, has been in harvest mode, maintaining share and enjoying good aftermarket revenues. GE has lots of problems, but the engine business has not been one of them. GE’s engine margins have been consistently high.

Curated Insights 2019.01.04

The customer acquisition pricing parade

“One spectator, determined to get a better view, stands on their tiptoes. It works well initially until everyone else does the same. Then, the taxing effort of standing on your toes becomes table stakes to be able to see anything at all. Now, not only is any advantage squandered, but we’re all worse off than we were when we first started.”

“Marketing is increasingly cheap. Trust is increasingly expensive. Attracting eyeballs no longer sets you apart. Building trust among those who have their eyes on you, does. Getting people’s attention is no longer a skill. Keeping people’s attention is.”

To decrease spending and increase profitability, the holding companies of tomorrow will shift their attention from controlling supply to controlling demand — from building around industries to building around audiences.  

Re-marketing to an existing customer is significantly cheaper than trying to persuade a first time customer to buy your product — sometimes nearly 90% cheaper.

Companies who cater to the needs of passionate customers will benefit from lowered customer acquisition costs and higher lifetime value (LTV), reduced churn and increased loyalty. Once a paying customer is acquired, companies can cross-sell and up-sell them into different products, categories, and even brands. The fight to find that customer will be much easier leading to an increase in transaction volume. As they reduce friction in the payment process and increase customer loyalty, they’ll accrue data behind customer cohorts leading to a customer-centric experience.

Companies who cater to their customers and develop direct relationships with them, will own the future.

Working more magic at Disney

Walt Disney has in a sense become more Disney-like in how it earns its profits. After 20 years of being dominated by television, especially cable, the company is returning to its roots in films and theme parks. Seven years ago, for each $1 in operating profit that Disney made from its parks and studios, it generated $3 in TV. During the fiscal year ended September, parks and studios retook the lead.

The coming streaming platform will be reported to Wall Street as a separate Netflix-like division within Disney. Investors will see how much cash the unit is paying for content. New Disney, so to speak, will pay this money to Old Disney. “What I’ve discovered is, businesses in a traditional space that want to innovate and spend money to do so, they park the cost of innovation in their traditional businesses,” Iger says. “Those businesses all kind of suffer from the cost of that innovation, because it’s not typically monetized right away. You can get impatient to the point of losing interest and abandoning innovation, because you don’t have the patience to wait for it to really pay off.”

For decades, Disney was largely a moviemaker with theme parks, although television has long been part of the mix; The Mickey Mouse Club, which began on ABC in 1955, helped finance Disneyland, and the Disney Channel has been a cable mainstay since the 1980s. But in 1995, Disney surprised investors with a $19 billion acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC, gaining a prosperous TV network and a thriving ESPN. As cable spread service across the nation, and TV producers learned how to extract higher fees from cable operators for their content, the small screen became Disney’s big earner.

Iger planted the roots of Disney’s growth spurt in its traditional businesses when he rolled up major story-telling outfits that weren’t for sale. He did that by visiting their bosses one-on-one: Steve Jobs, culminating in the $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar in 2006; Isaac Perlmutter, for a $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment in 2009; and George Lucas, in a $4 billion deal for Lucasfilm in 2012. What has followed has been a film boom for the ages.

This year, Disney will again become the only studio in history to reap $7 billion in worldwide box office receipts: $4 billion internationally and $3 billion in the U.S. It also did so in 2016. And Disney makes eight to 10 films a year; some big studios make two dozen.

Box office results relate to return on invested capital the way dunking a basketball relates to winning a game: The former gets the crowd’s attention, but people with stakes care mostly about the latter. The broader film industry operates with a single-digit return, Iger says. Yet there are years when Disney’s film returns top 30%. As a result, studio operating income has multiplied more than fourfold since 2011, to nearly $3 billion during the fiscal year ended in September.

Does AI make strong tech companies stronger?

First, though you need a lot of data for machine learning, the data you use is very specific to the problem that you’re trying to solve. GE has lots of telemetry data from gas turbines, Google has lots of search data, and Amex has lots of credit card fraud data. You can’t use the turbine data as examples to spot fraudulent transactions, and you can’t use web searches to spot gas turbines that are about to fail. That is, ML is a generalizable technology – you can use it for fraud detection or face recognition – but applications that you build with it are not generalized. Each thing you build can only do one thing. This is much the same as all previous waves of automation: just as a washing machine can only wash clothes and not wash dishes or cook a meal, and a chess program cannot do your taxes, a machine learning translation system cannot recognise cats. Both the applications you build and the data sets you need are very specific to the task that you’re trying to solve (though again, this is a moving target and there is research to try to make learning more transferable across different data sets).

