Weekly reading 18th June 2022

What I wrote last week

Interchange and what influences it

Apple and Major League Soccer

Business

($) What Do Chinese Consumers Want? Walmart Can’t Figure It Out. Almost 30 years in the country and decades of experience in this industry, Walmart seems to lose grip in China. The stores aren’t an appeal that they once were. Walmart doesn’t seem to be able to offer what consumers want. Competitors are fierce. For good measure, the tension between America and China shows no signs of abating. Trouble is awaiting the largest retailer in the world in China.

Elon Musk’s regulatory woes mount as U.S. moves closer to recalling Tesla’s self-driving software. I admire Tesla, Musk and everything they have achieved. But I think it’s dangerous to create marketing materials touting full self-driving abilities when the vehicles are nowhere near that capabilities.

($) FanDuel CEO Amy Howe Wants to Help the Sports-Betting Business Grow Up. An interesting read into the market leader of sports betting. TIL, FanDuel had 70% of all sports betting platforms’ revenue generated in the state of Michigan in 2022 through April. Typically, it’s only about 5% of the amount wagered.

Maybe Bob Chapek Was Right. The tumult at Disney continues with the recent departure of Rice, a senior executive. Outsiders may not know the full story of what went down. Perhaps, Bob Chapek was right. Perhaps, it was just another example of how difficult life at the top is for him. Nonetheless, it really doesn’t matter how fair or unfair the criticisms on him are. The fact is that he is the CEO and the stock went down by almost 50%. Right or wrong, it’s on him and his record. I look forward to seeing whether they will adjust their subscriber target in the long run now that they no longer have the rights to the cricket league in India. Some said that Disney might lose 20 million subscribers in India. Others argue that it’s a blessing in disguise as a subscriber pays like 70 cents over there. Hence, losing a bunch of low-paying subscribers may boost ARPU and profitability, a premium in this market. The market’s reaction to a new target, if any, may influence Chapek’s tenure a lot.

($) Amazon CEO Andy Jassy’s First Year on the Job: Undoing Bezos-Led Overexpansion. A fascinating piece on Amazon that is unquestionably favorable to Andy Jassy and much less so to Jeff Bezos. I find it interesting that Amazon seems to shift the blame from Jassy onto Bezos for recent trouble with excessive fulfillment capacity. The founder and former CEO did make the decision to expand the capacity, but this sort of public admission while he is still the Executive Chairman definitely raised eyebrows.

($) One Grocer Wanted to Give Up Plastic. It Got Rotting Bananas. “When one of the best-known supermarket chains in the U.K. decided to remove plastic from its products, it hadn’t anticipated a spike in shoplifting. The zero-plastic drive also produced a series of unintended consequences that demonstrate how difficult it is for any company to shed plastic packaging entirely. When Iceland wrapped bananas in paper bands instead of plastic bags, the fruit rotted more quickly or snapped off. When it packed bread in opaque paper bags, sales fell as shoppers balked at buying something they couldn’t see. When it punched holes in paper bags filled with potatoes to make the contents more visible, the bags ripped. Bacon that isn’t wrapped in plastic quickly discolors, salad leaves wilt and unwrapped cucumbers rot more quickly.

Other stuff I find interesting

($) Biden Administration to Pursue Rule Requiring Less Nicotine in U.S. Cigarettes. FDA estimates that tobacco use costs the country $300 billion in direct healthcare expenses and lost productivity. A study published on the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that lower nicotine level will lead to 5 million additional adult smokers to quit smoking. If mandating a lower nicotine level in cigarettes results in fewer smokers and lower economic damages, FDA should press ahead and exercise their authority, knowing that the tobacco industry will take legal actions to protect their own interests

Downtown S.F. on the brink: It’s worse than it looks. The article goes into why remote work drives folks away from San Francisco and the downstream effects that such a migration can have on the city. I spent a few days in San Francisco last month. At no time did I ever feel safe due to the homeless folks on the streets. My team and I went around a bit by Uber and agreed that some areas were just too sketchy to live. Drivers there were just unbelievable. We had to report one Lyft driver because he literally scared us to death with his reckless driving. The living expense is so high there. One croissant and a small cup of coffee cost me $12, easily double what I’d pay in Omaha. It’s no wonder that white-collar workers moved away whenever they had a chance. When the engine that generates your city’s economy is leaving, it’s a serious challenge that demands different thinking.

Exclusive: inside Apple’s iOS 16 remake of the iPhone’s iconic Lock Screen. One thing you’ll notice from this piece is that the road to this Lock Screen feature started a while ago with work on its neural engine, chip and personalization effort on the Home Screen in iOS14. That’s typical of Apple. Have a product roadmap, put the pieces together and release only the things that work.

Opening a Restaurant in Boston Takes 92 Steps, 22 Forms, 17 Office Visits, and $5,554 in 12 Fees. Why? “The American Dream is besaddled by byzantine regulations. As the report shows, for example, opening a restaurant in Boston is a 92-step process. In Detroit, it’s 77 steps. In Atlanta, it’s 76. The report goes into great detail. That 92-step process to open a restaurant in Boston requires that 22 forms be completed, 17 in-person visits be made to government offices, 12 fees be paid, and nine government agencies be involved, at a total cost in government fees of $5,554. Opening a restaurant in San Francisco requires that 17 government fees be paid at a total cost of $22,648.” Indeed, why?

Stats

There were 31 million cigarette smokers in the US in 2020

1.5 billion users watch YouTube’s TikTok clone every month

14% of the U.S. population lives within rural communities

Apple and Major League Soccer

Yesterday, Apple and Major League Soccer (MLS) announced a deal that would make the Apple TV app the home of all MLS games globally in the next 10 years, starting in 2023. Fans will be able to stream all MLS games, with no blackout dates, through a subscription service only available on the Apple TV App. The League has not yet announced the details of said subscription, but are expected to do so in the coming months. Apple said the subscription would also feature highlights, replays, analyses and other original programming. Furthermore, the partnership will also seek to enhance coverage of MLS teams in Apple News and fans can watch highlights right from the News App.

Subscribers of Apple TV+, which is Apple’s own streaming service, can watch a few games at no additional cost. A limited number of games will be available for free, even to non-subscribers of Apple TV+. MLS season ticket holders will automatically receive a complimentary subscription to the MLS streaming service as an additional perk.

