How do credit card issuers make money? What are the main types of credit cards? A quick look into the credit card world

Launching a credit card product is similar to putting together a jigsaw. There are many pieces: how to appeal to customers, which customers are an issuer’s likely target, what a good experience looks like, how an issuer can make money and how a card can compete with existing products on a market. In this post, I’ll go over my thoughts on the economics of a credit card, the main credit card types that I see on the market (excluding those debit cards that have credit card functions), the appeal of Apple Card and how different cards compare to one another.

Economics of a card

An issuer essentially generates revenue from three main sources with a credit card: interest payment when customers don’t pay off their balance, fees (late fee, annual fee, cash advance fee, balance transfer fee, foreign transaction fee and others) and interchange. Interchange is a small percentage of a transaction that a merchant pays to a card issuer whenever a customer uses a credit card to pay. The more spend is accrued, the more interchange issuers generate. Interchange rates are determined by networks such as Visa, Mastercard, Discover and American Express. The exact rates depend on a lot of factors: the industry or category that a merchant is in, what type of card (high end or normal) is being used, regulations (Europe imposes a limit on interchange rates, unlike the US) and how a customer uses the card to pay (swipe, chip, mobile wallet, online, phone..).

On average, some categories such as Airlines, Restaurants, Quick Restaurant Services, Hotels or Transportation have an interchange rate somewhere between 2% – 3%. Other categories such as Gas and Grocery, especially at Walmart, Target or Costco usually yield a very low interchange rate around 1% – 1.4%. Any credit card that offers higher than 3% in cash back in a category likely loses money on that category as the interchange cannot make up for the reward liabilities. Issuers are willing to offer 3-5% cash back, knowing that they lose money on that front, because they are banking on the assumption that the money that they make up from other sources will offset that loss. Specifically, they are likely to make money on categories with 1%. For instance, if you buy clothes or pay for a subscription online or buy something from a Shopify store, your card issuer is likely to make at least 1% in interchange, after they give you 1% in cash back. Additionally, issuers that offer a rich reward scheme usually impose an annual fee to offset the reward liabilities and the signing bonus that they use to acquire customers.

Hence, cards with no annual fee offer a cash back between 1.5 – 2%. They can’t afford to go higher than that because the maths would unlikely add up. Cards that have an annual fee often come with high rewards and a big bonus. While a big bonus can be an attractive tool to acquire customers, it incentivizes short-term purchase bursts and unintentionally attracts gamers, customers who receive the bonus, cash it out and either become a ghost, if they don’t have to pay an annual fee, or close out the card for good. There are a lot of gamers and gamers aren’t profitable to issuers. However, issuers still dole out a big bonus and attractive rewards because they think that there are customers that stay for a long term and can provide the interest income and fees that issuers need.

Three essential types of credit cards

I call the first type of cards the “Everyday Card”. Examples of this category include Blispay and Citi Double Cash Back. These cards offer a standard rewards rate on every purchase category (1.5% to 2%) with no annual fee. There is usually a 3% foreign transaction fee and there is no signing bonus. What makes Everyday Card appealing is that customers do not need to remember the complex rewards structure. They can just “set it and forget about it”. It earns them respectable rewards on every purchase, even at Walmart.

The second type of cards is the “No Annual Fee With Bonus”. Examples of this category are Discover It Cash Back, Freedom Unlimited or Freedom Flex. These cards’ highest reward rate is usually 5% on a certain pre-determined category that tends to yield a high interchange rate. In some cases, this 5% rate can rotate every quarter, keeping it interesting for customers and making them locked in if they want to activate a preferred category. There is a signing bonus for new customers. Some cards reward customers with a few hundred dollars in a statement credit if they spend a certain amount in the first 90 days. This mechanism is designed to make customers locked in early. The issuers bank on the assumption that once customers earn their signing bonus, they will stick around to keep those rewards points alive. However, it’s not uncommon for customers to cash out their rewards and become inactive afterwards. 

Discover’s signing bonus is designed to keep customers active during the first calendar year. They promise to match the cash back rewards at the end of the first year, but the bonus is a one-time occurrence and doesn’t repeat. This mechanism may keep customers active longer than what an outright statement credit does, but customers can always leave after the first year.

The last type of cards usually comes with an annual fee. Examples are Chase Sapphire Preferred or Bank of America Premium Rewards. Cards in this category come with a signing bonus after qualifying conditions are met and with a rich rewards structure. To offset expenses, issuers impose an annual fee. Customer acquisition may not be an issue with cards in this category, but will customers stay around after the signing bonus? Or are customers happy enough to pay a high annual fee every year? Also, these cards’ reward rate is high only in categories with higher interchange rate such as travel or dining. The rate is pretty light (1%) in other categories. While this approach appeals to a specific segment of customers, for customers that want “to set it and forget it”, does it still carry that same appeal though?

If you find credit cards complex and confusing, that’s normal because they are usually designed that way

Most credit cards can be pretty complex and confusing to customers. Let’s start with rewards. A tiered reward structure forces customers to mentally remember all the combinations of categories and rates. If customers have multiple cards in their wallet as they often do, it’s not an easy ask. Of course, there are folks that make a living in maximizing rewards, but that doesn’t work for the rest of us. In addition, it’s not always clear to customers how to categorize merchants. Merchants are categorized by Merchant Category Codes. These codes help issuers set up rewards and help networks determine interchange rates. MCCs are known in the banking industry, but to an ordinary customer, they don’t usually mean much. In some cases, issuers provide a list of qualifying merchants, but they can’t list all the available merchants and the practice is not ubiquitous.

Moreover, reward redemption can be a time-consuming process. Points or cash back earned in this cycle have to wait at least till the cycle ends before they are available for redemption. It can take longer in some cases, especially when it comes to signing bonuses. Here is a list of how long it takes for points to post at different issuers, compiled by Creditcards.com

 How long it takes to redeem the signing bonus?How long it takes to redeem spending rewards
Amex8-12 weeks after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
BofAAt the close of the billing cycle when the minimum spend is metWhen the current cycle ends
Capital OneWithin 2 cycles of when the spending requirement is metUp to 2 cycles
ChaseUp to 6-8 weeks after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
Citi8-10 weeks after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends. With Citi Double Cash Back Card, it can take a bit longer if customers don’t pay in full
DiscoverWithin 2 cycles after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
US BankUp to 2 billing cycles after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
Wells FargoUp to 2 billing cycles after the qualifying period When the current cycle ends
Figure 1 – How long it takes issuers to let customers redeem rewards

The final point in rewards is that issuers tend to deceptively inflate the rewards by posting numbers in points, instead of dollars. Understandably, 100 points sounds much better than $1, even though they have the same value. Nonetheless, it creates an unnecessary level of complexity for customers to mentally convert points into cash, especially when the reward value is big.