So: as an industrial company, do you keep your own data and build the ML systems to analyse it (or pay a contractor do do this for you)? Do you buy a finished product from a vendor that’s already trained on other people’s data? Do you co-mingle your data into that, or into the training derived from it? Does the vendor even need your data or do they already have enough? The answer will be different in different parts of your business, in different industries and for different use cases.

This takes me to a metaphor I’ve used elsewhere – we should compare machine learning to SQL. It’s an important building block that allowed new and important things, and will be part of everything. If you don’t use it and your competitors do, you will fall behind. Some people will create entirely new companies with this – part of Wal-Mart’s success came from using databases to manage inventory and logistics more efficiently. But today, if you started a retailer and said “…and we’re going to use databases”, that would not make you different or interesting – SQL became part of everything and then disappeared. The same will happen with machine learning.


One giant step for a chess-playing machine

Most unnerving was that AlphaZero seemed to express insight. It played like no computer ever has, intuitively and beautifully, with a romantic, attacking style. It played gambits and took risks. In some games it paralyzed Stockfish and toyed with it. While conducting its attack in Game 10, AlphaZero retreated its queen back into the corner of the board on its own side, far from Stockfish’s king, not normally where an attacking queen should be placed.

Yet this peculiar retreat was venomous: No matter how Stockfish replied, it was doomed. It was almost as if AlphaZero was waiting for Stockfish to realize, after billions of brutish calculations, how hopeless its position truly was, so that the beast could relax and expire peacefully, like a vanquished bull before a matador. Grandmasters had never seen anything like it. AlphaZero had the finesse of a virtuoso and the power of a machine. It was humankind’s first glimpse of an awesome new kind of intelligence.

Tellingly, AlphaZero won by thinking smarter, not faster; it examined only 60 thousand positions a second, compared to 60 million for Stockfish. It was wiser, knowing what to think about and what to ignore. By discovering the principles of chess on its own, AlphaZero developed a style of play that “reflects the truth” about the game rather than “the priorities and prejudices of programmers,” Mr. Kasparov wrote in a commentary accompanying the Science article.

What is frustrating about machine learning, however, is that the algorithms can’t articulate what they’re thinking. We don’t know why they work, so we don’t know if they can be trusted. AlphaZero gives every appearance of having discovered some important principles about chess, but it can’t share that understanding with us. Not yet, at least. As human beings, we want more than answers. We want insight. This is going to be a source of tension in our interactions with computers from now on.

Maybe eventually our lack of insight would no longer bother us. After all, AlphaInfinity could cure all our diseases, solve all our scientific problems and make all our other intellectual trains run on time. We did pretty well without much insight for the first 300,000 years or so of our existence as Homo sapiens. And we’ll have no shortage of memory: we will recall with pride the golden era of human insight, this glorious interlude, a few thousand years long, between our uncomprehending past and our incomprehensible future.


Evaluating early stage startups — The three metrics that matter

Defining “fast growth” depends on stage, but for early (Seed or Series A), growing 100% YoY is typically pretty solid. Paul Graham (PG) famously looks for 5–7% weekly growth for companies in Y Combinator, and his rationale is pretty simple: “a company that grows at 1% a week will grow 1.7x a year, whereas a company that grows at 5% a week will grow 12.6x.” When you consider the compounding effects of this growth, it means a company starting with $1,000 in revenue and growing at 1% will be at $7,900 per month four years later, whereas the company growing 5% per week will be bringing in more than $25 million per month.


The founder’s guide to understanding investors

When we dig deeper, the degree to which early-stage investing is a grand slam business is shocking. First, amongst early stage investors, the returns are disproportionately distributed. The Kauffman Foundation, an investor in many VC funds, found the top 20 VC firms (~3% of VC firms), generate 95% of all venture returns. Second, outside of the top 20 VC firms, most lose money! A study found the top 29 VC firms made a profit of $64B on $21B invested, while the rest of the VC universe lost $75B on $160B invested.

As early-stage investing operates on a power law, Paul Graham (founder of Y Combinator) mentions “You [as an investor] have to ignore the elephant in front of you, the likelihood they’ll [the startup] succeed, and focus instead on the separate and almost invisibly intangible question of whether they’ll succeed really big.” He highlights there are 10,000x variations (!) in startup investing returns, meaning top investors must have the mindset of willing to strike out in order to hit grand slams.

