Weekly reading – 13th March 2021

What I wrote last week

My thoughts on Square’s acquisition of Credit Karma’s tax unit

My review of the book Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Business

An interview with Elliot Turner on Twitter. Lots of good stuff in here.

Octahedron Capital publishes a super interesting presentation every quarter, compiling quotes from executives

A very interesting piece on how Jeff Bezos approached design. I love the anecdote on how Amazon’s logo came into beings.

How Salesforce became Silicon Valley’s best late-stage tech investor. Salesforce is a prime example that you should care more about Operating Income than Net Income if you want to evaluate a company’s operations

A great post on the importance of reinvesting in a business. As the saying goes, it’s one thing to get to the top of the mountain, it’s another to stay there.

A great conversation between The Verge and Twitter’s Head of Consumer Product. The company announced some very interesting product developments in the pipeline. As a fan of the platform, I can’t wait to see what unfolds next

Postmates added $70 million in revenue and saved $3 million in network fees with Stripe

Neil Cybart published a new article on the importance of Apple’s retail stores

A very telling piece on how Facebook’s internal effort to curb misinformation using AI was punted by Zuckerberg’s desire for growth

What I found interesting

Apple Gave Us an Exclusive Look Inside Its Next-Generation Fitness+ Studio

Tesla told California DMV that its future autonomous vehicles wouldn’t be fully autonomous. What else is new?

WSJ’s profile on Manchester United star forward, Marcus Rashford. If you are not familiar with football (yeah, the real football where the ball touches feet more than hands), Manchester United is one of the richest and biggest clubs in the world. It has a reputation of playing home-grown talent and actually has been fielding at least one academy player every game for the last few decades. Marcus Rashford is the latest biggest home-grown star that came out of the famed academy. Inspired by his difficult childhood, Rashford took on the British government last year, in a campaign aimed at providing school meals to children during Covid-19. The government listened and hundreds of kids were fed because Marcus Rashford had the will to do what his reputation enabled him to.

Corporate logos are changing with the time

A look into the cyber-surveillance world of Israel

Stats that you may find interesting

Costco edged by Amazon and Apple to lead all brands in customer satisfaction

India leads the world in IPv6 adoption rate at 63%

Disney+ has more than 100 million subscribers. Though the count is impressive, comparing it with Netflix’s subscriber base, either now or when it first started, may require a lot of unpacking. The consumer attitude towards streaming is different now than it was when Netflix began to stream its content online. The mix of subscriber base is also different. Disney+ has 30% of its subscribers. Nothing inherent bad about it, but to have an apple-to-apple comparison, one must figure out whether Netflix has the same composition. Plus, the streaming competition 10 years ago for Netflix might be much less fierce than the current landscape.

If you need more evidence as to how different a GOP government and a Democratic government are, here it is. One proposed a law that benefits low-income folks (Democrats) while the other passed a law that put more money in the pocket of the richest.

Source: TPC

Weekly reading – 28th November 2020

What I wrote last week

I wrote about why I think Apple Card would be a significant credit card as Apple Pay grows more popular

I wrote about Target, Salesforce’s acquisition talk with Slack and Uber vs Lyft

I reviewed President Barack Obama’s new memoir “A Promised Land

Business

The difference in the business model between Booking.com and Expedia

NYTimes and The Washington Post expanded their subscriber base substantially in the last two years

Black Friday’s online shopping exceeded $5 billion

Amazon is strengthening its advantages with delivery capabilities that can rival UBS’

TikTok used its biggest stars in its legal fight against the US government

Research shows that unique visitors to Microsoft Teams far outnumbered those to Slack in October 2020

Technology

There are 123 Fintech startups in Vietnam in 2020. Most of them operate in the Payments area

Users of the new Macs with M1 referred to the hardware as having “alien technology”, “wicked” or “sockery”

What I found interesting

Hanoi and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City is the second busiest domestic flight route in the world

This piece tells a story about how Utah uses collaboration and human touch to create policies that help foster the state’s equality and economy. Two quotes stand out to me

Utahns seem strongly committed to charitable works, by gov­ernment, alongside government or outside government. What­ever tools used are infused with an ethic of self-reliance that helps prevent dependency . . . when there’s a conflict between that ethic and mercy, Utah institutions err on the side of mercy

Betty Tingey, after seeing the news coverage about the Utah Compact, wrote to the Deseret News, “I don’t know much about politics except the sick feeling I get inside when there is constant arguing. . . . I don’t know how to settle debates, but I know a peaceful heart when I have one. I felt it when I read the Utah Compact.”

