Weekly reading 18th June 2022

What I wrote last week

Interchange and what influences it

Apple and Major League Soccer

Business

($) What Do Chinese Consumers Want? Walmart Can’t Figure It Out. Almost 30 years in the country and decades of experience in this industry, Walmart seems to lose grip in China. The stores aren’t an appeal that they once were. Walmart doesn’t seem to be able to offer what consumers want. Competitors are fierce. For good measure, the tension between America and China shows no signs of abating. Trouble is awaiting the largest retailer in the world in China.

Elon Musk’s regulatory woes mount as U.S. moves closer to recalling Tesla’s self-driving software. I admire Tesla, Musk and everything they have achieved. But I think it’s dangerous to create marketing materials touting full self-driving abilities when the vehicles are nowhere near that capabilities.

($) FanDuel CEO Amy Howe Wants to Help the Sports-Betting Business Grow Up. An interesting read into the market leader of sports betting. TIL, FanDuel had 70% of all sports betting platforms’ revenue generated in the state of Michigan in 2022 through April. Typically, it’s only about 5% of the amount wagered.

Maybe Bob Chapek Was Right. The tumult at Disney continues with the recent departure of Rice, a senior executive. Outsiders may not know the full story of what went down. Perhaps, Bob Chapek was right. Perhaps, it was just another example of how difficult life at the top is for him. Nonetheless, it really doesn’t matter how fair or unfair the criticisms on him are. The fact is that he is the CEO and the stock went down by almost 50%. Right or wrong, it’s on him and his record. I look forward to seeing whether they will adjust their subscriber target in the long run now that they no longer have the rights to the cricket league in India. Some said that Disney might lose 20 million subscribers in India. Others argue that it’s a blessing in disguise as a subscriber pays like 70 cents over there. Hence, losing a bunch of low-paying subscribers may boost ARPU and profitability, a premium in this market. The market’s reaction to a new target, if any, may influence Chapek’s tenure a lot.

($) Amazon CEO Andy Jassy’s First Year on the Job: Undoing Bezos-Led Overexpansion. A fascinating piece on Amazon that is unquestionably favorable to Andy Jassy and much less so to Jeff Bezos. I find it interesting that Amazon seems to shift the blame from Jassy onto Bezos for recent trouble with excessive fulfillment capacity. The founder and former CEO did make the decision to expand the capacity, but this sort of public admission while he is still the Executive Chairman definitely raised eyebrows.

($) One Grocer Wanted to Give Up Plastic. It Got Rotting Bananas. “When one of the best-known supermarket chains in the U.K. decided to remove plastic from its products, it hadn’t anticipated a spike in shoplifting. The zero-plastic drive also produced a series of unintended consequences that demonstrate how difficult it is for any company to shed plastic packaging entirely. When Iceland wrapped bananas in paper bands instead of plastic bags, the fruit rotted more quickly or snapped off. When it packed bread in opaque paper bags, sales fell as shoppers balked at buying something they couldn’t see. When it punched holes in paper bags filled with potatoes to make the contents more visible, the bags ripped. Bacon that isn’t wrapped in plastic quickly discolors, salad leaves wilt and unwrapped cucumbers rot more quickly.

Other stuff I find interesting

($) Biden Administration to Pursue Rule Requiring Less Nicotine in U.S. Cigarettes. FDA estimates that tobacco use costs the country $300 billion in direct healthcare expenses and lost productivity. A study published on the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that lower nicotine level will lead to 5 million additional adult smokers to quit smoking. If mandating a lower nicotine level in cigarettes results in fewer smokers and lower economic damages, FDA should press ahead and exercise their authority, knowing that the tobacco industry will take legal actions to protect their own interests

Downtown S.F. on the brink: It’s worse than it looks. The article goes into why remote work drives folks away from San Francisco and the downstream effects that such a migration can have on the city. I spent a few days in San Francisco last month. At no time did I ever feel safe due to the homeless folks on the streets. My team and I went around a bit by Uber and agreed that some areas were just too sketchy to live. Drivers there were just unbelievable. We had to report one Lyft driver because he literally scared us to death with his reckless driving. The living expense is so high there. One croissant and a small cup of coffee cost me $12, easily double what I’d pay in Omaha. It’s no wonder that white-collar workers moved away whenever they had a chance. When the engine that generates your city’s economy is leaving, it’s a serious challenge that demands different thinking.

Exclusive: inside Apple’s iOS 16 remake of the iPhone’s iconic Lock Screen. One thing you’ll notice from this piece is that the road to this Lock Screen feature started a while ago with work on its neural engine, chip and personalization effort on the Home Screen in iOS14. That’s typical of Apple. Have a product roadmap, put the pieces together and release only the things that work.