Rewards aren’t the only source of frustration for credit card customers. Credit cards are essentially loans on which you may or may not have to pay interest. However, issuers hope that customers will incur interest and fees (as long as they don’t charge off). How often are fees prominently and clearly marketed as rewards? How often do you see in advance the potential interest payment if you don’t pay off your balance? Here is a study by Experian on the concerns that consumers have about credit cards

Consumer concerns about having a credit card
Figure 2 – Consumer concerns about a credit card

Apple Card is designed to do something different

Apple launched Apple Card in August 2019 in collaboration with Goldman Sachs. Customers can apply for an Apple Card right from the Wallet app, which is pre-loaded on an Apple device. The preloading is a significant advantage as customers don’t need to either load another bank app or search for a website and apply for a card. As soon as an application is approved, customers can use their Apple Card immediately either by holding your device near an NFC-enabled reader or paying online. With Apple Card, cardholders earn 3% cash back on purchases at Apple and strategic partners such as Exxon, T-Mobile, Walgreens, or Nike, 2% cash back on others purchases using Apple Pay and 1% cash back using the titanium physical card. The 2% cash back on other purchases can be appealing, but not every offline or online merchant allows Apple Pay.

The biggest selling points of Apple Card are transparency and simplicity. Take their no-fee structure as an example. There is no fee involved with Apple Card. No annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, no over-the-limit fee and no late fee. While Apple remains coy on cash advance fees, their special clientele may not use the mainly virtual Apple Card for this specific reason much. 

The simplicity also goes into their daily cash back. Typically, cash back earned through a credit card can take weeks to be registered and redeemed. Points or cash back earned this cycle must wait at least till the cycle ends before they are available for redemption. With Apple Card, cash back is earned daily in Apple Cash. As long as transactions are posted, customers can see the earned amount reflected in their Apple Cash. In real money term not in points. This takes away an unnecessary step for customers to mentally convert points into cash. Furthermore, Apple Cash can be used at any time, either in a person-to-person transaction, in a deposit back to a checking account or to pay back the outstanding balance in Apple Card. 

In terms of transparency, Apple Card tells customers how much interest they are paying when making a payment. And their APR is on par with other issuers’. In the Wallet app, customers can determine how much of the outstanding balance they want to pay. Depending on the amount, Apple will let customers know in advance their interest so that they can make an informed decision. It is in contrast to what almost all other issuers do. 

Apple Card's flexible interest rate
Figure 3 – A simulation to show interests on Apple Card varies based on how much a cardholder can pay.
Source: Apple

Apple Card only works with iOS devices and Apple Pay can be a challenge for elderly or less tech-savvy customers. Nonetheless, no card is perfect for everybody and the transparency and simplicity can teach us a lesson on how to craft a good customer experience. Despite being available only in the US and all restrictions above, Apple Card’s portfolio balance grew from $2 billion in March 2020 to $3 billion in September 2020 and roughly $4 billion at the end of 2020. Not bad for a portfolio with one card that is restricted to iOS devices. 

Annual fee or no annual fee? Appealing and complex or straightforward and simple?

A good practice in positioning is to use a 2×2 matrix. In this case, I’ll look at Apple Card and the three main credit cards mentioned above through whether they are easy to use and whether they have an annual fee.

Credit card positioning
Figure 4 – A 2×2 positioning matrix for credit cards

Let’s look at the positioning chart above. On the top right corner, we have an ultra-luxury card such as The Platinum Card from Amex. This card’s annual fee runs up to $550 and while rewards rate can range from 1x to 10x, it is not easy to remember all the details or to redeem rewards. On its left side, we have cards such as Capital One Venture and Chase Sapphire Preferred. These cards’ annual fee is $95, lower than the Platinum Card’s. Similarly, the complexity of cards such as Chase Sapphire Preferred is still high. Capital One Venture has 2x rewards rate on every purchase, making it less complex to use for some users, but it’s still time-consuming to redeem cash back. 

Moving further left, there is Capital One Quicksilver. This card’s annual fee stands at $39 and it offers 1.5x on every purchase. It’s in the middle of the spectrums. On the “no annual fee” side, we have two groups. The first group features cards such as Freedom Flex and Discover It Cash Back. These cards offer a 5x reward rate, but it rotates every quarter and to some customers, that can add some complexity. The other group features cards such as Citi Double Cash Back and FNBO Evergreen. These cards have no annual fee and offer 2x on every purchase. Nonetheless, they still have a complex fee structure and a reward redemption process that can be improved.

The point here is that it’s very competitive on the top half of the chart. All these cards have their own unique selling points that appeal to different customer segments. What they do have in common is that their fees and reward redemption are pretty complex.

On the other side of the x-axis, there are Apple Card and Upgrade Card. Even though it’s straightforward to use Apple Card as there is no fee and cash back is earned daily, the use of Apple Card depends much on whether customers have an iPhone and whether merchants enable Apple Pay. 40% of mobile users in the US don’t own an iPhone and as discussed above, older and less tech-savvy customers may not find Apple Pay comfortable. Without Apple Pay, the titanium card itself earns customers a paltry 1% cash back. 

Upgrade Card is a credit card issued by Sutton Bank, a medium sized bank in Ohio with $500 million in assets, and marketed by Upgrade. There is no fee with Upgrade Card. Here is what the company claims on its website

Not all traditional credit cards charge fees. However, creditcards.com’s 2020 Credit Card Fee Survey found that the average number of fees per card is 4.5. For example, the 2019 U.S. News Consumer Credit Card Fee Study found that the average annual fee (including cards with no annual fee) is $35.23, the average late fee is $36.34 and the average returned payment fee is $34. 01. The Upgrade Card charges none of these fees. Over 90 percent of cards charge balance transfer fees and cash advance fees. The Upgrade Card enables you to transfer cash from your Personal Credit Line to your bank account with no fees.

Source: Upgrade

With Upgrade Card, customers earn 1.5% cash back on all purchases as soon as customers pay off balance. The 1.5% cash back rate is lower than what Apple Card customers earn using Apple Pay, but on the other hand, Upgrade Card is device-agnostic and doesn’t rely on any mobile wallets. Hence, it is more accessible. However, Apple Pay allows customers to earn and use rewards daily while Upgrade Card only allows customers to redeem rewards after they make full payments.

According to the book The Anatomy of The Swipe, medium sized banks are essentially unregulated and can charge a higher interchange rate than big regulated banks. Hence, it’s very likely that Upgrade Card’s interchange rates are higher than those of cards issued by the likes of Chase or Capital One. The higher interchange rates can help offset rewards liabilities and generate revenue.

In fact, I am surprise to find no product like Upgrade Card from big banks. I suspect it would take a huge investment in infrastructure by legacy banks to offer the Daily Cash feature that Apple Card has. But legacy banks can essentially waive all fees like Upgrade Card does. While the likes of Chase, Discover or Capital One have more expenses than a smaller platform like Upgrade, they also have more popular brand names than Upgrade; something that would help tremendously in customer acquisition.

In summary, the credit card world is highly competitive. If an issuer follows the conventional way of launching a credit card, it will surely have a lot of competition and little to differentiate itself from competitors. In the upper half of Figure 4 above, I do think all the concepts and variations of rewards and economics have been tried. To be different, an issuer has to think differently and appeal to customers more with a superior customer experience (easy and simple to use) and less with complex features.

Weekly reading – 13th March 2021

What I wrote last week

My thoughts on Square’s acquisition of Credit Karma’s tax unit

My review of the book Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Business

An interview with Elliot Turner on Twitter. Lots of good stuff in here.

