Transforming Education

I was recently interviewed on NBC regarding education, market valuations and the accuracy of my forecasts of market trends made in 2001, among other things ( Since the interview stimulated thoughts on the education market, I thought it was worth capturing a few in a post.

Why the quality of education in the United States trails

According to the World Bank, the United States leads the world in Gross Domestic Product, dwarfing anyone else. The U.S. GDP is 70 percent ahead of number 2 China, and almost 4 times the size of number 3, Japan. Given this wealth of resources, it is somewhat surprising just how low we rank in K-12 education among nations:

  1. 36th in mathematics for 15 year olds[1]
  2. 24th in reading for 15 year olds[1]
  3. 28th in science for 15 years olds[1]
  4. 14th in cognitive skills and educational attainment[2]
  5. 11th in fourth-grade mathematics and 9th in eighth-grade mathematics[3]
  6. 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science[3]

Part of the problem is that much of our priority as a country tends to emphasize short-term gratification over long-term issues such as investing in primary education. But the problem goes much deeper.

Classroom sizes have been increasing

Parents Across America, a non-profit organization committed to strengthening US public schools, point to studies that indicate that students (especially in grades K-3) who are assigned to smaller classes do better in every way that can be measured. Of 27 countries shown in a 2007 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey the United States ranked 17th in lower education classroom size, at 24.3 students per class. While other countries are investing in reducing classroom size, the U.S. is going in the other direction. Of 26 countries included in the OECD data from 2000 and 2009, 25 either decreased classroom sizes or kept them about the same. The United States was the only one that increased classroom sizes during that period.

Heterogeneous grouping exasperates the problem

In years gone by, U.S. classrooms were homogenous, as children were separated according to their skill level. This practice came under heavy criticism because it was viewed as discriminatory.  Throughout the United States, schools shifted to heterogeneous classes not because this technique was proven to be effective but rather in an effort to promote “political correctness.”

One teacher pointed out that “administrators love to boast that their school has heterogeneous grouping…but the administrators aren’t in the classroom, and they don’t see the disappointment on the faces of students when a new experience is presented and not everyone remains on the same page.”

Another teacher stated: “That ideal [of heterogeneous grouping], is an ideal….Truth is, in our experience the low-end kids tend to pull down the high-end kids, rather than the other way around. The class pace slows, and the teacher has to in effect devise two lesson plans for each period, one for the accelerated students and another for those who have low skills.”

In the past decade, many teachers have moved toward creating homogenous groups for reading and math within their heterogeneous classroom. One teacher who has 17 years of experience teaching in New Hampshire said that the second graders in her class showed up on the first day with a bewildering mix of strengths and weaknesses. Some children coasted through math worksheets in a few minutes, she said; others struggled to finish half a page. The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest students would become frustrated, give up, and act out.

“My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners,” said this fourth grade teacher at Woodman Park Elementary in Dover, N.H. “I didn’t like those odds.”

So she completely reorganized her classroom. About a decade ago, instead of teaching all her students as one group, she began ability grouping, teaching all groups the same material but tailoring activities and assignments to each group. “I just knew that for me to have any sanity at the end of the day, I could just make these changes,” she said.

Flexible ability grouping, when used appropriately, works. According to a 2010 meta-analysis by Kelly Puzio and Glenn Colby, students who were grouped by ability within a class for reading were able to make up to an additional “half of a year’s growth in reading in one year.” Similarly, a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study of students who were grouped by ability found that the performance of both high- and low-performing students significantly improved in math and reading, demonstrating the universal utility of this tool, particularly as our classrooms become more academically diverse.

In summary, I believe that teachers have a more difficult time today than ever before. Their classes are getting bigger, their budgets are smaller, and heterogeneous grouping for the class means that effective teaching requires splitting the class into homogenous groups that each require a different lesson plan. Teaching parts of a class separately leads to less quality time that a teacher can spend with each group.  Without essential one-on-one instruction time, students suffer. If the class isn’t divided into 2 or 3 homogenous groups for lessons the students suffer even more, as they are denied level-appropriate learning.

The current system discriminates against the lower two-thirds of society

What I find surprising is that more people don’t realize that the practice of heterogeneous grouping is actually discriminatory to the lower two-thirds of society. Wealthier families typically live in neighborhoods with better school systems (with students that are more homogenous in skill levels); can readily afford tutors for their children; can provide after school access to learning centers; give their children prep courses for various subjects and for SATs; and if all else fails, send their offspring to a private school. Those in the lower two-thirds, economically speaking, have more limited access to additional help outside the classroom, cannot afford private school, often have parents without college education who are less able to help them, and may not even take an SAT prep course. Each of these put them at a disadvantage versus those that come from the upper economic strata of America.