Opening a Restaurant in Boston Takes 92 Steps, 22 Forms, 17 Office Visits, and $5,554 in 12 Fees. Why? “The American Dream is besaddled by byzantine regulations. As the report shows, for example, opening a restaurant in Boston is a 92-step process. In Detroit, it’s 77 steps. In Atlanta, it’s 76. The report goes into great detail. That 92-step process to open a restaurant in Boston requires that 22 forms be completed, 17 in-person visits be made to government offices, 12 fees be paid, and nine government agencies be involved, at a total cost in government fees of $5,554. Opening a restaurant in San Francisco requires that 17 government fees be paid at a total cost of $22,648.” Indeed, why?

Stats

There were 31 million cigarette smokers in the US in 2020

1.5 billion users watch YouTube’s TikTok clone every month

14% of the U.S. population lives within rural communities

Weekly reading – 11th June 2022

What I wrote last week

Apple Pay Later

Business

Macy’s, Gap and Other Clothing Stores Are Stuck With the Wrong Items. An interesting report on how retailers got forecasting and inventory badly wrong. Macy’s, Walmart, Gap, Kohl’s, just to name a few, have a lot of inventory that they can’t sell at the moment or at least can’t sell fast enough. Remember that the executives at such companies are experienced and paid handsomely to nail down forecast. The fact that their calculations are so far off shows how unpredictable consumer behavior changes in this environment

Grocery’s Greatest Stories. Progressive Grocer has an interesting multi-part series on the history of grocers in the U.S, ranging from the start of Albersons or Walmart to the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon.

Axon Ditches Plans for Weaponized Taser Drones as Majority of Ethics Board Resigns. It’s a dangerous, revenue-driven and badly-conceived idea to develop drones to address mass-shootings. What are they trying to achieve with this kind of products? Who would fly these drones and could those drones even navigate through schools’ hallways? If a shooter knows about the drones, comes to a school, shoots people and leaves quickly before anyone could even fire up those expensive toys, what good would it be? More importantly, what if these drones fell into the wrong hands? I am happy that folks on Axon’s Ethics Board stood up for what they believed in and resigned in protest. As a shareholder of Axon, I am disappointed.

Charlie Munger: Full Transcript of Daily Journal’s 2022 Annual Meeting. It’s mind-blowing that Charlie Munger can be this clear in his thinking at 98. I am such a strong admirer of him.

Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto explains five-year journey back to top end of F1. It’s down to the people and the “no blame” culture, not the machinery. This issue is about the painful recovery of Ferrari. As the most famous and successful team in F1, Ferrari has disappointingly failed to win a title since 2008. 2020 was the worst year on record. The car was as slow as a tractor. However, Ferrari has bounced back amid the largest rule changes in the last few years. The Prancing Horse won the most poles this year, bagged two wins and are the two top teams of the paddock along with Red Bull.

How Two Africans Overcame Bias To Build A Startup Worth Billions. A sneak peek into the fintech startup scene in Africa. Much as I admire the two men on the cover, I was abhorred by the fact that a VC firm wanted a discount because Chipper Cash is from Africa.

Engineer Who Fled Charges of Stealing Chip Technology in US Now Thrives in China. Semiconductor is so important that whatever country “owns” it will have outsized influence in the world. China wants global domination and definitely doesn’t want to be beholden to any country for chips. Yet, semiconductor is the one area that it still lags behind other advanced nations. Hence, it resorts to theft of intellectual property to close the gap. It deserves every condemnation there is.

Behind Apple’s Megadeal for Brad Pitt Formula One Racing Film From Joseph Kosinski. “The key to the deal is a theatrical distribution component. But instead of a token release in a small number of theaters or a day-and-date opening, the movie would have an exclusive — and global — run of at least 30 days (one source says it could even go as high as 60 days) before heading to the Apple TV+ platform. In another first, insiders say the theatrical component is structured in a way that would see Apple and the filmmakers split the take from the big-screen release 50-50. The unique deal, in essence, pays the creative team three ways: their upfront fees, their hefty buyout fees and the theatrical backend.”

Other stuff I find interesting

Cao Bang – a green pearl in northeastern mountains. Imposing, magnificent and beautiful Cao Bang in Vietnam

How to buy a chicken sandwich in Shenzhen. Fascinating read on the livestream e-commerce space in China. Total Addressable Market is estimated at $100 billion. In 2021, there were 461 million people who shopped on livestream in China.