The two parties didn’t disclose the value of this deal, but folks familiar with the matter said that it’s worth at least $2.5 billion in its entirety, approximately $250 million a year. The current deal with ESPN+ is worth $90 million and will expire after this year. It was reported that MLS was hoping to make $300 million in annual revenue due to increasing viewership and popularity. Apart from this deal with Apple, MLS is also talking to a few cable companies over the rights to broadcast some games on linear TV.

Below is what each party had to say about this partnership:

For the first time in the history of sports, fans will be able to access everything from a major professional sports league in one place. It’s a dream come true for MLS fans, soccer fans, and anyone who loves sports. No fragmentation, no frustration — just the flexibility to sign up for one convenient service that gives you everything MLS, anywhere and anytime you want to watch. We can’t wait to make it easy for even more people to fall in love with MLS and root for their favorite club.”

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services

Apple is the perfect partner to further accelerate the growth of MLS and deepen the connection between our clubs and their fans. Given Apple’s ability to create a best-in-class user experience and to reach fans everywhere, it’ll be incredibly easy to enjoy MLS matches anywhere, whether you’re a super fan or casual viewer.”

Don Garber, MLS’s commissioner

Why MLS picked Apple?

In my opinion, it’s about reach and accessibility. A unique part of this deal is that Apple secured the streaming rights globally, not just within the US; which is very different from the usual practice of rights being given over select geographical areas. Apple is one of, if not, the most global and recognizable brands in the world. Its Apple TV app is available on many types of devices, not just those that run on Apple operating systems. By working with Apple, MLS has a partner that can bring the game to the global audience instantly. There is no need for MLS to set up its streaming service. It’s not an easy task, especially for a global audience. With this deal, MLS is responsible for generating content and Apple will take care of the distribution. Moreover, the Apple TV app is native on Apple devices and doesn’t require any more installation. Fans can just head to the app and subscribe to the MLS service; which the Commissioner already alluded to in his remark.

The second reason is reach. Everything Apple does is widely covered and followed. This blog entry is one example. Apple can use its massive following and Marketing expertise to increase the awareness of MLS and help the League become more global. I have no doubt that we’ll see more ads from Apple about this deal, more mentions during events & earning calls, as well as more articles from news outlets, fans and bloggers. From the League perspective, instead of running Marketing campaigns in each part of the world, either by itself or partnering with an agency, I imagine that leveraging Apple is easier and more effective.

Why Apple partnered with MLS?

I find this comment from Don Garber, the Commissioner of MLS, very interesting

This is a minimum guarantee. It’s not a rights fee,” Garber said of the non-traditional deal. “…So if we exceed the minimum guarantee, then we share in the upside in that guarantee. If we’re able to sell our linear rights for what we hope and expect to sell them for, then we would even exceed our expectations.

Source: Tennessean

The new MLS subscription service is only available through the Apple TV app. Hence, Apple will be the one collecting the subscription dollars upfront and grow its Services revenue, at least on the surface. Based on the comment from the Commissioner, I figure no matter how much revenue the MLS streaming service brings in, Apple will pay the League at least $250 million a year. Past that figure, the tech giant will be able to take a share of the upside. It’s clear that this arrangement will do two things: 1/ Apple has something exclusive to sell to its customers; 2/ MLS will have a partner incentivized to promote the League globally as much as possible. With a lot of cash and 73% in Services’ gross margin, I think Apple can afford the $250 million figure promised to MLS.

If an MLS subscription costs $100/year or less than $10/month, Apple will need at least 2.5 million subscribers around the world for it to actually make any money from selling the service itself. Given the current awareness of MLS, especially to countries outside the US, is 2.5 million subscribers an attainable threshold? Unlikely in my opinion, but over a long term, who knows? The financial success of this partnership for Apple hinges on the future popularity of MLS. There are a couple of factors that may come in handy:

The first is that the World Cup 2026 will be hosted by Canada, the US and Mexico. As the world’s biggest soccer event, the World Cup will undoubtedly raise the awareness of soccer as a sport and of MLS. Currently having 28 teams, the League will add one more next year and plan to eventually feature 32 teams in the near future. The more local teams there are, the more interest such teams will generate among communities.

The second factor is the arrival of superstars who make their names in Europe and have massive global following. We already saw household names join the MLS in the past, including David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and David Villa. Recently, Giorgio Chiellini, a popular Italian veteran, signed a deal with LAFC. But MLS would rise to a whole new level if it could acquire superstars such as Messi or Suarez. These players did it all in Europe and are already rumored to play in the US soon due to the media & business landscape as well as the Latino fanbase in the country. The arrival of legends such as Messi would be an instant boost to the MLS and its streaming service.

Apple wants to keep existing customers loyal and appeal to new ones. Sports are a great way to consumers’ heart and Apple seems to agree. Before the partnership with MLS, it struck a deal with Major League Baseball to broadcast games on Friday nights. There were reports that claimed Apple already secured rights to NFL games on Sunday nights. All this sports content will enrich the Apple digital ecosystem and help the company make more money. Two possibilities that I can think of:

  • Apple TV+ is natively available on Apple devices through the Apple TV app. Android users can also access the streaming service, but only through browsers. That’s inconvenient. Great sports content on Apple TV+ can give a nudge to on-the-fence Android users to switch to Apple devices. Whatever money the company lost on this front can be made up by higher margin services (Apple Care, Ads, iCloud, payments, etc..) and slightly more expensive devices
  • At $4.99/month, Apple TV+ is one of the cheapest options on the market. With more games in the library now, Apple can make a case to raise the subscription price. Even a $1 increase could lead to millions more in revenue

From my perspective, this is a good partnership for both parties, more so for MLS than Apple, given its current level of popularity globally. But Apple is known for its patience and long-term planning. The company must have a plan in mind and I am curious to learn more about it.