I myself had hardworking parents who had not gone to college. My father was an immigrant and had to work before completing high school. But my education was accelerated because homogenous grouping was the norm at that time. This included being placed into a class of high performers who all received 3 years of curriculum in two years and therefore skipped a grade. I also was able to take a competitive test that enabled me to be accepted into Stuyvesant, one of the very high-end public high schools in New York City, geared toward helping public school students receive an honors course level education. I firmly believe that the access I had to be paired with students that were high achievers played a very important role in my subsequent success.

Technology provides a range of alternatives

One potential way to bridge the gap is by having multiple teachers in a classroom but I think this would be extremely unlikely to be funded out of constrained government resources. A second possibility is to provide teachers with the training and technical resources that could be used to enhance the student experience. All too often when technology is utilized, it is not integrated into curriculum and/or very complicated to use.  However, in recent years, there have been advances in K-12 education through the use of technology that is relatively easy to use and integrate to curriculum. For example, an Azure portfolio company, has created online workbooks and games that are aligned to the Common Core and are sold to parents and teachers for a starting price of $49 per year, making a subscription affordable to everyone.  Millions of teachers and parents in the K-5 levels now are basic members of the site, which offers weekly emails and limited educational resources that can be consumed free each month. With a Pro subscription, a teacher can print out unlimited workbooks, worksheets, and lesson plans for their class. The company estimates that roughly one billion worksheets are printed each year by parents and teachers for students to use. While teachers are likely to print worksheets that complement their current curriculum, parents can use printable worksheets and workbooks as supplemental material to help their kids in academic areas where their skills need strengthening. The fact that about 8 million parents and teachers come to the site in a peak month also indicates how strong the need is for these types of materials.’s Brainzy program is a first step at individualized learning. It uses games to practice strategies for mastering core curriculum for students in kindergarten through 2nd grade. I have also met with a number of other companies who are creating products that can provide students with personalized learning tools. What and others are doing is still early steps in a process that I believe will lead to individualized education. If the United States keeps insisting on heterogeneous classroom composition but couples this with under-investing in education and requiring teachers to divide their time into separate lesson levels, then computer tools for the individual personalized instruction of each student appears to be the solution that can bridge the gap.


  • Stephen Curry picked up right where he left off last year scoring 40 points in the first game of the new season on strong shooting. Over the last 11 games, the Warriors remain undefeated behind Curry’s league leading scoring. After 11 games, Curry is averaging 33.4 points per game, a full 5 points ahead of the number two, James Harden, at 28.4 points per game. On Saturday night, in Curry’s 427th game, he surpassed the number of threes made by his father, Dell Curry, over his 1,083 game career. Earlier this year, we discussed why Curry deserved to be the clear NBA MVP and analyzed his scoring efficiency adjusting for his ability to hit threes from seemingly anywhere on the court (he was subsequently voted the MVP) .

Curry backup

  • Curry’s shooting has been even more dominant this year. Even based on “standard” statistics, Curry leads the pack not only in scoring average but also in field goal percentage. At 51.7% he trails only Blake Griffin, who has only taken 3 three-point attempts this season, in the top 10 scorers. Looking at “Field Goal Efficiency” (FGE%), a metric introduced in our previous post, that calculates a 3-point field goal as worth 1.5 times a 2-point field goal, we see Curry’s true dominance this season. Also, “True Shooting Percentage” (TS%) assumes that 1 of every 9 foul shots is part of a 3-point (or 4-point) play and therefore considers 2.25 foul shots as the same as one field goal attempt (since most pairs of foul shots replace a field goal attempt). Looking at these metrics we continue to see Curry’s clear dominance. Curry’s performance is off the charts as he is nearly 7 percentage points ahead of the second highest of the top ten scorers in FGE% and he is also well ahead of anyone else in TS%.
  • In a recent ESPN segment, Brad Daugherty called Curry “un-defendable”. If he continues to shoot the ball at this level, the road to a second consecutive championship and another MVP seems well paved.
[1] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). 65 educational systems ranked.
[2] Pearson Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment compares the performance of 39 countries and one region (Hong Kong) on two categories of education: Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment. The Index provides a snapshot of the relative performance of countries based on their education outputs.
[3] International Study Center at Boston College. Fourth graders in 57 countries or education systems took the math and science tests, while 56 countries or education systems administered the tests to eighth graders.

OmniChannel Selling

The latest trend in retail is the concept of “OmniChannel” selling. While many players have been engaged in this arena for some time, there has been acceleration in the practice. Online retailers are now attempting to find ways to add an in-store experience and many brands, larger retailers, and numerous smaller ones have added more of a push towards e-tail. Additionally, direct sales through TV (QVC, Home Shopping, etc.), telemarketing and consumer-to-consumer fill out the spectrum of options.

