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 2018.09.14

Risk, uncertainty and ignorance in investing and business – Lessons from Richard Zeckhauser

People feel that 50% is magical and they don’t like to do things where they don’t have 50% odds. I know that is not a good idea, so I am willing to make some bets where you say it is 20% likely to work but you get a big pay-off if it works, and only has a small cost if it does not. I will take that gamble. Most successful investments in new companies are where the odds are against you but, if you succeed, you will succeed in a big way.” “David Ricardo made a fortune buying bonds from the British government four days in advance of the Battle of Waterloo. He was not a military analyst, and even if he were, he had no basis to compute the odds of Napoleon’s defeat or victory, or hard-to-identify ambiguous outcomes. Thus, he was investing in the unknown and the unknowable. Still, he knew that competition was thin, that the seller was eager, and that his windfall pounds should Napoleon lose would be worth much more than the pounds he’d lose should Napoleon win. Ricardo knew a good bet when he saw it.

…in any probabilistic exercise: the frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters…. even though Ruth struck out a lot, he was one of baseball’s greatest hitters…. Internalizing this lesson, on the other hand, is difficult because it runs against human nature in a very fundamental way… The Babe Ruth effect is hard to internalize because people are generally predisposed to avoid losses. …What is interesting and perhaps surprising is that the great funds lose money more often than good funds do. The best VCs funds truly do exemplify the Babe Ruth effect: they swing hard, and either hit big or miss big. You can’t have grand slams without a lot of strikeouts.

Risk, which is a situation where probabilities are well defined, is much less important than uncertainty. Casinos, which rely on dice, cards and mechanical devices, and insurance companies, blessed with vast stockpiles of data, have good reason to think about risk. But most of us have to worry about risk only if we are foolish enough to dally at those casinos or to buy lottery cards….” “Uncertainty, not risk, is the difficulty regularly before us. That is, we can identify the states of the world, but not their probabilities.” “We should now understand that many phenomena that were often defined as involving risk – notably those in the financial sphere before 2008 – actually involve uncertainty.” “Ignorance arises in a situation where some potential states of the world cannot be identified. Ignorance is an important phenomenon, I would argue, ranking alongside uncertainty and above risk. Ignorance achieves its importance, not only by being widespread, but also by involving outcomes of great consequence.” “There is no way that one can sensibly assign probabilities to the unknown states of the world. Just as traditional finance theory hits the wall when it encounters uncertainty, modern decision theory hits the wall when addressing the world of ignorance.


Hank Paulson says the financial crisis could have been ‘much worse’

While Bear Stearns’ failure in normal markets would not hurt the U.S. economy, we believed that the system was too fragile and fear-driven to take a Bear Stearns bankruptcy. To those who argue that Bear Stearns created moral hazard and contributed to the Lehman failure, I believe just the opposite—that it allowed us to dodge a bullet and avoid a devastating chain reaction.

If Bear had failed, the hedge funds would have turned on Lehman with a vengeance. Lehman would have failed almost immediately and the result would have been much worse than Lehman’s September failure, which occurred after we had stabilized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Bank of Americaacquired Merrill Lynch. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if this whole thing started before we’d stabilized Fannie and Freddie.

An interview with Tim Geithner on this topic was done recently at the Yale School of Management and he speaks much more authoritatively on the limits of the Fed powers than I, but here goes. While our responses may have looked inconsistent, Ben, Tim, and I were united in our commitment to prevent the failure of any systemically important financial institution. But we had a balkanized, outdated regulatory system without sufficient oversight or visibility into a large part of the modern financial system and without the necessary emergency powers to inject capital, guarantee liabilities, or wind down a non-banking institution. So we did whatever we could on a case-by-case basis.

For Lehman, we had no buyer and we needed one with the willingness and capacity to guarantee its liabilities. Without one, a permissible Fed loan would not have been sufficient or effective to stop a run. To do that, the Fed would have had to inject capital or guarantee liabilities and they had no power to do so. Now, here’s the point that I think a lot of people miss: In the midst of a panic, market participants make their own judgments and a Fed loan to meet a liquidity shortfall wouldn’t prevent a failure if they believed Lehman wasn’t viable or solvent. And no one believed they were.

