Curated Insights 2017.12.03

A dynamic knowledge tool to understand the issues and forces driving transformational change across economies, industries, global issues and the Forum’s system initiatives.

How to tame Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple

The problem with price regulation is that Google doesn’t charge high prices—at least not to consumers, the traditional victims in monopoly cases. The company initially helped wipe out the profitability of newspapers and magazines, in part, by undercutting the price of print advertising. These days, however, Google can charge hefty prices to advertisers because it controls so much inventory and user data. Advertisers can feel they have no choice but to pay up, while consumers pay precisely zero to do searches or send emails.

Amazon is a “cheetelephant,” said one analyst: an elephant that runs as fast as a cheetah. It’s considerably faster than the regulators and lawmakers who have been caught flat-footed and are now wondering what, if anything, to do about its increasing market power, from books to groceries to moviemaking.

“If you look at the business models of these firms, none of these is a predatory pricing model. These firms are making a lot of money doing what they’re currently doing,” said Penn’s Hovenkamp. Besides, he said, “there are constantly new entrants” that would prevent a company from earning monopolistic profits. For antitrust enforcers, the problem is that by the time you know for sure whether a company predatorily drove rivals out of business, it’s too late to prevent it.

Facebook, in other words, is damned if it does censor and damned if it doesn’t. How is this likely to evolve? One possibility is that Facebook will tire of taking the heat and voluntarily submit to government regulation. A regulated Facebook would still have to employ people and algorithms to scour its website of forbidden materials, as it does today, but at least it could point the finger at lawmakers and regulators if questioned about its choices. The same would go for Google and some companies not covered here, such as Twitter.

It’s a good bet that there will be more such orders in coming years. Governments want money, and the four tech giants have a lot of it. In the meantime, while trying to come up with a better tax system, Europe is toying with the idea of taxing the tech companies’ revenue rather than their profits. The reasoning is that revenue is harder to manipulate. But revenue is a crude measure of a company’s ability to pay taxes. Revenue-based taxation would be too hard on companies with lots of revenue but little profit, and too easy on companies with little revenue but lots of profit.

Under an apportionment system, each country is still permitted to set its corporate tax rate however it chooses. But it will be able to charge its rate only on its little slice of the company’s global profit—a slice that’s determined by an agreed-upon formula. A country can no longer grab a bigger piece of a shrinking corporate-tax pie by cutting its rate below other countries’. In one stroke, the race to the bottom in tax rates is cut short.

Getting low-tax countries to go along with an apportionment system would be tough, though. No country wants to give up what makes it special. So something like the current tax system, albeit with fewer loopholes, is likely to persist for at least awhile. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon will keep finding ways to pit countries against one another.

Why Tencent Could Become an Advertising Powerhouse Like Facebook

Tencent’s ad revenue could more than double to $11.4 billion by 2019, according to researcher eMarketer. The company is estimated to increase its market share in China’s digital ad space to 15 percent from about 9 percent, eMarketer said.

Social advertising, which relies on information from a user’s network, is still a nascent business in China. The model that drives Facebook only accounts for about 10 percent of mainland digital marketing with e-commerce and search ads still taking the lion’s share. Lau expects that to change. “Social advertising can play a larger role,” said Lau. “In China, we are kind of pioneering the categories” of that.

So Tencent’s chosen to exercise restraint, usually showing just one ad per day on WeChat’s “Moments”, a function similar to Facebook’s news feed, capping inventory by intention. That’s why it earns just $2.10 per daily active user on WeChat, versus Facebook’s $30.10, Morgan Stanley estimates.

To do that, it’s enlisted an army of more than 250 computer scientists to expand in artificial intelligence, focusing on natural language processing, image recognition and user behavior prediction. That investment is showing up in some areas: Tencent worked with BMW to target high-end users based on their friends and location logs, sending them WeChat ads through which they could book test drives. The end game is converting ads into purchases, which is why the company’s exploring also hotels, dining and property, Lau said.

How Tencent could help Snapchat

Integrating gaming into Snapchat might be a good idea – not just because it creates more ways to generate revenue, but also because it can enhance user engagement. Globally, more people watch gaming videos and streams than HBO, Netflix, ESPN, and Hulu combined. As Snapchat strives to add users globally, it would be smart to tap into the millions of gamers worldwide who are already spending hours each day playing games, many of which Tencent has invested in.

“There is a strong likelihood that the redesign of our application will be disruptive to our business in the short term. We’re willing to take that risk for what we believe are substantial long-term benefits to our business.”

Amazon focuses on machine learning to beat cloud rivals

The industry has turned into a race to provide customers tools and functions to use that data in new ways. Those tools are helping speed the transition to the cloud, since companies that don’t have access to them will be at a competitive disadvantage, Jassy said. “We are in a transition stage right now. Relatively few companies will own their own data centers, and those who do will have significantly smaller footprints. That means all of that data is moving to the cloud.”

The cloud computing market will grow to $89 billion in 2021, up from $35 billion today, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc.

Amazon AWS: Is that what the second headquarters is about? Asks Goldman

“While Amazon has never discussed any plans for a spin or any HQ2 plans relative to AWS, it is possible that the location of the new headquarters could provide some insight into the way management is thinking about the positioning of AWS.”

Terry’s curiosity is piqued by the fact that Amazon increasingly competes in the same industries that are customers for AWS, including gaming, healthcare and life sciences. Presumably, a separation of AWS might lessen the conflict there. Terry sees AWS being worth $430 billion, on a sum-of-the-parts basis, equaling 60% of Amazon’s enterprise value.