There needs to be room for your startup to capture a large share of this market. Elad Gil (early investor in Airbnb, Coinbase, Gusto, Instacart, Stripe), explains this means i) the market is structurally set up to support multiple winners, but ii) if the market only supports one winner and customers are currently not served well – there is an opportunity to dominate the market.

At the Series A stage, investors are mainly looking to see if PMF is achieved. This evaluation can be qualitative – Marc Andreessen (co-founder of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz, an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, Wealthfront, Slack) notes, on the inside, “you can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can. Reporters are calling…”

When investors are evaluating for PMF, Rachleff notes that the best test is to see if the product is growing exponentially with no marketing, meaning the product is so good it grows through word of mouth. Top investors often don’t want to see marketing spend because it shows care for vanity metrics (things that don’t matter) rather than building an amazing product that people engage with (which does matter).

Not all buzzwords will fulfill their potential and result in a disruptive technology shift though. As a founder, you can reduce this risk by avoid starting a startup on that shift until the technology adoption is growing quickly and reaches a multi-hour per day level of usage. Sam Altman expands, “It’s very hard to differentiate between fake trends and real trends…If you think hard and you really pay attention, sometimes you can. The metric I use to differentiate between a real trend and a fake trend is similar to loving a product. It’s when there is a new platform that people are using many hours every day.”

To believe the startup can fulfill grand slam potential, investors want to see the startup has verified their assumptions on how users find the product in a repeatable and scalable manner. This is also called a go-to-market strategy (GTM).

Bill Gurley (major early investor in Uber, Stitch Fix, Zillow, etc.) called a unique GTM the most under-appreciated part about startups. It’s not about who did it first, but who did it right. Gurley looks to see if the startup has two things: (1) An interesting way to get into the market; (2) A way to establish themselves once in the market. The word ‘unique’ is important here. Replicating existing GTM strategies is often too costly because incumbents have already dried up the channel(s) to market and sell to customers. As a founder, you need to find a unique GTM that is repeatable and scalable. The good news here is that if you succeed, you’ll be able to keep out competitors by saturating the new channels.

Andy Rachleff has a second perspective on how startups can avoid competition. With his adaptation to Clayton Christensen’s (Harvard Business School Professor) disruption theory, startups can compete with reduced competition in either two ways. They can compete via new-market disruption – targeting a new set of users and competing on different characteristics (e.g. instead of price, focus on experience) than competitors, or they can compete via low-end disruption – targeting the same set of users as incumbents, but offering a greatly reduced product at a lower price point.

Along with the above quote, Bill Gurley tests if executives at the startup have a notion of insane curiosity – constantly learning new ways to win. To evaluate this, he asks questions on what information (e.g. books, podcasts) executives learn from, how they engage with it, and then probes if they are trying to use that information to majorly improve themselves or their business.

Curious folks tinker. Obsessively curious folks solve the hardest problems that require endless tinkering. If you are obsessively curious and fail with your original plan, odds are you will use your learnings and pivot into a big market that loves their product.

If a founder is obsessively curious, they can navigate the idea maze. By running a founder through the idea maze, investors evaluate if the founder understands all permutations of their idea, why their plan is superior to all other competitors, and which turns to lead to treasure versus which ones lead to certain death. It’s important for a founder to thoroughly know their idea maze, it can save years by not going down the wrong path, in addition to convincing investors you know can be a grand slam.

Rating citizens – can China’s social credit system fix its trust deficit?

In some Chinese cities, if you have wilfully defaulted on paying your debts, callers to your mobile phone will hear this message instead of the usual ringback tone: “This is a friendly reminder from the people’s court of XX city. The person you have just called has been declared a trust-breaker subject to enforcement by the court …”

Given that 80 per cent of respondents in a 2018 opinion poll conducted across China have approved of the social credit system, it seems that most Chinese, for now, do not consider the drastic surveillance scheme a violation of their privacy. Instead, most see the merit of the system in the perks they may enjoy and its potential in fostering trustworthiness in society.

However, the feasibility of this is highly questionable since the government is simultaneously the enforcer, the appraiser and the appraisee. For instance, many local governments in China have often failed to repay debt ranging from a few thousand to tens of million yuan, including loans, payment to contractors, and compensation for seized land. Since local governments are the ones that assess trustworthiness and mete out punishment, will they themselves be subject to the same penalties as other defaulters?

In this county, slandering others online will take 100 points off your social credit rating, while manufacturing and selling fake products will set you back by merely 35 points. Someone who may be rightfully seeking redress by occupying government offices may be slapped with a 50-point deduction, the same penalty as someone who has given or received bribes.

Curated Insights 2018.12.21

Investing ideas that changed my life

If something has a chance of either destroying you or making you very wealthy and you don’t know how to measure what that chance is, it’s understandable that people default to high levels of credulity.

