VRIO – A useful strategy framework to look at a business

If you are looking for a strategy framework to think about a business’ competitive advantages, I recommend VRIO.

The name is an abbreviation of Valuable, Rare, Inimitable and Organized. Essentially, if a firm’s capability or resource is Valuable, Rare and Inimitable, and the firm itself is Organized, it has a sustained competitive advantage. The more sustained competitive advantages a firm has, the more robust its business model is and the more likely it is to succeed. Let’s take a look at a few real-life examples to see how applicable this framework is:

Apple

Apple is arguably the best in the world in combining hardware and software to produce great consumer products. Such a capability is absolutely valuable and rare because we don’t often see that in the market. Samsung or Huawei can make good hardware, but they don’t put hardware and software to harmonious use like Apple does. Google owns Android and is excellent at software, but they aren’t known for their hardware prowess. The fact that some of the biggest companies in the world haven’t been able to copy Apple means that this capability is hard to imitate. Plus, Apple, since Steve Jobs return, has been well-organized to leverage this capability with one P&L to promote singular objectives, the sway that the Industrial Design has or the new multi-billion dollar campus to encourage creativity and collaboration. Lately, Apple has bolstered this competitive advantage further with its own chip M1 and the rumored initiative to design its own 5G cellular chip. It’s precisely the ability to combine humanity, hardware and software that makes Apple products astounding success and itself the most valuable company (as of this writing).

Another advantage that Apple possesses is its world-class supply chain. Not many companies can operate a complex supply network that spans the world and have bargaining power over even powerful players like Foxconn, TSMC or Intel. Imagine that you have to work with suppliers in different countries for different parts, navigate through local regulations, coordinate delivery and transportation, and negotiate pricing while protecting the confidentiality of products. It’s monumentally challenging, but on the other hand, it’s valuable, rare and hard to imitate. Any new rival will have to spend years to put up the same network, and even then, it likely doesn’t have the power of Apple. Additionally, is Apple organized to leverage this capability? Tim Cook, the current CEO, is a supply chain wizard. The company COO, Jeff Williams, is also an Operations guy. The company is one of a few from the West to have a productive relationship with China and its government, despite all the political tension between the U.S and China. This type of relationship can’t be replicated in a short amount of time, if it can be replicated at all. Hence, supply chain is another sustained competitive advantage that Apple has to offer.

Aldi

Aldi is a hard-discounter chain that originates from Germany and came to the U.S in 1976. The former CEO and President of Walmart, Greg Foran, labeled Aldi as “good and fierce”. What makes Aldi so? The discounter’s sustained competitive advantage lies in its long-standing culture and commitment to cut costs and pass on savings to shoppers. Here are a few practices that Aldi employs:

On average, an Aldi store’s size is about 12,000 square feet, compared to Walmart’s 178,000 and Costco’s 145,000 square feet. The smaller size helps drive down either leasing expense (if the land is leased) or depreciation (if the land is owned), as well as energy costs. Regarding SKUs, an Aldi store, on average, carries 1,400 items compared to 40,000 items by a traditional supermarket. The much smaller store size and more limited item selection lead to fewer staff required. An Aldi store usually has only 3-5 employees, a significantly smaller number compared to how many employees are present at a store like Walmart or Costco. The limited item selection enables Aldi to focus on its offerings and negotiate favorable deals with suppliers to keep costs and prices low. Another benefit is that a limited assortment doesn’t require complex marketing promotions, meaning that there will be no cost on marketing materials and labor.

Walking into an Aldi store, you won’t notice many decorations. It looks like an ordinary, no-fancy store and it’s by design to keep costs low. At Aldi stores, there is no free bag. Customers are encouraged to bring their own bags. Carts can only be used with a quarter coin. Customers retrieve the quarter upon returning a cart. This policy has long been part of Aldi’s signature operations. Additionally, customers have to bag their own groceries. A cashier will scan items and put them in a cart, but shoppers will have to take it from there. It speeds up the checkout process, increases efficiency and reduces the need for additional staff. As far as I know, there is no self-checkout.

