Curated Insights 2019.08.02

Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved.

The fire warning system at Notre-Dame took dozens of experts six years to put together, and in the end involved thousands of pages of diagrams, maps, spreadsheets and contracts, according to archival documents found in a suburban Paris library by The Times.

The result was a system so arcane that when it was called upon to do the one thing that mattered — warn “fire!” and say where — it produced instead a nearly indecipherable message.

Hidden networks: Network effects that don’t look like network effects

There are a host of companies that build the tool or product before they build the network. Delicious (with bookmarks) or Instagram (with filters) are the classic examples of a “come for the tool, stay for the network” company. But there are also companies building the network before they build the actual product or tool. Think of this as “Come for the network, stay for the tool.”

These companies can be especially formidable because no one understands the power of what they’re doing until it’s too late to compete. The concept is that you start by building a community that acts like a network, with users interacting, engaging, and generally creating value for each other. Eventually, a product is introduced that catalyzes or amplifies the way the network engages. Before the product arrives, there isn’t anything measuring or monetizing the network, so it can be difficult to really see the strength and potential of these networks.

These latent networks are the hardest “hidden network effects” to both predict and execute. Often times these communities are actually an audience rather than a latent network, meaning users derive value from the central node, not the network. When it’s just an audience, the tool or product ends up scaling more like a linear business (e.g., a DTC product) than a network. Differentiating a product-less network from an audience is very difficult. Many a celebrity entrepreneur has believed they had a network that wanted to engage with each other, before realizing that what they actually had was an audience that just wanted a piece of their celebrity heroes.

So what’s the test to tell whether there is a latent network waiting to be activated? A network engages, an audience consumes. Look to see if the network’s users are engaged with each other or just the central node. Ask yourself who is getting additional value when someone new enters this community. If it’s all (or at least some) of the community members, then it’s a network. If it’s just the central node, then it’s probably an audience.

How Etsy crafted an e-commerce comeback

The company is plowing some of its revenue into better online tools for sellers, such as a dashboard to track orders and streamline payments. To grow, “Etsy really needs to offer vendors that support,” says Oweise Khazi, research director at Gartner. And some of Etsy’s most important plans involve its search engine. Fisher, the technology chief, says improved search results added tens of millions of dollars to GMS last year, but there’s room for improvement. Etsy’s search algorithm has long favored lower-priced items, since they tend to sell more frequently. The site now intends to give higher-priced and better-quality goods more weight in search rankings—­making Etsy’s brand more upscale and encouraging shoppers to also consider buying a desk when they’re searching for a desk lamp.

Search tweaks will also help Etsy attack another sore point: shipping. Sellers currently have great leeway to set shipping fees, something that the company believes can turn off buyers. Some 30% of items are eligible for free shipping; Silverman wants to push that figure toward 100%, even at the risk of upsetting sellers. In July, Etsy announced a push to make free shipping standard for orders of $35 or more. Sellers won’t be required to waive shipping fees—but Etsy’s algorithms will give ranking priority to products and sellers that comply, effectively forcing their hand.

Choice Equities on PAR Technology

Par’s third and most interesting business segment is Brink. This unit started in 2014 when PAR acquired Brink Software, a small entrepreneurial operation out of San Diego. The Brink offering accomplishes many of the same POS functions as the legacy hardware business, but the software component is delivered via the cloud and accordingly offers a few critical advantages. For one thing, updating software is seamless with an off-premise offering as it can be initiated from the cloud and updated onsite without any further physical software or hardware add-ons. Additionally, customers get to convert their large and lumpy and sometimes difficult to forecast hardware capex spend to small ongoing monthly payments that are highly forecastable. This business has already turned into a fantastic acquisition, with sales up 25-fold since it was acquired. But we think Brink may be just hitting its stride.