You can’t believe in risk without also believing in luck, because they are fundamentally the same thing—an acknowledgment that you are one person in a 7 billion player game, and the accidental impact of other people’s actions can be more consequential than your own. But the path of least resistance is to be keenly aware of risk when it affects you, and oblivious to luck when it helps you. Investors adjust returns for risk; never for luck. Companies disclose known risks in their annual reports; lucky breaks are rarely mentioned. The danger is that experiencing risk reduces confidence when it should merely highlight reality, which can make future decisions more conservative than they ought to be. Luck increases confidence without increasing ability, which makes people double down with less room for error than before. Realizing that luck and risk are ever-present and normal makes you accept that not everything is in your control, which is the only way to identify whatever is in your control.

If you think the world is all art, you’ll miss how much stuff is too complicated to think about intuitively. But if you think the world is all science, you’ll miss how much people like to take shortcuts, believe only what they want to believe, and have to deal with stuff that is too complicated for them to summarize in a statistic. Another way to think about this: Investing is not physics, which is guided by cold, immutable laws. It’s like biology, guided by the messy mutations and accidents of evolution, constantly adapting and sometimes defying logic.

“How long will this remain important given my strategy and time horizon?”


The dynamics of network effects

So how can entrepreneurs and founders navigate this era of seemingly diminishing network effects? The trick is to know what your network effects look like today, but also project how they’ll evolve over time. To that end, you’ll need to understand three aspects of your company and how they could change going forward: 1) your value proposition, 2) your users/inventory, and 3) your competitive ecosystem. Otherwise you could get caught flat-footed, claiming that network effects are dead.

Early on, more friends in Frank groups meant more demand and more liquidity, which created a bigger incentive for people to join those groups. But once a group had more than 7 people, they became less likely to lend or borrow: turns out people only have ~7 friends/family members they have that level of trust with! The network effects in this case went from positive to negative as an individual’s network outgrew the value proposition. This pattern has also held true for a number of other highly social products.

Platforms/marketplaces with more differentiated inventory have stronger and longer-lasting network effects, because they have a diversity of inventory that suits the unique preferences of customers (while maintaining just-enough substitutability across that inventory as well). For example, AirBnB can show users every iteration of lodging from $225-$325/night in Los Angeles, which overlaps with someone else’s search for something that costs $150-$250 and has a both a balcony and a hot tub. The platform is therefore more valuable on both sides of the marketplace than a site that just shows a commoditized set of standard and executive rooms. The network effects remain strong not only because it reaches a base level of liquidity across all these different types of inventory (making them valuable to more users), but because it also continues to see increasing returns with new supply.

When you forecast out your network effects — and more importantly, your growth strategy for acquiring and engaging more users — you will need to pay attention to the incremental users you’re likely to attract. Are they network “contaminants”, “neutrals”, or “contributors”? For a social network, adding a troll that disengages other users is a pollutant who removes value. Adding a lurker is neutral since that person doesn’t add or subtract any value from the network. Adding a great content producer contributes an enormous amount of value to the network. So, making sure to incent the users you want while disincenting the ones you don’t want, is key. This is why most great platforms also invest heavily in curation mechanisms to screen and remove bad inventory/users (e.g., Wikipedia’s editors, Airbnb’s reviews/onboarding, etc.). Unfortunately, these screening mechanisms don’t always work and sometimes the cost of finding strong contributors becomes very high, so the calculus of growth relative to cost matters a lot here.

While network effects businesses tend to be more defensible at scale, they are not immune to competition. But for these types of businesses it’s not just a matter of figuring out who your direct competitors are — you also need to think about the network overlap. If someone else has a similar network to yours, there’s always existential risk they’ll move into your market. Because they have a similar network already, they’ll more easily be able to enter your space (Instagram’s foray into Snapchat-like disposable “Stories” is a good example of this). This is also true where the competition may already have registered a superset of your network (e.g., DoorDash and Uber Eats; Didi and Uber in China).

The increasing speed of product iteration, the pace at which networks can scale, and the ease with which competitors can get started has therefore dramatically changed how we project network effects in businesses. Instead of winner-take-all markets where early movers may have once had a seemingly lasting advantage, network effects change more quickly than ever. Especially where specific factors — an asymptotic value proposition, network overlap, increasing number of contaminants, etc. — can lower the platform’s ability to generate a sustainable network effect in the future.

