Curated Insights 2019.06.14

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

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

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

Meatless future or vegan delusions? The Beyond Meat valuation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curated Insights 2019.05.03

James Harden and alpha

Advantage is only an advantage if others don’t have the same advantage.

Do you meet with company management? So do 30 sell-side analysts and 100 buy side analysts and PMs every quarter. Do you build your own, bespoke, earnings models? So does half the buy side. Do you interview competitors, customers, and suppliers? So does half the buy side. Do you pull credit-card history, satellite images, and other big data in real time? So does half the buy side. If you think you have a sustainable informational edge, you’re either deluding yourself, or you have inside information.

We are not playing an information game. Everyone has the information. The question is how objective can you be when you process it, and might Mr Market see the same information with bias?

Vanguard patented a way to avoid taxes on mutual funds

To understand how the process works, consider an investor who owns a portfolio of stocks. If one is sold for more than what it cost, capital-gains tax is due on the difference. Theoretically, owning stocks through a mutual fund or ETF works the same way. If the fund sells a stock for a profit, the taxable gain shows up on each investor’s end-of-year Form 1099. But thanks to an obscure loophole in the tax code, ETFs almost always avoid incurring taxable gains.

The rule says that a fund can avoid recognizing taxable gains on an appreciated stock if the shares are used to pay off a withdrawing investor. The rule applies to both ETFs and mutual funds, but mutual funds rarely take advantage of it because their investors almost always want cash.

ETFs use it all the time, because they don’t transact directly with regular investors. Instead, they deal with Wall Street middlemen such as banks and market makers. It’s those firms, not retail investors, that expand the ETF by depositing assets or shrink it by withdrawing. These transactions are usually done with stocks rather than cash. The middlemen, in turn, trade with regular investors who want to buy and sell ETF shares.

Trading with middlemen presents ETFs a tax-cutting opportunity. Whenever one of these firms makes a withdrawal request, an ETF can deliver its oldest, most appreciated stocks, the ones most likely to generate a tax bill someday.

If the ETF wants to cut its taxes further, it can generate extra withdrawals just to harvest the tax break. A heartbeat is when an ETF asks a friendly bank or market maker to deposit some stock in the fund for a day or two, then take different stock out. Some critics call these trades an abuse of the tax code. But with the help of heartbeats, most stock ETFs, even ones that change holdings frequently, are able to cut their capital-gains taxes to zero.

Thanks to winnings on stocks like Monsanto, the fund reported $6.51 billion of capital gains in 2018. But for the 17th straight year since it got an ETF share class, the fund distributed no taxable gains to investors. The ETF ensured that the vast majority of the gains, $6.49 billion, weren’t taxable. The balance was probably canceled out by tax losses from earlier years.

You’re not getting enough sleep—and it’s killing you

He ran down all the ways in which sleep deprivation hurts people: it makes you dumber, more forgetful, unable to learn new things, more vulnerable to dementia, more likely to die of a heart attack, less able to fend off sickness with a strong immune system, more likely to get cancer, and it makes your body literally hurt more. Lack of sleep distorts your genes, and increases your risk of death generally, he said. It disrupts the creation of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, and leads to premature aging. Apparently, men who only sleep five hours a night have markedly smaller testicles than men who sleep more than seven.

Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning (even on the weekends). Sleep in a cool room. If you are lying awake in bed, listening to the litany of worries your brain is churning through, get up, go into a different room, and do an activity, then return to bed when you’re ready. “You wouldn’t sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry, so why lay in bed waiting to get tired,” he told a TED attendee who’d asked for advice. Meditate to calm your nervous system and your mind. Don’t default to sleeping pills, which are “blunt instruments that do not produce naturalistic sleep,” he said. Eventually, he said, he may be able to offer an “affordable, portable” brain-stimulating device that would use transcranial direct-current stimulation to help people have deeper sleep.

Curated Insights 2018.04.22

Disneyflix is coming. And Netflix should be scared.

