Basically everything on Amazon has become an ad. “Successful Amazon sellers have to spend anywhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of their sales on Amazon ads, according to six high-volume sellers Recode interviewed. That’s on top of the other listing and warehousing fees they also give Amazon. Some said that the pay-to-play evolution of the site is one of the top two reasons they have had to substantially raise the prices of their merchandise on Amazon over the past year.” This is going to spell trouble for Amazon soon. A few of my purchases were off Amazon simply because the same items sold on the site were markedly more expensive. Keep this up and the company will soon have to re-acquire customers and rebuild its brand image. That’s too high a price to pay, just for advertising dollars.
Local ride-hailing startups thrive in the towns that Uber forgot. Giant ride-hailing companies compete fiercely with one another in big cities, leaving small and medium-sized towns ripe for the taking. And they are being taken over by local startups that saw unserved markets and decided to act. To grow, these startups should not venture into big cities. They should strive to continue to serve small and medium-sized towns across the continent. Regarding the likes of Uber, I don’t blame them for not attending to these small towns. Resources are limited and they can’t stretch themselves too thin.
Sam Bankman-Fried vs. The Match King. The last few days have been littered with news and coverage of Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) and FTX. The glamour and the superficial valuation masked the mess that went on behind the scenes. But this scandal is hardly the first. Not even close. This post compares what happened with SBF & FTX with the Match King, a businessman who had great success early on yet ruined everything when he was consumed by greed
The vomit-inducing piece on Sam Bankman-Fried by Sequoia. The venture capital firm is legendary for its longevity, success and role in helping entrepreneurs and startups thrive. However, this is a serious black eye. They penned this ridiculously flowery article on SBF, stuck it on its website under the tagline “We helped the daring build legendary companies”, yet removed it the moment news of trouble at FTX surfaced. Worse, the article recalled a meeting where the firm’s partners met Sam. No hard questions and little due diligence. They were wowed by SBF, who was literally playing games during the meeting. Mind-blowing stuff
Other stuff I find interesting
FTX turmoil destroys clout of crypto’s Washington spokesman. The fall of SBF and his companies apparently threatens to bring my regulatory heat onto crypto firms in the future. Well, I personally think that it’s a bit late. Regulators should have had more oversight and scrutiny over these crypto companies and celebrities.
TikTok’s Subcontractor in Colombia Under Investigation for Traumatic Work. On one hand, I understand that a job is a job, even one that requires people to watch horrifying content for hours. On the other hand, there should be safeguards built to ensure that these workers are treated properly and all measures are taken to limit the exposure to mentally harmful content.
The past three years has seen a breathtaking growth of Venmo. The number of active accounts grew from 40 million in Q1 2019 to 90 million in Q2 2022. Its Transaction Processing Volume (TPV) almost tripled in the same period of time, reaching $61 billion in Q2 2022. However, growth has been hard to come by in the last two quarters, especially in Q3 2022. TPV growth was only single digit in the last two earnings reports. The number of active accounts plateaued at 90 million. Available only in the US, where there are about 230 million consumers, one has to wonder how much room there is for Venmo to continue to expand domestically.
Going overseas sounds like a straightforward answer, but operationally, it is anything but. It would require a lot of investments in localizing the product, marketing to acquire customers, customer management to maintain engagement and compliance to stay on the good side of lawmakers. There must be a reason why PayPal hasn’t taken Venmo outside of the US. Given the missteps that the management has taken over the last few years, it’s not impossible that restricting Venmo to the US is a mistake. Personally; however, I can see why they haven’t.
If growth in TPV and user base slows down, what about monetization? PayPal reported that Venmo earned $250 million in revenue in Q4 FY2021 and $900 million in FY2021. Since Venmo processed almost $61 billion and $230 billion in TPV in the same periods respectively, Venmo’s take rate is about 0.4%. To put that take rate into context, let’s compare it to Cash App
Monthly Active Accounts (in million)
the Cash App number is the number of transacting accounts in September 2022
Transaction Volume (in $ billion) in the quarter ending Sep 30th, 2022
Revenue (in $ million) in the quarter ending Sep 30th, 2022
Venmo’s revenue is my estimate based on the $250-million figure reported for Q4 2021 while Cash App’s revenue only includes transaction-based revenue
The comparison shows that Venmo is seriously under-monetized compared to Cash App. PayPal has a valuable asset in Venmo that resonates with a lot of consumers in America, especially the younger crowd, but they don’t seem to be able to benefit from said asset. And don’t take my word on it as the CEO of PayPal is not entirely happy either
I am pleased with Venmo’s progress but I am not thrilled with all the progress that we’ve had. I just want to be up front with that. I feel like we can do a lot more with that asset than we have been able to do so far. There is a ton of potential there. The people who use Venmo, our customers love Venmo. It is a beloved brand. They use it all the time. You can tell from our monthly active users [of 57M]. The monthly active users are up by ~85% in the last 2 years or so. So, a lot of progress there. But I feel like there can be more progress.