The concept of selling through multiple and diverse channels is not a new concept, but the increased integration of in-store and e-tail channels is becoming more sophisticated. With 93% of consumer sales still occurring offline, many e-tailers understand that a physical presence can help escalate sales. Similarly, with this percentage shrinking and with $1.6 trillion in e-commerce sales expected this year, brick and mortar cannot ignore the importance of being online. Earlier this year, Square, in partnership with Bigcommerce, announced a new integration that provides merchants with a simple and seamless way to expand their businesses online. Similarly, Shopify’s POS system allows physical retailers to easily sell online.

US retail sales

E-Tailers Move to Physical Retail

This post focuses on the trend of e-tailers moving into physical retail and when and why it can work. E-tailers fall into three categories: those that only sell other company’s brands, those that are creating their own brand, and those that sell other brands as well as their own.

The dominant player in the first category is Amazon. ver time, it has built an overwhelming network of distribution centers geared towards efficiently shipping one or more items to an individual consumer. Now it has begun experimenting with physical locations, the first of which opened on the Purdue campus in February with additional locations being planned on other college campuses. There are also reports that it will follow this with other types of store openings. Given its widespread distribution centers, the company already has significant capability to inexpensively pick and pack goods for an individual consumer. But, despite limiting most shipments to one zone, there is still a relatively large cost to deliver a single order to an individual household. If it can begin getting non-Amazon Prime customers to come to a convenient location for pickup (Amazon locker or store), shipping cost could be reduced quite a bit. Further, having physical locations will undoubtedly add to the company’s sales and its brand. Since it would not need to stock the stores the way a traditional retailer does, it could capture the efficiency associated with centralized inventory locations combined with the brick-and-mortar efficiency of shipping a large number of goods to one location (probably in an Amazon-owned truck). I expect to see a major expansion of Amazon into physical locations over the next 5 years.

Trading High Shipping Cost for Brick and Mortar Cost

In e-commerce companies that we know well, fulfillment (picking and packing) and shipping can be as much as 40% or more of COGS.  Moving to one’s own physical retail stores adds substantial cost but removes shipping cost. Most e-tailers now offer some version of free shipping, but whether the seller or the customer pays for shipping, it is a major factor. What this means is that such an e-tailer can spend that money on its own stores or by offering to discount its products to a third-party brick and mortar reseller without necessarily incurring any loss in gross margin dollars (of course a larger discount may be required). Even if gross margins are lower when partnering with a third party brick and mortar retailer, it can still be as profitable as the e-tailer’s online sales since  brick and mortar stores already attract many customers whereas online sales normally require a marketing spend to create greater volume.

The OmniChannel Approach for Branded Product

Amazon is in a unique position because of its size. Although there are other e-tailers of third-party products with sufficient size to open their own physical locations, the bigger opportunity to increase sales resides with e-tailers that have their own branded product. A great example of this is Warby Parker, an emerging brand in eyewear. About 2 ½ years ago it opened its first brick and mortar store in New York City. What it found is that this not only added to its client base through in-store purchases, but also drove additional online sales. Why would this occur? Besides the obvious fact that many people still prefer buying from a physical location, trying on a pair of frames and having them fitted to your needs improves the experience. The inability to do this online may have inhibited some customers from purchasing. But once you have had the opportunity to have eyeglasses fitted to your requirements, it is much easier to buy subsequent pairs online with the knowledge that the fit should be appropriate.  The same issue of good fit applies to shoes and clothes.

Fit is one reason why Bonobos, an online e-tailer of men’s clothes, began opening shops.  But unlike Warby Parker, the Bonobos shops are “Guideshops” (where clothing can be tried on and then ordered for delivery). By taking this approach, Bonobos keeps inventory centralized and the stores much smaller (only requiring one unit of each SKU) but gains the benefit of addressing people less comfortable with shopping online and also insuring that the clothes fit. By locating the shops in malls and other high traffic areas, Bonobos gains exposure to a fair amount of foot traffic making the stores another customer acquisition vehicle. Note that the stores we expect Amazon to open are essentially Guideshops but on a much larger scale.

Online Brands Partnering with Brick and Mortar Retailers Will Continue to Increase

Bonobos has also partnered with Nordstrom but in its case it’s simply as another brand offered in Nordstrom stores.  In August, Warby Parker announced their first retail partnership with Nordstrom. Once Nordstrom saw the benefits of OmniChannel brands, it acquired Trunk Club (another men’s clothing e-tailer). Subsequent to the acquisition, it began adding space in some of its stores for men to come in, get fitted and talk to a stylist about preferences. The stylist then acts as a personal shopper and picks Trunk Club clothes for the customer to try. This results in a much larger average order than online sales for Trunk Club. In this case the customer takes the clothes with him. Again, once this occurs, buying subsequent items online becomes easier as there is more confidence that the fit will be good. Now Trunk Club is entering the women’s clothing market to compete with the successful online brand, Stitchfix.