The New LaGuardia Is Haunted by the Mistakes of its Past. An interesting read on the redesign of LaGuardia airport. I was there a few months ago and I had to say that I was surprised to see the modernity of the airport. I still held onto this notion that LaGuardia was this old place in a decaying condition. Landing in the new Terminal B from Omaha was an eye-opener. Hence, it’s great to read the context on why the airport went through such a transformation

Adult Children of Work-Visa Recipients Forced to Return to Parents’ Countries. It’s just terribly sad to read that children of Dreamers have to voluntarily leave the US because they cannot get a valid status. It is NOT their fault at all. The only thing that is wrong for them is to spend most of their lives in a country with a broken immigration system. Look at the biggest companies in the US and in the world. From which country are their CEOs? India! Then, how come do we need to make them wait for years and years to get a Green Card? It’s insanely infuriating.

The epic story behind the Ferrari and Lamborghini rivalry. A great story and reminder that you should not piss off your customers

Stats

Average Order Value at the top-performing quartile grocers is 46% higher than that of the other stores

Walmart is building 4 next-generation fulfillment centers in the next 3 years that can provide next-or-two-day shipping to 75% of the US population

Nearly 20 million people watched the Jan 6. hearing

Pokemon Go surpassed $6 billion in lifetime player spending

Food-at-home prices in May up 11.9% from a year ago

Weekly reading – 4th June 2022

What I wrote last week

Book Review: Trillion Dollar Triage

How Walmart Is Betting On Stores To Catch Amazon In E-Commerce

Business

Amazon Briefing: One year into Andy Jassy’s tenure, sellers see subtle strategic shifts. Under Bezos, Amazon was maniacal about being consumer-oriented. Using the iron grip on consumers, especially Prime members, Amazon managed to exert their bargaining power on merchants. According to the article, there are already subtle changes under Jassy regarding how to work with merchants. Merchants have more dialogue with senior folks from Amazon, but they are expected to spend more on ads and prove their unit economics value to Amazon. The push to grow ads revenue may have one important downstream effect: if shoppers are bombarded with sponsored items instead of what are best for them, there is no telling how that could damage Amazon and loosen their grip on prized Prime members

The first act of the streaming wars saga is over — Netflix’s fall from grace has ushered in the pivotal second act. The first phase is to establish presence. Now, all these streamers need to figure out some tough questions. First, how can they make money while spending a lot of money on content? Streaming is an arms race. You need great content all the time to acquire and retain subscribers. But investors’ patience is wearing thin. They want to see profits. Hence, streamers have a tough balancing act on hands. Secondly, ads or no ads? Disney+ and Netflix are planning to go live with ads-supported plans later this year. However, ads is not a trivial business. There is also a question of consumer experience. Additionally, expanding internationally or not expanding? An international expansion requires extra investments in marketing and content. If you go to India without local content at a dirt cheap price, you won’t win the battle. But this goes back to the first question. If a streamer spends too much on content and marketing, how can it turn profits? All in all, such an interesting space to keep an eye on

Facing Inflation-Weary Shoppers, Grocers Fight Price Increases. As inflation keeps rising, consumers turn to private labels instead of more expensive national brands. Private labels give grocers a higher margin, but the key here is to keep customers happy while resisting the pressure from vendors. Those who can make shoppers happy in tough times like this may get the permanent business in the long run. For me, Aldi has been my go-to grocer for a long time with their highly competitive grocery prices.

Bull Market Rhymes. “I don’t think investors are actually forgetful.  Rather, knowledge of history and the appropriateness of prudence sit on one side of the balance, and the dream of getting rich sits on the other.  The latter always wins.  Memory, prudence, realism, and risk aversion would only get in the way of that dream.  For this reason, reasonable concerns are regularly dismissed when bull markets get going. “

Spotify Podcasters Are Making $18,000 a Month With Nothing But White Noise. Who would have thought that white noise could be a lucrative podcast category?

Other stuff I find interesting

Sun-Starved Sweden Turns to Solar to Fill Power Void. It’s intriguing that Sweden shut down two nuclear plants and relies on solar power for electricity despite lacking sunlight for a long period of time in a year.

While Electric Vehicles Proliferate, Charging Stations Lag Behind. There are 93,000 public charging stations in the country, but it’s estimated that we need 1.2 million more. That’s how much we are lagging behind. The governments, local or federal, need to take a lead in this and perhaps losses too in the beginning to encourage more purchase and usage of electric vehicles.

90% of Women in India Are Shut Out of the Workforce. I have to say that this is an eye-opening yet disappointing read. I 100% support gender equality. To me, there is absolutely no reason why female can’t work or receive the same level of treatment as men do. Hence, it’s insane to think that only 10% of women in a country with 1.3 billion people in population are working. How much more productivity could be unlocked if women could work?

AC Milan’s ‘Mind Room’: The story behind an innovative psychology lab. Fascinating!