Octahedron Capital publishes a super interesting presentation every quarter, compiling quotes from executives

A very interesting piece on how Jeff Bezos approached design. I love the anecdote on how Amazon’s logo came into beings.

How Salesforce became Silicon Valley’s best late-stage tech investor. Salesforce is a prime example that you should care more about Operating Income than Net Income if you want to evaluate a company’s operations

A great post on the importance of reinvesting in a business. As the saying goes, it’s one thing to get to the top of the mountain, it’s another to stay there.

A great conversation between The Verge and Twitter’s Head of Consumer Product. The company announced some very interesting product developments in the pipeline. As a fan of the platform, I can’t wait to see what unfolds next

Postmates added $70 million in revenue and saved $3 million in network fees with Stripe

Neil Cybart published a new article on the importance of Apple’s retail stores

A very telling piece on how Facebook’s internal effort to curb misinformation using AI was punted by Zuckerberg’s desire for growth

What I found interesting

Apple Gave Us an Exclusive Look Inside Its Next-Generation Fitness+ Studio

Tesla told California DMV that its future autonomous vehicles wouldn’t be fully autonomous. What else is new?

WSJ’s profile on Manchester United star forward, Marcus Rashford. If you are not familiar with football (yeah, the real football where the ball touches feet more than hands), Manchester United is one of the richest and biggest clubs in the world. It has a reputation of playing home-grown talent and actually has been fielding at least one academy player every game for the last few decades. Marcus Rashford is the latest biggest home-grown star that came out of the famed academy. Inspired by his difficult childhood, Rashford took on the British government last year, in a campaign aimed at providing school meals to children during Covid-19. The government listened and hundreds of kids were fed because Marcus Rashford had the will to do what his reputation enabled him to.

Corporate logos are changing with the time

A look into the cyber-surveillance world of Israel

Stats that you may find interesting

Costco edged by Amazon and Apple to lead all brands in customer satisfaction

India leads the world in IPv6 adoption rate at 63%

Disney+ has more than 100 million subscribers. Though the count is impressive, comparing it with Netflix’s subscriber base, either now or when it first started, may require a lot of unpacking. The consumer attitude towards streaming is different now than it was when Netflix began to stream its content online. The mix of subscriber base is also different. Disney+ has 30% of its subscribers. Nothing inherent bad about it, but to have an apple-to-apple comparison, one must figure out whether Netflix has the same composition. Plus, the streaming competition 10 years ago for Netflix might be much less fierce than the current landscape.

If you need more evidence as to how different a GOP government and a Democratic government are, here it is. One proposed a law that benefits low-income folks (Democrats) while the other passed a law that put more money in the pocket of the richest.

Source: TPC

Book Review – Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The title gives away much of what the book is all about. Although it doesn’t reveal any groundbreaking fact or insight that no other books has, Think Again is a helpful reminder that we all need to re-evaluate our thinking and our life regularly.

Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania and majors in organizational psychology. In addition to penning several books, including Think Again, he received his tenure at the age of 28, authored many papers and research in his field, and was the highest ranked professor at Wharton from 2012 to 2018. In terms of credibility, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. Back to the book itself. The tenet of Think Again is to encourage readers to think like a scientist with a great deal of humility. To think like a scientist, we need to avoid being too invested in our own opinions. As scientists usually possess a healthy dose of doubt and tend to review formed opinions regularly with concrete data and new facts, that’s what Adam Grant wants us to do. Whatever we learned needs to be revisited and, if necessary, unlearned. The world becomes increasingly complicated. Virtually all the issues that we discuss in our life are multi-faceted and complex; which requires constant investigation and evolution of thinking when new data and theses come up. Yet, many of us, including myself, succumb to mental laziness. We get stuck in the way we think and the opinions we formed in the long past. Changing our minds is often accompanied by admitting that we were wrong and that we made mistakes. Such an admission can be unpleasant and is not what many of us are willing to do. But Adam Grant, using academic research, argues that we must do the hard thing and constantly challenge/review our opinions, for our own benefits.

About a decade ago, when I was fresh out of school, I held beliefs that would make me ashamed now. Back then, success in life was to get a job at a big company, to have a fancy title and to have a lot of money. That success, in turn, would make me happy. Three years into my career, I got depressed. I resigned from a job that paid me well at the time, took almost two months’ sabbatical and accepted a job in a much smaller job market. My life got better. I learned more about the holes and the shortcomings in my thinking which evolved a bit, but there was still a lot of room for improvement. I was still haunted by the idea of pursuing my passion and figuring out the one thing that I should do in my life, like many of us are by all the self-help books and the speeches by the lucky ones such as Steve Jobs. It took me years to finally be at peace with not knowing what I was born to do in this world. Instead, I am happy with being healthy, working towards a future life with my girlfriend and having the freedom that my parents don’t have. Whether that state of mind will persist in the future remains to be seen. But I guess that’s in line with what Adam Grant talks about in the book.

All in all, a nice read for the weekend. It is simple to digest, but the lessons it brings can be profound. Really recommend it.

“If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data. In the past century alone, the application of scientific principles has led to dramatic progress. Biological scientists discovered penicillin. Rocket scientists sent us to the moon. Computer scientists built the internet. But being a scientist is not just a profession. It’s a frame of mind—a mode of thinking that differs from preaching, prosecuting, and politicking”

“Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your mind, you’ll miss many occasions to think again. Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“In preacher mode, changing our minds is a mark of moral weakness; in scientist mode, it’s a sign of intellectual integrity. In prosecutor mode, allowing ourselves to be persuaded is admitting defeat; in scientist mode, it’s a step toward the truth. In politician mode, we flip-flop in response to carrots and sticks; in scientist mode, we shift in the face of sharper logic and stronger data.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“When we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we sometimes lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence. This insight should immediately put your favorite confident ignoramuses in their place. Before we poke fun at them, though, it’s worth remembering that we all have moments when we are them.

We’re all novices at many things, but we’re not always blind to that fact. We tend to overestimate ourselves on desirable skills, like the ability to carry on a riveting conversation. We’re also prone to overconfidence in situations where it’s easy to confuse experience for expertise, like driving, typing, trivia, and managing emotions. Yet we underestimate ourselves when we can easily recognize that we lack experience—like painting, driving a race car, and rapidly reciting the alphabet backward. Absolute beginners rarely fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap. If you don’t know a thing about football, you probably don’t walk around believing you know more than the coach.”

“It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In too many domains of our lives, we never gain enough expertise to question our opinions or discover what we don’t know. We have just enough information to feel self-assured about making pronouncements and passing judgment, failing to realize that we’ve climbed to the top of Mount Stupid without making it over to the other side.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“Arrogance is ignorance plus conviction,” blogger Tim Urban explains. “While humility is a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, arrogance is a rubber shield that life experience simply bounces off of. Humility is often misunderstood. It’s not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means “from the earth.” It’s about being grounded—recognizing that we’re flawed and fallible. Confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself. Evidence shows that’s distinct from how much you believe in your methods. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present. That’s the sweet spot of confidence.”

