Curated Insights 2020.02.07

“25-year-olds should not pay a 31.3x Shiller PE to buy their grandparent’s equities”

“Let’s start with what I’d tell a 25-year-old to not do with investment capital,” answered the CIO. He’d been asked how our youth should invest for 10-15yrs. “I’d tell them to not blindly follow their parents and grandparents as they pay ever higher multiples for a shrinking pool of equity assets,” he continued. In 1982 when Baby Boomers were coming of age, they paid a 6.6x Shiller price-to-earnings ratio for the S&P 500. By 1990 when the median Baby Boomer was 35-years-old, they had bid the Shiller PE to 16.5x. That same year, Baby Boomers owned 33% of all US real estate assets by value. Fast forward to 2020, the median Millennial is 31-years-old and they own just 4% of US real estate assets. If they scrape together a few bucks after paying down student loans, they must pay a 31.3x Shiller PE multiple to buy the S&P 500. “To win a game, play to your strengths, exploit your opponent’s weakness,” said the CIO. “As people age their creativity slips away. Their imagination withers. Their risk appetite fades. Their ambition dwindles. Their drive slides. And this leaves them incapable of reimagining the world, let alone building that future,” he said. “But as people age, they do accumulate capital. And recognizing that this is their only remaining competitive advantage, they unsurprisingly lobby for policies that enhance its value.” Baby Boomers are the wealthiest cohort in all human history. They’ve shifted the game’s rules to entrench their interests. Which has both limited competition for their companies and artificially shrunk the pool of investable equity assets. “There’s too much capital in the world today relative to too few equity assets. 25-year-olds should not pay a 31.3x Shiller PE to buy their grandparent’s equities. They should play to their strengths and fight to build new companies that unseat established ones. Creating new equity assets to ease the acute shortage.”


Underutilized fixed assets

Underutilized fixed assets are the topic of this essay. But all the other variants, such as underutilized variable assets, are important to understand as well. Food delivery is a great example of this. Many people often express disbelief that food delivery startups, have been able to get as many restaurants to sign up for them while charging large take rates (sometimes north of 30% now) from the merchants. “How do these restaurants afford it?” these skeptics ask. What these skeptics fail to understand, is that restaurants do not view deliveries the same way they view customers dining in. There are many factors that restaurants are constrained on including, ingredients, labor, kitchen capacity, and dining space.

For walk-in diners, the primary constraint is dining space. There is an immovable cap on how many tables a restaurant has, and thus how many turns they can do a night. This real estate space is a fully utilized fixed asset. So a startup bringing new diners to a restaurant is entering a zero sum game, especially during peak hours when a restaurant knows they can likely fill all their tables. If a restaurant accepts a diner from a startup and pays them a take rate, this replaces a diner that would have walked in for free. This is the reason why restaurants often don’t list their prime hours on sites like OpenTable. They know they can fill their limited number of tables, so why pay OpenTable a fee for it?

But delivery is different. Real estate space is not relevant to delivery orders. Instead the two main constraints for restaurant delivery are labor and kitchen capacity. Kitchen capacity is an underutilized fixed asset. Most kitchens can handle more orders than they handle each day, but never need to because there’s not enough space in the restaurant for more diners. Like all underutilized fixed assets, restaurant owners are very happy to have their kitchens handle more orders if makes sense.

The other constraint is labor. Restaurants may have some underutilized labor, depending on how busy they are. However, if they have any significant number of delivery orders, they likely would need to have their workers do more shifts, or hire new workers. So labor is an underutilized fixed asset up to some point, but then primarily a variable asset for restaurants.

So when a startup brings new delivery orders to a restaurant, their main question is whether the delivery will be profitable net of the variable costs like ingredients and labor of the restaurant. Other factors like real estate costs are already fixed and so not factored in by restaurants. If these delivery orders are profitable, restaurants are happy to do any and all incremental orders–and will happily pay a higher take rate in return for bringing them the customer. And if the startup brings more customers than they have workers to handle–they’re overjoyed to hire new workers, as long as the economics make sense.

Variable assets are great because they can scale well. However, they are far less preferable to underutilized fixed assets for a number of reasons. Their primary weakness is that they can be copied by competitors. Underutilized fixed assets when discovered are have a huge amount of stored value. The first company to properly use them can increase their value significantly. However, after they’ve burned through this arbitrage, future competitors must find a new way to get advantaged distribution fast. This isn’t true for variable assets as we can see in food delivery. The field is increasingly competitive with Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Doordash all competing in increasingly costly battles.

Why market timing can be so appealing

Why is this so unimpressive? Because I would expect a strategy that literally knows the future to outperform by more than 40 basis points (0.4%) a year! The fact that it doesn’t just goes to show how silly the pursuit of market timing can be.

What does this mean for you? It means that you shouldn’t worry about getting the absolute lowest price when making equity purchases. In fact, you are very likely (95% of the time) not going to get the best price when you buy into the market.

But the good news is that this won’t matter all that much in the long run. Why? Because, for markets with a long-term positive trend, the timing decisions you make with your excess cash won’t be that important.

As you can see, DCA purchases at higher average prices compared to the Absolute-Bottom strategy. More importantly though, the divergences between the average prices are largest during bear markets (i.e. 1974, 2008), but start to converge during bull markets.

This tells us that timing decisions only have a significant impact once in a while (i.e. during big bear markets), so we shouldn’t spend any time worrying about them. Because you will likely lose more by waiting in cash than what you would gain if you did successfully time the market. Choose wisely.

YouTube is a $15 billion-a-year business, Google reveals for the first time

On an annual basis, Google says YouTube generated $15 billion last year and contributed roughly 10 percent to all Google revenue. Those figures make YouTube’s ad business nearly one fifth the size of Facebook’s, and more than six times larger than all of Amazon-owned Twitch.

Separately, Google says YouTube has more than 20 million subscribers across its Premium (ad-free YouTube) and Music Premium offerings, as well as more than 2 million subscribers to its paid TV service. Alphabet says revenues from those products are bundled into the “other” category, which made $5.3 billion last quarter and also includes hardware like Pixel phone and Google Home speakers. That makes it hard to gauge the specific performance of any one product bundled under that category.

U.S. consumers spend more time in TikTok than Amazon Prime Video: App Annie

TikTok saw explosive growth in the U.S. in 2019, growing 375 percent year-over-year in terms of time spent on the platform. U.S. consumers spent some 85 million hours on TikTok in 2019, up from 15 million during the same time last year


CTV’s “walled garden risk” and implications for Trade Desk

The negative take is that Amazon sees potential fragmentation coming to the CTV industry (not just Amazon Fire, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV but also players like Xbox, Samsung, Playstation, Comcast…etc). In case viewership fail to aggregate at the CTV platform level, Amazon wants to be able to aggregate them at the SSP level.

As Amazon Publisher Services (APS) signs up more CTV platforms, this aggregation of eyeballs gives it negotiating leverage over ad buying platforms like TTD.

The article also indicates that Amazon’s SSP is best used with Amazon’s DSP. Whether Amazon extend that optimization to its partnership with TTD remains to be seen. Again, Amazon has the leverage here.

The positive take (for TTD) is if Amazon’s SSP could be used on say Xbox or Playstation, that further shifts CTV industry away from walled garden approach. Also, APS actually allows ad buying from Trade Desk, so the more platforms APS hooks up with, the more TTD benefits.


