Curated Insights 2018.07.27

 

The oral history of travel’s greatest acquisition Booking.com

We ranked Priceline’s acquisition of Bookings B.V. alone — even when excluding the Active Hotels transaction — as the fifth greatest deal in Internet history, surpassing Google-DoubleClick and Amazon-Zappos in terms of value creation. Priceline’s Active-Bookings acquisitions transformed a travel brand that was running out of capital resources and international expansion options for its Name Your Own Price business. It opened up global opportunities in hotel bookings where Booking.com disclosed the room rates in advance instead of cloaking them in a relatively complicated bidding process.

Geert-Jan: I had very little knowledge about the hotel industry. I was a night porter in a hotel as a student. It gave me some inspiration and at least I knew how the reservation process went because we had people who came in at night who hadn’t booked so they came in for a reservation. I had no clue about commission rates; that’s why I started with 5 percent. To me, it sounded very logical that hotels themselves should know the best room rate they can charge at any time. From the beginning, it was the hotel that decided what the rate should be on the website.

Active Hotels in the UK and Bookings.nl in the Netherlands launched separately using the agency, or pay-at-the-hotel, business model while large U.S.-headquartered companies such as Expedia, Hotels.com, and Priceline.com were having various levels of success in Europe. These major online travel agencies focused on big hotel chains, which weren’t as important in Europe. Expedia and Hotels.com were enamored with the higher-commission merchant model, which required travelers to pre-pay for their hotel stays, and that just wasn’t the way things were done in Europe. Priceline.com was trying its Name Your Own Price bidding model in the UK and elsewhere internationally, and it wasn’t getting traction outside the United States.

Bookings.nl merged with the UK’s Bookings Online in 2000. In 2002, Barry Diller’s USA InterActive/IAC acquired Expedia, and came close to buying Geert-Jan Bruinsma’s Bookings.nl in Amsterdam. Separately, in 2003, IAC/Expedia signed a non-disclosure agreement with the UK’s Active Hotels, but a deal never materialized. Together, these decisions may have arguably amounted to the biggest missed opportunity in online travel history.

In July 2005, Priceline.com acquired Bookings B.V. for $133 million. Although the joint operation and merged companies — Active Hotels and Bookings — would eventually take the name Booking.com, it is interesting to note that Priceline paid more for Active Hotels, buying it in 2004 for $161 million, than it did for Bookings. Now the focus became to integrate the two companies, which at that time had 18,000 properties combined, the largest inventory among online players in Europe. In the grand scheme of things, the integration went remarkably well, although it was at times a tough marriage between Active and Bookings. There were cultural differences and clashes among the teams; most of the Active Hotels leadership left after a year or two. In both deals, management reinvested a portion of the acquisition proceeds back into their respective businesses.


Where to go after product-market fit: An interview with Marc Andreessen

So winning the market is the big thing. The thing that is so essential that people need to understand is that the world is a really big place. The good news is that markets are bigger than ever. There are more consumers on the internet than ever before. There are more businesses that use software than ever before.

Number two is getting to the next product. We are in a product cycle business. Which is to say that every product in tech becomes obsolete, and they become obsolete pretty quickly. If all you do is take your current product to market and win the market, and you don’t do anything else — if you don’t keep innovating — your product will go stale. And somebody will come out with a better product and displace you.

If you do take the market, you tend to have the financial resources to be able to invest heavily in R&D. And you also develop M&A currency, so you can then go buy the second product if you have to. It gives you another option to get to the second product.

The general model for successful tech companies, contrary to myth and legend, is that they become distribution-centric rather than product-centric. They become a distribution channel, so they can get to the world. And then they put many new products through that distribution channel. One of the things that’s most frustrating for a startup is that it will sometimes have a better product but get beaten by a company that has a better distribution channel. In the history of the tech industry, that’s actually been a more common pattern.

But then the third thing you need to do is what I call “everything else,” which is building the company around the product and the distribution engine. That means becoming competent at finance, HR, legal, marketing, PR, investor relations, and recruiting. That’s the stuff that’s the easiest to put to one side — for a little while. If you’ve got a killer product and a great sales engine, you can put that other stuff aside for a while. But the longer you put that stuff aside, the more risk that you develop and the more you expose yourself to catastrophic failure through self-inflicted wounds.

And so at some point, if the early guys don’t get to the other 95% of the market, somebody else is going to go take it away. And whoever has 95% of the market, number one they’re going to get all the value. All the investment returns, all the employee compensation flows to that company. And then number two, that company then accretes resources so they can work backward. In a lot of cases, they end up buying the company that got the early adopters for a small percentage of their equity, and then they just take the whole thing.

One interesting question I have is: Would you rather have another two years’ lead on product, or a two years’ lead on having a state-of-the-art growth effort?

First of all, raising prices is a great way to flesh out whether you actually do have a moat. If you do have a moat, the customers will still buy, because they have to. The definition of a moat is the ability to charge more. And so number one, it’s just a good way to flesh out that topic and really expose it to sunlight. And then number two, companies that charge more can better fund both their distribution efforts and their ongoing R&D efforts. Charging more is a key lever to be able to grow. And the companies that charge more therefore tend to grow faster.

Consumer startups are dead. Long live consumer startups.

The unicorns of the 2013 and 2104 vintages of consumer companies should have matured already, and the number of consumer unicorns won’t change substantially even if we wait several more years. Enough time has passed for hit enterprise startups from 2013 and 2014 to break out, making those vintages mature.

It starts first and foremost with the network effects that the Empire has that translated so well to the smartphone. The world has seen dominant consumer companies before — from Walmart to Disney to Nike to AOL — but never consumer companies that had this ability to connect all their mobile users together for the benefit of the entire ecosystem. More Snapchat users leads to better content shared and choices for people to instantly communicate with (direct network effect). More Apple iPhone users leads to better network infrastructure like 4G that improves the mobile experience (indirect network effect). More Uber drivers leads to cheaper and faster rides for passengers (two sided network effect). And so forth. The Empire grows stronger with every like, share, click, ride, pin, post, watch, buy, publish, and subscribe.

Next, every consumer company obviously needs consumers to be successful, and the Empire has unparalleled distribution advantages. Facebook and Google’s distribution power is obvious and it’s no coincidence that those two companies have 11 products between them that each have more than 1 billion monthly active users. But Netflix and Amazon also have tremendous distribution advantages. Netflix retains their subscribers better than anyone in the business — less than 1% cancel each month, which is about 5 times better than other video subscription services. That allows them to spend more for each subscriber (about $100) than other services because subscribers will stick around longer to payback that marketing expense. Amazon has launched 100 private label brands and grown them quickly because they can redirect shopping traffic towards their own products. For example, Amazon’s private label isn’t just the preferred option when purchasing batteries through Alexa; it’s the only option. So perhaps not as obvious as Facebook and Google, Netflix and Amazon’s distribution powers are just as potent.

