Curated Insights 2019.09.20

The financial Turing test

Imagine we could simulate the universe where each time you are born to different set of parents with a different genetic makeup. Sometimes you are born a man. Sometimes you are born a woman. Sometimes black. Sometimes white. Sometimes smart. Sometimes not. Etcetera etcetera. What would you do to have the highest probability of becoming financially secure regardless of your background?

If you wanted to re-state this question more simply, it is: How do you get rich without getting lucky?


Product-user fit comes before product-market fit

The jump from product-user fit to product-market fit is no trivial leap. Skipping what to focus on during the product-user fit stage and prematurely racing to spark the market adoption can actually decelerate your path to product-market fit. Forcing growth on a product that isn’t yet ready for broader adoption will not ultimately convert to a market of highly retained, happy users. And if you don’t listen to the early power users closely enough, you may never discover the insights that get you to a world-class product.

Power users are the biggest sign of product-user fit. Making the leap from product-user fit to product-market fit is about listening to these users to evolve your product to attract more users. When exploring products that have only been in market for a short amount of time, the behavior of power users is often more interesting and important than any aggregate metrics. If the goal is to “make something people want,” then continuously talking to and observing early power users is the only way to really understand what drives both user retention and non-user activation.

5 reasons to consider buying Berkshire Hathaway

First, we think Berkshire’s broad diversification provides the company with additional opportunities and helps to minimize losses during market and/or economic downturns. Berkshire remains a broadly diversified conglomerate run on a completely decentralized basis, with a collection of moaty businesses operating in industries ranging from property-casualty insurance to railroad transportation, utilities and pipelines, and manufacturing, service, and retailing. The economic moats of these operating subsidiaries are built primarily on cost advantage, efficient scale, and intangible assets, with some of these businesses being uniquely advantaged as well by their ability to essentially operate as private companies under the Berkshire umbrella. The operating subsidiaries also benefit from being part of the parent company’s strong balance sheet, diverse income statement, and larger consolidated tax return.

Berkshire’s unique business model has historically allowed the company to–without incurring taxes or much in the way of other costs–move large amounts of capital from businesses that have limited incremental investment opportunities into other subsidiaries that potentially have more advantageous investment options (or put the capital to work in publicly traded securities). The managers of Berkshire’s operating subsidiaries are encouraged to make decisions based on the long-term health and success of the business, rather than adhering to the short-termism that tends to prevail among many publicly traded companies. Another big advantage that comes from operating under the Berkshire umbrella is the benefit that comes with diversification not only within the company’s insurance operations, but also within the organization as a whole. In most periods, it is not unusual to see weakness in one aspect of Berkshire’s operations being offset by the results from another or from the rest of the organization.


We can be weird, or it can be public

WeWork seems to be facing the traditional tradeoff: Stay private, keep control, but lose access to billions of dollars of funding, or go public, raise unlimited money, and have to act normal. If it does either of those things, that will mark a sort of end of an era. At the height of the unicorn boom, big tech companies could stay private without giving up the benefits of being public, or they could go public without taking on the burdens of being public. Now they might have to make hard choices again.

Shopify is now a major player in e-commerce. Here’s how it happened, according to the COO

Over the years, we’ve also realized as we grow bigger, we have incredible economy of scale. If you were to aggregate all our U.S. stores [customers’ sales volume] we would be the third-largest online retailer in the U.S. Amazon is first, eBay second, and Shopify is a very close third. What that means is when we go to the payment companies, when we go to the shipping companies or go to anyone, we negotiate on behalf of more than 800,000 merchants. Instead of keeping the economies of scale for ourselves, we distribute [the benefits] to the small businesses. I think that’s why we have been really successful.


The foodoo economics of meal delivery

The newbies, born more recently, have turned a once-tidy business into a food fight. They include listed firms such as Meituan of China and Delivery Hero of Germany, Uber Eats (part of Uber), Ele.me (owned by China’s Alibaba), and privately held DoorDash, based in San Francisco, and Deliveroo, from London. For most of them, delivery is their core business, so they share their cut of the bill with riders as well as restaurants. This substantially broadens the market to restaurants offering everything from steak to Hawaiian poké bowls. But margins suffer. Funded largely by venture capital, they have thrown subsidies at customers, forcing their veteran rivals onto the defensive. To catch up, the veterans are investing in advertising and delivery networks—at a big cost. This week Grubhub and Just Eat reported slumping earnings, and Takeaway mounting losses, as they spent heavily to fend off the upstarts.

The only mouthwatering aspect of the delivery business is its potential size. According to Bernstein, a brokerage, almost a third of the global restaurant industry is made up of home delivery, takeaway and drive-throughs, which could be worth $1trn by 2023. In 2018 delivery amounted to $161bn, leaving plenty of room for online firms to expand; the seven largest increased revenues by an average of 58%. Their businesses support the trend of 20- and 30-somethings to live alone or in shared accommodation, with less time and inclination to cook. In China, by far the biggest market for food delivery, one-third of people told a survey that they would be prepared to rent a flat without a kitchen because of the convenience of delivery. Delivery also fits neatly with the gig-economy zeitgeist, alongside ride-hailing firms such as Uber, Lyft and China’s Didi.

