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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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…
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.
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.
The government’s revenue depends significantly on the tax receipts from citizens and corporations. So the revenue projection depends much on the assumptions of economic growth which seem too optimistic. It’s important to take into account the feasibility of these assumptions; which the media may not capture fully or an average citizen cares enough about