Broadcom could bid as much as $100 for Qualcomm and still see a payoff, says Canaccord

We assume Qualcomm settles its licensing dispute with Apple with Apple paying roughly half of what it previously paid Qualcomm for iPhone royalties. We also assume Qualcomm settles its dispute with Huawei or the other large OEM currently not paying Qualcomm royalties. We believe Broadcom management has solutions for Qualcomm’s disputes as part of its reasoning to make a bid for Qualcomm, but we have used these assumptions based on our Qualcomm scenario analysis used for our Qualcomm price target in our last published Qualcomm note. We also assume $500M in synergies achieved between Qualcomm and NXP in our scenario analysis including NXP. Further, we assume a 4% interest rate on combined debt for an acquisition with NXP and 3.5% for an acquisition without NXP given larger debt levels needed if the acquisition includes NXP. We also assume $1.5B in F2019 synergies between Broadcom in Qualcomm and a combined company tax rate of 15%.

Beyond Tesla’s semi truck: The future of trucking and transportation

We are currently entering a period of a rapid change in our transportation systems. And as I see it, it’s the innovator’s dilemma playing out in the wild: Incumbents like General Motors are moving too slowly to adapt to an all-electric future—wasting billions of dollars on stock buybacks—while upstarts like Tesla, unencumbered by legacy business models, are forging a path into a clean, fully-electric, fully-autonomous future. (GM has spent almost $17 billion in the last several years buying back its stock, three times what Tesla has spent building Gigafactories.)

One is that the cost of trucking falls by at least 50%, if not more. No driver, double the passive productivity, and in essence, you eliminate most of the safety problems. And by the way, if you apply this [autonomous] technology, many of the concerns we have from a safety standpoint about large trucks go away and you can make the trucks bigger. So, the costs fall at least in half. Transit time falls at half too, because you’re not waiting.

Let’s look at it from a technical standpoint. There are two competencies that keep trucking firms alive. The first one is their ability to match demand and supply; which is very important, and the second is their ability to manage drivers. There’s a modest competency with respect to equipment, but it’s not that important. Well, in the first place, if you if you eliminate the drivers, you eliminate half of the value-added that the trucker provides. And second, if you go to integrated big data, the business of matching capacity to demand becomes much easier. So, what it does is it either eliminates, or dramatically changes the principal competencies of whatever we call this entity which we now call “trucker” provides to the marketplace. So it’s big, big changes.

Why Tesla’s fuel efficiency advantage won’t last

At the early part of the 2000’s trucks getting 5 mpg were common. Today’s fleet is more like 7 mpg. That two miles per gallon increase means diesel used falls from 20,000 gallons a year down to under 15,000 gallons. Best-in-class trucks today might approach 9-10 miles per gallon. That three mpg increase versus fleet average (presumably what Tesla used in its cost calculator) is another 30% drop in fuel use, down to 10,000 gallons. The SuperTruck programs that get 12 or more mpg, (using many of the same aero techniques that Tesla’s Semi uses) would use around 8,000 gallons of fuel. In other words the opportunity to lower the Tesla cost of ownership with fuel savings is currently 15,000 diesel gallons a year, but will soon enough be only half that, using current line-of-sight technologies. At current fleet average diesel costs the savings opportunity on 100,000 miles per year is $37,500 per truck. At current best-in-class the available pool of offset-able fuel cost is $25,000. On future trucks, perhaps not too far distant from Tesla’s launch, is only $20,000 per year. All this assumes you can run a truck 100,000 miles a year in 300 to 500 mile increments.

The future difference between Tesla’s astonishing 19 mpg equivalent and the SuperTruck 12 mpg is only 3,000 gallons a year of diesel equivalent. Compared with the 7,000 gallons per truck per year already in the diesel improvement pipeline, that 3,000 gallons doesn’t look as compelling.

Inside the revolution at Etsy

Inside Etsy, Mr. Silverman’s reorganization has upended parts of the company once considered sacrosanct. Last month, Etsy changed its mission statement. Gone was a verbose commitment “to reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world.” Instead, the mission was reduced to just three words, “Keep commerce human,” accompanied by a spreadsheet outlining its goals for economic, social and ecological impact. And because remaining a B Corp would require the company to change its legal standing in Delaware, where it is incorporated, Etsy will let that certification lapse.

Paytm aims to become largest full-service digital bank

“Digital payments was our entry point, we want to become a vertically-integrated financial services company.”

Payments banks can accept deposits and remittances but cannot lend. Paytm is one of less than a dozen entities that got permits to start payments banks to bring financial services within easy reach of about a fifth of India’s 1.3 billion people who do not have access to organized financial services.

Paytm Payments Bank is majority-owned by Sharma. One97 Communications, which is backed by Alibaba Group Holding, Ant Financial Services and others, holds the remaining 49 percent. The payments bank morphed out of Paytm’s digital wallet which got a huge boost and amassed over a hundred million customers after India took its high currency bills, totaling nearly 90 percent of the value of cash, out of circulation last November.

Sharma may have found a way around the regulatory hurdles that bar lending. One97 Communications will introduce a charge card and offer monthly installment-based loans, he said. “We will launch share trading and insurance products very soon,” said Sharma. “We want to become an Internet-age financial services company.”

Business lessons from Ben Thompson of Stratechery

“Zero distribution costs. Zero marginal costs. Zero transactions. This is what the Internet enables, and it is completely transforming not just technology companies but companies in every single industry.” “Aggregation Theory is a completely new way to understand business in the Internet age.”

