Thinking about Netflix

Netflix is an amazing business story. It is a $228 billion company as of this writing and a household name in plenty of countries around the world. Talk to people who like to study businesses and many of them will recommend: look at Netflix. The rise of Netflix offers valuable lessons that business students or executives can take inspiration from. With their latest earnings call last week as a backdrop, I want to take some time to look at the streaming service and put down some thoughts.

The Bull Case

This quarter’s numbers weren’t the best that Netflix has had to offer. Overall, its revenue increased 19% compared to a tough comparison of last year buoyed by Covid-19 and stay-at-home restrictions. Operating margin was 25%, almost 300 basis points higher than the same period last year. In total, the streamer had 209 million subscribers as of Q2 2021. Net paid additions stood at 1.54 million with 2/3 coming from Asia Pacific, even though North America market lost almost half a million subscribers. In the last two years, Netflix added on average 27 million subscribers, on par with 2017 and 2018. Given the competition for screen time, it’s remarkable that they manage to add 27 million subscribers a year while regularly increasing prices. One can argue that it’s testament to the health and competitive advantages of the business.

One big advantage that Netflix has over other streamers is unit cost. As the first mover in this market, Netflix’s big subscriber base enables it to stretch content cost over subscribers more than competitors can. The advantage is likely to persist for a while. On the earnings call, management emphasized a few times how Netflix has low penetration in numerous markets. Given how they have added 27 million subscribers per year in the last four, the track record indicates that they will continue to add to their advantages.

Recently, Netflix made several moves suggesting significant changes/additions to their business. Back in June, the company announced Netflix Shop, an online store where customers can buy branded merchandise that is inspired by Netflix’s originals. The company also hired a new Head of Podcasts and a Vice President of Game Development. I can see the rationale behind these developments. Netflix’s originals have a legit following which would be a waste if the company didn’t try to capitalize with merchandise and retail sales, like what Disney does with its IP. Should they build amusement parks like Disney? I don’t think it’ll be wise to spend billions of dollars on physical attractions. First, that’s not what Netflix is good at. They don’t have yet some of the legendary brands/stories such as Marvel, Mickey Mouse like Disney does. Second, the company was long criticized and mocked as Debtflix because of its regular holding and increasing of debts. I am not sure that any news on spending a ton of capital on parks to replicate Disney’s model would be positively received. Of course, having an online store isn’t the same as offering experiences like Disney World or Disneyland does, but it serves as a great and capital-light complement to Netflix’s core business.

On the earnings call, the management team insisted that at least for now, they don’t see these new initiatives as profit pools. Rather, they are meant to support the core subscription business and add values for customers. They said that games would be available to subscribers at no additional cost. The initial position on podcasts and games is consistent with the Netflix brand: great at storytelling, customer-led & subscription-focused operation. I don’t know if game & podcast are the best way to keep customers engaged and lower churn, but it’s a positive sign to see the leadership add more depth to the business.

Well, I would say none of them. That is they’re not designed to be because — but I’ll draw two distinction. There’s things that our consumers love it in our service. So Shonda Rhimes’ future work, we are very confident of. Video gaming, we’re pushing on that, and that will be part of our service, so unscripted, all those things. So think of that as making the core service better. So lots of investment but not a separate profit pool. It’s enhancing the big service that we have.

And then, there’s a number of supporting elements, consumer products, various shopping where we’re really trying to grow those to support the title brands to get our conversations up around each of the titles so that the Netflix service becomes must-have. So they’re not a profit pool of any material size on their own, but they are helping — the reason we’re doing them is to help the subscription service grow and be more important in people’s lives, so I would say really, we’re a one product company with a bunch of supporting elements that help that product be an incredible satisfaction for consumers and a monetizing engine for investors.

Source: Netflix

When asked about Netflix’s position on sports, Ted Sarandos, the Co-CEO of Netflix, said that they preferred leveraging their storytelling excellence in sports to competing for the rights to broadcast. As an investor, I wholeheartedly welcome that position. Their sport documentaries such as Drive to Survive, or Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance are huge hits to the audience. They reflect the ability to tell stories, some of which are completely new and can be found nowhere else. These content pieces are also not littered with ads, something that gels very well with Netflix’s brand positioning. I don’t see any reason why they should stop. What this shows is that Netflix’s management is, at least on this front, prudent with their content investments and knows what their leverages are.

Look, I think we’ve — you’ve pointed it out, but our success with the sports-adjacent properties, like the F1 Drive to Survive, Deaf U and certainly the Michael Jordan doc, those are all examples, I think, of the platform and what it can do to build enthusiasm on what is already viewed to be an enormous business. Drive To Survive expanded the audience for Formula 1 racing pretty dramatically, in both in live ticket sales and TV ratings and merchandise sales, all those things. And I think that that can be applied as long as the storytelling is great. So what’s good about this for us is that we could apply those same kind of creative excellence to the storytelling behind those sports, the personalities behind those sports, the drama that happens off camera.

Look, I don’t know that those sports suffer from being underdistributed, so I don’t know that we would bring that much to them. And just to be clear, I’ve reiterated this a lot, but I’m not saying we’ll never say never on sports. It’s just what is the best use of about $10 billion. And I think that’s what it’s going to cost to invest meaningfully in big league sports.

And that pricing has only gone up since I started saying that, so I believe that that’s likely to hold. But again, I don’t think it’s because those other sports are niche because they’re underdistributed and that we could bring a lot to them. Our fundamental product is on demand and advertising free, and sports tends to be live and packed with advertising. So there’s not a lot of natural synergies in that way, except for it happens in television.

Source: Netflix

Overall, there is a strong case to be made about Netflix’s competitive advantages. If you love to have a management team sticking to their guns and philosophy, so far, Netflix’s has done a pretty good job at that.

The Bear Case

Up to now, Netflix’s revenue is only from subscriptions. To grow revenue, there are only two ways: add more subscriptions or raise prices. Netflix has regularly raised prices over the past few years and management reported that these prices don’t negatively affect churn. However, I wonder how far they can take that approach. A recent survey showed that almost 40% of cancellations on Netflix were because consumers didn’t perceive they got the bang for their bucks. Netflix bulls can argue that it’s just one survey and doubt the legitimacy of the methodology, but we all have friends or family members who cancel Netflix because it got too expensive. Given the pool of alternatives that consumers have on the market, I don’t imagine Netflix has a lot of leeway left to continuously raise prices. In addition, there is something to be said about the quality of content on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, they have plenty of good movies and shows. But I feel like there are more inferior shows than good ones. When that happens, folks like those surveyed below feel that they don’t get enough value in exchange for their money.

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Source: Andrew Freedman

I think Netflix is capable of producing great podcasts. There are synergies between what they have been doing and podcast creation. However, I am less confident in their prospect at games. Games are very challenging. Just ask Google. They shut down their initiative to develop 1st party games for Stadia. I am not saying that just because Google couldn’t crack that code doesn’t mean Netflix wouldn’t. It just means that I have some reservation over what Netflix can do for games. While using games to reduce churn and engage subscribers is a great idea, there are a lot of folks who watch Netflix and can’t care less about games, myself included. As I mentioned above, games require a serious investment without a guarantee for success. A big investment for a subset of subscribers, it gives me some concern and reservation. But of course, you don’t know what works unless you try. I look forward to how this initiative pans out.

On the earnings calls, Netflix management usually paints a rosy picture of lowering churn and increasing engagement. I don’t blame them. That’s what they are supposed to do. However, there are data points that tell a different story. Take engagement. Netflix spent millions of dollars on marketing Army of The Dead just to have a lower number of people sampling the show than Spenser Confidential. On a side note, I have a heightened level of caution whenever I read into Netflix’s metrics. They used to count people who accidentally had a show automatically previewed in their engagement. That’s pretty much not true. They did change the criteria for the engagement metric to be more relevant but does watching a show for a couple of minutes is the same as watching the whole show? In the past, I once wrote about how Netflix deceptively used Google Trends data to make it look like The Witcher was more popular than The Mandalorian on Disney+. These episodes don’t necessarily put me at ease whenever I have to look at reported numbers from Netflix.

