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

Super Apps

In this post, I’ll touch upon briefly the definition of a Super App, give a few examples and talk about the business implications of these apps.

The term Super Apps is generally credited to Mike Lazaridi, the founder of Blackberry, who defined it as “a closed ecosystem of many apps that people would use every day because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience”. In laymen’s terms, a Super App is an application that offers various services on one interface. While the mix of services offered by Super Apps varies from one to another, the common denominators of these apps are 1/ they are all two-sided networks popular with both merchants and consumers and 2/ they all began their journey by being excellent in one function before branching out to others. Merchants need to have access to a lot of consumers to join a network while consumers only find the network useful when there is a lot of utility, namely plenty of merchants. The chicken and egg problem of a two-sided network is hard. Therefore, the singular focus on a vertical in the beginning makes sense as start-ups can’t afford to solve this issue in multiple verticals. No-one can build a Super App right from the get-go. Once an app excels and makes a name for itself in a vertical, why not leveraging existing traffic and offering users more reasons to stick around longer?

Examples of Super Apps

WeChat

WeChat started out as a messenger app. An engineer named Allen Zhang alerted his employer Tencent on a threat of other competitors taking away its market share and app engagement. To stay competitive, WeChat transformed itself into an app on which users could do everyday things on a single interface including payments, social media, e-commerce, doctor appointments, hotel reservation or ride-hailing. The pivot was a hit as the new services surpassed even the apps that inspired WeChat in the first place. 

Facebook

Facebook and its founding story need little introduction. Over the years, Facebook has added several services to make itself stickier as a platform. Nowadays, users can shop on a marketplace or Facebook-native stores; create new connections with Facebook’s own Tinder version; make payments with Facebook Pay or consume exclusive content from creators. With its ambition and virtually limitless resources, it won’t be a surprise that Facebook or Meta will expand its offerings in the future.  

Grab

The title of grab.com reads “Grab: The Everyday Everything App”. Its status as one of the biggest Super Apps in Southeast Asia is so different from its humble beginning. Grab was founded as a taxi-hailing business in Malaysia in 2012 by two Harvard graduates. The company gradually expanded into other areas, such as other modes of ride-hailing, food delivery & nonfood delivery, travel bookings, bill payment and financial services. In Vietnam, almost everyone in big cities uses Grab for daily tasks from food delivery, ride-sharing or bill payments.

What Grab mobile app looks like in Vietnam
Figure 1 – What Grab mobile app looks like in Vietnam

Uber

Uber was founded in 2009 by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp as a ride-hailing alternative to taxies. The company’s meteoric rise saw it become a global phenomenon, but the company today is more than just a ride-hailing app. In 2014, Uber launched a food delivery service called Uber Eats, which was later rebranded under Delivery. While Covid-19 decimated the Mobility segment (ride-sharing) as riders were restricted by stay-at-home orders, the pandemic was a catalyst for the transformation of Uber as a whole. Delivery has been growing substantially due to consumers ordering food and grocery deliveries. Its gross bookings have repeatedly surpassed Mobility’s and now reaches Mobility’s pre-pandemic level. Second, the company has made strategic acquisitions to expand beyond food delivery. In June 2020, Uber acquired Cornership, a popular grocery delivery service in Latin America. A few months after, it added Postmates, which is very competitive in coastal cities and offers delivery-as-a-service for non-food items. In October 2021, Uber took over an alcohol delivery startup called Drizly. The company has been tinkering with marijuana delivery in Canada and waiting for the green light from the federal government before launching it in the U.S. Powered by the new capabilities, nonfood categories make up around 5-6% of Uber’s overall gross bookings and are expected to grow more in the future. Uber’s ambition is very simple: be the go-to app when consumers have a transportation need. 

PayPal

PayPal first made a name for itself by being a secure digital wallet and online payment system, especially as the primary checkout option on eBay. Since its spin-off from eBay in 2014, the company has added plenty of services to its mobile app and become a formidable two-sided network, due to relentless acquisitions and product development. End users can access various services on the current PayPal app, including paycheck deposit, high-interest savings, bill payment, remittance, credit cards, debit cards, in-store & online payment, BNPL, PayPal Credit, P2P payment, shopping deals and investing. PayPal’s end goal is to be the go-to Financial app for its users.

PayPal's offerings to consumers and merchants
Figure 2 – PayPal’s offerings to consumers and merchants. Source: PayPal

Cash App

Cash App started out as a P2P payment app in which users could transfer funds to anybody in the U.S. Nowadays, users can pay for purchases in stores and online with Cash App debit card and Cash App Pay; invest in stocks and cryptocurrency; or make deposits into checking accounts. In November 2020, Square bought the tax filing division of Credit Karma and subsequently added to its flagship app the ability to file taxes and receive tax refunds. In August 2021, Square paid $29 billion for Afterpay, one of the major BNPL players in Australia and in the U.S. It’s just a matter of time before Cash App turns on BNPL for its users and merchants. Cash App’s ambition is similar to PayPal’s; which makes it interesting to see how the two compete in the future.

Pros and Cons of partnering with Super Apps

Merchants stand to gain an additional payment option as well as more sales from Super Apps, but the story isn’t all rosy. Too much reliance on Super Apps means that merchants’d risk ceding the control of direct customer relationships. In business, few things are more valuable than that. Take Apple and Amazon for instance. Apple’s customer base is so loyal and attached to their brand that almost all developers or other brands take the back seat in negotiations . Amazon’s scale and iron grip on the valuable Prime base allows them to dictate terms over merchants. When you buy from a merchant on Amazon, do you feel more related to the former or the latter?

For banks, Super Apps can have adverse impact in a couple of ways. First, services such as PayPal in 4, Afterpay, PayPal Credit or PayPal/Venmo credit cards can reduce issuers’ credit card spend and subsequently balance as well as revenue. Secondly, it’s in their interest to have users maintain an in-app balance and keep funds away from banks’ checking accounts. Think about it this way: would you feel more poised to use PayPal when your PayPal balance was $20 or $0? That’s why Venmo credits dormant users $10 for downloading and logging into the app again or why Square wants users to keep tax refunds in Cash App balance. The reduction in deposits can raise banks’ cost of funds as well as threaten to cut off the most fundamental relationship with customers. 

On the other hand, Super Apps present a battleground for financial institutions vying for wallet share. Once the connection between checking accounts or debit/credit cards and these Super Apps is established, users often don’t want to go through the inconvenience of updating their default payment method. Hence, every financial institution wants to be the primary source of funds for consumers on these Super Apps to have a leg up over the competition. In this sense, Super Apps offer a business opportunity.

In summary, as you can see above, there are multiple paths towards the Super App status, whether an app’s starting point is to be in messaging, digital wallets or ride-sharing. I think all successful consumer-facing apps have ambition to gain the Super App status. If not, they’d do something wrong. It’ll be interesting to see how these Super Apps compete for mindshare as feature parity is established (meaning they all offer similar features). For merchants, working with Super Apps can be a double-edged sword. While the benefits these apps bring are very tempting, merchants need to keep in mind the risk of losing customer relationships. Like people usually say: don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Weekly readings – 30th May 2020

Source: Economist

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

A Window Onto an American Nightmare

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

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

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

Why super apps are proliferating across emerging markets

Human cost of food delivery services

Trump’s New Intelligence Chief Spells Trouble

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

Splendid isolation: a surreal sakura season

On Rafael’s never-fulfilled potential as an architect

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

What Is the Business Model for DuckDuckGo?

Canadians bike more as they leave cars at home