“Beware of getting stranded at the summit of Mount Stupid. Don’t confuse confidence with competence. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a good reminder that the better you think you are, the greater the risk that you’re overestimating yourself—and the greater the odds that you’ll stop improving. To prevent overconfidence in your knowledge, reflect on how well you can explain a given subject.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.
Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“One possibility is that when we’re searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it. Instead of savoring our moments of joy, we ruminate about why our lives aren’t more joyful. A second likely culprit is that we spend too much time striving for peak happiness, overlooking the fact that happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity.”

“At work and in life, the best we can do is plan for what we want to learn and contribute over the next year or two, and stay open to what might come next. To adapt an analogy from E. L. Doctorow, writing out a plan for your life “is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

Thinking about Square’s acquisition of Credit Karma’s tax unit

Back in November 2020, Square announced its agreement to buy the tax unit of Credit Karma for $50 million in cash. Unlike Turbo Tax, which is infamous for slyly inducing tax filers to pay for its services, Credit Karma doesn’t charge users fees. Here is from the press release

Consistent with Square’s purpose of economic empowerment, Cash App plans to offer the free tax filing service to millions of Americans. The acquisition provides an opportunity to further digitize and simplify the tax filing process in the United States, expanding access to the one in three households which are unbanked or underbanked. The tax product will expand Cash App’s diverse ecosystem of financial tools — which currently includes peer-to-peer payments, Cash Card, direct deposit, as well as fractional investing in traditional stocks and bitcoin — giving customers another way to manage their finances from their pocket.

“We created Cash App to provide more access to the masses of people left out of the financial system and are constantly looking for ways to redefine our customers’ relationship with money by making it more relatable, instantly available, and universally accessible,” said Brian Grassadonia, Cash App Lead. “That’s why we’re thrilled to bring this easy-to-use tax product to customers as we continue to build out the suite of tools Cash App offers. With this acquisition, we believe Cash App will be able to ease customers’ burden of preparing taxes every year

Source: Square

There are several reasons why I think Square made a big splash on Credit Karma’s tax business.

Customer acquisition

In the same press release, Square claimed that 80 million people in America file taxes online every year, yet Credit Karma’s customer base is only 2 million. As of Q4 2020, Square’s Cash App monthly active user count stood at 36 million. Even if all Credit Karma’s current users are on Cash App and all active Cash App users file taxes online, by offering a decent free tax-filing service, Square can appeal to 44 more million tax payers in America at the top of the sales funnel. In the latest earnings call, Square disclosed that its Cash App user acquisition cost is less than $5 per user. At that rate, Square only needs from the acquisition of Credit Karma’s tax tool 10 million new users to break even on the $50 million in cash paid, let alone other benefits discussed later in this entry. Obviously, the conversion rate from being a tax filer to a Cash App user won’t be 100%, but a relationship to some extent with customers is still much better than no relationship at all. As of now, Paypal is Square’s arguably biggest rival with very similar offerings. However, Paypal doesn’t have an offering equal to what Credit Karma can offer to Square, yet. Perhaps, it can be a useful differentiator.

Customer retention

Engaged customers are often the more profitable customers. Filing taxes is, in most cases, a once-a-year activity for individuals. Given that Credit Karma is a free service and that Square essentially declares its intention to keep the service free, it won’t be a revenue center. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean the new acquisition can’t help Square grow the top line. Here is how Square currently makes money with Cash App:

  • Whenever customers use Cash Card with Cash App to pay businesses for purchases, Square makes a small interchange fee
  • If customers want to expedite deposits to their bank accounts, there is a fee. If they can wait 2-3 business days, the deposits will be free
  • Customers are charged a fee when they make a P2P transaction using a credit card
  • Square imposes a small mark-up on Bitcoin’s price before selling it to customers through Cash App

In essence, it benefits Square when customers have balance in their Cash App. The more balance there is, the more useful Cash App is to customers and the more revenue & profit Square can potentially earn. I imagine that once Credit Karma’s tax tool is integrated into Cash App, there will be a function that directs tax returns to customers’ Cash App. When the tax returns are deposited into Cash App, customers can either spend them; which either increases the ecosystem’s value (P2P), or deposit the fund back to their bank accounts. But if customers already direct the tax returns to Cash App in the first place, it’s unlikely the money will be redirected again back to a checking account. As Cash App users become more engaged and active, Square will look more attractive to prospect sellers whose business yield Square a much much higher gross margin than the company’s famous Cash App.

Additionally, there is nothing that stops Square from giving customers immediate access to tax returns in exchange for a small fee. Tax returns, after being approved, only hit bank accounts after a few days. Square can entice customers to pay a small fee to access the money immediately in Cash App which they can use to invest or make payments. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Figure 1 – The more engaged customers are, the more valuable they are to Square. Source: Square
Figure 2 – Seller offers a much higher gross margin to Square than Cash App. Source: Square

A great source of data

With Credit Karma’s tax tool, Square can have access to a reliable source of demographic data such as age, location, status, income, education, reasons for tax credits and investing behavior. Individual tax filers don’t often try to deceive Uncle Sam in their tax forms. Hence, any information derived from tax filings through Credit Karma is accurate and can be very useful to Square in designing and offering new products. Last year, Square got approval from FDIC to open a bank in Utah and a few days ago, it announced that its industrial bank named Square Financial Services already began its operations. According to the press release, the bank will first focus on underwriting and original loans to existing Square Capital customers and potentially all sellers in the future.

Nonetheless, it won’t surprise me at all if Square’s bank ventures into consumer banking products such as mortgage, credit cards, savings or checking accounts in the future. If they do, information derived from tax forms will be very valuable. I am working for a bank now. We are often frustrated by the lack of demographic information on customers. When they apply for a credit card, sometimes they disclose their annual income, along with other basic information like age or street address, but that’s about it. After they enter our system, it’s almost impossible to receive updated information in their income, their status or other information that a tax form can reveal such as security trading, cryptocurrency trading or donations. What could possibly give a financial institution that kind of information accurately, reliably and regularly on an annual basis than a tax form?

In summary, I do think this is a good strategic acquisition by Square. Personally, I can see some useful applications that Credit Karma can offer and really look forward to how it actually pans out in the near future.

Disclosure: I have a position on Paypal

Weekly reading – 6th March 2021

What I wrote last week

My take-aways from Berkshire Hathaway’s latest shareholder letter

A quick look at Buy Now Pay Later

Business

Demand for semi conductors exceeded supply by 30%

A look into Google’s failure to build games

A higher saving rate in American households is expected to boos the economy in the future

Macy’s, Gap, Neiman Marcus Will Let You Buy Now, Pay Later. The piece has some good information on the “Buy Now Pay Later” trend

WSJ profile of Roblox

A very nice post on Reddit’s history and its potential that has never been realized

The New Era of Social Media Isn’t About Feeds

A very interesting piece on payments in Vietnam. From my observation, it’s true that a lot of Vietnamese skip credit cards and go straight ahead to e-wallet.

Google is going to stop selling ads based on individualized tracking. As users are more conscious of their privacy and the topic becomes more scrutinized, I do think it’s in Google’s best interest to start looking at a new way to deliver effective ads. The macro environment is changing. The conditions are less favorable to their way of doing business. Why sticking to the old way? Google has enough talent and resources to pivot and innovate. If I were a Google shareholder, I would be happy about the news

Rolling Stones interview with Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey

What I found interesting

Taking on the tech giants: the lawyer fighting the power of algorithmic systems

Africa’s biggest air polluter is now battling sewage flows into a major water source

SoundCloud announced changes to how they compensate artists. The move is said to help less popular creators, but how much exactly the help would be remains to be seen.