Worldline to buy Ingenico for $8.6B in major payments consolidation play

The deal underscores two big themes in fintech, and specifically payments. The first is that the shift in payments and spending habits to more digital platforms has meant an increasing amount of fragmentation in the payments space, with each player getting a cut of the transaction: this means that a company doing business in this area needs economy of scale in order to make decent returns. The deal will give both companies a lot more economy of scale.

The second is a bigger theme of consolidation among larger players in part to better compete with the long tail of smaller and more fleet-of-foot fintech companies that have found a lot of traction in this new wave of commerce. While Stripe, Adyen, Google, Apple, Amazon and many of the others may not individually do enough competitive damage against Worldline or Ingenico, their collective presence could.

“Together we create the European World-Class leader in digital payments,” said Grapinet in a statement. “I am convinced that the combination of our respective remarkable talents [SIC] pools, joint capabilities and state-of-the art offers will procure our combined Company an outstanding value proposition to pursue an exceptional growth benefitting to all our clients, banks and merchants alike and to all our business partners. This is a landmark transaction for the industrial consolidation of European payments, highly value creative for all our stakeholders and for the shareholders of both companies, and which ambitions to reinforce the role of Europe within the global digital payment ecosystem.”

Why it only costs $10k to ‘own’ a Chick-fil-A franchise

At $4.2m per store, Chick-fil-A’s average revenue is the highest of any fast-food chain in America, dwarfing both direct competitors (KFC; $1.2m) and bigger brands (McDonald’s; $2.8m). That’s especially impressive considering that all Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sunday.

Based on these figures, Chick-fil-A’s 15% royalty alone (not including its 50% cut of profits) might work out to around $600k per store, per year. (And remember: It still owns the property and equipment.)


Creating a competitive shaving market

According to the research firm Euromonitor, Gillette held 47 percent of the US men’s razor market in 2018, with Edgewell’s brands, which include Schick and Wilkinson Sword, combining for 13.6 percent of the industry. The Harry’s brand, which started selling online but now has a large presence in both Target and Walmart stores, had just a 2.6 percent share at the time, according to Euromonitor. Dollar Shave Club owned 8.5 percent of the US market in 2018, according to Euromonitor, and is owned by Unilever, following a $1 billion acquisition in 2016.

So the FTC thinks that stopping a merger of the number two and four brands in a market is good for competition? I think it is bad for competition and keeping Harry’s and Schick separated will just allow Unilever and P&G to dominate this market going forward. I don’t understand what the FTC is thinking or doing with this case in the least.

Ditch your car: Ridesharing is more cost effective

Can ride-sharing really replace cars? The numbers say if you drive less than 10,000 miles, maybe. However, ride-sharing is a better option for low-mileage users as compared to driving according to this analysis. There are different ways to value your time, which could impact how you value ride-sharing versus driving. But you have more freedom with a car, and don’t have to worry about other passengers, the driver, or not being in control of the vehicle.

Overall, the driving experience is pretty subjective. From a quantitative viewpoint, it’s sometimes cheaper to get a ride share. Qualitatively, it all depends on what you value.

Curated Insights 2020.01.24

The man who’s spending $1 billion to own every pop song

What Mercuriadis is doing with Hipgnosis isn’t so much innovative as it is opportunistic. With a fertile contact list from his decades as an artist manager, the ability to raise at least another billion from investors, and a healthy amount of hubris, he located an opening in the music industry and is going all-in on exploiting it. Ultimately, his goal with Hipgnosis — which went public on the London Stock Exchange in June 2018 — is to own 15% to 20% of the overall publishing market. “Everyone that writes songs today can be confident that the financial community understands that as these songs become proven, they are predictable and reliable,” Mercuriadis says.

When Spotify launched in 2008, Mercuriadis became intrigued by streaming music. Central to Spotify’s user experience was the ability to create personalized playlists by culling songs from all genres and artists. The start-to-finish thread of a full album was becoming less important to streaming adopters. In decades past, he observed, the majority of artists wrote their own songs. Kurt Cobain wrote all the lyrics and much of the music for Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind. Contrast that with Adele, who worked with 10 different songwriters for her 2015 smash, 25. “It became clear to me that the power was shifting from the artist to the songwriter,” Mercuriadis says. “But the songwriters weren’t in a position to reap the benefits.”

With Hipgnosis Songs Fund, Mercuriadis bypassed all of them. Songwriters are able to generate revenue from three sources: mechanical royalties (the sale or legal download of a song), performance royalties (paid every time a song is heard in public, whether it’s a live performance, on TV, or in a movie; played in a bar or restaurant; or streamed), and synch fees (song licensing for use in movies, video games, and commercials). Mechanical royalties are the only stream with a set rate; performance and synch royalties are negotiated percentages. Synchs are often more lucrative for the songwriter, since they generally split 50% for the writer and the artist, with the label taking its cut from the artist’s piece of the pie. Synch is where Hipgnosis Song Fund could make them money, as Mercuriadis explained to the 177 hedge fund and private investors he pitched between 2015 and 2018.

Today, the business operates like a cross between an investment fund and a talent management agency. While Mercuriadis brokers the catalog deals, each of his 19 employees is responsible for monetization opportunities for a portfolio of songs. He plans to at least double the number of people working for him this year. “I want to get rid of the word ‘publishing,’” he says. (His preferred description: “song management.”) “Major publishers have small staffs working with hundreds of thousands of songs. We’re shooting for thousands of songs and having synch managers who are each responsible for a much smaller amount,” he says. “We’ll make a lot more money than anyone else.”

Pincus acknowledges that Hipgnosis may have other deals in the works that would offset the high prices he’s paying — and indeed, Mercuriadis is working on diversifying beyond songwriter catalogs. The company just purchased the masters of UK band the Kaiser Chiefs, which gives it complete ownership of the recordings. Purchasing producers’ rights is another new point of emphasis. Mercuriadis bought Jeff Bhasker’s inventory (the Grammy’s 2016 Producer of the Year behind “Uptown Funk”), along with the entire 1,855-song output from Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam. There are also the merchandising possibilities: Mercuriadis’ yet-to-be-announced mega-deal with that iconic female artist reportedly includes, in addition to the thousands of songs the artist has written, the use of her image and likeness. This deal will cost Mercuriadis well into the nine figures but has the potential for him to eventually sell more T-shirts than the Gap.

Outdoor advertising market poised to eclipse newspapers

The so-called “out of home” segment accounts for about 6.5 per cent of the $600bn global advertising market but stands out as the only traditional media that continues to grow as others give ground to Google and Facebook.

In 2020 advertisers will spend $40.6bn on outdoor posters and “street furniture”, about $4bn more than on newspapers, according to estimates from GroupM, the media buying agency. By 2024 GroupM expects outdoor advertising to exceed spending on newspapers and magazines combined, having expanded at an annual rate of between 2.5 and 4 per cent.

There’s a link between hiking the minimum wage and declining suicide rates, researchers say

State-level increases of $1 in minimum wage corresponded with a 3.4 percent to 5.9 percent decrease in the suicide rates of people with a high school diploma or less in that age group. Emory University researchers analyzed monthly data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2015.


As jobs cap 10 years of gains, women are workforce majority

Women overtook men to hold the majority of U.S. jobs for the first time in a decade, while employers added positions for a record 10th straight year, pointing to a growing and dynamic economy heading into 2020.

The number of women on nonfarm payrolls exceeded men in December for the first time since mid-2010, the Labor Department said Friday. Women held 50.04% of jobs last month, surpassing men on payrolls by 109,000.