Shoes are even more difficult to buy without trying on than eyeglasses or clothes. As a result, Shoes of Prey, which offers women the ability to design their own custom shoes, has also opened Guideshops but in their case they are in known retailers like Nordstrom. This makes sense to me as I prefer buying my first pair of shoes in a store and “refills” online. And now most brands that once were only available in brick and mortar stores can be purchased online. For the first pair I sometimes try on 8-10 styles/sizes before finding one that satisfies my needs (this is a major problem for Zappos who appears to have about a 35% return rate. If I try to buy a second pair a few months later from the same store, odds are they won’t have it. Instead, it’s seamless to go online for the follow-on pair. With the acquisition of Trunk Club, Nordstrom has taken a strong initiative in blending the online/offline experience.

Notice the difference between Warby Parker and Bonobos versus Trunk Club. Warby Parker and Bonobos, in addition to being another brand at third party retailers, opened their own branded stores whereas Trunk Club began expanding into an existing major retailer (albeit its new parent) as a service to customers. Opening your own stores can involve substantial capital expenditures and large ongoing operating cost. The alternative of getting one’s online branded product to be carried by a retailer reduces risk and saves substantial fixed cost. But, there’s a trade-off; the brand gives up margin as the third-party retailer will be buying at a discount. Merely getting into stores does not guarantee added success. In the store, the control of the purchase experience moves to the retailer so it becomes very important that the brand is comfortable with the way the retailer will position its products in terms of shelf space and point of purchase marketing through materials and/or sales people in the store. Julep, a successful online brand in the cosmetics space, has partly solved the issue of positioning by partnering with QVC as well as several brick and mortar retailers including Nordstrom. A strong advantage of a QVC partnership is that “shelf space” allocated to the brand consists of a brand spokesperson going on the TV show to market the brand to a very large audience. Resulting sales occur immediately through QVC but other channels also benefit.

Advantages to the Retailer of Carrying Online Brands in Their Physical Stores

An online brand should have substantial information regarding customer demand. It knows the geographies in which its products sell best, the demographics of its customers, which of its products will be in greater demand, etc. It also may have very substantial traffic to its site, to which it can offer the alternative of buying at physical retail. Furthermore, unlike physical retail, e-commerce retailers have a deeper understanding of customer acquisition metrics and customer conversion funnel, and can readily A/B test various elements on their site. Such insights can help a physical store decide which items to carry, volumes needed in different geographies and more.  It can also mean the online brand will drive additional customers to their store. A brand like Le Tote, one of Azure’s portfolio companies, which offers women a subscription that entitles them to rent everyday clothes, has even more data as an average customer will have worn over 50 of their clothing items over the course of a year. Since the company receives ongoing feedback on most of the items it ships, it has very substantial data on customer preferences regarding third party brands as well as house brands. The company believes that it is likely to form one or more partnerships with brick and mortar retailers to begin selling its “house” brands.

Intelligently Moving to OmniChannel Selling Makes Sense for Many Players

Given the growing synergism between online and offline retail, there is substantial opportunity for heightened growth for startups that are able to intelligently emerge from an e-tail only model to one that uses both online and brick and mortar distribution. If the e-tailer has its own branded goods, then this can be done through partnering with existing stores. In executing this strategy, it is important to ensure that the presentation and knowledge of the products placed in such stores are sufficient to enable customers of the store to adequately learn about the products. In turn, the e-tailer can provide a deeper understanding of the customer in order to accelerate growth and improve sales conversions in all channels. The abundance of data being provided from online channels as well as in-store tracking can provide significant insight to retailers, and startups that best capitalize on this information are better positioned for success.  Startups that are able to capitalize on this trend can experience a significant escalation in growth.


  • The recent acquisition of EMC by Dell brought back memories of my thesis while still on Wall Street as a top analyst covering technology. In 1999 I predicted that successful PC companies would hit roadblocks to growth and profitability if they didn’t move “Beyond the Box”. As we’ve seen the prediction proved true as Apple thrived by doing so and others like Compaq, Dell, Gateway and HP ran into difficulty. I’m not as close to it now but the merger of these two companies seems to create obvious cross-selling opportunities and numerous efficiencies that should benefit the combined entity.