Finally, it takes world class product and engineering talent to build great consumer products and the Empire has amassed one of the largest and most talented army of builders in the world. Amazon is the single largest spender in the entire country on research and development at $22.6 billion dollars last year. Apple, Google, and Facebook aren’t far behind as all three rank in the Top 10. And not only is the Empire army the biggest on the field, they are also given unique insights and capabilities that no one else has. For example, Apple iOS application engineers can utilize features of the platform (known as private APIs) that other mobile developers are not allowed to use in their apps.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai revealed a jaw-dropping fact about its translation app that shows how much money is still sitting on the table

The app translates a staggering 143 billion words every day, Pichai said. And, he added, it got a big boost during this summer’s World Cup soccer tournament.

Given that a lot of people most likely use the translation app while traveling, it’s not a stretch to imagine ads for local hotels, restaurants, and other traveler-oriented attractions. Even if a Google Translate user isn’t traveling, the app could offer pitches for travel guides and language schools. And as Google continues to enhance the translation app with new features, the business opportunities are likely to expand. There could even be potential for an enterprise business opportunity, by allowing other companies to leverage the technology into their products.


The future of media

In 2018 alone, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said Netflix will spend over $10 billion on new content, release 80 new films, and premier an astonishing 700 new television shows. For context, the top six movie studios released 75 movies in 2017—combined. From a customer’s point of view, this an unprecedented value proposition: For the price of two lattes per month, you gain access to some of highest-rated and most-watched television shows and movies on the planet. From the industry perspective, this is what drives studio executives and networks insane: Netflix uses its war chest of capital to buy and finance new projects, often out-bidding other buyers of content and acquiring international rights.

By owning the direct relationship between customer and content, Netflix and the other subscription-based streamers have an incredible advantage. In any business, customers go to the providers with the best value proposition—and right now, over-the-top (OTT) streaming has the best value. Netflix wouldn’t dare sully the viewing experience with clunky, annoying advertisements. And because of their subscriber-based business model, they don’t have to.

In 2019, for instance, Disney plans to launch its own direct-to-consumer subscription service. Time will tell if this will work, but it’s our view that it’s too little too late. Yes, Disney holds the keys to lucrative properties within Pixar, Marvel, LucasFilm, etc. And launching the service with a Star Wars movie or television show will certain get some traction. But by 2019, that “distribution ship” will likely have already sailed. Netflix and Amazon will have hundreds of millions in combined viewers, and Disney will be starting from scratch. While the Mouse House may certainly find a core audience hungry for their content, its own subscription service may not justify itself—and it would not be shocking to find Disney looking for a distribution partner in someone like Amazon, who will already has over 100 million Prime subscribers.

Airbnb offers investors a unique stay

Airbnb was conceptualized in August 2007 as an alternative to hotel lodging. We calculate it is now the largest player in the $150 billion alternative accommodation booking market with a high teens share, up from about 4% in 2014. We estimate that roughly half of the market’s bookings occur online, with Airbnb holding around 35% online share today versus about 10% in 2014.

We believe a premium is warranted based on several attractive features Airbnb offers investors, including (1) a powerful and rare network advantage that should drive continued share gains in a rapidly growing alternative accommodation market; (2) an opportunity to expand its network and addressable market into hotel, experiences, corporate, and transportation; and (3) strong profitability prospects driven by high consumer awareness, allowing the company to leverage top-line growth. We believe Airbnb’s IPO should be on the radar screens for investors seeking exposure to a company positioned to gain share in the nearly $700 billion global online travel market, which we estimate will grow 9.4% annually on average over the next five years.

We estimate that Booking Holdings is already second behind Airbnb in the private accommodation market, having expanded its online share to roughly 20% last year from the midteens in 2015 driven by industry-leading supply and demand ((over 5 million alternative accommodation listings and around 450 million monthly visitors). We expect Booking to continue to see share gains at the expense of smaller competitors as it invests further in its non-hotel network with the goal to become the leader in the market. We estimate that its alternative accommodation booking growth rate can begin to eclipse Airbnb’s in 2020, as Booking’s investments and powerful network advantage take hold.

We think Airbnb can gain traction in the corporate booking market, which we estimate at around $1.1 trillion, as its partnerships and initiatives reduce the back-office and safety concerns of many global firms, aiding its network advantage and growth opportunity. The company has announced several major partnerships in the past few years.

The global air and ground transportation markets are large at around $600 billion and $100 billion, respectively, but the consolidation and efficiency of the industry offers only low-single-digit take rates (compared with teens and 20% for lodging and experiences, respectively). We wouldn’t expect transportation attached rates on Airbnb lodging bookings to be more than a single-digit level, since the company can’t offer any differentiated experience. Also, travelers love to shop around for the best deal, especially in a commoditized environment like transportation. We expect just 1%-2% of Airbnb’s total revenue to come from the segment in 2022, following an anticipated launch into these markets in 2019.


EBay paid $573M to buy Japanese e-commerce platform Qoo10, filing reveals

The acquisition of Qoo10 underscores how eBay is at the same time pulling back from general plays while doubling down on more targeted opportunities. Earlier this year, the company gave up its stake in Flipkart as part of its acquisition by Walmart, but at the same time committed to investing in a new, standalone eBay operation in India, using some of the $1.1 billion in proceeds it made from selling its Flipkart stake to Walmart.

But eBay isn’t going to go head-to-head with those two. Instead, its India operations will focus on cross-border sales, so essentially looking to connect buyers and sellers in the country with opportunities overseas within its network. That’s the same model it has used to effect in other parts of the world, so its acquisition of Qoo10 and its other international services will be a key part of that India strategy, and vice versa.


How e-commerce is transforming rural China | The New Yorker

Establishing this reputation has required JD to adopt a strategy radically different from that of its greatest rival, Alibaba, which is essentially the eBay of China—a platform connecting customers to a vast network of third-party sellers. Although there are an increasing number of third-party sellers on JD’s site, the core of its business, like Amazon’s, involves managing the entire supply chain. It buys from manufacturers, stocks inventory in warehouses, and invests billions of dollars in development, including a kind of in-house FedEx, called JD Logistics. There are now nearly eighty-five thousand delivery personnel like Xia, and several thousand depots, from large hubs to tiny outlets like the one in Xinhuang. “The couriers are the faces of JD,” Liu said. “They come to your home. You have to trust them.” The success of this network, combined with the notorious unreliability of the Chinese postal service, means that JD Logistics is now itself a product—a service that other e-commerce players pay to use.

Chen explained that JD’s burgeoning focus on luxury was a consequence not only of the rise of a moneyed middle class but also of the middle class’s relative youth. Buyers of big-ticket items are five to ten years younger than their Western counterparts. “Most of them experience, and learn about, luxury brands over the phone,” she said. “So digital becomes increasingly important.”


Is JD.com the future of Chinese e-commerce?

When breaking down the costs to fulfill an order from the warehouse to the customer’s front door, about 30-35% of costs go to warehousing, another 20-25% to transporting products from the warehouse to local delivery hubs, and 40-45% to last-mile delivery, which is mostly human labor costs and transportation costs. However, this cost structure is mostly indicative of urban, densely populated regions that have large fulfillment centers and dedicated last-mile delivery staffs. Most rural cities are quite different in that they don’t have sophisticated layers of network infrastructure. For example, large fulfillment centers are replaced by small delivery depots or mom-and-pop shops acting as pick-up centers. Since most consumers pick up their packages at these centralized locations, large last-mile delivery staffs are not required. It’s hard to say if drones would result in cutting logistics costs 70% on its own, but overall the fulfillment process could achieve significant savings.