Here’s why you shouldn’t miss ‘bột chiên’ while in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s one of my all-time favorite dishes in Vietnam and Saigon. You don’t experience the local cuisine until you try it

Stats

Disney+ Hotstar Hits 5 Million Subscribers in Indonesia

App Store stopped nearly $1.5 billion in fraudulent transactions in 2021

Safari reached one billion worldwide users

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

CNBC: How Walmart Is Betting Big On Stores To Catch Amazon In E-commerce

CNBC has a new clip that focuses on the e-commerce battle between Walmart and Amazon. Have a listen and I’ll share my thoughts below.

There is a lot to unpack here. From my point of view, this is a great business case study with each company having its own advantages. Let’s start with Walmart.

Walmart undoubtedly made progress on the e-commerce front and the pandemic was, ironically, a welcome booster. There are several factors in favor of the iconic supermarket brand. The first is that merchants want to diversity distribution to reduce reliance on Amazon and Walmart is currently a great alternative. Lesser competition alleviates the price pressure on merchants’ shoulders and they can have a better margin on Walmart’s online store. While this factor holds, I don’t imagine that Walmart wants to maintain it in the future. The company definitely wants to attract more merchants to its online store front as the more choices it has, the more valuable as a shopping destination it will become to shoppers. Hence, this so-called advantage is unlikely to persist.

The second advantage on Walmart’s side is its network of more than 4,000 stores in the US. These stores can serve as revenue centers as well as distribution hubs for online orders. Think about it this way. The cost of building a store is fixed. The more products are cycled through that store, the more money Walmart makes. Plus, because stores are scattered throughout the US, they can deliver online orders to consumers much faster than by mail. Faster deliveries make customers happier. Although Amazon has its own network of fulfillment centers, they are different from Walmart stores in that they exist to fulfill orders and do no generate any revenue on the side. The e-commerce behemoth has been building out its cashierless stores across the US, but there are a few concerns that make it difficult for me to envision Amazon closing the gap in this area:

  • Would the Amazon Go stores be big enough to help fulfill online order?
  • If they get big enough, what does that mean for all fulfillment centers that Amazon painstakingly built?
  • How long would it take for Amazon to deliver orders from Amazon Go?

Then, there is grocery. It is a low-margin and tricky-to-handle category as many items are perishable, but it’s a staple that every household needs regularly. Consumers want good groceries at affordable prices and, on top of that, convenience. They can order groceries on Walmart.com and pick them up at the closest stores. Isn’t it better than to wait 2 days for an Amazon delivery? In the video clip, you can see Walmart has a program that brings grocery orders straight to customers’ fridge. To some customers, that’s just magic. While shoppers can technically place an order online and pick it up at Whole Foods, their bill will be a lot higher than at Walmart. The Arkansas-based company has always been the leader in this low-margin category with its unrivaled scale. In tough economic times like right now, consumers even want to keep their grocery bills as low as possible. If consumer preferences towards private labels change for the better in the future, it will play to Walmart’s hands even more. I don’t imagine that Amazon will catch up on this front any time soon.

Last but not least, fuel! Americans love to drive and to drive, they need fuel. This is another way that Walmart and its network of stores, including Sam’s Club, can build a relationship with customers. It’s not surprising that Walmart+ customers can get a few cents off per gallon at participating gas pumps. Unless Amazon invents a way to fill a gas tank digitally, they will have to establish physical presence like Walmart to negate this advantage that its rival has.

But it’s not all rosy for Walmart. Amazon is still the go-to destination when it comes to e-Commerce. Walmart’s desperation to catch up is evidenced by its acceptance of merchants that were kicked out by Amazon because they tried to defraud customers with fake reviews. Yes, it’s great that some merchants flock to Walmart since there is less competition. Nonetheless, who is to say that when Walmart scales its online front and boards more sellers, the existing merchants still feel the same way? When all other factors are equal and the deciding element for merchants is which platform will bring the most revenue, can Walmart attract sellers the same way as Amazon does? Will sellers be motivated enough to manage their presence on two online stores?

Additionally, what about consumers? Amazon routinely adds benefits to Prime membership to keep a firm hold of its most coveted clientele. Soon, Prime subscribers will be able to watch NFL live. Its Prime video collection with hits such as Jack Reacher, The Tomorrow Wars and Jack Ryan, I believe, already draws interest from consumers. There are also Prime Day, Amazon Music, Prescription Delivery etc…Once consumers are hooked on a Prime membership, it’s unlikely that they will go somewhere else to shop. The question to Walmart is whether they can make Walmart+ as good as Prime. Since we haven’t heard any official statistics on the number of Walmart+ subscribers, the jury is still out on how good this loyalty program is. Still, I don’t think it can be considered an equal of Prime any time soon.

All in all, this rivalry is exciting to follow. The companies seem to follow different paths towards domination and for now, I don’t know which one will come out on top and if this is even a winner-takes-all situation at all. For instance, I’d give advantage to Walmart in grocery items and to Amazon in non-grocery items. Consumers may as well get groceries from Walmart and buy everything else from Amazon. Both will have some success taking share from the other, but each will maintain its stronghold. That’s definitely a possibility.