While Netflix lost half a million subscribers in North America this quarter, The Information reported that Disney gained subscribers in the same period. Now, the article from The Information hasn’t been confirmed, verified or validated yet, so the jury is still out on its accuracy. But if what is reported holds, even though having an apple-to-apple comparison between the two streamers is always a challenge, Netflix undeniably has competition and in fact, is feeling it. Yet, you often hear Netflix’s management downplay its competition. While it can be good for a company to focus more on its operations than on others, the fact that the management doesn’t straightforwardly acknowledge the level of cut-throat competition baffles me. Combined with the ambiguity of metrics mentioned above, I wonder how much Netflix doesn’t want us to know about the impact of competition.

Summary

As great a business as Netflix is, it still has some concerning aspects to iron out. Admittedly, I am dominantly bullish on Netflix like many others. However, while I have some concerns as laid out above, I often see Netflix bulls blindly optimistic about the company’s outlook, citing their unit cost advantage as invincible. I mean, Amazon has 175 million Prime members use Prime Video. Apple has 600 million subscribers that they can stretch content cost over. Disney in the past couple of years already has amassed more than 100 million subscribers. Netflix’s advantage is real and their management is capable, but in this highly competitive space, future success is not a given. In fact, Netflix needs to be on their A game to stay ahead. I think by trying new initiatives, they are doing that, in their own way. Whether these initiatives succeed remains to be seen, but at least they are not sleeping on their success.

A strong opening weekend for Black Widow highlighted Disney’s competitiveness

In a rare move, The Walt Disney Company disclosed some details around revenue and profit made from streaming. Per Variety:

Disney and Marvel’s superhero adventure “Black Widow” captured a massive $80 million in its first weekend, crushing the benchmark for the biggest box office debut since the pandemic. The film, starring Scarlett Johansson, is the first from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to open simultaneously in movie theaters and on Disney Plus, where subscribers can rent “Black Widow” for an extra $30. Disney reported that “Black Widow” generated more than $60 million “in Disney Plus Premier Access consumer spend globally,” marking the rare occasion in which a studio disclosed the profits made from streaming.

Directed by Cate Shortland, “Black Widow” collected an additional $78 million from 46 international territories, boosting its global box office haul to an impressive $158 million. Combined with Disney Plus numbers, the final weekend figure sits at $215 million. Curbing overall ticket sales, however, is the fact that “Black Widow” still doesn’t have a release date in China, which is an all-important moviegoing market for the Marvel franchise.

A few things that jumped out to me with this report. First, Disney continues to show the ability to tell appealing stories to a wide audience. Granted, not everybody will enjoy their stories, but the revenue numbers don’t like. They have crushed revenue expectations in the past when the majority of movies that crossed $1 billion in revenue came from the studio and Endgame is still the top two successful movie of all time. Netting $215 million in the first weekend without China when many markets are still dealing with Covid-19, especially the Delta variant, is a great sign in my book.

Second, Disney has a unique ability to be flexible with how they introduce their movies. All the series such as Loki, Wanda Vision or The Falcon & Winter Soldier are exclusive on Disney+ and that makes sense. For the movies, they can reach the audience in different ways. Movies can be exclusive on Disney+ for free to all subscribers or to Premier Access buyers first and to all subscribers after a few weeks. Disney can choose to release movies in theaters first and then on Disney+. Or they can release it in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access; which is exactly what they did with Black Widow. The flexibility allows the company to react to the changing environment caused by Covid. Plus, it’s a great tool to maximize revenue and profit. Movie theaters will bring in nice revenue, but whatever money Disney generates from Premier Access is pure profit.

This unique flexibility is a competitive advantage that none of Disney’s competitors can copy. To convince people to shell out another $30 after already paying a membership, a streamer needs a strong brand and IP. Disney has that. Does Netflix have any movie that could do the same? I don’t think so. Even if a streamer has the necessary IP, does it have all the other ingredients needed t o pull the feat off? Like, if the streamer has a big enough subscriber base to even move the needle? Or does it have the relationship with theaters to negotiate a deal like Disney did? I think other streamers will look at today’s announcement from Disney with interest and try to explore the possibility of copying the model. So I will look forward to see how they can pull it off.

In the last earnings call, Disney reported that they had about 104 million Disney+ subscribers with a third coming from Hotstar in India. Hotstar subscribers pay much less for a Disney+ plan, hence it drags the whole streamer ARPU down. What’s interesting in this case is that Disney+ Premier Access is not available in India. News outlets such as Yahoo reported that the feature was not available in India. My friend from India confirmed it too. Given that Premier Access costs more or less $30 in every available market, $60 million in revenue from the feature means that around 2 million subscribers or around 1-2% of Disney+ subscriber base paid for early access to Black Widow.

Netflix bulls will keep pounding on the big lead that Netflix has over other streamers and, as a result, the cost advantage. That’s true. But what Disney shows is that there is an alternative way to succeed. Disney doesn’t have yet the subscriber base like Netflix has. But it has other unique assets: 1/ A dedicated fanbase to its IPs; 2/ The flexibility to make money from other channels, not just its streaming service; 3/ Its theme park complements nicely its Direct-To-Consumer segment. When you generate more money per movie than your competitors, does it matter whether it comes from your subscribers? That’s not to say Disney can neglect the task of increasing its customer base. It’s important that Disney can catch up to Netflix on this front and please investors in the short term. But it’s even better to introduce Disney+ at a low price in many markets to attract audience while making money from theaters and Premier Access. So far, I haven’t seen another company with this model.

Disclosure: I have a position on Disney and Netflix.

Clear Secure – Plenty of growth opportunities and a couple of red flags

Clear Secure made its debut on the stock market this week at around $4.5 billion in valuation. I read its S-1 and wanted to talk about some of my notes.

What is Clear Secure about? In essence, the company is all about using biometrics for security. Think about how, in movies, people use retinas or fingerprints to unlock valuable assets in a vault or a safe. CLEAR gives customers access to services that they already paid for. With CLEAR, partners can be assured that customers are who they say they are and elevate the customer experience due to expedited verification process. On the other hand, instead of waiting for a long time in lines, customers can have a more pleasant experience with dedicated CLEAR kiosks, applications and lanes. Below is an example of how it works at airports.

CLEAR makes money from two sources: partners and end users. Partners that use CLEAR technology compensate the company based on the number of users or transactions. Even though there is no mention of a standardized contract structure in the prospectus, usage-based pricing means that once CLEAR is established, the more popular and used it is by end users, the more revenue the firm generates. In addition, CLEAR also makes money from CLEAR PLUS, its flagship subscription. With CLEAR PLUS, users can save time at airports by using dedicated CLEAR lanes to quickly verify their identity and travel credentials before entering the physical security check. CLEAR PLUS is priced at around $175/year and if you enroll at airports, you can get one month free trial. In January 2020, CLEAR announced that it was selected by TSA to handle both renewals and new subscriptions for TSA Check. As part of the agreement, CLEAR will be allowed to sell a bundled subscription for both TSA Check and CLEAR PLUS. While both services are essentially the same, TSA Check has a much wider coverage in the U.S. The program is expected to go live in the back half of 2021 and will be a new revenue source for CLEAR. Apart from the aforementioned services, CLEAR also offers end users free access to other services such as Home To Gate, Health Pass or CLEAR Pass for CBP Mobile Passport Control. These freebies serve as an acquisition channel for CLEAR, but the company reported that in-airports are still the most popular one.

CLEAR has plenty of room for growth. Its kiosks are available in major airports nationwide, but there are still a lot more to cover. The company said in the prospectus that its footprint as of the end of May 2021 only covers 57% of the TSA departure volume in 2019 while the total signups to CLEAR PLUS reached only 4% of the potential market. If you think about it, what CLEAR offers can be useful to companies in many verticals. Hospitals or healthcare firms can access confidential information quickly without a slew of forms. Hospitality players can check in and out guests more quickly with CLEAR. Sports events can handle the inflow and outflow of spectators more efficiently. Plus, CLEAR is available only in the U.S now. Right now, CLEAR already has a commercial agreement with Wal-mart, MLB, NBA, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, 67 Health Pass-enabled partners and 38 airports. International expansion is a tricky yet lucrative opportunity. Given the increased publicity from its IPO, I suspect that CLEAR will have an easier time than before talking to new partners.

