Thinking about Netflix

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

The Bull Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Netflix

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

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

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

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

Source: Netflix

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

The Bear Case

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

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Source: Andrew Freedman

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

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

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

Summary

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

Book review: Junk to Gold – From Salvage To The World’s Largest Online Auto Auction

I picked up this book after seeing a few folks on Twitter recommend it. This is more or less an autobiography of Willis Johnson, the founder of Copart, one of the two largest online auto auction in the world. My overall experience from reading this book is positive because I like the content and its reasonable length.

Many books tend to be filled with a lot of junk, no pun intended, and longer than what they should be. This book is straight to the point and can be easily finished on a weekend. Content wise, it can teach readers many meaningful business lessons without shelling out tens of thousands of dollars on college. For example, Willis was a visionary because he and his son-in-law repeatedly invested handsomely in IT ahead of anybody else. They worked with California DMV to leverage computers to register cars instead of manual paperwork. This move sped up the selling process and improved customer experience. Then, they spent $3 million, a big sum at the time, on Copart Auction System (CAS) to allow online bidding for all of their yards; which nobody else did at the time. When the Internet started to gain popularity, Johnson and his right-hand son-in-law hopped on the trend and built out Copart’s online presence. In hindsight, these initiatives seemed rather obvious, but from my own experience working in the U.S, there are many companies that are reluctant in investing in IT, my current employer included.

Willis Johnson is a shrewd businessman. He knew that in order to grow his business, he had to generate more than one revenue stream from the same resources. In his words, he was “putting more through the pipe”. He also learned how to increase his margin and lower the cost. While other yards at the time sold many parts together and had to guarantee buy-backs because the value of the purchase was higher, Willis sold the parts individually and didn’t have to guarantee buy-backs so that his margin was higher than his competitors. Additionally, the founder of Copart bought yards in strategic places. That way, he could cover more areas without incurring more tolling expenses and hurting his margin. A bit later, he managed to buy parts in bulk from Asia to take advantage of cheap labor and wholesale pricing, and sold them at retail prices.

Many books were written on Blue Ocean Strategy, which basically means that companies can gain advantage by finding under-served customer segments and focusing on that particular segment instead of launching lookalike products or services and having to compete with many rivals. You can learn the same lesson from Willis in his book. He wisely specialized on Chrysler parts which weren’t popular at the time. The specialization gave him two advantages. First, he didn’t have to compete with others on Chrysler parts. In fact, Chrysler was happy to partner with him to some extent. He could secure the parts more economically. Second, Chrysler customers were even referred to his yards because others didn’t have the parts.

There are other plenty of good anecdotes and lessons from this book. If you want to learn great business lessons or just want to get to know Copart, I highly recommend this book. Below are some excerpts that I like

Everyone Is Created Equal, but They Aren’t Always Treated Equally While hard work became second nature, I learned it wasn’t always a guarantee of success, and people aren’t always treated equally for equal work. The world was unfair, and this bothered me.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

To us, the business world was black and white, and a deal you aren’t sure about isn’t really a deal at all. It never ceases to surprise me, though, when others cross that line without even a blink of an eye. I was raised to believe that cheating is the same whether you are taking ten cents or $10,000. And if you could do it once, there was a good chance you would do it again.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

Dad also had an expression: “Take care of your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” It’s a phrase I have also passed on to others so they would learn the same lesson I learned from him—that small amounts of money can add up to either big profits or big losses. You can’t ignore the small expenses or the small amounts of money unaccounted for if you hope to succeed at the end of the day.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

There were pockets of General Motors and Ford specialty yards but not Chrysler, so we were filling a need for a big area. It was also cheaper to stock Chrysler parts. At the time we were still partly in the scrap business, so we could buy all the junk Chrysler cars for thirty-five to forty dollars whereas we were paying seventy-five to one hundred dollars for General Motors junk cars. I could go to an auction and buy a wrecked Dodge Polara for twenty-five cents on a dollar compared to a Chevrolet. So I could buy parts cheaper, but the parts were just as valuable, especially since no one else carried them. Before we specialized, Curtis and I were running between $3,500 and $5,000 worth of parts a month at Mather. After specializing, we were running around $3,500 worth of parts a day.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

I spent $110,000 on a large reel-to-reel computer—about double the amount most people spent on a house at the time. The reels themselves were fourteen inches in diameter and stored all the information about the business and its inventory. Every night, new reels were put on the computer to back up the information. This resulted in boxes and boxes of reels. Today, an iPhone could probably hold the same amount of data. Curtis remembers that other people thought I was crazy (or stupid—or maybe both) to spend so much money on a computer for a wrecking yard. But I was never afraid to spend money on technology if it could help us be more efficient. And it turned out that the whole industry would end up computerizing once they saw the benefits it gave people like me and Marv.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