How much is social media worth? Estimating the value of Facebook by paying users to stop using it

As noted previously, Facebook reached a market capitalization of $542 billion in May 2018. At 2.20 billion active users in March 2018, this suggests a value to investors of almost $250 per user, which is less than one fourth of the annual value of Facebook access from any of our samples. This reinforces the idea that the vast majority of benefits of new inventions go not to the inventors but to the users. Further, our results provide evidence that online services can provide tremendous value to society even if their contribution to GDP is minimal. If the billions of people who use Facebook and other free online services derive anything close to $1000 per year in benefits, the productivity slowdown cited by Solow and others may not be reflected in a slowdown in the growth rate of welfare measures like consumer surplus. Many observers have commented on the difficulties of measuring productivity growth in great technological change. While our current study does not offer a solution that can be broadly applied to address this challenge, it does present a methodology and results that provide important insight into the scale of the issue when considering the online revolution of our current era.

Concerns about data privacy, such as Cambridge Analytica’s alleged problematic handling of users’ private information, which are thought to have been used to influence the 2016 United States presidential election, only underscore the value Facebook’s users must derive from the service. Despite the parade of negative publicity surrounding the Cambridge Analytica revelations in mid-March 2018, Facebook added 70 million users between the end of 2017 and March 31, 2018. This implies the value users derive from the social network more than offsets the privacy concerns.


Alibaba stock poised to return 200%, advisor says

Alibaba has a unique business model where it operates solely as a platform, rather than a middle man. The company doesn’t have to purchase inventory, provide logistics, or distribute product – it simply collects fees from merchants for advertising and commissions for completed transactions. This asset light model has allowed BABA to compound earnings more than 43% per year for the last 5 years with very little incremental capital.

The GMV for BABA in the last twelve months was a staggering $4.8 trillion yuan, or $768B USD. This towers over Amazon’s $186B or Walmart’s $495B. GMV is nearly 7% of the GDP of China. In the last 5 years GMV has compounded at an annual growth rate of 29% per year.

Core Commerce is the largest and most profitable division of BABA representing 71% of total revenue and 100% of owner earnings. This division generates revenue by selling advertising to merchants and collecting commissions ranging from 0.3% to 5.0% on sales that occur across BABA’s e-commerce platforms. In the last 5 years revenue from the Core Commerce division has compounded at a rate of 43% per year.

Cloud Computing provides individuals, merchants, and businesses across China online access to the vast computing resources of BABA’s datacenters. Alibaba Cloud offers a complete suite of cloud services, including elastic computing, database, storage, network virtualization services, large scale computing, security, management and application services, big data analytics, and more. Alibaba Cloud has grown at an average pace of more than 100% in the last 5 years. While the business currently does not generate owner earnings due to the aggressive investment in market share, we are confident that the division will be highly profitable in the future.

Digital Media & Entertainment offers an online platform, Youku, where users can watch TV shows, movies, and other content. It is similar to the business model of Netflix, where revenue is generated by selling subscriptions and advertising. While both revenue and daily average subscriber growth has been impressive averaging more than 100% per year for the last 3 years, the business loses money annually due to the high cost of purchasing content. Unlike Alibaba Cloud, which we are confident will be profitable based on comparisons to AWS and Google Cloud, we are less confident in the future profitability of Youku. Comparable companies, like iQiyi and Netflix, have never generated positive cash flow for owners and the path to a successful business model is not presently clear. We are hopeful that this business division will be spun off as a standalone business in the upcoming years.

“As a result of our broad value propositions to consumers, we have seen increased engagement over time. The longer consumers have been with us, the larger numbers of orders they tend to place, across a more diverse range of product categories, and the more they tend to spend on our China retail marketplaces. For example, in the twelve months ended March 31, 2018, consumers who have been with us for approximately five years placed an average of 132 orders in 23 product categories with average spending of approximately RMB12,000 in terms of GMV, whereas consumers who have been with us for approximately one year placed an average of 27 orders in 6 product categories with average spending of approximately RMB3,000 in terms of GMV. In the twelve months ended March 31, 2018, the average annual active consumer on our China retail marketplaces placed 90 orders in 16 product categories with average spending of approximately RMB9,000 in terms of GMV.”

The business case for serverless

The case for serverless starts with a simple premise: if the fastest startup in a given market is going to win, then the most important thing is to maintain or increase development velocity over time. This may sound obvious, but very, very few startups state maintaining or increasing development velocity as an explicit goal. “Development velocity,” to be specific, means the speed at which you can deliver an additional unit of value to a customer. Of course, an additional unit of customer value can be delivered either by shipping more value to existing customers, or by shipping existing value—that is, existing features—to new customers.