Using Apple Silicon (M1) as a cloud engineer, two months in

How to operate an airport in Antartica

Stats that you may find interesting

21% of Vietnam’s eCommerce spend was from Digital/Mobile Wallet

Instacart claims that they are serving 85% of US households

Kohl’s partnership with Amazon added 2 million customers in 2020

If the world adopted a plant-based diet we would reduce global agricultural land use from 4 to 1 billion hectares

A Look At “Buy Now Pay Later”

“Buy Now Pay Later” (BNPL) lets consumers break down purchases into smaller installments, either for free or with a charge. Sounds familiar? BNPL isn’t a new concept. Your credit card is essentially the OG of BNPL. When you put a big purchase (like a mattress or a new smart TV) on your credit card, you can spread out the outstanding balance into smaller chunks over a few months. If you make prompt payments every cycle, there will be no finance charge or late fees. Otherwise, you’ll incur penalties which can be fairly expensive as credit cards’ APR is usually in the high teens or the 20s.

What is the difference between BNPL and credit cards then? While credit cards can be convenient, securing approval isn’t always easy, especially for low FICO customers. Even though possession of a credit card can boost one’s FICO in the long term, upon an application for a new card, consumers will likely receive a hard FICO pull which hurts their standing in the short term; the price that some customers are reluctant to pay. Furthermore, it can take a couple of weeks for consumers to receive their plastics. With BNPL, consumers can receive a decision from BNPL online in a few minutes and there is only a soft FICO pull that doesn’t hurt their credit standing in the short term. As Covid-19 forced businesses to move from brick-and-mortar to online and it placed significant financial constraints on consumers, it created a perfect environment for BNPL to thrive.

Who are the main players and what do they offer?

  • Afterpay is among the biggest BNPL lenders in the US. Hailing from Australia, the company only entered the US market in 2018. Remarkably, the US has quickly become the biggest contribution to the company’s revenue in only 3 years. Afterpay doesn’t charge interest. Consumers make the down payment at the time of the purchase and have to pay off balance in 6 weeks (a payment every 2 weeks) to avoid late fees.
  • Klarna is a Swedish startup that offers payment and financial services, including BNPL. It entered the US market in 2015. Klarna allows consumers to make interest-free installments within 30 days or 6 weeks. It also offers high-interest financing options that spread out payments in a longer term.
  • US consumers should be very familiar with Paypal. The company launched its BNPL offering last August. Paypal’s BNPL is similar to Afterpay’s, allowing consumers to break down purchases into 4 interest-free installments.
  • Affirm was founded by ex Paypal, Max Levchin in 2012. Its model is slightly different from other BNPL lenders’ in a sense that Affirm doesn’t charge consumers usage or late fees. Payment options include monthly interest-free installments in 3 months or installments with interest over a longer period.

These startups have played an important role in popularizing BNPL. Now, banks joined the party. Amex launched its BNPL a couple of years ago, but on a fairly limited basis. Since then, it has opened it up to more customers. Chase also introduced its own version called “My Chase Plan”. These banks let consumers make interest-free installments with a monthly fee equal to a percentage of the purchase’s amount. This gives borrowers incentive to pay off their balance as soon as possible, because the longer the plan is, the more fee they will have to pay. Amex even lets its customers combine multiple purchases into one BNPL plan. Unlike startup BNPL providers, these banks impose a minimum requirement of $100 per purchase, along with other criteria, to ensure that customers aren’t overextended.

 InterestInstallment FrequencyFee to use BNPLLate fees
After Pay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Affirm0% – 30%Monthly, up to 12 monthsNoneNone
Amex0%Every month% of each eligible plan’s total amount. Yes
Chase0%Every month between 3-18 months% of each eligible plan’s total amount.Yes
Klarna0% – 19.99%Every 2 weeks or in 30 days for 0%Every month up to 36 months with APRNoneYes
Paypal0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Quadpay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
 AmexChase
How many plans can an account have?10 active plans at a time10 active or pending plans at a time
Minimum purchase requirement$100$100
Penalties for paying off plans earlyNoNo
Rewards on BNPL purchasesYesYes
Are refunds/returns automatically applied to an account’s balance?No, customers must call the issuerNo, customers must call the issuer
Can authorized users set up plans?Only card owners or Authorized Account Managers with Full Access can set up a planOnly card owners can set up a plan

What do merchants and consumers get from BNPL?

For shoppers, BNPL lets them spread out a big purchase into smaller interest-free installments quickly and without a credit card. As mentioned above, the convenience and speed that BNPL brings are even more attractive during Covid-19, especially to younger shoppers who may not build their credit yet or may not have a credit card. Klarna and Afterpay claimed that 90% of their transactions were with debit cards, and 72% of those customers had enough balance on their checking account to cover 2-5x the purchase amount. To lock in customers, BNPL providers such as Klarna and Afterpay launched loyalty programs respectively with additional benefits for their most engaged customers. Klarna’s rewards program Vibe was launched first in the US in June 2020. The no-fee program allows customers to earn 1 point for every dollar spent. The points can be later redeemed for gift cards. Klarna reported that the program exceeded more than 1 million members. On the other hand, Afterpay’s loyalty program Pulse offers a different set of benefits. Registered members in the program can opt to pay nothing up front, choose to reschedule up to 6 payment dates and buy Afterpay gift cards. With Amex and Chase, shoppers accrue points to their bank rewards accounts and can be redeemed later.

However, there are risks for consumers when using BNPL services. A study found that many shoppers incurred late fees, not because they couldn’t make payments financially, but because they lost track of their payment schedule. While this prospect is real, BNPL providers are taking steps to make it easier for shoppers to pay on time. Klarna lets customers set up automatic payments and send out notifications. In the long term, it will be better for BNPL providers to rely too much on late fees. The second risk lies in the consumer protection or lack thereof and the difficulty when it comes to refunds/returns. Credit card issuers have to stop payments when they are disputed. With other BNPL providers, consumers first have to contact sellers, get credit and then proceed to the next steps with the lenders and the outcome is less guaranteed.

From a merchant’s perspective, BNPL brings more customers as the service providers spend a lot of money on marketing and user acquisition. Regardless of whether borrowers make payments on time, merchants get paid in full up front and they don’t have to bear the risk of chargebacks or fraud. In return, though, merchants have to relinquish a fee for each transaction to BNPL providers that can be multiple times higher than what they usually pay in interchange. Plus, merchants risk losing their relationship with customers. I wrote about the importance of owning your relation with your customers. If shoppers feel more attached to BNPL providers than merchants, in the same way shoppers feel more attached to Amazon than the sellers on Amazon’s website, merchants run a risk of losing bargaining power.