These are some big merchants that are implementing Pay with Venmo and I think we will see more. We are going to revamp the card strategy, we started to begin to do that. We think that is one place that Cash App has done particularly well on, and there is no reason why we should not with our scale and size be able to really tap into a revamped card functionality. Over time, we will also begin to see more basic financial services there, savings and other things come into the Venmo wallet. There is focus on things that have to get done right now. Amazon and Apple are big opportunities, we want to make sure we take full advantage of those. We’ve got some basic hygiene work to do there. Good progress, but I wouldn’t call it great progress right now. In terms of revenue growth, we had anticipated that we would be about 50% revenue growth [for FY’22] and that is where we are year to date. Q4, like the rest of the business, is going to be weaker than we expected. That will probably take Venmo revenue growth into the 40%’s [year over year growth for FY’22]. That is probably a good place for you to assume it will end
Platforms like Venmo and Cash App monetize by charging sellers on every transaction and the majority of retail sales still takes place in stores. To facilitate in-store transactions, cards are the most successful medium. PayPal put a lot of efforts into QR Code during the pandemic, but they abandoned that push and have since switched focus to cards. Venmo credit card doesn’t require a Venmo balance, but it’s not available to every consumer, especially Gen Z users whose lack of credit history prevents them from qualifying for a credit card. I wouldn’t be surprised if Venmo credit card users constituted only a small percentage of Venmo active base.
While accessible to many more people, Venmo debit card requires a Venmo balance. The question then becomes: how can Venmo get users to park money on a Venmo account? Users only maintain a balance when there is enough utility, whether it’s rewards or accessibility at a variety of merchants. Cash App has been successful so far in this regard. Cash App reported that it had $2 billion of direct deposits in September 2022. Paper direct deposits into Cash App which was launched nearly a year ago cumulatively crossed $3.5 billion. These figures indicate how much Cash App users value the platform and how much they want to use it. This is something that Venmo has to, at least, replicate and there certainly is work to be done.
Cash App users can paper-deposit funds into their accounts at some retail stores, but Venmo doesn’t have this feature. Checks deposited electronically into Cash App will be available on the platform the next business day at no additional cost. With Venmo, users may have to wait up to 10 days to receive funds from an electronic check unless users pay a small fee to expedite the process. Any additional friction to the deposit process will deter users from bringing cash to the platform, so obviously I’d love to see Venmo at least get feature parity with Cash App.
Moreover, Venmo also needs to be available at more checkout pages. The partnership with Amazon which enables customers to add their Venmo account as a payment method will likely boost the perceived utility of Venmo. But there should be more partnerships like that. PayPal powers payments for some of the largest merchants in the US, whether it’s the branded PayPal or the unbranded platform Braintree. They should look into leveraging such an advantage to make Venmo more prominent. If a user could pay for Uber, Amazon or Instacart with their Venmo balance, that would obviously make Venmo more useful and appealing.
There is also a side benefit from having more customer funds. The more funds the likes of Venmo or Block have, the more interest income they can earn. In Q3 2022, PayPal’s Other Value Added Services revenue increased by $37 million year over year. One of the main drivers of such an increase was higher interest income on customer funds due to higher interest rates. Block itself made $7 million in revenue from customer funds as well.
Next, rewards is a great tool to keep consumers engaged. Consumers love to earn rewards and redeem them for other purchases. PayPal recently revamped their rewards program that unifies all PayPal products and offers consumers more ways to earn and redeem. However, since Venmo and PayPal are still two independent platforms, the new PayPal Rewards does not feature Venmo. If consumers are expected to use Venmo for payments, they will expect to be rewarded for such loyalty. Besides Venmo credit card’s rewards, Venmo offers cash back at qualifying merchants on Venmo debit card, but information on that is scant. Venmo needs to make the program more attractive and prominent. Yes, the low interchange rate on debit card transactions makes it expensive to fund rewards, but it’s also expensive, if not more, to acquire new customers and fend off Cash App and a host of other competitors.
Here are a couple of things that Venmo can do. First, link the credit card with the debit card, Any credit card rewards can be turned to cash on Venmo account that can be used to pay friends or purchase at stores with the Venmo Debit Card. This concept is not something new. It’s similar to what Apple has with Apple Card and Apple Cash. By making the credit card rewards immediately available, Venmo would give users a reason to use the Venmo app and debit card.
Second, because Venmo Credit Card is a co-branded card issued by Synchrony, Venmo must receive some compensation, either as share of interest and/or interchange income and finder’s fee for every new account. Financial reports by PayPal indicate that the compensation could run in the millions. Use that money to run marketing campaigns with a celebrity. I’d love to see Venmo try to do what Capital One did with Taylor Swift. Capital One generated a lot of accounts, interest and awareness with this campaign.
In short, Venmo is an incredible asset that PayPal has at its disposal. Investors place a premium on the company’s ability to monetize Venmo, but even the CEO is not happy with what they have done. Compared to Cash App, it’s under-monetized. PayPal needs to start making more progress soon because their competitors don’t stand still for them to catch up.
($) How One Grocery Chain in Pennsylvania Is Preparing for a Downturn. An interesting case study of how a low-margin business in a cut-throat industry is responding to the macroeconomic challenges. I wonder if these companies will keep lessons learned during this period long in the future. You know what they say, never let a crisis go to waste
Multicultural Grocers Drive Sales by Catering to Increasingly Diverse America. It’s imperative for grocers to closely understand the social fabric of the areas where they operate. Folks from different backgrounds have different preferences. Grocers who make the best use of their footprint, aka maximize revenue per square foot, must appeal to as many customers and sell as many goods as possible. This will require efforts, focus and investments in infrastructure and tools. But there is no other choice in the ever highly fragmented and competitive world of grocery
China’s southern tech hub Shenzhen becomes first city on mainland to regulate fully autonomous, driverless cars on some roads. The Chinese may have autonomous vehicles on the streets before we do. I am not talking about a few vehicles or test drives. This is about a large scale adoption of autonomous vehicles. Technology alone is not enough. There are important questions that must be answered. For instance, who will be liable for damages in accidents? Are there regulations for that? Shenzhen’s regulations already took place; something that is not yet available here in the US, to my best knowledge. For me, that’s an encouraging sign and a big step towards the future that many envision.