AIG is a cautionary tale. We should not have let our financial regulatory system fail to keep up with modern financial markets. No single regulator had oversight visibility or adequate powers to deal with AIG. Its insurance companies were regulated at the state level, its holding company was like a giant hedge fund sitting on top of the insurance companies, and it was regulated by the ineffective Office of Thrift Supervision, which also regulated—get this—Countrywide, WaMu, IndyMac, GE Capital. They all selected their regulator. So you get the picture, it’s regulatory arbitrage.

And I’m concerned that some of the tools we effectively used to stave off disaster have now been eliminated by Congress. These include the ability of Treasury to use its exchange stabilization fund to guarantee the money market funds, the emergency lending authority the Fed used to avoid the failure of Bear and AIG, and the FDIC’s guarantee of bank liabilities on a systemwide basis, which was critical.

The global smartphone supply chain needs an upgrade

At the peak in October 2017, smartphone components accounted for over 33% of exports from Taiwan, 17% of those from Malaysia and 16% from Singapore. Smartphones comprise 6% of Chinese exports. Memory chips flow from South Korea and Vietnam; system chips from Malaysia, Taiwan and elsewhere; and displays from Japan and South Korea. Rich-world firms, such as Qualcomm, sell licences to use their intellectual property (IP). The parts are then assembled, mainly by armies of Chinese workers.

Apple and 13 of its chip suppliers earn over 90% of the total pool of profits from the Apple system. Meanwhile the tail of other firms doing more basic activities must pay for most workers, inventories and fixed assets (see chart). So they have in aggregate a weak return on equity, of 9%, and a net profit margin of just 2%. Their earnings have not risen for five years. They include assemblers such as Taiwan’s Hon Hai and niche component makers, some of which are visibly struggling. On August 22nd AAC Technologies, a specialist in making phones vibrate, said its second-quarter profits fell by 39% compared with the previous year.

Apple, Samsung and most semiconductor makers could ride out such tensions, with their high margins and cash-laden balance-sheets. But the long chain of other suppliers could not, given their razor-thin margins, big working-capital balances and fixed costs. Tariffs could push them into the red. Of the 132 firms, 52% would be loss-making if costs rose by just 5%. And a ZTE-style cessation of trade would be disastrous. If revenues dried up and the 132 firms continued to pay their own suppliers, short-term debts and wages, 28% of them would run out of cash within 100 days.

If you are running a big firm in the smartphone complex, you should be reimagining things in preparation for a less open world. In a decade, on its current trajectory, the industry will be smaller, with suppliers forced to consolidate and to automate production. It may also be organised in national silos, with production, IP, profits and jobs distributed more evenly around the world. Firms will need to adapt—or be swiped away.

The story of Box: A unicorn’s journey to public success

The early days of Box’s selling file sharing and collaboration have largely been replaced by big corporate wins. One measure of Box’s success is its penetration of the Fortune 500—from 52% in the second quarter of 2016 to 69% in the same quarter of fiscal 2019. About 58% of Box’s total revenue comes from enterprises of 2,000 employees or more.

In Box’s recently completed fiscal quarter, it closed 50 deals of more than $100,000, compared with 40 a year ago; 11 deals of more than $500,000, versus eight a year ago; and two deals of more than $1 million, compared with four a year ago. It expects a strong pipeline of seven-figure deals in the back half of this year.

But in encouraging its salespeople to pursue bigger deals, Box increasingly faces competition from deeper-pocketed competitors in a total addressable market pegged at $45 billion, based on market research by Gartner and IDC.

Soccer fans, your team is coming after you

At the time of its 2012 initial public offering, Man United counted 659 million fans worldwide. Analysts estimate the team’s revenue this year will be about 587 million pounds ($763 million) — just $1.16 per supporter. Twitter Inc. has just 338 million active monthly users, yet enjoys revenue of $2.4 billion and a market value of $27 billion.