Instead of waiting for the DMV to find a better way, I went to them and proposed a solution. I would develop a way to create electronic forms and print them from a computer, thereby eliminating the need for the DMV to send out the books at all, saving them money and my business valuable time. I spent about $40,000 building the computerized system for the state of California. Now we could go to the computer and fill out all the paperwork needed and didn’t have to wait for books. It sped up the whole process and was an example of how it pays to fix something yourself instead of waiting for someone else to solve the problem for you.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

Every time you can add a revenue stream to the same pipeline, the profit margins change drastically. You are putting more through that pipe. That’s what I always tried to do in my businesses, and it is how we were successful.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

“Barry, here’s the thing. I’m not just buying a can of soup for twenty-nine cents and selling it for forty-nine cents,” I explained. “I have ten different services that are growing all the time. Think of us like the local sewer system.”

Well, that got his attention.

“We’re a utility. Nothing can get rid of us—nothing. Two of the biggest businesses in the world are car manufacturers and insurance companies,” I went on. “If insurance companies don’t write insurance policies on cars, then they’re out of business. If manufacturers don’t make cars, then they’re out of business. They’re always gonna make cars, and they’re always gonna insure them. We’re the guy in between.”

I looked him right in the eye and said, “As long as we’ve got the land in the right place to put the cars on, we can’t fail. We are like the septic tanks of the sewer system. You can’t have the system without us.”

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

In the meantime, IAA was gobbling up facilities across the country as fast as they could. I knew from my dealings with Bob Spence that their plan was to acquire as many locations as they could and let the yards still run like they had been before they purchased them, even if that meant they ran on separate computer systems and used different business models. IAA figured they’d worry about converting them into one system later, when they had finished growing.

My philosophy was much different. I felt Copart should grow slowly, acquiring strategic locations and then converting each one over to the Copart system and business model immediately. Jay had already become an expert at converting yards—taking the lead in changing things over in all the facilities I had acquired while getting ready to go public.

I just didn’t want to grow to grow. I wanted to build a brand. I wanted anything with a Copart logo on it to run the same way—same computer system, same pricing, same way of treating our employees—so people started relating our name to a certain way of doing business. We spent time converting things over and converting employees over and teaching them our way of doing things because in many cases, the old way they were doing things hadn’t been working. That’s why they had to sell.

That’s also why I think IAA’s approach to keeping newly acquired yards running the same way was wrong. They weren’t fixing what was broken in the first place.

Johnson, Willis. Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’S Largest Online Auto Auction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: I have a position on Disney and Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakdown of Formula One, a fascinating business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formula One from the perspective of an OEM

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

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

My thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take-aways from the latest interview of Disney CEO

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Credit Suisse 23rd Annual Communications Conference

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

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

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

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

Source: Credit Suisse 23rd Annual Communications Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Amazon Unbound

Brad Stone followed his first book on Amazon “The Everything Store” with “Amazon Unbound” ten years apart. Similar to its predecessor, this book is the result of extensive research and journalism on the company that captures the imagination and admiration of the public and millions around the world. How much you like this book depends on how familiar you are with the company and its enigmatic and iconic founder, Jeff Bezos. Personally, having read quite a bit on both, I didn’t find some chapters very useful or interesting because I didn’t think it was necessary for me to know in details what happened internally. With that being said, I did find the book worth the time. If you are fond of business and Amazon, give it a try! Below are a few things that stood out for me

Bezos’ ability to think big and delegate

The chapters on the development of Alexa, Amazon Go, Indian market as well as the acquisition of Whole Foods is interesting. In these chapters, readers can see how Jeff’s ability to think big and push his team to think big resulted in unfathomable success. His vision and boldness led the team to enduring long working hours for years and challenges, both technically and from the market, to introduce services and products that have proven to be strategic assets to Amazon. His genius also lies in his willingness to delegate big & important projects to his team. His previous Technical Advisors led the charge on Alexa, AWS and India. In addition to opportunity and resources, Bezos also provides oversight and counsel, and often the push that his team needs to think big.