Today Brink has around 8,000 installed restaurants and an impressive customer list. This list includes new customer wins in growing concepts like Sweetgreen, Mod Pizza and Cava but also established concepts like Arby’s and Five Guys. Focusing on the U.S. market first, there are a little over 300,000 quick serve and fast casual restaurants. Brink is currently focused on the Tier 1 and Tier 2 segments, which total ~170,000 locations as their core competency and differentiation comes from not only their ability to serve these multi-location customers successfully, but also their ability to handle these large-scale integrations seamlessly. We note our research indicates Brink is the only cloud POS provider who has successfully completed a 1,000+ store rollout, of which Brink has two to its claim. Given existing relationships with customers with a total restaurant count near 35,000 restaurants today, they appear well positioned to continue to convert both existing and new customers alike to the Brink solution.

Looking out over the next year or two, we think it’s conceivable that Brink could sign up at least 20,000 restaurants. Beyond this, we see upside potential to this number from wins in the tier three category, and looking further out, international expansion. In addition to restaurant growth, we also think Brink could grow their monthly recurring revenue (MRR) per customer. Currently they earn just under ~$200/month from their cloud customers, or around $2,000 in average revenue per user (ARPU). Given the POS offering is typically regarded by restauranteurs as the brain or control center of the restaurant, we believe other add-on functions like food temperature monitoring, delivery optimization or inventory management features could be added into the Brink software package driving MRR higher. And the company is currently planning on introducing a payments solution which would be further additive to MRR.

A review essay of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Admittedly, such pessimism sells. For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell, and become huffy and scornful when some idiotic optimist intrudes on their pleasure. Yet pessimism has consistently been a poor guide to the modern economic world. We are gigantically richer in body and spirit than we were two centuries ago. In the next half century—if we do not kill the goose that laid the golden eggs by implementing leftwing schemes of planning and redistribution or rightwing schemes of imperialism and warfare, as we did on all counts 1914-1989, following the advice of the the clerisy that markets and democracy are terribly faulted—we can expect the entire world to match Sweden or France.


When the safety net pays for itself

Adults use benefits that end up costing additional money—an extra 60 cents or so on top of the $1 you spent. But health care and education for kids often reduces dependence on aid and lifts earnings. Over time, you get back your $1—plus about 47 cents.

Universal laws of the world

In law, the reason the burden of proof lies with the prosecution is that it’s often impossible to prove something didn’t happen. Outside of the courtroom the opposite rule prevails, and the commentator is allowed to give an opinion but the critic must debunk him with evidence.

There is a thriving market for bad commentary because they give readers intellectual cover against their own biases, prejudices, and incentives. When many people want bad commentary to be right it becomes harder to convince them that it’s wrong.

Curated Insights 2019.04.05

The risk of low growth stocks: Heighten risk to the best companies

Most simply, ROIC measures how many incremental dollars of earnings a company earns by reinvesting their earnings. As a simple illustration, a company with an average 10% ROIC needs to invest 50% of their earnings to grow 5% (10%*50%=5%). A company with a 50% ROIC only needs to reinvest 10% of earnings to grow 5% (50%*10%=5%). In the former case, $0.50 of every dollar of earnings is not needed to fund growth, while in the latter case $0.90 is not needed to fund growth. This means that the higher ROIC company will generate 80% more free cash flow than the average ROIC company making the company 80% more valuable. This is why we focus on ROIC in our analysis. High ROIC businesses are significantly more valuable than average ROIC companies even when they produce the same level of growth.

Sony’s streaming service Crackle sells majority stake to Chicken Soup for the Soul

The transfer of ownership for Crackle, however, arrives at a time when ad-free streaming services like this are seeing newfound interest, with Amazon’s launch of IMDb’s FreeDive, Roku’s The Roku Channel, Walmart’s Vudu, Viacom’s new addition Pluto, Tubi and others now making gains.

As part of the deal, Sony will contribute to the new venture its U.S. assets, including the Crackle brand, user base and ad rep business, according to The Hollywood Reporter. It also will license to Crackle Plus movies and TV shows from the Sony Pictures Entertainment library, as well as Crackle’s original programming, like its shows “Start Up” and “The Oath,” for example.

CSS Entertainment will bring six of its ad-supported networks — including Popcornflix, Popcornflix Kids, Popcornflix Comedy, Frightpix, Espanolflix and Truli, plus its subscription service Pivotshare — to Crackle Plus.