Whereas a ‘normal’ cloud server like AWS’s EC2 offering had to be provisioned in advance and was billed by the hour regardless of whether or not it was used, AWS Lambda was provisioned instantly, on demand, and was billed only per request. Lambda is astonishingly cheap: $0.0000002 per request plus $0.00001667 per gigabyte-second of compute. And while users have to increase their server size if they hit a capacity constraint on EC2, Lambda will scale more or less infinitely to accommodate load — without any manual intervention. And, if an EC2 instance goes down, the developer is responsible for diagnosing the problem and getting it back online, whereas if a Lambda dies another Lambda can just take its place.

Although Lambda—and equivalent services like Azure Functions or Google Cloud Functions—is incredibly attractive from a cost and capacity standpoint, the truth is that saving money and preparing for scale are very poor reasons for a startup to adopt a given technology. Few startups fail as a result of spending too much money on servers or from failing to scale to meet customer demand — in fact, optimizing for either of these things is a form of premature scaling, and premature scaling on one or many dimensions (hiring, marketing, sales, product features, and even hierarchy/titles) is the primary cause of death for the vast majority of startups. In other words, prematurely optimizing for cost, scale, or uptime is an anti-pattern.

Herein lies the magic of using managed services. Startups get the beneficial use of the provider’s code as an asset without holding that code debt on their “technical balance sheet.” Instead, the code sits on the provider’s balance sheet, and the provider’s engineers are tasked with maintaining, improving, and documenting that code. In other words, startups get code that is self-maintaining, self-improving, and self-documenting—the equivalent of hiring a first-rate engineering team dedicated to a non-core part of the codebase—for free. Or, more accurately, at a predictable per-use cost. Contrast this with using a managed service like Cognito or Auth0. On day one, perhaps it doesn’t have all of the features on a startup’s wish list. The difference is that the provider has a team of engineers and product managers whose sole task is to ship improvements to this service day in and day out. Their exciting core product is another company’s would-be redheaded stepchild.

One day, complexity will grow past a breaking point and development velocity will begin to decline irreversibly, and so the ultimate job of the founder is to push that day off as long as humanly possible. The best way to do that is to keep your ball of mud to the minimum possible size— serverless is the most powerful tool ever developed to do exactly that.

Huawei ban casts shadow over $100bn economic sphere

Huawei reported sales of 603.62 billion yuan ($87.4 billion at current rates) last year — not far off from Microsoft and Google parent Alphabet, although less than half as much as Apple. Its two biggest telecom equipment rivals, Nokia and Ericsson, had net sales of 23.1 billion euros ($26.1 billion) and 201.3 billion krona ($22.2 billion), respectively, last year. It ranks as the world’s top seller of base stations for wireless networks with a 28% share, the No. 2 maker of smartphones and routers, and the fourth-largest server manufacturer.

Privately owned Huawei spent $14 billion on outside procurement of semiconductors alone last year. Much of this came from American companies, with $1.8 billion in purchases from Qualcomm and $700 million from Intel, according to Chinese media.

Hikvision, which is more than 40% controlled by state-owned companies, is the world’s leading maker of security cameras and offers image-analysis technology powered by artificial intelligence. Privately run Hytera boasts world-leading production capacity for specialized wireless communications technology used by police and the military. Hikvision and Hytera in recent years have both acquired foreign peers — something that Beijing normally puts strict limits on — to expand their technological capabilities and overseas presence.

LVMH inks $2.6 billion deal to buy ‘21’ club operator Belmond

The acquisition is one of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault’s biggest, rivaling the purchases of Bulgari and Loro Piana. It comes as consumers shift spending toward trips, health clubs, restaurants and entertainment and interest in shopping malls dwindles.

The acquisition addresses another challenge facing LVMH and rivals Kering SA and Richemont. They’ve snapped up so many of the world’s leading brands that there are few prominent leather and couture labels left to buy. The Louis Vuitton owner, formed through a merger with Champagne and cognac maker Moet Hennessy, has already expanded into perfume, watches, jewelry and cosmetics retail. Prominent remaining independents like Chanel and Hermes have shown little inclination to sell.

The deal will expand the French company’s high-end hospitality offerings. LVMH formed a hotel management group in 2010 to oversee its operations in the sector, which include properties under the Cheval Blanc name in locations like the Courchevel ski resort in the French Alps. LVMH’s Bulgari jewelry brand has six hotels, including one in Shanghai that opened in July. It plans to open hotels in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo in the next four years.

