Curated Insights 2020.03.20

Spotify: The ambient media company

We believe the market that we’re going after is going to be at least a billion, probably two or three billion people around the world. And if we are going to win that market, I think we’d have to be at least a third of that market. So we’re talking about somewhere between 10x – 15x of opportunity left.

The battle for sustained success in the ambient media landscape will come down, in many ways, to balance. Balancing long term vision with the ability to react nimbly to near term developments. Balancing the need to address users at scale with the importance of the human element in creation and curation. And, for many companies, balancing commitment and investment to audio with broader business initiatives. On all three counts, Spotify comes out ahead.

If it takes a number of months or potentially years to make your money back, that gives investors time to take advantage of higher expected returns. For those who are net savers, this means plenty of time to deploy capital at lower prices than we were being offered in recent months. For those with diversified portfolios who won’t be making new contributions, this means opportunities to slowly rebalance into the pain.

Curated Insights 2020.02.21

The secret of stock picking

The fundamental error in defaulting to low valuation instead of deep fundamental underwriting work as a top of-funnel screen is best explained if one were to imagine the stock market as a retail store. You speak to the salesperson and they say to you, “OK, we have 1000 different things you can buy. These 800? They’re all the same price. These 100? They’re super nice and very expensive. Finally, we have these 100 that no one wants. They’re very cheap.” Now, imagine after that he told you, “Oh, and a thousand people already picked through the cheap ones.”

Investing is a very difficult and complex game, and many money managers will lose regardless of style. The opportunity lies in expanding one’s skillset from purely fundamentals to understanding how and why other investors lose and using these structural factors to determine how to allocate capital based on fundamental views. In poker terms, one needs to know the quality of a hand (fundamental views), positioning and the texture of the board (flows, pricing views), and how the weaknesses of other players will allow you to profit from that information (structural inefficiencies).

Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitor, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view.

Social Cost Arbitrage: Don’t forget the pecking order. Micromanagement: At the firm level, active managers increasingly have to justify individual positions to LPs, meaning investments not only have to be attractive to the manager, but also saleable to the client. Depending on the biases of the clients, managers may be unable to take advantage of insights because they risk losing clients. Boss Bias: Managers may have concerns with or even obsessions about a particular issue (election risk, fed balance sheet, etc.) that put employees in a bad spot because they will get fired if a particular investment does poorly around that same time that the issue manifests. Employees will not escalate ideas that they know go against their boss’s biases. Boy Who Cried Wolf: Individuals inside institutions generally cannot escalate views that have been escalated previously multiple times, even if the conditions for a good investment were not met in prior iterations. Managers scoff at pitches they have heard before.

Land of the undead

My colleague Aswath Damodaran says Amazon isn’t an ecommerce company or a cloud company, but a disruption platform that through great execution and unparallelled access to cheap capital, uses the flywheel effect to spin into completely different industries.

The sheer volume of people on Amazon (82% of households in the US) makes the platform more appealing to advertisers. Amazon Media Group is now a $15 billion business, the third-largest advertiser in the world behind Facebook and Google. More advertising results in more products, which leads to more purchases, which leads to greater investment in Amazon Prime Video to continue to increase the stickiness … and the wheel flies.

Apple owns distribution via iOS (the wealthiest 1.4 billion people on the planet). That’s the island all survivors fight on. Apple collects a toll on every SVOD service via the app store. In addition, the Cupertino firm has greased the rails they own, and can remove most of the friction from the 19 steps needed to download and sign up for Netflix on your iPhone (vs. 3 steps for Apple TV+). People will opt for a sh**ty seat in coach on an Airbus A330 vs. a first-class cabin on the Queen Mary 2 to get from London to NYC.

In the context of the streaming wars, SVOD adds momentum to the flywheel. Movies and entertainment evoke powerful emotions. The connective tissue of the flywheel is increasingly emotion. The NPS score (consumers’ emotional connection to a company) is negative to zero for ecommerce and internet companies, but it’s strong for SVOD companies. Loving Fleabag means you’ll buy your next toaster from Amazon, not Target or Williams-Sonoma.

The result? In the last 13 months Apple and Amazon have added Disney, AT&T/Time Warner, Fox, Netflix, Comcast, Viacom, MGM, Discovery, and Lionsgate to their market capitalization. Read the last sentence again.

Music titans tune into rising valuations

The case for these deals is obvious. Recorded music revenues have been growing quickly for the past three years, topping $19bn in annual sales. But the industry is dominated by three large companies whose values had not been repriced to match their growing businesses. Universal Music and Sony Music exist within much larger French and Japanese conglomerates — while Warner Music is privately controlled by Mr Blavatnik’s Access Industries.