Prison Money Diaries: What People Really Make (and Spend) Behind Bars. I felt angry after reading this piece. Even though violators of the laws should pay for their transgressions, as one of the most developed and richest countries in the world, we should build prisons that offer sufficient living environments to inmates. According to inmates, everything in prisons is pricey and they get increasingly more expensive over time. To buy goods, inmates have to work, although the pay is embarrassingly low. One receives $7 for 8 hours of work. And he said this: “If I work two sessions, that’s $6.68 per day. Almost nothing else in the Department of Corrections pays like this. Plus, during Covid, they gave us hazard pay — $2 extra per day. Last July, I made $334. The two primary things I spend on are: my phone credit account and commissary store purchases. The food at the chow hall is terrible and of poor quality — it’s not fit for a dog, seriously.” Google the prisons in Finland or Norway and see how badly we treat our fellow citizens.
Global Supply Chains of EV Batteries. A long yet excellent primer on the global supply chain of EV batteries. As everything around us requires batteries, those who hold power in this supply chain have tremendous advantages in the future
Europe’s remote, lost-in-time villages. “Life in Târnava Mare has barely changed in centuries, offering a precious insight into the age-old traditions that are still going strong in its Saxon villages.”
Last week, PayPal announced its Q2 FY2022 results, its forecasts and some important personnel changes. Here are the headlines:
Net revenue hit $6.8 billion, a 9% YoY growth
International revenue declined by 1.7%, to $2.9 billion, while US revenue was $3.8 billion, a 19% growth YoY
Operating cash flow and free cash flow grew to $1.5 billion and $1.3 billion respectively, meaning that FCF margin is 19%
Total Payment Volume increased by 9% to $340 billion
Total payment transactions of 5.5 billion
US TPV grew 16%, to $219 billion, while International TPV and Cross Border TPV decreased by 1.6% and 11.8% respectively
Venmo recorded $61 billion in TPV, an increase of 5.2%, and 90 million active accounts
Total active accounts went flat sequentially at 429 million with 35 million active merchants
While the company welcomed a new CFO, it’s now looking for a replacement for their CPO, who is retiring at the end of the year
Cost-saving initiatives are expected to save the company $900 million by the end of 2022 and $1.3 billion next year
$15 billion in share buybacks was authorized, $4 billion of which will be realized by the end of 2022
PayPal expects operating margin expansion in FY2023
Despite the tough macro challenges and fierce competition, PayPal’s TPV increased by 9%, on top of the 30% and 40% YoY growth in the last two years. That’s pretty solid because Visa grew payment volume in the same quarter by 12%, even with its duopoly market power. The divorce from eBay is entering the final stages as the famed marketplace now makes up only 3% of PayPal’s TPV and is projected to have negligible impact in the future. Losing a household name like eBay isn’t great, but because the partnership was exclusive, PayPal couldn’t work with any other retailers or marketplaces. Hence, the separation paved the way for deals like the one with Shopify or Amazon, and would benefit PayPal more in the long term.
Another bright spot is the US market. PayPal’s home soil saw a 16% increase in TPV and a 19% expansion in revenue. Considering that the US is home to other payment alternatives, including some fierce direct competitors, those US numbers showed resilience and a formidable market presence of PayPal. Because the company barely added new active accounts, given the lack of full disclosures, my guess is that PayPal managed to increase usage among existing users.
Among the factors that contribute to the domestic success, I want to call out Venmo. Popular among young consumers, Venmo boasts 90 million active users, double from what it had three years ago. In the same time frame (from Q2 2019 to Q2 2022), Venmo TPV grew by 150% from $24 billion to $61 billion. Despite this growth, Venmo still has a lot of grow to monetize. The three main levers are debit card, credit card and the partnership with Amazon. While I suspect that PayPal will have to make some financial concessions to be on Amazon’s marketplace, this will undoubtedly help grow both revenue and margin. Meanwhile, the management team has high hopes for what the Venmo debit and credit card can bring onto the table. If PayPal can monetize Venmo more, the company will become so much more secure and attractive in the eyes of investors. In case you forgot, despite the massive scale of adoption, Venmo is still only available in the US.
I’d also point out the card strategies for Venmo are important, as well. The debit and credit cards continue to grow their volumes and those are really important for habituation. They reinforce all the in-wallet spend with offline spend, as well.
Yes, I totally agree with that. If you look at Cash App, their big growth is off of their debit card. We have a lot of room in our debit card and credit card to grow too.
Moreover, I am very pleased with the switch of focus onto increasing efficiency. I used to receive a bunch of promotional offers from PayPal. $5 here, $10 there for low-impact activities. Now, the company is willing to let go low-engagement customers and focus marketing dollars on driving usage from active users. Efficiency is also apparent in the product development side as well. Although stock trading was on the plan last year, PayPal decided to put a halt on its development. The push for in-store QR code is now replaced by efforts to promote card usage. These decisions obviously led to surplus in headcount and dismissals, where necessary. Due to its enormous scale, PayPal managed to negotiate more favorable contract terms with suppliers. The management team believes that these efforts will drive ROI and yield higher results for the organization. Concretely, they are estimated to bring $900 million in cost savings for the rest of FY2022 and $1.3 billion next year.
These cost savings are likely the main reason why the management forecasts operating margin expansion next year. Low-margin businesses such as BNPL, Venmo and Braintree are expected to grow in the near future. It’s unclear to me, reading their reports, where the margin will come from the revenue side of things. Hence, the gains must come from being a leaner organization with reduced expenses.