The Argument for Curry as a Unicorn

In our previous post we posed the potential for Stephen Curry to become a Unicorn (in venture this is a company that reaches $1 billion in value). While it was mostly for fun, on reflection we decided that it actually could prove valid. This post will walk you through why an athlete like Curry (or potentially James Harden, Russell Westbrook or Anthony Davis) could become a Unicorn should they be elevated to the elite status of a LeBron James.

curry unicorn

The Precedent for Creating a Corporation Owning an Athlete’s Earnings Exists

In April 2014, Vernon Davis offered stock in his future earnings via a venture with Fantex, Inc. as part of a new financial instrument being sold by Fantex. Davis offered a 10% share of all future earnings from his brand marketing company to Fantex, which would then turn around and divide it into shares of a tracking stock that can be traded within their own exchange. The offering was 421,100 shares, valued at $10 each, for a total of $4.2 million. This implied a total value of the “Vernon Davis Corporation” of $42 million. Davis’ current salary is $4.7 million and endorsement income about $1.75 million for a total income of $6.5 million. Given that the longevity of football players is rarely into their mid-thirties coupled with Davis being over 30 at the time, it seems likely that he had no more than 3-4 years left in his playing career. Putting those facts together makes it appear that Davis was unlikely to earn much more than $42 million going forward and might earn less as we would expect his income to drop precipitously once he retired. So buying the stock was probably viewed as more of a symbol of support for Davis and its “market cap” appears about equal to his expected future earnings.

NBA Stars are Among the Highest Earning Athletes’

The current highest earner of endorsements in the NBA is LeBron James at about $44 million per year (Kevin Durant is second at $35 million). The highest contract in the league is Kobe Bryant at about $23 million per year (and had been $30 million previously) with the 10 highest players in the league making an average of over $21 million. Given the new TV contract scheduled to go into effect in the 2016-2017 season, it’s been projected that the cap will increase from about  $63 million today to $90 million in 2017 and be nearly $140 million by 2025 (10 years from now, at age 37, Curry should still be playing). Let’s make the following assumptions:

  1. Curry’s salary will go from a current level of $11 million in 2015 and 12 million in 2016 (4 other Warriors will be paid more that year) to about $30 million in 2017 assuming the top salaries tend to be about 1/3 of their team’s cap as they are today.
  2. It will be up to $40 million in 2025, or less than 1/3 the projected $140 million cap.
  3. His endorsements will reach midway between the current levels experienced by LeBron and Durant, to about $40 million by 2017 (they are currently at about $5.5 million from Under Armour)
  4. His endorsement income will rise by about 10%/year subsequently, through 2025 to reach $92 million in 2025
  5. He will continue to earn endorsement income (but will retire from playing) subsequent to the 2025 season.
  6. The level post 2025 will average $60 million per year for 10 years and then go to zero.

The last assumption is based on observing the income of retired stars like Michael Jordan (earning $100 million/year 12 years after retirement), David Beckham (earned about $75 million the first year after retiring), Arnold Palmer (earned $42 million/year 40 years after winning his last tournament), Shaq ($21 million), Magic Johnson is now worth over $500 million. Each are making more now than the total they made while playing and, in several cases, more per year than in their entire playing careers. So assuming Curry’s income will drop by 1/3 after retirement is consistent with these top earners.


This puts his total income from 2016 through the end of 2035 at over $1.5 billion. All of the above assumptions can prove true if Curry continues to ascend to super-star status, which would be helped if the Warriors win the championship this year. They could even prove low if Curry played longer and/or remained an icon for longer than 10 years after retiring. Thankfully, Curry has remained relatively injury free and our analysis assumes that he remains healthy. Curry is not only one of the most exciting players to watch, but is also becoming the most popular player with fans around the league. Curry now ranks second overall in total uniform sales, behind LeBron James.

So while the concept of Stephen Curry as a Unicorn (reaching $1 billion in value) started as a fun one to contemplate with our last post, further analysis reveals that it is actually possible that Fantex or some other entity could create a tracking stock that might reach that type of valuation.

As a VC, I would love to invest in him!


  • In the recent game against the Blazers there was further validation of Curry’s MVP bid. Curry delivered eight 3-pointers, hit 17 of 23 shots and went 7-of-7 in his 19-point fourth quarter. His last two threes were a combined distance of 55 feet, setting a new record for threes in a season and breaking his own record!
  • To understand just how well Curry shot, his Field Goal Efficiency was 91% (he had 8 threes bringing his equivalent field goals to 21/23). Not only was this higher than anyone who scored 40 points this year or took at least 20 shots in a game, we believe it may be among the highest ever for someone taking 20 shots in a game.
  • As a comparison, the two Portland stars, Aldredge and Lillian, each had strong games and scored 27 and 20 points, respectively. But, to do that, they took 46 shots between them (double that of Curry) and only scored 2 more points in total for the extra 23 shots!
  • The 4th quarter performance by Curry, cited above, translates to a 114% FGE rating, which is averaging more than 100% shooting as he scored 16 points on 7 shots. When foul shots are taken into account, his True Shooting % was 137% as he scored 19 points on 8 field goal attempts (counting the one on which he was fouled).To draw a comparison, when Russell Westbrook scored 54 points against Portland on April 12 he took 43 shots, 20 more than Curry (23 more if we include shots that led to foul shots).

Is Stephen Curry Becoming a Unicorn?