Both Mr Bolloré and Mr Blavatnik will retain control of their companies while getting a handsome return. Universal’s Tencent deal valued the company at a multiple of 30 times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. A similar multiple would price Warner Music at $19bn, although analysts expect that the valuation could be closer to $12bn to $15bn, given that Universal is the biggest player. 

When you were born > everything else

One of my favorite data points ever, courtesy of Nick Maggiulli, is that if you had invested from 1960-1980 and beaten the market by 5% each year, you would have made less money than if you had invested from 1980-2000 and underperformed the market by 5% a year.

YouTube’s secretive top kids channel expands into merchandise

Jay Jeon runs Cocomelon, a YouTube channel dedicated to nursery rhymes and original songs, whose animated kids and creatures generate about 2.5 billion views in a typical month. That translates into as much as $11.3 million in monthly ad revenue, according to estimates from industry analyst Social Blade. In terms of viewership, an average Cocomelon video dwarfs the turnout for most of the world’s sports leagues, pop stars, and scripted TV. It’s the second-most-watched YouTube channel, trailing only T-Series, India’s music king.

Now, however, the Jeons and their team of about 20 employees are ready to merchandise. Their first forays beyond YouTube include albums of the channel’s popular songs and, later this year, Cocomelon toys, made by Jazwares, known for its Cabbage Patch Kids and Pokémon dolls. Jeon says he’s also thinking about ways to develop a full-length theatrical movie based on the show. (In a normal week, Cocomelon uploads one original video that’s a few minutes long, plus a longer compilation of old footage.)

Curated Insights 2020.01.24

The man who’s spending $1 billion to own every pop song

What Mercuriadis is doing with Hipgnosis isn’t so much innovative as it is opportunistic. With a fertile contact list from his decades as an artist manager, the ability to raise at least another billion from investors, and a healthy amount of hubris, he located an opening in the music industry and is going all-in on exploiting it. Ultimately, his goal with Hipgnosis — which went public on the London Stock Exchange in June 2018 — is to own 15% to 20% of the overall publishing market. “Everyone that writes songs today can be confident that the financial community understands that as these songs become proven, they are predictable and reliable,” Mercuriadis says.

When Spotify launched in 2008, Mercuriadis became intrigued by streaming music. Central to Spotify’s user experience was the ability to create personalized playlists by culling songs from all genres and artists. The start-to-finish thread of a full album was becoming less important to streaming adopters. In decades past, he observed, the majority of artists wrote their own songs. Kurt Cobain wrote all the lyrics and much of the music for Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind. Contrast that with Adele, who worked with 10 different songwriters for her 2015 smash, 25. “It became clear to me that the power was shifting from the artist to the songwriter,” Mercuriadis says. “But the songwriters weren’t in a position to reap the benefits.”

With Hipgnosis Songs Fund, Mercuriadis bypassed all of them. Songwriters are able to generate revenue from three sources: mechanical royalties (the sale or legal download of a song), performance royalties (paid every time a song is heard in public, whether it’s a live performance, on TV, or in a movie; played in a bar or restaurant; or streamed), and synch fees (song licensing for use in movies, video games, and commercials). Mechanical royalties are the only stream with a set rate; performance and synch royalties are negotiated percentages. Synchs are often more lucrative for the songwriter, since they generally split 50% for the writer and the artist, with the label taking its cut from the artist’s piece of the pie. Synch is where Hipgnosis Song Fund could make them money, as Mercuriadis explained to the 177 hedge fund and private investors he pitched between 2015 and 2018.

Today, the business operates like a cross between an investment fund and a talent management agency. While Mercuriadis brokers the catalog deals, each of his 19 employees is responsible for monetization opportunities for a portfolio of songs. He plans to at least double the number of people working for him this year. “I want to get rid of the word ‘publishing,’” he says. (His preferred description: “song management.”) “Major publishers have small staffs working with hundreds of thousands of songs. We’re shooting for thousands of songs and having synch managers who are each responsible for a much smaller amount,” he says. “We’ll make a lot more money than anyone else.”

Pincus acknowledges that Hipgnosis may have other deals in the works that would offset the high prices he’s paying — and indeed, Mercuriadis is working on diversifying beyond songwriter catalogs. The company just purchased the masters of UK band the Kaiser Chiefs, which gives it complete ownership of the recordings. Purchasing producers’ rights is another new point of emphasis. Mercuriadis bought Jeff Bhasker’s inventory (the Grammy’s 2016 Producer of the Year behind “Uptown Funk”), along with the entire 1,855-song output from Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam. There are also the merchandising possibilities: Mercuriadis’ yet-to-be-announced mega-deal with that iconic female artist reportedly includes, in addition to the thousands of songs the artist has written, the use of her image and likeness. This deal will cost Mercuriadis well into the nine figures but has the potential for him to eventually sell more T-shirts than the Gap.

