Weekly reading – 2nd July 2022

What I wrote last week

How does credit card direct mail process work?

Business

A great podcast episode on Don Valentine and Sequoia Capital. I guarantee that this is way better than Don Valentine’s profile on Wikipedia.

($) Spotify’s Billion-Dollar Bet on Podcasting Has Yet to Pay Off. “Over the next four years, Ostroff spent more than $1 billion on the business, licensing shows, buying production studios, and signing exclusive deals with celebrities, including the Obamas, Kim Kardashian, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Last year, Ostroff’s research and data team asked a question that many at Spotify already knew the answer to: Had any of this spending yielded a major new hit? The team produced a report that basically said no, according to five current and former employees who didn’t want to be named discussing internal business.” A very interesting story on the development of podcasts at Spotify. They used to like Netflix making a lot of shows and movies without anything concrete in return. The new internal structure is now in place to help Spotify better at making shows. I think they may be better off by following the model of HBO and Apple. But as a company that is never actually profitable, Spotify doesn’t have the luxury that Apple or Warner Bros has.

($) The Surprising Reason Your Amazon Searches Are Returning More Confusing Results than Ever. “The problems Amazon took on once it opened up its marketplace to sellers in China have become more evident in recent years. My Wall Street Journal colleagues in 2019 uncovered thousands of banned, unsafe or mislabeled products in Amazon’s catalog, most of which came from China-based sellers. It also became apparent that Amazon sellers were gaming Amazon’s algorithms to get goods listed as high in its search results as possible, and even going so far as to bribe Amazon employees in China to help boost items’ rank. The Amazon spokeswoman says the company spent more than $900 million last year to combat counterfeiting, fraud and other abuse—an effort she says involved 12,000 people. The company stopped more than 2.5 million fraudulent attempts to create new seller accounts, she added, down from over six million the prior year.”

‘Wallets and eyeballs’: how eBay turned the internet into a marketplace. This article is actually an excerpt for an upcoming book calling for the de-privatization of the Internet. It basically calls for another version of the Internet where people would be less motivated to create their own content because capitalism and competition wouldn’t work. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how good it is, but it’s still cool to read up on the birth of one of the most important marketplaces we have ever had.

Lessons from an investing legend. Anyone interested in investing should have a read. Everything Peter says is similar to what I have read from some of the greatest investors

($) Inside Didi’s $60 Billion Crash That Changed China Tech Forever. It further solidifies my stance that as long as the current regime stands and it surely looks that way for years to come, I won’t buy Chinese stocks. Didi at its peak was worth $100 billion. Now it’s a shell of its former self because of actions from the government. Worse, the leaders at Didi, all Chinese and with resources to spare, didn’t understand why the government acted the way it did. Then, how could a foreign investor hundreds of miles away?

($) Draymond Green, Podcast Star, Turns an Unsparing Mic on Himself. I listened to Draymond’s podcast a few times and while it does carry a sense of disruption and fresh air, compared to the likes of First Take or Undisputed, I still want to hear more basketball analyses from Draymond. He is an intelligent player and a 4-time champion. He surely is capable of producing basketball breakdowns for casual fans like Kobe once did with Detail. I’d love to hear more about the preparation before games or during off-season. I’d love to hear about the mental struggle of players during injury rehabilitation. Dray has much to offer and I hope he will bring it instead of cat fights and trash talk against the incumbent media. On a side note, after the liquor industry, athletes are marching into the media space. With their fame, connections and insider knowledge, they are greatly positioned to make a splash in this industry.

Other stuff I find interesting

Nigerians are learning to buy now and pay later. “In a country where only 2% of the 106 million adult population have access to bank credit, credit cards are also conspicuously absent, as banks shy away from consumer lending. BNPL is becoming a rising alternative and is set for further growth, as Nigerians embrace digital credit. BNPL thrives in markets with integrated identity systems, consumer credit culture, and decent consumerism, where people are able to pay for not just essential items like food and fuel but are also willing to buy nonessential items like cars and gadgets. However, the Nigerian market struggles with efficient identity systems, over 100 million Nigerians, or a little less than half the population do not have any form of recognized ID. And following the economic slump over the last eight years, many households are barely clinging to whatever funds they have after spending on rent, food, and other necessities. A June 2021 report showed 61% of the country’s adult population suffered “severe financial distress” over the previous 12 months, forcing many to cut down on expenses.”

($) Norway Was a Pandemic Success. Then It Spent Two Years Studying Its Failures. “Norway’s government had the foresight during the first days of Covid-19 to appoint a panel called the Koronakommisjonen. Its mission was figuring out what the Norwegians did, what they could have done and what they should do. This crisis was barely under way when they began preparing for the next one. The next lesson from the Koronakommisjonen reports is the power of not pretending to know more than you do. Nobody really knew anything early in the pandemic. Anybody claiming otherwise should have known better.”

Mediterranean Diet Reduces Depression In Young Men, Study Says. One of the things I want to try till the end of the year is to try Mediterranean diet

Behind the scenes of Waymo’s worst automated truck crash. I have always believed that we are still a long way from having automated vehicles on the streets. Nothing has made me changed that belief, not even a little bit.

Stats

“Ground beef prices are up 36% from a year ago, while chicken breasts gained by a third”

Klarna is reportedly valued at $6.5 billion, down from $45 billion in 2021. Talk about a new definition of a down round

Source: Self.inc

Weekly reading – 1st January 2022

Happy New Year! No matter where you are in the world, if you come across this little blog of mine, I wish you and yours a great year ahead with lots of health, luck and happiness. Also, with Covid finally behind us! Welcome to my first post in 2022!

What I wrote last week

Review of my 2021

Super Apps

Business

Thanks to podcasts, Spotify is the fastest-growing music service in the US, according to Morgan Stanley survey. “From 2019 to 2021, the streaming giant’s share of the average American’s listening hours increased from 7 per cent to 10 per cent, well behind AM/FM radio and YouTube, but strong among younger consumers who will make up the bulk of listeners over the next decade.”