Belmond, which used to be known as Orient-Express Hotels, owns or has stakes in more than 30 high-end hotels around the world, from St. Petersburg to Anguilla in the Caribbean. In addition to the ‘21’ Club power restaurant in Manhattan, its stable of luxury properties includes a cruise line in France, a London-to-Venice train line and safari camps in Botswana.

What straight-A students get wrong

The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. For example, at Google, once employees are two or three years out of college, their grades have no bearing on their performance.

Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence. Yes, straight-A students master cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem — it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.

Getting straight A’s requires conformity. Having an influential career demands originality. In a study of students who graduated at the top of their class, the education researcher Karen Arnold found that although they usually had successful careers, they rarely reached the upper echelons. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” Dr. Arnold explained. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

If your goal is to graduate without a blemish on your transcript, you end up taking easier classes and staying within your comfort zone. If you’re willing to tolerate the occasional B, you can learn to program in Python while struggling to decipher “Finnegans Wake.” You gain experience coping with failures and setbacks, which builds resilience.

Employers: Make it clear you value skills over straight A’s. Some recruiters are already on board: In a 2003 study of over 500 job postings, nearly 15 percent of recruiters actively selected against students with high G.P.A.s (perhaps questioning their priorities and life skills), while more than 40 percent put no weight on grades in initial screening. Straight-A students: Recognize that underachieving in school can prepare you to overachieve in life. So maybe it’s time to apply your grit to a new goal — getting at least one B before you graduate.

Curated Insights 2018.12.14

The Facebook Fed

I think a good analogy is that Facebook is the Federal Reserve of web publishing. It can turn its dial and blast millions of visitors to numerous publishers, allowing everyone to have more eyeballs to sell to and more rising traffic numbers with which to attract investment. Facebook turning on the traffic fire hose is like loose monetary policy that stimulates the economy for everyone.

Of course, Facebook could tighten policy, pulling traffic (liquidity) and leaving weaker players parched. When the Fed tightens policy, shaky borrowers who depend on ample lending are hit hardest. When Facebook tightens policy, second-tier publishers that totally rely on Facebook are hit hardest.

Digital divide is wider than we think, study says

Over all, Microsoft concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, while the F.C.C. says broadband is not available to 24.7 million Americans. The discrepancy is particularly stark in rural areas. In Ferry County, for example, Microsoft estimates that only 2 percent of people use broadband service, versus the 100 percent the federal government says have access to the service.

The hardest problem in finance

But here’s the catch, this table assumes you get this rate of return year after year after year. The real world is not so accommodating. The table above shows that you can earn 4% a year for 34 years before running out of money, but let’s look at what happens if a nasty bear market were to arrive as soon as you retire. The chart below shows one way in which an investor can arrive at a 4% CAGR over a 30 year period.

The danger of assuming compound annual growth rates when making long term projections can be seen in the chart below. The black line shows that spending a constant $40k annually, using the returns from the previous chart, an investor would run out of money in the 19th year. Spending 4% and assuming a 2% inflation rate, a more realistic assumption, an investor would run out of money in just 15 years. Side note, if the returns above were to happen in reverse, in other words the bear market comes at the end of the period, an investor with the same spending would be left with $1.3 million.

Curated Insights 2018.12.07

The money and math behind our newsletter headlines

That means that the winning headline results in 4,620 incremental opens per newsletter. Over the course of a month, that is 115,000+ incremental opens. If we apply a conservative estimate based on some of our data from 2015 of how many of those incremental opens try the CB Insights free product (0.09%) and that only 1% of those trials buy a subscription, we’re looking at nearly $625,000 of incremental revenue.

Facebook is undervalued

The result of billions of readers providing free content for each other is a massive network effect and a business that can serve each incremental ad at a very low marginal cost. The company’s 85% gross margin leaves a lot of meat on the bone that the company can spend on hiring new engineers and developing new technology that is needed to maintain and grow the business. But even after paying the engineers, growing the headcount, spending over $9 billion on R&D, and paying the tax bill, shareholders are still left with around 40 cents of profit for each dollar of revenue. Facebook reinvests these earnings into data centers, technology, and the occasional acquisition, but even so, the cash in the till has been piling up, and now exceeds $40 billion and counting ($14 per share). Facebook has spent $10 billion on buybacks in the last year, and this will likely accelerate in the coming years.

Facebook’s business is still growing fast (33% revenue growth last quarter), and despite the company’s large size, the runway is still long. Benedict Evans, a partner at the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, recently pointed out that roughly $1 trillion is spent each year by businesses who are trying to reach customers who are asking the question: “What should I buy?”. Facebook has roughly 5% of this market, which I think is a share that will inevitably rise over the coming years as advertising dollars continue to shift from traditional media to the much higher ROI advertising platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

A strong network leads to Facebook grabbing a much greater share of the $1 trillion (and growing) global ad/marketing industry. Revenue from ads alone could easily be twice the current size, which means that Facebook is a $100 billion business before counting any of the possible upside from payments, messaging, or any of the other potential business lines that the company could develop on the back of its large network effect.