BNPL adoption

Because it brings flexibility in payments, BNPL became a hit with shoppers in 2020. Klarna reported that at the end of 2020, it had 14 million registered consumers, 3.5 million monthly active users and 60,000 downloads in December 2020 alone. As of Feb 2021, Affirm had about 4.5 million users that had at least one transaction in the last 12 months, up from 3 million users from one year prior, an increase of 50% YoY. Likewise, Afterpay had 8 million active users as of Feb 2021, up from 5.6 million in June 2020, and the US is now its biggest market. Paypal introduced its “Pay in 4” product in the US market in August 2020 and said that it was the company’s most successful launch ever. 

The rise of BNPL also benefits merchants. In December 2020 alone, Klarna drove 22 million lead referrals to more than 6,000 US retailers. Reportedly, Sephora’s in-store and online orders through Klarna in the US saw an increase in average order value by 65% and 35% respectively. Additionally, Afterpay delivered 45 million lead referrals to its partners globally in December 2020. As the US is Afterpay’s biggest segment and the world’s biggest retail market, it likely made up more than half of those referrals. Over the last 12 months, Afterpay reported a 141% increase in the number of active merchants in the US, from 7,400 in Dec 2019 to almost 18,000 in Dec 2020. Furthermore, Affirmgrew its merchant network by 39% during the last 6 months of 2020, to almost 8,000. 

According to the latest Global Payment Reports by FIS, BNPL will make up 4.5% of North America’s eCommerce in 2024, up from 1.6% in 2020. 

How do BNPL providers make money?

For providers that have an option to charge interest up front like Affirm, interest income can be a significant source of revenue. In fact, it’s Affirm’s second biggest revenue stream. Late fees can be another stream, though, as I already mentioned, they should constitute a small percentage of a provider’s income. Afterpay’s late fee only makes up 7% of the company’s revenue. Most of these providers make money from a fee that merchants have to pay them on every transaction. This fee helps BNPL providers offset the cost of fund placed on the balance allocated to shoppers, the interchange fee that these providers later have to pay to card issuers when shoppers make payments and operating expenses. As BNPL lenders become more popular, I suspect they will eventually launch advertising services whose revenue is high margin, compared to their current margin structure. For banks such as Amex and Chase, a minimum purchase requirement of $100+ means a higher interchange revenue. Plus, they charge customers a monthly fee to use their BNPL service. On the other hand, banks have to incur more expenses as they are much more regulated.

In short, BNPL is a trend born out of unaddressed needs of consumers and accelerated by a special market environment (Covid-19). It’s similar to something that once you saw, you can’t unsee. Once consumers experience it and come to like it, as evidenced by the rapid growth of BNPL providers, I don’t see how it will go away in the future. It will be interesting to see 1/ how these providers work to be more efficient, grow their machine learning capabilities so that they can minimize their losses, and acquire users and 2/ how lawmakers catch up to what’s going on in the market and what ramifications potentially new laws would bring.

Take-aways From Berkshire Hathaway 2020 Shareholder Letters

Shareholder letters, when written well, are a great source of knowledge, wisdom and interesting things. Berkshire Hathaway’s is one of those letters. Today, the company, which is based in Omaha where I currently reside, published its 2020 letter. I read it with a hot cup of coffee and pleasure, and now I want to share my take-aways in this post. You can read the letter in full here

You don’t always win every year, but being patient and having a long-term horizon matters

On the second page of the letter, readers can see the annual and compounded return of Berkshire Hathaway for the last 55 years. The firm didn’t always have a positive return every year. Far from it. It fluctuated greatly from one year to the next, from 28% return this year to -32% the following year. If these professional capital allocators who have more years of investing than my years of living don’t have a positive return every year, I think I shouldn’t set that bar for myself or neither should you. The main thing is that Berkshire had a compounded annual return of 20% in the last 55 years, meaning that the overall gain is some 2.8 million percent, a ridiculous return. Everyone prefers getting rich fast, but in the long term, it is likely better to be patient and have a long term horizon. The results will come, if you do it right.

Having an investing philosophy

Once in a while, I ran across some FinTwit folks who questioned the wisdom of holding large cap stocks such as Apple or Amazon. You know, the familiar big names across industries. These people claimed that to earn an outsized return, investors should look somewhere else where the fish isn’t fished as often. That may be true, but in the age of information, it’s really hard to get information that others can’t. What is harder to possess is patience and willingness to adopt a long term horizon. Back to Berkshire Hathaway, the company said that its Apple position was likely its 2nd most important asset. I mean, if these people upon whom thousands of investors entrust their savings choose Apple and earn excellent returns, why shouldn’t anyone, provided that they did their homework?

Berkshire’s investment in Apple vividly illustrates the power of repurchases. We began buying Apple stock late in 2016 and by early July 2018, owned slightly more than one billion Apple shares (split-adjusted). Saying that, I’m referencing the investment held in Berkshire’s general account and am excluding a very small and separately-managed holding of Apple shares that was subsequently sold. When we finished our purchases in mid-2018, Berkshire’s general account owned 5.2% of Apple.

Our cost for that stake was $36 billion. Since then, we have both enjoyed regular dividends, averaging about $775 million annually, and have also – in 2020 – pocketed an additional $11 billion by selling a small portion of our position.

Despite that sale – voila! – Berkshire now owns 5.4% of Apple. That increase was costless to us, coming about because Apple has continuously repurchased its shares, thereby substantially shrinking the number it now has outstanding.

To Charlie and Warren, I think they don’t care about being a contrarian like so many aspire to be. What they want to be is to be right with their allocation of capital, as it is their fiduciary duty to shareholders. If we can get excellent returns, will it matter if those returns come from a tech giant or a company few heard of? Nah. So if you are only comfortable with the companies you know, don’t listen to the “advisors” who seem to be more eager to be “contrarian” (whatever that means) than to be right.

On page 4 of the letter, Warren and Charlie laid out their investment philosophy. They prefer owning a piece of a great business to 100% of that business. Their reasoning is that great businesses are rarely available for the taking, and even if they are, they will be greatly expensive. Owning a piece of a great business is cheaper, more profitable and cheaper. Berkshire Hathaway’s favorite companies are good to great businesses with a competent leadership that retain most of their annual earnings. As the investees grow their businesses over time, Berkshire’s ownership becomes more valuable. Over a long period of time, the growth in value will be aided by the 8th wonder of the world, compound interest. It may sound easy, but it isn’t. Identifying great businesses to buy is a challenge in and of itself. Sitting on those investments patient for a long period of time is not an easy task either.

What’s out of sight, however, should not be out of mind: Those unrecorded retained earnings are usually building value – lots of value – for Berkshire. Investees use the withheld funds to expand their business, make acquisitions, pay off debt and, often, to repurchase their stock (an act that increases our share of their future earnings). As we pointed out in these pages last year, retained earnings have propelled American business throughout our country’s history. What worked for Carnegie and Rockefeller has, over the years, worked its magic for millions of shareholders as well.

Admittedly, I learned a lot from Charlie and Warren in terms of investing. I try to read up as much as possible about a business and if I like what I read, I buy the stock and try not to sell it. The decision not to sell isn’t driven by my financial determination that a stock has more upside to go. That piece, I still have to learn, even though I don’t find it easy. Instead, my choice to keep stocks over time is mainly driven by my laziness. I don’t want to get up every day and day trade. Plus, I believe that once I own a piece, a very small piece of a great business, it will be more beneficial to keep the ownership as long as possible. A lesson from the two wise old men.