“instead of some companies serving the high end of a market with a superior experience while others serve the low-end with a “good-enough” offering, one company can serve everyone…. it makes sense to start at the high-end with customers who have a greater willingness-to-pay, and from there scale downwards, decreasing your price along with the decrease in your per-customer cost base (because of scale) as you go (and again, without accruing material marginal costs). Many of the most important new companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Snapchat, Uber, Airbnb and more are winning not by giving good-enough solutions to over-served low-end customers, but rather by delivering a superior experience that begins at the top of a market and works its way down…”

“Apple and Amazon do have businesses that qualify as aggregators, at least to a degree: for Apple, it is the App Store (as well as the Google Play Store). Apple owns the user relationship, incurs zero marginal costs in serving that user, and has a network of App Developers continually improving supply in response to demand. Amazon, meanwhile, has Amazon Merchant Services, which is a two-sided network where Amazon owns the end user and passes all marginal costs to merchants (i.e. suppliers).”

“Once an aggregator has gained some number of end users, suppliers will come onto the aggregator’s platform on the aggregator’s terms, effectively commoditizing and modularizing themselves. Those additional suppliers then make the aggregator more attractive to more users, which in turn draws more suppliers, in a virtuous cycle. This means that for aggregators, customer acquisition costs decrease over time; marginal customers are attracted to the platform by virtue of the increasing number of suppliers.”

“Breaking up a formerly integrated system — commoditizing and modularizing it — destroys incumbent value while simultaneously allowing a new entrant to integrate a different part of the value chain and thus capture new value.”

Active vs. passive vs. Amazon et al.

“Sectors such as finance, information technology, media, and pharmaceuticals — which have the highest margins — are developing a winner-take-all dynamic, with a wide gap between the most profitable companies and everyone else.”

“I have long described Amazon as a Field of Dreams company, one that goes for higher revenues first and then thinks about ways of converting those revenues into profits; if you build it, they will come. In coining this description, I am not being derisive but arguing that the market’s willingness to be patient with the company is largely a result of the consistency with [which] Jeff Bezos has told the same story for the company, since 1997, and acted in accordance with it.”

“These models have an in-built structure where they are going to tip into winner-take-all areas. The cost of adding a new user gets smaller and smaller the bigger you get. [This starts] creating a competitive advantage that gets harder and harder to bridge.”

It’s not unusual for a few stocks to drive broader market performance in a given year, but we would be foolish to ignore that it has been the same several stocks quite frequently in recent years. Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google are responsible for roughly 20% of the S&P 500’s performance this year, and generated more than the entire return of the index in 2015.

The secret to tech’s next big breakthroughs? Stacking chips

The advantage is simple physics: When electrons have to travel long distances through copper wires, it takes more power, produces heat and reduces bandwidth. Stacked chips are more efficient, run cooler and communicate across much shorter interconnections at lightning speed.

Chip stacking enables totally new capabilities too. Some phone cameras stack an image sensor directly on top of the chip that processes the image. The extra speed means they can grab multiple exposures of an image and fuse them together, capturing more light for dim scenes.

But Mr. Dixon-Warren says the spread of 3-D chips is rapid and their takeover inevitable. A decade ago, this technology was limited almost exclusively to university labs; five or six years ago, it was still hard to find commercial examples. But now it’s popping up all over, in applications like networking and high-performance computing and in high-end wearables like the Apple Watch.

How does Costco sell 18-year-old single malt Scotch for $38?

“Costco has a volume deal with [spirits] companies including Edrington and Diageo. They agree to buy a certain amount of product at a certain price, which is far lower than everyone else is paying. For products like Johnnie Walker Blue or Macallan, it’s virtually impossible to beat Costco on price.”

“If Costco can control the importation of the whisky, get someone to distribute it to them at cost (or at very slim single-digit margins due to high volume) and then sell it at very low margins, then they’re golden.”

Finally, one reason rarely considered for why Costco might be able to offer better pricing is proof. Typically, whisky connoisseurs would want that 25-year-old Scotch to have some decent heft after all those years of concentrating in barrel. Alcohol is a conduit for flavor, after all. But all Kirkland Signature Scotches are sold at 80 proof, meaning that these whiskies are watered down to the absolute lowest legal limit and, thus, Costco is able to empty barrels into way more bottles.

Big oil and auto makers throw a lifeline to the combustion engine

The new lubricants are meant to help auto makers build smaller, turbocharged engines that are still quite powerful, resulting in efficiency gains close to 15% compared with older models. Optimizing internal combustion engines could boost efficiency by an additional 25%—a calculation that might tempt auto makers from spending more on electric-vehicle technology. Other efforts to enhance performance include adding gears to transmissions and making vehicles more aerodynamic.

The gains from engine oil alone are limited, however. Industry experts say the latest lubricants typically boost fuel economy by less than 1%, primarily by reducing the amount of energy needed to pump a piston. Even so, it is a highly cost-effective solution that adds up when spread across millions of vehicles.

‘It’s beautiful’: This Toronto startup is investors’ secret weapon to beating the market

Legal experts say investors may be risking more than their capital when using such alternative data since case law hasn’t yet determined what crosses the line into privacy violations or insider trading, but it’s a risk a growing number of financial institutions are willing to take, especially since in Apache’s case, and many others, it has paid off.

“That is the original alpha source, knowing something the market doesn’t know. It’s beautiful,” he said. “If you can come to them with a genuine information advantage, where they can know something their peers in the market do not know that’s tradable, that’s hugely valuable.”

Quandl is particularly interested in companies that produce what it calls “exhaust” data, or data collected as part of a company’s normal operations without intending to turn it into a revenue source. For example, insurance companies keep records of how many new car insurance policies they sell, as well as which vehicle manufacturer’s model is being insured, which happens to be a great predictor of new car sales before the automakers release the data themselves.