JD has always approached its business from a customer’s perspective, utilizing an integrated retail and logistics model to provide a superior experience. In JD’s early days, 70% of customer complaints involved delivery service, since China’s logistics infrastructure was essentially nonexistent. To solve this issue, JD founder Richard Liu decided to take operations in-house, recognizing this would be a critical differentiator in providing the best customer experience. JD now delivers 90%+ of direct retail orders within 24 hours, an unfathomable achievement in markets outside of China. But as other businesses eventually catch up, the question turns to where future differentiation will lie.

By integrating deeper into the supply side, JD can continue to structurally lower its cost of goods and average selling prices. While Alibaba can spur competition between merchants, lowering their gross margins in the meantime, the fragmented nature of the supply side means there isn’t structural pressure to the cost of goods side of Alibaba’s model, meaning prices can only fall so much. As JD’s lowers prices, receives inventory on more of a “just-in-time” basis, it will turn inventory quicker meaning it can lower prices even more.

The incredible rise of Pinduoduo, China’s newest force in e-commerce

Pinduoduo’s C2B model allows it to ship directly from the manufacturers eliminates layers of distributors, not only reduces the price tag for buyers but also raises the profit of manufacturers. This approach is particularly effective for the sales of perishable agricultural and fresh products, where the speed for matching supply and demand is critical.

Lesser-known brands were chosen over famous brands to erase any premium that comes from branding. Additionally, the costs for advertising and marketing are also lowered through user sharing to social media. The approach is both cost-saving and effective. Through social sharing, users are sending the product information precisely to friends and groups that may have similar income and consumption preferences. Viral marketing is a more clever way to build the identity of all the lesser-known brands on its platform. Financially, the platform could even out part of discounts with less marketing budgets.

 

BlackRock ready to spread its web across Europe

Having started as part of private equity company Blackstone 30 years ago, BlackRock is the world’s largest money manager with 70 offices globally. It manages $6.3tn assets on behalf of clients in 100 countries.

Europe, the Middle East and Africa accounts for 28 per cent of its total assets under management. The region’s 3,800 staff make up 27 per cent of its global workforce while the $4.1bn of revenue from Emea was 30 per cent of BlackRock’s total last year.

BlackRock has built connections with financial adviser networks tied to banks and insurers and believes it can offer complementary products. Domestic financial institutions do not see it as a significant threat when compared with local rivals.

ARK Disrupt Issue 134: eSports, AI, crypto, fintech, balloons, & CRISPR

Twitch’s viewership in June approached 800 million hours, or 9 billion hours at an annual run-rate. How much could 9 billion hours of viewership be worth? A lot!

NFL broadcast rights provide some good perspective. The NFL enjoys roughly 6 billion in hours viewed annually,1 and in 2013 it sold nine years of broadcast rights for roughly $40 billion.2 We expect Twitch’s viewership to be double that of the NFL by next January and to double again within our five-year investment time horizon. What would broadcasters pay for the perpetual rights to four NFLs, especially if they didn’t have to ship crews and cameras all over the country and could monetize the content more efficiently?

Video game streaming is linked to monetization in a way not possible for traditional sports. Viewers pay subscriptions and sometimes tip individual streamers—from which Twitch extracts a platform fee—and, in real time, streamers can thank their viewers for contributions. On their channels, streamers often interact with viewers, sometimes taking direction from them. With stronger social and economic network effects, Twitch’s engagement and monetization should be able to top that of traditional broadcast channels.

While Google has said that Loon should be able to deliver internet service for $5 per month per user, ARK estimates that it could offer even lower prices, say $4 per month. At that rate, if Loon were able to deliver internet access today to everyone in the world with enough income to afford it, its subscription revenue could approach $130 billion, roughly equivalent to estimates for Alphabet’s total sales in 2019.3 More realistically, Loon will share this market with other forms of internet delivery, such as low earth orbit satellites, but Alphabet’s opportunity is vast nonetheless.

DAU/MAU is an important metric to measure engagement, but here’s where it fails

If your product is a high-frequency, high-retention product that’s ultimately going to be ads supported, DAU/MAU should be your guiding light. But if you can monetize well, develop network effects, or quite frankly, your natural cadence isn’t going to be high – then just measure something else! It’s impossible to battle nature… just find the right metric for you that’s telling you that your product is providing value to your users.

Retailers ubiquitously choose Instagram over Snapchat. Nearly all retailers tracked in Gartner L2’s Digital IQ Index: Specialty Retail air Instagram Stories; in contrast, only 4% were active on Snapchat during the study period.

Restaurants must embrace online delivery, and fast

Just 1.6 percent of all restaurant industry transactions in 2017 were conducted online for delivery, according to a report by Cowen Inc. restaurant industry analyst Andrew Charles. The same analysis estimates that online delivery accounted for $19.7 billion in gross merchandise volume, or 3.7 percent, of U.S. restaurant sales in 2017. That’s roughly in line with the proportion of retail sales that had moved online by 2008. And we all know how different the mall landscape is now compared to 10 years ago.

And restaurants may even find themselves wanting to change their menus. Uber Eats has been using its data to help local restaurants launch delivery-only menus. In Chicago, it found people were searching for suddenly popular Hawaiian poke, but there weren’t many options. So Uber Eats reached out to neighborhood sushi spots, which would already have some of the same ingredients, and asked them to try making the dish for the app. Imagine how transformative those kinds of insights could be if applied at the scale of a chain restaurant.

Delicious new protein source, starting with a salmon burger: Terramino Foods

Animal farming takes up over 70% of the planet’s agricultural land, and 70% of the world’s available freshwater and energy consumption. Animal production consumes more than 1/3 of raw materials and fossil fuels in the US. It is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases , 9% of global CO2, 80% of ammonia emissions in the U.S. come from animal waste.

Globally, fish account for approximately 4 of every 10lbs of animal products consumed. To meet the growing demand, 90% of global fish stocks are overfished. Global fisheries are expected to collapse by 2048. And there is growing risk in human health with high levels of mercury, PCBs, dioxins and other health containments.

But unlike chicken, pork and beef alternatives becoming more available, seafood alternatives are virtually non-existent. Alternative seafood options are very limited even at Whole Foods, and the taste and quality for these select products are subpar. We’ve realized there’s a gaping hole in alternative seafoods.

Escalating the US trade war is not in China’s interest. Reform is what it must do

The economic significance of the tariffs has been hugely exaggerated: 25 per cent on US$34 billion is an extra US$8.5 billion. China’s exports are likely to top US$2.4 trillion in 2018. The tariff impact is therefore symbolic. Even the 10 per cent tariff on US$200 billion only amounts to an additional US$20 billion. The numbers are not big, in relative terms.