On the other hand, it’s not all smooth and rosy with PayPal. I am concerned about the uncertainty that changes at the top level will bring. They have a brand new CFO, who was chosen among at least 14 candidates. By next year, they will have a new Chief Product Officer. These changes may bring about new ideas and positive results, but they may also delay the progress as new hires need time to acclimate themselves to the new work settings.
While it’s good that a business wants to be laser-focused and mindful of expenses, it remains to be seen whether PayPal is doing too much. After riding to new heights amidst Covid, PayPal’s stock got clobbered, down from more than $300 to $90, due to abandoned forecasts and slowed growth. Then, the narrative switched to higher efficiency and more focus. I get it. The leadership wanted to present a nice story to investors to stop the bleeding. They may even genuinely want to set the company on a better course for the future. But they also have a history of botched plans and forecasts. Who is to say that they are not being too aggressive at the moment? What if the cost cuts hurt the business in the process? We already have three consecutive quarters of decline in International. PayPal competes on multiple fronts and their competitors are fierce. Can they right-size their capital allocation to avoid disasters?
Overall, this is not a disastrous quarter. There are some bright spots, including Venmo, solid growth overall, the US market, the cost-cutting initiatives (at least for now) and the buybacks. However, there are also things that give me pause for concern. As bullish as I want to be on the company’s outlook, I’ll wait for another quarter or two so that by then some of my concerns will be hopefully eased.
Newest trend in delivery apps: move from cars to e-bikes. Micromobility is great for short-distance deliveries in a busy city like San Francisco. This is how Grab Food, Shopee Food and others manage deliveries in Ho Chi Minh City. Consumers order food within 3-4 kms most of the time. Traffic jam is a feature of the city. If couriers used cars for deliveries, there wouldn’t be any food delivery business! eBikes are also environmentally friendly. I hope to see more innovation and governmental subsidies in this space
John Gruber on the European Commission’s calling Apple Pay an illegal monopoly. I like John’s takes on Apple-related things. He is experienced and more importantly nuanced and fair. “This passage, as well as much of the rest of the E.C.’s “statement of objections”, seeks to dismiss the hard work Apple has done to make Apple Pay successful. Yes, NFC is an industry standard, and Apple Pay is, in part, built on top of that. But before Apple Pay, NFC was hardly used, even though Android had supported it since 2011. When Apple Pay launched in late 2014, its support for the existing NFC infrastructure was so good, it worked with many credit card terminals that had no explicit support for “Apple Pay” specifically. Apple Pay was so easy to use people were using it at retailers who weren’t even Apple Pay partners. That’s not a credit to NFC, which had been in place for years. That’s a credit to Apple. I honestly don’t understand where the E.C. sees anticompetitive behavior with Apple Pay. What I see is market share dominance stemming from the hard work of designing better integration into iOS and iPhones and educating users about the feature. How else could the iPhone’s share of NFC payments so far exceed the iPhone’s share of mobile phone sales? I’m not saying Samsung and Google suck at this, per se, but Jennifer Bailey’s team at Apple is really good, and perhaps just as importantly, really diligent about this sort of thing.”
Don’t forget Microsoft. Business schools around the world should teach students about Microsoft and its revival by Satya Nadella.
Business Travel Rebounds as Execs Choose (Real) Face Time Over Zoom. I, for one, am curious about whether business travel will come back to the pre-pandemic levels and how it will come back. During the pandemic, articles were written on how business travel would never be the same. Anecdotally, my colleagues at work traveled to Omaha, Nebraska for monthly meetings and quarterly department reviews as if nothing had happened in the past two years. China remains a question mark. Because they remain persistent on the zero-Covid strategy, they are not a viable destination at the moment. And I hope that the prolonged fight with Covid does not give other variants a chance to spring up. I think we have enough of a pandemic for, let’s say, the next few decades.
How Gillette Embraced the Beard to Win Over Scruffy Millennials. Gillette went from demonizing beards to embracing them. After years of fruitless resistance and declining sales, they finally realized that their bread and butter product is no longer what men want. More than half of the men in the world don beard, including two-thirds of millennial men. Sensing that the tide they were going against was too strong, Gillette launched new beard-friendly products rolled into a line named King C. Gillette. A deviation from what the company is always known for, but a good strategic shift, I think.
A few days ago, Amazon made a big announcement on Buy With Prime (BWP). Prime benefits loved by thousands of shoppers, including free & fast delivery, easy return and quick checkout, have been restricted to Amazon.com. That’s how Amazon persuades millions of shoppers to pay $10/month for the privileges. Now, imagine you can enjoy all of those benefits on other websites, not just Amazon. That’s what the new service is all about.
For Prime shoppers, there is virtually nothing that needs to be done beforehand. Once you come across eligible products from merchants that participate in BWP, you just need to repeat the usual checkout process on Amazon.com. There is no additional sign-up. At first glance, everything about BWP looks good, except that here are two things that concern me. The first is return. The language from Amazon reads that only some BWP orders, not all, are eligible for return. To me, the name Buy With Prime insinuates that all products enlisted in the program can be returned hassle-free. As a result, what does it mean that only some are qualified? What about the rest? How do I know which products are returnable and which aren’t? The other thing that gives me pause is that if there is an issue with my BWP orders, I have to contact the sellers. My experience with Amazon Prime so far has been great. I don’t have much to complain about. On one or two occasions when I needed to inquire about my orders, the Customer Service from Amazon was helpful and great. However, I wonder if the same level of excellence can be expected from BWP merchants. In case there are unresolved issues, will Amazon help me? What kind of purchase protection can I expect?