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

Weekly reading – 21st August 2021

What I wrote last week

I came across a couple of posts from Afghanistan veterans on their experience there

My notes from the 2021 Debit Issuer Study

My thoughts on recent developments from PayPal

Business

Inside HBO Max’s Scramble to Fix Its Glitchy App. In the streaming world, the user experience is critical in keeping customers engaged and the churn down. HBO Max fumbled the ball terribly with their confusing brands, products and messaging in the beginning. I don’t think I am a dumbass, but I didn’t even know the difference between HBO, HBO Max or HBO Now. Then, they out together an app that was littered with bugs as summarized in the article. The reason, as reported, is that they merged the two legacy apps that were built for different purposes. One was built to offer ad-free content while the other featured commercials. It is not a surprise that bugs happened. What is a surprise is that an institution like HBO or Warner Media let it happen in the first place.

Amazon Plans to Open Large Retail Locations Akin to Department Stores. This move may be Amazon’s attempt to copy what other retailers like Target do. They fulfill online orders from their network of stores. It takes a lot of stores to cover the country and logistics management to figure out the inventory and the actual shipping. We’ll see.

Walmart’s e-commerce business is set to hit $75B in sales this year

Paying With a Credit Card? That’s Going to Cost You. If this trend is legit and merchants continue with the surcharge (which is not an uncommon practice in Vietnam), it and the growing popularity of BNPL will have adverse effect on credit card spend. Remember: BNPL is mostly funded through debit cards

How the Apple lobbying machine took on Georgia, and won. Apple is my largest position. However, I found the whole lobbying issue troubling. It’s nothing different from companies writing bills and lawmakers enacting such bills.

What I found interesting

‘Likes’ and ‘shares’ teach people to express more outrage online

China Passes One of the World’s Strictest Data-Privacy Laws

Another excellent post by Morgan Housel. In light of what happened in Afghanistan today, I can’t help but think about what small events in the past could have prevented this war in the beginning and what would happen to the people of Afghanistan in the future after the U.S pulled out

One is to base your predictions on how people behave vs. specific events. Predicting what the world will look like in, say, 2050, is just impossible. But predicting that people will still respond to greed, fear, opportunity, exploitation, risk, uncertainty, tribal affiliations and social persuasion in the same way is a bet I’d take.

Another – made so starkly in the last year and a half – is that no matter what the world looks like today, and what seems obvious today, everything can change tomorrow because of some tiny accident no one’s thinking about. Events, like money, compound. And the central feature of compounding is that it’s never intuitive how big something can grow from a small beginning.

Source: Collaborative Fund

Stats that may interest you

50% of surveyed Americans have no problem with false information online

Target’s Circle Rewards Program reaches 100 million subscribers

Weekly reading – 15th May 2021

What I wrote last week

App Tracking Transparency & Apple Search Ads

Business

Why DoorDash and Uber Eats Delivery Is Costing You More. The service and delivery fees seem to be bigger than they were before Covid. I am not so sure if that trend is positive to the future of these delivery companies. At some point, it would hurt the relationship with merchants

Walmart is losing its grips on grocery. I don’t really expect Walmart to catch up with Prime soon, but it’s a bit surprising to me that the company is losing its lead in grocery, their bread and butter.

A sensible and good writeup on Epic vs Apple. I may be biased towards Apple as it is my first ever stock, but if you are a reasonable person, you likely won’t look at what Epic did and does, and support them.

Vietnamese startup Nano raised $3 million seed round. I believe this should be one of many fintech startups from Vietnam in the near future.

The Korean Chatroulette-style dating app quietly taking over the world

JPMorgan, Others Plan to Issue Credit Cards to People With No Credit Scores. It’s past time that companies take into account other factors in giving prospects credit cards or not.

What I found interesting

Biggest ISPs paid for 8.5 million fake FCC comments opposing net neutrality

Apple AirTags vs. Tile: The Best Tool for Finding Your Lost Stuff. The current generation of AirTags may have weaknesses and their performance isn’t eye-opening yet. But give it some time and I believe it can be another great segment in addition to AirPods and Apple Watch

Fact-checking Modi’s India. It’s just mind-blowing how the truth can be bent that much so that some people gain so much power.

The Verge has a good article on Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), a new initiative by Google as preparation for life after 3rd party cookies

Jony Ive’s advice to the next generation of designers

Stats that may interest you

Consumer prices increased by 2.6% for 12 months ending March 2021. Perhaps it’s time to be rigorous in saving your money, unless you can increase your income.