Outdoor advertising market poised to eclipse newspapers

The so-called “out of home” segment accounts for about 6.5 per cent of the $600bn global advertising market but stands out as the only traditional media that continues to grow as others give ground to Google and Facebook.

In 2020 advertisers will spend $40.6bn on outdoor posters and “street furniture”, about $4bn more than on newspapers, according to estimates from GroupM, the media buying agency. By 2024 GroupM expects outdoor advertising to exceed spending on newspapers and magazines combined, having expanded at an annual rate of between 2.5 and 4 per cent.

There’s a link between hiking the minimum wage and declining suicide rates, researchers say

State-level increases of $1 in minimum wage corresponded with a 3.4 percent to 5.9 percent decrease in the suicide rates of people with a high school diploma or less in that age group. Emory University researchers analyzed monthly data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2015.


As jobs cap 10 years of gains, women are workforce majority

Women overtook men to hold the majority of U.S. jobs for the first time in a decade, while employers added positions for a record 10th straight year, pointing to a growing and dynamic economy heading into 2020.

The number of women on nonfarm payrolls exceeded men in December for the first time since mid-2010, the Labor Department said Friday. Women held 50.04% of jobs last month, surpassing men on payrolls by 109,000.

Curated Insights 2019.09.27

Why these two innovations in artificial intelligence are so important: Eye on A.I.

The first item was news that a Hong Kong-based biotechnology startup, InSilico Medicine, working with researchers from the University of Toronto, had used machine learning to create a potential new drug to prevent tissue scarring. What’s eye-popping here is the timescale: just 46 days from molecular design to animal testing in mice. Considering that, on average, it takes more than a decade and costs $350 million to $2.7 billion to bring a new drug to market, depending on which study one believes, the potential impact on the pharmaceutical industry is huge.

What’s also interesting here is that InSilico used reinforcement learning, an A.I. technique that hasn’t yet impacted business much. Reinforcement learning is notable because it doesn’t require the vast pools of structured, historical data that other A.I. methods do. Here researchers used reinforcement learning to rapidly design 30,000 new molecules and then narrow them down to six, which were synthesized and further tested in the lab. Look for more A.I. breakthroughs like this to start upending the balance of power between biotech startups and Big Pharma.

The second piece of underappreciated news is that researchers at DeepMind, the London A.I. shop owned by Google parent Alphabet, and Imperial College London, successfully used a deep neural network to find more precise answers to quantum mechanical problems. That’s basically the physics that underpins all of chemistry.

To date, the only element for which we can completely solve the underlying quantum equations is the simplest, hydrogen, which has just one proton and one electron. For every other element, we rely on approximations. Get better approximations, and you potentially get new chemistry – and that means new materials. Think room temperature superconductors or new kinds of batteries that will vastly extend the range of electric vehicles. DeepMind’s A.I.-powered approximations were in some cases almost an order of magnitude better than previous methods. If you’re Dow or DuPont, or Formosa Plastics or LG Chem, that sort of advantage could be worth billions.

Why prescription drugs cost so much more in America

All over the world, drugmakers are granted time-limited monopolies — in the form of patents — to encourage innovation. But America is one of the only countries that does not combine this carrot with the stick of price controls. The US government’s refusal to negotiate prices has contributed to spiralling healthcare costs which, said billionaire investor Warren Buffett last year, act “as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy”. Medical bills are the primary reason why Americans go bankrupt. Employers foot much of the bill for the majority of health-insurance plans for working-age adults, creating a huge cost for business.

Other drugs are more innovative — and their development undeniably expensive. According to Tufts University, the average is $2.6bn per drug, up 145 per cent in the past 10 years. Most drug candidates fail; those that do make it to later stages must go through expensive clinical trials. In support of the drug companies’ argument, one 2015 study found that for every extra $2.5bn a company made in sales, it produced one extra drug.

Robot pilot that can grab the flight controls gets its plane licence

A recent conversion of US military F-16 fighter jets into drones cost more than a million dollars each. ROBOpilot can be inserted into any aircraft and just as easily removed afterwards to return it to human-controlled operation.

“It looks like an impressive achievement in terms of robotics,” says Louise Dennis at the University of Liverpool. “Unlike an autopilot which has direct access to the controls and sensors, the robot is in the place of a human pilot and has to physically work the controls and reads the dials.” The makers suggest that ROBOpilot will be useful for tasks including transporting cargo, “entry into hazardous environments”, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Entrepreneurs hope microbes hold the key to a food revolution
A taxonomy of moats

Curated Insights 2019.08.23

The WeWork IPO

Given this vision, WeWork’s massive losses are, at least in theory, justifiable. The implication of creating a company that absorbs all of the fixed costs in order to offer a variable cost service to other companies is massive amounts of up-front investment. Just as Amazon needed to first build out data centers and buy servers before it could sell storage and compute, WeWork needs to build out offices spaces before it can sell desktops or conference rooms. In other words, it would be strange if WeWork were not losing lots of money, particularly given its expansion rate.