The combination will lead Crackle Plus to become one of the largest ad-supported video-on-demand platforms in the U.S., the companies claim, with nearly 10 million monthly active users and 26 million registered users. The new service will also have access to more than 38,000 combined hours of programming, more than 90 content partnerships and more than 100 networks.

Andreessen Horowitz is blowing up the venture capital model (again)

So Andreessen Horowitz spent the spring embarking on one of its more disagreeable moves so far: The firm renounced its VC exemptions and registered as a financial advisor, with paperwork completed in March. It’s a costly, painful move that requires hiring compliance officers, audits for each employee and a ban on its investors talking up the portfolio or fund performance in public—even on its own podcast. The benefit: The firm’s partners can share deals freely again, with a real estate expert tag-teaming a deal with a crypto expert on, say, a blockchain startup for home buying, Haun says.

And it’ll come in handy when the firm announces a new growth fund—expected to close in the coming weeks, a source says—that will add a fresh $2 billion to $2.5 billion for its newest partner, David George, to invest across the portfolio and in other larger, high-growth companies. Under the new rules, that fund will be able to buy up shares from founders and early investors—or trade public stocks. Along with a fund announced last year that connects African-American leaders to startups, the new growth fund will give Andreessen Horowitz four specialized funds, with more potentially to follow.

Curated Insights 2018.12.21

Investing ideas that changed my life

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

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

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

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


The dynamics of network effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Alibaba stock poised to return 200%, advisor says

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

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

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

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

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

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

The business case for serverless

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

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

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

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

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

Huawei ban casts shadow over $100bn economic sphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What straight-A students get wrong

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

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

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

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

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

Curated Insights 2018.01.21

JD.com’s Richard Liu decodes the Chinese consumer

No one wants to take a bag, and put it on a table when a lot of ladies have the same bag with the same style. They want to find something special. Something you cannot find in your circle…But if you look at China, there are more and more young people, and their income is relatively very small, but they want to spend time to find fashion, maybe not as expensive as luxury brands, but still very fashionable. Maybe not big brands, [but rather] small brands, or niche brands.

Commerce platforms for them are the best way to convert their customers to buying. And at the same time, for JD, we are not just a sales platform; we are a brand-building platform. We spend more and more resources to help build the brand — to strengthen the brand is as important as the sales side.

We will use two different ways to cover the entire globe. The first is our South [East] Asian channel. We will set up [a] subsidiary there and copy the Chinese business model. Build a local team, buyer team, logistics system and last mile delivery team, everything the same as in China. In Indonesia we have been operating for almost two years, and we will go to Thailand very soon.

But for Europe and [the] US we will use a cross-border business model. We have been thinking about this for many years. If you just copy another model or local players do exactly the same thing as them, you cannot find an advantage. So we will cooperate with Chinese local brands and bring them to the US and Europe. They need us, and we also need them, because the brand quality is very good and price is not as high. We will choose them, pick them up and bring [them] to the US and Europe. I think people will love these kinds of Chinese brands.


Alibaba’s AI outguns humans in reading test

“That means objective questions such as ‘what causes rain’ can now be answered with high accuracy by machines,” Luo Si, chief scientist for natural language processing at the Alibaba institute, said in a statement. “The technology underneath can be gradually applied to numerous applications such as customer service, museum tutorials and online responses to medical inquiries from patients, decreasing the need for human input in an unprecedented way.”


Keyence: Leading Japan’s new wave of tech giants

Keyence is a beneficiary of the AI, robotics, and industrial-automation boom. Sales of its factory automation sensors have been particularly strong in China, where labor costs are rising. As manufacturing grows more data intensive, factories require more sensors and vision systems to collect data and become “smarter.” Plus, a large proportion of Internet of Things spending is on sensors and connectivity. “Keyence has the highest exposure to upgrade-and-innovation demand,” says Jay Huang of Sanford C. Bernstein. Keyence, with its diversified customer base, is one of least exposed to cycles of single trends like the iPhone, he says, and has more than half the global market share for 3-D vision systems —a market growing 30% a year—and rising sales in China.