But Quandl faces a dilemma after convincing suppliers to sell their data: the more clients the company sells the data to, the less of an investing edge it provides, making it less valuable. To solve that problem, Quandl uses the data to build a predictive model to make an educated guess about how much money could be invested before the data loses its advantage and then sells it to a limited number of clients accordingly.

About 11% of land in Japan is unclaimed

That’s about 41,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles), which is equivalent to the size of Japan’s southwestern island of Kyushu, or almost as large as Denmark. By 2040, land equivalent to Japan’s second-largest island of Hokkaido will be unclaimed or abandoned, according to a panel of experts and government representatives. This will cost the nation roughly 6 trillion yen ($54 billion) over the period 2017-2040, including lost development opportunities and uncollected taxes, the panel says.

“Land prices are falling in the depopulating regions,” Yamanome said. “Not only is it impossible to make money by owning some land, but also you can’t get rid of it because regional real estate markets are stale.”

Great products vs. great businesses

A product is something that solves someone’s problem. A business is a product that works so well that people will pay more than it costs to produce.

But losses come in different flavors. There is a difference between a company that loses money because it’s investing in the infrastructure needed to become a profitable company, and a company that loses money because it can’t charge customers a price that reflects what it costs to run the business. But we often conflate the two, treating all loss-making startups with a sense of, “It’s OK, they’re growing.”

Companies are staying private longer than they used to. So venture investors that specialize in the early phase of big-losses-because-we’re-investing-in-what-it-takes-to-build-a-profitable-business have found themselves holding mature companies that in a different era would have been passed onto investors who demanded a sustainable business model with profits. In any other era, Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, and others all would have been public companies by now. And public markets almost certainly wouldn’t let losses pile up for as long as they have. We’ve seen this with Blue Apron and Snap, whose shares have fallen between 50% and 70% since going public just months ago. Both make amazing products that attracted armies of users, which VC investors oogled over. But public investors took one look at their business models and said, “What the hell is this?!” Who knows what that means for their future as standalone companies.

Pricing power: Delighting customers vs mortgaging your moat

The problem with this source of pricing power is that it comes with an off balance sheet liability. A sort of “negative goodwill” that grows every time you increase prices. While the profits might roll in for awhile, one day the customers will revolt. At the very least, the perceived excessive pricing of the well water will create a huge incentive for customers to try any new competitor that comes to town. While the high pricing makes it look like the company has a competitive advantage, in fact the excess returns are being created by a process that increases the likelihood of a successful competitive assault sometime in the future.

Lessons from a legendary short seller

“Because I never wanted to get up in the morning hoping that things would be getting worse. All intellectuals I think — and I don’t use that as a particularly flattering term — but all intellectuals tend to have a pessimistic streak.”

“I would forget the shorting. I think it’s over. It’s over for one simple reason: If shorts start working, that is, stocks go down for any sustained period of time, a great many people who are not now shorting will start shorting. There is a limited supply of stocks to borrow to sell short. Those stocks that are good shorts tend to be very obvious. As I’ve often said, I can predict with confidence that you’ll die. I cannot predict that you’ll be born, and so failure is analytically obvious and everybody piles into the same short. . . . I do believe if shorting really becomes profitable again, it’s going to become so crowded that most people won’t be able to borrow stock.”

Pulling iron from brain may offer hope in Alzheimer’s fight

The familiar metal is key to numerous brain functions, but too much of it is toxic. Researchers in Melbourne showed two years ago that iron levels in the brain can predict when people will get Alzheimer’s disease. Now, the team aims to show how removing excessive amounts with a drug called deferiprone can stave off the memory-robbing disorder.

Laptops are great. But not during a lecture or a meeting.

Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces.

Curated Insights 2017.10.29

How Intuitive Surgical turned medical sci-fi into reality

Intuitive’s devices are now used at all of the top-ranked U.S. hospitals for cancer, urology, gynecology, or gastroenterology—including venerable institutions like New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and the Cleveland Clinic. More than 4,100 da Vinci base units have been installed worldwide as of June 30, including 2,703 in the U.S., 698 in Europe, 538 in Asia, and 210 in the rest of the world.

The systems aren’t cheap: The list price for the fourth-generation da Vinci Xi is $1.9 million, and that doesn’t include the cost of various surgical appendages, which can add tens of thousands of dollars more to the price tag. Still, the robots keep selling—and surgeons are increasingly adopting them in their practices.

The company says that more than 4 million minimally invasive surgeries have been performed with da Vinci systems since 2000—a new one begins every 42 seconds somewhere around the globe, Intuitive CEO Gary Guthart tells Fortune. The number of those procedures done worldwide spiked 15% in 2016 compared with the previous year, and Intuitive pro­jects an additional 14% to 15% rise in the number by the end of 2017. Indeed, for certain more complicated procedures, such as radical prostate removal, robotic-assisted surgeries now account for nearly 90% of operations.

The boom has driven Intuitive to $2.7 billion in 2016 global revenue, with more than 70% of sales being recurring in nature—a fact that underscores the advantage that comes from being the first major player in a rapidly growing market.

It isn’t clear whether robotic surgery uniformly leads to better outcomes. (Don’t look to the extensive medical literature for a clear-cut answer; conclusions differ from study to study.) But surgeons who swear by their robotic arms tend to return to the same words of praise: They tout the “speed of recovery” for patients, who typically don’t need to spend days or weeks in a hospital as they might after traditional open surgery. They speak of the “clarity” of its camera, the “flexibility” of its instruments.

A survey by investment and research group RBC Capital last year found that American surgeons think that within five years, 35% of operations will involve robots in some form, compared with 15% today.