According to the S-1, CLEAR information security program received the highest designation according to the Federal Information Security Modernization Act from DHS. It is also certified as Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technology under the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act of 2002 (“SAFETY Act”). U.S Customs and Border Protection also uses CLEAR to let U.S citizens and permanent residents enter the country more expeditiously. Additionally, it will help TSA handle new subscriptions and renewals for TSA Pre Check. The acceptance and certifications that come from the federal government are a robust competitive advantage for CLEAR. It’s not easy at all to win these designations and work with the government, especially when it comes to security. The longer CLEAR is in the market, the more weight and trust the CLEAR brand will carry, making it exceedingly difficult for any challenger to compete. In the world of security, trust and brand names are of utmost importance. Those can take a long time to gain yet seconds to lose. So far, CLEAR has done a very good job of building its credentials. Any challenger will have to take time to go through the same process and no money in the world can speed up the process. Meanwhile, CLEAR can continue to expand its footprint & verticals and use more usage data to improve its technology platform and strengthen its lead further.

Let’s dig into the numbers. Compared to March 2019, enrollments, uses and total bookings in the quarter ending March 31, 2021 were up meaningfully. If you question why retention rate has been trending down and why the explosive growth often seen in IPOs is absent here, it’s worth noting that Covid-19 severely limited in-person events as well the travel industry; therefore, it is not surprising to see such a great adverse impact on CLEAR’s business. With that being said, as the country is opening up, travel is getting back to 2019 level and in-person events are relatively safe again, do expect to see these numbers go up in the next few quarters.

In the last two years, CLEAR had positive operating income only in two quarters, at the height of Covid. What concerns me isn’t the lack of explosive growth many may expect. It is the lack of economies of scale. Compared to 2019 quarters, the quarter ending March 31, 2021 didn’t seem to show that CLEAR gained much more efficiency. Granted, the impact of Covid-19 is undisputed and the company did seem to transfer some marketing expenses to R&D; which is a positive sign for a technology platform. Yet, the two biggest expense line items in Direct Salaries and G&A, mainly stock-based compensation, still dominate their cost structure. That makes me wonder when this trend will end, given that historical data in the last two years indicate otherwise.

Another red flag is that the company has a shareholder deficit. Total shareholder equity is the difference between total assets and total liabilities. A deficit means that CLEAR’s liabilities are larger than its assets and that it has been losing more money than what investors put in so far. While a deficit may be the short term pain in exchange for the groundwork for future success and the IPO should give CLEAR a big windfall, investors shouldn’t gloss over this fact.

I like the potential growth and the competitive advantages that CLEAR has while being a bit concerned about how the company is currently managed. I put the company on my watchlist and will monitor it in the near future to see if it makes sense for me to take a position.

Breakdown of Formula One, a fascinating business

Patrick O’Shaughnessy released a wonderful podcast episode on Formula One as a business. If you are not familiar with the sport, Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsports. It features more than 20 races in a calendar year around the world with 10 teams, some of which are iconic brands such as Ferrari, Mercedes, Aston Martin, McClaren or Renault, and, arguably, 20 best drivers that we have to offer. Teams compete for driver and constructor championships. The higher a constructor finishes in the standing at the end of the season, the more money it receives. The more successful a driver is, the higher salary he can demand. The likes of Alonso, Vettel, Verstappen and Hamilton earn between 10 – 40 million dollars a year. These cars can easily hit 180mph on the straights and take corners at a speed that normal cars have on a highway. This is a sport that uniquely combines entertainment, legacy, world-class engineering, science, data analysis, drama and strategy.

I have been a fan of Formula One half of my life. While I am pretty familiar with the sport, I still get to learn about the business from this podcast episode. If you want to know about the sport itself or if you are looking to learn about the business, have a listen. It’s definitely worth the time. Here are some of my notes:

Even though Formula One has a big global fanbase, it is still somewhat under-monetized, compared to other sports

There are 400 million or so unique fans globally. And just to give you a comparison point there, the NFL might have more like a hundred million. And even the Premier League is probably closer to 300 million. And the Premier League is truly a global sport in some ways, even though the avid fans are more regional and local. And so there’s just a huge fan base here. And the fans are really, almost all of them, tend to be avid because it’s such a technical sport. Now the Drive to Survive series on Netflix has changed that a little bit with a little bit more of the casual fan coming in, which is why there’s probably an opportunity to grow that 400 million number even further. But it is one of the largest, if not the largest league in the world by the fan base, depending on what metric you use.

Just to step back and stay at the macro level, for a second, we talked about $2 billion of revenue, more or less, and 400 million fans. So if you want to think about it, that’s about $5 of monetization per unique fan. In the NFL, we talked about 16 billion with about a hundred million fans. So that’s over $150 per unique fan. The premier league does 6 billion in revenues with 300 million, that’s $20 per unique fan. So without getting into the specifics for a second, if you just step back and say, what’s the opportunity to monetize, it’s there. It’s just, it’s there. Right? So now the question is, how do you go execute that?

Breakdown of revenue: 33% from promoter fees, 33% from broadcast, 15% from sponsorship & advertising and the rest from paddock club

Absolutely. There are three main primary drivers of revenue. The first is race or promoter fees. Those are essentially the fees that a local partner pays Formula One to host a race. Formula One isn’t actually putting on the race itself. It charges a fee to a local partner, who then hosts the race, sets up the race track, sets up all the entertainment around the race. And that’s just under a third of revenues today.

The second bucket is broadcast revenues, obviously just transmission of the broadcast, rights at the sport, across the world to different broadcast partners. That’s just a touch over a third of revenues. And then finally there’s sponsorship and advertising today. That’s about 15% of revenues. Though, I would say that’s probably where there’s the most opportunity for growth versus the other two.

There’s a final bucket, let’s call it, which is, other. That’s about 15% of revenues as well. The primary driver there is paddock club revenues. So paddock club is essentially the VIP section at a race and the league, Formula One has the right to sell tickets to that and to host the VIP section in a handful of races. And so that’s kind of the biggest driver. There are other drivers. Formula One’s involved with Formula Two and Formula Three racing, kind of the minor leagues, if you will, and generate some revenue from there. There is some revenue tied to transporting the team’s cars around. There’s a fleet of 747s that basically help this circus go from one spot to the other around the world. But those are all lower margins if you will than the primary three. So even though it might be 15% in that final bucket of revenue, it’s a smaller portion of profits. And so I would really think of the big three that we just talked about as the primary drivers of the business.

Promoters can pay more than $30 million for a race, but those who pay the highest fees tend to generate the most revenue and profits. Vietnam GP was cancelled twice because of Covid. I wonder how much we paid the sport to host the race

If you want to think about the way that revenue works, is, as you said, the promoter will usually agree to pay a fee to Formula One. That fee can be anywhere from near zero, which is what a Monaco is given the historic importance and historic relationship that city, it’s not even a race track, has had with the sport. Typically, you’ll have a group of what they call core races in Western Europe that might pay more like a 10 to 20 million fee depending on the race. And again, these are individually negotiated. They are not publicized, so they’re not readily available. Nobody likes to talk about them. And then finally, you have flyaway races. These are races and kind of the emerging world where usually the promoter or the government has an interest in trying to use the F1 name to bring tourism or to bring some of that VIP pizazz, if you will, to the local market where you’ll see 30 million-plus race fees.