American Airlines, Saddled With Debt and Growing Pains, Turns to New CEO. “Among airline executives, Mr. Isom is known for drilling down into details. A metric known as d-zero—when flights push back from the gate exactly on time or early—became a rallying cry under Mr. Isom, though it is something American has struggled with at times. Kerry Philipovitch, who worked for Mr. Isom at American until 2019, recalled Mr. Parker and CFO Derek Kerr marveling at how early Mr. Isom arrived at a company event, pointing out his prime parking spot. Ms. Philipovitch said: “That’s Robert. He works really hard. He’s going to get there early.”

Here’s What Happened to Biotech This Year. “Below is the harsh reality laid out in a chart. While the total return of the S&P 500 Index is up 29.4% year-to-date through December 27 (as represented by the SPY ETF that tracks it), the S&P Biotechnology Select Industry Index is down -18.2% over the same period (as represented by the XBI ETF that tracks it). In fact, biotech is the worst performing of any of the 11 S&P 500 sectors this year (note: XBI is equal weighted. Within the biotech community, it is generally believed to represent the performance of typical mid-to-small cap biotech stocks)”

The Super League Debacle Forced Manchester United’s American Owners to Listen to Fans. Football or soccer as it is called in the U.S is a business in which a drought of titles and a period of mediocrity can have major implications. When a club goes without a trophy for a while, great players don’t want to spend precious years at the club. Worse, they go to the competitors to help them win more titles and inflict more pain. The vicious cycle is very hard to break. Manchester United has been in that cycle since 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson retired. The club hasn’t won a major trophy and it has lost its mojo. Prominent players don’t consider the club in the same breadth as the elite any more. It’s all down to the American club owners who don’t have the right management skill or the football culture in them. Everything is commercial. I am extremely sad to see how the club falls from grace

Apple ditched Intel, and it paid off. Taking control of an important technology stack such as the chips is a strategic masterpiece from Apple. They no longer have to rely on a dinosaur such as Intel while deepening their moat. Who else can compete with Apple in combining one of the most iconic brands in history, hardware expertise, the total control of operating systems, the network of retail stores, the world-class capability in supply chain and now an amazingly efficient chip?

Google and Tech Rivals Tap Cash Reserves to Realize Cloud Ambitions. While Amazon relies on AWS for margin, Google and Microsoft have no shortage of profitable segments to help their cloud departments catch up with a formidable rival. If you are not a first market mover, you gotta use the tools available to you.

Facebook’s Pushback: Stem the Leaks, Spin the Politics, Don’t Say Sorry. Facebook deploying the “divide and conquer” strategy with our lawmakers successfully is just surreal.

A Look Back at Q3 ’21 Public Cloud Software Earnings. A very informative post on public cloud software companies. Have a read if it’s your cup of tea

Other stuff I find interesting

Oscars: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Team Plans Best Picture Push, Tom Holland Open to Hosting. I am glad that Tom Holland, Kevin Feige and co fought for their work and the work of their colleagues in making these Marvel movies because I find it weird that some don’t consider them “art”. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a great movie. The box office and the online reviews say the same thing. Now that it’s likely a potential for Oscar nominations, would anybody come out and say it’s still not art?

New York City bans natural gas in new buildings. It all sounds well and good on paper for environmentalists as new buildings are banned from using natural gas. However, there are second-order effects as “New York’s move to all-electric buildings could mean a higher price tag for consumers using electricity for heat than those relying on gas. This winter, the average household in the U.S. Northeast is expected to pay $1,538 to heat their home with electricity, compared with gas at about $865. Almost half of the power generated in New York State so far this year came from burning fossil fuels (45% from gas and 4% from oil), with another 24% from nuclear and 22% from hydropower, according to federal energy data.”

In Hamburg, Surviving Climate Change Means Living With Water

Japan’s Paper Culture. “Old, traditional ways of using paper are still prevalent, from the gohei (a paper offering made to gods) in shrines, to the shūgi-bukuro (money envelopes) given at celebrations, and New Year’s cards. In more modern uses, purchases are typically made with cash; important documents are faxed rather than emailed; and nearly everyone uses hanko, a personalized stamp used in lieu of a signature.”

Stats

No new homes in November 2021 were under $200,000

37% of the world’s population have never used the Internet

Holiday spending in the U.S in 2021 increased by 8.5% compared to the same period last year. eCommerce retail spending rose by 11%

54% of adults in the United States have prose literacy below the 6th-grade level“. Prose literacy level refers to the ability to read and comprehend materials such as news stories or manuals.

Walmart drew one in four dollars spent on click and collect — with room to grow in 2022

Companies on Apple’s App Tracking Transparency

Apple introduced App Tracking Transparency (ATT) in iOS14.6 several months ago. The idea is that any app that wants to track users even after users stop using the app has to ask for permission. If permission isn’t granted, the app or developers can’t follow users around off premise. Such a lack of signal could result in weakened…tracking, targeting, measure and of course, advertisers’ income. Since the introduction of ATT, some advertisers and developers have voiced fierce criticisms towards Apple for abusing its power. The criticisms grew harsher after Apple debuted its own advertising network. Even though Apple doesn’t rely on 3rd party data for tracking, the move and the awkward timing make it look like Apple doesn’t do it for user privacy, but merely for its own pocket. Privacy proponents, on the other hand, praise this move by Apple as it gives the end users a choice to allow tracking or not. Both sides have strong opinions. But what do the stakeholders have to say? How have companies been affected by the change from Apple?

In this post, I’ll cite as many opinions from relevant parties in this debate as I can, so readers can form their own opinion. I’ll add my own thoughts on this debate in the end

Again, look, I think from our perspective, we haven’t really seen a negative impact of the Apple changes. As we said before, it’s beginning to become a more complex world from a data and privacy perspective.I think that makes the advice to give our clients more important. It will have an impact on individual media owners, depending on their business model. And I think those that have been impacted have been those companies that tend to have sort of a big app download business, which is linked very carefully to the ability to track what’s happening. That’s not part of the business in which we really operate, so I think accounts for the — perhaps the surprises that you saw there.