About 90% of Aldi’s items are private labels. This private label centric approach allows Aldi total control over its selection and reduces the cost as well as complexity that comes with national brands. Private labels used to be unpopular among shoppers due to their cheap image. However, consumer preferences have changed. Astute shoppers, especially millennials, now have a much more favorable view on private labels because they are cheap and provide best value for money. According to Bain, 85% of American shoppers are open to buying private labels.

Source: Onepercentamonth

It’s certainly valuable to pass on savings to shoppers. While the practices themselves may not be rare, the commitment and the culture that enables consistent execution are. The frugal approach that empowers all the little things mentioned above has been nurtured and well-preserved since 1946 when the parent brand was founded in Germany. The only rival that has a similar mentality is Walmart. But the two chains differ in strategies. While Walmart has its hands in numerous cookie jars, Aldi’s bread and butter in the U.S is groceries in small stores with a small number of SKUs. In that segment of the market, I don’t see anyone with Aldi’s expertise and culture. As you can notice, it’s easy to copy a tangible element or an expertise of a business, but it’s much more difficult to replicate the intangibles like culture. Lastly, is Aldi organized? The brand is still one of the best, if not the best, hard discounters in various markets. In the U.S, it has been growing steadily since 1976 and becoming more popular among shoppers. So, I’ll say: yes, it’s organized!

Disney

Disney’s competitive advantage comes from its ability to consistently create excellent content loved by millions around the world. Any production studio can come up with a great movie or show once in a while. Disney is among a handful that can do it consistently. Take Spiderman: No Way Home as an example. It’s on track to net over $240 million in the first opening weekend while being the 27th Marvel movie since Iron Man in 2008. Over the last decade, Disney has dominated the list of highest grossing movies with hit after hit like Avengers: End Game, Captain Marvel, Infinitive War, Black Panther or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While HBO is known for its quality outputs, even the famed studio isn’t as prolific as Disney. If you think about it, it’s all but nearly impossible to achieve what Disney has done, especially given that it owns the IPs such as Star Wars and Marvel franchise for eternity. Is it guaranteed to succeed long in the future? No. But Disney is more likely than any of its rivals to replicate its previous successes.

Source: Wikipedia

Another competitive advantage that this iconic brand has is its theme parks. Disney’s theme parks attract thousands of visitors around the world every year. As an important source of revenue and margin for the company, and a place for fans to connect with iconic movie figures, these theme parks are certainly valuable. However, they are not easy to create. Any company can pour millions of dollars into building and operating a park, but would they have the brand equity that Disney has with consumers around the world? Would they be able to lure enough visitors to make their park a financial success? To cultivate a brand or a cult like Disney does, a challenger needs to put out iconic content and characters year after year. That in and of itself is a monumental challenge that can’t be done in a few years’ time, if it can be done at all.

In short, VRIO is by no means the only framework to evaluate a business’ strength. We also have Porter’s Five Forces or Value Chain Analysis, just to name a couple. But VRIO is a very useful tool in analyzing a business’ competitive advantages and whether the business is great at anything it does. It’s one of my go-to tools when looking at a firm, as I demonstrated above. Hope this has been helpful for you.

Disclosure: I am long Apple and Disney’s shares.

Weekly reading – 16th October 2021

What I wrote last week

Cardless – The startup behind the Boston Celtics, Manchester United and Cleveland Cavaliers credit cards

The virtual tour of Son Doong Cave by National Geographic

Good reads on Business

Semi-Annual Letter to Partners by the DMZ Partners Investment Management. It contains some great nuggets of wisdom with regard to investment and business

Next Act for Apple Veteran Ron Johnson Is Taking Home-Delivery Startup Public. Ron Johnson’s story is proof that even established names can fail. After making his name at Apple, you can argue that he failed at J.C Penney. Now he is working on another startup poised to go public via SPAC. I have to admit, though, that his startup doesn’t sound really exciting or appealing to me.