And there’s been a big debate about whether or not fees that are paid are sustainable. In other words, do the promoters get to generate a return on that. It’s very expensive to put on a race like this. The FIA requirements for a Formula One race track are very high. You can imagine if you have a car going at the speeds these things are going at, potholes are not okay. And so things just have to be exacting standards. That said, I think there is good evidence that it’s funny, the relationship to the profitability of a race versus the fee to a race is not direct. So some of the more profitable races also happened to be the highest fee races. It’s really increasingly become evident that it’s how well someone does at monetizing the race itself. How good a job do you do, creating demand for the sport? How much of a show do you put on? Do you have concerts? Tier one musical acts? Do you bring in different famous people to kind of try to draw more attention to it? Do you start tiering your offering so that there’s something even beyond the paddock club, VIP club that you can charge even more for? And the best promoters are very good at doing that and can pay high fees and yet also generate a profit. And some of the promoters have a harder time doing it.

Formula One has a few costs it bears, mainly around creating the broadcast, which then it resells to its broadcast sponsors. But in terms of actually putting on the race, all of the costs associated with that are with the promoter. And then the primary revenue is ticketing. As you said, sometimes it doesn’t include VIP because the squeak has kept it, in some agreements, it does. And then like you said, Austin does a very good job. For example, they’ll have a, usually a headline musical act associated with it. If you buy a higher-tier ticket, you can get access to that act. And so they can create some monetization that way.

Formula One from the perspective of an OEM

…There are two OEMs and an FMCG consumer business, they really view this in a holistic way with their core businesses, in terms of brand building and advertising. Mercedes has come out and said, they think there’s $1 billion of advertising equivalent value to being a part of Formula One. Ferrari talks about it in their public filings, about how Formula One is a key competitive advantage for the brand and strategic folks for the brand. For Ferrari, I mean their primary marketing budget is F1. That’s how they market the business. If you go to a race, they have their own club. All the Ferrari owners in the local market come to those races and are hosted there. It’s a huge part of that brand, its history, and its success.

And Mercedes similarly, and Red Bull, a little bit different, not so much an OEM, but essentially that whole idea of an extreme sport and 200 miles per hour plus cars are pulling multiple Gs, it certainly fits that bucket. McLaren is a little bit different. McLaren is essentially a racing team. They’ve now created an OEM out of that. McLaren started as a racing team and that was kind of their singular focus, and they and Renault, which obviously is another OEM, certainly see value in terms of the brand. Now they’re both OEMs where the racing team, in McLaren’s case, was the primary driver. And in Renault’s case, they, like Ferrari and like Mercedes, see value for the brand in being part of the sport. And they’ve been able to spend more as a result and kind of, not quite as much as the largest teams historically, but enough to be competitive year in and year out.

My thoughts

Formula One is in a unique position because there is nothing else like it in the world and Liberty Media has a complete monopoly over the commercial side. Yes, there are many sports that, like Formula One, love to attract eyeballs and money from viewers, but it is not a zero sum game in this case. People can pay and spend time to watch Premier League and Formula One at the same time. In some situations, you pay for a TV subscription and can watch multiple sports, including Formula One. Even with that unique advantage, the monetization of the sport, in comparison with that of others, shows that there is a lot of value to unlock. There are countries where Formula One presence and popularity leave much to be desired. Take America, for example. It’s arguably the biggest media market in the world. Haas team is owned by an American and the country is going to host two races soon. Yet, not a lot of people in this country understand Formula One, let alone coughing up some money to watch it.

The question now is how Liberty Media can make the sport more understandable and accessible. On the surface, Formula One looks to be simple and even boring. 20 cars complete the same track layout multiple times in 2 hours to determine the standing. Mercedes has won the last 7 driver and constructor championships in a row. What else is there to watch for, right? But the beauty of the sport lies in the intricacy and complexity that are not often understood. How does a shift of a couple of degrees on the track surface change the competitiveness of the cars drastically? Why does a team opt for a two-stop strategy while its rival goes for one stop only? Why are some cars fast on soft tires and others on harder tires? How can drivers find more lap time?

Unfortunately, these details are often glossed over and not explained well on TV to average viewers, myself included. If viewers don’t fully grasp the beautiful complexity of the sport, they won’t fully get the appeal of Formula One. When they don’t get the appeal of Formula One, that effect will cascade down into the commercial side, particularly the promoters, broadcasters & teams. But if Liberty Media can bring the sport closer to viewers, fans will engage and pay more. Then, promoters are more willing to pay to host races as there is always a limit on how many races can take place every year. Broadcasters will also put up more money to earn the rights to broadcast races. This influx of money will directly benefit teams which, in turn, will be more committed to making the spectacle more spectacular.

On this note, I have been very pleased with what Chase and Liberty Media have done so far. The series Drive To Survive on Netflix has been a hit and a great user acquisition tool. There has been a lot of interest on Twitter in Formula One out of the series. According to Sportpromedia, “a recent study published by Nielsen even cited the docuseries as a key reason for the sport’s increasing popularity among those aged between 16 and 35, who accounted for 77 per cent of Formula One’s audience growth in 2020.” It really is a nice place to start if you want to learn about Formula One.

In addition, Liberty Media has created some great content on YouTube that helps average viewers understand more the technicality embedded in the sport. Take this one as an example. This is how drivers and their engineers can use data to identify where on a track they lose time and what correction actions they can take. It’s hard enough to correct how you approach a corner with a normal vehicle. These guys have to do it at an insane speed. Or this video which helps explain in layman’s terms some of the common phrases used in Formula One such as oversteer, understeer, apex…Understanding these terms will enable viewers to get why some teams and drivers struggle with their pace than others.

In short, I am really glad that the sport I love is getting more recognition and interest that I think it deserves. Liberty Media has done a great job so far with the marketing and some important behind-the-scenes issues such as Concorde Agreement that can ensure the sustainability of Formula One. I really look forward to two things: a Grand Prix in my homeland and discussing Formula One with more people here in the U.S.

Take-aways from the latest interview of Disney CEO

Bob Chapek, the CEO of Walt Disney, attended Credit Suisse 23rd Annual Communications Conference and had some interesting comments on the business. If you are interested in the company or its competitors, it’s really worth a read. Here are a few highlights.

In response to the interviewer’s question on the investments on the experience side in the next 5 years, Bob’s answer was, as follows:

Sure. Sure. Well, we’ve got ambitious plans to expand our business. I had just mentioned Avengers Campus a second ago, and we’re encouraged by the great response we have there, but we’re not stopping there because, as you know, we’ve been undergoing a massive transformation of our Epcot park at Walt Disney World in Orlando. And we’ve got a Ratatouille attraction that we’re bringing in that first premiered in France. We’ve got a new nighttime show Harmonious that will be on the water there at Epcot, and it will be a huge guest pleaser. And then we’ve got our Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind attraction or coaster that will give us our ability to bring that whole Marvel franchise into the park. Internationally, we’re thrilled to bring Zootopia into Shanghai Disney Resort. You mentioned Shanghai.

That’s obviously a property that did extraordinarily well in the box office when Zootopia came out. So that will be a big hit in Shanghai. We’ve got Frozen installations coming into Hong Kong Disneyland. At Disneyland Paris, we’ve got the [indiscernible] of its own Avengers Campus taking off from where Anaheim has. It just recently launched Avengers Campus, and we’ve also got the Art of Marvel Hotel that we’re putting in. We’re installing Tokyo Disney Resort. We’ve got the 8-themed port over at Tokyo DisneySea.

We’ve got 2 new hotels and attractions going in for Frozen, Tangled and Peter Pan. And then we’ve got 3 new ships and a second island destination. So we certainly have a plethora of new things coming, and that’s really mining all the work that we had done prior to the pandemic and kept working on during the pandemic so that we would not have any sort of glitch in our supply chain of new attractions and experiences for our guests, so we can keep that growth engine of parks going.

Source: Credit Suisse 23rd Annual Communications Conference

That’s an impressive pipeline of investments both in depth and breadth. The company has different types of physical attractions under different brands and themes ranging from hotels, resorts to cruise lines and theme parks, from Frozen, Peter Pan to Disney & Marvel. Despite being badly hit by the pandemic, Disney’s traditional cash cow, their Parks business, is likely going to make up for lost time & money, now that folks are increasingly vaccinated and restrictions are lifted. These assets are difficult to replicate. First of all, they are expensive. Any company that wants to emulate Disney needs to ready their check books for a huge sum of money for initial constructions and yearly maintenance. Second of all, Disney competitors need to also build up a library of themes & characters that relate to consumers and entice them to visit the physical attractions. Disney has spent decades of creating, marketing and distributing content. Their brand name is known and loved by generations of consumers. Even if a competitor has the required resources to invest in content, those resources cannot buy the timeless reputation and name that Disney has.