For Amazon, this is a hit-multiple-birds-with-one-stone move. First, expanding Prime to other online stores brings more selection to shoppers, enhancing the value of Prime. The more valuable shoppers find Prime, the stickier the membership will be and the more grip Amazon has on these coveted shoppers. Such influence will translate into bargaining power in negotiations with merchants and suppliers. Second, this service will help Amazon get the most out of their fulfillment capability. Any merchant wishing to participate in BWP does not need to sell on Amazon.com but must have their orders fulfilled by Amazon. The giant retailer has spent a fortune on building out their fulfillment capacity. In the 2021 shareholder letter, the CEO Andy Jassy wrote:
We spent Amazon’s first 25 years building a very large fulfillment network, and then had to double it in the last 24 months to meet customer demand. We’d been innovating in our fulfillment network for 20 years, constantly trying to shorten the time to get items to customers. In the early 2000s, it took us an average of 18 hours to get an item through our fulfillment centers and on the right truck for shipment. Now, it takes us two.
Given the level of investments, it’s understandable that Amazon wants to maximize the utility of these fulfillment centers. The more orders the centers process, the higher their utilization and the higher the ROI. If you were Amazon, would you want the same thing? Third, off-Amazon purchase data! Amazon knows the behavior of Prime customers, based on their purchase history on Amazon.com. Nonetheless, they don’t know what these customers buy outside of its online store. The company tried to remedy this issue through initiatives such as Amazon Shopper Panel. With BWP, they can capture purchase data on other online stores and use it for their benefits such as private label launches, targeted ads or fine-tuning product recommendation.
For merchants, there are pros and cons from using BWP. Obviously, the Amazon Pay checkout option can help reduce cart abandonment. That’s the sales pitch that we often see the likes of PayPal or Apple Pay sing. Having Amazon take care of fulfillment is attractive to merchants that do not have the means to set up their own logistics. It’s also great for merchants to own the relationship with shoppers, instead of relinquishing it to Amazon entirely like before. While such benefits carry a great deal of appeal, merchants need to be aware of the risks related to BWP. Firstly, the fees paid to Amazon will cut deep into the margin of these merchants. Secondly, they may open the gate to the henhouse for the fox by letting Amazon know what Prime shoppers order on their website. It’s widely reported that some sellers thrived at first on Amazon.com, only to falter and disappear later when Amazon introduced similar products. Who is to say that it’s not a possibility in this case? In addition, BWP merchants have to be responsible for marketing. The greatest perk of being on Amazon.com is that sellers are almost guaranteed traffic. BWP just takes care of checkout and fulfillment. It doesn’t bring valuable traffic. With the reduced margin, due to Fulfillment by Amazon fees, can merchants afford the marketing expenses too?
The introduction of BWP can be a threat for the likes of PayPal, Shop Pay or Apple Pay. Apple Pay and Shop Pay don’t have a fulfillment solution attached to the checkout button. PayPal does with Happy Returns, even though its scale can’t be compared to Amazon’s. Merchants, especially small ones, will consider BWP because they don’t want to be distracted by all the shipping headaches. The adoption of BWP will certainly decrease the amount of transaction volume processed by PayPal, whose revenue is transaction-based. As a consequence, BWP is not welcoming news for PayPal. To remain competitive, PayPal needs to continue offering more values to merchants and simplify the checkout process as much as possible. In this game, having one more click than your rivals is like being slower by one second in F1. Moreover, they should be wise to point out the threats that Amazon can pose with BWP and hope that they can scare merchants into avoiding BWP. After all, few things are as persuasive as fear.
Stream big: how Netflix changed the TV landscape in 10 years. I don’t deny that Netflix revolutionized the streaming industry or that it has the scale advantages. What I disagree with Netflix bulls or fans on is the alleged invincibility. The latest earnings call was a disappointment, sending the stock down by 20%. For the first time, the management team vaguely admitted competition which includes rivals with deep pockets and additional services that can help “subsidize” these rivals’ streamers. So far, Netflix has been successful, but it’s not a lock that they will continue to be the market leader in the near future.
A $6 Billion Wipeout Was an Omen for Food Delivery Stocks. At this point, I feel like it’s irresponsible to invest in food delivery startups or publicly traded firms that do not have the scale. While it’s already tough for the established incumbents to run their business in the black, it’s an order of magnitude harder for those without scale. And if you haven’t noticed, the market isn’t looking kindly on unprofitable companies in a cut-throat market like food delivery.
Stuff I found interesting
Where Is There More Lithium to Power Cars and Phones? Beneath a California Lake. “In the U.S. hunt for lithium, an essential component of the batteries that power electric vehicles and cellphones, one big untapped source might be bubbling under a giant lake in Southern California. The U.S. currently imports almost all of its lithium, but research shows large reserves in underground geothermal brines—a scalding hot soup of minerals, metals and saltwater. The catch: Extracting lithium from such a source at commercial scale is untested.”
EV Charging Network Will Target Interstate Highways. “Dotting the interstate-highway corridors with charging stations is considered a priority because it will give EV motorists confidence that they can take long-distance trips without trouble recharging. Stations will have to be installed every 50 miles, no more than one mile off the interstate, according to a guidance memo by the Federal Highway Administration. And stations will have to have at least 600 kilowatts of total capacity, with ports for at least four cars that can simultaneously deliver at least 150 kilowatts each. The stations also have to be accessible to the general public, or to fleet operators from more than one company. The locations can include privately owned parking lots if they are open to the general public.”
Germany’s Covid Boomtown Stumbles Over Its Newfound Riches. Progressive politicians want companies to pay more taxes; which companies do not want to do. Folks just want stable jobs and to be taken care of by the tax money they pay. Marburg is another example of how hard it is to strike a balance and keep everyone happy
Last week, PayPal reported its Q4 FY2021 results, causing the stock to reach by almost 25% and reach its 52-week low. Once a $360+ billion company at its peak valuation, PayPal is now worth $148 billion. There are a few contributing factors to this implosion.