Curated Insights 2019.08.09

Good for Google, bad for America

A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”

Netflix is not a tech company

Hence, Netflix isn’t using TV to leverage some other business – TV is the business. It’s a TV company. Amazon is using content as a way to leverage its subscription service, Prime, in much the same way to telcos buying cable companies or doing IPTV – it’s a way to stop churn. Amazon is using Lord of the Rings as leverage to get you to buy toilet paper through Prime. But Facebook and Google are not device businesses or subscription businesses. Facebook or Google won’t say ‘don’t cancel your subscription because you’ll lose this TV show’ – there is no subscription. That means the strategic value of TV or music is marginal – it’s marketing, not a lock-in.

Apple’s position in TV today is ambivalent. You can argue that the iPhone is a subscription business (spend $30 a month and get a phone every two years), and it certainly thinks about retention and renewals. The service subscriptions that it’s created recently (news, music, games) are all both incremental revenue leveraging a base of 1bn users and ways to lock those users in. But the only important question for the upcoming ‘TV Plus’ is whether Apple plans to spend $1bn a year buying content from people in LA, and produce another nice incremental service with some marketing and retention value, or spend $15bn buying content from people in LA, to take on Netflix. But of course, that’s a TV question, not a tech question.

Why we sold Trupanion

Why is Trupanion not outpacing the industry when it is the first name many pet owners hear? It could be that pet owners hear about pet insurance from their vet, go home, compare prices, and choose a more affordable option. It’s not an impossible problem for Trupanion to solve, but again, consumers don’t typically understand insurance value until they file a claim.

But at an investor event we attended a few months ago, Darryl said that he was making plans to switch to an executive chairman role in 2025. While we understood Darryl’s choice on a personal level, it also sharply increased our uncertainty around whether company management will be able to successfully build a moat and transform pet insurance as we had hoped. In our opinion, Trupanion will continue to need a visionary leader in the CEO role and finding another visionary to replace Rawlings will be a massive challenge.

Given the industry’s rapid growth, we think it’s perfectly normal for both regulators and pet insurance companies to have some growing pains. While Trupanion has been fined, faces more state investigations, and admits it should have paid more attention to regulators as a stakeholder, we considered these matters minor to our thesis. Regulators may require Trupanion’s Territory Partners to be licensed in all states, but this is more like a speed bump rather than a roadblock.


TGV Intrinsic on MercadoLibre

Network effects are among the highest entry barriers for competitors to build and leverage business. As market leader, MercadoLibre has been able to permanently focus on strengthening the network effects of the marketplace and eliminate points of conflict in transaction processing between buyer and seller. The most important point of conflict between seller and buyer in the past were the payment arrangements. To simplify this process, MercadoLibre launched its own payment service “MercadoPago” in 2004 (comparable to PayPal). MercadoPago provides a secure way to pay for goods and simplified the coordination between buyers and sellers in terms of payment. Today, over 90% of the value god goods sold on MercadoLibre is paid with MercadoPago, which equates to a payment volume of 11 billion US dollars.

Apart from that, logistics costs in many Latin American countries pose a major hurdle for buyers and sellers. The investments required to setup one’s own logistics system are high, delivery times in Latin America are relatively long, and service is rather mediocre. With the founding of MercadoEnvios in 2013, MercadoLibre took over an ever more extensive control over the logistics of goods in several steps. Today, MercadoEnvios operates its own logistics centres, takes over the first mile from the seller or organises the last mile to the end customer with selected partners. In 2018, at least part of the logistics was taken over by MercadoEnvious for 66% of the goods sold through the marketplace. Thanks to the sizeable investments in a proprietary payment system and the continuous expansion of its own logistics, MercadoLibre has massively expanded its marketplace and the network effect that has been set in motion over the past two decades. The value of these investments is reflected in the growth in the number of transactions amounting to 28% per annum over the past decade.

The value of this ecosystem lies in the ever-growing economy of scale. MercadoLibre has more touch points with its customers than its competitors, be it specialised online retailers, payment service providers, or logistics companies. At each of these points of contact, MercadoLibre can distribute its costs in customer acquisition to more services than its competitors. As a result, the costs for new customers per product are lower than for competitors. Second, MercadoLibre can freely decide which areas of a customer relationship to monetise and which not. For example, MercadoLibre may offer MercadoPago payment service to new brick-and-mortar retailers for free but would require a marketplace transaction fee for this merchant’s online product sales. A specialised payment provider does not have this flexibility. As a result, MercadoLibre has created a flexible and cost-effective customer acquisition engine that only very few companies have.


Zebras can change their stripes

Since 2012, JUVE has gone on to secure many other high profile “free” transfers with established winners such as Dani Alves and Sami Khediera, but then also find those that have significant upside potential like Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman, and Emre Can. By far, the most impactful and value-accretive “free” transfer was Paul Pogba. In 2012, Juventus signed 19 year-old Pogba from Manchester United, and only four seasons later (and after winning four league titles) sold him back to Manchester United for a world-record fee of $116 million. In total, since 2011, the top 10 free transfer signings by Juventus have created $204m of value (i.e. market value of the players at time of signing) and over $135 million of cash from transfer sales proceeds. Yes, Pogba was an outlier, but JUVE has utilized the free transfer market better than any other club over the past decade.

Let us not forget this is a business, and Ronaldo prints money. Before the ink dried on the contract, the Ronaldo effect took Juventus, and Italy, by storm. His name generated over $60 million in jersey sales in one day – that is the best global branding a club can ask for. JUVE’s Twitter account showed a 10% increase in followers on the day he was signed. Then ESPN acquired the U.S. Serie A TV rights at a massive step-change in the fee ($55 million per year, versus $28 million previously) only one month later. And to no one’s surprise, the first game aired on August 18th showcasing Ronaldo in his new black and white jersey. Your author duly signed up for ESPN+ exclusively to live stream I Bianconeri. The acquisition led to a nice bump in GreenWood’s performance, and most importantly, Ronaldo helped his team win another Serie A title.

The periodic table of investments

Winner-take-all phenomenon rules the stock market, too

Just 1.3% of the world’s public companies account for all the market gains during the past three decades. Outside the U.S., the gains are even more concentrated, with less than 1% of all equities driving all of the net appreciation in share prices.

Just five companies — Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.Com Inc., Alphabet Inc. (Google) and Exxon Mobil Corp. — accounted for 8.3% of global net wealth creation. It is hard to imagine a greater example of the winner-take-all distribution — these five companies account for just 0.008% of the total sample set of 62,000 publicly traded companies. Expand that to the top 0.5%, or 306 companies, and they account for 73% of global net wealth creation. The best performing 811 companies (1.33% of the total) accounted for all net global wealth creation.


Negative rates could happen in America, too

What’s behind negative interest rates? Many observers blame central banks like the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan (BOJ) that are taxing banks’ excess reserves with negative deposit rates and have made bonds scarcer by removing them from the market through their purchase programs. The BOJ now owns about half and the ECB about 30% of the bonds issued by their respective governments, according to Bloomberg.

However, we believe central banks are not the villains but rather the victims of deeper fundamental drivers behind low and negative interest rates. The two most important secular drivers are demographics and technology. Rising life expectancy increases desired saving while new technologies are capital-saving and are becoming cheaper – and thus reduce ex ante demand for investment. The resulting savings glut tends to push the “natural” rate of interest lower and lower.

LBOs make (more) companies go bankrupt, research shows

According to researchers at California Polytechnic State University, roughly 20 percent of large companies acquired through leveraged buyouts go bankrupt within ten years, as compared to a control group’s bankruptcy rate of 2 percent during the same time period.