Netflix is trying to take a page from Disney’s book. It’s building Netflix Shop where merchandise related to their originals is sold. This is the first piece of the puzzle. Netflix is popular among viewers around the world and it has some great originals. Hence, it makes sense for the streaming service to start making inroads into the retail side. However, having an online shop is very different from building giant physical attractions that represent huge fixed costs. It will take a lot more from Netflix to build an empire like Disney’s, but everything has to start somewhere.

Second, when asked about how much IP is there to mine, Bob Chapek had this to say:

Well, I’ve always learned not to underestimate our creative teams, particularly our Marvel creative teams. We’ve got 8,000 characters that we have to mine. And you say, well, 8,000 characters, who knows what these 8,000 characters are. But remember that all of our Avengers, for example, our Avengers characters, when we made the acquisition, weren’t exactly household names. Take Loki, for example. Loki was the most watched season premier ever on Disney+ during its opening week. And no one knew who Loki was even when we got started on this journey on Marvel. No one knew who Iron Man was or Wanda or Vision or Falcon or the Winter Soldier. Black Widow, Shang-Chi, nobody knew who these characters were.

Source: Credit Suisse 23rd Annual Communications Conference

I didn’t grow up reading Marvel comics. Years ago, when characters like The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor or Captain America debuted, I barely knew them, yet they are now some of my favorite. I suspect that many casual viewers will first get to know the likes of Shang Chi and others among 8,000 characters from movies or series by Disney. The ability to build characters and tell engaging stories, especially interconnected ones, over a long period of time is a creative competitive advantage that is hard to match. The last 12 years from the first Iron Man movie to End Game is evidence of such an enduring output of creativity. Does it guarantee future success and repeat of the past? No. But it’s much more assuring than records of many competitors.

Next, when the interviewer asked whether Disney would add an ads-supported plan to Disney+, Bob ruled that possibility out at least in the near future.

Yes. We’re always reevaluating how we go to market across the world, but we’ve got no such plans now to do that. We’re happy with the models that we’ve got. But again, we won’t limit ourselves and say no to anything. But right now, we have no such plans for that.

I support this position by Disney. The flagship streamer, Disney+, is already on the cheap end among streamers with the latest reporting ARPU standing at $3.99. The addition of an ads-supported plan would like drive down ARPU even more. Plus, nobody likes to have their streaming experience tainted with ads. Netflix goes to great lengths and invests a lot of resources to make sure that their viewers have the best streaming experience possible on their platform. Disney is wise to do the same if it hopes to compete with its rival. If the company wants to make money from ads, it has its own media channels to do so.

On what “new content on Disney+ every week” means:

Yes. Our plan is to do — hit that cadence this year in terms of a new product every week. And what we mean by that is a new movie or a series, meaning, a new production or library add every week. And that’s not counting new episodes, if you will, but does count new seasons. So we count new seasons. We don’t count new episodes in that. And something new can be a new movie or a new piece of content or something new added to the library. So that’s how we’re defining that. And that’s the plan right now.

Because Disney+ subscriber base is sufficiently big now, it enables the company to spread the fixed content investments across more than 103 million viewers, giving Disney a cost advantage over other streamers, except Netflix. Additionally, new content helps the company acquire more subscribers who will, in turn, add to the economics advantage mentioned above. What I am unclear about is whether a new weekly content is purely originals or whether it includes licensed IP. If it’s the former, it will be great news for Disney stock bulls, a gift to subscribers and ominous signal to competitors.

Last but not least, Bob Chapek touched upon the impact of price increases on churn:

Yes. In terms of, I guess, an objective way to look at the price value relationship, the growth rate that we’ve experienced on Disney+ sort of stands out as the headline there. But you’re right, we did launch at a very attractive price value opening point. And the first price point — or our first price increase that you mentioned in the first 16 months happened recently, and we’ve seen no significantly higher churn as a result of that. In Europe, as a matter of fact, we took a price increase twice as high as we took domestically more or less. And we — that was with — commensurate with the integration of the Star brand as the sixth brand tile. But our churn actually improved, right? So we took an even higher price increase and our churn improved because we added more content. And I think that investment in the content at attractive price point gets you strong retention, and strong retention, obviously, is one of the key factors towards overall platform growth. And — but that doesn’t mean that in the future as we continue to add more and more great content that we wouldn’t necessarily reflect that in the value that we add and then price it accordingly.

While it’s encouraging to see the current price inelasticity of Disney+, it’s equally important to understand that we don’t have a lot of context here. Disney+ had a low price at launch and even a 3-year bundle at one point. Because the starting point was low and the increase here is not significant in absolute ($1 in the US.), even though customer reception towards the latest price increase was positive, it doesn’t guarantee the same outcome for the next raise. They could plow millions of dollars into content, raise prices yet get spurned by consumers. Furthermore, since we don’t have information on the previous churn, it’s tough to conclude whether the current churn is good. Yes, there was an improvement, but for all I know, it could be upgraded from “disastrous” to “concerning”.

In short, Disney has a lot of great assets and great things going on for them. As the world is gradually opening up with an increasing vaccination rate, it will turbocharge the recovery of a business whose cash cow was terribly affected. On the streaming side, the pandemic was a boost in what I consider largely a two-horse race between Disney and Netflix. Each company has its won advantages and strengths. It’ll be super interesting to see how the market will be in the near future.

Let’s talk Paypal. No longer merely a P2P player

The story of Paypal started in 1998 when Max Levchin, Peter Thiel and Luke Nosek founded Confinity, a digital wallet company. They later merged Confinity with X.com, launched by Elon Musk, and altogether rebranded the new entity as Paypal. In 2002, the company went public under the ticket $PYPL. Later in the same year oof its IPO, it was acquired by eBay and became the prominent payment option on the famous marketplace. In 2015, Paypal left the eBay family to become a separate and independent entity. Six years later, it is now one of the most trusted brands in the world, available in more than 200 countries and valued at almost $300 billion.

At the core, Paypal provides payment and financial services to both consumers and merchants. Originally, it used to be one of the primary methods of person-to-person (P2P) transactions. Over the years, Paypal has transformed itself into a more expansive platform. Consumers can now use Paypal to send and receive money from others as well as to pay merchants, whether the transactions are online or in stores with debit cards, credit cards, tap to pay and QR Codes. On the merchant side, Paypal offers a host of solutions, including payment processing, marketing tools and financing options.

Paypal's breadth of services
Figure 1 – Paypal’s services. Source: Paypal

As a two-sided platform, Paypal needs one side to feed the other. From the consumer perspective, they only find Paypal useful when they have friends and families on Paypal network. Additionally, Paypal must be accepted at various merchants, whether transactions take place in physical stores or on websites. Otherwise, what would be the point of having a Paypal account? From the merchant perspective, Paypal’s value propositions lie in their payment solution and the brand name as well as trust cultivated with consumers. If consumers didn’t trust or use Paypal, there would be plenty of other alternatives. But that’s also one of their three moats. It’s super hard to be a two-sided platform because of the chicken-and-egg problem. Not only did Paypal have to solve that problem between consumers and merchants, but they also had to deal with it within the consumer space.

Another moat of Paypal is that the company has cultivated trust in consumers and merchants alike with its track record of security. Even though security breaches are almost inevitable to any company, so far Paypal hasn’t recorded too many incidents. When it comes to handling people’s money, security should be at the top of any company’s agenda. I mean, anyone can boast that they can exercise two hours in a row. I don’t doubt it. But it’s a completely different challenge to exercise two hours a day for 30 days in a row, let alone for years. To replicate such a track record, a competitor needs to invest in security and more importantly, it needs time. No matter what a newcomer says about its own security, only time can seed the trust in the constituents of its network. Unfortunately, time isn’t something that human brains or money can buy. And while a newcomer or existing player builds up its track record, Paypal is not likely to stand still. Just look at their M&A activities in the last few years: Venmo & Braintree (2013), Xoom (2015), iZettle (2018), Honey (2019), GoPay & Happy Returns (2021).

