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?

Weekly readings – 25th July 2020

What I wrote

Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft over Teams to the EU. On the surface, I don’t think Slack is going to win the case, if the EU decides to formally launch an investigation. How Microsoft structures their Microsoft 365 offers does give customers a choice to include Teams or not, a counterpunch to the core of Slack’s complaint. I wrote my thoughts here

I also wrote about matcha, how it can beneficial to our health and why it and its accessories are expensive

Business

In investing, when truly exceptional opportunities present themselves, Charlie Munger said: use a shovel, not a teaspoon

Both strategies yield the same result: that foreign affiliate employment increased as a direct response to increasingly stringent restrictions on H-1B visas. This effect is driven on the extensive and intensive margins; firms were more likely to open foreign affiliates in new countries in response, and employment increased at existing foreign affiliates. The effect is strongest among R&D-intensive firms in industries where services could more easily be offshored. The effect was somewhat geographically concentrated: foreign affiliate employment increased both in countries like India and China with large quantities of high-skilled human capital and in countries like Canada with more relaxed high-skilled immigration policies and closer geographic proximity. These empirical results also are supported by interviews with US multinational firms and an immigration lawyer

Source: NPER

How Ben & Jerry’s Perfected the Delicate Recipe for Corporate Activism

A look at how influential Facebook is in Bangladesh

Apple’s report on their sustainability progress

Where banks really make money on IPOs

An investigative piece by WSJ that looks into accusations that Amazon used confidential information accessed through its investment arm to launch competing products.

Shopify Saved Main Street. Next Stop: Taking On Amazon

An interesting piece on what appears to be a change in strategy for Apple TV+. This streaming space is highly competitive. I look forward to how Apple will compete with other heavyweights. On a side note, I really enjoyed Greyhound. You should give it a try

Technology

Giving GPT-3 a Turing Test

A good blog post on the behind-the-scenes technology that changed air travel

A report commissioned by Apple on commission rates of other marketplaces, compared to Apple Store. It’s an interesting study and it’s definitely good to have all the facts in one document. On the surface, Apple Store’s commission rates don’t look outrageous, compared to those of other marketplace platforms. However, the debate doesn’t end only at take rates

What I think is interesting

The Last Hunter Gatherers

A great write-up on beaches in Quy Nhon and Phu Yen in Vietnam. If you visit my country, I highly recommend that you go there. Wonderful beaches, few tourists, and great sea food

For years, African countries have taken loan money for China to improve their infrastructure and economy, in exchange for the use of these countries’ vast reserve of rare metal and resources. Now, a report said that Africa is more aware of the strings attached to loans from China. For a good reason!

Slack’s complaint against Microsoft

Disclaimer: I own Microsoft stocks in my personal portfolio.

Today, Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft in the EU over Microsoft Teams. Here is what Slack says in their blog

The complaint details Microsoft’s illegal and anti-competitive practice of abusing its market dominance to extinguish competition in breach of European Union competition law. Microsoft has illegally tied its Teams product into its market-dominant Office productivity suite, force installing it for millions, blocking its removal, and hiding the true cost to enterprise customers.

Slack’s objective is to force Microsoft to unbundle Teams from Microsoft Office 365 and sell it as a separate feature. The company reportedly had been discussing legal matters concerning Teams with the US authority for a while (per WSJ), but just decided to launch a formal complaint today. Given what has happened between the EU and big tech companies, it’s not difficult to see why Slack lodged the complaint there. Last year, the EU fined Google almost 1.5 billion euros for abusive practices in online advertising. It is also looking into Apple’s antitrust behavior with App Store rules. In 2004, Microsoft was fined half a billion euros for bundling Windows Media Player into its Windows. Perhaps, Slack is banking on the fact that the precedent and the current events as of late will be favorable to them in this case.