Is great information good enough? Evidence from physicians as patients

We compare the care received by a group of patients that should have the best possible information on health care service efficacy—i.e., physicians as patients—with a comparable group of non-physician patients, taking various steps to account for unobservable differences between the two groups. Our results suggest that physicians do only slightly better in adhering to both low- and high-value care guidelines than non-physicians – but not by much and not always.


Health facts aren’t enough. Should persuasion become a priority?

Those who were most opposed to genetically modified foods believed they were the most knowledgeable about this issue, yet scored the lowest on actual tests of scientific knowledge. In other words, those with the least understanding of science had the most science-opposed views, but thought they knew the most.

Curated Insights 2019.06.14

A conversation with Scott Kupor of Andreessen Horowitz, author and speaker at Lean Startup Conference 2019

I’m pretty sure this is not a fundable idea, but here goes! I’ve long been interested in health and, in particular, the role of food choices in determining health. I also believe that if people understood what was in fact healthy – not an easy task given the difficulty in producing scientifically rigorous studies on nutrition – and if they had the luxury of time to prepare healthy meals, they would in fact do so. We’ve certainly made progress over the last twenty or so years in addressing some of these challenges – there are more restaurants that do more to cater to the health-informed and of course we have the plethora of ingredient and meal home delivery services.

But what I think is missing is the perfect substitute for a home cooked meal that caters precisely to the ingredients/nutritional needs of the individual. I’d love to be able to order a meal that incorporates the precise ingredients I want and is made from the precise recipe I provide – just as I would do if I had the time (and patience) to do it on my own. This of course is probably why this will never work as a business – I’m not sure mass customization works economically. But, I am fascinated by the new “cloud kitchens” type models that are being formed and am hopeful that maybe they will crack the code on this.

Meatless future or vegan delusions? The Beyond Meat valuation

In 2018, the meatless meat market had sales of $1-$5 billion, depending on how broadly you define meatless markets and the geographies that you look at. Defined as meatless meats, i.e., the products that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods offer, it is closer to the lower end of the range, but inclusive of other meat alternatives (tofu, tempeh etc.) is at the upper end. No matter which end of the range you go with, it is small relative to the overall meat market that is in excess of $250 billion, just in the US, and closer to a trillion, if you expand it globally, in 2018. In fact, while the meat market has seen slow growth in the US and Europe, with a shift from beef to chicken, the global meat market has been growing, as increasing affluence in Asia, in general, and China, in particular, has increased meat consumption, Depending on your perspective on Beyond Meats, that can be bad news or good news, since it can be taken by detractors as a sign that the overall market for meatless meats is not very big and by optimists that there is plenty of room to grow.

The big question that we face is in estimating how much the shift towards vegan and vegetarian diets will continue, driven by health reasons or environmental concern (or guilt). There is also a question of whether some governments may accelerate the shift away from meat-based diets, with policies and subsidies. Given this uncertainty, it is not surprising that the forecasts for the size of the meatless meat market vary widely across forecasters. While they all agree that the market will grow, they disagree about the end number, with forecasts for 2023 ranging from $5 billion at the low end to $8 billion at the other extreme. Beyond Meat, in its prospectus, uses the expansion of non-dairy milk(soy, flax, almond mild) in the milk market as its basis, to estimate the market for meatless meat to be $35 billion in the long term.

The wealth detective who finds the hidden money of the super rich

The top 0.1% of taxpayers (170,000 families) control 20% of American wealth, the highest share since 1929.

The top 1% control 39% of U.S. wealth, and the bottom 90% have only 26%.

The bottom half of Americans combined have a negative net worth.

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 2019.01.04

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 2018.11.30

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 2018.11.16

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 2018.10.19

AMA with Steli Efti

A lot of times, people who are insecure about their product will offer it for free as a way to feel more comfortable, as a way to offer the customer something that’s “fair”. I would argue strongly against that. If you’re inclined to do that, don’t. Instead, ask them for money, tell them it’s completely refundable, and then don’t under any circumstance spend that money. Put it in a separate bank account. It’s not revenue until the customer has stayed for six months and says that they are happy with everything—then you can touch the money.

This has the same effect as giving your product away for free—there’s zero risk for the customer—but by doing this you’ll weed out bad customers and you’ll learn how to get customers to pay you. In the enterprise world, if you’re not putting a price tag on your product, it’s not going to be valued. A lot of times people think I’m going to start by not asking for money and then it’ll organically lead to asking for money. That’s not true. You have to charge enterprise customers, no matter how early it is. If you don’t, a lot of people are going to be friendly and give you pleasant feedback. “Oh, new technology, of course I want to see this!” It’s even going to feel like you’re accomplishing things. But you’ll be wasting your time.

Netflix’s pricing power

Despite steadily increasing the quality of its service for customers, Netflix’s pricing has lagged the growth of that consumer value leading to the build up of a large consumer surplus. That surplus, or the excess consumer value over the price of the service, is an important factor that has driven such a rapid rate of growth for the service. The bigger the surplus, the better the deal for the consumer. But this also results in a sub-optimal return for the shareholder, at least in the short run, which can look like an inferior business model if you don’t look more carefully.

The power of the model is to realize that the consumer surplus represents latent pricing power that can be reallocated via price increases or reinvestment changes towards future profits for shareholders. In Netflix’s case, we believe this is an important lever in managing the rate of its growth and returns. By offering a compelling value proposition to incremental consumers, Netflix drives subscriber growth because it is a fantastic deal at $10/month. The consumer surplus is an investment in Netflix’s rapid growth, an implicit subscriber acquisition expense in the form of foregone revenue and profit, intentionally leveraged to quickly scale so that nearly all traditional media incumbents would be left too far behind when they awoke to the direct to consumer global scale streaming video opportunity. It’s clear at this point that this strategic goal has either been accomplished or nearly has.

Tesla through the lens of Apple

Tesla picks up on Apple’s vertical integration strategy but takes it further. In addition to hardware, software, and retail, Tesla also owns and operates manufacturing facilities as well as a global supercharger network. Vertically integrating battery pack production at its Gigafactory is why Tesla is the only high volume EV manufacturer today. Had Tesla waited for the supply chain to catch up, it wouldn’t have been able to launch and scale the Model 3 for years. In our view, this is a key reason why no auto maker has released a viable competitor to the Model 3 thus far and why no company will be able to do so until 2020 at the earliest.

Tesla has spent more than a decade preparing for this moment and, in our view, has the most compelling EV pipeline of any company. The Tesla Model 3 and Model Y (a crossover SUV) have the potential to catapult EVs into the mainstream, much like the one-two punch from the iPhone and iPad in mobile computing. In the U.S. the Model 3 competes in a price category that has three times the addressable market of the Model S, and the price category where the Model Y is likely to compete has an addressable market eight times larger than the Model X. Scaled globally, if the Model 3 and Model Y are as successful as the S and X in their respective segments, Tesla should be able to generate on the order of $65 billion sustainably, even on a distribution footprint that constrains it from selling in 26 states and imposes severe price penalties on its imports into China—the world’s largest EV market. Follow-on products, such as the pickup, the semi-truck, and the Roadster, will pave the way for at least a decade of rapid growth.

While Tesla’s and Apple’s product strategy and business models share many similarities, their financial pictures could not be further apart. Apple had $9 billion in cash in 2007, while Tesla has $12 billion of long-term debt today. Apple’s gross margins were approaching 40%, while Tesla’s are 14%, and Apple spent 6% of its revenues on capital expenditure compared to Tesla’s 26%.4 In other words, Tesla’s business today is less profitable and more capital intensive than was Apple’s in 2007, a seemingly inferior model made more questionable by its substantial debt load and meager cash flows.