Shake Shack founder on changing the way restaurants do business

And I think what fine-casual is doing is, “If you’re willing to give up waiters and waitresses and bartenders and reservations and table cloths and flowers, we’re gonna s– we’re gonna give you about 80 percent of the quality that you would have gotten in a fine-dining restaurant. We’re gonna save you about 80 percent of the money you’d spend in a fine-dining restaurant. And we’re gonna save you about 60 percent of the time.”

So by saying, “Hospitality included,” it’s basically saying, “You see that price that it costs to get the chicken? That includes everything. That includes not only the guy that bought the chicken and the guy that cooked the chicken, but it also includes the person who served it to you and how they made you feel.”


AlphaGo Zero: Learning from scratch

Previous versions of AlphaGo initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. AlphaGo Zero skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. In doing so, it quickly surpassed human level of play and defeated the previously published champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by 100 games to 0.

It is able to do this by using a novel form of reinforcement learning, in which AlphaGo Zero becomes its own teacher. The system starts off with a neural network that knows nothing about the game of Go. It then plays games against itself, by combining this neural network with a powerful search algorithm. As it plays, the neural network is tuned and updated to predict moves, as well as the eventual winner of the games.


Nike’s focus on robotics threatens Asia’s low-cost workforce

For Nike, the shift to greater automation has two huge attractions. By driving down costs, it could lead to a dramatic improvement in profit margins. It would also allow the company to deliver new designs more quickly to fickle, fashion-conscious customers at a premium. A pair of Nike Roshe shoes costs $75 without Flyknit uppers, compared to as much as $130 with Flyknit.

The potential upside for Nike of greater automation is immense. Analysts at Citibank estimate that by using the Flex manufacturing process to produce Nike’s 2017 Air Max shoes, one of its top-selling lines, the cost of labour would decrease 50 per cent and materials costs would fall 20 per cent. That would equate to a 12.5 percentage point increase in gross margins to 55.5 per cent, according to analysts Jim Suva and Kate McShane. If Flex were to produce 30 per cent of Nike’s North American footwear sales, Nike could save $400m in labour and material costs, representing a 5 per cent benefit to earnings per share, according to Citibank estimates.

Traditional shoe production has required as many as 200 different pieces across 10 sizes, often cut and glued together by hand. The new manufacturing process being developed by Flex has introduced two ideas once thought impossible: the gluing process has been automated and lasers are used to cut the Flyknit material. Lead times in the shoe industry once ran to several months: Flex has promised to help Nike speed up lead times, which can be three to four weeks for a customised pair of sneakers.

Nike has reduced its supply chain by nearly 200 factories in the past five years to focus on fewer “quality, long-term partnerships”. However, the process of closing a factory, including those with compliance issues, can be a long and costly process for “brand-sensitive companies like Nike” to mitigate the disruption to local economies.

Birth of a Hidden Champion: TSMC & Morris Chang

Morris Chang said Intel’s advantage lies in its robust technological power and strong business operation foundation, having maintained No. 1 in the global semiconductor for decades. But its biggest drawback rests with its inexperience in the wafer foundry sector that highlights a service-oriented corporate culture, as Intel’s technology departments have long served the company’s own needs, totally different from the core culture of serving others seen in the pure-play foundry sector. With his 25-year experience at Texas Instruments before founding TSMC, Chang said he realized very well what kind of corporate culture was needed for the foundry sector. He said when establishing TSMC 30 years ago, he was able to easily inject the service-oriented culture into the TSMC at the very beginning.

Apple’s COO Jeff Williams recounts how business with TSMC began with a dinner at the founder’s home

Williams said that in the next 10 years, the biggest problem lies not in computing performance, but in the lack of sufficient visions to apply new advanced technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence) as well as how to safeguard privacy.

He said Apple has many expectations for AI applications, but what the company needs is neither to make chips with faster computing performance or to make cars able to fly, but to utilize advanced technologies to change the world, such as making use of semiconductors to achieve medical technology innovations.”

Apple supplier TSMC says Moore’s Law is no longer valid

Chang said that the time frame set in Moore’s Law is no longer applicable. He said TSMC has kept increasing transistor density, but not at a pace according to the law. Chang continued by noting that discussions about the applicability of Moore’s Law in recent years have often focused on ASML, a leading semiconductor lithography equipment supplier, because the company is now the world’s only supplier of EUV (extreme ultraviolet) lithography equipment and EUV technology bears a great responsibility of keeping Moore’s Law valid. Chang said major semiconductor firms have been keen to incorporate EUV technology into their 7nm process.

ChowNow, a GrubHub competitor, raises $20 million Series B round

ChowNow prides itself on being different from the likes of GrubHub and Seamless. ChowNow’s flagship service offers restaurants a white-label platform that enables restaurants to own their customer data, and feel confident their customers aren’t constantly fending off menus and discounts from competitors. Unlike its competitors, ChowNow charges an upfront monthly cost of $150/month per location instead of taking a commission on all orders.

“Yes, our software supports delivery but we have a unique place in the restaurant where we don’t play in the delivery space outright,” Webb said. “We’re also not a traditional marketplace either. Shopify for restaurants is an accurate way to describe us. Restaurants can plug in to our system and integrate it into their delivery backend.”

In charts: has the US shale drilling revolution peaked?