WPP CEO Mark Read – Q3 Earnings Call

Yes. So for us, it didn’t really have much of an impact. We did — like a lot of people, we’re very aware of it. We have a very big brand business which wasn’t significantly impacted at all. And the fact that we are — have a ton of first-party data with all of our users being logged into the service really helped us grow. So we didn’t really see much of an impact at all. We don’t see much going forward, although we’ll continue to monitor it. And Q4, for us, the biggest impact on Q4 will just be continued growth in podcast and in inventory. We know the demand is there. We know the advertisers are there.So for us, it’s just continuing to expand the inventory available for advertisers.

Spotify CFO Paul Vogel – Q3 2021 Earnings Call

Let me also spend a moment on ATT. We continue to see opportunities around personalization on Twitter as we better leverage our unique signal to improve people’s experience and show their more effective ads across both brand and direct response. The revenue impact we experienced from ATT in Q3 increased on a sequential basis but remains modest. The impact of ATT is likely to vary across ad platforms given the unique mix of ad formats, signal and remediations on each as well as other factors, the mitigations we put in place and the speed with which we’ve adopted new standards like the SKAdNetwork and resulting changes across our technical stack have contributed to minimizing the impact to us.

Since the launch of ATT in April, we’ve invested in supporting SKAdNetwork, opening up 30%-plus more inventory and scale on iOS and launch support for view-through attribution and SK Campaign ID management features in the Twitter ads manager. It’s still too early for Twitter to assess the long-term impact of Apple’s privacy-related IOS changes, but the Q3 revenue impact was lower than expected, and we’ve incorporated an ongoing modest impact into our Q4 guidance. We’ve seen our revenue product development, both related to and distinct from ATT, improved the performance of our products, and we expect that to continue.

Twitter CFO Ned Segal – Q3 2021 Earnings Call

In terms of the iOS 14 changes specifically, they had a modest impact on YouTube revenues. That was primarily in direct response. I think as you all know well, focusing on privacy has been core to what we’ve been doing consistently

Alphabet/Google CEO Ruth Porat – Q3 2021 Earnings Call

Rich, thanks so much for the question and share your disappointment. This has definitely been a frustrating setback for us. But I think over the long term, these privacy changes and protecting privacy for users of iOS and, of course, the Snapchat community is really important to the long-term health of the ecosystem and something that we fully support.

I think when we saw these changes coming, our primary focus was the performance of our advertising platform in the face of this signal loss. So could we still really drive advertising performance, optimize campaigns, make sure our ads were in front of the right people. And we spent the vast majority of our engineering time and effort and energy making sure our ads were still really effective. And we did all sorts of revenue back testing to make sure that we could be revenue neutral. And we were really confident in our ability to drive results with our advertising platform despite the signal loss.

But what I think we really underestimated were the tooling changes. And so what I mean by that specifically is that advertisers have essentially for a long time now, used a set of really sophisticated tools to measure and optimize their campaigns. So that allows them to test out a bunch of different creative and see what’s performing more effectively and so on and so forth. And the big change there was that with these new Apple changes, those tools were essentially rendered blind. And in their place, Apple released a new product called SKAdNetwork that allows advertisers to measure across different advertising platforms but without a lot of the flexibility that they’re used to. So for example, you can only really measure your advertising results using the success parameters that Apple is already defined. The reporting is delayed for a significant period of time and often unavailable, if you don’t hit a certain threshold of conversion. It’s very hard to see performance on a creative level.

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel – Q3 2021 Earnings Call

A dozen e-commerce companies interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they now have to spend a lot more money on these ads to get the same number of sales from them that they could expect before the new feature was rolled out. They also can’t get enough data to know how effective these ads are at driving purchases. Many have reduced their ad spending on targeted-ad platforms. In a July poll of 118 e-commerce store owners by eCommerceFuel, 62% said they had decreased their Facebook ad spending since the iOS upgrade.

Source: WSJ

We’ve been open about the fact that there were headwinds coming, and we’ve experienced that in Q3. The biggest is the impact of Apple iOS 14 changes, which has created headwinds for others in the industry as well, major challenges for small businesses and advantaged Apple’s own advertising business. We started to see that impact in Q2, but adoption on the consumer side ramped up by late June, so it hit critical mass in Q3.

Overall, if it wasn’t for Apple’s iOS 14 changes, we would have seen positive quarter-over-quarter revenue growth. And while we and our advertisers will continue to feel the effect of these changes in future quarters, we will continue working hard to mitigate them.

On targeting, we focused on improving campaign performance even with the increased limitations facing our industry. We’re building commerce tools to help businesses reach more new customers and get more incremental sales. And over the longer term, we’re developing privacy-enhancing technologies in collaboration with others across the industry to help minimize the amount of personal information we process while still allowing us to show relevant ads. Progress in these areas will take time and will be a focus for us throughout 2022 and beyond.On measurement, as we wrote in a recent blog post, we believe we are underreporting iOS web conversions. This means real-world conversions like sales and app installs are higher than what’s being reported from many advertisers, especially small advertisers. We’re making good progress fixing this. We think we’ll be able to address more than half of the underreporting by the end of this year, and we’ll continue to work on this into 2022.

Facebook COO Shreyl Sandberg – Q3 2021 Earnings Call

Kathy Huberty: And Tim, as a follow-up. We recently surveyed 4,000 consumers in the U.S. and China, and the feedback is most of them don’t want to pay for apps or services direct with the developer. They value the security, privacy, ease of transactions with the App Store. So how do you think about balancing the regulators push for more choice with a customer base that’s happy with the existing experience?

Tim Cook: The main thing that we’re focused on, on the App Store is to keep our focus on privacy and security. And so these are the 2 major tenets that have produced over the years a very trusted environment where consumers and developers come together and consumers can trust the developers on the developers and the apps or what they say they are and the developers get a huge audience to sell their software to. And so that’s sort of #1 on our list. Everything else is a distant second.

Apple Q4 2021 Earnings Call

My take

This issue features different stakeholders with varied interests. Even from the advertiser side, companies receive the change from Apple in various ways, depending on whether they are affected by it more or less than their rivals. Hence, when it comes to the question of whether ATT is a net benefit change, then we have to ask: for whom? For consumers, I do think it’s a great development. The surveillance tracking has been the standard practice in digital advertising for years. However, it doesn’t have to continue this way in the future. Consumers used to not have a say in the matter. Now they do. The choice is totally up to them and I think it’s great.