Why Curry should be the clear NBA MVP

Much has been written about the importance of discovering and investing early in “Unicorns”, companies that eventually cross the $1 billion valuation threshold. In basketball, teams make tough decisions as to whether to sign individual players to contracts that can be worth as much as $120 million or more over six years. The top few players can earn a billion dollars over their career when endorsements are added to the equation, assuming they can last as long as a Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan. Clearly part of the road to riches is getting the recognition as one of the elite. This year, several players previously thought of as “quite good” are emerging in the quest to be thought of as “great”. Nothing can help a player put his stamp on such a claim as much as winning the MVP. In the spirit of trying to identify a future “Unicorn” in professional basketball, I thought it would be fun to analyze the current crop of contenders.

Given an unusual emergence of multiple stars, this year’s NBA MVP race is one of the most hotly contested in years. There are five legitimate candidates: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. All of them are having spectacular seasons and in most years that would be good enough for them to win. But only one can take the MVP crown. LeBron is the reigning king of the league and has long ago hoisted his flag atop the mountain. But, he has won the MVP title a number of times and while he remains a solid choice, he is not a clear choice. Therefore, it appears almost certain that most voters will favor a candidate who has yet to win. In the last few weeks Davis seems to have faded from consideration so, in this post, I will provide the analysis that has led me to determine that Curry is a more worthy recipient than Westbrook and Harden.


Basketball columnists and analysts often focus too much of their evaluation of success on a player’s scoring average. In an attempt to help understand a player’s full value, John Hollinger created a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) that incorporates several statistics in the hope it provides a single rating that determines the best player. While it is a truly worthy effort, we feel there is quite a bit of judgement incorporated in what value to place on different statistics.  For example, it rewards players who take more shots even when the extra shots are 2-pointers at a low field goal percentage (taking extra 2-point shots at over a 31% increases the rating even though that is well below what the rest of his team would likely shoot). We would place more value on giving the ball up (and having a lower scoring average) than taking a low percentage shot.

I am surprised that the simplest calculation of scoring efficiency does not surface as a regularly reported statistic. Some sources occasionally report an “Adjusted Field Goal Percentage” (AFG%) that counts a 3-point field goal as worth 1.5 times a 2-point field goal. We believe this is the correct way of viewing a shooter’s effectiveness and called it field goal efficiency (FGE%). It calculates the percentage as the equivalent of 2-point field goals made per field goal attempt (FGA):

FGE% = (2-point shots made + 1.5 x 3-point shots made)/FGA

There is one statistic that analysts call True Shooting Percentage (TS%) that goes one step further. It also takes foul shots into account. It assumes that 1 of every 9 foul shots is part of a 3-point (or 4-point) play and therefore considers 2.25 foul shots as the same as one field goal attempt (since most pairs of foul shots replace a field goal attempt). TS% is calculated by adding the field goal attempt equivalent of foul shots to normal field goal attempts to determine the equivalent number of attempts used by a player. By dividing points scored by 2 we know how points scored equates to 2-point field goals made (FGME). This translated to the following formula for TS%:

Equivalent field goal attempts (EFGA) = FGA + FTA/2.25

FGME = points scored/2


Now let’s compare Curry, Harden and Westbrook based on these statistics all on a per game basis:


Harden and Westbrook are neck-and-neck in scoring average, each about four points per game higher than Curry. But Curry plays fewer minutes per game and takes fewer shots. His shooting efficiency at 58.6% is by far the highest of the three by a significant amount (a full 14% higher than Westbrook and 7% higher than Harden). It is also the highest in the league for players that have taken at least 8 shots per game (which includes all of the top 100 players by scoring average). At over 90%, Curry is the number one foul shooter in the league. But Harden and Westbrook are also hitting roughly 85% of their foul shots. Therefore, the fact that they get fouled much more than Curry brings each of their TS%s closer to Curry’s. Still, Curry is a whopping 10% higher than Westbrook and 2.5% higher than Harden. It is apparent that the scoring average advantage is more a function of Curry playing fewer minutes and being more selective in his shots.

To see the impact of this we calculated their scoring average per 36 minutes played (which we consider about average for a team’s star) and points scored per 25 equivalent field goals attempts:


So, even if he played the same amount of time as Harden and Westbrook, Curry would trail in average points per game, primarily because he still would take fewer shots. But if he took the same number of equivalent shots he’d have a higher scoring average than both.

A Few Other Statistical Comparisons

While scoring efficiency is an important measure of a players value to his team, several other statistics like assists, rebounds, and steals are also considered quite relevant. To make comparisons fair, we adjusted to the average per 36 minutes for each:


For steals, Westbrook and Curry are close to dead even with Harden about 11% behind. However, Westbrook is the clear leader in rebounds and has 7% more assists than Curry with both well ahead of Harden.