Apple Pay Later

WWDC is where Apple shows off its new software updates and sets the expectation for what is to come in the next year. It kicked off on Monday with a flurry of announcements on iOS16, MacOS Ventury, watchOS 9 and iPadOS 16. Among these announcements, I want to focus on one that is really interesting from a financial product standpoint and, to me, the next step forward towards making Apple not just a consumer brand. Per Apple on Monday:

Apple Pay Later provides users in the US with a seamless and secure way to split the cost of an Apple Pay purchase into four equal payments spread over six weeks, with zero interest and no fees of any kind.3 Built into Apple Wallet and designed with users’ financial health in mind, Apple Pay Later makes it easy to view, track, and repay Apple Pay Later payments within Wallet. Users can apply for Apple Pay Later when they are checking out with Apple Pay, or in Wallet. Apple Pay Later is available everywhere Apple Pay is accepted online or in-app, using the Mastercard network.4 Additionally, with Apple Pay Order Tracking, users can receive detailed receipts and order tracking information in Wallet for Apple Pay purchases with participating merchants.

When the news on the service broke on Monday, it triggered a lot of questions due to the lack of details. Until yesterday when Apple agreed to disclose more information. Per CNBC:

A wholly owned subsidiary of Apple will check user credit and extend short-term loans to users for Apple Pay Later, the tech giant said. Apple has partnered with Mastercard, which interacts with the vendors and offers a white label BNPL product called Installments, which Apple is using. Apple Card issuer Goldman Sachs also is involved as the technical issuer of the loans and is the official BIN sponsor, the company said. But Apple is not using Goldman’s credit decisions or its balance sheet for issuing the loans.

Apple will run a soft credit check to ensure that borrowers are capable of paying back the loans, which will likely be capped at around $1,000, the company said. If Apple Pay Later loans aren’t repaid, then Apple will no longer extend those users credit. But the company said it won’t report the missed payments to credit bureaus. Apple will initially launch Pay Later in the United States

Per Bloomberg:

A wholly owned subsidiary will oversee credit checks and make decisions on loans for the service, which is called Apple Pay Later. The business — Apple Financing LLC — has necessary state lending licenses to offer the feature, though it operates separately from the main Apple corporation, the company said in response to Bloomberg questions. 

Apple has been working to move many elements of its financial services in-house as part of a secret initiative dubbed “Breakout.” In addition to taking on lending, credit checks and decision-making, Apple is working on its own payment processing engine that may eventually replace CoreCard Corp., Bloomberg reported in March. It’s also working on new customer-service functions, fraud analysis, tools for calculating interest and rewards for other services.

The company is also working on a longer-term “buy now, pay later” program called Apple Pay Monthly Installments, Bloomberg has reported. While the shorter-term Apple Pay Later offering doesn’t use Goldman Sachs or other major partners, the longer-term plan is likely to rely on an array of other companies — including Goldman Sachs — that could offer different plans and interest rates. 

The new revelations shattered some of my original assumptions. At first, I thought users could turn on the payment plan after the fact, just like what Affirm Debit+, American Express or Chase offers. Now, it seems shoppers have to choose upfront whether to use an installment plan. Second, I didn’t expect Apple to go as far as securing state licenses in order to offer loans. The report from Bloomberg suggested that the company had a long-term and ambitious plan regarding financial services, a plan that is big enough for them to take on more compliance work, the underwriting itself and possibly the loan balance on its balance sheet. Nonetheless, because this is Apple, a company known for being a control freak over user experience and key capabilities, its desire to underwrite loans, process payments and battle fraud are totally on brand.

Even though the newly reported details are helpful, I still have some lingering questions that I’d love to understand more:

  • The transaction amount is currently capped at $1,000. Is there a minimum limit? Can I still go to a restaurant and put my dinner expense of $20 on a payment plan?
  • Apple Pay Later is slated to go live in the US later this year; which is not a surprise. If there is a plan to expand internationally, how long will that take? Apple Card went live almost three years ago and it’s still exclusively available in the US
  • Costco doesn’t accept Mastercard at its stores. Can I still use Apple Pay Later there? That seems like a significant use case for shoppers in the US
  • What does the application process look like? I can’t imagine that any cashier or customer would wait comfortably for a two-minute in-store Apple Pay Later transaction
  • iPhone is very popular among young folks who don’t have a lot of credit history. This type of financial product definitely resonates with them. How much risks would Apple tolerate from this population?
  • What is the unit economics of a transaction? How much would Apple charge merchants?

BNPL providers usually charge 2-6% of a transaction amount. These providers argue that they earn this cut because they raise the average order volume (AOV) as well as bring more leads to a business. While Apple Pay Later will also help merchants increase the AOV, what would Apple do to generate more leads at the top of the funnel? We already see promotional emails like this from Apple, but will Apple add a Deals tab somewhere in the Wallet?

Implication for Apple’s future

For the argument sake, let’s assume Apple will earn in revenue 3% of all Apple Pay Later transaction amount, including the 0.15% cut it already has on every Apple Pay transaction. Affirm did $13 billion in loan volume in the US in the last 12 months. If Apple Pay Later had the same volume, a 3% cut means that the company would earn almost $400 million in revenue, before expenses. It’s not nothing, but it’s still essentially a rounding error for a machine that generated $365 billion in revenue last year.

The bulk of the value that Apple Pay Later brings is to increase the stickiness of the Apple ecosystem. Existing users have one more reason to stay locked in. Those on the fence have one more reason to lean towards Apple. Merchants will be more motivated to add Apple Pay to their checkout pages. Regarding merchants, I do think Apple has a big plan in place to become more than just a consumer brand.

Going back to the first announcement, buried inside the text and overshadowed by the installment product is the fact that consumers will soon be able to track orders from Wallet on Apple Pay purchases. For this to happen, Wallet will effectively become an ordering system where merchants can process orders and have the delivery status updated. Instead of having an iphone as a payment reader and another software as an ordering system, Wallet can function as both. All a merchant needs is an iPhone. Here is how I see it:

First, Apple launched Apple Business Essentials, a subscription program that helps small companies manage their Apple devices. Then, the company introduced Tap To Pay with iPhone, which allows merchants to use their iPhone as a payment terminal without any extra hardware. A few days ago, Block (Square) said that they would bring Tap To Pay with iPhone to Square sellers who can use their Square POS app on an iPhone to receive payments in stores. Next, Apple Pay Later offers another payment option to shoppers and all the benefits that BNPL can bring to sellers, including higher average ticket value and conversion rates. Last but not least, merchants can use Wallet as an ordering system. Can you see the picture now? Payment is an integral part of doing business nowadays. If Apple devices and services can become integral to companies’ payments, Apple will have a stronger case for Apple Business Essentials. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but I am curious to see if my prediction comes true.