Adobe remains a creative software king

Great software companies have more than one act, and Act 2 for Adobe has centered on analytics and digital marketing initiatives, which are currently housed in the digital experience segment. Adobe’s prowess in creative content has allowed it to nab synergies in the digital marketing space, cross-selling to enterprise chief marketing officers already using Adobe’s software. The product, now dubbed Experience Cloud, operates in a nascent and growing industry, but Adobe’s end-to-end functionality, built internally and through acquisitions such as Omniture, TubeMogul, Magento, and Marketo, has meant it is largely regarded as the leader in the space. As companies look to create omnichannel, targeted ad campaigns, Adobe’s marketing software has become a mission-critical offering for major brands and enterprises. Experience Cloud spans marketing, advertising, and analytics, among other features. It competes with the likes of Salesforce.com (CRM) and Oracle (ORCL), which compete in the broader customer relationship management space, but we think a rising tide can lift multiple boats, with optionality for Adobe to cement itself as a digital experience leader.


Ensemble Capital quarterly call transcript Q4 2018

An important point here is that Trupanion prices its policies based on how much it costs to treat a certain breed of a certain age in a certain zip code. Once Trupanion determines how much it costs to service an average pet based on the previous data points, it adds a 30% margin to calculate the pet’s premium payments.

Each state has its own insurance regulations and Trupanion says its Territory Partners are licensed where they need to be. Technically, Territory Partners do not sell directly to policyholders in the veterinary channel and Trupanion does not pay veterinarians or their staff for referrals. The actual solicitation of the policies is done on Trupanion’s website or over the phone with one of their licensed agents. We also believe Trupanion has increasingly viewed state regulators as partners and it has added to its compliance department in recent years. That said, state insurance regulations are intentionally vague and give regulators a lot of discretion in enforcement. As such, we won’t be surprised if there’s some adverse regulatory news during our investment. But the magnitude of these events and their impact on the long-term success of the business should be kept in context.

We believe that Trupanion customers are by-and-large extremely satisfied with the product – Trupanion consistently produces monthly retention rates above 98.5% and has growing customer referrals. Surveys also show that veterinarians recommend Trupanion more frequently than any other pet insurance offering. We also believe that the company is facilitating a positive ecosystem that creates value for all the parties involved — pet owners, pets, and veterinarians.

Booking has intentionally focused on these areas because hotel reservations are far more profitable than airfare and market fragmentation outside the US makes hotels far more dependent on Booking than those in the US. In the US, the top 10 hotel chains lead the market with many travelers going directly to Hilton.com or Hyatt.com to book a room. While in Europe and Asia, independent hotels dominate, and these hotels need some sort of central “marketplace” on which travelers can find them.

Booking is so dominant that one risk they run is letting their heavy spending on advertising (Google ads or ads on other travel sites such as TripAdvisor) push up the going rate on these auction-based ads. With that in mind, the company strategically reduced their spending on these sorts of ads starting last year in an attempt to reduce market prices and reinvest in driving visitors directly to their website. One casualty of this move was online hotel metasearch site Trivago, which was so dependent on Booking’s ad spend that the company’s strategic shift lead to Trivago’s revenue growth to fall from +70% to a 20% decline over the last year, sending the stock down 80%. Rarely in our memory can we recall a competitive move by one of our holdings so completely debilitating another member of their industry.

Ctrip and Booking have essentially declared a truce with Booking owning a large stake (with the right to buy more) of Ctrip. In essence, their agreement funnels Chinese travelers using Ctrip to travel outside of China to Booking.com while many non-Chinese travelers traveling to China via Booking.com are routed to Ctrip. Why have they made this deal? Well, in the words of Ctrips CEO Jane Sun, “Booking.com is a global brand and in hotels, they are just so far ahead of anybody else. I think it will be very difficult for anybody to come close to them.”

How Netflix expanded to 190 countries in 7 years

Taken together, the elements of Netflix’s expansion strategy constitute a new approach that I call exponential globalization. It’s a carefully orchestrated cycle of expansion, executed at increasing speed, to an increasing number of countries and customers. The approach has helped the company expand far more quickly than competitors. Going forward, Netflix will face increasing competition not only from other global players such as Amazon Prime but also from new entrants and regional or local players. In that regard, it will have to continue to expand its blending of global and regional content.


Did Uber steal Google’s intellectual property? | The New Yorker

Indeed, even if the criminal investigation and the arbitration against Levandowski come to naught, in many ways Waymo and Google have already prevailed. “The people at Google got what they wanted,” one of the lawyers who represented Uber told me. “They got Anthony fired, they distracted Uber and slowed its progress for an entire year, and they let everyone know that if you leave with some of their stuff they can screw with you so bad that everyone will think you’re toxic.”

Porsche IPO could value carmaker as high as $81 billion, CFO says

Porsche is Volkswagen’s crown jewel and closely connected with its history. The companies were separate until Volkswagen acquired the Porsche brand in 2012 in the aftermath of a failed takeover attempt by the the descendants of Ferdinand Porsche. The family, which was forced to sell the maker of the 911 sports car after financing collapsed on the deal, still controls a majority of Volkswagen’s common stock and would need to sign off on any deal to spin off Porsche.

Ferrari’s listing in 2015 not only showed the supercar maker’s own value, but also exposed weaknesses at parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s mass-market operations, Meschke said. Fiat was able to address these more specifically after the spin off, he said. While it’s been a windfall for the Italian-American auto maker, the strategy isn’t infallible. Aston Martin, another luxury sports-car maker that is seeking a Ferrari-like multiple, has slumped more than 20 percent since its London debut this month.

Points International poised for 72% reward

PCOM operates in the loyalty industry with an unfair advantage in airline loyalty programs. They work with: 7/10 largest airlines in North America; 2/10 largest airlines in Europe; 2/10 largest airlines in AMEA (Emirates was onboarded this year).

Little/no real competition except internal systems developed by airlines.

PCOM is typically the 2nd largest buyer of loyalty points after the banks. The loyalty industry is a large and growing.

In addition, PCOM has developed a software/technology layer that provides common functionality to all three businesses. This technology layer is what the company calls “Loyalty Commerce Platform”. In the last 5 years PCOM has invested heavily into developing this platform which now enables client onboarding in as little as 3 weeks. It also provides operating leverage as the system manages many of the functions previously managed by people.

It takes years of working with multi-billion-dollar brands to get access to their customer base. This represents a level of stickiness that cannot be built quickly with venture capital money. It is also resistant to disruptive technology.

Schadenfreude: reposting a 2011 post on Sears

My view: owning Sears as a property play is a demonstration of the arrogance and breathtaking naivete of much that passes on Wall Street. Sears Holdings has over 300 thousand employees. I don’t know how you successfully liquidate a business integrated with that many lives. I don’t know of anyone who has ever successfully liquidated a business with that many employees.** I am not sure it can be done and it certainly can’t be done by someone with my skill-set (highly analytical, ability to spy value or value traps but no people management skill and not much tact).

The idea that Sears was going to be managed/liquidated by a bunch of hedge fund guys (people like me) well – that was comical.