For businesses that rely on digital marketing, it’s undeniable that there is a short-term pain. As you can see above, some have to invest more money in digital ads for the same result. While I feel for them, the fact and the matter is that changes in external environments are part of doing business. Something that business owners have to encounter and overcome.

Regarding advertisers, I’ll say the same thing. The big change has finally arrived. Advertisers can either adapt to a society that is more conscious of privacy or keep complaining. Based on the commentary above, some advertisers have had little adverse impact so far from ATT. They invested in new tools, first-party data, distribution and products to overcome the obstacle. Even Facebook, the biggest whiner, also talked about how they tried to minimize the impact on their business. I don’t blame Facebook or any advertiser for vocal opposition. They do what they have to for their interest. But if millions of dollars is created in spite of violation of consumer privacy, then perhaps it’s time to change.

For Apple, even though apps and developers are important stakeholders in their ecosystems, the number one priority is still consumers. Whether you like Apple or not, the company is trusted by consumers, especially on the privacy front. For years, they have implemented services, software and hardware features that promote privacy. Because of this track record, for the time being, I believe in Apple. Of course, the company also wants to grow their highly profitable advertising network. Where Apple earns credit is that they manage to find a sweet spot that overlaps the two interests. With that being said, the introduction of Apple Search Ads after ATT plants the seed of doubt over their motive. Does it mean that what Apple did is inherently wrong? Not really. Companies exist to make money and look out for their and their shareholders’ interest. Apple is doing what it believes to be the best for their business. Is Apple a bit too much when it speaks from an ivory tower while launching its own ads network? Yeah, but that’s what every corporate Marketing department does.

Based on what I have seen so far, and I will continue to follow this issue, the advent of ATT is a significant change with big consequences in eCommerce, mobile ads and digital ads. I think a year from now, we will not decry ATT as something that wrecks peoples’ livelihood. Instead, it will bring about positive changes and innovation. Perhaps a similar move from Android within the next 2,3 quarters?

Disclaimer: I have a position on Apple, Facebook, Snapchat, Spotify

Weekly reading – 7th August 2021

What I wrote last week

I wrote about why credit card issuers should try to get into consumer digital wallets

Business

Pearson bets on direct-to-student subscription shift. I am never a fan of publishers like Pearson for a simple reason: books are murderously expensive in the U.S. In addition to the sky-high tuition fees, students have to pay easily a few hundred dollars or a thousand dollars a semester for books alone. There are ways to go around that challenge, but sometimes these guys work with professors and students are left with no choice, but to make a big splash on books. Pearson seems to be aware of the unsustainability of their current model. By going straight to students, they can establish a direct relationship and avoid relying too much on educational institutions. $15/month means students can pay $75/semester for access to all the books required. However, there are other publishers on the market. If students must get books from multiple sources, it can dilute the appeal of this new service from Pearson. I really look forward to seeing how this strategic move will pan out in the future.

Apple Is Now an Antifragile Company. A nice article on how shrewd Apple is when it comes to securing its chip supply while other struggle. I feel that not enough has been said about what a great job Apple’s management team has been doing. It takes a great deal of discipline to use billions of cash wisely quarter after quarter. The executives also have the foresight to develop their own chip M1 to keep more control of their fate and avoid being in the mercy of Intel. Additionally, the decision to make forward orders in bulk in advance has proven to superior. While others cite the struggle with chip supply as the reason for their relative subdued performance, Apple still posted strong results.

Music labels split over Spotify’s push to promote songs for lower royalties. I haven’t used the Discovery Mode yet, so I don’t know what it is like. I did have a less than stellar experience with the Spotify app; which I haven’t used for a long time. It’s not user-friendly at all. And if what is reported in the article is true, as a shareholder, I’ll be very disappointed. Sacrificing the user experience and the integrity of an algorithm like that over lower royalties and higher margin isn’t in the long-term best interest for the company, in my view.

Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal wrestle with balancing the value of cable networks and streaming services. I don’t think streaming is the best place for a newcomer with one cash cow to enter. The likes of Apple can arrive late at the part and compete because they have enormous resources and streaming isn’t their top 5 or 7 revenue stream.

The Verge interview with YouTube Chief Product Officer.

5 charts show Amazon’s growing logistics network as it puts inventory closer to consumers. Some great data and information, but I don’t think Amazon is playing the same game as Walmart. Operating huge stores with a lot of SKUs is not Amazon’s strength, at least compared to Walmart, for now. I don’t think it’s wise for Amazon to get into that arena. What I think Amazon is plowing money into is the last mile delivery. If groceries are what needs delivering, they are building out Amazon Go shops and can leverage Whole Foods footprint. However, if we are talking about non-grocery items, then Amazon is taking a very different approach to Walmart and staying at what Amazon has been great at: an online store with great customer services and unrivaled last-mile delivery network

What I found interesting

U.S. generates more plastic trash than any other nation. The amount of plastic bags in supermarkets in the U.S such as Target or Walmart staggered me. I don’t understand why they don’t implement policies that encourage shoppers to bring their own bags or boxes like Aldi does. At Aldi, you have to bring your own bag unless you are willing to pay for one every single time. I don’t think shoppers are bothered by that. If the likes of Target and Walmart can join the fight against unnecessary use of plastic, it’ll be a huge step forward given the reach and size of these retailers.

London’s Crossrail Is a $21 Billion Test of Virtual Modeling. Technology is mind-blowing. So is human imagination

Stats that may interest you

Luggage sales are up more than 460% year over year (Q1 2021)  on Amazon while swimwear sales have more than doubled year over year as of March and April 2021

From 2006 to 2021 per-capita volume consumption of juice and nectars in the U.S. declined 36%

Weekly reading – 27th February 2021

What I wrote last week

I reviewed The Spotify Play

Business

Profile of Bumble CEO

Interview with Spotify CEO, Daniel Elk

Frozen food sales have been boosted by Covid-19

When Did Generic Grocery Brands Get So Good Looking?