But in film, as in television, Disney relies on middlemen to deliver its content—and middlemen always take a cut. To buy a ticket to see a Disney film in theaters, you pay an exhibitor that keeps about 40 percent of the ticket price. What if Disney bypassed the middlemen and put a highly anticipated film like Black Panther on its streaming service the same day it opened in theaters—or made the film exclusive to subscribers? In the short term, sacrificing all those onetime ticket buyers might seem financially ruinous. But the lifetime value of subscriptions—which renew automatically until actively canceled—quickly becomes profound. If the film’s debut encouraged just over 4 million people to sign up for an annual subscription to a $10-a-month Disneyflix product—about the same number of subscribers that Netflix added the quarter it debuted its original series House of Cards—Disney would earn a net revenue of nearly $500 million in just the first year. Black Panther was a massive hit as a theatrical release; it could have been even bigger had it been used to transform onetime moviegoers into multiyear Disneyflix subscribers.

The math might make this seem like an easy call for Disney, but let’s not underplay how radical this move would be, and how seismic the effects on the existing entertainment industry. In recent years, the theatrical-release business has been carried by blockbusters—and Disney has been perhaps the most reliable producer of those. From 2010 to 2017, films earning more than $100 million have grown from 48 percent to 64 percent of the domestic box office, according to the research firm MoffettNathanson—and Disney has made the year’s top-grossing film in six of the past seven years. If Disney moves its films, en masse, to a proprietary streaming platform, it would smash movie theaters’ precious window of exclusivity and leach away crucial revenue. Exhibitors such as AMC and Regal may find themselves on an accelerated path to bankruptcy or desperate consolidation.

In this vision, Disneyflix wouldn’t just be Netflix with Star Wars movies—it would be Amazon for Star Wars pillowcases and Groupon for rides on Star Wars roller coasters and Kayak for the Star Wars suite at Disney hotels. That’s a product that could rival Netflix and create the kind of profits Disney has enjoyed during its unprecedented century of dominance. The company just has to destroy its own businesses—and the U.S. entertainment landscape—to build it.

Zillow, aggregation, and integration

To quickly summarize, I wrote that Aggregators as a whole share three characteristics:

  • A direct relationship with users
  • Zero marginal costs to serve those users
  • Demand-driven multi-sided networks that result in decreasing acquisition costs

This allows Aggregators to leverage an initial user experience advantage with a relatively small number of users into power over some number of suppliers, which come onto the platform on the Aggregator’s terms, enhancing the user experience and attracting more users, setting off a virtuous cycle of an ever-increasing user base leading to ever-increasing power over suppliers.

Not all Aggregators are the same, though; they vary based on the cost of supply:

  • Level 1 Aggregators have to acquire their supply and win by leveraging their user base into superior buying power (i.e. Netflix).
  • Level 2 Aggregators do not own their supply but incur significant marginal costs in scaling supply (i.e. Airbnb or Uber).
  • Level 3 Aggregators have zero supply costs (i.e. App Stores or social networks)

Remember, Zillow is in nearly every respect already an Aggregator: it is by far the number one place people go when they want to look for a new house, and at a minimum the starting point for research when they want to sell one. They own the customer relationship! What has always been missing is the integration with the purchase itself — until last week. Zillow is making a play to be a true Aggregator — one that transforms its industry by integrating the customer relationship with the most important transaction in its respective value chain — by becoming directly involved in the buying and selling of houses.

Here, though, Zillow’s status as an almost-Aggregator looms large: we now have years’ worth of evidence that realtors will do what it takes to ensure their listings appear on Zillow, because Zillow controls end users. It very well may be the case that realtors will find themselves with no choice but to continue giving Zillow the money the company needs to disrupt their industry.


Facebook to put 1.5 billion users out of reach of new EU privacy law

If a new European law restricting what companies can do with people’s online data went into effect tomorrow, almost 1.9 billion Facebook Inc users around the world would be protected by it. The online social network is making changes that ensure the number will be much smaller.