Moreover, potential growth may be overstated. Subsidies make true demand hard to gauge. When delivery charges and service fees eventually rise, which they will have to if profits are to materialise, some customers may flee. In the meantime, cheap money lets firms undercut rivals but distorts incentives. The war of attrition could get even worse if giants like Amazon muscle in, as it has tried to do by buying a stake in Deliveroo (the deal is stalled at present because of antitrust concerns). Alibaba, Amazon’s Chinese counterpart, uses Ele.me as a loss leader helping drive traffic to its profitable e-commerce sites.

Untangling the threads: Stitch Fix is a bargain

There have been numerous ecommerce 2.0 flameouts over the past decade (e.g. Gilt Groupe, Fab.com, Birchbox, Shoedazzle, Beachmint, One Kings Lane). Venture capitalists flocked to these businesses due to large addressable markets and strong top-line growth. To be fair, there have been some big winners (e.g. Wayfair) which can justify the VC game. But as Bill Gurley points out, innovations around pricing or distribution — think flash sales and subscriptions in a box — don’t represent core differentiation or sustainable competitive advantages. Additionally, these startups had access to hundreds of millions of VC funding and therefore weren’t forced to prove out the unit economics before scaling rapidly.

Are Airbnb investors destroying Europe’s cultural capitals?

The definitive story of how a controversial Florida businessman blew up MoviePass and burned hundreds of millions

Farnsworth’s pitch to MoviePass: $25 million for 51% of the company, two seats on the five-member board, and a promise to drop the monthly subscription price, temporarily, from $50 to $9.95, with the goal of hitting 100,000 subscribers. If all went well, the next step would be taking MoviePass public. But Farnsworth’s plan worried Spikes; to him, $10 a month was too low. At that price MoviePass would start losing money when a subscriber used the service more than once a month.

In the US, the average price for a movie ticket is about $9; if a customer ordered a ticket every day for a month (the maximum the MoviePass plan allowed), it would cost MoviePass about $270, of which the subscriber’s fee would cover just $10. But in July 2017, the MoviePass board agreed to the deal. And on August 15, the price drop went into effect. Thanks to word-of-mouth buzz and press attention, within two days subscriptions jumped from about 20,000 to 100,000. MoviePass had transformed from a scrappy startup trying to keep the lights on to a disrupter in the making.

But Spikes saw a looming disaster. The company was overwhelmed by its overnight success and couldn’t keep up with demand. A quarter-million new subscribers were signing up every month, and MoviePass customer-service lines were flooded with complaints from people who had been waiting weeks for their cards. MoviePass had lowballed the number of cards it would need after the price drop. It got to a point where the vendor making the MoviePass cards didn’t have enough plastic and had to call on its competitors to fulfill all the card orders. “We all knew we were selling something we couldn’t deliver on,” one former staffer said.

Pat Dorsey: Never put any moat on a pedestal

The same way you evaluate any other business, which is trying to think about the present value of future cash flows. This is an area where the world has changed pretty significantly over the past couple of decades because, 30 years ago, most investments were done via the balance sheet. They were investments in buildings, in factories, in railroads, in locomotives and all those came out of the balance sheet. Today, a lot of investment happens out of the income statement. If you are a software company, and you are acquiring new customers, who might have a nine to 10-year lifespan with the business, that comes out of sales and marketing, and so that depresses your current margins.

But it seems insensible to me to argue that I should not invest in a customer who could be with me for 10 years and who will pay me 3% more every year as I raise prices. Why is that not just as valuable an investment as a machine that will wear out in 10 years? One is an appreciating asset and the other is a depreciating asset. The former — the customer — comes by way of investing through the income statement and depresses current margins. As for buying the machine, it is just a capital expenditure. If you have a business that is re-investing heavily today, a software company or an Amazon for example, you have to think about the incremental unit economics. How much does it cost to acquire each customer and how much value do they deliver over some span of time, and then try to think about what does this business look like at steady state, say in a five or 10-year timeframe. You know what margins it will have once the investment slows down and then you discount those cash flows back to the present.

So far, Uber and Lyft have competed very heavily on price. That was evident in both of their IPO filings, they have been trying to undercut each other on price, which is not the sign of a healthy competitive dynamic that’s going to result in great return for shareholders. Maybe that will change, I don’t know. But, when I see two big companies trying to basically undercut each other on price and, it’s not really clear who is going to win, I’d rather just stay on the sidelines and watch. One of the most important things for an investor to do is to maximise return on time. By analysing Uber and Lyft, we probably aren’t going to get a lot of advantage, because everybody and their mother is trying to have an opinion on these things, and it’s just not clear how the competitive dynamics will pan out long term. So we’ve spent literally zero time on them!