CBS and Showtime have a combined 30 million subscribers. Paramount+ with ads will go live with ads at $5/month in March and $10/month without ads in June

AT&T and TPG: There is No Why

What I found interesting

A COVID-19 vaccine life cycle: from DNA to doses

A look into Zuck and Kaplan’s influence on content moderation policies

Massive experiment shows why ticket sellers hit you with last-second fees

Sheryl Sandberg and Top Facebook Execs Silenced an Enemy of Turkey to Prevent a Hit to the Company’s Business

Abandoned houses in Japan can be bought for cheap as a get-away destination, but upgrading them can be very expensive

How Uber Deals with Large iOS App Size

Stats you may find interesting

Electric vehicles in the US reached 1.8% market share in 2020

This one stat is more horrifying than interesting. US exceeded 500,000 lives lost due to Covid-19

40% of Disney+ subscriber base are in the US. Because India is responsible for another 30% of the streamer’s subscriber count, the other markets such as Latin America and Europe combined make up 30% of its subscribers

86% of iPhones introduced in the last 4 years are on iOS14

Book review: The Spotify Play: How Daniel Elk Beat Apple, Google & Amazon In The Race For Audio Dominance

As Spotify is one of the stocks in my portfolio, I have extra motivation to read this book. To get to know more about this company that is largely shrouded by secrecy. The book was written by a couple of Swedish interviews through many interviews and investigation of filings. It’s normal to read this kind of unofficial account of a company with a grain of salt or some skepticism, but it’s far from easy to write about a company when current or former employees are shackled by NDAs and when the founders or executives refuse to cooperate.

The book covered Spotify’s history from the very beginning to when it started to increase investments in podcasts. It started with Spotify’s founders, Daniel Elk and Martin Lorentzon, who each sold a startup and became a couple of millionaires, before they even worked together on a secret idea that would later become Spotify. Back when it just got off the ground, there was no playbook for a music streaming service like Spotify, well not legally. Hence, the young startup had to engineer both an app that was user-friendly and a business model that could yield profitability and work well with music labels. As Daniel Elk insisted on, for the right reason, having a free version of Spotify, which let users stream music for free, music labels in the beginning were highly skeptical and reluctant to cooperate. The prospect of Spotify generating enough ads money on the other side of the business to pay loyalties wasn’t appealing at best or practical at least. Through negotiations with the powerful music labels, Spotify came up with their Freemium model that still exists to this day.

“Eventually, Daniel had to compromise by adding a paid service. Three people at Spotify drove him to that shift in strategy: Spotify’s “dynamic duo”—Niklas Ivarsson and Petra Hansson—and the New York-based advisor Ken Parks. After scores of meetings with labels and legal consultants, they are said to have convinced Daniel that a paid version was the only way forward. The alternative would simply cost too much, in both cash and company shares, and never lead to a sustainable business. The freemium model that would define Spotify was thus born out of a tit-for-tat dialogue with the labels, with Niklas and Petra painstakingly hammering out the details of a new template. The industry hated the free service, but was prepared to put up with it as a means to an end, with Spotify vowing to convert free users to an ad-free, premium version.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

In the first few years of its existence, Spotify came close to being belly up financially a couple of times. Back in the latter half of the 2000s, Spotify’s model was a new concept to investors. An investment in Spotify without an agreement with major music labels presented a significant risk. If Spotify had operated without official licenses, it would have embroiled itself and investors’ money in a mountain of legal trouble. Yet, just before the 2008 financial crisis hit, the company labored to put together a funding deal to keep the lights on.

At the Spotify office, around forty employees toasted to the news with glasses of sparkling wine. Daniel was visibly relieved, according to one account.

“That was lucky. If we hadn’t gotten funded, you guys wouldn’t have received your salaries,” he reportedly told his colleagues afterward.

In fact, the timing was immaculate. A few months later, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, setting off the worst financial crisis in more than seventy years.

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

A few years later, death came close again. This time, it was the ability to see shift in consumer behavior and to react fast that saved Spotify. After the iPhone was invented in 2007, a few years later, consumers started to consume music more on their little computers that could sit comfortable in their hands or pockets. Spotify at the time only had a desktop version. The company’s analytics team found out that their customers didn’t spend enough time on the desktop version on their mobile to be converted into paid users. If they hadn’t reacted and desktop use had kept plummeted, their revenue would have dropped. Without an expansion in paid users, Spotify would have had a hard time convincing potential investors for more cash. The trouble became compounded because having a mobile version required additional licenses from music labels. Somehow, the company pulled through what Daniel Elk called “switching out the engines mid-flight”

“At Jarla House in Stockholm, the analytics team had set up a wide range of dashboards visualizing the music service’s performance in real time. Starting in early 2012, Henrik and his team watched as the inflow of new users switched from desktop—where they could listen for free—to mobile, where Spotify only offered a free trial for forty-eight hours. That clearly wasn’t enough time to convert them into subscribers. Of the new users who tried Spotify on a smartphone, only a small percent would stay on and pay for the service. The conversion rate on desktop—the backbone of Spotify’s business—was much higher. But that was of little comfort if desktop use would keep dropping dramatically.”

“During the summer of 2012, music listening on Spotify plateaued as it usually did during the season. But when fall began, a growing number of users did not return. The analytics team suspected that a large number of them were now using their computers less often, opting for their phones instead. It was an early indication that the massive shift to mobile computing was beginning to pick up speed.”

“At this point, Spotify’s licensing team had spent more than six months negotiating deals for what they called a “mobile free tier.” It was not an easy task. While the record labels were making hundreds of millions of dollars every year in payouts from Spotify, they still disliked the idea of millions of people listening to music without ever being forced to pay. Now, Spotify wanted to expand their free service to include all smartphones, not just the ones belonging to paying subscribers.”

“The data became more and more distressing for Spotify. In the late summer of 2013, more listeners went “mobile only,” by now a common term. Smartphones now appeared to have become a real alternative to computers. Gustav Söderström would later describe this period as “the summer when Europe went mobile. Spotify’s number of active users—the lifeline that kept investors funding the company—was now shrinking. Internal estimates showed that Spotify’s user growth nearly halted between the second and third quarters of 2013.”