Throughout its existence, the shale oil industry has consumed cash. Companies have been unable to cover their drilling costs from their incomes, and have needed constant infusions of debt and equity financing. They have had little difficulty in raising that money, in part because investors wanted to share in the productivity miracle that the companies represented. If the miraculous days are over, and a more humdrum reality is setting in, will investors still be prepared to back the industry so willingly? Already equity raising by US exploration and production companies has slowed sharply this year. Plenty of attractive investment opportunities still exist in shale: internal rates of return of 30 per cent and higher are available in the Permian Basin, according to S&P Global Platts Well Economic Analyzer. Will there be enough of those attractive opportunities to keep US oil production rising, as the government’s Energy Information Administration and others expect? The industry says yes, but the drilling and productivity numbers will be worth watching closely over the months to come.


Australia’s got a lock on supply of the metal used for EV batteries

“Australia’s importance has been cemented by offtake deals and equity investments in mines,” Alice Yu, a Hong Kong-based consultant at CRU, said by phone. Backing from major battery manufacturers and auto producers could also see the nation add processing facilities to develop exports of higher-value lithium chemicals, she said.

Still, Macquarie Group Ltd. has warned there’s a bearish outlook for lithium prices in the short-to-medium term as “too many Australian rock producers are crowding in” with new projects. The surge is threatening to create a period of oversupply before rising demand for electric vehicles clears the surplus from about 2021, the bank said in a note this month.

Even with a wave of new supply, including from Australia, the lithium market is likely to remain tight with a stronger demand outlook than anticipated, according to Melbourne-based UBS Group AG analyst Lachlan Shaw. “We have had increased supply this year, and all the while lithium prices have kept going up,” he said. “The market is probably underestimating demand.”

How Saudi Arabia is building its $2 trillion fund

The kingdom plans to transfer ownership of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, to the PIF. An initial public offering of a small Aramco stake — probably just under 5 percent — will provide investment cash. That sale could raise about $106 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute. Transferring Aramco to the PIF would allow the government to get its revenue from investments, rather than oil, according to the Prince, and along the way transform the PIF into the world’s biggest sovereign fund.


Bogle: Vanguard’s Size a Worry

The economies of scale just can’t keep going on much longer. We’ve only got 12 basis points to go, and let me say it: There’s an irreducible minimum, no matter how big you are, just for the fun of it, 8 basis points, cost a lot of money to run this business. We’re now talking about a 4 basis point improvement in cost. I just don’t think it’s worthwhile, hyping and trying to bring in more and more money.

The David Rubenstein Show: Masayoshi Son

On his US$100bn Vision Fund: He thinks that machines will become more intelligent than humans across a wide range of subjects within the next 30 years, an event referred to as the singularity. This will have a profound and largely positive impact on humankind. The fund will invest in companies that underpin the global shifts brought on by artificial intelligence.

On the Alibaba investment: Invested US$20m early on in the company’s history. He met with Jack Ma, who at the time had no business plan, zero revenue and only 35-40 employees. Still, he could tell from the way he talked (with “strong, shining eyes”) that he had a vision and impressive leadership skills. Similar story with Jerry Yang and the Yahoo! investment.

On his recent investment in ARM: Biggest investment to date. UK-based semiconductor company that has an overwhelming market share for semiconductor designs used in mobile phones and other mobile devices. He says they will ship more than 1 trillion IoT chips in the next 20 years.

Chinese women are getting rich by simply livestreaming their days

In China, young women like 23-year-old Huan Huan can earn up to $20,000 a month livestreaming themselves just doing regular things. That’s about 30 times more than the average college graduate makes at their first job.

In China, which banned online porn in 2000, PG-rated livestreaming has become a $4 billion-a-year industry with nearly 350 million followers — more than the entire population of the United States.

How do I get my daughter interested in computers?

Nobody becomes a software engineer because they love writing code; they become a software engineer because it allows them to build out ideas. This is a useful skill to have. Except that most software engineers aren’t realizing their own ideas. They’re getting paid to build someone else’s pet project. Software engineers are the wage labourers of the tech industry.

The most important tech skill, then, isn’t computers or engineering — It’s the art of getting paid to control vast amounts of money. Then you can make programmers build out whatever dumb ideas you like. Parents who want their daughters to succeed in Silicon Valley need not worry about teaching their girls to code: Teach them about capitalism instead.

Curated Insights 2017.10.15

86-year-old billionaire iPhone chipmaker retires just as his industry heats up

“Since we established ourselves, fabless companies began to mushroom worldwide. Most of the innovations in the semiconductor industry in the last 30 years came from those fabless companies. That’s probably my biggest pride, to have caused a lot of innovations in the industry.”

Liu and Wei inherit a company that is about 30 times larger than local rival United Microelectronics Corp. and commands 59 percent of the $50 billion global foundry market.

Growing chipset demand from China spells another opportunity for TSMC: the country spent $227 billion importing integrated circuits in 2016, according to data from Chinese customs authorities, the fourth consecutive year that chip imports have exceeded $200 billion.

Nvidia, Intel, Marvell: Look how they’ve slimmed down! Says Stifel

“The end markets of semiconductors have changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” he observes, given how much automotive and industrial, two industries with longer product cycles, and therefore more predictable revenue, have taken from more volatile industries.

Another reason for rising valuations is simply scarcity: “In 2007 there were roughly 118 publicly traded semiconductor companies. Today there are roughly 55.”

Shopify S-1 analysis – Smiling all the way to $10B

How are they able to sustain more efficient growth as they scale? The first reason is Shopify has been able to grow their contract value by 14% annually. The average subscription payment by merchant has remained flat over the past four years. Instead of growing subscription revenue on a per customer basis, Shopify is capturing more share of GMV. The chart above shows the merchant services revenue generated per billion dollars of gross merchandise value by Shopify. You can see that figure has quite nearly doubled in four years. In other words, as Shopify merchants sell more, Shopify benefits Proportionately from the growth in GMV, but also at an increasing slope because they capture almost twice as much in fees as they have been historically.

