Imagine we could simulate the universe where each time you are born to different set of parents with a different genetic makeup. Sometimes you are born a man. Sometimes you are born a woman. Sometimes black. Sometimes white. Sometimes smart. Sometimes not. Etcetera etcetera. What would you do to have the highest probability of becoming financially secure regardless of your background?
If you wanted to re-state this question more simply, it is: How do you get rich without getting lucky?
The jump from product-user fit to product-market fit is no trivial leap. Skipping what to focus on during the product-user fit stage and prematurely racing to spark the market adoption can actually decelerate your path to product-market fit. Forcing growth on a product that isn’t yet ready for broader adoption will not ultimately convert to a market of highly retained, happy users. And if you don’t listen to the early power users closely enough, you may never discover the insights that get you to a world-class product.
Power users are the biggest sign of product-user fit. Making the leap from product-user fit to product-market fit is about listening to these users to evolve your product to attract more users. When exploring products that have only been in market for a short amount of time, the behavior of power users is often more interesting and important than any aggregate metrics. If the goal is to “make something people want,” then continuously talking to and observing early power users is the only way to really understand what drives both user retention and non-user activation.
First, we think Berkshire’s broad diversification provides the company with additional opportunities and helps to minimize losses during market and/or economic downturns. Berkshire remains a broadly diversified conglomerate run on a completely decentralized basis, with a collection of moaty businesses operating in industries ranging from property-casualty insurance to railroad transportation, utilities and pipelines, and manufacturing, service, and retailing. The economic moats of these operating subsidiaries are built primarily on cost advantage, efficient scale, and intangible assets, with some of these businesses being uniquely advantaged as well by their ability to essentially operate as private companies under the Berkshire umbrella. The operating subsidiaries also benefit from being part of the parent company’s strong balance sheet, diverse income statement, and larger consolidated tax return.
Berkshire’s unique business model has historically allowed the company to–without incurring taxes or much in the way of other costs–move large amounts of capital from businesses that have limited incremental investment opportunities into other subsidiaries that potentially have more advantageous investment options (or put the capital to work in publicly traded securities). The managers of Berkshire’s operating subsidiaries are encouraged to make decisions based on the long-term health and success of the business, rather than adhering to the short-termism that tends to prevail among many publicly traded companies. Another big advantage that comes from operating under the Berkshire umbrella is the benefit that comes with diversification not only within the company’s insurance operations, but also within the organization as a whole. In most periods, it is not unusual to see weakness in one aspect of Berkshire’s operations being offset by the results from another or from the rest of the organization.
WeWork seems to be facing the traditional tradeoff: Stay private, keep control, but lose access to billions of dollars of funding, or go public, raise unlimited money, and have to act normal. If it does either of those things, that will mark a sort of end of an era. At the height of the unicorn boom, big tech companies could stay private without giving up the benefits of being public, or they could go public without taking on the burdens of being public. Now they might have to make hard choices again.
Over the years, we’ve also realized as we grow bigger, we have incredible economy of scale. If you were to aggregate all our U.S. stores [customers’ sales volume] we would be the third-largest online retailer in the U.S. Amazon is first, eBay second, and Shopify is a very close third. What that means is when we go to the payment companies, when we go to the shipping companies or go to anyone, we negotiate on behalf of more than 800,000 merchants. Instead of keeping the economies of scale for ourselves, we distribute [the benefits] to the small businesses. I think that’s why we have been really successful.
The newbies, born more recently, have turned a once-tidy business into a food fight. They include listed firms such as Meituan of China and Delivery Hero of Germany, Uber Eats (part of Uber), Ele.me (owned by China’s Alibaba), and privately held DoorDash, based in San Francisco, and Deliveroo, from London. For most of them, delivery is their core business, so they share their cut of the bill with riders as well as restaurants. This substantially broadens the market to restaurants offering everything from steak to Hawaiian poké bowls. But margins suffer. Funded largely by venture capital, they have thrown subsidies at customers, forcing their veteran rivals onto the defensive. To catch up, the veterans are investing in advertising and delivery networks—at a big cost. This week Grubhub and Just Eat reported slumping earnings, and Takeaway mounting losses, as they spent heavily to fend off the upstarts.