Facebook’s motivations

The key thing to remember about Facebook — and Google’s — dominance in digital ads is that their advantages are multi-faceted. First and foremost are the attractiveness of their products to users; that attractiveness is rooted not only in technology but also in both data and people-based network effects. Second is the depth of information both companies have on their users, allowing advertisers to spend more efficiently on their platforms — particularly on mobile — than elsewhere. The third advantage, though, is perhaps the least appreciated: buying ads on Google and Facebook is just so much easier. They are one-stop shops for reaching anyone, which means competitors need to not have similar targeting capabilities and user engagement, but in fact need to be significantly better to justify the effort.


Adapt or die is Marchionne’s stark farewell message to carmakers

Carmakers have less than a decade to reinvent themselves or risk being commoditized amid a seismic shift in how vehicles are powered, driven and purchased. Auto companies need to quickly separate the stuff that will be swallowed by commodity from the brand stuff.

While the car industry has always been tough — Chrysler and GM both went bankrupt during the financial crisis — in the past the mistakes were self-induced, Marchionne said. Now the tumult is being driven by outside forces, and it’s coming faster than people expect, he said — a surprising view, given that Fiat is perceived to be behind some competitors in adapting. He said the company is positioned well, and rather than pour money into competing with Silicon Valley, the industry should try to identify the best solutions coming from tech companies and reduce its exposure to products that aren’t going to be easily defended.


Ensemble Capital: Prestige Brands update

Owning these strong brands, in small niche markets, results in Prestige generating the highest profit margins in their industry. While Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson might be a lot more well known, Prestige Brands turns every dollar of revenue into 34 cents of profits while P&G and J&J manage to squeeze out just 26 cents of profits.

It is important to recognize that Prestige is a brand management company more than a product producer. They outsource most of the capital-intensive production aspects of the business. This capital light, outsourcing approach means the company only employs 520 people, generating an amazing $1.7 million per employee. In comparison, most health care and consumer staple companies do closer to $500k per employee and Apple, which has the highest revenue per employee in the technology industry does only slightly more at $1.9 million. Until their acquisition of Fleet a year ago, Prestige had only 259 employees and was doing an amazing $3.1 million per employee.


How Roku morphed from a quirky hardware startup to a TV streaming powerhouse

For about two years, Roku considered building its own TV set in-house. “Then we decided: No, that’s a way to lose a lot of money,” remembers Wood. Instead, the company teamed up with Chinese firms looking to enter the U.S. market and willing to undercut the competition with budget-priced TV models — a strategy Sappington calls “a very smart decision.” And with millions of active users and growing brand awareness, Roku was able to talk to TV makers eye-to-eye and demand that they not change a thing about its software. “We had a big enough brand that they were willing to do those kinds of deals,” Wood says.

But to really understand Roku, you have to look beyond the streaming boxes, sticks and even TVs. “People think of Roku as a hardware company,” says Martin. “It is not.” Rather, the firm is leveraging hardware to acquire users, which can then be monetized via advertising and licensing fees. “The goal was always to generate revenue by monetizing the platform,” says Wood. “As our scale started to approach 5 million active accounts, that’s when we said, ‘Now we can start focusing on monetization.’”

Still, his message to Hollywood is clear: Roku is already in the content business, and it wants to be top of mind as studios think about windowing their content. “We are a very viable outlet,” says Holmes. “We should be one of their first calls.”


China’s top movie ticketing app said to plan $1 billion IPO

China’s box-office receipts rose 15 percent last year to 52 billion yuan ($8 billion), making it the world’s second largest movie market after the U.S. Almost 80 percent of movie tickets in the country are sold through mobile apps, and Maoyan Weying is the largest ticketing provider with a 52.5 percent market share as of the third quarter 2017, according to researcher Analysys.


Didi has a brilliant plan to contain the threat of China’s bike-sharing services

Already, Ofo and arch rival Mobike have chipped away at Didi’s share of short journeys and struck deals with local governments with the aim of solving congestion problems. Now, they are looking to expand beyond that. Mobike, for example, has tested ride-sharing services. Mobike and Ofo both claim over 100 million registered users, so action is best taken sooner rather than later. The question is whether Didi’s move is too late.