Just to stress the point for my fund manager friends who read accounts and have my skills (but like me are often disconnected from the businesses they invest in) I will state the obvious. The employees are living breathing people and as you pull the business apart the way you treat those people and how they think about you (and behave towards you) are critical to any value you extract in liquidation. Someone has to look these people in the eye and tell them they don’t have a job. And someone has to pick-and-choose which people to fire and which to retain. And they have to do this without destroying much of the value extracted along the way. They have to liquidate the firm in such a way that the value accrues to the liquidators and not to the people who are being screwed.

Curated Insights 2018.10.12

“[The whole tech bubble] is very interesting, because the stock is not the company and the company is not the stock. So as I watched the stock fall from $113 to $6 I was also watching all of our internal business metrics: number of customers, profit per unit, defects, everything you can imagine. Every single thing about the business was getting better, and fast. So as the stock price was going the wrong way, everything inside the company was going the right way. We didn’t need to go back to the capital markets because we didn’t need more money. The only reason a financial bust makes it really hard is to raise money. So we just needed to progress.”

“Everything I have ever done has started small. Amazon started with a couple of people. Blue Origin started with five people and the budget was very small. Now the budget approaches a billion dollars. Amazon was literally ten people, today it’s half a million. For me it’s like yesterday I was driving packages to the post office myself and hoping one day we could afford a forklift. For me, I’ve seen small things get big and it’s part of this ‘day one’ mentality. I like treating things as if they’re small; Amazon is a large company but I want it to have the heart and spirit of a small one.”

“I believe in the power of wandering. All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition and guts. Not analysis. When you can make a decision with analysis you should do so. But it turns out in life your most important decisions are always made with instinct, intuition, taste and heart.”

“AWS completely reinvented the way companies buy computation. Then a business miracle happened. This never happens. This is the greatest piece of business luck in the history of business as far as I know. We faced no like-minded competition for seven years. It’s unbelievable. When you pioneer if you’re lucky you get a two year head start. Nobody gets a seven year head start. We had this incredible runway.”

“We are so inventive that whatever regulations are promulgated or however it works, that will not stop us from serving customers. Under all regulatory frameworks I can imagine, customers are still going to want low prices, they are still going to want fast delivery, they are still going to want big selection. It is really important that politicians and others need to understand the value big companies bring and not demonise or vilify big companies. The reason is simple. There are certain things only big companies can do. Nobody in their garage is going to build an all carbon-fiber fuel efficient Boeing 787. It’s not going to happen. You need Boeing to do that. This world would be really bad without Boeing, Apple, Samsung and so on.”

How big can Amazon get?

What business is Amazon most similar to? Definitely not Wal-Mart. Amazon’s model is much, much closer to Costco’s model. How does Costco’s model differ from Wal-Mart’s model?

Costco does not try to be a leading general retailer in specific towns, counties, states, the nation as a whole, etc. What Costco does is focus on getting a very big share of each customer’s wallet. Costco also focuses on achieving low costs for the items it does sell by concentrating its buying power on specific products and therefore being one of the biggest volume purchasers of say “Original” flavor Eggo waffles. It sells these waffles in bulk, offers them in one flavor (Wal-Mart might offer five different flavors of that same product) and thereby gets its customer the lowest price.

There’s two functions that Costco performs where it might be creating value, gaining a competitive advantage, etc. One is supply side. Costco may get lower costs for the limited selection it offers. In some things it does. In others, it doesn’t. The toughest category for Costco to compete in is in fresh food. I shop at Costco and at other supermarkets in the area. The very large format supermarkets built by companies like HEB (here in Texas) can certainly match or beat Costco, Wal-Mart, and Amazon (online and via Whole Foods stores) when it comes to quality, selection, and price for certain fresh items. But, what can Costco do that HEB can’t? It can have greater product breadth (offering lots of non-food items) and it can make far, far, far more profit per customer.

Now, an interesting question to ask is what SHOULD determine the market value per customer. Not what does. But, what should? In other words, if we had to do a really, really long-term discounted cash flow calculation – what variables would matter most? If two companies both have 10 million customers which company should be valued higher and why? Two variables matter. One: Annual profit per customer. Two: Retention rate. Basically, we’re talking about a DCF here. If Company A and Company B both have 10 million customers and both make $150 per customer the company that should have a higher earnings multiple (P/E or P/FCF) should be the one with the higher retention rate.

What Spotify can learn from Tencent Music

Tencent Music is no small player: As the music arm of Chinese digital media giant Tencent, its four apps have several hundred million monthly active users, $1.3 billion in revenue for the first half of 2018, and roughly 75 percent market share in China’s rapidly growing music streaming market. Unlike Spotify and Apple Music, however, almost none of its users pay for the service, and those who do are mostly not paying in the form of a streaming subscription.

Its SEC filing shows that 70 percent of revenue is from the 4.2 percent of its overall users who pay to give virtual gifts to other users (and music stars) who sing karaoke or live stream a concert and/or who paid for access to premium tools for karaoke; the other 30 percent is the combination of streaming subscriptions, music downloads, and ad revenue.

Tencent Music has an advantage in creating social music experiences because it is part of the same company that owns the country’s leading social apps and is integrated into them. It has been able to build off the social graph of WeChat and QQ rather than building a siloed social network for music. Even Spotify’s main corporate rivals, Apple Music and Amazon Music, aren’t attached to leading social platforms.


Traffic acquisition costs

In other words the two companies have an agreement that Apple is paid in proportion to the actual query volume generated. This would extend the relationship from one of granting access for a number of users or devices to revenue sharing based on usage or consumption. Effectively Apple would have “equity” in Google search sharing in the growth as well as decline in search volume.

The idea that Apple receives $1B/month of pure profit from Google may come as a shock. It would amount to 20% of Apple’s net income and be an even bigger transfer of value out of Google. The shock comes from considering the previously antagonistic relationship between the companies.

The remarkable story here is how Apple has come to be such a good partner. Both Microsoft and Google now distribute a significant portion of their products through Apple. Apple is also a partner for enterprises such as Salesforce, IBM, and Cisco. In many ways Apple is the quintessential platform company: providing a collaborative environment for competitors as much as for agnostic third parties.

Shares of pet insurer Trupanion are overvalued

Much of the Trupanion excitement is based on the low 1% penetration rate and the fact that it’s the only pet-insurance pure play. Bradley Safalow, who runs PAA Research, an independent investment research firm, disputes the lofty expectations. Bulls extrapolate from industry data that say about two million pets out of 184 million in North America are insured now. Safalow says that ignores a key factor—the income levels of pet owners. Because Trupanion’s policies cost about $600 to $1,500 annually and don’t cover wellness visits, he estimates that, in the case of dogs, which represent 85% of the pet market, a more realistic target customer would be owners who earn $85,000 or more a year. Based on that benchmark, Safalow estimates insurance penetration—of those most likely to buy it—at about 6% already for dogs.

The requests for rate increases would indicate that premiums aren’t keeping up with claims; that the policy risks are worse than the company expected; and that the profitability of its book of business is relatively weak. APIC’s ratio of losses and loss-adjustment expense to premiums earned have risen steadily over the past four years to 75.6% in the first quarter of this year from 68.9% for all of 2014, according to state filings. The loss ratio is total losses incurred in claims plus costs to administer the claims (loss adjustment expense) divided by premiums earned.