Finally, Paypal is operating at an enormous scale. In Q1 FY2021, it processed $285 billion in transactions, growing at 49% YoY. That annualizes to more than $1 trillion. As you may know, scale is the magic in business. Paypal’s gigantic scale should give the company a cost advantage over competitors. Plus, the breadth of Paypal offerings poses a daunting challenge to anyone wishing to match them. Just look at Figure 1 to see how many services are available, not to mention the acquisition of Happy Returns. It’s hard to spread resources and make investments on multiple fronts when you are on the back foot in terms of unit costs. Just to give you an example of what the scale of Paypal’s existing active account base and its brand name can do, let’s take a look at the rollout of Buy Now Pay Later and QR Code. Paypal introduced its Buy Now Pay Later only in August 2020. As of Q1 2021, its Pay in 4 already had over $2 billion in TPV globally, of which $1 billion came from the US. Pay in 4 also had 5 million unique customers. In addition to its popularity and reach, Paypal offers the service to merchants without charge. Normally, merchants have to pay BNPL providers several times the normal interchange, but Paypal is willing to subsidize merchants to gain market share. Also, the company enabled pay by QR Code some time in the latter half of 2020, but it already amassed 1 million merchants as of Q1 2021 that used the service, up from 500,000 two quarters prior.

How Paypal benefits merchants
Figure 2 – Value propositions of Paypal to merchants. Source: Paypal

How does Paypal make money?

We generate revenues from merchants primarily by charging fees for completing their payment transactions and other payment-related services.

We generate revenue from consumers on fees charged for foreign currency conversion, optional instant transfers from their PayPal or Venmo account to their debit card or bank account, interest and fees from our PayPal Credit products, and other miscellaneous fees.

Source: Paypal’s latest Annual Report

In short, Paypal charges merchants on every processed transaction and for other additional services. On the consumer side, P2P transactions don’t yield much revenue, but if consumers want to have instant deposits or have an outstanding unpaid balance on their credit cards with Paypal or Venmo, then the company earns additional fees and interest on the balance.

Take-rates which indicate what Paypal gets in revenue over the transaction volume depend on the kinds of transactions. Normally, bill payments and P2P transactions have low take-rates. Transactions funded using debit or credit cards are more expensive to process than those funded using bank accounts or balance within Paypal or Venmo. Commercial transactions such as those on eBay or cross-border transactions that require a foreign exchange are more lucrative. Obviously, Paypal would love to maximize revenue and profits, but there is necessarily a balancing act to be had here. Although bill payments and P2P have a low yield, they are sticky. They are what keeps users engaged and in the network. Payments is a highly contested industry. Any transactions processed by legacy banks, other providers such as Square or Apple Pay and fintechs are transactions that Paypal loses. Hence, I think for the time being, it’s better for the company’s future that they are prioritizing the growth of the active account base and engagement.

Venmo and Paypal TPV
Figure 3 – Paypal and Venmo TPV
Paypal's active account base
Figure 4 – Paypal’s active account base
Paypal and Venmo YoY Growth in TPV
Figure 5 – Paypal & Venmo YoY Growth in TPV
Transactions per active accounts from Paypal
Figure 6 – Transactions Per Account

In short, I am bullish on Paypal. The company has a brand name known and trusted in many countries around the globe. It has the expertise after spending more than two decades in the industry and the ability to transform itself into a more expansive and competitive entity. It has a nice track record of acquiring other businesses to add needed capabilities. Currently, Paypal is the only Western company with 100% ownership of a Chinese payments company after it acquired 100% stake in GoPay. Additionally, it announced the acquisition of Happy Returns with the aim of offering merchants as well as shoppers convenient return services. As payments are pretty fragmented, I believe Paypal will not have any trouble from regulators with regard to future M&A. Yes, competition is plenty and stiff, but as you may already see at this point, there are reasons to like Paypal and what they are doing.

Disclosure: I have a position on Paypal.

Review of Walt Disney’s Q2 FY2021 results

There are two main stories regarding Disney: Disney+ as well as other streaming services and their non-streaming segment.

As more and more folks in the US are vaccinated and the CDC relaxed its guidelines, Disney reopened its theme parks and resorts in the last quarter. Traditionally, this segment is the key source of Disney’s profit, but was severely hit by Covid-19. Compared to the prior year quarter, Q2 FY2021 saw revenue from Parks, Resorts, Cruise and Merchandise drop by more than 50%.

Figure 1 – Breakdown of Disney’s Q2 FY2021 Revenue – Source: Disney

Hence, having their physical attractions open is definitely good news to investors. It’s also a testament to the resiliency and health of the business. Its cash cow was hit very hard by the catastrophe that is Covid-19, yet it pivoted successfully to Direct-to-Consumer while waiting for better days to come. In addition, Disney is going to launch an all-new Avengers campus in California on June 4 and allow bookings for its new cruise ship Disney Wish starting May 27th. The Avengers campus, I suspect, will be a big hit to consumers. Thousands, if not millions, love the 10 year story arc with about 23 Marvel movies. As the original cast such as Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr is more or less out of the picture and the new generation of superheroes are slowly making their way to the scene, fans will cherish a chance to connect physically with their old and new heroes. That’s the power of Disney. They invest a lot of money in creating content and then luring consumers to visit their parks, resorts, cruise lines and buy merchandise. While other streamers can compete with this company on the content front, few, if not none, have the capability and resources to replicate what Disney has on the other part of the equation.

Disney’s Streaming Services

Because Disney+ is touted as the company’s single most important priority, all attention is fixated on the health of the service. At the end of Q2 FY2021, Disney+ has almost 104 million paid subscribers, up from 95 million in the previous quarter. The net add of 8.7 million paid subscribers is much lower than what Disney added in the previous three quarters during Covid. The executives blamed the following for the smaller add:

  • Covid pulled forward subscribers
  • A price increase in two main markets: EMEA and North America
  • No new market launch. The launch of STAR+ in Latin America is postponed to the end of August to leverage major sports events such as the new season of Premier League, La Liga & Copa Libertadores
  • A disrupted schedule of Indian Premier League, India’s national cricket league

On the earnings call, the company reaffirmed its target of 240-260 million paid subscribers on Disney+ at the end of fiscal year 2024. To meet the lower end of that target, by my calculation, Disney needs to have a net add of about 12.5 million subscribers every quarter between now and Q4 FY2024. As you can see above, there are quite a lot of factors that can affect the number of subscribers, but if I have to make a bet, I’ll say that they can do it. There are two reasons. The first one is that Disney+ right now is only available in 31 countries. It’s not even live yet in Asian or LATAM countries where there are a lot of folks. My country alone has 96 million people and 50% of those are between 18 and 54 years of age. There are a lot of spots on the world map where Disney+ can expand its presence. The second reason is that the company lowballed their subscriber target before. It’s likely that they may be doing it again with the current one.

The main criticism of Disney’s current growth strategy is that it relies too much on the low ARPU market in India. Hotstar makes up 1/3 of Disney+ total subscriber base, up from 25% two quarters ago. The low price in India suppressed ARPU of Disney+ from $5.61, excluding Hotstar, to just $3.99, including Hotstar. While ARPU is obviously an important part of a streaming business, it’s equally important to take into account where Disney+ is at the moment. Fans of Netflix usually cite its scale as the main competitive advantage. In other words, Netflix has a cost advantage because it can spread content expenses over many more subscribers (around 200+ million). To negate that advantage of Netflix, Disney+ has to grow its base, but it would need a magic wand to acquire more users and grow ARPU because that’d be virtually impossible.