App Store stopped more than $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions in 2020

Apple TV+ has the highest ratings among streamers. Walmart vs Amazon. Netflix recorded slower growth but saw 2x growth in FCF

Apple TV+ has the highest IMDB ratings for content

According to a new study, content on Apple TV+, Apple’s exclusive streaming service, receives the highest average ratings on IMDB. There are a couple of caveats here: 1/ this is on average. One size cannot fit all in this streaming area. The study reveals that Apple TV+’s content ranks pretty low in some genres. Hence, if you are a connoisseur of Crime or Fantasy content, the streamer may not be your cup of tea. 2/ Apple TV+ has a significantly smaller library than other streams. As a result, the smaller sample may favor Apple’s streamer.

Focusing on content quality is a smart move from Apple. The likes of Disney+ or Netflix already have a lot of titles to offer viewers. It would take Apple either a long time or plenty off money to acquire the rights to stream titles from other producers. Even then, they still likely wouldn’t come out on top because the other heavyweights aren’t standing still to lose their market share. Plus, I don’t imagine Apple TV+ is a profit center for Apple. At $5/month and restricted to Apple devices or Roku, I don’t think Apple TV+ reaches the scale that enables them to raise prices yet. It is an auxiliary service that makes their bundle Apple One or their devices more attractive and sticky to consumers. Services like Apple Care or iCloud, and their hardware are the drivers of margin and profit. It doesn’t make sense for Apple to try to compete with Netflix on the number of titles while diluting investments on quality. The prospect of Apple TV+, with its much smaller subscriber base, beating Netflix on their own game doesn’t seem likely. Plus, focusing more on quality resonates more with the Apple brand.

Walmart vs Amazon

The battle of these two retail titans is exciting to watch. While Walmart has been trying to improve its 3rd party marketplace & ads platform and grow its fintech segment, Amazon has also had some developments on its own:

Walmart has the advantage of low-cost grocery, a category that is near and dear to every shopper, and a network of stores scattered around the country that can act as their fulfillment centers in addition to the actual dedicated ones. On the other hand, Amazon has a more mature online presence, 3rd party marketplace and ads business. It also has 200 million loyal and, in my opinion, profitable customers in their Prime program. For the past months, each company has tried to close the gap to the other. Walmart launched a Walmart+ service, their answer to Prime, while ramping up their marketplace, including the partnership with Shopify, and ads business. Meanwhile, Amazonzz has invested heavily in last-mile delivery and cashierless stores. Even though it’s tough to match the scale of Walmart in groceries, having smaller stores and no headcount expenses will definitely help Amazon drive down the prices.

Which retailer will come out on top remains to be seen. It’s exhilarating, though, to see each iconic firm expand its capabilities and go out of its comfort zone to stay competitive. If I were a business or strategy professor, this would be one of the cases I bring to classes.

Netflix recorded slower growth but saw 2x growth in FCF

The results of Netflix’s first quarter FY2021 were out today. Revenue stood at $7.2 billion, a 18% YoY growth, while operating income was almost $1.9 billion, up 44% YoY. The quarter closed with almost 208 million paid subscriptions, including 4 million in net additions compared to almost 16 million subscribers in net add a year ago. The company attributed the slow growth in subscribers to the pandemic and a weak slate of titles. While Netflix is still confident in the 2nd half of the fiscal year, it does forecast a relatively flat weekly global net adds till the end of the 2nd quarter.

Netflix's flat forecast in net subscriber adds till Q2 FY2021
Source: Netflix

While a slower subscriber growth isn’t good news to Netflix investors, it doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, they may actually be right that the pandemic and having no hits this quarter had adverse effects. Second of all, Netflix raised their subscription prices a few months ago; which may also be another contributing factor, especially given the intense competition from other streaming services. HBO premiered two blockbusters: Godzilla vs Kong and The Snyder Cut. Disney Plus had their exclusive Wanda Vision and The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, among other titles.

Additionally and very importantly, Netflix increased its free cash flow by 200%, despite a stunted subscriber growth. The company’s free cash flow in Q1 2021 was $692 million, up from $162 from the same quarter a year ago. In the shareholder letter, Netflix was confident that they would be FCF neutral for FY2021 and that they had no plan to raise debt in the near future. More excitingly, they are beginning to buy back shares this quarter. For the Netflix bulls out there, it’s great news. The company spends $20 billion a year on content, yet it is on track to become FCF positive; which almost no other streamer can replicate. That’s the beauty of operating at the scale that Netflix does. Their content investment is a fixed cost. The more paid subscribers there are, the lower the unit cost for each subscriber will be and the higher margin Netflix can extract. However, for other streamers, they have to invest a lot in content to grow their subscriber base. Since their current pool isn’t big enough, they are likely operating in the red with negative cash flow like Netflix used to. The question then becomes: how long can those streamers sustain that loss while trying to match those billions that Netflix pours in content annually?