Bob Iger’s Long Goodbye. “The thing about Hollywood is, you can behave badly, you can be rude, you can make duds, but the thing you cannot do is fuck with people’s money,” says a producer with business at Disney. “You just don’t do that and hide behind technology as the reason why.” It’s really hard to come to a conclusion on whether Chapek is the right person for the job. In his defense, he was dealt with a very bad hand: his predecessor is one of the best CEOs the world has ever seen and his reign started with Covid-19. However, I am not pleased with his handling of the legal scuffle with Scarlett Johansson. That, along with the departures of key creative executives, shows that people’s skepticism of how he works with Hollywood is not entirely imaginary.

Disney’s shift to streaming puts ESPN in awkward position of clinging to the past. “ESPN probably won’t consider a direct-to-consumer service until the pay-TV bundle falls below 50 million U.S. households, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Disney makes more money from cable subscribers than any other company, and that’s solely because of ESPN. ESPN and sister network ESPN2 charge nearly $10 per month combined, according to research firm Kagan, a unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. The reverse is true for ESPN. Swapping an ESPN subscriber for an ESPN+ customer, who contributes average revenue of less than $5 per month, is a significant loss for Disney. ESPN+ is a streaming service with limited content.”

The Nasty Logistics of Returning Your Too-Small Pants. “The average brick-and-mortar store has a return rate in the single digits, but online, the average rate is somewhere between 15 and 30 percent. That kind of fraud accounts for 5 to 10 percent of returns. Many retailers don’t allow any opened product to be resold as new. Brick-and-mortar stores have sometimes skirted that policy; products that are returned directly to the place where they were sold can be deemed close enough to new and sold again. But even if mailed-in products come back in pristine, unused condition—say, because you ordered two sizes of the same bra and the first one you tried on fit fine—the odds that things returned to a sorting facility will simply be transferred to that business’s inventory aren’t great, and in some cases, they’re virtually zero.”

Amazon copied products and rigged search results to promote its own brands, documents show. “The documents reveal how Amazon’s private-brands team in India secretly exploited internal data from Amazon.in to copy products sold by other companies, and then offered them on its platform. The employees also stoked sales of Amazon private-brand products by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear, as one 2016 strategy report for India put it, “in the first 2 or three … search results” when customers were shopping on Amazon.in.” The fact that they mine sellers’ data and offer their own private labels isn’t new in the retail world. What I suspect will get Amazon into trouble with lawmakers is the rigging of search results.

EA Sports Is Planning for a FIFA Without FIFA. “Sales of the game, which releases an updated edition every year, have surpassed $20 billion over the past two decades for its California-based maker, Electronic Arts. But FIFA has cashed in as well: Its licensing agreement has grown to become the organization’s single-most valuable commercial agreement, now worth about $150 million per year.”

All That Zaz: With Warner Bros. Discovery Merger, David Zaslav Is Angling to Become America’s King of Content. “I asked him before he had to jump off our Zoom for a parade of meetings with producers and agents and talent and other Hollywood folk. Is there yet another megadeal up his sleeve? Will Warner Bros. Discovery need to get bigger still? “I think this deal will be the first sentence of my obituary,” he said, “that Discovery merged into Warner.” And the second sentence? “It soared.”

After a year of missteps, Ikea’s e-commerce business appears to be heading in the right direction. You may think that retailers naturally realize the value of eCommerce and the role that physical stores can play in the fulfillment game. In reality, it takes a once-in-a-generation pandemic for retailers to come to terms with this point. IKEA is one of them. As big and iconic as they are

Other interesting stuff

This 24-year-old dropped out of Columbia to build a $140 million underwear brand. Another example of the American dream right there

Love, Hope, and Worry in Drought-Ridden Page, Arizona

GreenForges digs deep to farm underground. ““I stumbled upon a paper that was analyzing how much food production capacity can we do in cities using rooftop greenhouses,” he said. “It’s a relatively low number; we’re talking 2 to 5% range for the cities of 2050. No one was asking the question, ‘Can we grow underground?’”.