The tariffs shouldn’t significantly affect China’s competitiveness. China’s labour cost is less than one-fifth of the OECD level. Adding 10 or 25 per cent to it won’t affect China’s competitive position relative to the US or other developed economies. While some production could relocate to other emerging economies, they just don’t have the scale to take over significant value chains from China.

The best option is to reform now and appreciate the currency later. The current trade dispute could be used as a catalyst to initiate reforms. If others complain that China’s industrial policy contains excessive government subsidies, why not scale them back and rely more on the market to create business and advance innovation? What have the subsidies done for the economy so far? After pouring in tens of billions of dollars, has China produced one significant innovation? The chances are that the market can do better.

Why we need to update financial reporting for the digital era

Digital companies, however, consider scientists’ and software workers’ and product development teams’ time to be the company’s most valuable resource. They believe that they can always raise financial capital to meet their funding shortfall or use company stock or options to pay for acquisitions and employee wages. The CEO’s principal aim therefore is not necessarily to judiciously allocate financial capital but to allocate precious scientific and human resources to the most promising projects and to pull back and redeploy those resources in a timely manner when the prospects of specific projects dim.

Digital companies, in contrast, chase risky projects that have lottery-like payoffs. An idea with uncertain prospects but with at least some conceivable chance of reaching a billion dollars in revenue is considered far more valuable than a project with net present value of few hundred million dollars but no chance of massive upside.

As firms become increasingly difficult to value and more and more companies report negative earnings, analysts perform multiple adjustments to recreate companies’ financials in their internal assessments. For example, they capitalize a part of R&D expenditures that can enhance firm’s future competitive ability and deduct a part of capital investments that merely maintain firms’ competitive ability. This is an outcome of the growing divergence between what companies consider as value-creating metrics and those reported as profits in the GAAP.

For instance, standard-setters might want to encourage disclosures related to (i) value per customer; (ii) earnings or revenue outcomes or other specific metrics related to specific projects in progress; and (iii) data on how the R&D and software talent of digital firms is being deployed. Relying on firms’ voluntary initiatives is unlikely to work because executives told us time and again that they will not disclose sensitive information, unless their competition is forced to do the same.

A whiff of rotten eggs may augur an oil shock

For years, cargo ships have been powered by about 4 million barrels a day of the dirtiest, bottom-of-the-barrel fraction of crude, a tarry substance known as bunker fuel or residual fuel oil. That’s set to change in less than 18 months, after the International Maritime Organization adopted rules that would keep the sulfur content of the bunker fuel on standard ships below 0.5 percent from Jan. 1, 2020.

The likelier outcome is that refiners will blend each barrel with about three of lower-sulfur fractions — principally gasoil or middle distillate, essentially the same stuff as automotive diesel — to get the proportion down from 2015’s average of 2.45 percent. But that, of course, will require an additional 2 million barrels a day or so of lower-sulfur fuel, and it’s not clear that the world’s refiners can shift so fast.

That, and the widening discount of January 2020 fuel oil over Brent, gives weight to a more pessimistic analysis: Shortages in the heaviest fractions of the barrel will drive up the prices of gasoil, jet fuel and gasoline, boosting the cost of crude itself until the market rebalances.

Curated Insights 2018.05.13

Who’s winning the self-driving car race?

Only Waymo has tested Level 4 vehicles on passengers who aren’t its employees—and those people volunteered to be test subjects. No one has yet demonstrated at Level 5, where the car is so independent that there’s no steering wheel. The victors will also need to pioneer businesses around the technology. Delivery and taxi services capable of generating huge profits is the end game for all.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicts that robo-taxis will help the ride-hailing and -sharing business grow from $5 billion in revenue today to $285 billion by 2030. There are grand hopes for this business. Without drivers, operating margins could be in the 20 percent range, more than twice what carmakers generate right now. If that kind of growth and profit come to pass—very big ifs—it would be almost three times what GM makes in a year. And that doesn’t begin to count the money to be made in delivery.

Waymo had three collisions over more than 350,000 miles, while GM had 22 over 132,000 miles.

After Waymo, a handful of major players have demonstrated similar driving capabilities. It’s hard to say anyone has an edge. One advantage for GM: There’s a factory north of Detroit that can crank out self-driving Bolts. That will help GM get manufacturing right and lower costs without relying on partners. Right now, an autonomous version of the car costs around $200,000 to build, compared to a sticker price of $35,000 for an electric Bolt for human drivers.

Musk wants to use cameras and develop image-recognition capabilities so cars can read signs and truly see the road ahead. He has said Tesla is taking the more difficult path, but if he can come up with a better system, he will have mastered true autonomy without the bulky and expensive hardware that sits on top of rival self-driving cars. “They’re going to have a whole bunch of expensive equipment, most of which makes the car expensive, ugly and unnecessary,” Musk told analysts in February. “And I think they will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.”

China’s got Jack Ma’s finance giant in its crosshairs

The rules will force Ant and some of its peers that straddle at least two financial industries to obtain licenses from China’s central bank and meet minimum capital requirements for the first time, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. The companies’ ownership structures and inter-group transactions will also be restricted, the people said, adding that the rules need approval from China’s State Council and are subject to change.


Starbucks: A big deal should mean a sharper focus

The deal appeared positive because it ”accelerates the reach of Starbucks’ channel development segment globally by providing Starbucks with a strong distribution partner; and enables Starbucks to step up shareholder returns.

CEO Kevin Johnson said as much on the conference call. “We’ve been very focused on streamlining the company in a way that allows us to put our focus and energy behind the highest priority value creation drivers for the company,” he said. “And certainly, our retail business in the U.S. and China are the two big growth engines.”


Tinder: ‘Innovation’ can help it fight off Facebook

“In digital, and especially on mobile, there is always one brand that defines each core use case,” Ross wrote. “In dating, it is Tinder, whose user base and subscription base continue to explode globally. We don’t see that changing, even with scaled competition from Facebook.”

Tinder’s brand, scale and “freemium” model—with free basic access and the opportunity to pay up—should continue to make it appealing to users (particularly younger ones) even as new competitors emerge, according to Ross. “There is no real reason for singles not to still use the platform,” he wrote.

“The hard paywall brands tend to be those that are for the more serious online dater,” Ross noted, including older users and those seeking comparatively long-term relationships. “This is not only where Facebook has said it will focus, but also where it can best leverage its data and recommendation capabilities.”


Why A.I. and cryptocurrency are making one type of computer chip scarce

Crypto miners bought three million G.P.U. boards — flat panels that can be added to personal and other computers — worth $776 million last year, said Jon Peddie, a researcher who has tracked sales of the chips for decades. That may not sound like a lot in an overall market worth more than $15 billion, but the combination of A.I. builders and crypto miners — not to mention gamers — has squeezed the G.P.U. supply. Things have gotten so tight that resellers for Nvidia, the Silicon Valley chip maker that produces 70 percent of the G.P.U. boards, often restrict how many a company can buy each day.