A lot of it comes down to the unit economics of the business. Boeing and Airbus need to absorb a lot of fixed costs. Building an aircraft factory, investing and designing a new aircraft, requires a lot of very high fixed costs, and so they need to absorb that. And so, each incremental plane sold is very important to both companies. So they need to take market share from each other. Whereas for Visa and Mastercard, their fixed cost for the payment networks, those costs were sunk decades ago. Their network is there. It exists. So there’s no incentive to compete on price, because they don’t have the same economics of cost absorption.

When to sell and when a moat is weakening are really two different questions. But I would say, the biggest signal that a moat is weakening is the lack of pricing power. If a business historically had been able to raise prices and is no longer able to raise prices, that generally indicates that its competitive advantage is weakening or disappearing.

Howard Stern is getting ripped off

Take a look at Joe Rogan, who currently has the most popular talk show podcast with over 200 million downloads per month. This number comes from Joe himself¹, but let’s assume he was exaggerating and it’s only 100 million downloads per month.

Assuming he sells ads at a low $18 CPM (cost per thousand listeners) and sells out his ad spots, he’s making approximately $64mm in annual revenue. If he’s on the higher end, at $50 CPM, he could be making as much as $240mm per year². The only factor that would change this is how many free ads Joe gives to companies that he has a personal equity stake in (like Onnit, the supplement brand he co-owns).

That means that Joe makes somewhere between $64-$240 million per year in revenue from his podcast advertising alone—and that’s handicapping his audience by half what he claims to have. That number also doesn’t include any additional revenue generated from his wildly popular YouTube channel, which has over 6 million subscribers.

Based on existing advertising revenues alone, Joe Rogan could easily be worth over a billion dollars, even if he doesn’t realize it. If estimates are correct, he owns a business that produces somewhere in the neighborhood of $60-$235 million/year in profit and is likely growing at 30–50% annually (assuming his audience is growing alongside the podcast ecosystem)³. If it were publicly traded, his podcasting business could easily fetch a valuation in the billions.

Even the small stresses of daily life can hurt your health, but attitude can make a difference

When people talk about harmful stress — the kind that can affect health — they usually point to big, life-changing events, such as the death of a loved one. A growing body of research suggests that minor, everyday stress — caused by flight delays, traffic jams, cellphones that run out of battery during an important call, etc. — can harm health, too, and even shorten life spans.

Curated Insights 2019.07.19

Disneyland makes surveillance palatable—and profitable

Despite these familial concerns, Disney’s data mining never faced the sort of scrutiny that Silicon Valley has. The reason is fairly simple: Disney World is the real-world manifestation of a walled garden, a family-friendly environment without a perceived risk of children being exposed to inappropriate content like on YouTube or Twitch. Wired once called this data-driven customer relationship “exactly the type of thing Apple, Facebook and Google are trying to build. Except Disney World isn’t just an app or a phone—it’s both, wrapped in an idealized vision of life that’s as safely self-contained as a snow globe.”


Ray-Ban owner in talks for GrandVision at $8 billion value

By adding GrandVision, which sells prescription glasses, contact lenses and other eyecare products, EssilorLuxottica would gain more than 7,000 stores in more than 40 countries. GrandVision operates under retail brands including Brilleland and For Eyes. In addition to its well-known sunglass labels, including Oakley, EssilorLuxottica owns store chains like LensCrafters and Pearle Vision.

EssilorLuxottica’s interest in GrandVision comes only two months after the company defused a leadership dispute that weighed on its shares. The eyecare maker, the result of a merger of France’s Essilor and Italy’s Luxottica, said in May that it would seek a new chief executive officer — an effort to find a compromise between Chairman Leonardo Del Vecchio and Vice Chairman Hubert Sagnieres. The dispute flared up after the companies sealed their $53 billion merger last year, with Del Vecchio saying he wanted to appoint his deputy as CEO and Sagnieres countering that the Italian was making false statements in an effort to seize control of the group.


Shopify and the power of platforms

This is how Shopify can both in the long run be the biggest competitor to Amazon even as it is a company that Amazon can’t compete with: Amazon is pursuing customers and bringing suppliers and merchants onto its platform on its own terms; Shopify is giving merchants an opportunity to differentiate themselves while bearing no risk if they fail.

Curated Insights 2018.10.12

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

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

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

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

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

How big can Amazon get?

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

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

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

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

What Spotify can learn from Tencent Music

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

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

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


Traffic acquisition costs

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

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

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

Shares of pet insurer Trupanion are overvalued

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

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

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

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

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


Can anyone bury BlackRock?

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

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

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

How to break up a credit ratings oligopoly

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Why the Elastic IPO is so important

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can anyone catch America in plastics?

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

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


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

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

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

Circle of competence

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


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

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


Market timing is hard

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

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

The Decision Matrix: How to prioritize what matters

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

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

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

Risk management

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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, Amazon.com, 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.