Source: American Affairs Journal

This clip about an 86-year-old baking master in Greece gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, I admire his work ethics, but on the other, it can be a condemnation of a system that forces old people to work this late in their life

Target’s growth, Salesforce reportedly about to acquire Slack and Uber vs Lyft

Target’s growth during the pandemic

Writing that 2020 is good for somebody or a company is weird as this year has been nothing, but a disaster. However, from a business perspective, Target has had a pretty good 2020 so far.

Before 2020, its comparable sales growth was often a low or middle single digit. In Q4 2019, its physical store comparable sale growth was even in the negative territory. 2020 flipped the switch. The company’s total comparable sale growth has been in the double digits with Q2 2020 recording the highest at 24%. Digital comparable sales growth is at least 9% or higher. Q3 saw a bit of a decline compared to Q2, but the overall growth was still higher than 20%. I find it interesting that the revenue YoY growth and the store comparable growth seem pretty in sync with each other, but that’s because physical stores make up at least 84% of Target’s revenue. Digital sales was responsible for almost 16% of the overall revenue in Q3 2020, an equivalent of $3.6+ billion in revenue for a quarter and up from 7.5% in the same quarter last year.

In terms of profitability, Q2 and Q3 of 2020 saw the highest gross margin and operating margin in the last 5 years. Operating margin reached 10% and 8.5% in Q2 and Q3 respectively while gross margin was 30.9% and 30.6% in Q2 and Q3. During a year dominated by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Target managed to pivot its business to adapt to the dire situation and improved not only its top line, but also its profitability. That’s proof of resilience and managerial competence.

Source: Target

Another aspect of their business that I find interesting is their branded cards’ penetration. Target measured its credit and debit card’s penetration as percentage of sales that took place on their cards. In other words, if there is about $200 million in sales in a week and $50 million of which is paid through Target’s credit and debit cards, the penetration rate is 25%. And shoppers have a reason to use those cards. Owners of these cards have exclusive benefits that other issuers can hardly match, such as: no annual fee, 5% off on purchases at Target stores and on its website, free 2-day shipping on select items and longer return period. Yet, there has been a slowly steady decline in terms of the RedCard penetration. The penetration rate in Q3 2020 was 21%, down from 23% from the year before. Given the increase in sales and the unique offerings of the RedCards, it’s surprising that the figure not only didn’t grow, but it also contracted. This indicates to me that Target can do much better in getting customers to apply for a RedCard. It is a good retention tool and it brings extra revenue to the company. In Q3 2020, credit card profit sharing was $166 million, but down from $177 in the same period last year.

In short, Target has been doing quite well. They succeeded in growing their online business which has been turbocharged by the pandemic, but that, in no way, means that the company didn’t put in the effort. Think about it this way, every retailer tried to grow its online business, but Target managed to do in a cut-throat industry and at their scale. So credit to them. Plus, they made appropriate and necessary investments in same-day services and deliver. In the last two earning calls, the management reported ridiculous numbers of same-day services’ growth, to the tune of several hundred percentages. Shoppers like options. With Target, they can now order online and have it delivered to their door, or drive up to the parking lot to pick the order up or fetch it in stores. The flexibility is there and it will bode well for Target in the upcoming holiday season that is unfortunately engulfed, still, by the pandemic.

Regarding the possibility of Target having a similar subscription to Walmart+ or Amazon Prime, I think Target is still missing the main hook, the main attraction. Amazon Prime has been around for more than 10 years. Over the years, Amazon kept adding more and more benefits for shoppers so that the subscription now offers a plethora of benefits ranging from unlimited 2-day shipping regardless of order size, movies, music, books, exclusive deals and so on. On Walmart Plus side, Walmart can offer affordable groceries and discount on fuel. Target doesn’t seem to me that it can match any of those benefits. Even though some pieces are there such as Target’s popularity, its network of stores across the country and its delivery flexibility, I don’t see a main selling point for a Target’s own subscription yet. We’ll see.

