Curated Insights 2018.05.06

WeWork’s $20 billion dream: The lavishly funded startup that could disrupt commercial real estate

The company makes money primarily through rent arbitrage: charging its members more than it has to pay its landlords. The principal means of accomplishing this is by packing a lot of people into its locations. In WeWork’s buildings, the average square footage per person hovers around 50 square feet. This compares to 250 sq ft for commercial offices industry-wide. Despite this small footprint, members pay an average of $8,000 per year, with WeWork capturing a healthy 30 – 40% operating margin, according to the company.

WeWork is shifting from leases to co-management deals. In this scenario, landlords might pay for the renovation and buildout of offices and/or split membership profits 50/50, similar to the management agreement popularized by the hotel industry. Neumann says WeWork has followed this strategy nearly 100% of the time in markets like India and Israel.

In cities where there are numerous WeWork locations, each additional location serves to drive down membership churn. Artie Minson, WeWork’s former COO and current President, has noted, “in cities where WeWork opened more locations, membership cancellations declined.” While the vast majority of WeWork’s membership plans assign its members to a location, it does let members switch between locations.

First, it can quickly expand at scale, opening between 500K – 1M sqare feet per month. And second, it can design spatially efficient offices in non-identical locations. Both of these accomplishments rely on defensible strategic advantages, namely, a control of the complete building lifecycle and a mastery of data-informed design.

Why Amazon and Google haven’t attacked banks

Cloud spending by banks is expected to skyrocket. By 2021, banks globally are forecast to spend more than $12 billion on public cloud infrastructure and data services, up from $4 billion last year. By many metrics, the cloud business offers better opportunities to tech firms than, say, retail banking. Overall cloud-industry revenues are growing at about 60% year-over-year, Jefferies estimates. Meanwhile, retail-banking revenue, comprising products such as checking accounts and cards, at most big banks is growing at a fraction of that rate. And any real foray into banking or financial products could also entail substantial regulatory issues and expense.

Experts say Tesla has repeated car industry mistakes from the 1980s

Robots are supposed to allow production of more cars with fewer workers, but one ironic consequence of over-automation is that it can actually require more workers. Ingrassia and White report that GM’s Hamtramck plant had around 5,000 workers on its payroll in the mid-1980s, compared to 3,700 workers at a nearby Ford plant with many fewer robots. Yet the Ford plant was “outproducing Hamtramck by a wide margin.”

This kind of rapid iteration works well in the software industry because a programmer can change one line of code and then re-build the entire project with the click of a button. But physical manufacturing isn’t like that. Car design decisions have to be translated into physical tooling that takes months to build and fine-tune. And rapid iteration is a nightmare for suppliers, Shook added. “I talked to a supplier and asked ‘who’s your worst customer'” Shook said. “The answer was Tesla. How can you be a good supplier when you don’t know when you’re supposed to deliver?”

Free cash flow to whom?

Alphabet has 1,000 shares trading at $50. They buy back 100 shares for $500. They should now have 900 shares. However in their financial statements, it says they now have 1100 shares, due to 200 shares being issued to employees. Those 100 net new shares are worth $500, which we then subtract from the financial year’s free cash flow, to arrive at a new Free Cash Flow with Hypothetical Cash Compensation™ metric.

When a company’s share price is rising, prospective employees are more than happy to be paid in stock units that incrementally mature over four years. Companies with the best-performing stocks will be able to attract the best talent, which (all else being equal) should improve the performance of the business, and therefore increase the share price in a virtuous cycle.

But that cycle can effectively function as a type of confidence game as well. While it makes good times look especially good, it can make the bad times far worse. In a severe share-price decline, engineers will likely be reticent to receive stock-based compensation instead of cold hard cash, which would put pressure on operating margins and cash flow. And as share prices fall, companies would have to pony up more stock to provide the same compensation, and further dilute the shareholder base.

Air pollution kills 7 million people a year, WHO reports

Nine of 10 people around the world are exposed to dangerously high levels of pollutants that can lead to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Air pollution levels were the highest in the eastern Mediterranean and southeast Asia, where in some areas airborne toxins were five times WHO limits and disproportionately affected the poor and most vulnerable. About 3 billion people are breathing deadly fumes from domestic cooking stoves and fires. Household air pollution caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in 2016.

The Grumpy Economist: Basecoin

The Fed was founded in 1907 in part to provide an “elastic currency,” exactly the lesson missing from bitcoin and at the center of basecoin. Alas, the Fed trades money for treasury bonds, backed by taxes, not for Fed bonds backed by future seignorage. And laws against using foreign currency or issuing private currency help a lot. Basecoin buyers will soon learn the lesson that bonds cannot pay more interest than money in a liquid market, and that claims to future seignorage cannot back money in the face of competitive currencies.