The change affects more than 70 percent of Facebook’s 2 billion-plus members. As of December, Facebook had 239 million users in the United States and Canada, 370 million in Europe and 1.52 billion users elsewhere.

In practice, the change means the 1.5 billion affected users will not be able to file complaints with Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner or in Irish courts. Instead they will be governed by more lenient U.S. privacy laws, said Michael Veale, a technology policy researcher at University College London. Facebook will have more leeway in how it handles data about those users, Veale said. Certain types of data such as browsing history, for instance, are considered personal data under EU law but are not as protected in the United States, he said.


Why all my books are now free (aka a lesson in Amazon money laundering)

One reader forwarded this article on Amazon Money Laundering written by Brian Krebs. He argues that serious money laundering is going on with stolen credit cards: “Reames said he suspects someone has been buying the book using stolen credit and/or debit cards, and pocketing the 60 percent that Amazon gives to authors. At $555 a pop, it would only take approximately 70 sales over three months to rack up the earnings that Amazon said he made.”

My guess is eventually you’ll see the government step in, fine the crap out of Amazon, which will then be followed by a multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuit.

The iPhone X generated 5X more profit than the combined profit of 600+ Android OEMs during Q4 2017

The iPhone X alone generated 21% of total industry revenue and 35% of total industry profits during the quarter and its share is likely to grow as it advances further into its life cycle. Additionally, the longer shelf life of all iPhones ensured that Apple still has eight out of top ten smartphones, including its three-year-old models, generating the most profits compared to current competing smartphones from other OEMs.

Apple remained the most profitable brand, capturing 86% of the total handset market profits. Further splitting profits by model, the top 10 models captured 90% of the total handset profits.

Car dealerships face conundrum: Get big or get out

Dealers say they need to as much as triple revenue in the next half-decade to offset shrinking margins and increasing competition from companies that didn’t exist a decade ago…These developments have helped fuel consolidation of the 16,800 U.S. dealerships into the hands of fewer owners. The top 50 dealer groups are poised to book more than $175 billion in revenue this year, compared to $144 billion when Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. entered the sector four years ago.

Your future home might be powered by car batteries

By allowing car batteries to serve as a residential power source, Nissan says its vehicle-to-home service cuts utility bills by about $40 per month. Still, only about 7,000 car owners have adopted the system in the six years since it started, a tiny number compared with the 81,500 Leaf EVs that Nissan has sold so far in the country.

A small test this winter showed how hard it is just to get people to charge their cars at the right time. (Selling power back to the grid is a separate can of worms.) Nissan and the utility convinced 45 of their own employees to install home chargers and try monitoring electricity demand on weekends, using a smartphone app. Even though volunteers got free shopping points on Amazon as a reward for buying power when there was glut, only about 10 percent succeeded.

It’s a slow beginning, but Nuvve Chief Executive Officer Gregory Poilasne says vehicle-to-grid systems could eventually speed up the adoption of electric vehicles once people realize their batteries can earn them money. Poilasne says his clients make more than $1,000 per car each year by trading power to the spot market.


Blockchain is about to revolutionize the shipping industry

Should they succeed, documentation that takes days will eventually be done in minutes, much of it without the need for human input. The cost of moving goods across continents could drop dramatically, adding fresh impetus to relocate manufacturing or source materials and goods from overseas.

“This would be the biggest innovation in the industry since the containerization. It basically brings more transparency and efficiency. The container shipping lines are coming out of their shells and playing catch-up in technology.”

In 2014, Maersk followed a refrigerated container filled with roses and avocados from Kenya to the Netherlands. The company found that almost 30 people and organizations were involved in processing the box on its journey to Europe. The shipment took about 34 days to get from the farm to the retailers, including 10 days waiting for documents to be processed. One of the critical documents went missing, only to be found later amid a pile of paper.