Bob Iger’s bets are paying off big time for Disney

Iger thinks he knows how to coax consumers who already pay for one streaming service to either add another or switch to Disney’s. “We’re going to do something different,” he says. “We’re going to give audiences choice.” There are thousands of barely watched movies on Netflix, and Iger figures that people don’t like to pay for what they don’t use. So families can buy only a Disney stream, which will offer Pixar, Marvel, Lucas, Disney-branded programming. Sports lovers can opt just for an ESPN stream. Hulu, of which Disney will own a 60% stake after it buys Fox (and perhaps more if it can persuade Comcast to sell its share), will beef up ABC’s content with Fox Searchlight and FX and other Fox assets. “To fight [Amazon and Netflix], you’ve got to put a lot of product on the table,” says Murdoch. “You take what Disney’s got in sports, in family, in general entertainment—they can put together a pretty great offer.”

Having a leader who is willing to insulate key creative people from the vicissitudes of business has helped Disney successfully incorporate its prominent acquisitions. They have not been Disneyfied. Marvel movies are not all of a sudden family friendly (at least not by Disney standards). Pixar movies have not been required to add princesses. Most of the people who ran the companies before Disney bought them still run them (with the exception of John Lasseter, who was ousted in June in the wake of #MeToo). “I’ve been watching him with his people and with Fox people; he’s clearly got great leadership qualities,” says Murdoch.”He listens very carefully and he decides something and it’s done. People respect that.”


Can anyone bury BlackRock?

Today the Aladdin platform supports more than $18 trillion, making it one of the largest portfolio operating systems in the industry. BlackRock says Aladdin technology has been adopted in some form by 210 institutional clients globally, including asset owners such as CalSTRS and even direct competitors like Vanguard.

“Not only does it provide risk transparency, but it also provides an ability to model trades, to capture trades, to structure portfolios, to manage portfolio compliance — all of the operating components of the workflow,” Goldstein says. “It’s a comprehensive, singular enterprise platform versus a model where you’re piecing together a lot of things and trying to figure out how to interface them.”

In a market that’s traditionally been very fragmented, BlackRock’s ability to offer an integrated, multipurpose platform has proven a strong selling point for prospective clients — even when it’s up against competitors that perform specific functions better.

How to break up a credit ratings oligopoly

This is not to say Kroll’s firm, Kroll Bond Rating Agency, hasn’t been successful. It grew gross fees by 49 percent annualized between 2012 and the end of 2017 on the back of growing institutional demand for alternative investments. Since 2011 it has rated 11,920 transactions, representing $785 billion and 1,500 issuers. Still, KBRA and other competitors, including Lisbon-based ARC Ratings and Morningstar Credit Ratings, that have entered the sector in the last decade have barely made a dent in the market share of the big three.

The upstarts are facing more than just deeply entrenched competition, although that is striking: S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch control more than 90 percent of the market combined. A host of other complex factors have combined to make it nearly impossible to dislodge the big three — and to address the central conflict of interest baked into the ratings agency business model.


Elon Musk, Google and the battle for the future of transportation

We think a similar analogy is likely with AV/EV — the most economically well-off people will still care about comfort, features, and identity that the AV/EV they ride and arrive in imparts on them. If Waymo can deliver a premium experience at a better price and higher utility than their current solution (i.e. driving themselves in their own cars or Ubers/taxis) with cost economics that yield a strong profit margin/ROIC at scale (1/2-1/3 the pricing of Uber at 1/10 the cost), it will have built an offering that will be set to be the leading AV service and create tremendous value for shareholders despite the early capital intensity. Estimates of the value of this Transportation as a Service (TaaS) or Mobility as a Service (MaaS) go from hundreds of billions on up based on Morgan Stanley’s estimate of 11 billion miles (3B in the US) driven globally and forecasted to double over the next decade.

Eventually, if Waymo is successful at taking the strong lead via network effects in AV and converting enough consumers to use its premium service (achieving a cultural and regulatory tipping point), it could decide to open up its service’s usage across other auto “hardware” partners as they demonstrate their ability to deliver a certain level of quality experience and scale globally, enabling a broader application of its service to lower tiers of the market with lower capital intensity (akin to Apple’s 2nd hand iPhone market, which broadens its user base for services offerings).


Network effect: How Shopify is the platform powering the DTC brand revolution

“The 21st-century brand is the direct-to-consumer brand,” said Jeff Weiser, chief marketing officer at Shopify. “A couple of things have enabled the rise of the DTC, which is the ability to outsource the supply chain.” For Weiser, who described himself as “loving” anything to do with DTC, what Shopify does is power all of that ability — from selling to payments to marketing. “We run the gamut of a retail operating system.” The company has admittedly benefited from a DTC boom: Starting with small businesses run from people’s kitchens, then going upmarket to giant Fortune 500 companies, Weiser said that DTC’s “graduation” into giant juggernauts themselves has made a huge difference. Shopify powers hundreds of those companies, from Allbirds to mattress brand Leesa to Chubbies.

Just as Google and Facebook are core to anyone marketing online, Shopify is becoming the same to those who sell directly online. Like any platform, Shopify is building an ecosystem of developers, startups and ad agencies. The company has 2,500 apps through its own app store. The company can, like the Apple App Store, add apps into its ecosystem that merchants can then purchase.


Why the Elastic IPO is so important

Elastic’s open source products are downloaded voluminously, with over 350M downloads of its open source software to date. As a result, sales engages with customers who are already users and highly familiar with the products. This leads to shorter sales cycles and higher sales conversions. Additionally, awareness and engaged prospects are generated by popular open source projects, such as Elasticsearch and others from Elastic, obviating the need for top-of-funnel and mid-funnel marketing spend. Elastic still spent a healthy 49% of revenue on Sales & Marketing in FY ’18 (year ending Jan ’18) but this was down from 60% the prior year, and the implied efficiency on Elastic’s Sales & Marketing spend is extremely high, enabling the 79% top-line growth the company has enjoyed. Finally, Elastic shows how disruptive an open source model can be to competition. There are already large incumbents in the search, analytics, IT Ops and security markets, but, while the incumbents start with sales people trying to get into accounts, Elastic is rapidly gaining share through adoption of its open source by practitioners.

Elastic controls the code to it open source projects. The committers are all employed by the company. Contributions may come from the community but committers are the last line of defense. This is in contrast to open source projects such as Linux and Hadoop, where non profit foundations made up of many commercial actors with different agendas tend to govern updates to the software. The biggest risk to any open source project is getting forked and losing control of the roadmap, and its difficult for a company to build a sustainable high margin business supporting a community-governed open source project as a result. Elastic, and other companies who more tightly control the open source projects they’ve popularized, have full visibility to roadmaps and are therefore able to build commercial software that complements and extends the open source. This isn’t a guarantee of success. The viability of any open source company rests with the engagement of its open source community, but if Elastic continues to manage this well, their franchise should continue to grow in value for for foreseeable future.


Elastic closed 94% up in first day of trading on NYSE, raised $252M at a $2.5B valuation in its IPO

“When you hail a ride home from work with Uber, Elastic helps power the systems that locate nearby riders and drivers. When you shop online at Walgreens, Elastic helps power finding the right products to add to your cart. When you look for a partner on Tinder, Elastic helps power the algorithms that guide you to a match. When you search across Adobe’s millions of assets, Elastic helps power finding the right photo, font, or color palette to complete your project,” the company noted in its IPO prospectus.

“As Sprint operates its nationwide network of mobile subscribers, Elastic helps power the logging of billions of events per day to track and manage website performance issues and network outages. As SoftBank monitors the usage of thousands of servers across its entire IT environment, Elastic helps power the processing of terabytes of daily data in real time. When Indiana University welcomes a new student class, Elastic helps power the cybersecurity operations protecting thousands of devices and critical data across collaborating universities in the BigTen Security Operations Center. All of this is search.”