What is useful is considering these two graphics together: over 300 locations — more than half — are in the money-losing part of the second graph, which helps explain why WeWork’s expenses are nearly double its revenue; should the company stop opening locations, it seems reasonable to expect that gap to close rapidly. Still, it is doubtful that WeWork will slow the rate with which is opens locations given the company’s view of its total addressable market.

The sheer scale of this ambition again calls back to AWS. It was in 2013 that Amazon’s management first stated that AWS could end up being the company’s biggest business; at that time AWS provided a mere 4% of Amazon’s revenue (but 33% of the profit). In 2018, though, AWS had grown by over 1000% and was up to 11% of Amazon’s revenue (and 59% of the profit), and that share is very much expected to grow, even as AWS faces a competitor in Microsoft Azure that is growing even faster, in large part because existing enterprises are moving to the cloud, not just startups.

WeWork, meanwhile, using its expansive definition of its addressable market, claims that it has realized only 0.2% of their total opportunity globally, and 0.6% of their opportunity in their ten largest cities. To be fair, one may be skeptical that existing enterprises in particular will be hesitant to turn over management of their existing offices to WeWork, which would dramatically curtail the opportunity; on the other hand, large enterprises now make up 40% of WeWork’s revenue (and rising), and more importantly, WeWork doesn’t have any significant competition.

In short, there is a case that WeWork is both a symptom of software-eating-the-world, as well as an enabler and driver of the same, which would mean the company would still have access to the capital it needs even in a recession. Investors would just have to accept the fact they will have absolutely no impact on how it is used, and that, beyond the sky-high valuation and the real concerns about a duration mismatch in a recession, is a very good reason to stay away.

Pershing Square on Berkshire Hathaway

Berkshire’s primary asset is the world’s largest insurance business, which we estimate represents nearly half of Berkshire’s intrinsic value. In its primary insurance segment, Berkshire focuses on the reinsurance and auto insurance segments. In reinsurance, Berkshire’s strong competitive advantages are derived from its enormous capital base, efficient underwriting (a quick yes or no), ineffable trustworthiness, and its focus on long-term economics rather than short-term accounting profits, all of which allows the company to often be the only insurer capable of and willing to insure extremely large and/or unusual, bespoke insurance policies. We believe that Berkshire’s reinsurance business, operating primarily through National Indemnity and General Re, is uniquely positioned to serve its clients’ needs to protect against the increasing frequency and growing severity of catastrophic losses. In auto insurance, Berkshire subsidiary GEICO operates a low-cost direct sales model which provides car owners with lower prices than competitors that rely on a traditional agent-based sales approach. GEICO’s low cost, high quality service model has enabled it to consistently gain market share for decades. The enduring competitive advantages of Berkshire’s insurance businesses have allowed it to consistently grow its float (the net premiums received held on Berkshire’s balance sheet that will be used to pay for expected losses in the often distant future) at a higher rate and a lower cost than its peers. While Mr. Buffett is best known as a great investor, he should perhaps also be considered the world’s greatest insurance company architect and CEO because the returns Berkshire has achieved on investment would not be nearly as good without the material benefits it has realized by financing these investments with lowcost insurance float.

For more than the last decade, Berkshire has grown its float at an 8% compounded annual growth rate while achieving a negative 2% average cost of float due to its profitable insurance underwriting, while incurring an underwriting loss in only one out of the last 15 years. These are extraordinary results particularly when compared with the substantial majority of insurance companies which lose money in their insurance operations and are only profitable after including investment returns. Furthermore, we believe that Berkshire’s cost of float will remain stable or even decline as its fastest growing insurance businesses (GEICO and BH Primary) have a lower cost of float than the company’s overall average. Since the end of 2007, we estimate that Berkshire has averaged a nearly 7% annual rate of return on its insurance investment portfolio while holding an average of 20% of its portfolio in cash. Berkshire has been able to produce investment returns that significantly exceed its insurance company peers as the combination of the company’s long-duration float and significant shareholders’ equity allow it to invest the substantial majority of its insurance assets in publicly traded equities, while its peers are limited to invest primarily in fixed-income securities. We believe these structural competitive advantages of Berkshire’s insurance business are enduring and will likely further expand. Berkshire also owns a collection of high-quality, non-insurance businesses, which include market-leading industrial businesses, the largest of which are the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and Precision Castparts, an aerospace metal parts manufacturer. While Berkshire’s non-insurance portfolio is comprised of highly diversified businesses that have been acquired during the last 50 or so years, we estimate that the portfolio derives more than 50% of its earnings from its largest three businesses: Burlington Northern (>30%), Precision Castparts (~10%), and regulated utilities (~10%).