“A few years later, Daniel would admit that Spotify would have gone bust within six months if things hadn’t changed. To him, this was one of Spotify’s crowning achievements. Originally conceived as a desktop product, the company managed to adapt to the mobile era—and they did it “mid-flight,” under constant pressure from competitors and from the music industry, which at this time still swallowed around 80 percent of all of Spotify’s revenues.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

The book also touched upon various topics such as challenging negotiations with the music labels, struggle to convince artists that Spotify’s interest was aligned with them, the fight against Apple, the effort to overcome operational chaos before IPO and the negotiations to acquire Soundcloud & Tidal that didn’t come through. Personally, I was interested in the book because I liked to study businesses and as mentioned, because I own Spotify stock. This isn’t an official account approved by the company. Consequently, I am not very sure how much of what was written is true. I don’t believe the authors were out to spread rumors, but on the other hand, I cannot have 100% confidence either. The writing is nothing spectacular. The beginning of Spotify was covered at length, but its more recent history didn’t receive as much attention. Furthermore, I don’t really think the title is correct. Yes, Spotify is a known brand, especially with young audience nowadays, but it’s a long way from being the dominant force in audio. Whoever will emerge victorious in the audio streaming war still remains to be seen. Hence, I would give it a 3/5, but would not put it under the “I highly recommend” category.

“The many problems varied. Spotify had grown quickly, and its organizational structure was, in places, haphazard. Its internal accounting system would have fit a medium-sized business operating in a handful of countries, but not a global market leader with business in nearly sixty countries. If a staffer in the finance department wanted to break down marketing costs for a single country for the year 2014, there would be no way of doing it.

Moreover, it was difficult for Spotify to accurately estimate its own costs. Over the coming years, the company would retroactively write up their royalty payments by more than $60 million due to accounting errors. Spotify had a hard time forecasting how the business would perform. During some quarters, subscriber growth came in well below its own estimates; during others, the number of subscribers surged past the growth team’s targets.”

“A number of sources interviewed for this book would describe how Daniel had a hard time knowing how to handle dustups among his lieutenants. Nearly a decade after Spotify started making big-name hires, many continued to recount how Daniel would let conflicts fester until the warring parties found their own solution. It was, still, a kind of natural selection in a corporate setting. The atmosphere is toxic at times. Daniel tends to give people overlapping responsibilities, then he lets them fight over who gets to do the work,” as one person would recall.

”No one is actually accountable for anything because virtually all decisions must take place though a bewildering process of group consensus, where people who are ignorant of the topic at hand somehow have just as much of a say as the experts,” one former employee at the New York office would post in November of 2019.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

Deal with Sony

“Secret internal documents, which would not emerge until the publication of the Swedish edition of this book, reveal that Sony had negotiated an option—triggered four years down the line—to purchase what would amount to 2.5 percent of Spotify at a heavy discount. The label’s payoff came in the spring of 2015, when Sony paid just under $8 million for shares that, a few months later, would become worth twenty-five times more. Largely as a result of this deal, Sony would become the label with the largest Spotify holdings by the time the company went public in 2018.”

“For the right to stream Sony’s music catalogue in the US, Spotify agrees to pay a $25 million advance for the two-year duration of the contract: $9 million the first year, and $16 million the second. The advance is to be paid in installments every three months, and Spotify can only recoup this money if it meets or beats its revenue targets. The contract, however, does not stipulate how Sony Music can use the advance money. Some industry insiders claim that advance money is generally spent on things other than payouts to artists. Others wonder what happens to the “breakage,” or the part of the advance that is left with the label, when Spotify fails to reach its revenue goals. Is it attributed to streams and distributed to artists, or kept entirely by the label?”

“The contract also stipulates that Spotify give Sony free ad space worth $9 million over three years. Sony can use that space to promote its own artists or resell it at any price they want. Spotify also promises to make a further $15 million of ads available for purchase by Sony at a discounted rate. On top of this, Spotify must also offer Sony a portion of its unsold ad inventory for free, to allow the label to promote its artists.”

“The contract also states that Spotify’s smallest payout per stream will be 0.2 cents. But this measure can’t be used to calculate how much Spotify pays for the artists’ streams. It’s only used when it results in a larger payout than the label’s regular cut of Spotify’s total revenue. In essence, it’s a type of minimum guarantee. If too many users get stuck in the free tier, and Spotify’s average revenue per user falls below a certain level, Sony Music can ask to be paid per stream instead.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

Weekly reading – 5th December 2020

What I wrote last week

The three changes I made to my lifestyle during Covid

Business

Shopify’s Black Friday sales in 2020 exceeded $2.4 billion, a 75% growth year over year

Reddit now has 52 million daily active users, up by 44% YoY

An excellent piece on the longevity of some amazing small businesses in Japan. A mochi shop that has been around for more than 1,000 years? You read that right. 1,000 years, not 10, not 100, not 500. 1000! And many of them maintain enough in reserve to continue operations for 2 years in case there is an economic downturn.

Some great statistics on Spotify’s podcast ecosystem

Apple officially launched their new App Store Small Business Program. An important detail to note is that the $1million threshold is after Apple takes its cut, not before. Hence, it will give many developers more breathing room.

How Apple approached its retail stores during Covid

Technology

A deep dive into why M1 is so fast

What I found interesting

A Russian female chess player beat known male players in the 1920s and 1930s, apparently the inspiration for the series “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix

A horrifying account of how hospitals are struggling to keep up with the rising number of Covid-19 patients. It’s unfathomably insane to read, like a fictional story, not what actually is transpiring.

100 powerful pictures of 2020 by Reuters

The Sistine Chapel of South America. It looks utterly amazing

Derek Thomson of the Atlantic wrote about Democrats’ problems and what is wrong with the Electoral College. Read the excerpt below. If you support the GOP, then it’s good news. But if the shoe is on the other foot, as in the case for Democratic voters, saying that it is unfair is a massive understatement

The GOP currently holds both Senate seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Those 11 states have 22 senators who collectively represent fewer people than the population of California, which has two Senate seats.

In the 2018 midterms, Democratic Senate candidates won 18 million more votes than Republicans nationwide, and the party still lost two net Senate seats.