The Big Hack: How China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies

One government official says China’s goal was long-term access to high-value corporate secrets and sensitive government networks. No consumer data is known to have been stolen.

With more than 900 customers in 100 countries by 2015, Supermicro offered inroads to a bountiful collection of sensitive targets. “Think of Supermicro as the Microsoft of the hardware world,” says a former U.S. intelligence official who’s studied Supermicro and its business model. “Attacking Supermicro motherboards is like attacking Windows. It’s like attacking the whole world.”

Since the implants were small, the amount of code they contained was small as well. But they were capable of doing two very important things: telling the device to communicate with one of several anonymous computers elsewhere on the internet that were loaded with more complex code; and preparing the device’s operating system to accept this new code. The illicit chips could do all this because they were connected to the baseboard management controller, a kind of superchip that administrators use to remotely log in to problematic servers, giving them access to the most sensitive code even on machines that have crashed or are turned off.

Can anyone catch America in plastics?

Ethane, once converted to ethylene through “cracking” is the principal input into production of polyethylene. Simply put, ethane is turned into plastic. Polyethylene is manufactured in greater quantities than any other compound. U.S. ethane production has more than doubled in the past decade, to 1.5 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D).

The result is that ethane trade flows are shifting, and the U.S. is becoming a more important supplier of plastics. The Shale Revolution draws attention for the growth in fossil fuels — crude oil and natural gas, where the U.S. leads the world. But we’re even more dominant in NGLs, contributing one-third of global production. The impact of NGLs and consequent growth in America’s petrochemical industry receives far less attention, although it’s another huge success story.


Amazon’s wage will change how U.S. thinks about work

If $15 an hour becomes the new standard for entry-level wages in corporate America, its impact may be felt most broadly among middle-class workers. Average hourly earnings for non-managerial workers in the U.S. were $22.73 an hour in August. The historically low level of jobless claims and unemployment, combined with $15 an hour becoming an anchor in people’s minds, could make someone people earning around that $22 mark feel more secure in their jobs. Instead of worrying about losing their job and being on the unemployment rolls for a while, or only being able to find last-ditch work that pays $9 or $10 an hour, the “floor” may be seen as a $15 an hour job.

That creates a whole new set of options for middle-class households. In 2017, the real median household income in the U.S. was $61,372, which is roughly what two earners with full-time jobs making $15 an hour would make. A $15-an-hour floor might embolden some workers to quit their jobs to move to another city even without a job offer there. It might let some workers switch to part-time to focus more time on education, gaining new skills or child care.

Circle of competence

It’s not the size of your circle of competence that matters, but rather how accurate your assessment of it is. There are some investors who are capable of figuring out incredibly complex investments. Others are really good at a wide variety of investments types, allowing them to take advantage of a broad set of opportunities. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Figure out what feels comfortable, and do that. If you are not quite sure whether something is within your circle of competence or not – that in and of itself is an indicator that it’s better to pass. After all, to quote Seth Klarman’s letter to his investors shortly after the Financial Crisis of 2008, “Nowhere does it say that investors should strive to make every last dollar of potential profit; consideration of risk must never take a backseat to return.”


Lessons from Howard Marks’ new nook: “Mastering the Market Cycle – Getting the Odds on Your Side”

… you can prepare; you can’t predict. The thing that caused the bubble to burst was the insubstantiality of mortgage-backed securities, especially subprime. If you read the memos, you won’t find a word about it. We didn’t predict that. We didn’t even know about it. It was occurring in an odd corner of the securities market. Most of us didn’t know about it, but it is what brought the house down and we had no idea. But we were prepared because we simply knew that we were on dangerous ground, and that required cautious preparation.


Market timing is hard

People use data to justify market timing. But it’s hindsight bias, right? If you know ahead of time when the biggest peaks and troughs were through history, you can make any strategy look good. So Antti and his co-authors made a more realistic and testable market timing strategy. And here’s the key difference — instead of having all hundred years of history, Antti’s strategy used only the information that was available at the time. So, say for example it’s 1996, early tech bubble. We know after the fact that the U.S. stock market would get even more expensive for a few years before it crashed. But in 1996 you wouldn’t actually know that. So by doing their study this way, Antti could get a more realistic test of value-based market timing.

The interesting and troubling result was when we did this market timing analysis the bottom line was very disappointing. It was not just underwhelming, it basically showed in the last 50-60 years, in our lifetimes, you didn’t make any money using this information.

The Decision Matrix: How to prioritize what matters

I invested some of that time meeting with the people making these decisions once a week. I wanted to know what types of decisions they made, how they thought about them, and how the results were going. We tracked old decisions as well, so they could see their judgment improving (or not).

Consequential decisions are a different beast. Reversible and consequential decisions are my favorite. These decisions trick you into thinking they are one big important decision. In reality, reversible and consequential decisions are the perfect decisions to run experiments and gather information. The team or individual would decide experiments we were going to run, the results that would indicate we were on the right path, and who would be responsible for execution. They’d present these findings.

Consequential and irreversible decisions are the ones that you really need to focus on. All of the time I saved from using this matrix didn’t allow me to sip drinks on the beach. Rather, I invested it in the most important decisions, the ones I couldn’t justify delegating. I also had another rule that proved helpful: unless the decision needed to be made on the spot, as some operational decisions do, I would take a 30-minute walk first.

Risk management

Once you frame risk as avoiding regret, the questions becomes, “Who cares what’s hard but I can recover from? Because that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about, ‘What will I regret?’”

So risk management comes down to serially avoiding decisions that can’t easily be reversed, whose downsides will demolish you and prevent recovery.

Actual risk management is understanding that even if you do everything you can to avoid regrets, you are at best dealing with odds, and all reasonable odds are less than 100. So there is a measurable chance you’ll be disappointed, no matter how hard you’ll try or how smart you are. The biggest risk – the biggest regret – happens when you ignore that reality.

Carl Richards got this right, and it’s a humbling but accurate view of the world: “Risk is what’s left over when you think you’ve thought of everything.”


The most important survival skill for the next 50 years isn’t what you think

Even if there is a new job, and even if you get support from the government to kind of retrain yourself, you need a lot of mental flexibility to manage these transitions. Teenagers or 20-somethings, they are quite good with change. But beyond a certain age—when you get to 40, 50—change is stressful. And a weapon you will have [is] the psychological flexibility to go through this transition at age 30, and 40, and 50, and 60. The most important investment that people can make is not to learn a particular skill—”I’ll learn how to code computers,” or “I will learn Chinese,” or something like that. No, the most important investment is really in building this more flexible mind or personality.

The better you know yourself, the more protected you are from all these algorithms trying to manipulate you. If we go back to the example of the YouTube videos. If you know “I have this weakness, I tend to hate this group of people,” or “I have a bit obsession to the way my hair looks,” then you can be a little more protected from these kinds of manipulations. Like with alcoholics or smokers, the first step is to just recognize, “Yes, I have this bad habit and I need to be more careful about it.”

And this is very dangerous because instead of trying to find real solutions to the new problems we face, people are engaged in this nostalgic exercise. If it fails—and it’s bound to fail—they’ll never acknowledge it. They’ll just blame somebody: “We couldn’t realize this dream because of either external enemies or internal traitors.” And then this is a very dangerous mess.

The other danger, the opposite one, is, “Well, the future will basically take care of itself. We just need to develop better technology and it will create a kind of paradise on earth.” Which doesn’t take into account all of the dystopian and problematic ways in which technology can influence our lives.