While we have utilized a number of different approaches to our valuation of Berkshire, we believe it is perhaps easiest to understand the company’s attractive valuation by estimating Berkshire’s underlying economic earnings power, and comparing the company’s price-earnings multiple to other businesses of similar quality and earnings growth rate. Using this approach, we believe that Berkshire currently trades at only 14 times our estimate of next 12 months’ economic earnings per share (excluding the amortization of acquired intangibles), assuming a normalized rate of return of 7% on its insurance investment portfolio. While generating a 7% return on such a large amount of investment assets is not a given—particularly in an extraordinarily low-rate environment—we believe that Berkshire’s ability to invest the substantial majority of its insurance assets in equity and equity-like instruments and hold them for the long term makes this a reasonable assumption. Based on these assumptions, we believe that Berkshire’s valuation is extremely low compared to businesses of similar quality and growth characteristics.

WeWTF

The last round $47 billion “valuation” is an illusion. SoftBank invested at this valuation with a “pref,” meaning their money is the first money out, limiting the downside. The suckers, idiots, CNBC viewers, great Americans, and people trying to feel young again who buy on the first trade — or after — don’t have this downside protection. Similar to the DJIA, last-round private valuations are harmful metrics that create the illusion of prosperity. The bankers (JPM and Goldman) stand to register $122 million in fees flinging feces at retail investors visiting the unicorn zoo. Any equity analyst who endorses this stock above a $10 billion valuation is lying, stupid, or both.


The dating business is IAC’s best asset — and its greatest challenge

Match is among IAC’s greatest hits. The stock has nearly doubled this year alone, thanks largely to soaring Tinder membership. IAC sold a portion of Match in a 2015 IPO at $12. The stock is now $85, and IAC’s Match stake is worth close to $19 billion. It accounts for more than 90% of IAC’s current $21 billion market value.

This month, Levin and IAC disclosed a solution to the Match problem. The company is considering distributing Match shares to its shareholders in a tax-free transaction. And IAC is thinking about a similar handoff of its 84% stake in ANGI Homeservices (ANGI). That operation is a $4.3 billion market-cap business that IAC created in 2017 by acquiring publicly traded Angie’s List and merging it with IAC-owned HomeAdvisor.


How big stars maximise their take from tours

Historically, tours were loss-leaders used to promote albums. As revenues from recorded music have collapsed and productions have become increasingly elaborate to draw the crowds, ticket prices have risen steeply. The cost of a concert ticket in America increased by 190% between 1996 and 2018, compared with 59% for overall consumer prices. But as the continued success of scalpers demonstrates, they are still far below the market-clearing price.

How aggressively cute toys for adults became a $686 million business

Funko Pops are now available from 25,000 retail brands worldwide, from Walmart to Amazon to Hot Topic and even, somewhat bizarrely, Foot Locker. In 2018, the company’s net sales increased 33 percent to $686.1 million, with figurines accounting for 82 percent of all sales. After the company released its Q2 earnings report in early August, declaring that sales up are 38 percent compared to this time last year, CEO Brian Mariotti called his company “recession proof.”

Collectors like Jack make up 36 percent of Funko’s customers, while 31 percent are “occasional buyers.” Wilkinson says Funko Pops appeal to both markets because of the “science of cute” behind the figurines’ design.

Funko now has more than 1,000 licensed properties, from the Avengers to the Golden Girls, Fortnite to Flash Gordon, Stranger Things to The Office. “Evergreen and classic” properties like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Disney make up nearly half of all Funko Pop sales, but the company is seemingly constantly procuring new, unexpected licenses, from drag queens to food mascots to NASCAR drivers.

A May 2019 investor presentation from the company boasts that a Pop can be designed and submitted to a licensor in 24 hours, molded into a prototype in 45 days, and “sourced from Asian facilities while maintaining quality control” in just 15 days. Funko also prides itself on its low production costs — each new figure costs between $5,000 and $7,500 to develop.

Is it possible, then, that Funko will run out of things to Pop? At present, the company’s profits continue to climb, from $98 million gross profit in 2015 (when Funko had just 205 active properties) to $258 million in 2018. History has shown us that collectibles tend to decline in popularity, and it is possible that Funko Pops could go the way of the Beanie Baby. Yet at present, there are more than enough fans keeping the company in business.