Chinese money floods U.S. biotech as Beijing chases new cures

Venture-capital funds based in China poured $1.4 billion into private U.S. biotechnology firms in the three months ending March 31, accounting for about 40 percent of the $3.7 billion that the companies raised in the period overall, according to data provider PitchBook. At the same time a year earlier, Chinese funds invested $125.5 million, only about seven percent of the total.

China once lagged other countries in drug spending despite its large population, but outlays have expanded over the past decade. In 2012, China surpassed Japan to become the second-largest global drug market behind the U.S., according to a report from health-technology firm Iqvia, formerly known as QuintilesIMS. It could spend as much as $170 billion by 2021, compared to $116.7 billion in 2016, the firm said.

Selling drugs in China is also getting easier. Western companies usually waited for approval elsewhere before starting clinical trials in China because of the country’s cumbersome rules. But those restrictions have been relaxed, leading U.S. companies to view China as a more important market, and making Chinese investors hungry for to share in the returns from new therapies.

Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful. In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be sent with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

Casualties of your own success

I valeted at a hotel in college. We parked 10,000 cars a month. And we banged one of them up every month, like clockwork. Management found this atrocious. Every few weeks we’d be scolded for our recklessness. But one accident in 10,000 parks is actually pretty good. If you drive twice a day, it’ll take you 14 years to park 10,000 times. One bent fender every 14 years is a driving record your insurance company won’t bat an eye at. The only reason we seemed reckless is because we parked so many cars. Size (or volume) put a negative spotlight on us that being less busy with the same parking skills would have masked. Big companies deal with this too. Chipotle sells half a billion burritos a year. You, at home, washing everything in bleach, could never make one carnitas burrito a day for half a billion days (1.4 million years) and expect to avoid a foodborne illness.

One is that everything moves in cycles. You can’t extrapolate the benefits of growth because growth comes attached with downsides that go from annoying at one size to catastrophic at another. Rising valuations that come with investment growth is the clearest example, but it’s everywhere: Headcount, media attention, AUM, and influence have downsides that can eventually grow faster than their benefits. Remembering that volatility is attracted to outlier growth puts many things about business and investing in context.

The second is size is associated with success, success is associated with hubris, and hubris is the beginning of the end of success. Some of the most enduring animals aren’t apex predators, but they’re very good at evasion, camouflage, and armour. They’re paranoid. I always come back to the time Charlie Rose asked Michael Moritz how Sequoia Capital has thrived for three decades, and he said, “We’ve always been afraid of going out of business.” Paranoia in the face of success is extremely hard but in hindsight it’s the closest thing to a secret weapon that exists.

Debt recycling

By investing a total of $55,097.13 I was able to purchase 3 properties over a 5 year period, with a combined value of just over $1,000,000. Two years later I sold one of the properties, using the proceeds to reduce the leverage of the remaining portfolio. I was able to recover my $55,000 of cash contributions, and still be left with equity worth over $473,000. At that point I could have sold a second property and used to proceeds to fully pay off the mortgage on the remaining property. This could have provided me with rent/mortgage free accommodation for the rest of my life, or alternatively contributed $26,000 in annual free cash flow towards covering my own lifestyle costs.


Why ‘sleep on it’ is the most useful advice for learning — and also the most neglected

Walker relates problem solving to the REM phase of sleep, demonstrating that it is in this critical stage of unconsciousness that we form novel connections between individual chunks of knowledge. REM sleep is where our ideas crystallise and recombine into new, creative thoughts.

The premise of adaptive timetabling does not fit will with a standardised model that runs on a fixed clock. Sleep does not lend itself to the measurement paradigms of today’s education system. Education is mired in empiricist dogma, hell-bent on measuring whatever it can, and then assigning importance only to what has been measured. It should be evident that the nature of problem solving, so much of which is rooted in unconscious thought, is holistic and beyond the blunt tools of written assessment. Any timed exam that seeks to capture students’ problem solving skills within a fixed period is, by the findings of neuroscience, a contradiction in terms.