Each of these three players leads their team’s offense. They all control the ball attempting to score themselves or assist others in scoring without turning the ball over, as every turnover is a lost scoring opportunity. The ratio of assists to turnovers helps capture effectiveness as a guard. On the defensive end they each can compensate for a portion of their turnovers by stealing the ball. The ratio of steals to turnovers captures how well they are able defensively to partly compensate for depriving their team of a scoring opportunity. But attempts to steal the ball can lead to more personal fouls. The ratio of steals to personal fouls helps understand defensive effectiveness. Here are the comparisons:


Harden and Westbrook are 25%-40% behind Curry in all of these categories. What the first ratio tells us is that Curry passes the ball more accurately and/or takes less risk so that he gets his assists without turning the ball over as frequently as the others. Another way of looking at it is that the extra 0.6 assists that Westbrook averages per 36 minutes comes at the expense of one extra turnover vs Curry.  The steal/turnover ratio tells us that for every 3 turnovers Curry has, he is able to get the ball back twice through steals. The others recover less than half of their turnovers through steals. Finally the steals/personal foul ratio shows that Curry is quite effective defensively with a ratio that is over 30% better than either of the others.


Curry Creates the Most Team Success

So, what is the bottom line that helps capture the impact of the various statistics we have shown? Of course one measure is the fact that Curry has helped his team achieve a much better record. What other measure should be considered in evaluating a potential MVP’s impact on a team? Given Curry’s extremely high Field Goal Effectiveness, does his taking fewer shots help the team more than Harden and Westbrook taking more shots and scoring more? The league average for scoring per game is roughly 99.9 points (through about 76 games of the season). Each of the three help their team score at a higher rate than that, but Curry has led the Warriors to the highest scoring per game in the league. The comparison:


A natural question is whether this superior offensive performance comes at the expense of inferior defense.  So we should include the average points given up per game by each team to round out the picture. Notice the Warriors allow fewer points per game than the league average while both the Thunder and the Rockets allow more than the league average. The combination for the Warriors means that they have the highest plus/minus in the league by quite a bit (the Warrior’s 10.4 is 60% higher than the Clippers who are second at 6.5), and it is nearly double the sum of the plus/minus for the Rockets and Thunder combined.


The league also maintains plus/minus differential by player. That is how many more points a team scores than opponents when that player is on the floor.  In all three cases, it seems clear the players are driving the team’s effectiveness as their differential exceeds that of the teams (meaning that without them on the floor, the other team, on average, outscores their team). This statistic takes offense and defense into account and helps measure the influence a player has on his team’s effectiveness.


This means that Curry is responsible for a 12.0-point improvement in plus/minus when on the floor versus how the team does when he isn’t, while both Westbrook and Harden improve their team’s plus/minus by 5.0 points. Given his top score in plus/minus, much higher Field Goal Effectiveness and TS%, combined with driving the Warriors to the top record in the league, it seems that Curry should be the league MVP and is on his way to becoming a Unicorn. As a VC, I would love to invest in him!


  • The recent ESPN selection of the top 20 players of the past 20 years is quite enlightening in how well the NBA markets their elite players compared to other sports. Despite the fact that football and baseball have a multiple of the number of players and are more popular sports, five of the 20 were from the NBA:
    • Number 1: Michael Jordon
    • Number 2: LeBron James
    • Number 8: Kobe Bryant
    • Number 11: Shaquille O’Neal
    • Number 14: Tim Duncan
  • There were 3 from football (all quarterbacks) and 2 each from baseball, tennis and soccer. And one each from 6 other sports (hockey, boxing, golf, swimming, track and cycling).
  • The four emerging stars (this includes Anthony Davis) we have discussed all have the potential to be on a future such list but their status among the greatest will also be dependent on their ability to win multiple championships. Winning MVPs makes a player great, winning multiple championships makes them one of the greatest.
  • Last night’s game against the Blazers was further validation’s of Curry’s MVP bid. Curry delivered eight 3-pointers, hit 17 of 23 shots and went 7-of-7 in his 19-point fourth quarter. His last two threes were a combined distance of 55 feet, setting a new record for threes in season and breaking his own record!

How Healthy Is Our Economy?

In this era of globalization of the work force, the United States has become a country with a split personality. On the one hand, we continue to lead the world in innovation driven by a strong college and graduate education system (15 of the 20 top rated universities in the world are in the U.S., according to the Times Higher Education World rankings), a large population of risk-taking entrepreneurs, an influx of hard working, talented immigrants and the strength of the Venture Capital industry. This innovation is responsible for creating many jobs, as can be seen at the likes of Google, Apple, Tesla, Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Uber and many more rising stars.