To encourage collectors, Funko uses many tried-and-tested market tricks, like releasing toys exclusive to certain locations (Mr. Rogers is exclusive to Barnes & Noble) and producing limited-edition runs (only 480 holographic Darth Mauls were released at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012). Yet the company doesn’t just rely on people like Jack and Tristan. A third of all customers are only occasional buyers, and the customer base appears to be a diverse set of people with a diverse range of fandoms. In 2018, no single property made up more than 6 percent of purchases; Pops related to new theatrical releases encompassed 20 percent of sales, TV show-related Pops accounted for 16 percent, and gaming Pops made up 17 percent. There is a roughly equal gender split in customers (51 percent women to 49 percent men), and last year, international sales grew 57 percent.

Interestingly, Funko’s average customer is 35 years old — two years younger than Jack, who says his date recovered from seeing his spare room. “The rest of the night went very well and we went on several more dates,” he said. Although it ultimately didn’t work out with her, Jack says his “crazy room of Funko Pops” didn’t have “too much influence on it either way.”


Move over Lego: The next big collectable toy powerhouse is here

Collectibles are a $200 billion market on their own, and video games are on pace to be a $300 billion industry by 2025. And Funko sits right in the middle of it all.

Funko is very good at what it does; its revenue and fanbase is proof of that. But when Microsoft reached out about a video game collaboration, there were all sorts of new questions on Funko and Microsoft’s part because Funko wasn’t just an aesthetic anymore; it had to be interactive for the first time. And interactive is tricky. It forces designers to decide, how does a Funko walk? How does a Funko fight? Can a Funko bleed? (No, by the way, they can’t).


The real story of Supreme

Twenty-five years later, as fads (like televised street luge) have fallen by the wayside, Supreme remains a skate brand—a purveyor of all the hard and soft goods one needs for the sport. But it is something much more than that, too. Since its beginning, in 1994, Supreme has slowly worked its way to the very center of culture and fashion. Or more accurately, culture and fashion have reconfigured themselves around Supreme. Supreme’s clothing and accessories sell out instantly, and the brand has become a fashion-world collaborator of the highest caliber with projects now under way with designers high (Comme des Garçons, Undercover) and low (Hanes, Champion). Though the particulars of the privately held company’s business are undisclosed, a $500 million investment in 2017 from the multinational private equity firm the Carlyle Group, for a 50 percent stake, put Supreme’s valuation at $1 billion.

The formula for success—for building a brand that lasts for 25 years—sounds simple enough: Create a high-quality product that will last a long time, sell it for an accessible price, and make people desperately want to buy it. But executing such a plan is far trickier. And in figuring out how to thrive according to strict adherence to its own highly specific principles and logic, Supreme has, deliberately or not, re-arranged the alignment of the entire fashion industry.

Powerful as Supreme has become as a trendsetter, the company is still fiercely committed to its own novel approach. Supreme didn’t launch a website until 2006. It was purposefully late to Instagram, too. Outside of Japanese fashion magazines and downtown NYC wheat-paste poster campaigns, Supreme’s only real marketing efforts are made in the skate world. Conveniently, marketing to skaters is likely the best way for Supreme to market to the fashion world. In other words, the fact that Supreme doesn’t pander to the fashion industry only makes its allure more powerful.

ETF fear mongering myths

Even if every ETF investor wanted to sell (which would never happen), remember that ETFs only own approximately 6% of the stock market and 1% of the bond market.

Curated Insights 2019.07.12

Spotify’s moats, management, and unit economics

Podcasting is a relatively nascent industry that is booming. As the #2 podcast player in the world, Spotify should benefit greatly from this trend. While Apple continues to dominate podcasting, their share has quickly fallen from 80% to 63% the past few years. Meanwhile, Spotify has been gaining share every year.

Around 85% of Spotify’s content is controlled by the three big record labels, plus MERLIN (a digital rights agency that represents thousands of independent labels). It’s great when a company has captive customers that results in pricing power. It’s not great when a company is a captive customer of their suppliers and thus has less control over their costs. With that being said, Spotify has a lot of power over the record labels as well.

In 2018, streaming accounted for 47% of global recorded music revenue—and Spotify has almost 70% market share of global streaming revenue. Look at the below chart showing industry revenues over time (purple is streaming revenue). If the major record labels want to continue enjoying the growth they’ve experienced the past few years, they have to work with Spotify.

China’s total number of births dropped over 10% last year

The total number of births in China last year dropped by 2 million from 2017, the National Bureau of Statistics announced at a news conference on Monday. The massive drop — from 17.23 million to 15.23 million — indicates that China’s birth rate last year was the lowest the country has seen since famine-stricken 1961.