When I read the main part of the complain above, I was a bit surprised. My company is a bank in a highly regulated industry. We use licensed Microsoft Office 365, yet Cisco Jabber, not Teams, is our chat and video application. I don’t have a lot of confidence in our IT department to think that they can go around Microsoft and remove Teams if it’s not allowed by the Seattle-based company. In fact, if you look at how Teams is marketed, you will see that there are options to customers. There are three ways to get Teams: Office 365 Enterprise, Microsoft 365 Business and Microsoft 365 Enterprise. I know it’s not the easiest thing in the world to differentiate between the three, but here are the plans

Figure 1 – Office 365 Enterprise. Source: Microsoft

Figure 2 – Microsoft 365 Business. Source: Microsoft

Figure 3 – Microsoft 365 Enterprise. Source: Microsoft

As you can see from the three figures above, customers have at least one option in each category that allows them to use Microsoft Office 365 without Teams. To be clear, the screenshots above do not capture all features under each plan. It’s plausible that the other features which are not shown can force businesses to choose plans that only come with Teams. As a result, there are two points I want to make:

  • On the surface, the claim that Teams is forced on customers doesn’t seem true. Customers do have a choice to use Teams or not.
  • If Microsoft uses some indirect tactics to force Teams on customers, the onus is on Slack to prove it. However, the fact that companies whose products compete with Microsoft’s such as Slack, Cisco, Zoom, AirTable or Tableau, just to name a few, have a market does seem to me that it’s entirely possible to use non-Microsoft applications in addition to the popular Microsoft Office.

From Microsoft’s side, the company issued this following statement:

We created Teams to combine the ability to collaborate with the ability to connect via video, because that’s what people want. With COVID-19, the market has embraced Teams in record numbers while Slack suffered from its absence of video-conferencing. We’re committed to offering customers not only the best of new innovation, but a wide variety of choice in how they purchase and use the product.

source: Techcrunch

A big advantage that Microsoft has over Slack when selling a competing product is that the former, in most cases, already has an established relationship with customers through Microsoft Office and other products. To sign any customer, Slack has to cultivate the relationship from scratch. The task is even made more difficult when Slack has to convince potential customers to make additional investments, on top of what they already pay for Microsoft applications. Imagine if a company already pays from $5 to $35/month for every one of hundreds of employees to use Microsoft Office, in case Teams is included, there has to be a very good reason why it should incur more expenses to use Slack.

The last publicly revealed figures put Microsoft Teams and Slack at 75 million and 12 million daily active users, respectively. Microsoft revealed that in Q4 FY 2020, there were 69 organizations that had more than 100,000 users of Teams, up from 20 organizations in Q3 FY 2020. In the past, Slack insisted that Microsoft Teams isn’t a true competitor to their product; a claim that I found bewildering. It’s clear that Slack has a big problem at hand and the fact that they are formally complaining about Teams contradicts the previous claim.

I am all for competition as it benefits end users. If Microsoft deployed underhanded tactics during negotiations with companies and it’s not publicly known or if Slack can prove that the dizzying and head-scratching offerings by Microsoft indirectly force customers’ hands, by all means, I do think Microsoft should be held accountable. However, I am not convinced that it’s harmful to the end users that Microsoft can offer value through bundling and establish a direct relationship with customers more easily than Slack. Microsoft has to invest a lot of resources in building and maintaining a lot of other features, not just Teams.

The difference between the 2004 case and this, I suspect, is that Microsoft didn’t give users a choice whether they wanted to install Windows Media Player while they do with Teams, at least on the surface. My guess is that Slack’s complaint won’t go any far, but it’ll be interesting to see how this actually pans out.

What do you think about this complaint from Slack? Let me know in the comment. Have a good day and stay safe!

Weekly readings – 30th May 2020

Source: Economist

How Mongolia is one of the most successful countries against Covid-19. Zero deaths result from smart, decisive and swift actions from the government

A Window Onto an American Nightmare

600+ best startup pitches, including that of Facebook, AirBnb, WeWork, Uber, just to name a few

Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive. More Congressional investigations and hearings?