Implications for other BNPL providers

CEOs of Klarna and Affirm already got on TV to appear defiant and confident in the outlook of their business. But I suspect that the last few days already triggered some serious discussions in the boardrooms. How could they not take this seriously? Apple has some advantages that none of these BNPL firms have. First, Apple is one of, if not the most, recognizable and talked about brands in the world. It doesn’t have the brand awareness debt that a newcomer in this space would have. Second, Wallet is a native app that lives on Apple devices by default and requires no further download. If shoppers don’t have BNPL apps downloaded beforehand, the only way these firms can process loans is through merchants’ checkout pages. Unfortunately for them, Apple Pay is at least as popular a checkout button as any. Plus, if Apple can manage to push Apple Pay Later to Apple Watch, I don’t see how Affirm or Klarna or PayPal can get there to compete. Third, some BNPL firms are required to pay interests and expenses on the loans they generate. Apple, on the other hand, has an otherworldly balance sheet and generates cash as well as any company in the world. That should give Apple advantage in terms of unit economics. For now, Apple only offers one flavor of BNPL, but as Bloomberg reported, there are more to come. Hence, whatever advantage on product offerings that the likes of Affirm or Klarna have over Apple may soon evaporate.

Do I believe that this is a winner-takes-all space? No. BNPL firms will still have their space with their loyal followers and non-iOS users. However, their growth will likely be capped with the introduction of Apple Pay Later. I expect that we’ll see moves from these providers in the near future as they will try to bolster their positions while Apple Pay Later gets its feet wet.

In short, as someone who is interested in payments and invested in the future health of Apple as a company, I am excited about Apple Pay Later. Not only the service, but also what Apple does to launch it the way they do, I believe, will have an impact on the business. Personally, I am curious to see if my prediction on Apple Business Essentials will ring true. I also want to see how the BNPL space will change with the arrival of Apple Pay Later. Some already cast demise on BNPL providers as they are now just a feature that Apple offers. But I am skeptical of that view. The space is big and just because you compete with Apple, it doesn’t mean you can’t survive or grow.

Weekly reading – 28th May 2022

Business

Apple Looks to Boost Production Outside China. It’s good for Apple to at least consider operations in other countries to hedge risks. However, it’s not easy to move out of China completely. The book “After Steve” mentioned an episode in which Apple practically had to beg Foxconn to help stand up an assembly line for Apple Watch (I am not 100% about the product in question) overnight because the other chosen supplier screwed up. Foxconn had the resources to do wonders. Replicating such expertise and capabilities in other countries will be very time-consuming and difficult. Plus, doing business in China certainly helps Apple cultivate a relationship with the government. In such a regime, that’s critical.

Cannes: How Japanese Anime Became the World’s Most Bankable Genre. Japanese Anime has incredible IPs. Streaming introduces viewers to content that they had never seen before. Even in my 30s, I am still following some of the anime franchises that I read as a kid. I’d love to explore more if I had the time. It’s not just for kids. Adults love anime too

It’s TikTok’s World Now. Facebook Just Tries to Make People Care About It. The biggest takeaway I have from this piece is that Facebook seems to have trouble dethroning TikTok more than it did any challengers before. Creators still make money on Instagram, but that doesn’t seem to stop TikTok from growing. Interestingly, Facebook had a chance to buy TikTok years ago, but passed. Now, they must rue that decision every day.

Plant-Based Dairy Reinvigorates Milk Category. I do think the popularity of plant-based dairy results from the fact that consumers are more health-conscious. Have you looked at the difference in calorie per serving between meat-based and plant-based milk?

50 years in: Nike’s game plan for winning with women. For obvious reasons, I don’t know anything about women clothing, but it is interesting to read about Nike’s approach to winning this category. Unless there are specific reasons, I naturally support a simple product portfolio. Consumers don’t get confused. Brands can put more marketing dollars and focus behind each product.

Google Takes Yet Another Run at E-Commerce—and Amazon. A super interesting read on Google’s latest efforts into e-Commerce. Based on the article, this time, Google may be onto something. Consumers start to use Google to search for products more than previously, a territory that used to belong to Amazon. E-commerce was also a leading contributor to the bump in search revenue in 2021. With that being said, 2020 and 2021 were great for e-Commerce, but since the economy opened up and folks went back to stores and office, e-Commerce has seen its growth dampened. Whether this trend will affect Google’s effects in the future remains to be seen

Other stuff I find interesting

The Trouble With Lithium. This grim ripping read on Lithium is in line with what I read so far about the element. Demand far outweighs supply, pushing the price to unprecedented heights. The trend will persist for a few years to come. For good measure, even though extracting and producing Lithium have adverse impact on the environment, there doesn’t seem to be an alternative on the horizon.

The butterflies we may never see again in Britain. Super beautiful

The Science Is Clear: Gun Control Saves Lives. For the life of me, I don’t understand how an 18-year-old who cannot get a beer from a bar legally can buy an automatic weapon and shoot dead 19 people. It’s just insane. Take driving as an example. Try driving after either 3 beers or 2 Old Fashioneds and see if you get a DUI. We ban people who consume alcohol from driving, but we close our eyes at folks who may have malicious intent and try to get a weapon. How does that make sense? Look up how Japan regulates gun possession and usage. Then compare the deaths in mass shootings between the two countries. To be perfectly clear, nobody is arguing to take away the right to bear arms. Just like nobody wants to take away the right to drive. We just want access to fire arms to be regulated and controlled so that the tragedies stop. And I read the 2nd Amendment. I don’t think the proponents of the Amendment understand it well…

Stats

Domestic air fares in April 2022 were up 27% compared to April 2019 and 8% month over month

US online grocery sales in April 2022 declined by 4% year over year

45% of devs that earned more than $1 mil in 2021 were not on the App Store or had less than $10,000 in earnings five years before

US Hotel room rates in April and first two weeks of May 2022 were 10-14% higher than the same period in 2019