Curated Insights 2019.04.26

Spotify’s stock is risky because the music industry is not changing fast enough

The international market is a different story. Tencent Music Entertainment Group (TME) dominates China. (Spotify has taken a minority stake in the company.) Outside of China, Spotify is the clear global market leader, with an estimated 31% market share, ahead of Apple (AAPL), at 17%; Amazon.com (AMZN), at 12%; and Sirius XM Holdings (SIRI), which now owns Pandora, at 11%, according to Credit Suisse . YouTube’s paid music services are still relatively small, but one survey found that free YouTube videos accounted for nearly half of the time that people in 18 countries spent listening to music.

Most of the world doesn’t pay for streaming music, choosing to listen on the radio or to pirate content, which still accounts for 38% of the market, Credit Suisse says. The bullish case for Spotify implies that many of those people can be persuaded to pay up. Even bearish analysts expect the company to more than double its global paid subscriptions over the next five years.

Curated Insights 2019.04.05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curated Insights 2019.02.15

Even God couldn’t beat dollar-cost averaging

My point in all of this is that Buy the Dip, even with perfect information, typically underperforms DCA. So if you attempt to build up cash and buy at the next bottom, you will likely be worse off than if you had bought every month. Why? Because while you wait for the next dip, the market is likely to keep rising and leave you behind.

What makes the Buy the Dip strategy even more problematic is that we have always assumed that you would know when you were at every bottom (you won’t). I ran a variation of Buy the Dip where the strategy misses the bottom by 2 months, and guess what? Missing the bottom by just 2 months leads to underperforming DCA 97% of the time! So, even if you are somewhat decent at calling bottoms, you would still lose in the long run.

I wrote this post because sometimes I hear about friends who save up cash to “buy the dip” when they would be far better off if they just kept buying. My friends do not realize that their beloved dip may never come. And while they wait, they can miss out on months (or more) of continued compound growth. Because if God can’t beat dollar cost averaging, what chance do you have?

Miss the worst days, miss the best days

If you missed just the 25 strongest days in the stock market since 1990, you might as well have been in five year treasury notes. This remarkable data point is almost always followed by “time in the market beats timing the market.”

If by some miracle you managed to miss the 25 best days, you likely would have missed at least some of the worst days as well. You’ll notice a few things. The best days often follow the worst days, and the worst days occur in periods of above average volatility (red dotted line). These volatility spikes happen in lousy markets, so, if you can avoid the very best days, you will probably also avoid the very worst days, thereby avoiding lousy markets.

The chart below shows what happens if you were able to successfully avoid the 25 best and 25 worst days. This would have put you well ahead of the index. Of course this assumes perfect end of day execution, no transaction costs, and most importantly, no taxes.

Why time horizon works

When earnings compound but changes in valuation multiples don’t, the importance of the latter to your lifetime returns diminishes over time. Which is great, because changes in valuation multiples are the most unpredictable part of investing. Assuming earnings compound over time – an assumption, but a reasonable one – here’s what happens when valuation multiples go up or down by, say, 20% in a given year.

Valuation changes have a majority impact on your overall returns early on because company earnings are likely the same or marginally higher than when you made the investment. But as earnings compound over time, changes in any given year’s valuation multiples have less impact on the returns earned since you began investing. So as time goes on you have less reliance on unpredictable things (voting) and more on things you’re confident in (weighing).

Spotify’s podcast aggregation play

Anchor provides a way to capture new podcasters, leading them either to Spotify advertising or, in the case of rising stars, to Spotify exclusives. Critically, because Spotify has access to all of the data, they can likely bring those suppliers on board at a far lower rate than they have to pay for established creators like Gimlet Media.

Spotify Advertising, as I just suggested, makes a strong play to be the dominant provider for the entire podcasting industry. Spotify Advertising is already operating at a far larger scale than Midroll, the incumbent player, and Spotify has access to the data of the second largest podcast player in the market.

Gimlet Media becomes an umbrella brand for a growing stable of Spotify exclusive podcasts. Critically, as I noted above, the majority of these podcasts come to Spotify not because Spotify pays them millions of dollars but simply because Spotify is better at monetizing than anyone else.

Spotify doubles down on podcasts by acquiring Gimlet and Anchor

Spotify has acquired Gimlet Media and Anchor as it doubles down on its audio-first strategy. Gimlet is the podcast production house behind popular shows such as Reply All and The Cut. With Gimlet, Spotify has acquired a team with a proven record in original content production which should enhance its competitive position relative to Apple. Anchor provides easy-to-use software for podcast creation, ad insertion, and distribution, with more than 40% share of new podcasts produced. Anchor’s wealth of data should help Spotify identify and target original content, attracting more users to its ecosystem.