The only mouthwatering aspect of the delivery business is its potential size. According to Bernstein, a brokerage, almost a third of the global restaurant industry is made up of home delivery, takeaway and drive-throughs, which could be worth $1trn by 2023. In 2018 delivery amounted to $161bn, leaving plenty of room for online firms to expand; the seven largest increased revenues by an average of 58%. Their businesses support the trend of 20- and 30-somethings to live alone or in shared accommodation, with less time and inclination to cook. In China, by far the biggest market for food delivery, one-third of people told a survey that they would be prepared to rent a flat without a kitchen because of the convenience of delivery. Delivery also fits neatly with the gig-economy zeitgeist, alongside ride-hailing firms such as Uber, Lyft and China’s Didi.
Moreover, potential growth may be overstated. Subsidies make true demand hard to gauge. When delivery charges and service fees eventually rise, which they will have to if profits are to materialise, some customers may flee. In the meantime, cheap money lets firms undercut rivals but distorts incentives. The war of attrition could get even worse if giants like Amazon muscle in, as it has tried to do by buying a stake in Deliveroo (the deal is stalled at present because of antitrust concerns). Alibaba, Amazon’s Chinese counterpart, uses Ele.me as a loss leader helping drive traffic to its profitable e-commerce sites.
There have been numerous ecommerce 2.0 flameouts over the past decade (e.g. Gilt Groupe, Fab.com, Birchbox, Shoedazzle, Beachmint, One Kings Lane). Venture capitalists flocked to these businesses due to large addressable markets and strong top-line growth. To be fair, there have been some big winners (e.g. Wayfair) which can justify the VC game. But as Bill Gurley points out, innovations around pricing or distribution — think flash sales and subscriptions in a box — don’t represent core differentiation or sustainable competitive advantages. Additionally, these startups had access to hundreds of millions of VC funding and therefore weren’t forced to prove out the unit economics before scaling rapidly.
Farnsworth’s pitch to MoviePass: $25 million for 51% of the company, two seats on the five-member board, and a promise to drop the monthly subscription price, temporarily, from $50 to $9.95, with the goal of hitting 100,000 subscribers. If all went well, the next step would be taking MoviePass public. But Farnsworth’s plan worried Spikes; to him, $10 a month was too low. At that price MoviePass would start losing money when a subscriber used the service more than once a month.
In the US, the average price for a movie ticket is about $9; if a customer ordered a ticket every day for a month (the maximum the MoviePass plan allowed), it would cost MoviePass about $270, of which the subscriber’s fee would cover just $10. But in July 2017, the MoviePass board agreed to the deal. And on August 15, the price drop went into effect. Thanks to word-of-mouth buzz and press attention, within two days subscriptions jumped from about 20,000 to 100,000. MoviePass had transformed from a scrappy startup trying to keep the lights on to a disrupter in the making.
But Spikes saw a looming disaster. The company was overwhelmed by its overnight success and couldn’t keep up with demand. A quarter-million new subscribers were signing up every month, and MoviePass customer-service lines were flooded with complaints from people who had been waiting weeks for their cards. MoviePass had lowballed the number of cards it would need after the price drop. It got to a point where the vendor making the MoviePass cards didn’t have enough plastic and had to call on its competitors to fulfill all the card orders. “We all knew we were selling something we couldn’t deliver on,” one former staffer said.