PayPal: How it can fight back against Amazon Pay

“Given its two-sided network of 218 million consumers in the PayPal digital wallet and 19 million merchants for whom PayPal provides online & mobile merchant acquiring services, plus Xoom and Braintree, PayPal benefits from one of the most extensive payments ecosystems globally. Within this ecosystem, PayPal offers the best mobile wallet with an 89% conversion ratio from shopping cart to payment, creating strong consumer and merchant lock-in.”

It has other ways to provide incentives. “PayPal enjoys strategic alliances with Visa, Mastercard, Google, Facebook, Apple, Alibaba, Baidu, and a number of financial institutions, including Bank of America and HSBC, allowing it access to a vast customer base and potential consumer incentive plans,” they wrote, noting an HSBC offer to pay customers $25 if they link their cards to PayPal.

Etsy CEO: ‘Signs of progress’ in boosting repeat business

Etsy isn’t trying to become a place people shop every day, but it does want people to shop there more often. (The company cites figures saying 60% of customers buy just once a year.) It said both new and repeat buyers were up 20% year-over-year in Q1, which Silverman called “early signs of progress.”

Management wants to increase the “lifetime value” of a shopper by creating a cycle in which the company pays an acceptable rate for a new user, converts them to a buyer and then a repeat buyer, and then translates the money that buyer provides into more efficient marketing that acquires more new customers.

As Warren Buffett’s empire expands, many jobs disappear

Despite Buffett’s folksy image, Berkshire has thrived for years by keeping things lean and buying companies that—in his own words—are run by “cost-conscious and efficient managers.” The result? Buffett hasn’t shut down many operations during his five decades atop the firm. But more than two dozen of his companies employ fewer people today than they used to.

Berkshire often doesn’t note in the data when one of its businesses buys another, which can make it seem like there’s hiring when the conglomerate is just absorbing people. The company also doesn’t always make clear when units are combined or spun out of others.

The formula behind San Francisco’s startup success

Losing money is not a bug. It’s a feature. Not making money can be the ultimate competitive advantage, if you can afford it, as it prevents others from entering the space or catching up as your startup gobbles up greater and greater market share. Then, when rivals are out of the picture, it’s possible to raise prices and start focusing on operating in the black.

You might wonder why it’s so much better to lose money provided by Sequoia Capital than, say, a lower-profile but still wealthy investor. We could speculate that the following factors are at play: a firm’s reputation for selecting winning startups, a willingness of later investors to follow these VCs at higher valuations and these firms’ skill in shepherding portfolio companies through rapid growth cycles to an eventual exit.

Cheap innovations are often better than magical ones

Much of what we call “artificial intelligence”, say the authors, is best understood as a dirt-cheap prediction. Sufficiently accurate predictions allow radically different business models.

If a supermarket becomes good enough at predicting what I want to buy — perhaps conspiring with my fridge — then it can start shipping things to me without my asking, taking the bet that I will be pleased to see most of them when they arrive.

Another example is the airport lounge, a place designed to help busy people deal with the fact that in an uncertain world it is sensible to set off early for the airport. Route-planners, flight-trackers and other cheap prediction algorithms may allow many more people to trim their margin for error, arriving at the last moment and skipping the lounge.

Then there is health insurance; if a computer becomes able to predict with high accuracy whether you will or will not get cancer, then it is not clear that there is enough uncertainty left to insure.


The future of digital payments? Computational contracts, says Wolfram

Wolfram anticipates at least three levels of computational contracts, from minor transactions (less than $50) to mid-level (thousands of dollars) and high-end (in the millions).

“The lowest level–typically involving small amounts of money–one will be happy to execute just using someone’s cloud infrastructure (compare Uber, AirBnB, etc.),” he writes in his blog post. “There’s then a level at which one wants some degree of distributed scrutiny, and one expects a certain amount of predictability and reliability. This is potentially where blockchain (either public or private) comes in.

“But at the highest level–say transactions involving millions of dollars–nobody is going to realistically want to completely trust them to an automated system (think: DAO, etc.). And instead one’s going to want the backing of insurance, the legal system, governments, etc.: in other words one’s going to want to anchor things not just in something like a blockchain, but in the ‘weightiest’ systems our current society has to offer.”

A hedge-fund fee plan that only charges for alpha

Consider a hypothetical traditional hedge firm that has $1 billion of assets under management and another that charges a fulcrum fee of 0.75 percent, plus a quarter of the profits. If the markets rise 10 percent and the fund outperforms by 200 basis points, or 2 percent, a traditional hedge fund would charge $20 million (2 percent of $1 billion), plus a performance fee of $24 million (20 percent of the $120 million in gains) for a total of $44 million. Our hypothetical fulcrum fund would charge $12.5 million — a management fee of $7.5 million (0.75 percent of $1 billion), and a performance fee of $5 million (25 percent of the 2 percent above-market gain). The breakdown of the $24 million performance fee portion of the traditional hedge fund works out to $20 million for plain old beta and $4 million for alpha. That total is five times more than what the fulcrum shop charges for investment gains.

Now imagine a scenario where the market is up by 10 percent and a fund is up only 8 percent, or has 2 percent underperformance. The traditional hedge fund would have charged $20 million (2 percent of the $1 billion in assets under management) plus a performance fee of $16 million (20 percent of the $80 million in gains) for a total of $36 million dollars. Meanwhile, the fulcrum fund would charge $7.5 million (the 0.75 percent management fee), but it also would give a refund of $5 million (25 percent of the 2 percent, or $20 million, in underperformance). The net charge to clients would be $2.5 million. This is a small fraction of the amount charged by a standard hedged fund.

Why winners keep winning

With that 20% initial advantage, the final market share increases significantly. What is even more amazing is that this advantage was only given in the first round and everything after that was left to chance. If we were to keep increasing the size of the starting advantage, the distribution of final market shares would continue to increase as well.

The purpose of this simulation is to demonstrate how important starting conditions are when determining long term outcomes. Instead of marbles though it could be wealth, or popularity, or book sales. And most of these outcomes are greatly influenced by chance events. We like to think in America that most things come down to hard work, but a few lucky (or unlucky) breaks early on can have lasting effects over decades. If we look at luck in this way, it can change the way you view your life…

I ask you this question because accepting luck as a primary determinant in your life is one of the most freeing ways to view the world. Why? Because when you realize the magnitude of happenstance and serendipity in your life, you can stop judging yourself on your outcomes and start focusing on your efforts. It’s the only thing you can control.

Curated Insights 2018.04.15

Mark Zuckerberg: “We do not sell data to advertisers”

There is a very common misconception that we sell data to advertisers, and we do not sell data to advertisers. What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they want to reach and then we do the placement. So, if an advertiser comes to us and says, ‘Alright, I’m a ski shop and I want to sell skis to women,’ then we might have some sense because people shared skiing related content or said they were interested in that. They shared whether they’re a woman. And then we can show the ads to the right people without that data ever changing hands and going to the advertiser. That’s a very fundamental part of how our model works and something that is often misunderstood.


