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.