Yes, seeing their growth stunted this quarter isn’t great, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. The FCF piece that Netflix announced today is, in my opinion, equally important. One quick look at notable news outlets that covered Netflix earnings showed one common theme: Netflix’s growth. I mean, it’s not wrong, but I don’t think their headlines tell the whole story

Coverage of Netflix's Q1 FY2021 earnings without mentioning the cash flow story

Weekly reading – 17th April 2021

What I wrote last week

Hydrogen fuel cells vs Batteries

Uber may deliver marijuana in the future. Update on Credit Karma and Square

Business

Business Insider has a story on Larry Page, especially when he was determined to fire all Project Managers. Even a genius like him made a mistake, it seems. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Why Delaware is the sexiest place in America to incorporate a company

Vimeo CEO talks about how the company reinvented itself from a video platform, another Youtube competitor to a B2B SaaS company. To be honest, as a consumer, I didn’t know that Vimeo transformed itself into a B2B SaaS player.

TikTok says that it has 100 million monthly active users in the US and is planning to bring new eCommerce-focused ads products

How the pandemic helped Walmart battle Amazon Marketplace for sellers. It’s exciting to see these two behemoths go at it in the near future. While Walmart has the luxury of stores scattered across the country, Amazon is a bigger and more experienced marketplace player.

Why It’s Misleading to Say ‘Apple Music Pays Twice as Much Per Stream as Spotify’. The best article on this particular subject that I have seen this week.

Amazon Plans Furniture Assembly Service to Catch Wayfair. I look forward to reading more about this initiative. While it sounds great as first, the reality may offer some questions that Amazon has to answer. For instance, Amazon is known for pushing its drivers to complete deliveries as quickly as possible. Asking drivers to take time to assemble products goes against that mantra. Hence, how much would Amazon be willing to slow down deliveries? How much would the premium fee offset the cost of such slowed deliveries?

What I found interesting

French lawmakers approve a ban on short domestic flights. If there is a great network of trains; which I believe there is in France, this is a totally sensible decision.

Cloudflare Pages is now Generally Available

How to Create an Interactive AR Business Card Without Code

The vanishing billionaire: how Jack Ma fell foul of Xi Jinping. Jack Ma is one of the richest people on Earth and among the most influential business people. Yet, he has fallen from grace after what he said angered Xi Jinping. Another billionaire tried to lower his net worth to avoid trouble with the Chinese government. I am from that part of the world. I can tell you that no matter how rich a person or how big a Western corporation is, you don’t take your disagreement with the ruling party public. That’s one mistake you usually don’t come back from

Stats that you may find interesting

According to a new survey by National Restaurant Association, only 18% of delivery customers preferred to order from a 3rd-party app

Amazon Prime has 200 million members. 28% of purchases on Amazon were made in 3 minutes or less while 50% were made in 15 minutes or less.

Almost 20% of retailers’ sales in 2020 came from private labels

My thoughts on Walmart Plus

On Tuesday, Walmart unveiled its a long anticipated membership program called Walmart+. For $99/year, members can have unlimited free qualified deliveries from stores, fuel discounts at Walmart & Murphy stations as well as shopping tools such as scan & go to avoid long lines. To qualify for free shipping, deliveries must be $35 or more. Walmart said that there were more than 160,000 items available for this program, ranging from groceries, toys, household essentials to technology. Additionally, members can get 5 cents per gallon off at Walmart and Murphy gas stations. The company said that customers would be able to subscribe for this program starting 15th September 2020 with a 15-day trial.

How competitive is it?

Compared to Amazon Prime, Walmart Plus is years behind. First of all, at $119 a year, Amazon Prime includes many more additional benefits such as exclusive discounts, unlimited deliveries of qualified items without minimum purchase requirement, media & entertainment perks, just to name a few. Among the biggest benefits that Prime offers is the ability to get unlimited two-day delivery for low value items. I can’t count how many times I order stuff less than $15 individually. Second, Amazon carries a lot more items for Amazon Prime than Walmart. Third, when it comes to online shopping, it is a much more established name than its Arkansas-based rival. Shoppers trust Amazon and that’s a true competitive advantage.

What works for Walmart Plus in comparison to Amazon Prime, I believe, is that it offers less expensive groceries. My experience with shopping groceries on Prime is frustrating. I was confused about groceries on Amazon itself and then Whole Foods. Plus, they are not as cheap as groceries sold by Walmart. Hence, if customers are geared more towards grocery shopping, I think Walmart Plus can make a play there.