Sen. Harris puts Zuckerberg between a rock and a hard place for not disclosing data misuse

So to sum up: in 2015, it became clear to Facebook and certainly to senior leadership that the data of 87 million people had been sold against the company’s terms. Whether or not to inform those users seems like a fundamental question, yet Zuckerberg claimed to have no recollection of any discussion thereof. That hardly seems possible — especially since he later said that they had in fact had that discussion, and that the decision was made on bad information. But he doesn’t remember when this discussion, which he does or doesn’t remember, did or didn’t take place!


Google and Facebook can’t help publishers because they’re built to defeat publishers

Here’s the problem: No matter how hard Google and Facebook try to help publishers, they will do more to hurt them, because that’s the way they’re supposed to work. They’re built to eviscerate publishers.

Publishers create and aggregate information and present it to users in return for their attention, which they sell to advertisers. And that’s exactly what Google and Facebook do, too: Except they do a much better job of that. That’s why the two companies own the majority of digital ad dollars, and an even bigger chunk of digital advertising growth. (Yes, those numbers can change — but if anyone displaces Google or Facebook, it will be another tech company.)

Amazon’s next mission: Using Alexa to help you pay friends

Mr. Bezos gave employees a mandate last year to push financial services as a key initiative, according to a person briefed on the matter. The company also restructured internally to add its digital wallet, Amazon Pay, to its team that focuses on Alexa as part of plans to make voice commands the next wave of commerce, according to other people familiar with the company’s plans.

If Amazon can move more transactions to its own rails or get better deals from card companies, it could save more than an estimated $250 million in interchange fees each year, Bain & Co. consultants say.


Is Amazon bad for the Postal Service? Or its savior?

An independent body, the Postal Regulatory Commission, oversees the rates that the Postal Service charges for its products. By law, the agreements it cuts with corporate customers like Amazon must cover their “attributable costs” that directly result from their use of the postal network.

While the Postal Service is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, there is an exemption in the federal law that allows it to avoid releasing particulars of its deals with private businesses like Amazon.


Amazon is not a bubble

Thanks to its significant time-lag between selling an item and paying a supplier (estimated at 80 days by Morningstar) Amazon has been able to self-fund its growth almost entirely from cash from operations over its 25-year corporate history. In fact they last tapped the equity markets for funding in 2003, and in the last quarter of 2017 reported $6.5bn of free cash flow.

Ensemble Capital Q1 2018: Netflix

In the US, it has more subscribers than all of the cable TV companies combined, and it has a penetration rate of about 40% of all US households. And it’s still growing. Based on its massive global subscriber base, Netflix is now the 2nd largest pay TV service in the world behind just China Radio & TV. Yet Netflix is still growing subscribers at a 20% clip.

None other than the “Cable Cowboy”, John Malone, the business genius who pioneered the development of cable TV, shares our view on this topic. Talking to CNBC last year, Malone said that the most important question in the TV industry is “Can Netflix get enough scale that nobody really can challenge them?” and then went on to say that in his opinion the traditional pay TV companies no longer have any chance of overtaking Netflix. When the interviewer asked if the pay TV industry could band together to create their own Netflix-like service as Malone had been urging for years, he simply replied “It’s way too late.”


Apple now runs on 100% green energy, and here’s how it got there

At the moment, this conversation involves a healthy dose of education. “What we say is that we’ll be there with you,” Jackson recounts. “We’ll help you scout deals, we’ll help you evaluate whether they’re real, we’ll help you know what to negotiate for, because most of these folks, they’re trying to make a part, and so what we can do for them is be sort of their in-house consulting firm.” But she adds that there will likely come a time where Apple will require suppliers to run their businesses on clean energy as a condition of a business relationship.


[Invest Like the Best] Pat Dorsey Return – The Moat Portfolio

Chegg is a company we own right now where the historical data looks awful and it’s because they just sold a business, and the performance of this asset intensive textbook rental, that’s what’s in the historical data. The performance of the asset light, super high incremental margin study business is buried in the segment results…

The legacy business for Chegg is textbook rental…of course, this is a business that’s fairly easily replicable, there are very low barriers to entry and so Amazon and Barnes and Noble essentially crushed them in the textbook rental business. The founders were fired by the venture capitalists who poured $220mn into the business, a new CEO was brought in, and he realized that the only asset Chegg had at that point was a brand. They had 60%, maybe 70% unaided name recognition on college campuses…so, they invested in a bunch of other businesses and the one that’s worked out really well for them is essentially building a digital library of step-by-step answers to end of chapter study questions. So, if you took engineering or math or organic chemistry, there’s going to be a series of questions at the end of the chapter, so did you understand what you just read, and if you didn’t you probably won’t do so well on the test. What they’ve done is gotten exclusive licenses for 27,000 ISBNs and answered every single question and indexed it on Google, that being pretty important because the college student today copies and pastes. They copy the question and they put it in Google and search on it. Chegg comes up as the first organic result, which is how their user base has gone up 2.5x in 3 years with marketing costs being the same as they were 3 years ago…

Now Chegg has to pay money, big money, for those licenses to get that content, and so to some extent the publishers – Pearson and McGraw Hill – do have a lever over Chegg in that respect. We think those relationships are good, they recently renewed one of their licenses at similar cost to what it was a few years ago, largely because the publishers themselves are struggling and this is a very high margin source of income for them. And most college students, they’ve never heard of Pearson, that name means nothing to them. So if Pearson were to take all their textbooks and try to do this themselves, we think the marketing costs would be enormous…you do have some crowd sourced competitors to Chegg, where students basically post their own answers but here’s the thing. When you think about the value to a student of getting a 3.5 instead of a 3.0 GPA or passing a certain class that’s required of their major, the marginal benefit of paying $14.95/month for Chegg and knowing it’s the right answer…vs. just crowd-sourcing it on reddit, it’s a good cost-benefit.

So Workiva, they have 96% client retention, 106% revenue retention because they keep upselling clients. And what they did is create a product that lets companies do SEC filings much more efficiently than the old way, which was mark up a pdf and send it to RR Donnelley and the Donnelley sends it back to you and then you mark it up and send it back to them…so needless to say, [Workiva] went from 0% to 50% share in 6 years. In fact, the people who do external reporting – they’ve got 80% share of the Fortune 500 right now – people actually won’t go to work for another firm that doesn’t use Workiva…

It’s not an easy product to create because essentially what they had to do was replicate Excel in the cloud and enable it for scores of simultaneous users. There’s no check-in/check-out the worksheet. And then also the data points get linked inside your enterprise and so you might way we need to report this EBIT line, well that’s the function of Bob here and Jane over there, and their numbers roll up into mine and I link that inside my enterprise, so if you had a new product you’d have to break all those links and re-integrate it. So, not impossible but external reporting teams, even Wal-Mart, a huge company, their external reporting team’s like 20 people, so it’s feasible to do a rip-and-replace. But where things get interesting for this business and where the TAM gets much larger is internal reporting, where you’re rolling up data across the entire enterprise and then putting it together for the CFO/CEO or whatever, because then the linkages get much greater and the number of users becomes much bigger and the more users you have within an entity whose workflow would be disrupted if you got a new product, the stickier the product becomes…

In Workiva’s example, their customer acquisition costs really spiked about a year and half, two years ago because instead of going after the broader internal reporting market, they tried to pivot going from the SEC market to the Sarbanes Oxley market, SOX reporting, which didn’t work very well because with external reporting you were just saying ‘hey, you should just use Wdesk instead of Donnelley or Merrill…our product is superior’. Customer goes ‘why, yes it is.’ There is no SOX product, there is no product for SOX reporting, it’s a whole bunch of cludged together internal processes, so that’s a much harder sale, going in and saying ‘pay money for a product that is replacing an internal process that you’re not actually paying money for, it’s just sort of wasting people’s time’. That’s harder to put a number on if you’re a CFO or CEO, so that really spiked up their customer acquisition costs. Once they pivoted back to enterprise sales and frankly just reorganized their sales force geographically instead of functionally – which means less travel – customer acquisition costs came back down.