This devilish strategy works because Ofo and Bluegogo have no choice but to be a part of the platform due to their ties with Didi. Ofo counts Didi as an investor and is already integrated into its app, while Didi swooped in to save Bluegogo after it went broke. It’s no surprise that Mobike, the other bike-sharing unicorn which no Didi connection, didn’t elect to be a part of the program.

Techmate: How AI rewrote the rules of chess

No top chess player would take such a big risk, he says. But this computer seems to have “such control over the board, it’s almost as though it has an intuition something good will happen”. His verdict on its overall game-playing ability: “It’s incredible. It’s hard for me to get my head around it.”

All computers before this, as he describes it, worked by brute force, using the intellectual equivalent of a steamroller to crack a nut. People don’t operate that way: “Humans are flexible because we know that sometimes we have to depart from the rules,” he says. In AlphaZero, he thinks he has seen the first computer in history to learn that very human trick.

Predictions about the imminent rise of the machines have always turned out to be wildly over-optimistic. Herbert Simon, one of the pioneers of AI, forecast in 1965 that computers would be able to do any work a human was capable of within 20 years. When today’s experts in the field were asked when that moment would come, only half picked a time within the next 30 years.


This army of AI robots will feed the world

If robots can prevent herbicides from having any contact with crops, it means that 18 classes of chemicals previously considered too damaging to be widely sprayed suddenly become viable. “We’re both ratcheting down the volume of chemicals that need to be used, but also expanding how many types can be used,” Heraud says. In other words, Blue River’s success might be the worst thing that could happen to the herbicide industry, or it could open up an avenue to sell new products.

His next step, with Deere’s backing, will be to move Blue River’s robots beyond herbicides to fertilizers, the culprits behind toxic algae blooms, which are killing fish and making lakes unswimmable. Farmers typically spend up to 10 times more annually on fertilizers than weed killers—about $150 billion a year. But the shift is a big leap for a robot. It must gather a range of visual signals—the colors, sizes, and textures of a plant’s leaves—and from this data extrapolate the plant’s health and how much nourishment it needs. “It’s a ton more processing power, but it’s doable,” Heraud says.

The next link in this technological chain could be a kind of agricultural Swiss Army knife: a robot that can apply not only herbicides and fertilizers but also insecticides, fungicides, and water all at once, delivering only as needed.

The implication of plant-by-plant—rather than field-by-field—farming is not just the prospect of vast reductions in chemical usage. It could also, in theory, end monocropping, which has become the new normal—cornfields and soybean fields as far as the eye can see—and has given rise to the kind of high-calorie, low-nutrient diets that are causing heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. Monocrops also leach soil nutrients and put food supplies at risk, because single-crop fields are more susceptible to blight and catastrophe. Modern farmers have been segregating crops in part because our equipment can’t handle more complexity. Robots that can tend plants individually could support intercropping—planting corn in with complementary crops such as soybeans and other legumes.

Bright outlook for the economy and stocks

But I worry that this tax cut is happening at a time when the U.S. economy doesn’t need fiscal stimulus. And longer term, what will tax cuts do to the federal deficit? The deficit was going to be rising as a percentage of GDP anyway, partly for structural reasons relating to the aging of the baby boomers. A $1.5 trillion tax cut will add an additional $300 billion to $400 billion interest-rate burden in the next few years.

In the past 10 years, American companies made an inordinate effort to think about how to move people or structures outside the U.S. for nonproductive purposes—basically, to increase earnings per share. By moving toward a territorial system of taxation and bringing our corporate tax rate in line with the rest of the world’s, we can get back to having managers focus on productive investments, greater efficiency, and value creation. This will unlock the strength of America and drive GDP growth. Simply, the absence of a major negative is a positive. This is a generational change. While inflation potentially is a fear for the stock market, you have to be positive on the S&P 500, even though we are 102 months into an expansion.

Having covered the auto-parts industry for 50 years, I am seeing more companies announce that they are going to relocate to the U.S. And the U.S. is a magnet not only for American, but also for foreign companies locating here because the U.S. is a big market.