Digital marketing provides the opportunity for teams to put themselves in the middle of the sale of a service or product. It’s not simply about using a website or an app to sell fans more jerseys or baseball caps. It’s about turning the team into a platform, a way of connecting brands to customers, in the same way as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc. already do.

Much in the way that price-comparison websites charge insurers or credit card companies for connecting them to customers, a sports team could, for example, offer its own exclusive video content with another provider’s mobile phone contract and take a cut of the proceeds. If that meant each fan were to spend just one more dollar a year with the club, it would provide a significant boost to sales.


Alibaba-backed apparel-sharing company YCloset brings sharing economy to a new level

Founded in December 2015, YCloset charges a monthly membership fee of 499 yuan and allows female users to rent unlimited clothes and accessories country-wide. Furthermore, users can choose to buy the apparel if they like to and prices fluctuate according to the rent count. Thus far, 75% of the income comes from membership fees and the remaining comes from sales of clothing. YCloset positions itself as a company that offers affordable luxury, professional and designer brand clothing. The company hopes to have the top famous brand to drive the long-tail brands.

In terms of business model, YCloset gradually shifted from one-time supplier purchase to brand partnerships with clothing companies. Brand partnerships allow revenue sharing between YCloset and their partners. To these clothing companies, YCloset gave them a new revenue, at the same time, they may get consumer insights from the data YCloset collects. In the future, YCloset will have joint marketing campaigns with the brands and assist in incubating new brands.

Autonomous delivery robots could lower the cost of last mile delivery by 20-fold

Last mile delivery – the delivery of goods from distribution hubs to the consumer – is the most expensive leg of logistics because it does not submit to economies of scale. The cost per last mile delivery today is $1.60 via human drivers but could drop precipitously to $0.06 as autonomous delivery robots proliferate.

Autonomous delivery robots are roughly seven times more efficient than electric vehicles on a mile per kilowatt basis. The major costs for autonomous delivery robots are hardware, electricity, and remote operators. Unlike in electric vehicles, the battery is not the largest cost component in slow moving robots. Air resistance is a function of velocity squared, suggesting that a robot traveling at four miles per hour loses much less energy than a car traveling at highway speeds to air resistance. As a result, rolling robots do not require large batteries, lowering both hardware and electricity costs relative to more traditional electric vehicles.

If rolling robots enable last mile delivery for $0.06 per mile, artificial intelligence could be advanced enough to improve their unit economics. A remote operator responsible for controlling robots in difficult or confusing situations probably will oversee roughly 100 robots, accounting for more than half of the cost per mile, as shown below. As autonomous capability improves, remote operators should be able to manage larger fleets of robots, bringing down the costs per robot.


Hospitals are fed up with drug companies, so they’re starting their own

A group of major American hospitals, battered by price spikes on old drugs and long-lasting shortages of critical medicines, has launched a mission-driven, not-for-profit generic drug company, Civica Rx, to take some control over the drug supply. Backed by seven large health systems and three philanthropic groups, the new venture will be led by an industry insider who refuses to draw a salary. The company will focus initially on establishing price transparency and stable supplies for 14 generic drugs used in hospitals, without pressure from shareholders to issue dividends or push a stock price higher.


Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years

There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half are bound for bankruptcy in the next few decades. Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business.

Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double.

More than 90 per cent of Chinese teens access the internet through mobile phones, says report

The proportion of Chinese children under 10 years old who use the internet – which was only 56 per cent in 2010 – reached 68 per cent last year. More than 90 per cent of Chinese minors, those aged up to 18, can now access the internet through mobile phone and over 64 per cent of primary school kids have their own smartphones. Nearly 85 per cent of Chinese minors use WeChat, compared to only 48 per cent five years ago, but Chinese juveniles are still more fond of QQ, while Chinese adults prefer WeChat as a social app.