Stats

As of October 2021, only 5% of Twitch users made more than $1,000 in 2021

Thailand has 28 million daily digital transactions as of October 2021, up from 7 million in 2019 and 14.5 million in 2020

“There are over 50 million retirees in the United States and, by 2035, there will be 72 million retirees”

One single mobile device infected with malware costs an organization an average of nearly $10,000, per Apple.

Weekly reading – 7/17/2021

What I wrote last week

A strong debut weekend of Black Widow highlights Disney’s competitiveness

Business

The Verge did a great comparison of smart trackers from Apple, Samsung and Tile. Tile is really in a bind here. Its products are not substantially better than the others, to the extent that can justify the inferior network of trackers that Apple and Samsung can boast. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing that makes these trackers valuable in the first place

Facebook Users Said No to Tracking. Now Advertisers are Panicking. There seems to be a genuine angst from developers and advertisers over Apps Transparency Tracking (ATT). The thing is that when it comes to tracking, the interests of developers and consumers aren’t necessarily aligned. In that case, Apple has to pick a side and it decided to side with consumers; which is an understandable decision for two reasons: 1/ it’s what Apple has always been about and 2/ Consumers are ultimately their source of income and profit. Sure enough, it’s in Apple’s interest to have a great relationship with developers. But when it comes to the list of top reasons why Apple exists, I don’t think assisting all developers for free is anywhere near the top. The whole situation seems like when oil companies complain about governments’ policies that curb oil extraction in order to protect everyone else.

Inside Facebook’s Data Wars. When you allow misinformation to spread frictionlessly, it’s kinda hard to convince others that you are not an echo chamber of misinformation

Dara Khosrowshahi, Dad of Silicon Valley

Profile of Melanie Perkins, Co-founder and CEO of Canva

What I found interesting

Lewis Hamilton: ‘Everything I’d suppressed came up – I had to speak out’

Is a Graduate Degree Worth the Debt? Check It Here. The debate over whether a university degree is worth the financial investment is very nuanced and it’s not just about the money. However, it’s undeniable that what one can learn from the Internet for much less money increasingly puts in the spotlight the high tuition fees and all the nonsensical charges that schools levy on students

Alcohol Use Linked To Over 740,000 Cancer Cases Last Year, New Study Says

Stats that may interest you

Since 1928, every S&P500’s bull market cycle lasted more than 1,100 days on average while that of a bear market cycle averaged 207 days

Engineers in Japan reached the new record for Internet speed at 319 Terabits per second, two times faster than the previous record

Edge_Retail_Insight-top_global_food_retailers-channels.png
Source: Supermarketnews

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.

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.

Weekly reading – 22nd May 2021

What I wrote last week

I gave examples of how prices on Amazon can be much higher than what you can find at retailers

A couple of great clips about soy sauce and its history

A review of Disney’s Q2 FY2021 results

My thoughts on Paypal

Business

A Moneyball Experiment in English Soccer’s Second Tier. Although people are quick to point out that Billy didn’t win a title with his Money Ball method, his team did improve within his limited resources. Barnsley will unlikely win any title, especially the Premier League. However, as long as the team makes it to the top tier and earns more money by just showing up, it should be an astounding success itself.

Why former Google ads boss Sridhar Ramaswamy is building an ad-free search engine. A pretty interesting interview. I wonder what would make such a search engine attractive enough that people would pay to use it. I mean, DuckDuckGo is pretty great and it is privacy-focused. And it’s free.

Panera Bread’s new design transforms it into a neighborhood bakery in a bid to build loyalty. Retailers have to focus on delivering experience. The physical goods are a must, but it’s just part of the puzzle.