But now the Fed is starting to allow $30 billion of Treasuries, more or less, to mature into the market each month. There is a chance—I’d call it a base case—that the rhetoric and actions of the ECB will have to become more hawkish, given economic growth in Europe. That means the ECB might start to pull back on quantitative easing. Central-bank balance sheets could start to decline, in the aggregate, sometime during 2018. If that happens, the stock market will go down. Quantitative easing, cumulatively, has been highly correlated to the gains in the S&P 500 and global stock markets. Central-bank footings, or assets, went from $6 trillion pre-financial-crisis to $22 trillion subsequently. Bankers are talking about bringing that down to $16 trillion or $17 trillion. Maybe it drops more quickly. It is undeniable that central-bank asset buying has been a prop for the markets.


Some great thoughts on network effects from Anu Hariharan on Twitter:

Often misunderstood – Network Effects is not the same as scale

One simple way to test for that is ask this question – what is the “barrier to exit” for the user?

If the barrier to exit for the user is low, then there is no network effect. This implies it is easy for users to switch from your service

Ride sharing services (Uber, Lyft) don’t have a network effect (in other words demand side economies of scale). Users often switch apps if it takes longer than 5 mins ETA or if there is surge pricing on one

However ride sharing does have supply side economies of scale and therefore opportunity for select players to have monopolistic share in a market

On the other hand apps like Facebook, LinkedIn have very strong network effect – because the barrier to exit for the user is really high!

A user has invested time and effort in building a social graph on these platforms with connections, history of exchanges and in some cases even maintain them. It is not easy for customers/ users to switch easily and therefore the “barrier to exit” for the user is really high

What if everyone got a monthly check from the government?

Kela’s researchers originally envisioned the experiment as the first in a series that would help them understand the implications of expanding basic income nationwide. “With basic income, there will be a lot of winners, but there will be a lot of losers also,” Kangas says. “We have to study the losers.” For one thing, he points out, to provide Finns with the level of financial security they enjoy under their current system, basic income payments would have to be at least twice those of the trial. And to pay everyone, the country would have to change its tax structure.

The wealthiest would be relatively unaffected by such a change because their taxes are already high, but a swath of middle- and upper-middle-class Finns would pay more in taxes than they’d get back in basic income. In national polls, when the possibility of a 55 percent flat tax was raised, the percentage of Finns who supported basic income dropped from 70 to about 30. “We would need to implement another study for the whole population to understand it,” says Miska Simanainen, a tax specialist who was part of Kangas’s team. No such studies are planned.

Trust is perhaps the most radical aspect of basic income. Handing out money requires a government to have faith that people know what’s best for themselves—that, on the whole, they have enough intelligence and foresight to put their financial resources to good use. In almost every basic income study conducted so far, this faith has been borne out. The little money wasted on vices is more than offset by what is spent on groceries or child care. But trusting that this will hold true universally requires an even bigger leap of faith. In 2016, Switzerland’s citizens overwhelmingly voted down a proposal that would’ve given them each the equivalent of $2,555 a month. Surveys showed they didn’t think it was right for people to be given something for free.


Savvy Investor Awards 2017: The Best White Papers

Savvy Investor is the world’s leading research network for institutional investors. Since the site launched in 2015, the Savvy Investor research team has curated over 20,000 investment and pensions papers, placing it in a unique position to judge the best white papers of 2017. The official announcement of winners was made on December 5.

The accolade of “Best Investment Paper 2017” is awarded to the CFA Institute Research Foundation for the paper, “Financial Market History: Reflections on the Past for Investors Today.”


Why dolphins are deep thinkers

One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

How to guard against moat erosion

A wet moat, called a douve or wet ditch, formed a very efficient obstacle against the assaulting army. However, wet moats could be something of a mixed blessing; they were inconvenient in peacetime, which meant that unofficial bridges were often erected – with subsequent argument and indecision about the right moment to chop them down in an emergency. Besides, water might dangerously erode the base of the wall, and stagnant water might be a year ‘round health hazard for the inhabitants of the castle.