“By then, Amazon’s China bet was souring, so Bezos did not want to relinquish his shot at what seemed like the world’s next largest prize. In most OP1 sessions, he usually spoke last, not to sway the group with his formidable opinion. But this time, he interjected while Agarwal was still giving his presentation. “You guys are going to fail,” he bluntly told the Indian crew. “I don’t need computer scientists in India. I need cowboys.

“Don’t come to me with a plan that assumes I will only make a certain level of investment,” Bezos continued, according to the recollection of two executives who were there. “Tell me how to win. Then tell me how much it costs.” Another Indian executive at the meeting, Amit Deshpande, says the message was: “Go big and take risks. Make it happen. We have your backs.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Bezos and his employees riffed on the idea over email for a few days, but no further action was taken, and it could have ended there. Then a few weeks later, Hart met with Bezos in a sixth-floor conference room in Amazon’s headquarters, Day 1 North, to discuss his career options. His tenure as TA was wrapping up, so they discussed several possible opportunities to lead new initiatives at the company, including positions in Amazon’s video streaming and advertising groups. Bezos jotted their ideas down on a whiteboard, adding a few of his own, and then started to apply his usual criteria to assess their merit: If they work, will they grow to become big businesses? If the company didn’t pursue them aggressively now, would it miss an opportunity? Eventually Bezos and Hart crossed off all the items on the list except one—pursuing Bezos’s idea for a voice-activated cloud computer.

“Jeff, I don’t have any experience in hardware, and the largest software team I’ve led is only about forty people,” Hart recalled saying. “You’ll do fine,” Bezos replied.

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

Even heroes aren’t perfect

Jeff Bezos is known for making his employees put their ideas into a PR FAQ, which is a single pager that summarizes key points on a new product/service, or a 6-page memo that includes analysis and rationale for an idea or a big initiative. I love this approach. I think it makes a lot of sense to ask folks to put thoughts to paper and strengthen their ideas. However, when it comes to Jeff’s own ideas, he sometimes didn’t meet the high standard. Furthermore, Jeff instills the philosophy of “single-threaded leaders” into Amazon. The thinking here is that when somebody is responsible for an initiative, they shouldn’t be distracted by anything else. Jeff’s focus was initially only on Amazon. Over the years, he became distracted by his new girlfriend and his investments in Blue Origin & Washington Post. The book detailed how he missed meetings and went for days without a visit to the office. He was still involved at Amazon, but that’s not the standard of focus that he demands from his employees.

What I took away from this is the reinforcement of the belief that even your heroes are far from perfect. They don’t always practice what they preach. It doesn’t mean they don’t have good ideas, but it also doesn’t mean that they are perfect either. We should look at people, or at least try to, with some grain of salt, instead of blind loyalty or admiration.

“The first, which Bezos proposed in a free-flowing brainstorm session in 2014, started as a notion he called “the steak truck.” Imagined as “an ice cream truck for adults,” the original suggestion was to stock a van or truck with steaks, drive into neighborhoods with lights flashing and horn blaring, and sell them to residents, as Doug Herrington remembered it. It would be convenient and a great deal for customers, since the meat was being sold in bulk. Eventually, the company might even predict demand and eliminate the inefficiencies and wasted food of supermarkets.”

“But the service was never as ubiquitous or as endearing as Jeff Bezos and Doug Herrington had hoped. Internet critics were baffled by the project and sneered at some of the more inexplicable deals (“bidet sprayers for $19.99, 33% off!”). One empty Treasure Truck burst into flames in a West Philadelphia parking lot at 1:30 a.m. Bezos briefly touted the initiative in his 2017 shareholder letter, but an executive on the finance team told me that it never performed particularly well or was close to profitable. If Amazon wanted to arouse excitement and loyalty for its fledgling grocery services, it needed something else entirely—like a unique product that customers were passionate about.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Well, Bezos had an idea for that as well and it was just as bizarre. In August 2015, the Washington Post published an unappetizing article about how a single hamburger might contain the meat of up to a hundred cows. Sourcing a burger from just a single cow could theoretically produce a superior-tasting patty but that “would be hard and expensive,” a meat distributor told the paper. That caught Bezos’s attention. He seemed to have increasingly adventurous tastes, later sampling an iguana, for example, at a meeting of New York City’s Explorers Club. In another brainstorming meeting with Herrington, he suggested they find a ranch to produce a “single cow burger” and make it a unique item that customers could only buy from Amazon. “I really think you should try this,” Bezos told Herrington, who recalled thinking at first it was a joke. “How hard can it be?”