The first is the disappointing guidance. A few months ago, the company set the revenue growth for 2022 at 18% which is now replaced by the 15-17% range. The guided Earnings Per Share is $4.67, well below the consensus of $5.21. For Q1 2022, revenue is expected to grow by 6%, significantly lower than the two-digit growth rate usually seen in every quarter since 2019. High inflation, the supply chain issues that have been felt across markets, increased tax rates and tough comparisons to last year’s results are to blame.
Net new active accounts are also a let-down. Total net adds in 2021 stood at 49 million, far lower than the 55 million target reaffirmed in November 2021. This year, PayPal expects to add 15-20 million new accounts. This conservative goal is lower than what PayPal managed in 2018 or 2019 before Covid-19 boosted their business and pulled forward a lot of net new accounts. The management gave two reasons for this muted outlook. First, 4.5 million accounts are found to be illegitimate. Even though the number is immaterial to the overall account base of more than 400 million, it affects the company’s estimate and thinking in terms of net new adds. The second and bigger reason is a new pivot in customer acquisition. Used to plow a lot of money in incentive-led marketing tactics, PayPal is going to abandon low-ROI efforts on low-value customers and instead prioritize high-ROI engagement campaigns which they say have better yields.
Because of the new pivot in customer acquisition, PayPal determined that the target of 750 million active accounts by 2025, which was only set last year on Investor Day, is no longer appropriate. The rumored acquisition of Pinterest a few months ago already called into question the growth outlook. This unexpectedly disappointing development aggravated investor doubt that the management team bit more than they could chew last year and sold investors on unrealistic targets. For me, it is the biggest shock from the earnings call. After Q3 FY2021, I was already concerned about PayPal’s ability to hit its long-term goal, but I, in no way, could expect that they gave up one year into the 5-year plan! Talk about disappointment!
Are the business’ fundamentals still healthy?
Investors are right to be downbeat on PayPal. The announcements on the earnings call gave nothing, but cause for doubt on the health of the business. Nonetheless, I don’t really think that all is lost. The outlook from here isn’t as rosy as we were told before, but one of the most iconic brands in the world can’t just crumble over night. Here are a few reasons why.
The divorce from eBay is strategically essential as it liberates PayPal from the exclusive partnership. EBay is now responsible for only 3% of PayPal’s total payment volume (TPV) and revenue, down from 8% of total TPV and 14% of revenue in the same quarter two years ago. Ex-eBay TPV growth has outpaced total TPV’s every quarter since Q1 2019. This, coupled with the fact that average transactions per active account continues to rise, signals that PayPal’s non-eBay services grew on merit and appeal to consumers.
Venmo continues to impress with $60.5 billion in TPV and $250 million in revenue in Q4 FY2021. There are 83 million active users in the U.S alone, meaning that almost 1 out of 4 people in the country uses Venmo. The TPV and the popularity are likely to rise with new major partnerships such as the one with Amazon or DoorDash. However, since these partners may command a low take-rate, whether they will help with the monetization remains to be seen. That’s the overall concern with Venmo. Despite the apparent popularity and making up 17% of PayPal’s active account base, Venmo is only responsible for 3.6% of the company’s revenue. The likelihood of merging the two apps any time soon is low. The risk of damaging the Venmo “cult” and taking away its appeal by folding it into the parent app is too big, but at the same time, how would the company entice Venmo users to try out other services? Currently, Venmo is available only in the U.S. What about an international expansion? Investors definitely can use some more disclosures on both issues from the management team.
BNPL is another bright spot. Launched only in August 2020, Pay in 4 already reached $8 billion in total TPV, 12.2 million unique customers and 1.2 million participating merchants. Considering that the parent company has 383 million consumer accounts, 33 million active merchants and 200 markets, there is a lot of growth ahead. As customers who used BNPL delivered 2x average revenue per account, this service will be an important acquisition and engagement tool. Would that translate into money for PayPal? The jury is still out on this question. As there is no fee charged to consumers and no additional service fee to merchants, PayPal is hoping to generate revenue through additional services. This is one of the areas on which I wish to gain additional insights in the near future.
Ironically, I find the new pivot in customer acquisition positive to some extent. While I was disappointed by the abandonment of the 5-year target, I think or at least hope that this is the right move for the business. Let me explain why. I used to receive a lot of incentive-led marketing campaigns from PayPal such as a reward for downloading an app, a discount at a partner store or a chance to win a money pot. As a consumer, I liked these efforts. The investor in me, though, thought that these outreach efforts seemed like a desperate attempt to inflate active account numbers and keep the Street happy with the progress towards the magic 750 million number. But as the active consumer account base grows, you can’t buy cheap engagement forever. Soon, the cost of low ROI campaigns would catch up and it did for PayPal. Therefore, now that the target doesn’t float over their heads any more, the company can be smart about allocating valuable marketing dollars. The next few quarters and the new disclosures on ARPU will be critical in regaining investor trust.
Adding fuel to investor doubt is the fact that PayPal has fierce competition in the payment market. The silent killer Apple Pay provides a seamless checkout experience on millions of Apple devices and thousands of online stores. Block/Square is investing and pushing aggressively (such as the acquisition of Afterpay) to gain an upper hand over PayPal to become THE Super App for financial needs. Affirm is evolving from being a pure BNPL player, and adding new capabilities such as eCommerce button, savings and rewards. Additionally, there are Shop Pay and Facebook Pay, native checkout experiences on hugely popular platforms with thousands of merchants and consumers. Last but not least, the rise of real-time payments around the world and in the U.S will also be a threat. Given this elevated level of competition and the sudden change in long-term targets, it’s obvious that PayPal underestimates competitors and overplays their hands. From now on, it’s back to the basics which include constant innovation, addition of value-added services and a firm grip on its engaged and loyal customers.