Bundesliga partners with AWS to provide real-time data analytics. How can you not be impressed by that?

Why super apps are proliferating across emerging markets

Human cost of food delivery services

Trump’s New Intelligence Chief Spells Trouble

Slack CEO’s conversation on competing with Microsoft, notifications and the future of work

Splendid isolation: a surreal sakura season

On Rafael’s never-fulfilled potential as an architect

Behind the Fall of China’s Luckin Coffee: a Network of Fake Buyers and a Fictitious Employee

What Is the Business Model for DuckDuckGo?

Canadians bike more as they leave cars at home

Weekly readings – 14th November 2019

FDA Approving Drugs at Breakneck Speed, Raising Alarm

Climate change: Oceans running out of oxygen as temperatures rise

Should I delete Tinder? These millennials think so

The lesson to unlearn

Why some of America’s top CEOs take a $1 salary

The Video-First Future of Ecommerce

How Airbnb Profits From Our Love of Experience

This article talks about how Apple’s stance on privacy makes life harder for advertisers.

Startups and Uncertainty

A very interesting study on podcasts

Credibility of SoftBank called into question

SoftBank has been known for being a big money player. Their investment fund, the Vision Fund, worth of $100 billion is made of mostly money from the Middle Eastern governments. They have poured money into startups around the world, including big names such as ByteDance, WeWork, Uber, Slack, Flipkart and Brandless, as well as established companies such as Sprint in the US.

By all means, being able to the tune of $100 billion is a massive undertaking. It shows the trust of investors in Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, and his team. However, three years after the money was raised, there have been concerning signs of SoftBank’s investment strategy and execution.

SoftBank’s most infamous flop is WeWork. After pouring $9 billion into the startup, the Japanese firm had to see WeWork’s IPO scrapped, its CEO and founder ousted and to plan another $10 billion bailout at a valuation that is significantly lower than what Son and his team expected (per WSJ). It’s mind-blowing that billions of dollars were invested with what seemed to be insufficient scrutiny and due diligence

SoftBank executives were alarmed by what they found looking deeper into the company’s financials, people familiar with the matter said.

Source: WSJ

In addition to WeWork, other high profile investments such as Uber and Slack haven’t met expectation either. Uber had to scale back its valudation upon going public and since being on the stock market, neither Uber nor Slack has been trading above its initial price

Source: Financial Times

Six years ago, SoftBank bought a controlling stake in Sprint. This paragraph below from CNBC summarized how the move is six years later

SoftBank successfully engineered a sale of Sprint for $6.62 per share to T-Mobile in 2018. (State attorneys general are in court attempting to quash the deal on grounds that it will unacceptably decrease competition.) But SoftBank acquired its majority stake in Sprint for $7.65 a share in 2013. When SoftBank bought Sprint, it was the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier by subscribers. When SoftBank sold, Sprint was a distant fourth behind VerizonAT&T and T-Mobile.

But Sprint’s annual revenue has shrunk since SoftBank took over, from $35.3 billion in 2012 to $33.6 billion in the latest fiscal year. Recently, subscriber numbers have been dropping, and the company recorded a $1.9 billion loss last year. Still, Claure made over $40 million in compensation from 2015 through 2017, primarily because of stock awards that resulted from keeping the shares above $8 per share, which was only marginally higher than the price SoftBank paid in 2013.

Sprint even acknowledged in April it didn’t have a sustainable path forward in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission, asking for the regulator to approve its sale.

“Sprint is in a very difficult situation that is only getting worse,” the company said in the letter. “Sprint is losing customers — which then reduces revenues and cash flow — further limiting its ability to invest in its network and service its debt. Simply put, Sprint is not on a sustainable competitive path.”