Source: STR

Book Review: After Steve: How Apple Became A Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul

“After Steve” by Tripp Mickle is about Apple and how it transformed after the death of Steve Jobs. The book shed light on what went on behind the scenes at arguably the most valuable company in the world through two main characters: Tim Cook and Jony Ive. With Cook, we see a then-lieutenant become the ultimate force and voice at Apple. Early in his tenure, Cook had to face investor doubt on whether he could fill the giant void that Jobs’ death left behind. How could he avoid that when his former boss was larger than life? He also had to deal with the precarious political storms both at home in the US and in China. The contrast in how he handled delicate political engagements and how Steve did before showed the difference between two men. There is also a challenge of managing Ive and the growing workforce which meant that the previous culture was no longer a fit. The once-influential Design team which colleagues jokingly referred to as Gods had to see their influence wane and give way for the Finance and Ops teams. Such a transition could only happen under Tim Cook’s watch. The financial results and market valuation of Apple is testament to the excellent job that Cook and his teams have done in the past 12 years. His appointment to CEO was the right call for Apple.

Regarding Jony, the talented artist craves creativity. However, even though he wanted to retain control over all things creative at Apple while not fully mourning Steve’s death, he felt suffocated by the corporate responsibilities, a barrage of meetings and internal fights with other teams. After Apple Watch and Apple Campus, Jony felt burned out and needed to turn a new chapter. Hence, he left the company where he spent most of his adult life. The author reported that after the departure of Jony, the Design team became liberated by not relying on Jony, who wasn’t fully present and committed in the last months of his time there. I do think it worked out for both Apple and Jony that he left. Jony is immensely talented and has world-class taste, but his lack of focus and commitment was detrimental to his teams and colleagues.

If you don’t follow Apple closely but are interested in the company, I think “After Steve” will be a good read. In addition to the evolution of the two characters and Apple itself, there are business lessons that one can take away. First, attention to detail.

Tim Cook is maniacal on details. Becoming a CEO doesn’t mean that he cares only about strategy. At work, I often see executives talk high-level without drilling into details. For me, details matter. They require careful investigation which leads to deep understanding and better decision-making. Here are a few examples:

“The operations team, hollowed out by departures after Jobs’s return, detailed the headway they had made as Cook peppered them with questions: “Why is that? What do you mean?”

“I saw grown men cry,” said Joe O’Sullivan, who was the acting head of operations when Cook arrived. “He went into a level of detail that was phenomenal.”

“Joe, how many units did we produce today?” Cook would ask. “It was ten thousand,” O’Sullivan would answer.

“What was the yield?” he asked, referring to the percentage of units that passed quality assurance before shipment. “Ninety-eight percent.” Unimpressed by the efficiency, Cook would probe deeper. “So how did the two percent fail?”

Excerpt From: Tripp Mickle. “After Steve.”

“He continued waking up each morning before 4:00 A.M. and reviewing sales data. He drilled down into small details, discovering through questions that one model of iPhone was outselling another in a small city in Georgia because the AT&T stores there were running different promotions from those being run in the rest of the state. He held a Friday meeting with operations and finance staff, which team members called “date night with Tim” because it would stretch for hours into the evening, when Cook seemed to have nowhere else to be.”

Excerpt From: Tripp Mickle. “After Steve.”

Another lesson is that a different business life stage cultivates changes in culture and culture fit is important. Under Steve, secrecy and “need-to-know” basis were prevalent. Steve made decisions based on his instinct and was the final voice on many things. Tim Cook, on the other hand, encouraged collaboration and deferred to his reports in areas where he is not strong at, such as creativity. If you work for Cook, you are expected to be able to think strategically and be detail-oriented. Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, left Apple after 5 years because she was reportedly not a fit in Cook’s executive team. Others who are detail-oriented like Cook rose through the ranks like Deirdre O’Brien or Jeff Williams.

I was under impression that Apple’s leaders were excellent at thinking way ahead of time in terms of products or services. This book kinda changed my mind. There are several examples in which the company changed direction when they realized the initial strategy didn’t work. For example, Jony Ive insisted on positioning Apple Watch as a fashion accessory and making it exclusive to cultivate the luxury position. But it only took off when it was sold through normal sales channels and positioned as a fitness product. There was also the drama involving Apple Music and Taylor Swift. Taylor’s criticism forced Apple to change the compensation formula to artists. Otherwise, who knows what would have happened to the service? Last but definitely not least, nobody thought of Apple Watch or Airpods as significant sources of revenue for Apple. One look at the Wearables line item on Apple’s financial reports will tell you that they indeed are.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.

“Jobs had had a designer’s eye. He had once walked past a prototype of a forthcoming iPhone and barked, “What is this shit?” The curvature and polish of the prototype had been changed only slightly during manufacturing, but he had caught the differences with a glance and been repulsed. He had demanded that it be fixed. Without him, the team lost the feedback that fueled their work.”

“When the first prototype was finished, Ive exited his glass office and strolled to the table to review it. He twisted the shimmering silver camera in his hands and brushed his fingers across a toggle button on the rear of the unit that looked like a Nintendo controller. It was there to enable users to scroll through digital photographs on the camera’s display. But he didn’t like the buttons. They protruded too much. He told the team that he wanted the knobs to be as flush and smooth as the aluminum case itself.

It was a challenging ask. Keats spent days inserting 100-millimeter sheets of plastic film called Mylar on each side of the rear toggle, trying to raise the buttons the minimal amount necessary to make them discernible while keeping them practically flush with the exterior of the case.

The camera design took more than nine months and required 561 different models before Ive was satisfied. Apple estimated that fifty-five engineers had spent a combined 2,100 hours on it. The company reused some of the manufacturing techniques in future Apple products, including the laser-etching process for MacBook speakers. Keats did the final assembly by hand and traveled to Germany to have Leica’s engineers ensure that the camera worked”

“At various points over the years, the company’s leadership team had discussed the possibility of buying Disney, Netflix, or Time Warner, which owned HBO. But the rocky integration of Beats showed how difficult it could be to import companies into Apple’s rigid culture. Cook favored proceeding alone. His preference led to what became known inside Apple as Project North Star, a $1 billion bet that Apple could make its own Netflix.”