“The project once again represented a different style of innovation within Amazon. Employees didn’t “work backwards” from their idealized customers, who had never asked for such a creation. They worked backwards from Bezos’s intuition and were catering to his sometimes eclectic tastes (literally). Bezos was right a lot, particularly when it came to cutting-edge technology. But in the end, the single cow burger and other culinary innovations introduced within Amazon Fresh generated little buzz or increased business.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Still, many Amazon execs and alums would have a hard time moving on so easily. Bezos had always demanded that Amazonians comport themselves with discretion and impeccable judgment. He ripped documents in half and walked out of rooms when employees fell short of expectations. By conducting an extramarital relationship so carelessly that it became fodder for a salacious spread in the National Enquirer and then a high-profile media free-for-all, he had failed to meet his own high standards. Dozens of current and former executives would later say that they were surprised and disappointed by Bezos’s affair. Their infallible and righteous leader was, after all, a flawed human.

The revelations also might have explained some of the more curious changes in his recent behavior. Bezos had been increasingly hard to find in the Seattle offices over the past year; OP1 meetings had been delayed or postponed, and longtime deputies were finding it difficult to get time on his calendar. He was spending more time traveling, colleagues had noticed, and that November had popped up with only a few hours’ notice in the Santa Monica offices of Ring, the connected doorbell startup Amazon had acquired in February 2018.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

Dark side of Amazon

Amazon is not an angel. There is a dark side that involves using the practice of leveraging data from 3rd parties for their own advantage and sacrificing smaller merchants for their own profit. Are those practices cringe-worthy and distasteful? Yes. Are they illegal? It’s clearly in the grey right now as the government is still conducting its investigation and no charge has been announced on Amazon yet. Nonetheless, given the threat from the likes of Shopify, these practices can cause concern and fear from 3rd parties, which can ultimately lead to sizable losses and damage for Amazon.

“Wendell Morris largely agreed with that sentiment. The founder of the Santa Monica–based YogaRat was one of the first sellers on Amazon to hawk yoga mats and yoga towels; he later expanded into beach towels and microfiber blankets, all sourced from China. In 2014, he became one of the few Amazon sellers that Jeff Bezos touted by name in his widely read annual letters to shareholders. “The beauty of Amazon is that someone can say, ‘I want to start a business,’ and they can go on Amazon and really start a business,” Bezos had quoted Morris as saying that year. “You don’t have to get a lease on a building or even have any employees at first. You can just do it on your own. And that’s what I did.”

But by the time I talked to him, Morris, like Saunders, had changed his opinion. In 2016, when YogaRat employed seven people, he found that his listings were inexplicably disappearing from Amazon’s search results. He spent hours on the phone with an Amazon customer support staffer in India and wrote pleading emails to Bezos’s public email address. His listings were finally restored, though they never returned to their previous positions at the top of search results. A year later, his seller account was suspended altogether because some of the images on his listings violated Amazon’s guidelines against depicting groups of people in product photos. Morris conceded the error while bitterly showing me how countless other sellers violated the same rules without penalty. Someone—probably a competitor—had singled him out to Amazon’s enforcement team.”

“While Morris scrambled to reinstate his account, other sellers of the same merchandise replaced him atop search results. YogaRat never recovered. He now runs what’s left of his firm alone with his wife, and the challenges are daunting. He is constantly fighting overseas knockoffs of his designs and reviews of his products that mysteriously show up on rival listings. When he calls Amazon customer service, he suspects the reps’ primary metric for success is how quickly they can get off the phone. Once a devoted yogi, Morris can barely stand to look at a yoga mat anymore.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Aarstol tried to advertise on Amazon to boost his visibility but that gutted his profits. In the years after he was mentioned in Bezos’s letter, he went from employing ten people to three and from recording $4 million in annual sales to less than $1.5 million. “Amazon doesn’t give a shit about brands,” said Aarstol, who by 2020 was almost completely off Amazon and focusing on sales over his own website. “They don’t care whether you live or die.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several private-label managers admitted to exploiting a resource that was even more precious than product reviews—prominence in Amazon’s search results. When they introduced a new brand, like Mama Bear diapers, a practice called “search seeding” allowed the brand managers to pin the initial relevancy score for the new product to the score of an established product, such as Pampers, at least for the first few days. The Amazon product would then appear at the top of search results, rather than starting on the unseen last page with other new brands.