Source: CNBC

Furthermore, troubles have surfaced at other startups that SoftBank invested in. Fair, an online car-leasing startup, announced that it would lay off 40% of its workforce this week. Wag, an on-demand dog walking firm, laid off more than 50 employees this year already. Brandless saw declining revenue by 54% compared to the same period last year and planned to cut marketing budget.

On the other side of all the problems that hit SoftBank lately, the Japanese firm does have success in the form of its investments in Alibaba and Flipkart. Plus, its capital allowed ideas and founders to come into life. Nonetheless, the struggles at companies listed above do call into question its hype, strategy, execution and credibility. When you want to raise an unprecedented amount of money and invest in an unprecedented fashion, you are put under unprecedented scrutiny and expectations.

Take-aways from Slack IPO Filing

Yesterday, Slack filed to go public. In this post, I am laying out what I learned from reading the document

  • In the three months ending 31st January, 2019, there are more than 10 million Daily Active Users; 500,000 register developers; 450,000 third-party applications; 50 million collective usage hours; 1 billion messages sent
  • There are more than 500,000 organizations on free subscription and 88,000 paid customers, including 65 companies of the Fortune 100. Slack’s competitors include Facebook (Hangouts), Google (Workplace) and Microsoft (Teams). Even though Microsoft announced that there are 500,000 organizations using the service, including 91 of the Fortune 100, it’s tricky to form an apple-to-apple comparison. Teams can be used either free-of-charge or part of a paid Office 365 plan. There is no detail yet on what makes up the 500,000 figure.
  • Annual revenue was recorded at $105.2 million, $220.5 million, and $400.6 million in fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively
  • Out of the total revenue, international revenue represents 34%, 34% and 36% in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively
  • In fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019, approximately 22%, 32%, and 40%, respectively, of the annual revenue was generated from Paid Customers >$100,000.
  • In the fiscal year ended 31st January, 2019, 8% of the annual revenue came from customers who used the free plan prior, down from 10% a year before
  • “More than 90% of Paid Customers used a third-party application or custom integration in the week ended January 31, 2019”

Impressive Growth of Paid Customers >$100,000

The CAGR of Paid Customers whose ARR is bigger than $100,000 is impressive. So is the CAGR of the revenue, gross profit and calculated billings. Though Slack hasn’t made money from its operations, the loss has contracted through the quarters at the rate of 7.50%. Net Dollar Retention Rate has slowed down.

When looked at from an annual basis, the growth of the Paid Customer > $100,000 is even more impressive.

YearRevenueCost of RevenueGross ProfitR&DS&MSG&AOperating Income (Loss)
2017100%14%86%92%99%36%-141%
2018100%12%88%64%64%26%-65%
2019100%13%87%39%58%28%-38%

From the Annual CAGR chart, the scale of economies seems a bit clearer as expenses don’t grow at the same clip as revenue and gross profit. In terms of breakdown of revenue, Operating Loss as % of Revenue has been decreasing quite rapidly, along with R&D and Sales & Marketing. For the last two years, most of the improvement in Operating Loss came from R&D spending as % of Revenue. There is not much more that can be said about it definitely. Perhaps, Slack feels that there is enough investment and sufficient talent in R&D, meaning that it is not necessary to waste valuable dollars.

As % of Revenue

Reliance on AWS and Ramifications

For instance, Slack currently only utilizes AWS data centers located in the United States but certain organizations, or categories of organizations, may limit their adoption or use of Slack unless we also utilize local AWS data centers, such as data centers in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

For example, Russia and China are among a number of countries that have recently blocked certain online services, including AWS, which hosts Slack, making it very difficult for such services to access those markets. 

From 2018 to 2023, Slack commits to spend $50 million each year on AWS

It’s going to be a direct listing

It means a less expensive process for Slack. The current stockholders are not under a contractual lock-up agreement. If enough stocks are sold when or shortly after Slack goes public, it may cause the price to contract.

They have negative free cash flow in all, but one quarter