Apple Q2 FY2022 Results

On Thursday, Apple announced the results of their Q2 FY 2022. Overall, the company recorded almost $97.3 billion in revenue the last 90 days, a record for Q2 in Apple’s history. That means they generated more than $1 billion a day. The 9% YoY growth is already on top of the 54% growth last year. To put it a bit more in perspective, only 26 companies in the S&P 500 had more revenue in the whole year of 2021 than what Apple made in this quarter. It’s also worth noting that these numbers were affected by the supply chain constraints. Just really spectacular! While YoY growth rates have been declining, it’s not a surprise given the rule of big numbers. Plus, this year will see some hardware upgrades that can catapult Apple’s revenue to new heights.

Product, Service and Overall Margin
Figure 2 – Product, Service and Overall Margin
Apple 4-quarter rolling average revenue
Figure 1 – Apple’s YoY Revenue Growth & Rolling Average Revenue

While Services still only makes up 20% of the company’s revenue, its gross margin is a spectacular 73% due to higher sales from advertising, the App Store and cloud services. I suspect this trend will continue in the future. It costs Apple little to offer cloud storage and how many Apple device owners who love taking photos and videos yet are limited by the free storage don’t have an iCloud subscription? Apple Care is a warranty program that gives a bit more assurances to device owners. Given that Apple products last a very long time and most customers are careful with their devices, Apple Care is a very profitable service for the company. The iconic tech giant recently launched Apple Business Essentials, which is similar to Apple Care, but for small businesses. The new service has a lot of potential and will be a great contributor to the company’s margin. Last but not least, advertising. It’s not a coincidence that every popular platform wants to have an ads solution. The demand is always there and the margin is high. Apple is still in the early stage of monetizing traffic to the App Store; therefore, will undoubtedly fine-tune its ads operations so that it will keep raking in profitable dollars.

Apple Paid Subscriptions
Figure 3 – Apple Paid Subscriptions

In the last quarter, supply chain constraints still badly affected iPad, making it the only major business segment of Apple without a YoY growth. Wearables and Services haven’t had a down quarter in the last three years. In fact, growth has been in double digits. Mac showed an impressive 15% growth on top of a 70% increase last year. According to Apple’s CFO, “we had a March quarter record for upgraders, while at the same time, nearly half of the customers purchasing a Mac were new to the product”. iPhone, led by the iPhone 13 line-up, grew by 5% after recording 66% increase last year. The company estimated that the lockdown in Shanghai will impact revenue by $4-8 billion in Q3. Hence, the winning streaks of some segments may likely come to a halt in 90 days, but since demand is very strong for Apple products, the company has reasons to be confident in the long-term health.

Apple's Business Segments' YoY Revenue Growth
Figure 4 – Apple’s Business Segments’ YoY Revenue Growth

Regarding geographic segments, Americas is a bright spot with YoY growth of 19%, better than management’s expectations. Europe was adversely impacted by the pause in Russia for a month. China is still Apple’s 3rd biggest segment, but the company warned that Covid-related restrictions would affect demand, at least for Q3 FY2022. Japan and Rest of Asia Pacific felt the impact of unfavorable foreign exchange rates.

Apple Geographic Segments' 4-Quarter Rolling Average Revenue
Figure 5 – Apple Geographic Segments’ 4-Quarter Rolling Average Revenue

Overall, it is another great quarter from Apple despite all the macro challenges. It is proof that the underlying strengths of the business are still intact and goes to show the calm and competent leadership of the management. Zoom out and you will see that there is no other company that can rival Apple in terms of product and service portfolio, the global scale and the customer loyalty. There are challenges and uncertainty ahead, including the war between Russia and Ukraine, Covid-related restrictions in China, the supply constraints, especially silicon shortages, and unfavorable exchange rates. Nonetheless, I am confident Apple will navigate through such challenges deftly and come out stronger.

Disclaimer: I own Apple stocks in my portfolio

Weekly reading – 16th April 2022

Business

Pricey Jet Fuel Punishes Airlines and Passengers. “Jet fuel, a kerosene-based product akin to diesel fuel, has roughly doubled in price since last April across the U.S., according to S&P Global Commodity Insights, while gasoline has risen about 45%. A fall in exports of Russian diesel in recent weeks has driven Western refiners to shift resources from jet to diesel production, leaving jet fuel undersupplied, S&P Global Commodity Insights analysts said.”

Apple’s privacy focus means fewer app features, slower development, say company’s own engineers. The skeptics or critics that say Apple’s focus on privacy is self-serving should read this article. Of course, when you run a business, I believe your MO should be to maximize revenue and profit. However, what differentiates one company from all the others is its ability to align such a goal with actions that also benefit other stakeholders. In this case, Apple has repeatedly proven that they align their business with user privacy. There are things that the company could have done to further its business interests, but those things were put on shelf because they went against their promise to users on privacy. If that’s not proof of Apple’s intention, I don’t know what is.

Wedgewood Partners First Quarter 2022 Client Letter. Some great commentaries on a few companies such as Meta, PayPal or First Republic Bank.

Amazon sellers face 5% fuel and inflation surcharge to offset rising costs. What sellers get from platforms such as Amazon is traffic, eyeballs and business. However, such dependence also means that in the times of inflation, it becomes more expensive for sellers to generate revenue and profit. You can only pass on the costs to consumers so much before business is lost.

The Chips That Rebooted the Mac. A nice piece by WSJ on Apple’s decision to develop its own chips. Business students should really be encouraged to study Apple for business lessons and insights. The company is a great case study in terms of customer orientation, platform development, business strategy, execution, supply chain, pricing and marketing. The move to rid itself of dependence on Intel and decide their own future is a masterpiece

Intangibles and Earnings. Improving the Usefulness of Financial Statements. Accounting is the language of business. Some companies use sophisticated accounting practices to often hide the true state of their businesses. This article walks readers through how to sort of earnings, investments and the implications on valuations.