Podcasts should enable Spotify to differentiate its service and reduce its dependence on the music labels. Ever since Spotify’s initial public offering, the bear case has been that it never will deliver attractive returns because the labels will demand an ever-increasing share of its revenues. If its foray into original podcasts is successful, Spotify will convert some of its variable costs into fixed costs, improving its profit margins.

The ad-supported podcast business also is attractive. As shown above, podcast listener hours are roughly 12% those of radio but only 3% of the ad dollars. That gap should close with time. More important, as is the case with TV, traditional radio is in secular decline. A generation from now, podcasts could be the default format for spoken audio. If able to secure a leadership position, Spotify could enjoy a recurring revenue model with much higher margins in the years to come.

How DJI went from university dorm project to world’s biggest drone company

“In the very beginning, we had different competitors but they were small,” said Wang in a 2015 interview with Chinese-language news site of Guangzhou-based NetEase. “We made a lot of the right decisions to stand out in the industry … I think it is DJI’s success that made the drone industry attractive to investors and users.”

Chris Anderson, the chief executive of DJI’s major rival 3D Robotics, was quoted by US media as saying that the Chinese company has been “executing flawlessly” and “we just got beaten fair and square”.

“I do not see any strong competitor for DJI so far,” said Cao Zhongxiong, executive director of new technology studies at Shenzhen-based think tank China Development Institute. “The company can dominate the drone industry for some years to come.”

“We found success on the consumer side and are now leveraging the things we do very well into other industries. We are also expanding to serve different companies, operations and industries globally,” said Bill Chen, DJI’s enterprise partnership manager. He said the use of drones in agriculture will be a particular focus for the company.

DJI has rolled out a development kit so software developers can write applications for specific tasks, signalling the company’s shift from a hardware manufacturer to platform operator. “We aim to build a versatile platform that can be addressed by third-party developers as well,” Chen said.


Here’s what you need to know about Hikvision, the camera maker behind China’s mass surveillance system

The global video surveillance equipment market is expected to grow 10.2 per cent to US$18.5 billion in 2018 thanks to increasing demand for security cameras, according to a report by London-based market research firm IHS Markit in July. China’s professional video surveillance equipment market, which accounts for 44 per cent of all global revenue, grew by 14.7 per cent in 2017, outpacing the rest of the world, which grew by only 5.5 per cent, the report showed.

Around 42 per cent of the company is controlled by state-owned enterprises, with China Electronics Technology HIK Group owning 39.6 per cent of the company as the biggest shareholder. Hikvision had a leading share of 21.4 per cent for the global closed-circuit television and video surveillance equipment market in 2017, according to IHS Markit.

IHS Markit estimated that China had 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private areas in 2017, compared to only 50 million cameras in the US. The researcher expects China to install about 450 million new cameras by 2020. The researcher expects about 450 million new cameras to be shipped to the Chinese market by the end of 2020.

The global success of Marie Kondo -- Japan’s queen of tidying -- points to an important truth for Japan’s economy: there’s massive latent value still to be unlocked as women enter the labor force, research by Bloomberg Economics shows. Unpaid work in the home was worth as much as 138.5 trillion yen ($1.25 trillion) in 2016, or 25.7 percent of GDP, according to estimates by the Cabinet Office. If more women enter the labor force, and more domestic work is monetized, that could prove a double plus for Japan’s economy -- lifting the lackluster rate of growth.

Where big leaps happen

You can be great investor and still spend yourself broke. Ego is easier to develop and maintain than alpha, so good returns without the psychology necessary to hold onto those returns where money can continue compounding can be defeating. The math of compounding ensures that neither those who earn big returns but spend them quickly, or power savers who settle for low returns, will build meaningful wealth. There are many good investors. There are many good savers. It’s the intersection of both that compounding rules wild and big leaps are made.

The same mindset that allows visionaries to see things normal people can’t blinds them to realities normal people understand. If you’re staggeringly good at one thing, your mind probably has little bandwidth for other vital things necessary to make your skill work. Look around. There are a lot of people with crazy good ideas. But many people with crazy good ideas are crazy, and their idea is an outgrowth of a mind that has little patience for things like employee culture and appeasing investors, so their idea never stands a chance. A big leap happens when a visionary mixes with a sober operator who can tame the worst impulses of an otherwise great idea.


Will accountants become the weavers of the 21st century?

Intangible assets now make up 84 percent of the market value of the S&P 500. That’s up from just 17 percent in 1975. We investors clearly value things like investment in brands, new business processes, skills development for employees, R&D, etc., as drivers of future value. In other words, we believe these investments will create revenues in the future. But accounting can’t figure out how to value those non-tangible assets, so it treats those investments as expenses. That just doesn’t make sense.

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.