When I asked Doug Herrington whether Amazon changed search results for its private-label products, he flatly denied the practice occurred. “We don’t manipulate search results at all,” he said. He added that Amazon brands were sometimes given prominent advertising slots in search results when they were a “great deal for the customer,” and if customers didn’t respond, the Amazon products quickly vanished. He also compared Amazon’s tactics to those of competing physical retailers, who put generic products like painkillers right next to Tylenol and Advil, taking up limited shelf space. Amazon, on the other hand, had “infinite aisles,”

One who worked on a new lifestyle brand called Solimo said she originally assumed third-party data was off limits when she joined the company in 2016. A year into her job, her boss showed her how to access the sales data and told her to ask Amazon’s data analysts if she needed help. The employee, who asked that her name not be used, subsequently examined third-party sales to determine the fastest-selling vitamin supplements, how many units were sold, and the average selling price and profitability of each.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

Other interesting anecdotes

“Logistics employees who worked on the California service said this hub-and-spoke model ended up being inefficient and unreliable; one said that Amazon was “basically stapling a $10 or $20 bill to every order.” The Fresh team also tracked a metric called “perfect deliveries”—when an order was promptly delivered and included every item. They found they were hitting that target less than 70 percent of the time. Grocery industry veterans belittled the effort from afar. “Amazon Fresh is their Waterloo,” John Mackey told me during our chat in 2014. “What’s the one thing people want? Convenience. You can’t do that with distribution centers and trucks.”

“Success in delivering online groceries relied on getting the logistics exactly right and amassing enough demand to make it profitable to send drivers into residential neighborhoods. Amazon had set up warehouses too far from customers, made it too expensive for them to sign up, and saddled them with bulky tote bags and sacks of dry ice after each delivery. Bezos had finally agreed with Doug Herrington that Amazon needed to reinvent its retail business, but they were going to have to find a different way to do it.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“For the next few quarters, Amazon avoided buying Google ads in Mexico and tried to compensate with billboards, radio, and TV ads, and shipping discounts. As Garcia had feared, it hobbled the site. The offline ads were more expensive and less effective. Google brought in $70 billion in annual advertising revenues because search ads worked and were a relatively inexpensive way for websites to attract visitors. “I wanted to see if we could get traction in a country launch without using Google,” Wilke later said, “and it turned out, the answer was no…. We weren’t reaching enough customers.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Internally the program was called AMPED. Amazon contracted with an Australian data collection firm, Appen, and went on the road with Alexa, in disguise. Appen rented homes and apartments, initially in Boston, and then Amazon littered several rooms with all kinds of “decoy” devices: pedestal microphones, Xbox gaming consoles, televisions, and tablets. There were also some twenty Alexa devices planted around the rooms at different heights, each shrouded in an acoustic fabric that hid them from view but allowed sound to pass through. Appen then contracted with a temp agency, and a stream of contract workers filtered through the properties, eight hours a day, six days a week, reading scripts from an iPad with canned lines and open-ended requests like “ask to play your favorite tune” and “ask anything you’d like an assistant to do.”

The speakers were turned off, so the Alexas didn’t make a peep, but the seven microphones on each device captured everything and streamed the audio to Amazon’s servers. Then another army of workers manually reviewed the recordings and annotated the transcripts, classifying queries that might stump a machine, like “turn on Hunger Games,” as a request to play the Jennifer Lawrence film, so that the next time, Alexa would know.

The Boston test showed promise, so Amazon expanded the program, renting more homes and apartments in Seattle and ten other cities over the next six months to capture the voices and speech patterns of thousands more paid volunteers. It was a mushroom-cloud explosion of data about device placement, acoustic environments, background noise, regional accents, and all the gloriously random ways a human being might phrase a simple request to hear the weather, for example, or play a Justin Timberlake hit.

The daylong flood of random people into homes and apartments repeatedly provoked suspicious neighbors to call the police. In one instance, a resident of a Boston condo complex suspected a drug-dealing or prostitution ring was next door and called the cops, who asked to enter the apartment. The nervous staff gave them an elusive explanation and a tour and afterward hastily shut down the site. Occasionally, temp workers would show up, consider the bizarre script and vagueness of the entire affair, and simply refuse to participate. One Amazon employee who was annotating transcripts later recalled hearing a temp worker interrupt a session and whisper to whoever he suspected was listening: “This is so dumb. The company behind this should be embarrassed!

But Amazon was anything but embarrassed. By 2014, it had increased its store of speech data by a factor of ten thousand and largely closed the data gap with rivals like Apple and Google. ”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does Paypal make money?

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

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

Source: Paypal’s latest Annual Report

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: I have a position on Paypal.

Review of Walt Disney’s Q2 FY2021 results

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

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

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

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

Disney’s Streaming Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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