The U.S. states most vulnerable to a trade war

How to understand the financial levers in your business

Whatever your business, build a business model that includes all of your assumptions — and build the model so you can pressure-test variables and find your levers. Once you’ve identified them, build MVPs to test those assumptions in more detail. It’s really important to experiment early and get some good data on what works (and what doesn’t), before you start ramping up and pouring lots of money into marketing and execution. Some changes can have exponential effects — for better or for worse.

Want to keep your wine collection safe? Store it in a bomb shelter

Shipping wine in the country is tightly controlled by a web of state laws, and it is illegal for individuals to ship wine themselves across state lines. Having wine storage in different states can ensure that collectors get the wine they want regardless of where they live.

Storage fees can be as low as $1.25 a month per case of wine, which holds 12 regular bottles or six magnums. Of course, wine collectors rarely store just one box, and they are not putting it there for just a month.


What it takes to out-sleuth wine fraud

Ms. Downey offered advice and provided counterfeit-detection tools for seminar participants, including a jeweler’s loupe, a measuring tape, a UV light and UV-visible pens. She outlined her authentication process, which begins with careful scrutiny of the wine bottle—the loupe proved handy here—notably the label, the paper it’s printed on and the printing method and ink, as well as other components such as the capsule and the cork. Ultra-white paper, detectable under UV light, wasn’t in commercial use until the 1960s. With the aid of a microscope, one could detect if the paper was recycled, which would mean the wine couldn’t have been produced before the 1980s, when recycled paper was introduced for labels.

Above all, she emphasized that wine fraud isn’t a victimless crime. “It affects people who work very hard to make good wine, who are proud of their wines and their appellation,” she said. “It ruins their reputation and it destroys all their hard work.” With the right tools and a gimlet eye, she believes, we can all play a part in protecting that work.

Curated Insights 2018.03.04

The #1 reason Facebook won’t ever change

Google’s core DNA is search and engineering, though some would say engineering that is driven by the economics of search, which makes it hard for the company to see the world through any other lens. Apple’s lens is that of product, design, and experience. This allows it to make great phones and to put emphasis on privacy, but makes it hard for them to build data-informed services.

Facebook’s DNA is that of a social platform addicted to growth and engagement. At its very core, every policy, every decision, every strategy is based on growth (at any cost) and engagement (at any cost). More growth and more engagement means more data — which means the company can make more advertising dollars, which gives it a nosebleed valuation on the stock market, which in turn allows it to remain competitive and stay ahead of its rivals.

Facebook’s challenge is that their most lucrative market — the US and Canada — are saturated. And to keep making money in these markets — already a ridiculous $27 in ARPU for the last three months of 2017 — they need us to give more time and attention to them. This is a crisis situation for Facebook because it doesn’t make as much money from markets outside of the US and Canada. For the same three months, it made $2.54 in ARPU in Asia-Pacific, $1.86 in rest of the world, and $8.86 in Europe.


Netflix

And if you’re dependent upon advertising you’re done. The public will not sit for it, only the cheapest individuals will endure ads, and then the ads don’t work on them, because they’re so damn tight. No, the people advertisers want to reach are the spenders, which is why everybody’s now advertising on Amazon, check it out, that’s where the dollars change hands.

So the networks and other ad-supported channels are on life support. They’re dependent upon hits, which come and go, and what do I always say…DISTRIBUTION IS KING!

So, just having good content is not enough, you’re reinventing the wheel every season, you’re only as good as your last hit.

As for HBO… That’s a dying model. If the outlet were smart, they’d band together with Hulu or another player and release all episodes on the same day. People don’t like to wait, appointment viewing is passe. We want it all and we want it NOW!

As for Hulu, forget about it, it doesn’t have critical mass, and unlike Netflix, it’s only in America. Sure, the “Handmaid’s Tale” burnished the outlet’s image, but Netflix has more than that, “Narcos,” Stranger Things,” 13 Reasons Why,” “Wormwood”… A record company can’t survive on one act, you need a steady flow of product, which Netflix has. And it’s a virtuous circle, they keep adding subscribers to the point they’ve got more money and they spend it on the best creators! So they end up with the lion’s share of the viewers. Which is why Fox wanted out, why it sold to Disney.

Nobody wants to let Google win the war for maps all over again

The companies working on maps for autonomous vehicles are taking two different approaches. One aims to create complete high-definition maps that will let the driverless cars of the future navigate all on their own; another creates maps piece-by-piece, using sensors in today’s vehicles that will allow cars to gradually automate more and more parts of driving.

Alphabet is trying both approaches. A team inside Google is working on a 3-D mapping project that it may license to automakers, according to four people familiar with its plans, which have not previously been reported. This mapping service is different than the high-definition maps that Waymo, another Alphabet unit, is creating for its autonomous vehicles.

Mobileye argues that it’s more efficient and cost-effective to let the cars we’re driving today see what’s ahead. In January, the Intel Corp. unit announced a “low-bandwidth” mapping effort, with its front-facing camera and chip sensor that it plans to place in 2 million cars this year. The idea is to get cars to view such things as lane markers, traffic signals and road boundaries, letting them automate some driving. Mobileye says this will take less computing horsepower than building a comprehensive HD map of the roads would.

Hidden profits in the prescription drug supply chain

Analysts at Bernstein tried to get a better picture of how profitable these companies are by excluding the cost of the drugs that are included in their revenue. The analysts compared the rate at which gross profit converts into earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for pharmacy-benefits managers and other pieces of the drug supply chain, including drug distributors, insurers and pharmacies.

By this analysis, pharmacy-benefit managers are exceptionally profitable; 85% of their gross profit converted into Ebitda over the past two years. Drug distributors converted 46% of their gross profit, while health insurers and pharmacies achieved about 30%.


Sergio Marchionne’s final lap

Few people in automotive history have as impressive a legacy of wealth creation as the 65-year-old Marchionne: Henry Ford, Billy Durant, Karl Benz and Kiichiro Toyoda among them. But those titans were like the industry’s farmers — cultivating businesses from scratch and nurturing them into today’s automaking giants. Marchionne, in contrast, has been the fireman — running into the ruins of once-great companies, putting out the flames and rebuilding something better than before.