Accelerator demand should grow ten-fold according to top 500 supercomputers

If the data center market as a whole were to follow in the footsteps of HPC, accelerators could displace Intel CPUs as the workhorse of enterprise computing.

If processors were to grow to 50% of total server component costs, with accelerators capturing 70% of processors, as is the case in the HPC market today, the market for accelerators could scale from $4 billion1 today to $24 billion. Currently, the size of the computer server market is $80 billion globally, according to IDC. If manufacturers take a 15% cut, then $68 billion accrues to component suppliers such as Intel, Micron, and Nvidia. Today we estimate that processors account for roughly 35% of server component costs, the balance allocated to memory, storage, and networking. With HPC and AI, servers are evolving toward higher compute configurations, pushing processors and accelerators to 80% of total component costs.

As shown by the latest IDC data above, the server market as a whole continues to grow, driven primarily by higher average selling prices (ASPs). With denser configurations, server ASPs could climb from today’s price of $8,000 to $10,000. Even at the current volume of 10 million units per year, that would grow the server market 25% from $80 to $100 billion, pushing the accelerator total addressable market to $35 billion.

Today, the accelerator market is dominated by Nvidia’s data center products, which we estimate will generate $3.2 billion of revenue in 2018. Nvidia estimates that its data center business has a total addressable market of $50 billion—a figure larger than Intel’s data center business, which seems difficult to reconcile. That said, as the latest data from IDC and Top 500 shows, the server market is undergoing a fundamental shift. The decay of Moore’s Law has increased total server spend as compute intensive workloads migrate from CPUs to specialized processors. If CPUs and accelerators were to swap places in the data center, as they did in HPC, the accelerator market would approach Nvidia’s estimate, implying a 10x increase over the next five to ten years.

Artificial intelligence is giving rise to fake fingerprints. Here’s why you should be worried

In the new paper, the researchers used neural networks—the foundational software for data training—to create convincing looking digital fingerprints that performed even better than the images used in the earlier study. Not only did the fake fingerprints look real, they contained hidden properties undetectable by the human eye that could confuse some fingerprint scanners.

Julian Togelius, one of the paper’s authors and an NYU associate computer science professor, said the team created the fake fingerprints, dubbed DeepMasterPrints, using a variant of neural network technology called “generative adversarial networks (GANs),” which he said “have taken the AI world by storm for the last two years.”

Daniel Kahneman: Your intuition is wrong, unless these 3 conditions are met

There are three conditions that need to be met in order to trust one’s intuition. The first is that there has to be some regularity in the world that someone can pick up and learn. “So, chess players certainly have it. Married people certainly have it,” Kahnemen explained. However, he added, people who pick stocks in the stock market do not have it. “Because, the stock market is not sufficiently regular to support developing that kind of expert intuition,” he explained. The second condition for accurate intuition is “a lot of practice,” according to Kahneman. And the third condition is immediate feedback. Kahneman said that “you have to know almost immediately whether you got it right or got it wrong.”

The 80-hour workweek

Every year on Wall Street, first-year analysts who were once courted by college recruiters with lines about how they would be given meaningful, creative work and the chance to learn from top executives are shown the harsh truth: they are Excel grunts whose work is often meaningless not just in the cosmic sense, but in the sense of being seen by nobody and utilized for no productive purpose. Some of the hundred-page pitch books analysts spend their late-night hours fact-checking in painstaking detail are simply thrown away after being given a quick skim by a client. In other cases, the client doesn’t read the deliverables at all, and the analysts’ work is literally garbage.

Most days that winter, he had worked the “banker nine-to-five”—getting to work at 9:00 a.m. and staying until 5:00 a.m. the next morning, at which point he’d trudge back to his Murray Hill apartment, sleep for three or four hours, and do it all over again. Even the money he was making wasn’t cheering him up. Ricardo had once made the mistake of calculating what his hourly wage would be, given his salary and a conservative estimate of his year-end bonus. The result—which he estimated was something like $16 an hour, after taxes—was much more than minimum wage, but not nearly enough for Ricardo to be able to justify the punishment he’d been taking.

The question of in office hours versus out of office hours is a good one in thinking about a career in the finance industry. I knew basically nothing when I came into finance so a massive amount of my learning was done on my own after hours.

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.