Work ethic

Charlie is now 97 years old and Warren is 90 years old. They are still actively managing their firm, making investment decisions and interacting with shareholders, either through letters like this or a meeting. In the letter, they talked about the story of Nebraska Furniture Mart and its founder, Mrs B, which is one of my favorite business stories:

The company’s founder, Rose Blumkin (“Mrs. B”), arrived in Seattle in 1915 as a Russian emigrant, unable to read or speak English. She settled in Omaha several years later and by 1936 had saved $2,500 with which to start a furniture store. Competitors and suppliers ignored her, and for a time their judgment seemed correct: World War II stalled her business, and at yearend 1946, the company’s net worth had grown to only $72,264. Cash, both in the till and on deposit, totaled $50 (that’s not a typo).

One invaluable asset, however, went unrecorded in the 1946 figures: Louie Blumkin, Mrs. B’s only son, had rejoined the store after four years in the U.S. Army. Louie fought at Normandy’s Omaha Beach following the D-Day invasion, earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the Battle of the Bulge, and finally sailed home in November 1945. Once Mrs. B and Louie were reunited, there was no stopping NFM. Driven by their dream, mother and son worked days, nights and weekends. The result was a retailing miracle.

By 1983, the pair had created a business worth $60 million. That year, on my birthday, Berkshire purchased 80% of NFM, again without an audit. I counted on Blumkin family members to run the business; the third and fourth generation do so today. Mrs. B, it should be noted, worked daily until she was 103 – a ridiculously premature retirement age as judged by Charlie and me.

Mrs B worked daily till she was 103. Charlie and Warren are in their 90s and still working. I mean, I find it inspiring. Sometimes, I feel old whenever I think about the time when I was 16, even though I am just approaching 31. But these great examples remind me that I still have a few decades to work and enjoy life. Such a reminder can be hugely valuable.

Weekly reading – 27th February 2021

What I wrote last week

I reviewed The Spotify Play

Business

Profile of Bumble CEO

Interview with Spotify CEO, Daniel Elk

Frozen food sales have been boosted by Covid-19

When Did Generic Grocery Brands Get So Good Looking?

CBS and Showtime have a combined 30 million subscribers. Paramount+ with ads will go live with ads at $5/month in March and $10/month without ads in June

AT&T and TPG: There is No Why

What I found interesting

A COVID-19 vaccine life cycle: from DNA to doses

A look into Zuck and Kaplan’s influence on content moderation policies

Massive experiment shows why ticket sellers hit you with last-second fees

Sheryl Sandberg and Top Facebook Execs Silenced an Enemy of Turkey to Prevent a Hit to the Company’s Business

Abandoned houses in Japan can be bought for cheap as a get-away destination, but upgrading them can be very expensive

How Uber Deals with Large iOS App Size

Stats you may find interesting

Electric vehicles in the US reached 1.8% market share in 2020

This one stat is more horrifying than interesting. US exceeded 500,000 lives lost due to Covid-19

40% of Disney+ subscriber base are in the US. Because India is responsible for another 30% of the streamer’s subscriber count, the other markets such as Latin America and Europe combined make up 30% of its subscribers

86% of iPhones introduced in the last 4 years are on iOS14

Book review: The Spotify Play: How Daniel Elk Beat Apple, Google & Amazon In The Race For Audio Dominance

As Spotify is one of the stocks in my portfolio, I have extra motivation to read this book. To get to know more about this company that is largely shrouded by secrecy. The book was written by a couple of Swedish interviews through many interviews and investigation of filings. It’s normal to read this kind of unofficial account of a company with a grain of salt or some skepticism, but it’s far from easy to write about a company when current or former employees are shackled by NDAs and when the founders or executives refuse to cooperate.

The book covered Spotify’s history from the very beginning to when it started to increase investments in podcasts. It started with Spotify’s founders, Daniel Elk and Martin Lorentzon, who each sold a startup and became a couple of millionaires, before they even worked together on a secret idea that would later become Spotify. Back when it just got off the ground, there was no playbook for a music streaming service like Spotify, well not legally. Hence, the young startup had to engineer both an app that was user-friendly and a business model that could yield profitability and work well with music labels. As Daniel Elk insisted on, for the right reason, having a free version of Spotify, which let users stream music for free, music labels in the beginning were highly skeptical and reluctant to cooperate. The prospect of Spotify generating enough ads money on the other side of the business to pay loyalties wasn’t appealing at best or practical at least. Through negotiations with the powerful music labels, Spotify came up with their Freemium model that still exists to this day.

“Eventually, Daniel had to compromise by adding a paid service. Three people at Spotify drove him to that shift in strategy: Spotify’s “dynamic duo”—Niklas Ivarsson and Petra Hansson—and the New York-based advisor Ken Parks. After scores of meetings with labels and legal consultants, they are said to have convinced Daniel that a paid version was the only way forward. The alternative would simply cost too much, in both cash and company shares, and never lead to a sustainable business. The freemium model that would define Spotify was thus born out of a tit-for-tat dialogue with the labels, with Niklas and Petra painstakingly hammering out the details of a new template. The industry hated the free service, but was prepared to put up with it as a means to an end, with Spotify vowing to convert free users to an ad-free, premium version.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

In the first few years of its existence, Spotify came close to being belly up financially a couple of times. Back in the latter half of the 2000s, Spotify’s model was a new concept to investors. An investment in Spotify without an agreement with major music labels presented a significant risk. If Spotify had operated without official licenses, it would have embroiled itself and investors’ money in a mountain of legal trouble. Yet, just before the 2008 financial crisis hit, the company labored to put together a funding deal to keep the lights on.

At the Spotify office, around forty employees toasted to the news with glasses of sparkling wine. Daniel was visibly relieved, according to one account.

“That was lucky. If we hadn’t gotten funded, you guys wouldn’t have received your salaries,” he reportedly told his colleagues afterward.

In fact, the timing was immaculate. A few months later, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, setting off the worst financial crisis in more than seventy years.

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

A few years later, death came close again. This time, it was the ability to see shift in consumer behavior and to react fast that saved Spotify. After the iPhone was invented in 2007, a few years later, consumers started to consume music more on their little computers that could sit comfortable in their hands or pockets. Spotify at the time only had a desktop version. The company’s analytics team found out that their customers didn’t spend enough time on the desktop version on their mobile to be converted into paid users. If they hadn’t reacted and desktop use had kept plummeted, their revenue would have dropped. Without an expansion in paid users, Spotify would have had a hard time convincing potential investors for more cash. The trouble became compounded because having a mobile version required additional licenses from music labels. Somehow, the company pulled through what Daniel Elk called “switching out the engines mid-flight”

“At Jarla House in Stockholm, the analytics team had set up a wide range of dashboards visualizing the music service’s performance in real time. Starting in early 2012, Henrik and his team watched as the inflow of new users switched from desktop—where they could listen for free—to mobile, where Spotify only offered a free trial for forty-eight hours. That clearly wasn’t enough time to convert them into subscribers. Of the new users who tried Spotify on a smartphone, only a small percent would stay on and pay for the service. The conversion rate on desktop—the backbone of Spotify’s business—was much higher. But that was of little comfort if desktop use would keep dropping dramatically.”