“In 2004, when you were first introduced to the auto industry, a lot of people were thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ Right? I was one of them, frankly,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas told Marchionne during FCA’s Jan. 25 quarterly call with analysts. “We hadn’t seen anything like you. You took $2 billion, roughly, and you’ve turned it into around $72 billion, and more important than that, there are many hundreds of thousands of families across many nations that are better off because of you and your team.”

In 2009, Marchionne inherited a mess. Daimler and later Cerberus Capital had largely failed to invest in necessary product improvements or modernize the company’s industrial footprint. Morale among employees who had survived constant cost-cutting, including several rounds of layoffs, and then the bankruptcy could not have been lower. Marchionne offered the automaker’s disheartened employees a path back to potential health — one that demanded long hours, hard work, humility and sacrifice. The employees accepted the challenge. They set to work fixing many of the things that had gone so wrong with Chrysler and its products — improving quality, overhauling 16 vehicles in 19 months, banning rat-gray interiors and fixing manufacturing plants. Their level of commitment and dedication to restore the company to some semblance of health continually surprised Marchionne.


Didi Chuxing took on Uber and won. Now it’s taking on the world

With 400m registered customers in more than 400 Chinese cities, it delivers 25m rides a day, roughly twice as many as Uber and all the other global sharing apps combined. In the future, Liu imagines an even larger purpose, as Didi uses big data and machine learning to fix the many problems that snarl-up urban areas. “When you redesign the transportation system, you basically redesign the whole city,” Liu says. “You redefine how people should live.”

AI currently matches thousands of riders and drivers each minute, as part of a decision-making platform the company calls “Didi Brain”. This already predicts where riders are likely to want cars 15 minutes ahead of time, guessing right 85 per cent of the time. As it seeks out more patterns, Zhang says, the system will see forward an hour, or even a full day, using reinforcement learning, a powerful AI technique in which computers learn via experimentation, much as a child might use trial and error.

But for Didi, machine learning helps solve more basic problems, like traffic signals. “They’re sometimes manually operated every 90 seconds by someone sitting in a room,” Liu says. In the eastern city of Jinan, Didi algorithms now power “smart” traffic lights, which optimise patterns based on real-time car data, cutting congestion by ten per cent. Similar projects are under way in dozens of cities, along with plans to improve traffic lane management and bus systems.


Dyson bets on electric cars to shake up industry

Dyson has worked extensively on lightweight materials, leading several people to speculate the first vehicle may be substantially comprised of plastics rather than metals, something usually reserved for high-end supercars. This would make the cars lighter — important because of the weight of electric batteries — but also allowing for more inventive designs. When announcing the project last September, Sir James said the first car would look “quite different” to any currently on the market.

Dyson aims to lean less heavily on suppliers than traditional carmakers, partly because of a penchant for making components in house, and partly because electric cars contain substantially fewer bits than their combustion engine counterparts. The group already produces electric motors, which turn the wheels, as well as battery cells in-house, and is investing heavily in software development, an increasingly important part of modern cars.


SpaceX joins race to make web truly worldwide

If successful, however, SpaceX has said it plans to start launching its first commercial satellites next year, with a constellation of more than 11,000 circling the earth in low-earth orbit by the time the network is complete in 2024.

The satellite trial points to an impending space race that has drawn in powerful backers. Google, which once looked at developing its own satellite-based network, became one of SpaceX’s biggest backers when it led a $1bn investment round three years ago. Meanwhile, SoftBank and Richard Branson are among the backers of OneWeb, a European rival that hopes to start providing broadband internet next year.


Driverless cars: mapping the trouble ahead

“Everyone is trying to develop their own in-house HD map solution to meet their self-driving needs, and that doesn’t scale,” says Mr Wu of DeepMap. “It’s all reinventing the wheel, and that’s wasting a lot of resources. That will probably be one of the reasons to block self-driving cars from becoming a commodity.” Because companies do not share mapping data and use different standards, they must create new maps for each new city that they plan to enter. “It will delay the deployment in certain geographies,” Mr Wang says.

Willem Strijbosch, head of autonomous driving at TomTom, says the maps needed for driverless cars are different from the current map applications because they will need to “serve a safety critical function”, rather than just being used for navigation. “Another change is that you can no longer use GPS as your only means of localisation in the map,” he adds, because the global positioning system is not precise enough for self-driving cars.


Eyes in the sky: a revolution in satellite technology

Farmers can use the imagery to estimate crop yields around the world, investors are counting the number of oil storage tanks in China and estimating consumption trends, while human rights campaigners have used it to map the flight of the Rohingya population from Myanmar. On a daily basis, we can now study the shrinkage of glaciers, the expansion of cities, the deforestation of remote wildernesses and the devastation of armed conflict in intense detail.

“Seeing the whole Earth as a single entity is not new,” says Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal. “But what is happening now is that we are monitoring it on a daily basis at high resolution. Satellites have enough resolution to observe every big tree in the world every day.”

Planet now has a fleet of 190 satellites in orbit, including 13 SkySat satellites. That network provides a steady feed of imagery — more than 1.3 million photographs a day — that can be combined with other data streams to create a comprehensive “space data processing platform”. The company includes feeds from the Sentinel satellites, which operate as part of the EU’s Copernicus programme, and the US Landsat 8 satellite, adding infrared and radar capability.

Over the past two years, Planet has sold its data services to hundreds of customers in about 100 different countries, including the US, UK and German governments and big companies such as Bayer, Monsanto and Wilbur-Ellis. Planet says it has strict ethical guidelines and vets its customers as best it can to ensure that sensitive images do not end up in the wrong hands.

The number

Dr. Edward Deming once said that the numbers that best define a company are two factors that do not appear on any financial statement. These factors are the value of a satisfied customer and the value of a dissatisfied customer. These factors must be multiplied by every other number in a financial statement in order to assess the prospects of the business. A high satisfaction leads to repeat purchases and referrals, growing the business; while a low satisfaction leads to ending relationships and a repulsion of potential new customers. These numbers determine everything about the future and nobody quite knows what they are.

Stocks are more similar to bonds than you think

The table demonstrates that stocks have done an admirable job diversifying negative returns in bonds over time, showing losses only in three out of the 16 different times that bonds had down years. The spread between the two averaged more than 16 percent. It should also be comforting to those who practice diversification that even when both have fallen in the same year, bonds typically don’t get crushed like stocks do and instead tend to only show minor losses.

Companies pay workers to get savvier with money

Carrie Leana, a professor of organizations and management at University of Pittsburgh, said participants reported significant declines in their financial worry and increases in both their physical and psychological health.

To tackle this, companies are using incentives to boost participation in financial-wellness programs. These typically combine financial education with customized advice delivered by mobile apps and human advisers. The goal: to teach employees basic money-management skills and remind them—via text messages, emails or one-on-one meetings—to stick to budgets, pay bills and save more for everything from emergencies to retirement.

“We know that stress is the No. 1 cause of health-related issues, and the No. 1 cause of stress is money,” said SunTrust CEO William Rogers Jr. “If we can attack financial stress, we can improve our employees’ physical well-being as well.”

Twitter Snacks 2017.07.19