One analysis of Census Bureau data projected that by 2040, roughly half of the population will be represented by 16 senators; the other, more rural half will have 84 senators at their disposal.

Source: The Atlantic

Weekly readings – 15th August 2020

What I wrote last week

I wrote a bit about Epic Games vs Apple, Goldman Sachs’ inroad further into consumer credit card world and the potential departure from California of the likes of Uber & Lyft

A historic day for America when Kamala Harris was named as Biden’s Vice President Candidate

My thought on Disney’s latest quarter

Business

Horace Dediu wrote a blog post answering some questions on Apple’s cash strategy

A long and informative deep dive into TikTok and what makes it great

Another deep dive by Turner Novak on Pinduoduo

Nick Sleep on Costco

Meet the Woman Who Got Joe Rogan and Michelle Obama to Spotify

Netflix Business Model & Economics 

A thread on why Avalara has real competitive advantages

Technology

Here’s why Apple believes it’s an AI leader—and why it says critics have it all wrong

How the government’s new real-time payments system could transform commerce

Apple wins a Patent for a Possible Dual Display MacBook Supporting a Virtual Keyboard & more

A potentially life-changing technology for visually-impaired folks

What’s going on with Apple Maps

What I find interesting

An inside look at a data analytics firm that Mike Bloomberg is using to help Democrats

The 19th-century entrepreneur who pioneered modern ice cream

A very long and interesting post on the bombing of Hiroshima and what was happening at the time based on recollections of a few survivors

Giant American Cars Don’t Belong on the Streets of the Future

How Taiwan’s Unlikely Digital Minister Hacked the Pandemic

Weekly readings – 20th June 2020

What I wrote

I wrote about the new partnership between Walmart and Shopify

Arguably the hottest topic in tech this week is the saga between Apple and Hey

I also talked a bit about Verisign, a company that makes most of the Internet work properly

If you are interested in Quick-Service-Restaurant franchise, I wrote about operating margin that can be expected by a franchisee

A couple of quick tutorials on SQL and rolling average in Power BI

Business

If You Want Hertz, Have Some Hertz

How Robinhood Convinced Millennials to Trade Their Way Through a Pandemic. Robinhood now has 10+ million users and has become a phenomenon lately

The Observer Effect’s interview with Marc Andreessen

Stemming from the interview above, I found Marc’s previous post on productivity hack

A great post on Structured Procrastination

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

Source: Structured Procrastination

The Risk of Outsourced Thinking

Google and HTTP

The Case for ARM-Based Macs

Amazon asks court to block former AWS marketing VP from working on Google Cloud Next speeches

How Large Is the Apple App Store Ecosystem?

Other stuff

The Death of Engagement. A good read on America’s foreign policy with China over the last administrations

A collection of free books from Springer

In Japan and France, Riding Transit Looks Surprisingly Safe

Architects have designed a Martian city for the desert outside Dubai

Apple’s fall-out with Hey and the “Apple Tax”

If you follow tech Twitter, you likely won’t miss one of the big stories today: Hey’s fight with Apple. Hey is a new email service developed by Basecamp and was launched a couple of days ago. Right now, the only way to use Hey is to get invited on its website and pay for a subscription. The app was rejected by Apple twice because there is no in-app purchase option through which users could pay to use the service and through which Apple could financially benefit by taking its standard 30% cut. Apple issued an ultimatum: comply with our rules or get removed from App Store, along with access to millions of people who own Apple device. There are a few issues at hand here, so I’ll go through it one by one.

Before we begin, a bit of disclaimer right upfront: I own Apple’s stock in my portfolio, but I don’t think I am too partial to the company here. You’ll be the judge.

So, what are the rules?

Here is what Apple says in their guidelines

3.1.1 In-App Purchase:

If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, (by way of example: subscriptions, in-game currencies, game levels, access to premium content, or unlocking a full version), you must use in-app purchase. Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc. Apps and their metadata may not include buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms other than in-app purchase.

Source: Apple

And

3.1.3(a) “Reader” Apps: Apps may allow a user to access previously purchased content or content subscriptions (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as classroom management apps), provided that you agree not to directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase, and your general communications about other purchasing methods are not designed to discourage use of in-app purchase.

3.1.3(b) Multiplatform Services: Apps that operate across multiple platforms may allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired in your app on other platforms or your web site, including consumable items in multiplatform games, provided those items are also available as in-app purchases within the app. You must not directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase, and your general communications about other purchasing methods must not discourage use of in-app purchase.

Source: Apple

I am not a lawyer, but based on the text above which was referred to by Apple in correspondence to Hey indicates that consumers can still use services from apps like Hey, even though they are not acquired in-app, provided that in-app purchase is an option and not discriminated by app creators. My understanding of the issue here is that, barring any unpublished behind-the-scene details, Apple wanted Hey to add in-app purchase, but the email service refused to.

Here is the communication between the two

Clearly, when a consumer is presented with an option to buy goods or services in app, he or she will jump at it. Apple prohibits languages that discourage the use of in-app purchases. As a consequence, text such as “you can subscribe here, but it will help us more if you do on our website” will likely be banned. Because of those two factors, it’s understandable that Hey doesn’t want to have an in-app purchase. Most of the time, consumers will choose that option and Hey will have no choice, but to give Apple the commission. From Apple’s point of view, without forcing apps to include in-app purchase as an option, what app would voluntarily shoot itself in the foot and lose 30% of revenue? Also, it’s certainly not a good user experience to juggle back and forth between a website and an app, especially for new users that don’t subscribe yet to an app.

What I think is problematic are

  • The inconsistency in their handling that makes the rules look arbitrary and their enforcement look like an abuse of power
  • By making users, after downloading an app, go to a website to subscribe and then come back to use the app, Apple creates friction; which becomes problematic in the context of an app competing with Apple’s own service such as Spotify (which I will talk about later).

“Why do we have to pay while some others get a special treatment?”

One of the main arguments from the CTO of Basecamp is that there are other apps that get a special treatment from Apple and can bypass the rules on in-app purchases. Why is there such an inconsistent enforcement of the rules?