The latest quarter is undoubtedly a disaster. There is no other way to describe it. Management overestimated their competitive advantages and consequently set unrealistic goals which led to misguided actions (the rumored acquisition of Pinterest). When such mistakes came into light, the punishment followed, in the form of billions of dollars in market capitalization. But the iconic and trusted brand is still there. PayPal still has incredible assets and millions of active accounts on its platform. The ingredients for redemption are ready. Now it’s up to management to bring about results and restore investor trust.
In this post, I’ll touch upon briefly the definition of a Super App, give a few examples and talk about the business implications of these apps.
The term Super Apps is generally credited to Mike Lazaridi, the founder of Blackberry, who defined it as “a closed ecosystem of many apps that people would use every day because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience”. In laymen’s terms, a Super App is an application that offers various services on one interface. While the mix of services offered by Super Apps varies from one to another, the common denominators of these apps are 1/ they are all two-sided networks popular with both merchants and consumers and 2/ they all began their journey by being excellent in one function before branching out to others. Merchants need to have access to a lot of consumers to join a network while consumers only find the network useful when there is a lot of utility, namely plenty of merchants. The chicken and egg problem of a two-sided network is hard. Therefore, the singular focus on a vertical in the beginning makes sense as start-ups can’t afford to solve this issue in multiple verticals. No-one can build a Super App right from the get-go. Once an app excels and makes a name for itself in a vertical, why not leveraging existing traffic and offering users more reasons to stick around longer?
Examples of Super Apps
WeChat started out as a messenger app. An engineer named Allen Zhang alerted his employer Tencent on a threat of other competitors taking away its market share and app engagement. To stay competitive, WeChat transformed itself into an app on which users could do everyday things on a single interface including payments, social media, e-commerce, doctor appointments, hotel reservation or ride-hailing. The pivot was a hit as the new services surpassed even the apps that inspired WeChat in the first place.
Facebook and its founding story need little introduction. Over the years, Facebook has added several services to make itself stickier as a platform. Nowadays, users can shop on a marketplace or Facebook-native stores; create new connections with Facebook’s own Tinder version; make payments with Facebook Pay or consume exclusive content from creators. With its ambition and virtually limitless resources, it won’t be a surprise that Facebook or Meta will expand its offerings in the future.
The title of grab.com reads “Grab: The Everyday Everything App”. Its status as one of the biggest Super Apps in Southeast Asia is so different from its humble beginning. Grab was founded as a taxi-hailing business in Malaysia in 2012 by two Harvard graduates. The company gradually expanded into other areas, such as other modes of ride-hailing, food delivery & nonfood delivery, travel bookings, bill payment and financial services. In Vietnam, almost everyone in big cities uses Grab for daily tasks from food delivery, ride-sharing or bill payments.
Uber was founded in 2009 by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp as a ride-hailing alternative to taxies. The company’s meteoric rise saw it become a global phenomenon, but the company today is more than just a ride-hailing app. In 2014, Uber launched a food delivery service called Uber Eats, which was later rebranded under Delivery. While Covid-19 decimated the Mobility segment (ride-sharing) as riders were restricted by stay-at-home orders, the pandemic was a catalyst for the transformation of Uber as a whole. Delivery has been growing substantially due to consumers ordering food and grocery deliveries. Its gross bookings have repeatedly surpassed Mobility’s and now reaches Mobility’s pre-pandemic level. Second, the company has made strategic acquisitions to expand beyond food delivery. In June 2020, Uber acquired Cornership, a popular grocery delivery service in Latin America. A few months after, it added Postmates, which is very competitive in coastal cities and offers delivery-as-a-service for non-food items. In October 2021, Uber took over an alcohol delivery startup called Drizly. The company has been tinkering with marijuana delivery in Canada and waiting for the green light from the federal government before launching it in the U.S. Powered by the new capabilities, nonfood categories make up around 5-6% of Uber’s overall gross bookings and are expected to grow more in the future. Uber’s ambition is very simple: be the go-to app when consumers have a transportation need.
PayPal first made a name for itself by being a secure digital wallet and online payment system, especially as the primary checkout option on eBay. Since its spin-off from eBay in 2014, the company has added plenty of services to its mobile app and become a formidable two-sided network, due to relentless acquisitions and product development. End users can access various services on the current PayPal app, including paycheck deposit, high-interest savings, bill payment, remittance, credit cards, debit cards, in-store & online payment, BNPL, PayPal Credit, P2P payment, shopping deals and investing. PayPal’s end goal is to be the go-to Financial app for its users.
Cash App started out as a P2P payment app in which users could transfer funds to anybody in the U.S. Nowadays, users can pay for purchases in stores and online with Cash App debit card and Cash App Pay; invest in stocks and cryptocurrency; or make deposits into checking accounts. In November 2020, Square bought the tax filing division of Credit Karma and subsequently added to its flagship app the ability to file taxes and receive tax refunds. In August 2021, Square paid $29 billion for Afterpay, one of the major BNPL players in Australia and in the U.S. It’s just a matter of time before Cash App turns on BNPL for its users and merchants. Cash App’s ambition is similar to PayPal’s; which makes it interesting to see how the two compete in the future.