Other grocers or retailers follow almost the same playbook. Deliveries have to meet a certain threshold to be free and if retailers don’t handle delivery themselves, they’ll partner with Instacart. In that case, customers either pay a small fee for each delivery or enroll in a membership with Instacart (in either case, you are expected to tip drivers). Each retailer will appeal to shoppers in a different way. Take Aldi for example. Its unique selling point is inexpensive fresh groceries. Look for cheap grapes and great Greek yogurt? Head to Aldi. The downside is that Aldi carries few SKUs and less flexibility for shoppers. Target offers much more flexibility and choice as it carries more items, but its groceries are significantly more expensive than those at Aldi or Walmart, in my experience. Costco seems to match Walmart on the grocery front. A Costco member (at least $60/year) can have free grocery delivery for orders of $35+. Groceries at Costco are competitive in prices, compared to those sold at Walmart. Other items can have free delivery too, and with no minimum order requirement, but it will take at least two days.

Figure 1 – Delivery options at Costco. Source: Costco

There are other important players in this space such as Instacart and Shipt. Instacart Express or Ship membership is almost identical to Walmart Plus. Both cap membership fees at $99/year and a qualified basket has to be $35 or more. Unlike Walmart, Instacart is more focused, almost exclusively, on grocery delivery. Shipt is similar to Instacart and owned by Target, but also delivers for other brands as well. An advantage that Shipt or Instacart has is their network of partners. Walmart Plus works only for items sold by Walmart. With Shipt or Instacart; however, shoppers can order from different stores that sell different private brands. It offers shoppers more choices and flexibility. This is the list of retailers partnering with Instacart at where I live. I am sure in bigger cities, the list will be much longer

Figure 2 – Retailers that partner with Instacart in Omaha. Source: Instacart

It’s worth pointing out that even though you can order from multiple stores within Instacart, each store has its own check-out and minimum purchase requirement. The value for customers here is that they won’t have to create an account or download multiple apps on their phone. Within Instacart, they can place orders from different apps. What works for Walmart against the likes of Instacart is that Walmart offers non-grocery items for deliveries as well. Walmart Plus also offers fuel discounts, something that isn’t possible with Instacart.

This is how I think about the positioning of a few retailers who either have their own delivery programs such as Walmart or Amazon, or have their delivery powered by Instacart/Shipt

Figure 3 – 2×2 positioning metric

Among the ones I picked to analyze, Costco is the most similar to Walmart in terms of positioning. Their assortments and offering of inexpensive groceries are pretty similar. While Costco membership, the lowest level at $60/year, is cheaper than Walmart Plus, the fuel discounts and in-store shopping tools from Walmart make the comparison interesting. As far as I am concerned, Murphy and Costco stations are pretty similar in gas prices. Throwing in another 5 cent discount can be attractive to shoppers who drive a lot. Plus, in-store shopping perks like Scan & Go and pay with Walmart Pay can offer extra flexibility. Sometimes, we just need one or two quick items that wouldn’t qualify for a free shipping and we don’t mind stopping at a store for a few minutes. These shopping perks can make life a little bit easier for shoppers to get in and out of a store quickly.

What’s next?

It’s both interesting and challenging to look at this space as there are so many ways to slice and dice. For instance, Walmart Plus enables Walmart to keep their faithful customers from joining the likes of Instacart. If somebody tends to shop more at Walmart for groceries, they now have more reasons to stick to the brand. If some people usually shop at Costco, both Costco and Walmart have its appeal and the decision will rest with each shopper. For those who like to shop non-grocery items a lot and prefer the convenience, I don’t think Walmart Plus stands a chance against Prime yet. If some shoppers prefer the flexibility of ordering from multiple stores within one app, Instacart is the way to go.

Walmart Plus has tailwinds behind it. First, various stores across the country will power their delivery and be a huge competitive advantage. Few retailers can rival Walmart in this sense. Second, the ongoing pandemic and the explosion of grocery eCommerce are significant positive trends for Walmart. Moving forward, Walmart will likely continue to add more benefits to its membership program. The most obvious play is to expand the selection, pushing Walmart’s position in Figure 3 to the right. The more items are available for delivery, the more attractive Walmart Plus will be. Another idea is to mirror what Amazon did with Prime by throwing in other perks such as books, music, movies, etc…I suspect Walmart won’t increase Walmart Plus membership fees in the next two years at least. It took Amazon almost ten years to increase Prime’s fees from $79 to $99/year and another four years to $119.

The future isn’t without challenges for Walmart Plus. There is really subscription fatigue among consumers. How many consumers are willing to spend money on entertainment subscriptions (Netflix, Spotify, Disney Plus…), Amazon Prime or Instacart or Costco membership and then Walmart Plus. The economic uncertainty may be a factor as well. Folks may try to tighten their budget more and not have enough disposable income for another subscription. Plus, as Walmart moves to make its membership program more attractive, others don’t stand still. Instacart will continuously expand its partnership network. Amazon will definitely work to move more into grocery delivery.