Disney subscribers, net adds and ARPU
Figure 2 – Disney’s Subscribers, Net Adds and ARPU

Any comparison between Netflix and Disney+ at this stage is very challenging. First of all, Netflix is available in 190+ countries whereas Disney+ is only in 31. When Netflix started, the category didn’t exist and it had to be a trailblazer. But it also means that Netflix didn’t have a fierce competitor like its current version nowadays. Any price it set was essentially the best price at the moment. On the other hand, while Disney+ doesn’t have to create a whole new market like Netflix did, it has to compete against an established and experienced rival that has a major cost advantage. There is a vicious cycle at play here. Netflix’s competitors have a cost disadvantage because they have a smaller scale. The longer that disadvantage persists, the hard it is to plow billions of dollars a year into content. Without content, there wouldn’t be any subscribers, hence, Netflix’s advantage is reaffirmed. As a result, the likes of Disney+ have to prioritize scale over ARPU for the time being, to avoid being sucked into that vicious cycle. Another difficulty lies in the different operating models. Netflix’s content is rarely available in theaters. Its content library is available to all subscribers without restrictions. Meanwhile, Disney+ releases its content in different fashion:

  • Exclusively available to all subscribers without additional charge
  • Exclusively available to subscribers with Premier Access (about $30 per title) for a few weeks before being widely available to all
  • Available first in theaters for a period of time (45 to 90 days) before going to Disney+

The variety in the release strategy may affect the user acquisition to Disney+, compared to Netflix, but who is to say that it doesn’t help Disney generate more money or profit from taking a different path? Disney+ tried the Premier Access with Wulan and a couple of movies afterwards. I reckon that it must have yielded some success so that they decide to keep it moving forward. With an exclusive theater period, Disney is trying to see if the high margin revenue from theater owners are worth suppressing the subscriber base on its flagship streamer. Whether the flexible model employed by the iconic brand or the dedicated philosophy of Netflix will prevail remains to be seen.

Besides Disney+, I am excited about ESPN+. The service has been growing very nicely in terms of subscriber count and ARPU. At 13.8 million subscribers, there is still a lot of upside within the US to go. For sports fans, its content library is very appealing with Serie A, Bundesliga, UFC, Australian Open, US Open, Wimbledon, MLS & College Basketball. The new deals with Major League Baseball to stream 30 games per season till 2028 and with La Liga in an 8-year deal to stream 300+ matches per year in both English and Spanish will absolutely make it more attractive. Since streaming rights need to be negotiated for every geography, it remains to be seen how or if Disney is able to grow ESPN+ out of the US.

You may be ripped off on Amazon. Do yourself a favor and check other retailers’ prices

I noticed that there were a few products that were much more expensive on Amazon than from other retailers. Take Choc Zero chocolate and hazelnut spread as an example. This is a product I really like because 1/ it’s chocolate and 2/ it’s keto. While a 12oz jar is sold for $9 on Choc Zero’s website, you’ll have to pay $20.81 for the same jar on Amazon, whether you have a Prime membership or not. Sure enough, with Prime, you don’t have to meet a minimum order requirement from the manufacturer itself, but after including the shipping fee of $5 from Choc Zero, the whole order will still be much cheaper than what is available on Amazon.

A 12oz jar of Keto Chocolate Hazel Nut Spread
Figure 1 – A 12oz jar of Keto Chocolate Hazel Nut Spread on Choc Zero’s website. Source: Choc Zero
Figure 2 – The same jar on Amazon. Source: Amazon

Another product that has the same issue is Fromm Tunachovy Cat Dry Food. A 5lb bag of Fromm Tunachovy Grain Free Salmon Dry Food costs around $20-$21 at normal retailers. The same product is running at $35.49 on Amazon with or without Prime.

Fromm Tunachovy Cat Dry Food at retailers
Figure 3 – A 5lb bag of Fromm Tunachovy Cat Dry Food costs around $21 at retailers
Fromm Tunachovy Salmon Cat Dry Food on Amazon
Figure 4 – The same bag costs $35.5 on Amazon. Source: Amazon

The difference in price likely results from multiple fees and commissions that retailers have to pay for the privilege of being on Amazon. To keep the same margin, retailers have no option but to raise prices. However, increased prices make their products look less competitive and friendly to consumers. How many consumers wanted to buy the two products above on Amazon but abandoned the plan because they look too pricey? I mean, how many are not deterred by a jar of chocolate spread costing $20? I sure was. Much as I like the convenience of shopping with Amazon, I’d rather buy more in quantity than what I actually need at the moment to save me quite a bit of money.

The lesson here is that: check the prices of what you are about to buy with other retailers before hitting that “Order” button on Amazon.

App Tracking Transparency; Apple’s Advertising Business

In this post, I’ll talk about App Tracking Transparency (ATT), how Apple is different from Facebook and how Apple’s own advertising business is seemingly exempted from it

What is App Tracking Transparency?

Starting iOS14.5, apps have to ask explicit consent from users if they want to track users across different apps and websites. At the heart of the matter is whether advertising platforms such as Facebook should have automatic access to Apple users’ Identifiers for Advertisers (IDFA). IDFA is a unique identifier for your device. It is to your device what Social Security Number is to you personally. Traditionally, the likes of Facebook did have access to IDFA by default. Users had to opt out of cross-app tracking. Facebook used IDFA to deliver personalized ads. For instance, after learning that you just bought some sporting gears from Scheels, they could serve you ads for sporting equipment from other retailers. Also, IDFA helped Facebook measure the effectiveness of their ads. If you get served an ads from a chocolate brand and proceed to actually buy some from it, Facebook can tell the brand that their ads helped convert you into a buyer.

With the introduction of App Tracking Transparency (ATT), access to IDFA by default was severed. Developers now have to seek explicit consent from users whenever they want to regain such access. In a popup, developers can tailor their message to users and make their case as to why allowing tracking is to the users’ benefit.

Source: Apple

How Apple and Facebook differ in their approach to advertising

Before we proceed, let’s take a moment to talk about how Apple defines tracking. Here is Apple:

Tracking refers to the act of linking user or device data collected from your app with user or device data collected from other companies’ apps, websites, or offline properties for targeted advertising or advertising measurement purposes. Tracking also refers to sharing user or device data with data brokers.

Examples of tracking include, but are not limited to:

– Displaying targeted advertisements in your app based on user data collected from apps and websites owned by other companies.

– Sharing device location data or email lists with a data broker.

– Sharing a list of emails, advertising IDs, or other IDs with a third-party advertising network that uses that information to retarget those users in other developers’ apps or to find similar users.

– Placing a third-party SDK in your app that combines user data from your app with user data from other developers’ apps to target advertising or measure advertising efficiency, even if you don’t use the SDK for these purposes. For example, using an analytics SDK that repurposes the data it collects from your app to enable targeted advertising in other developers’ apps.

The following use cases are not considered tracking, and do not require user permission through the AppTrackingTransparency framework:

– When user or device data from your app is linked to third-party data solely on the user’s device and is not sent off the device in a way that can identify the user or device.

– When the data broker with whom you share data uses the data solely for fraud detection, fraud prevention, or security purposes. For example, using a data broker solely to prevent credit card fraud.

– When the data broker is a consumer reporting agency and the data is shared with them for purposes of (1) reporting on a consumer’s creditworthiness, or (2) obtaining information on a consumer’s creditworthiness for the specific purpose of making a credit determination.

Source: Apple

Long story short, Apple allows that an app can track you within its property and your data doesn’t leave your phone. It’s also not tracking if the data sharing is for an official purpose that is not ads-serving. Think about it this way. When you walk into a Walmart and walk around the aisles, the cameras inside the store can tell Walmart what you like and what you don’t. I rarely venture into a Walmart’s candy or cheese aisle. I am fine with Walmart knowing it because the store is their property and I have a direct relationship with them whenever I shop there. However, it would be not OK if Walmart struck a deal with Starbucks that allows the two companies to share my shopping behavior in their stores with each other without my consent. It would be really creepy.

The same goes for our data on mobile device. Facebook can serve us ads based on our behavior on their properties, including the big blue app, Messenger, Instagram or Whatsapp. To Apple, that’s possible and allowed. However, it is no longer allowed that Facebook follows users across websites & apps, and uses such knowledge to serve ads without our consent. A permission has to be granted first.