Ray Dalio: An unconventional take on success

Everything I’ve done with a singular focus on economics has fallen short. Everything I’ve pursued because I believed in the intrinsic value has exceeded expectations. Assessing a business based on unit economics is especially popular today. But a durable competitive advantage comes from the value it creates for its stakeholders. If you get that right, the unit economics will follow. Economics is not always an accurate reflection of intrinsic value. The same can be said of a career.

Curated Insights 2017.11.12

(Guardian: Apple secretly moved parts of empire to Jersey after row over tax affairs)
(BBC: Paradise Papers: Apple’s secret tax bolthole revealed)
(Apple: The facts about Apple’s tax payments)

“US multinational firms are the global grandmasters of tax avoidance schemes that deplete not just US tax collection, but the tax collection of almost every large economy in the world.”

“Apple claims to be the largest US corporate taxpayer, but by sheer size and scale it is also among America’s largest tax avoiders … [It] should not be shifting its profits overseas to avoid the payment of US tax, purposefully depriving the American people of revenue.”

One theory is that AOE “bought” the rights owned by ASI taking advantage of an incentive called capital allowance. This means that if a multinational buys its own intellectual property through an Irish subsidiary, the cost of that purchase will generate many years of tax write-offs in Ireland.


This is how Amazon could invade the pharmacy business

Drug delivery would also add to the value of Amazon Prime membership. Customers who pay the $99-per-year price for Prime membership are its most loyal customers, and Amazon is constantly looking for ways to increase the value of membership to keep shoppers from using competitors.

In generics especially, there are numerous markups along the way that Amazon could eliminate or pare back to capture market share.

Amazon already owns wholesale distribution licenses in at least 13 states and could build its own pharmacy business from scratch, restructuring the drug supply chain in the process. For now, these wholesale licenses may be part of Amazon’s business-to-business sales effort, which would focus on hospitals, doctors’ offices and dentists. In the longer term, however, the drug-distribution licenses could be the first step in building a hub-and-spoke model for drugs that could eventually serve consumers.

There are thousands of different drugs and dosages with prices that vary widely among drugstores and insurance plans. This makes it hard for patients to know when they are getting the best deal.


Tesla hits bumps in pursuit of mass market

Potential problems uncovered include workers in its Fremont plant manually operating robots that should be automated, several cost overruns and delays from suppliers because of late changes to design specifications, and difficulties sequencing parts once they arrive at the plant leading to a large number of unfinished vehicles coming off the line.

 

In multiple instances, the company shipped cars from the factory that lacked key parts such as computer modules, digital displays, or even seats. These parts were flown to Tesla-owned dealers, who then assembled them into the vehicle before completing the shipments to customers, according to several people familiar with the practice.


 

Apple acquired InVisage with well over 100 patents on quantum dot technology for advanced cameras and beyond

Apple’s acquisition of InVisage is very exciting as iPhone cameras are becoming a key feature to keep their smartphones ahead of the pack. Advancing video will be very exciting to see come to the iPhone and beyond. Between the advances in Quantum Dot technology and depth cameras, they have expertise in many markets that Apple could tap into over time.

Why AI is the ‘new electricity’

The U.S. and China lead the world in investments in AI, according to James Manyika, chairman and director of the McKinsey Global Institute. Last year, AI investment in North America ranged from $15 billion to $23 billion, Asia (mainly China) was $8 billion to $12 billion, and Europe lagged at $3 billion to $4 billion. Tech giants are the primary investors in AI, pouring in between $20 billion and $30 billion, with another $6 billion to $9 billion from others, such as venture capitalists and private equity firms.

Where did they put their money? Machine learning took 56% of the investments with computer vision second at 28%. Natural language garnered 7%, autonomous vehicles was at 6% and virtual assistants made up the rest. But despite the level of investment, actual business adoption of AI remains limited, even among firms that know its capabilities, Manyika said. Around 40% of firms are thinking about it, 40% experiment with it and only 20% actually adopt AI in a few areas.

The reason for such reticence is that 41% of companies surveyed are not convinced they can see a return on their investment, 30% said the business case isn’t quite there and the rest said they don’t have the skills to handle AI. However, McKinsey believes that AI can more than double the impact of other analytics and has the potential to materially raise corporate performance.


Why multi-cloud is the next big thing in technology

Why has cloud become so indispensable to so many companies? Because pretty much every company has become a software company, and they all need to deliver their software faster and to more people than ever before.

Avoiding lock-in and saving cost; Differentiation; responding to cloud vendor pressure; resiliency, redundancy, performance and data sovereignty; M&A and consolidation; access to resources.