What I find interesting

Khmer Temple-Hopping Motorbike Loop | Tra Vinh. Vietnam has a lot to offer in terms of tourism. I’d say that instead of frustrating yourself in touristy places, you should head to destinations like Tra Vinh, which have their own charm, beauty and history. Personally, I prefer Tra Vinh to cities like Nha Trang or Mui Ne.

Hyundai Nexo breaks world record for longest distance travelled in a FCEV. Even though a long distance was achieved with one tank of hydrogen fuel, eventually these cars still need to refuel. Hence, the challenge of propping up fuel stations in popular areas still remains. Unless that is accomplished, there is still a long way to go for fuel-cell-electric vehicles. Though the way got a tiny bit shorter.

Censorship, Surveillance and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in China. Not only is China a $50 billion market for Apple, but it also houses its main irreplaceable yet supply chain. Even a local billionaire hero like Jack Ma disappeared over night and lost his influence after angering the government and President Xi. What chance does Apple have to be anything different? If Apple still wants to do business in China, it has no choice but to do everything it can to balance between appeasing Xi and protecting its customers as well as principles. Some may say that Apple could have pulled out of the country like Google. Well, that’s Google principle. Tim Cook’s principle is to show up because “nothing changes from being on the sideline”. You can disagree with his or Apple’s principle, but you can’t just change it. Additionally, as a Vietnamese, I don’t think it would be much better to relocate all the supply chain to my country. The story would be more of the same. Well, in many countries, it would still be more of the same.

Google Workspace got a huge upgrade. At first glance, the upgrade looks so interesting.

The 1,400-year-old invention Peru is reviving. In the age of technology when our societies are more technologically advanced than ever, ancient techniques tested over the years continue to be effective.

Apple previews powerful software updates designed for people with disabilities

You may soon be able to buy pre-IPO stocks

Stats that may interest you

Ethereum will use at least ~99.95% less energy post merge

There are 3 billion active Android devices

The average age of bridges in America is 44 years

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.

Weekly reading – 20th February 2020

What I wrote last week

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

Business

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

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

Facebook practically lied to marketers about their potential reach

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

US video streaming giants face tough second act in India

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

What I found interesting

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

How to be more productive, more easily

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

Have a look at the beauty of Vietnam, from above

Interesting stats that may interest you

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

Source: Chartr

Weekly reading – 19th December 2020

What I wrote last week

Adobe’s impressive performance and Disney’s true unveiling of Disney+

My thought on Apple vs Facebook and some data on iOS14 adoption

Business

Reviews of Apple Fitness+

Amazon is planning to offer a telehealth service to companies

A very interesting interview with the founder and CEO of Shopify on how to manage time.

A great letter from Brian Chesky on Ron Conway and his impact on AirBnb

Technology

This founder dodged a huge bullet after unintentionally racking up a Google Cloud Platform bill worth more than $70k+. Something to watch out for.

An interesting post that compares the new and old versions of Apple Map in Canada

What I found interesting

A new species of whales was discovered in Mexico. I kinda had mixed feelings after reading this. On one hand, I was glad we made this discovery. On the other, there may be some ignorant and greedy people trying to hunt them down for food or just an ego booster.

Reuters ran a piece on how the Coronavirus has evolved

A piece of good news. The Amazon seems to grow back

An inside story on how Pfizer achieved a miraculous feat in the race to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.

Adobe’s impressive performance and Disney flexing its streaming muscles

Disney’s enormous potential in the streaming area

On its 2020 Investor Day, Disney showed everybody that it was going to be a force to be seriously reckoned with in the streaming business in the years to come. The four hour presentation was packed with announcements on upcoming titles, business updates and impressive revised projections. Netflix fans always point to the fact that the streamer won the streaming war by having a much bigger subscriber base than any other competitors. The big subscriber base allows Netflix to operate at a much lower cost advantage. For the same investment of $1 billion in content, a base of 100 million subscribers will lead to a cost of $10 per subscriber while a base of 10 million will result in a cost of $100/user. As each user brings in monthly revenue, a lower cost structure enables a higher profitability which, in turn, enables more money in content creation which, in turn, leads to more appeal to consumers.