Salesforce reportedly in talks to buy Slack

Yesterday, after the news broke that Salesforce has been in talks to acquire Slack and a deal can happen next week, Slack’s stock price popped by more than 30% within a day. The reaction that I saw on Twitter was mostly positive for both parties. I can see why. But the fact that investors are happy about this prospect of an acquisition says something about Slack as a standalone business. Slack last reported its active daily user at 12 million back in October 2019. Within the past 12 months, Microsoft revealed the metric at least 3 times: 20 million in Q2 FY 2020, 75 million in Q3 FY 2020 and 115 million last month for Q1 FY 2021. There are two reasons why companies don’t make disclosures: 1/ they are legally obligated not to and 2/ there is nothing rosy to disclose. In this case, it’s squarely the latter case. My guess is that Slack hasn’t seen a meaningful increase in its Daily Active Users (DAU) numbers DESPITE a pandemic that turbocharged working from home, the same way that Microsoft Teams has achieved. In the face of a formidable challenge from Microsoft, Slack initially played it cool. Below was their reaction 6 months ago

“What we’ve seen over the past couple of months is that Teams is not a competitor to Slack,” Butterfield told CNBC in an interview after Microsoft’s Q3 earnings update. Butterfield also downplayed the impact on Slack’s growth caused by Microsoft “bundling [Teams] and giving it away for free” with Office 365 over the past three years. 

Source: ZDNET

Yet, Slack filed a formal complaint to the EU about Microsoft’s alleged anti-competition practice, the same practice that Butterfield downplayed. I wrote here about why that formal complaint is unlikely to succeed. But it shows Slack’s desperation. If Microsoft weren’t a competitor and its bundling practice was nothing, why would Slack sue to stop it? All of these factors and the fact that investors were happy about the prospect of being acquired by Salesforce paint a solemn picture of Slack as a standalone company. If it joins Salesforce, there will likely be a Salesforce bundle that includes Slack, the same way that Microsoft bundles Teams into Office 365. Slack would get more assistance in selling to corporate clients while Salesforce would get extra capabilities quickly without having to build them from scratch.

Uber vs Lyft

The pandemic has been a catastrophe for ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber. According to Second Measure, the market in the US dropped to only half of the 2016 level and only recovered to the 2016 level in October 2020. That’s how big the impact of the pandemic has been on this business. Since Uber and Lyft are always compared to each other, you’d think that their business is faring similarly. Not really.

While Lyft essentially has only one business in ride-sharing, Uber successfully grew its food delivery service UberEats to be a $4.5 run rate business, making up 40% of Uber’s revenue in Q3 2020. Uber Eats’ $1.1 billion in revenue in Q3 2020 was more than double Lyft’s entire revenue in the same period. Additionally, the pandemic affects each other differently. Lyft’s main market is the US, which is, unfortunately, going deeper and deeper into the pandemic. There is no sign of things turned around here in the US, unless there is a vaccine. It severely handicaps Lyft’s business and Uber’s ride-sharing segment. Nonetheless, Covid-19 has been a boon to Uber Eats. It has grown substantially in the past few months and become a silver lining for Uber. Plus, Uber announced its effort to deliver groceries and its acquisition of Postmates indicates that it is serious about becoming a delivery-as-a-service business. In other words, while the two companies are often mentioned in comparison, they are vastly different now, with Uber becoming more of a diversified company. It is more diversified horizontally (more services) and vertically (if you consider being present in more countries). In this environment, I think that the Uber model is a much better one. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the stock prices. The two companies made debut on the stock market almost at the same time. While Uber soared past its IPO price, Lyft is trading nowhere close to its own IPO price.

It’ll be interesting to see how the next couple of years will be for these two companies. Would Lyft venture into another business like Uber did? What would a vaccine bringing back our previous life mean for Uber? Knowing that it would power up the ride-sharing business, but adversely affect the growth of Uber Eats?

Comparing Enterprise SaaS Companies’ Metrics

Interested in how enterprise SaaS companies whose some or all of their revenue come from subscriptions, I set out to collect data from the companies that I know offer subscriptions to enterprise customers. Please be aware that this is my personal research stemming from intellectual curiosity only. They are not meant to be anything more than that.

  • Data is collected from the latest year in the companies’ latest annual reports to ensure that seasonality factor is removed
  • The metrics include subscription gross margin (subscription gross profit/subscription revenue), overall gross margin, Sales & Marketing expense as % of revenue, R&D as % of revenue, SG&A as % of revenue and net dollar expansion rate (or retention rate)
  • If there is a difference between subscription gross margin and overall gross margin, it’s because those companies also generate revenue from other sources such as hardware or professional services
  • Much as I tried to keep the figures accurate, do use them at your discretion

Subscription Gross Margin

Median: 82%/ Mean: 80%

Gross Margin

Median: 72%/ Mean: 71%

Sales & Marketing Expense as % of Revenue

Median: 44%/ Mean: 42%

R&D as % of Revenue

Median: 22% / Mean: 22%

SG&A as % of Revenue

Median: 15% / Mean: 15%

Operating Income (Loss) as % of Revenue

Median: -14%/ Mean: -10%

Dollar Expansion Rate

Median: 115% / Mean: 115%