“During the summer of 2012, music listening on Spotify plateaued as it usually did during the season. But when fall began, a growing number of users did not return. The analytics team suspected that a large number of them were now using their computers less often, opting for their phones instead. It was an early indication that the massive shift to mobile computing was beginning to pick up speed.”

“At this point, Spotify’s licensing team had spent more than six months negotiating deals for what they called a “mobile free tier.” It was not an easy task. While the record labels were making hundreds of millions of dollars every year in payouts from Spotify, they still disliked the idea of millions of people listening to music without ever being forced to pay. Now, Spotify wanted to expand their free service to include all smartphones, not just the ones belonging to paying subscribers.”

“The data became more and more distressing for Spotify. In the late summer of 2013, more listeners went “mobile only,” by now a common term. Smartphones now appeared to have become a real alternative to computers. Gustav Söderström would later describe this period as “the summer when Europe went mobile. Spotify’s number of active users—the lifeline that kept investors funding the company—was now shrinking. Internal estimates showed that Spotify’s user growth nearly halted between the second and third quarters of 2013.”

“A few years later, Daniel would admit that Spotify would have gone bust within six months if things hadn’t changed. To him, this was one of Spotify’s crowning achievements. Originally conceived as a desktop product, the company managed to adapt to the mobile era—and they did it “mid-flight,” under constant pressure from competitors and from the music industry, which at this time still swallowed around 80 percent of all of Spotify’s revenues.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

The book also touched upon various topics such as challenging negotiations with the music labels, struggle to convince artists that Spotify’s interest was aligned with them, the fight against Apple, the effort to overcome operational chaos before IPO and the negotiations to acquire Soundcloud & Tidal that didn’t come through. Personally, I was interested in the book because I liked to study businesses and as mentioned, because I own Spotify stock. This isn’t an official account approved by the company. Consequently, I am not very sure how much of what was written is true. I don’t believe the authors were out to spread rumors, but on the other hand, I cannot have 100% confidence either. The writing is nothing spectacular. The beginning of Spotify was covered at length, but its more recent history didn’t receive as much attention. Furthermore, I don’t really think the title is correct. Yes, Spotify is a known brand, especially with young audience nowadays, but it’s a long way from being the dominant force in audio. Whoever will emerge victorious in the audio streaming war still remains to be seen. Hence, I would give it a 3/5, but would not put it under the “I highly recommend” category.

“The many problems varied. Spotify had grown quickly, and its organizational structure was, in places, haphazard. Its internal accounting system would have fit a medium-sized business operating in a handful of countries, but not a global market leader with business in nearly sixty countries. If a staffer in the finance department wanted to break down marketing costs for a single country for the year 2014, there would be no way of doing it.

Moreover, it was difficult for Spotify to accurately estimate its own costs. Over the coming years, the company would retroactively write up their royalty payments by more than $60 million due to accounting errors. Spotify had a hard time forecasting how the business would perform. During some quarters, subscriber growth came in well below its own estimates; during others, the number of subscribers surged past the growth team’s targets.”

“A number of sources interviewed for this book would describe how Daniel had a hard time knowing how to handle dustups among his lieutenants. Nearly a decade after Spotify started making big-name hires, many continued to recount how Daniel would let conflicts fester until the warring parties found their own solution. It was, still, a kind of natural selection in a corporate setting. The atmosphere is toxic at times. Daniel tends to give people overlapping responsibilities, then he lets them fight over who gets to do the work,” as one person would recall.

”No one is actually accountable for anything because virtually all decisions must take place though a bewildering process of group consensus, where people who are ignorant of the topic at hand somehow have just as much of a say as the experts,” one former employee at the New York office would post in November of 2019.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

Deal with Sony

“Secret internal documents, which would not emerge until the publication of the Swedish edition of this book, reveal that Sony had negotiated an option—triggered four years down the line—to purchase what would amount to 2.5 percent of Spotify at a heavy discount. The label’s payoff came in the spring of 2015, when Sony paid just under $8 million for shares that, a few months later, would become worth twenty-five times more. Largely as a result of this deal, Sony would become the label with the largest Spotify holdings by the time the company went public in 2018.”

“For the right to stream Sony’s music catalogue in the US, Spotify agrees to pay a $25 million advance for the two-year duration of the contract: $9 million the first year, and $16 million the second. The advance is to be paid in installments every three months, and Spotify can only recoup this money if it meets or beats its revenue targets. The contract, however, does not stipulate how Sony Music can use the advance money. Some industry insiders claim that advance money is generally spent on things other than payouts to artists. Others wonder what happens to the “breakage,” or the part of the advance that is left with the label, when Spotify fails to reach its revenue goals. Is it attributed to streams and distributed to artists, or kept entirely by the label?”

“The contract also stipulates that Spotify give Sony free ad space worth $9 million over three years. Sony can use that space to promote its own artists or resell it at any price they want. Spotify also promises to make a further $15 million of ads available for purchase by Sony at a discounted rate. On top of this, Spotify must also offer Sony a portion of its unsold ad inventory for free, to allow the label to promote its artists.”

“The contract also states that Spotify’s smallest payout per stream will be 0.2 cents. But this measure can’t be used to calculate how much Spotify pays for the artists’ streams. It’s only used when it results in a larger payout than the label’s regular cut of Spotify’s total revenue. In essence, it’s a type of minimum guarantee. If too many users get stuck in the free tier, and Spotify’s average revenue per user falls below a certain level, Sony Music can ask to be paid per stream instead.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

Weekly reading – 20th February 2020

What I wrote last week

I reviewed the book Working Backwards. If you are interested in the culture at Amazon, have a read!

Business

Robinhood revealed it has 13 million customers, 13% of which traded options, 9% of which were African Americans, 16% of which were Hispanic.

The highest court in UK ruled that Uber drivers have to be classified as employees. Uber cannot appeal further in the UK; as a result, unless it wishes to exit the UK market, especially London, operating expenses will likely increase from now on. Another interesting detail from the ruling is that workers should get paid whenever they are logged into Uber’s system and poised to accept rides. On the other hand, Uber argued that the ruling would only apply to Uber’s Mobility, not Uber’s Delivery. I don’t know if that’s factually true, but I don’t like their chances.

Facebook practically lied to marketers about their potential reach

Scott Belsky is one of my favorite follows on Twitter. As the founder of Behance and Chief Product Offier at Adobe, he had a fascinating take on several issues related to startups and products. Here is an interesting interview between him and Patrick O’Shaughnessy

US video streaming giants face tough second act in India

WSJ’s piece on Walt Disney CEO Bob Chapek. He seems to be more ruthless on the bottom line, less burdened by creativity and the nostalgia of the Disney brand than his predecessor

What I found interesting

Jacquard by Google. The product category may be interesting, but I am not sure that folks are ready for it. It’s bad enough that we carry around our phone with us every single waking moment in this digital life. Whether consumers agree to carry another device, no matter how small, remains to be seen, especially when the device comes from a company like Google, which is notorious for tracking users.

How to be more productive, more easily

Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?

Have a look at the beauty of Vietnam, from above

Interesting stats that may interest you

35 of Amazon’s sellers in India made up more than two thirds of its online sales

Source: Chartr