The same way you evaluate any other business, which is trying to think about the present value of future cash flows. This is an area where the world has changed pretty significantly over the past couple of decades because, 30 years ago, most investments were done via the balance sheet. They were investments in buildings, in factories, in railroads, in locomotives and all those came out of the balance sheet. Today, a lot of investment happens out of the income statement. If you are a software company, and you are acquiring new customers, who might have a nine to 10-year lifespan with the business, that comes out of sales and marketing, and so that depresses your current margins.
But it seems insensible to me to argue that I should not invest in a customer who could be with me for 10 years and who will pay me 3% more every year as I raise prices. Why is that not just as valuable an investment as a machine that will wear out in 10 years? One is an appreciating asset and the other is a depreciating asset. The former — the customer — comes by way of investing through the income statement and depresses current margins. As for buying the machine, it is just a capital expenditure. If you have a business that is re-investing heavily today, a software company or an Amazon for example, you have to think about the incremental unit economics. How much does it cost to acquire each customer and how much value do they deliver over some span of time, and then try to think about what does this business look like at steady state, say in a five or 10-year timeframe. You know what margins it will have once the investment slows down and then you discount those cash flows back to the present.
So far, Uber and Lyft have competed very heavily on price. That was evident in both of their IPO filings, they have been trying to undercut each other on price, which is not the sign of a healthy competitive dynamic that’s going to result in great return for shareholders. Maybe that will change, I don’t know. But, when I see two big companies trying to basically undercut each other on price and, it’s not really clear who is going to win, I’d rather just stay on the sidelines and watch. One of the most important things for an investor to do is to maximise return on time. By analysing Uber and Lyft, we probably aren’t going to get a lot of advantage, because everybody and their mother is trying to have an opinion on these things, and it’s just not clear how the competitive dynamics will pan out long term. So we’ve spent literally zero time on them!
A lot of it comes down to the unit economics of the business. Boeing and Airbus need to absorb a lot of fixed costs. Building an aircraft factory, investing and designing a new aircraft, requires a lot of very high fixed costs, and so they need to absorb that. And so, each incremental plane sold is very important to both companies. So they need to take market share from each other. Whereas for Visa and Mastercard, their fixed cost for the payment networks, those costs were sunk decades ago. Their network is there. It exists. So there’s no incentive to compete on price, because they don’t have the same economics of cost absorption.
When to sell and when a moat is weakening are really two different questions. But I would say, the biggest signal that a moat is weakening is the lack of pricing power. If a business historically had been able to raise prices and is no longer able to raise prices, that generally indicates that its competitive advantage is weakening or disappearing.
Take a look at Joe Rogan, who currently has the most popular talk show podcast with over 200 million downloads per month. This number comes from Joe himself¹, but let’s assume he was exaggerating and it’s only 100 million downloads per month.
Assuming he sells ads at a low $18 CPM (cost per thousand listeners) and sells out his ad spots, he’s making approximately $64mm in annual revenue. If he’s on the higher end, at $50 CPM, he could be making as much as $240mm per year². The only factor that would change this is how many free ads Joe gives to companies that he has a personal equity stake in (like Onnit, the supplement brand he co-owns).
That means that Joe makes somewhere between $64-$240 million per year in revenue from his podcast advertising alone—and that’s handicapping his audience by half what he claims to have. That number also doesn’t include any additional revenue generated from his wildly popular YouTube channel, which has over 6 million subscribers.
Based on existing advertising revenues alone, Joe Rogan could easily be worth over a billion dollars, even if he doesn’t realize it. If estimates are correct, he owns a business that produces somewhere in the neighborhood of $60-$235 million/year in profit and is likely growing at 30–50% annually (assuming his audience is growing alongside the podcast ecosystem)³. If it were publicly traded, his podcasting business could easily fetch a valuation in the billions.
When people talk about harmful stress — the kind that can affect health — they usually point to big, life-changing events, such as the death of a loved one. A growing body of research suggests that minor, everyday stress — caused by flight delays, traffic jams, cellphones that run out of battery during an important call, etc. — can harm health, too, and even shorten life spans.