Netflix, with 195 million subscribers, enjoys a cost advantage to other competitors. It already got over the peak operating losses and has seen positive free cash flow for the past three quarters, despite spending a massive amount of money on content. I believe none of the other streamers achieved that feat yet. In short, Netflix has an invaluable head start.

Enter Disney Plus. Last year, Disney forecast to have around 60 to 90 million subscribers by the end of FY 2024. They just announced that the number of Disney+ subscribers was 86.8 million as of December 2, 2020. Critics say that Disney reached this number due to a huge subsidy in the Indian market which constitutes 30% of the base now. Well, that’s true, but it’s hard to reach the mass market in a short period of time and keep the price high. You have to take a multi-step approach. Expand the base first, add more value and increase the price.

That’s what Disney is doing now. With more than 86 million subscribers in the pocket, the company is planning 100+ titles per year for the next few years, coming from established brands such as Marvel, Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and National Geographic. At the same time, Disney is addressing the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) issue with a price hike of $1/subscriber/month in the US and €2/subscriber/month in EU starting March 2021 and with a Premier Access model. The Premier Access model lets subscribers gain first access to select titles before everyone else for an additional fee. A few months ago, Mulan cost Disney+ subscribers an additional fee of $30 in exchange for first exclusive access.

As a result, Disney expects to have around 230-260 million Disney+ subscribers by the end of FY2024. Within one year, they revised the forecast from 60-90 to 230-260 million subscribers for the same time frame. There must have been some sandbagging, but I believe that even the folks at Disney didn’t expect to have such a big leap. The new figure should put Disney+ in the same conversation as Netflix by the end of FY2024 and well ahead of the other streamers. The profitability expectation remains at the end of FY2024, unchanged from the Investor Day last year, even though the legendary company expects to at least double its content cost by FY2024. The same upgrade in expectation is similar for ESPN+ and Hulu

Investor Day 2019Investor Day 2020
Disney Plus
Subscriber60-90 million by FY 2024230-260 million by FY 2024
ProfitabilityFY 2024FY 2024
Hulu
Subscriber40-60 million by FY 202450-60 million by FY 2024
ProfitabilityFY 2023 or 2024FY 2023
ESPN+
Subscriber8-12 million by FY 202420-30 by FY 2024
ProfitabilityFY 2023FY 2023
Source: Disney

Those are impressive revisions, particularly given Disney’s distinct advantages. First, streaming services aren’t the only way they generate revenue and profits. Their Media and Parks segments generate considerable revenue and profit as well, especially Parks. Parks has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, but once we go back to normal and vaccine is delivered to the public, Disney should have no problem attracting guests back to their hotels, parks and resorts. Even though the other segments don’t directly subsidize the streaming services, having them around definitely helps the company as a whole in terms of profits, revenue and cash flow. Netflix, rightfully worth every accolade for their laser focus, has only one line of business. As long as that line of business thrives, they will enjoy the full benefits of not having to spread resources like Disney. However, on the other hand, a crisis would hit them harder than Disney without any cushion.

Moreover, Disney has so many ways to appeal to consumers. First, they have an extraordinary library of content and brands, ranging from series, films, documentaries and sports. Second, they can always create value out of a bundle such as what they are doing now with a bundle of Disney+, Hulu (ads and no ads) and ESPN+. Another model that can be deployed is Premier Access as I describe above or a theatrical release in which a movie will be available first in theaters and then on Disney+. An example is Black Widow. This takes me to another strength that Disney has. A portfolio of household brands that need no introduction. When somebody mentions Avengers characters or Star Wars, there is little introduction needed. That kind of brand power helps draw viewers regardless of the medium. When Disney releases Black Widow in theaters first, they likely won’t need to persuade Marvel fans to pay to watch. What they may need to persuade them on is whether it’s worth getting into theaters when the pandemic may still be around. This brand power isn’t just limited to consumers with kids. On the 2020 Investor Day, Disney CFO revealed that more families without kids are subscribers than families with kids; which is a very interesting revelation since it was assumed that Disney would appeal parents through content for kids.