Other stuff I found interesting

Why Germany Won’t Keep Its Nuclear Plants Open. It is baffling to me that Germany decides to favor other sources of energy and electricity over nuclear. If there is EVER any silver lining, in addition to laying bare what we should know about Putin already, it’s that Germany starts to move away from Russia and the dependence on its gas and oil

America’s highest earners and their taxes revealed. It’s an informative read, but by no means do I mean that billionaires are legally guilty for successfully exploiting the loopholes to reduce taxes. It’s the lawmakers’ job to make sure high earners pay their fair share AND keep the attractiveness of the US as a business environment. On the other hand, rich folks want to keep as much money as possible. The fact that they can do so without being in jail shows who successfully did their jobs

An example of how China uses technology, surveillance and facial recognition to inflict human rights abuses on its own citizens

Stats

Digital ad revenue in the U.S. jumped 35% to $189 billion last year

Fintech app installs grew by 35% YoY in 2021

In March, total U.S. online grocery sales pulled back 6% to $8.7 billion versus March 2021’s record high of $9.3 billion

Weekly reading – 2nd April 2022

Business

FTC Sues Intuit for Its Deceptive TurboTax “free” Filing Campaign. The FTC is suing Intuit for bombarding tax filers with a message that its product is free while 2 out of 3 filers couldn’t use its “free” service in 2020. I am surprised that it took the government this long to go after Intuit and that the IRS has been lobbied away from launching its own free tax-filing website.

Brand Loyalty Takes a Hit From Inflation, Shortages. “Well-known brand names and flashy ad campaigns are no longer enough to command U.S. consumers’ loyalty in grocery stores, retail executives said. As inflation spreads and stretched supply chains leave gaps on shelves, shoppers are becoming increasingly fickle, with availability and price determining what goes into their shopping carts.”

Apple now allows video, music apps to sign up new subscribers without paying fees. “Reader” apps can now display an external link to their website and process payments without using Apple’s own system. There will be a hit to Apple’s bottom line, but I doubt it will be a big one as most of the App Store revenue is concentrated on games which still need to adhere to Apple’s payment rules. The motivation for the move is likely to appease lawmakers and reduce regulatory pressure. To me, it seems a shrewd move, but we’ll see whether it will yield the intended results and how big a financial hit there will be.

Apple wants to bring more financial services in-house. I agreed with Mark Gurman that Apple won’t be a bank in the future. Being a bank brings a lot of regulatory scrutiny and compliance issues. Apple doesn’t need it. The drive to bring more in-house is likely to add more margin, cut the middlemen and improve the customer experience. Why would you need someone else in the middle when you could do more for customers and save money in the process? Apple is about personal computing and improving personal life. Few things are as personal as financial well-being.

Cross River Bank hit $3+ billion valuation and plans to move forward with a crypto-first strategy. Growing their loan balance from $2.4 billion to $24 billion in 7 years is quite an achievement. We often get to know fintech startups such as Marqeta, Affirm or Square, but the banks who partner with these guys don’t receive enough attention. Good to have an article like this on one of such banks.

Stuff that I found interesting

The secret police: Inside the app Minnesota police used to collect data on journalists at protests. The thought that the police have a secret app profiling journalists at protests is disturbing and, as cliche as it may sound, unAmerican.

Technicolor Tokyo. Beautiful and colorful photos of Tokyo at night

How Your Shadow Credit Score Could Decide Whether You Get an Apartment. A nice investigate piece by ProPublica on how poorly regulated the tenant screening industry is and how it is doing real harm to consumers. This is where consumers really need lawmakers to be on their side, not only for the screening issue but also renting in general. Far too often do landlords draw up rental agreements with favorable terms for themselves. Lucky tenants have choices, but less lucky ones have to be legally cornered. Furthermore, tenants are often restricted to exclusive service providers such as Cox for Internet. These providers have all the power to drive up prices every year for the same services and there is nothing that tenants can do about it. It’s just ludicrous.

The Maya—and the maize that sustained them—had surprising southern roots, ancient DNA suggests. The migration from South America might allegedly have resulted in the Maya’s adoption of corn which plays a pivotal role in the Mayan culture

Stats

“In 2020, recycled toilet paper accounted for just 1.6% of sales from U.S. retailers, while the big three — P&G, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific — controlled 70% of the market, according to Euromonitor International”

Source: Morgan Stanley
Source: Bloomberg

Weekly readings – 12th February 2022

What I wrote last week

Thoughts on PayPal’s latest earnings

Apple’s next growth opportunity. Disney’s streamers showed resilience. ESPN+ achieved its FY2024 target

Business

Stream big: how Netflix changed the TV landscape in 10 years. I don’t deny that Netflix revolutionized the streaming industry or that it has the scale advantages. What I disagree with Netflix bulls or fans on is the alleged invincibility. The latest earnings call was a disappointment, sending the stock down by 20%. For the first time, the management team vaguely admitted competition which includes rivals with deep pockets and additional services that can help “subsidize” these rivals’ streamers. So far, Netflix has been successful, but it’s not a lock that they will continue to be the market leader in the near future.

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ could have hit $2 billion at the global box office if it were released in China. Movies without a release date in the most populous country in the world leave a lot of dollars on the table. It will be interesting to see producers strike a balance between freedom to cast whoever they want or craft whatever story they want to tell and the need to appease China. A big payday from a release in the country is something worth thinking about.

New Airline Bets You’ll Stop in Alaska for a Cheaper Flight to Asia. Personally, I look forward to the launch of Northern Pacific and flights to Asia through Alaska. I have never been there and tickets can be cheaper. So why not?

Deep Dive: Xiaomi. More than just cheap phones

How Alexandre Arnault Is Shaking Things Up at Tiffany & Co. An interesting profile of one of the Arnault children. He seems to have more than just the right last name

A $6 Billion Wipeout Was an Omen for Food Delivery Stocks. At this point, I feel like it’s irresponsible to invest in food delivery startups or publicly traded firms that do not have the scale. While it’s already tough for the established incumbents to run their business in the black, it’s an order of magnitude harder for those without scale. And if you haven’t noticed, the market isn’t looking kindly on unprofitable companies in a cut-throat market like food delivery.

Stuff I found interesting

Where Is There More Lithium to Power Cars and Phones? Beneath a California Lake. “In the U.S. hunt for lithium, an essential component of the batteries that power electric vehicles and cellphones, one big untapped source might be bubbling under a giant lake in Southern California. The U.S. currently imports almost all of its lithium, but research shows large reserves in underground geothermal brines—a scalding hot soup of minerals, metals and saltwater. The catch: Extracting lithium from such a source at commercial scale is untested.”