This is indeed frustrating. I tried Fastmail and Spark on my phone. You have to pay for Fastmail on a browser first before you can log in on its mobile version. Spark app is available to use, but there is no in-app purchase option that I can find. The same applies to Netflix. While it’s not a fair comparison between Hey and a household name with bargaining power like Netflix, being treated differently than your peer email services is unfair and I can see why Hey folks are frustrated.

In fact, I think Hey did the exact same thing as those two email apps did. The app only has these screens

Source: Macrumors

How is that different from the likes of Fastmail, Netflix or Spotify (I’ll talk about it later)? Yes, by not having an in-app purchase, Hey violated Apple’s verbatim guidelines, but since other apps and especially some offering the same service get exempted, you can’t help but feel for Hey for being singled out. Worse, Apple threatened to delete Hey app from the App Store

Apple told me that its actual mistake was approving the app in the first place, when it didn’t conform to its guidelines. Apple allows these kinds of client apps — where you can’t sign up, only sign in — for business services but not consumer products. That’s why Basecamp, which companies typically pay for, is allowed on the ‌App Store‌ when Hey, which users pay for, isn’t. Anyone who purchased Hey from elsewhere could access it on iOS as usual, the company said, but the app must have a way for users to sign up and pay through Apple’s infrastructure. That’s how Apple supports and pays for its work on the platform.

Source: Macrumors

I still don’t see why Hey isn’t allowed on the App Store when Netflix and Spotify should have most of their users as consumers. The inconsistency in enforcement of its own rules makes the rules arbitrary and the double down makes the company look like an outrageous bully.

Does Apple deserve to earn the 15-30% commission?

A lot of folks argue that there is no reason for Apple to generally take 15-30% commission from subscriptions and digital services sold through App Store. I tend to disagree on this. Without knowing the exact details, I still think there are expenses that go into maintaining and building the App Store. Somebody will have to review apps, keep the servers up, police content, fix bugs, authenticate payments and keep the marketplace secure. You don’t want an app that uses your data for reasons unknown to you without your consent, do you? You also want to feel that your credit cards are secured when making a payment on App Store, don’t you? None of those is born out of thin air. If Apple already invests in the App Store and makes it work well with Apple devices, why can’t they reap the fruits of their labor? While 30% commission may be too high; which is a legitimate argument, saying that Apple shouldn’t take commission at all is a bridge too far for me. Why shouldn’t they profit from their own investment? Wouldn’t you feel the same way if you were in their shoes?

Some may say that the App Store increases the value of Apple devices from which Apple already profit handsomely. Hence, the company shouldn’t be too greedy by profiting on developers. Well, maybe. But another argument is that Apple also invests a lot in designing and manufacturing their hardware. They deserve to profit from their own investment, whether it’s hardware or software. To answer the question whether Apple deserves the commission, my answer will be yes. How big that commission should be is another discussion.

In fact, Apple argued, in its response to Spotify, that the majority of apps on App Store don’t pay to Apple

Source: Apple

If you look at this point objectively, you can see from Apple’s perspective, it makes sense to “ask” apps that use their secure payment method to contribute to the ecosystem. The problem stems in part from how Apple “asks”, as I mentioned above, and how their policy can be argued to favor its own services at the expense of others. Like Spotify…

Source: Apple

What about Spotify?

There is a lot of bad blood between Apple and Spotify. The music streamer even created a website detailing their complaint on Apple’s unfair practices. One of the main complaints is that by forcing Spotify to have an in-app purchase option and, as a result, handing over 30% commission to Apple, Apple is abusing its power to make Spotify’s service uncompetitive compared to Apple Music.

There are two contrasting views through which you can look at this issue. On the one hand, if Apple gave Spotify a pass because one of Apple’s services competes with the Swedish company’s, 1) the argument seems arbitrary and weak, and 2) we’d go back to the point of inconsistent application of the rules.

On the other hand, does Apple commit anti-trust practice on Spotify? Well it depends. On Spotify iOS app, users can still log in with an existing account without having to pay anything, meaning that Apple will receive no revenue from Spotify

I logged in successfully, and when I tried to upgrade my plan, here was the screen

There is no option to upgrade in-app. The only instruction is to go to Spotify website. I am not sure if the change took place recently to placate regulators, but if this has been the case, existing users can still access Spotify and new users can choose to either go to pay for subscriptions on Spotify’s website or leave. Also, while the approved language (“please go to Spotify’s official website to learn more”) here doesn’t discourage any possible in-app purchase, normal users may not understand what is the issue here. They may as well just feel discouraged to have to go to a website, subscribe and go back to the mobile app. One can argue that this extra step creates friction for potential users to sign up and subscribe for Spotify, in contrast to the virtually frictionless experience with Apple Music, which is Spotify’s competitor. Another argument is that if Spotify wants to eliminate friction, it has to pay up; which hurts margin; or it has to increase prices; which hurts its competitiveness.

You can see both sides’ points in this argument.

Summary

With regard to Hey, Apple can technically enforce the rules which clearly state that there needs to be an in-app purchase option. It gets murky because they have applied their own rules so inconsistently that Hey can’t help but feel singled out for following the exact same companies that got an exemption from Apple. The double down feels like either Hey is unfairly targeted or Apple wants a payback for the PR attack that Hey caused on them. There is a sentiment that Hey knew the rules of the platform beforehand, and likely a possibility that things would come to this point. Yet, they chose to do this and piggyback on the current public narrative against tech giants’ anti-competition behavior for publicity gain and to strong-arm Apple. I don’t know for sure, but I can certainly see where such a sentiment comes from.

The price of taking advantage of a platform is that you have to follow the platform’s rules and be at its mercy. But if Apple decides to use its power in this case, it should give a better explanation as to the inconsistent application of its own rules and start being more consistent. Otherwise, it will create bad blood between itself and a key party that contributes so much to the ecosystem. Plus, well, that’s exactly the behavior of a bully. Exert power just because it can.

Regarding the “Apple Tax” on services that compete with Apple’s, I think it will be debated and decided in court. We can have many folks argue on each side’s behalf, but like other controversial issues, we likely won’t have a solution unless a court renders a decision.