In short, I believe the future is bright for Disney’s streamers and the company as a whole. That doesn’t mean that I think Netflix is doomed. The sizeof the market and the consumer behavior should allow these two behemoths to co-exist. As long as other streamers have the financial ammunition to compete, they should have a seat at the table, but this should be a two-race non-zero-sum market. The winners should be consumers who will get more choices and talents, including actors, directors, creators, storytellers and so on, who will be sought after as streamers strive to create quality content.

Adobe’s extraordinary story continues

Adobe may not be as popular as some of its products. It’s the creator of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and PDF. It also owns Behance, the LinkedIn of creative folks. Its less known products include Marketing Solutions, such as Email Marketing, eCommerce and Customer Analytics, and Document Solutions such as eSignatures or Document Intelligence Services. Besides its famous products, Adobe is also known for being the trailblazer in transitioning to a Software-as-a-Service model. The transformation started in about 2011 or 2012, and it has been the case study as well as the envy of established software makers all over. Adobe’s revenue grew at a CAGR of 18% from 2013 to 2020, reaching almost $13 billion in 2020. More impressively, its FY 2020 Operating Income was even higher than its revenue in FY 2014. Additionally, its Operating Margin in FY 2020 was 32%, the highest in the last 6 years.

The transformation was best reflected in Adobe’s subscription. In 2013, only 28% of the company’s top line came from subscriptions which have higher margin and stickiness. In FY 2020, the figure stood at 90%. In terms of CAGR of subscriptions’ absolute dollars, it is an extraordinary 39%.

Among the main business segments, Digital Media is the biggest and certainly the driver of growth at Adobe. Since 2013, Digital Media’s revenue grew by almost 300%. Within Digital Media, Creative and Document Cloud Annual Recurring Revenue more or less doubled in the last 4 years.

While Digital Experience, which includes B2B solutions, faces stiff competition from the likes of Salesforce, Adobe is clearly the market leader with their Digital Media offerings. How many designers or creators in the world don’t have an Adobe product? Which document format can replace the de factor PDF when it comes to official documents? Their Digital Media products, whether it’s Creative Cloud or Document Cloud, are popular among subscribers. According to Adobe’s 2020 Investor Day

  • 75% individual subscribers in 2020 were completely new to Creative Cloud
  • Individual subscribers made up more than half of the Creative Cloud’s revenue
  • 2 billion mobile + desktop devices were installed with Acrobat Reader
  • 75%+ individual subscribers in 2020 were new to Acrobat
  • Mobile IDs were more than 300 million in total as of Q4 FY 2020, with more than 175 million created
  • More than 60% of Creative Cloud ARR is based on All Apps subscribers. An All-App subscription costs $53/month, much more expensive than individual app subscriptions.
Source: Adobe

All these data points show how much customers love Adobe products. As more and more people use Adobe products, it helps the company establish an invaluable network effect. If you are a designer collaborating with other designers and businesses that are used to working with Illustrator and Photoshop, it’s difficult not to use those applications. That’s perhaps the strongest moat Adobe has. There may be better alternatives than their products on the market, but those products don’t have the brand names, the popularity, the established sales channel and the network effect that Adobe has. Once a company can establish this kind of relationship and network effect, its priority should be to continue add values to subscriptions to keep the churn low. In other words, as long as the existing subscriber base doesn’t shrink, Adobe’s revenue will only grow. Any new subscribers acquired will only add to their fortune.

Disclaimer: I own both Disney and Adobe in my personal portfolio.