Pros and Cons of partnering with Super Apps
Merchants stand to gain an additional payment option as well as more sales from Super Apps, but the story isn’t all rosy. Too much reliance on Super Apps means that merchants’d risk ceding the control of direct customer relationships. In business, few things are more valuable than that. Take Apple and Amazon for instance. Apple’s customer base is so loyal and attached to their brand that almost all developers or other brands take the back seat in negotiations . Amazon’s scale and iron grip on the valuable Prime base allows them to dictate terms over merchants. When you buy from a merchant on Amazon, do you feel more related to the former or the latter?
For banks, Super Apps can have adverse impact in a couple of ways. First, services such as PayPal in 4, Afterpay, PayPal Credit or PayPal/Venmo credit cards can reduce issuers’ credit card spend and subsequently balance as well as revenue. Secondly, it’s in their interest to have users maintain an in-app balance and keep funds away from banks’ checking accounts. Think about it this way: would you feel more poised to use PayPal when your PayPal balance was $20 or $0? That’s why Venmo credits dormant users $10 for downloading and logging into the app again or why Square wants users to keep tax refunds in Cash App balance. The reduction in deposits can raise banks’ cost of funds as well as threaten to cut off the most fundamental relationship with customers.
On the other hand, Super Apps present a battleground for financial institutions vying for wallet share. Once the connection between checking accounts or debit/credit cards and these Super Apps is established, users often don’t want to go through the inconvenience of updating their default payment method. Hence, every financial institution wants to be the primary source of funds for consumers on these Super Apps to have a leg up over the competition. In this sense, Super Apps offer a business opportunity.
In summary, as you can see above, there are multiple paths towards the Super App status, whether an app’s starting point is to be in messaging, digital wallets or ride-sharing. I think all successful consumer-facing apps have ambition to gain the Super App status. If not, they’d do something wrong. It’ll be interesting to see how these Super Apps compete for mindshare as feature parity is established (meaning they all offer similar features). For merchants, working with Super Apps can be a double-edged sword. While the benefits these apps bring are very tempting, merchants need to keep in mind the risk of losing customer relationships. Like people usually say: don’t miss the forest for the trees.
2021 Retailer of the Year: Dollar General.“Food and consumables accounted for 77% of Dollar General’s annual sales last year of $33.7 billion. The expansion of cooler and freezer capacity at new and remodeled stores has for several years been described as the Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based company’s most impactful merchandising initiative. Dollar General began selling fresh produce at select stores last year, expanded the program to 2,000 locations this year, and its current plan is to add produce in up to 10,000 stores.” The refusal to call itself a grocer, in my opinion, is spot on. The name of the store is Dollar General, not Dollar Grocery. To change it to grocery would be a mistake as consumers would wonder: what kind of grocery am I getting for $1? Plus, the brand is about getting daily items for at a low price (may not necessarily be cheaper than at Costco, if you talk about unit economics). Hence, it doesn’t make sense to limit themselves to just being a grocer.
Why charging phones is a complex business. An interview with Anker CEO. A really interesting one in my opinion. They plan to avoid going into the phone business and stick to what they do best: accessories. Smart. Strategic.
Facebook launches Shops in Groups and Live Shopping for Creators. The investments and focus on eCommerce, in my opinion, are strategically helpful to Facebook. Its giant cash cow has always been advertising powered by surveillance tracking which falls out of favor of many stakeholders. Politicians, lawmakers, more privacy-conscious consumers, powerful companies like Apple. Facebook has literally millions of people and thousands of brands using its platforms every day. It’s in a prime spot to be an eCommerce powerhouse.
Meta CTO thinks bad metaverse moderation could pose an ‘existential threat’. Boz wasn’t wrong there. What is interesting is that Facebook’s biggest challenge right now, before metaverse, is….moderation. In spite of billions of dollars and an army of technology plus human beings, Facebook still can’t crack the moderation code at scale, without pissing off a whole lot of people. Moreover, because its cash cow is advertising, Facebook has an inherent incentive to encourage engagement, whether it’s toxic engagement or not. I am not saying that moderation is easy. It’s super difficult and, like Boz said, almost impossible. But if your existential threat is impossible to solve, then it should give investors some pause.
Hundreds of Ancient Maya Sites Hidden Under Mexico Reveal a Mysterious Blueprint. “In a new study, an international team of researchers led by anthropologist Takeshi Inomata from the University of Arizona reports the identification of almost 500 ceremonial complexes tracing back not just to the Maya, but also to another Mesoamerican civilization who made their mark on the land even earlier, the Olmecs.”
Brazilian Farmers Who Protect the Amazon Rainforest Would Like to Be Paid. “Governments, corporations and business executives are calling for a world-wide market to trade carbon credits so Brazilian farmers like Mr. Weis can be paid to help protect forests on their lands rather than cut them down to make way for more crops and cattle. Existing regional markets for carbon credits, from Europe to California to South Korea, show that the interest—and capital—is there for a global market. The value of carbon markets in Europe and elsewhere grew 23% last year to $274 billion, according to data provider Refinitiv Holdings Ltd. In a global market, carbon credits generated anywhere would be easily tradable anywhere else, just as a security issued by a Brazilian company can be bought and sold on the Nasdaq. Landholding farmers, indigenous groups, state governments and environmentalists could all sell credits.”
Spiders are much smarter than you think. ““There is this general idea that probably spiders are too small, that you need some kind of a critical mass of brain tissue to be able to perform complex behaviors,” says arachnologist and evolutionary biologist Dimitar Dimitrov of the University Museum of Bergen in Norway. “But I think spiders are one case where this general idea is challenged. Some small things are actually capable of doing very complex stuff.””
Perfecting the New York Street. “An achievable, replicable plan for a city that’s embracing public space as never before.” Yes, please. Fewer cars, less space for parking and more space for pedestrians