House Passes $350 Billion Competitiveness Bill, but Senate Fight Looms. Read this article and you’ll see how broken Washington is. The country really needs leadership, assistance and regulation to compete on strategic fronts. Yet, these lawmakers are prioritizing tribal politics instead of putting the country first.

EV Charging Network Will Target Interstate Highways. “Dotting the interstate-highway corridors with charging stations is considered a priority because it will give EV motorists confidence that they can take long-distance trips without trouble recharging. Stations will have to be installed every 50 miles, no more than one mile off the interstate, according to a guidance memo by the Federal Highway Administration. And stations will have to have at least 600 kilowatts of total capacity, with ports for at least four cars that can simultaneously deliver at least 150 kilowatts each. The stations also have to be accessible to the general public, or to fleet operators from more than one company. The locations can include privately owned parking lots if they are open to the general public.”

Germany’s Covid Boomtown Stumbles Over Its Newfound Riches. Progressive politicians want companies to pay more taxes; which companies do not want to do. Folks just want stable jobs and to be taken care of by the tax money they pay. Marburg is another example of how hard it is to strike a balance and keep everyone happy

Stats

International students earned nearly half of the master’s and PhD STEM degrees in the US in 2019

90% of Uber’s earners work fewer than 40 hours per week and 60% work fewer than 20 hours per week (Investor Day 2022)

46% of Uber’s gross bookings in Q4 2021 came from customers engaged both with Mobility and Delivery. These customers made up only 17% of Uber’s customers base (Investor Day 2022)

10% of all first time riders to Uber in 2021 came to a 2-wheeler or a 3-wheeler trip (Investor Day 2022)

Apple’s next growth opportunity. Disney+ added more subscribers while raising prices. ESPN+ achieved its FY2024 target

Corporate & Commercial – Apple’s next growth opportunity

Apple has always been a household consumer brand. There are still areas that the company can explore in the consumer space to fuel growth such as the global availability of their services, next generation chips, the AR glass or the long waited yet mysterious Apple Car. I remain excited about Apple’s growth prospect as a consumer staple, but Apple may be more than that in the future. There are signs lately that Apple may make a push into the corporate segment. First, it launched Apple Business Essentials, a device management service for small businesses with fewer than 500 employees. The program is still in early days, but the company already said that thousands of small businesses already participated in the program. That’s Apple’s style: choose to come to the market when a service or product is ready and deploy consistent incrementalism over time. Remember how some ridiculed their introduction of Wearables, which is now their 3rd largest business? And if they manage to build that muscle and processes to deal with small businesses, there is no reason not to think that they can expand their market and go further upstream.

Then on the earnings call, Luca Maestri (Apple’s CFO) revealed this anecdote:

Shopify, for example, is upgrading its entire global workforce to M1-powered MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. By standardizing on M1 Max, Shopify continues its commitment to providing the best tools to help its employees work productively and securely from anywhere. And Deloitte Consulting is expanding the deployment of the Mac Employee Choice program, including offering the new M1 MacBook Pro to empower their professionals to choose devices that work best for them in delivering consulting services.

Source: fool.com

I feel that M1 is the last puzzle piece that Apple needed to start making moves in the corporate market. The chip makes Apple devices more powerful and efficient, exactly what the white-collar folks like myself want and opposite of what we are used to (like all those bulky and burning Dell computers). As employees like Apple’s products, companies are more incentivized to offer such products as perks to retain talent; which plays into Apple’s hands. In the past, whether Apple’s products were the clear winners might be up for debate, but the introduction of their in-house chip put the question to rest.

This week, Apple revealed that future iOS updates would let merchants accept transactions with just a tap on their iPhones. The value chain analysis or how exactly this would benefit Apple are still question marks. I suspect Apple will take a small cut on every transaction like they do with Apple Pay transactions. Also, if merchants rely on an iPhone as a card reader, Apple Business Essentials will suddenly become an appeal so that they can manage their devices properly. These are just two early signs of what Apple can put together for businesses. I am eager to learn what they have in store because I am almost confident that they have a roadmap in mind already.

Disney+ and ESPN+ added more subscribers while raising prices. ESPN+ achieved its FY2024 target

The first quarter of FY2022 was a good one for Disney as the company continued to add more subscribers to its flagship streamer Disney+ outside of India and ESPN+ while increasing Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). The testament to the strength of a product or service lies in the ability to retain customers while raising prices. In that sense, Disney+ has so far defied critics and proven its mettle, showing that its streaming services are capable of challenging anyone else in this highly competitive market. The iconic company set the long term target of 230-260 million Disney+ subscribers by the end of FY2024. There are 8 more quarters to go. To attain that target, Disney needs to deliver a quarterly net add of at least 13 million subscribers. The company is on the right track to do so. In fact, the management said that even without the rights to Indian Premier League, the nation’s cricket competition that is arguably the biggest acquisition tool in the Indian market, it is still confident of meeting the FY2024 guide.

If you look at India, we’re certainly going to try to extend our rights on the IPL. But we’revery confident that even if we were not to go ahead and win that auction that we would still be able to achieve our 230 million to260 million. So it’s an important component for us around the world. Obviously, really important in India, but not critical to us achieving the 230 million to 260 million number that we’ve guided to.

Source: Walt Disney Q1 FY2022 Earnings Call

While Disney+ added more subscribers in the US and Canada than Netflix in the last few quarters, I don’t think that any comparison can be fair. The two streamers are operating at a different scale and life stages. Netflix is much more established and has a much bigger subscriber base. Hence, even though it added fewer customers, we shouldn’t draw any conclusion yet on either.

ESPN+ already achieved the FY2024 guide of 20-30 million subscribers. Its tally at the end of Q1 FY2022 is already 21.4 million. I am sure with an imminent international expansion and addition of rights to more sports, ESPN+ will attain the higher end of the guide range, if not exceed it.

Disney+ North America net add subscribers and ARPU
Disney+ excluding Hotstar net add subscribers and ARPU
ESPN+ net add subscribers and ARPU