Shortly after the introduction of ATT, Apple debuted their Apple Search Ads. Apple Search Ads enables developers to serve users ads on the Search Tab of the App Store. According to the company, 70% of App Store users used the Search tab to find apps and 65% of searches result in downloads. Hence, it’s a valuable real estate to both Apple and developers. To enable targeted ads, Apple groups customers into segments based on data that they retrieve from:

  • Apple ID: name, age, location, gender, or anything that you list on your Apple ID
  • Device information: language setting, device type, OS version, mobile carrier
  • Apple News & Stocks: topics and categories that you interact with
  • App Store: searches on the App Store. Downloads from the App Store and in-app purchases are only allowed when the targeting is done by the app’s developer. Said another way, the fact that you downloaded Call of Duty and the stuff you bought inside the app can only be used for targeting by Call of Duty itself, not somebody else

Apple has received a lot of criticisms since the introduction of Apple Search Ads. Some critics say that Apple has a double standard for its own advertising business because there is no popup to ask for users’ permission with Apple Search Ads. The criticism is misguided in my opinion. The reason why there is no permission seeking from Apple is that the company uses only first-party data (data that users already give Apple and data that is created & gathered on Apple’s apps) for targeting. It doesn’t use data gathered on other apps to serve you ads on the App Store. Based on how Apple defines tracking as I laid out above, it is not tracking. In fact, Apple’s definition of tracking is similar to that of World Wide Web:

Tracking is the collection of data regarding a particular user’s activity across multiple distinct contexts and the retention, use, or sharing of data derived from that activity outside the context in which it occurred. A context is a set of resources that are controlled by the same party or jointly controlled by a set of parties.

Source: World Wide Web

In the case of Facebook, it wants to get users’ data OUTSIDE its property apps for targeting. With ATT, Apple wants their rival to at least ask us, the users, for permission to use our own data. To Facebook, it’s unfortunately a bridge too far. I mean, I am not naive enough to think that financial benefits aren’t in Apple’s calculations when they plan out ATT and Search Ads. The difference here is that while Facebook makes money at the expense of user privacy, Apple found a way to generate more revenue and still honor our privacy. Other critics say that Apple creates its own advantage because, with ATT and the new Search Ads, Apple is likely the only party that can track app download conversion. It is true that Apple will likely be the only advertiser that can tell developers whether their ads are effective. But does Apple have a duty to allow Facebook to track users and know the conversion from the App Store in the first place? If a native Facebook shop that lives entirely on Facebook runs a Google ads to get people to come to the store and make purchases, will Facebook let Google know whether and when a purchase is made? I don’t think so. Hence, why does Facebook want something from others that it doesn’t want to do in the first place? Plus, whether we download an app is our data. Why should Facebook’s desire to know that be put above our privacy? It’s a weird criticism, if you ask me.

In short, Apple has been a company with a perspective and excellent, like wealthiest-in-the world excellent, at making money with their products and services true to that perspective. In this case, Apple thinks it can deliver targeted ads while respecting users’ privacy and making, I assume, a great deal of money in the process. If there is anything I think Apple could have done better, it’s the communication and the timing of ATT and Apple Search Ads. But overall, I think I agree with this Twitter user

Disclosure: I have a position on both Facebook and Apple (I know, I know)

Uber’s Delivery is on fire. Driver dispute cost $600 million, but may be a blessing for the business

Uber is well on track to a full recovery. Delivery continues to be the bright spot

Yesterday, Uber released their financial results for Q1 FY2021. In general, the overall business mostly recovered from the impact of the pandemic. Even though it made fewer trips and less revenue than last year, gross bookings rose by 24%. Mobility Gross Bookings continued to be down year over year as countries are still battling Covid-19. On the other hand, Delivery Gross Bookings increased by 166%, up to $12.5 billion from $4.7 billion a year ago, due to strong demand. To put it in perspective, Uber generated almost as much Gross Bookings in Delivery in Q1 2021 as it did in the entire year of 2019.

Uber's Mobility and Delivery Gross Bookings
Figure 1 – Uber’s Mobility & Delivery Gross Bookings

In Q1 2021, the company’s adjusted EBITDA was -$360 million, but it was up from the loss of $612 million a year ago. Mobility was still profitable, albeit down 49% YoY. Delivery and Freight remained loss-makers, but the loss narrowed compared to Q1 2020. According to Uber, Delivery was profitable on the adjusted EBITDA basis in 12 markets in Q1 2021. Take rates for Mobility and Delivery were 12.6% and 14%, respectively. Mobility’s take-rate dropped from their usual 20% range because Uber took a draw-down of $600 million for driver expenses following the High Court’s verdict in the UK that would force Uber to classify drivers as employees. Without the draw-down, Mobility take rate would be 21.5%. Delivery’s take rate has been steadily increasing since Q4 2019. As the platform continues to grow in scale and fine-tune its operations for higher efficiency, I expect to see Delivery take rate to hover around the 14-15% range.

Uber's Mobility & Delivery Take Rates
Figure 12- Uber’s Mobility & Delivery Take Rates

Driver-friendly regulations can be both a threat and a blessing for Uber

This is the first time that investors could, to some extent, quantify the impact of regulatory threats on Uber’s business. Yesterday, the Biden administration rescinded the previous administration’s rule which would have made it more difficult for drivers to be considered employees. The Secretary of Labor also mentioned that drivers should be treated as employees with benefits instead of just contractors, but stopped short of announcing a concrete policy change. That’s why Uber’s executives repeatedly emphasized that they would engage in dialogues with the federal government moving forward to find an agreeable solution and that it’s not doom and gloom yet for their business.

Some are justified in their pessimism for Uber. A driver-friendly regulation would definitely hurt Uber’s bottom line in the short term. In the long run, I am not so sure. Any new regulation regarding gig workers would affect not only Uber, but also and more importantly its smaller rivals. Every company from Lyft, Instacart, Doordash to Gopuff will have to pay more personnel expenses. But few of them have the scale and resources that Uber does. Take Lyft as an example. It operates in Canada and the US only and doesn’t have a Delivery service like Uber, at least not yet. As a result, it would have a higher driver expense per order than Uber because the latter could stretch the fixed expense over many more Ride/Order. That’s a unit economics advantage that comes with operating in more markets, more verticals and at a higher scale.

Figure 3 – Uber’s Outside Equity

Plus, if Uber decided to pay drivers more than others, it could lock in drivers exclusively on its platform and create a driver supply problem for its smaller rivals. Fewer drivers mean slower services. Slower services lead to less satisfied customers. Less satisfied customers result in less business. That’s the vicious cycle that Uber could inflict on its smaller rivals. Plus, Uber has about $13 billion in equity in the likes of Grab, Aurora or Didi. If push comes to shove, it can sell off all of it to finance its operations, something that I doubt other delivery services can do.

Other positive developments

Uber mentioned that its Delivery would debut soon in Germany. Germany is arguably the biggest consumer market in Europe and it doesn’t make sense to not have one of its main business lines in the country. As a new market, Uber may have to take a loss in the short run to establish its presence, among local competitors. Since the CEO took over, Uber has scaled back operations in areas where it didn’t believe it had competitive advantages. If they decide to launch in Germany, there may be a good reason.

This may be the first time I remember that Uber specifically called out its advertising business. While it’s not really surprising, it has plenty of potential. As a household name that has millions of users on its platform, Uber is an attractive partner to merchants. Hence, it makes sense Uber wants to monetize its valuable real estate on its app. Advertising is a higher margin business and should help Uber with its profitability goal.

Additionally, the company also mentioned that its New Verticals (grocery, alcohol and convenient items) reached an annualized Gross Bookings of $3 billion in March. The revelation contained some caveats such as: what does “annualized” mean? What is the distribution of such Gross Bookings between grocery, alcohol and convenient items? Nonetheless, with the acquisitions of Drizly, Postmates and the partnership with Gopuff, it’s a vertical to watch out for in the future.