Weekly readings – 9th May 2020

The decline in trust in governments shows no signs of abating. Everywhere you look, there is suspicion that measures taken by governments to combat Covid-19 will soon be used for mass surveillance afterwards. India is no exception. For A Billion Indians, The Government’s Voluntary Contact Tracing App Might Actually Be Mandatory

The pandemic doesn’t seem to affect spending on cloud infrastructure badly

The man feeding a remote Alaska town with a Costco card and a ship

Apple Watch detecting coronary ischaemia during chest pain episodes or an apple a day may keep myocardial infarction away

VP of Amazon resigned to protest the firing of workers who spoke out on the working conditions at Amazon warehouses

Looking Back on Four Years at The Times, in the words of their former CTO

Amazon pulled no punches in its public blog post on Microsoft regarding the JEDI dispute

Spotify should pay musicians more? Let’s talk more about how

Revenue and margin makers

What I noticed in many businesses is that there are revenue makers and margin generators. Revenue makers refer to activities that draw in the top line numbers in the income statement, but small margin. In other words, these activities can bring in $10 of revenue, but about $1 or less of gross profit (revenue minus cost of revenue). On the other hand, margin generators refer to activities that don’t bring in as much revenue as revenue makers, but act as the source of most margin. Usually. these two complement each other. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Apple sells their products and services that can only be enjoyed on Apple devices. Products bring in multiple times as much revenue as services, but products’ margin is much smaller than that of services. Take a look at their latest earnings as an example. Products’ margin is about 32% while services’ margin stands at 65%. Folks buy Apple devices mainly to use the services and apps that are on those devices. Apple continues to sell devices to maintain their own monopoly over their unique operating systems and ecosystem.

Source: Apple

Amazon’s eCommerce segment is a revenue maker. They warehouse the goods and ship them to customers. It generates a lot of revenue, but the cost is high as well. Built upon the infrastructure Amazon created for eCommerce, 3rd party fulfillment is a margin generator. In this segment, Amazon acts as a link between buyers and sellers to ensure transactions go smoothly without having to store and ship the goods itself. Margin is significantly higher than that of eCommerce. Amazon takes it to another level with Prime subscriptions and AWS. While trying to figure out how to keep their sites up and running 24/7 smoothly, Amazon came up with the idea of selling unused IT resources. Long behold, AWS is now a $40 billion runrate business and Amazon’s arguably biggest margin generator.

Costco is a household name in the US. Families go to their warehouse-styled stores to stock up essentials and groceries. Due to the volume they sell every year, Costco manages to keep the prices low, but thanks to the cut-throat nature of the industry they are in, the margin is low, about 2-3%. That’s their revenue maker. To compensate for the low margin, Costco relies on their membership fees. Whatever customers pay to be able to shop at Costco is almost pure profit to Costco. There is virtually no cost to process an application and issue a card.

McDonald’s essentially has two business segments: their own McDonald’s operated restaurants and franchising. The brand’s own operated restaurants serve as references to franchise owners for how good McDonald’s brand is as an investment. However, it offers the brand way lower margin than their franchised restaurants.

Airlines make money by flying customers, but there are a lot of costs involved such as planes, airport services, food and beverage, fuel, etc…Airlines can generate more margin with their branded credit cards. Many airline-branded credit cards come with an annual fee. Plus, card issuers may pay airlines a fixed fee for new issued cards and a smaller fee for renewals. Plus, there may be a small percentage for first non-airline purchases. Agreements vary between airlines and card issuers, but it brings a lot of margin to airlines.

Ride sharing apps are notoriously unprofitable. Uber and Lyft lost billions of dollars in their main operations. Recently, they tried to launch a subscription service and in Uber case, a credit card, hoping that these services could help generate the margin they need.

We all know the saying in business: cash is king. Cash can only increase, from an operating perspective, when margin increases. Revenue is crucial because, well, a business needs to convince folks to pay for products or services first. Nonetheless, a business is more robust and valued when margin increases.

Costco – An amazing business

Charlie Munger said that the only real threat to Amazon in retail in his opinion was Costco. I think he has a point. Costco has a remarkable business model.

This part in the 2018 annual report summarizes the business pretty well

We operate membership warehouses based on the concept that offering our members low prices on a limited selection of nationally branded and private-label products in a wide range of categories will produce high sales volumes and rapid inventory turnover. When combined with the operating efficiencies achieved by volume purchasing, efficient distribution and reduced handling of merchandise in no-frills, self-service warehouse facilities, these volumes and turnover enable us to operate profitably at significantly lower gross margins (net sales less merchandise costs) than most other retailers. We generally sell inventory before we are required to pay for it, even while taking advantage of early payment discounts.

We buy most of our merchandise directly from manufacturers and route it to cross-docking consolidation points (depots) or directly to our warehouses. Our depots receive large shipments from manufacturers and quickly ship these goods to warehouses. This process creates freight volume and handling efficiencies, lowering costs associated with traditional multiple-step distribution channels

The model can be illustrated as below

Costco’s customer base enables the retailer to buy goods in bulk and at discount from suppliers. The lower prices make Costco appealing to customers. The cycle keeps going on. Costco has every reason to keep the margin low so that the cycle is robust and going strong. To solve the margin issue, Costco resorts to membership fees which are mostly purely profit.

Source: Costco Q4 earnings

The graph above shows that the membership fees make up the most of the net income. It’s not unreasonable to think that the SG&A expense for memberships is minimal.

The membership fees give Costco breathing room in a cut-throat business. There is only so much that a retailer can do on a margin side given a litany of fearsome competitors. Plus, there are so many foreseen and unforeseen factors that can put Costco’s margin at risk. If Costco removed the membership fees and raised the margin, they would become less competitive.

Being able to convince shoppers to pay an annual fee is a competitive advantage. So is the freedom to laser-focus on keeping the costs low. An additional advantage of a membership fee is that Costco can have more cash for their operations. Operating in a business in which a lot of goods are moved around every day and plenty of capital is required for upgrade, openings and renovation, Costco benefits greatly from the instant dose of cash the members bring in.

Weekly Readings – 6th July 2019

Rising U.S. Inequality: How We Got Here, Where We’re Going

How Costco gained a cult following — by breaking every rule of retail. Costco is Charlie Munger’s pick as Amazon’s biggest threat. He may have a point here.

Student Loans Are Not A National Crisis. I am a bit reluctant to add this story to the post as I don’t really like the headline. However, his points are valid. So why not? In the summary, I agree with him that wiping out college debt does nothing to address the root issue. It’s about the system that leads to the current debt situation and the lack of personal finance knowledge.

The rise and rise of a Vietnamese corporate empire. FT pulled the curtains on one of the biggest corporations in Vietnam. Both the good and the bad.

Amazon in-sourcing nearly half of its parcel transportation needs. A look at Amazon’s transportation capabilities

Understanding Financial Statements. A very good primer on the fundamentals of financial statements.

Global App Revenue Reached $39 Billion in the First Half of 2019, Up 15% Year-Over-Year. A great study on app revenue and downloads in the first half of 2019 from Sensor Tower.

Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2019–2023. An interesting and informative report on global entertainment and media by PwC.

Making 5G pay. A look at how 5G can be monetized, how much consumers are willing to pay (an estimate) and how different 5G packages can be introduced for different needs.

All about Direct Listings. A great overview of direct listings by a16z