Consequently, merchant services now account for greater than 50% of revenue up from just above 20% four years ago. The gross margin on the software business has remained 78% over the past four years, while merchant services gross margin has fallen from 50% to 30%. Overall gross margin has fallen from 80% to 54%. But that is an advantageous trade considering the massive revenue growth.

Citron exposes the dark side of Shopify the FTC will take notice

Out of the claimed 500,000 websites, Shopify has about 2,500 “Plus” clients and maybe another 20,000 “Advanced”. So where are the other 450,000 + websites?

The majority of Shopify’s customers are not SMB merchants; rather, they are people who are buying a system and Shopify goes as far as to supply them a theme and inventory.

Ikea puts Latin America, Southeast Asian markets in its sights

Ikea has more than 400 stores in 49 markets across Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

According to Ikea’s plans, it will have opened its first store in South America within the next five years, which is the same timeframe it has set for its expansion into Vietnam and the Philippines. As South America is a new region, it’s likely to enter two or three markets there around the same time in order to secure supply and production, Loof said.

Ikea plans to add 22 new stores this year, up from 14 new stores in 2017. In the future, Ikea will probably open some 25 new stores annually, Loof said. Ikea’s website attracted 2.3 billion visitors last year, while its stores got 936 million visits.

Singapore home-sharing quietly grows despite the rules

Airbnb said its travelers to Singapore typically stay 4.1 nights compared with 3.6 for the average tourist, and three-quarters of listings are outside of traditional hotel districts, allowing tourism spending to accrue in areas that don’t usually host outside visitors.

In a February debate in Parliament, Louis Ng Kok Kwang, a lawmaker for the ruling People’s Action Party, urged the government to regulate rather than ban home-sharing services, noting that the approach so far is inconsistent with how Singapore treated car-sharing businesses, such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Grab.

How we’re solving the LIDAR problem

Strobe’s new chip-scale LIDAR technology will significantly enhance the capabilities of our self-driving cars. But perhaps more importantly, by collapsing the entire sensor down to a single chip, we’ll reduce the cost of each LIDAR on our self-driving cars by 99%.

Strobe’s LIDAR sensors provide both accurate distance and velocity information, which can be checked against similar information from a RADAR sensor for redundancy. RADARs typically also provide distance and velocity information and operate under more challenging weather conditions, but they lack the angular resolution needed to make certain critical maneuvers at speed. When used together, cameras, LIDARs, and RADARs can complement each other to create a robust and fault-tolerant sensing suite that operates in a wide range of environmental and lighting conditions.


India stock market could triple in a decade

” … The sectors poised to benefit the most are consumer-oriented and financials. Total online shoppers in India are set to skyrocket from 60 million to 475 million in 2027, while online retail as a percentage of total retail will grow even faster, from 2.2% today to 12.1% in a decade. Unsurprisingly,, China’s Alibaba Group Holding and South Africa’s Naspers have been aggressively investing billions of dollars in India. Morgan Stanley figures Softbank alone has invested some $46 billion in local e-commerce and on-line payments, ride-hailing, and real estate platforms.

As for the financials, Morgan Stanley sees total loans increasing 11 percentage points to 78% of GDP by 2027; total mutual fund assets under management jumping more than ten-fold over the same period; and collected life and general insurance premiums spiking, as well. Fin-tech companies should see exponential growth …”

Bitcoin’s academic pedigree

Nakamoto’s genius, then, wasn’t any of the individual components of bitcoin, but rather the intricate way in which they fit together to breathe life into the system. The timestamping and Byzantine agreement researchers didn’t hit upon the idea of incentivizing nodes to be honest, nor, until 2005, of using proof of work to do away with identities. Conversely, the authors of hashcash, b-money, and bit gold didn’t incorporate the idea of a consensus algorithm to prevent double spending. In bitcoin, a secure ledger is necessary to prevent double spending and thus ensure that the currency has value. A valuable currency is necessary to reward miners. In turn, strength of mining power is necessary to secure the ledger. Without it, an adversary could amass more than 50 percent of the global mining power and thereby be able to generate blocks faster than the rest of the network, double-spend transactions, and effectively rewrite history, overrunning the system. Thus, bitcoin is bootstrapped, with a circular dependence among these three components. Nakamoto’s challenge was not just the design, but also convincing the initial community of users and miners to take a leap together into the unknown—back when a pizza cost 10,000 bitcoins and the network’s mining power was less than a trillionth of what it is today.

The history described here offers rich (and complementary) lessons for practitioners and academics. Practitioners should be skeptical of claims of revolutionary technology. As shown here, most of the ideas in bitcoin that have generated excitement in the enterprise, such as distributed ledgers and Byzantine agreement, actually date back 20 years or more. Recognize that your problem may not require any breakthroughs—there may be long-forgotten solutions in research papers.

Academia seems to have the opposite problem, at least in this instance: a resistance to radical, extrinsic ideas. The bitcoin white paper, despite the pedigree of many of its ideas, was more novel than most academic research. Moreover, Nakamoto didn’t care for academic peer review and didn’t fully connect it to its history. As a result, academics essentially ignored bitcoin for several years. Many academic communities informally argued that Bitcoin couldn’t work, based on theoretical models or experiences with past systems, despite the fact that it was working in practice.

The lessons of Leonardo: How to be a creative genius

Be curious about everything. Leonardo’s most distinctive trait was his passionate, playful and occasionally obsessive curiosity. He made lists in his notebooks of hundreds of subjects, both marvelous and mundane, that he wanted to explore…Some of his curiosity involved phenomena so commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them. “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary, since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?”