A recent survey by RightScale found that 85% of enterprises now have a multi-cloud strategy, up from 82% in 2016. This creates immense opportunities for startups that can help companies work seamlessly across various different cloud providers. Startups that promise cloud neutrality – not being locked into one particular vendor – will have significant advantage in this new battlefield.


A decade after DARPA: Our view on the state of the art in self-driving cars

Developing a system that can be manufactured and deployed at scale with cost-effective, maintainable hardware is even more challenging. We are innovating across the sensing hardware and software stack to lower costs, reduce sensor count, and improve range and resolution. There remains significant work to be done to accomplish these conflicting objectives and get the technology to reliably scale.

Testing stochastic systems requires a significant number of repetitions generated by real-world data for it to be representative. That means we must gather millions of miles of road experience to teach the software to drive with confidence. (Imagine needing to drive millions of miles to get your driver’s license!) But not all miles are created equal, so “accumulated miles” is not an expressive enough metric to track progress. Think of it this way: The skills you acquired learning to drive in a quiet Midwestern town will not translate should you find yourself driving in the heart of Manhattan.

We’re still very much in the early days of making self-driving cars a reality. Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology. For those of us who have been working on the technology for a long time, we’re going to tell you the issue is still really hard, as the systems are as complex as ever.


How many robots does it take to fill a grocery order?

The U.K.’s biggest online grocer hit a milestone this year: Ocado Group Plc put together an order of 50 items, including produce, meat and dairy, in five minutes. Fulfilling a similar order at one of the company’s older facilities takes an average of about two hours. The secret: a fleet of 1,000 robots that scurry about a warehouse snatching up products and delivering them to human packers.


Thanks to Wall St., there may be too many restaurants

There are now more than 620,000 eating and drinking places in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number of restaurants is growing at about twice the rate of the population.

“Everybody thinks their brand has what it takes to succeed in the marketplace. You look at a location that looks good, but everybody is looking at the same place and they all come in, and the result is you get oversaturation.”

Sales at individual chain restaurants, compared with a year earlier, began dropping in early 2016, analysts reported. A majority of restaurants reported sales growth in just four of the last 22 monthly surveys from the National Restaurant Association. Before that, most restaurants had reported growth for 20 consecutive months, from March 2014 through October 2015, the survey found. As Americans work longer hours and confront an ever-growing array of food options, they are spending a growing share of their food budget — about 44 cents per dollar — on restaurants.

The shuttering of restaurants could have a major impact on the labor market. Since 2010, restaurants have accounted for one out of every seven new jobs, and many restaurateurs complain that it has become increasingly difficult to hire and retain workers.


Menu prices will tell the future of inflation

Take a company like the Cheesecake Factory. In its third-quarter earnings report back in 2013, when the labor market was looser, labor costs represented 32.1 percent of revenue. Operating margins were 8.2 percent. Fast forward to the third-quarter earnings report this year. Labor costs had risen to 34.9 percent of revenue, and operating margins had shrunk to 6.2 percent. In its conference call, the company guided wage growth in 2018 to 5 percent, in line with many of its peers. As labor pressures have eaten into margins and profits, perhaps not surprisingly, the company’s stock is flat over the past four years.

Lucky for the restaurant industry, even while labor costs have been rising, food costs have been falling. Cheesecake Factory’s cost of sales as a percentage of revenue has fallen to 22.9 percent, from 24.0 percent in the third quarter of 2013. Without this, margins would be even lower.

The cost of eating out has been going up at a rate of only 2.4 percent per year, less than wage growth in the industry.

Jeff Bezos’s guide to life

On raising kids: Jeff and his wife let their kids use sharp knives since they were four and soon had them wielding power tools, because if they hurt themselves, they’d learn. Jeff says his wife’s perspective is “I’d much rather have a kid with nine fingers than a resourceless kid.”

…decided “the best way to think about it was to project my life forward to age 80” and make the decision that “minimized my regrets. You don’t want to be cataloguing your regrets.” And while you might feel remorse for things you did wrong, he said more often regrets stem from the “path not taken” like loving someone but never telling them. “Then it was immediately obvious” that he should leave to start Amazon. “If it failed, I would be very proud when I was 80 that I tried.”

On space entrepreneurship: The key to opening the opportunities of space is reducing the price of getting objects out of Earth’s gravity. “We have to lower the cost of admission so thousands of entrepreneurs can have startups in space, like we saw with the Internet”, noting how web companies exploded in popularity as infrastructure costs came down.


Peak farmland, peak timber, peak car travel, peak child

About 1970 a great reversal began in America’s use of resources. Contrary to the expectations of many professors and preachers, America began to spare more resources for the rest of nature, first in relative and more recently in absolute amounts. A series of decouplings is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production. Changes in behavior and technology liberate the environment. – Nature Rebounds, Jesse Ausubel