Observe attentively. His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused on things that the rest of us barely notice. One night he saw lightning flash behind some buildings and for that instant they looked smaller, so he launched a series of experiments to verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light.

The best reason to learn from Leonardo, however, is not to get a better job but to live a better life. Having immersed myself in his world for several years, I have resolved to be more observant of phenomena that I used to ignore.

Curated Insights 2017.09.10

You are the product

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

WhatsApp announces free Business app, will charge big enterprises

Businesses will only be able to contact people who have provided their phone number and agreed to be contacted by the business over WhatsApp…the enterprise solution will initially be free but it does plan to charge businesses. Some functionality that will be offered by the Business app and enterprise solution includes the ability to create a verified profile with info like address, description, and hours, plus “Features for helping manage customer chats like away messages for when businesses are not able to respond at the moment.

With over 1.3 billion monthly users and 1 billion daily users, WhatsApp has reached the massive scale necessary for it to earn significant revenue even from light advertising. Its Snapchat Stories clone WhatsApp Status now has 250 million daily users, and could host vertical video ads between friends’ content the way Instagram does. It could also insert display ads into the inbox like Facebook Messenger.

Apple can thrive in connected home despite Amazon, says Barclays

Google’s strength is around Cloud, ML and getting better at NLP. The reduction in error rates from Voice search from the mid-20%’s to low single digit % of queries over the last three years speaks to this strength […] Amazon is leading device market share today, and has the greatest Voice dataset to work with, but it needs to catch up to Google in NLP and ML (machine learning) in order to secure its position as the leading player longer term. We feel comfortable that Amazon will get there given their strength in cloud with AWS and long history in machine learning at (recommendation engine, etc).

Apple’s Connected Home strategy is focused on the company’s ability to leverage its software ecosystem (namely iOS) while maintaining its established position within its massive loyal user-base. This is an interesting approach when compared to Amazon and Google, which seem to be putting more emphasis on AI-powered speakers as the center of their Connected Home strategies. While we believe that AI-powered speakers could be used to drive incremental sales for Amazon, and gather additional data for Google, we wonder whether these devices can really be the center of the Connected Home in their current form. For Apple, we believe the iPhone will provide a natural control panel for the Connected Home due to its user-friendly interface and constant presence with the user. We note, despite the rapid growth of the Amazon Echo, Apple’s Siri still runs on significantly more devices. For context, we estimate that Apple’s installed base of devices is now much larger than 1 billion, including more than 700 million iPhones, compared to an estimated 20M+ Echo and Echo Dot units sold by Amazon at the end of 2016.

Chip prices keep rising, could crimp demand, says JP Morgan

…is that all upstream and downstream component makers guided continued blended ASP increases across memory, rechargeable battery, MLCC, camera modules and even PCBs. Among major components, SEMCO remained the most optimistic on continued MLCC price increase in the next 6-9 months under moderate supply growth from Japanese suppliers. Contents growth at dual-cam seem to be more based on volume growth rather than specification upgrades and we confirmed progress/ interest from both corporates/investors on 3D sensing potentially used for more than facial recognition and multiple brands.

We need to stop pretending that the autonomous car is imminent

We could start to see more interest in electric vehicles as second cars that are used primarily for short errand trips around town, but then we run into pricing concerns because few people want to spend more for a second car than their primary vehicle. Plus, the costs and potential impact on the electric grid as consumers start to install in-garage charging systems — yet another expense associated with electric cars — are potential concerns.

Beyond physical safety are the cybersecurity concerns. As has been discussed by many before, enormous potential threats are opened when the connectivity necessary to build and run autonomous cars is put into place. The notion of hacking when it comes to automobiles moves from an annoyance to a life-threatening concern.

…the ability for cars to communicate with each other and other elements of the transportation infrastructure (stoplights, road signs, etc.), commonly referred to as V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle to infrastructure).

…concerns about regulatory standards, insurance liability and other legal issues that could dramatically slow down deployments…

A simple design flaw makes it astoundingly easy to hack Siri and Alexa

Using a technique called the DolphinAttack, a team from Zhejiang University translated typical vocal commands into ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to hear, but perfectly decipherable by the microphones and software powering our always-on voice assistants. This relatively simple translation process lets them take control of gadgets with just a few words uttered in frequencies none of us can hear.

The first is that voice assistants actually need ultrasonics just to hear people well, compared to analyzing a voice without those high frequencies…The second is that some companies are already exploiting ultrasonics for their own UX, including phone-to-gadget communication…User-friendliness is increasingly at odds with security.

Tiny changes can have big implications

Slow changes — both improvements and deteriorations — get magnified over time. But over short periods of time, they are barely noticeable for most people. Cognition, says Charlie Munger, misled by tiny changes involving low contrast, will often miss a trend that is destiny.

One big lesson that I have learnt over the years is that I should never talk to, or rely upon, the management of a company when worrying about risks of disruption. Apart from the fact that they have too much financial and emotional investment in the game, the management of a company is just too close to data which will turn out to be noise in the long run.

More data does not always lead to more insights. Often less is better. In fact, when one is thinking about disruption (or gradual improvements in the competitive advantage of a business), investors who are somewhat detached as compared to insiders and industry analysts, and who have learnt much after reading evolutionary biology and history of not just businesses but civilisations, are likely to be in a much better position to identify important changes that are hidden in daily, weekly, quarterly, or even annual financial statements.

Sheryl Sandberg just gave some brilliant career advice. Here it is in 2 words

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned as we’ve grown is that we have to prioritize,” said Sandberg. “We talk about it as ruthless prioritization. And by that what we mean is only do the very best of the ideas. Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices.”