On the other hand, we have failed as a country to remain competitive across the workforce. As a result, despite the many jobs created by innovators, the workforce as a portion of the population is contracting and currently is barely above recession level lows. Although this month’s jobs report suggests the employment picture is improving, it’s a mistake to think the falling unemployment rate from the January 2010 recession high of 10.6% to a recent level of 5.8% in February 2015 is proof the economy is healthy once more[1] . While the 2007 pre-downturn level was a much lower 4.3%, the degree of failure to recover is considerably bleaker than the current 5.8% level versus the pre-recession 4.3% difference would indicate.

Employment Rather than Unemployment is a Better Measure of Economic Health

The employment rate (the percentage of the population that has a job) is a far better indicator of the health of the economy than the unemployment rate (the % of those seeking jobs that don’t have one). People with jobs are what supports the economy and the mere fact that someone removes themselves from the workforce does not make the economy healthier. In fact, the percentage of the population that is not in the labor force is at its highest level in 36 years. In both January and February 2015, the seasonally unadjusted labor force participation rate was 62.5%. That means that 37.5% were not participating in the labor force[2] . The last time the labor force participation rate sunk to these levels was in 1978, when it was 62.8%. At that time, interest rates were soaring and the prime rate peaked at 11.75% later that year.

In 2007, 66.0% of the population was in the workforce (that is, sought a job) and 95.4% of those had a job, meaning 63.0% of the population were employed. In 2010, 64.7% of the population was still in the work force and 90.4% of those had a job, meaning that 58.5% of Americans were still employed during the lowest period in the downturn. How much of the 4.5 percentage points (or 450 basis points) loss of employment has been recovered? In 2014, only 62.9% of the population was in the workforce. So, despite the shrinkage in the unemployment rate (which was mostly due to fewer people seeking jobs), we now have 59.0% of the population working, a 50 basis point improvement from the low point of the recession. But there was a 450 basis point shrinkage in employment during the recession, so a 50 basis point improvement hardly qualifies as a true recovery!

Labor force & employment

The Law of Unintended Consequences Often Plagues the Best of Intentions

Our federal and state governments frequently pass laws that are intended to help workers. But often the cost to employers of fulfilling these new obligations has unintended consequences as added expense drives reaction. Examples:

1. Increase minimum wage: reaction by many employers is to replace domestic workers with ones in other countries and/or to increase the use of automation, reducing the work force. Although there are conflicting data on the impact of a minimum wage increase on unemployment, a 2013 study by the AAF found that a $1 increase in the minimum wage was associated with a 1.5% increase in the unemployment rate and a 0.18% decrease in the net job growth rate.

2. Taxing companies repatriating cash from abroad at high rates: Reaction by many corporations is to decide not to repatriate the cash and, instead, to re-invest it by expanding operations in other countries instead of in the United States, causing a loss of potential jobs here.

3. Cities controlling the number of taxis allowed (through requirement to purchase a medallion): Leading to the success of Uber as unavailability of sufficient numbers of cabs during high requirement periods causes a massive conversion to Uber and a loss of income for taxi drivers.

Why is the economy failing to recover to prior levels? My belief is that the combination of the Affordable Care Act (a $2,000 cost per employee), increasing minimum wages and strong competition from abroad have all contributed to the problem. Furthermore, they have not only held back employment increases but also pushed the part-time portion of the workforce to about 19% (it was 13.5% in the late 1960s and between 17% and 18% in the early 2000s).


Finally, while our college and graduate education is outstanding, the U.S. K-12 education ranks quite low amongst nations:
1. 36th in mathematics for 15 year olds[3]
2. 24th in reading for 15 year olds[3]
3. 28th in science for 15 years olds[3]
4. 14th in cognitive skills and educational attainment[4]
5. 11th in fourth-grade mathematics and 9th in eighth-grade mathematics[5]
6. 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science[5]

Much of our priority as a country tends to emphasize short-term gratification over long-term issues like investing in primary education. If we make workers more expensive than in other parts of the developed world through requirements of expensive benefits, high minimum wages, heavy taxation, etc., then we need to make sure they are more skilled through better education and training. One of the policies that helped offset this in the past is prioritizing ease of immigration for those at the high end of the spectrum who could help create jobs.

If we fail to change our approach going forward, I continued to be concerned for America’s long-term future.

[1] Unemployment Rate (Not Seasonally Adjusted), United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics,
[3] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). 65 educational systems ranked.
[4] Pearson Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment compares the performance of 39 countries and one region (Hong Kong) on two categories of education: Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment. The Index provides a snapshot of the relative performance of countries based on their education outputs.
[5] International Study Center at Boston College. Fourth graders in 57 countries or education systems took the math and science tests, while 56 countries or education systems administered the tests to eighth graders.


– It will be interesting to see what the impact of the largest salary-cap jump in league history will be on the 2016-17 season. For example, LeBron James could take his salary from about $22 million next season to around $30 million if he signs for the maximum salary in 2016. This could have significant implications for many free agents and there might be those who accept only one-year contracts so they can retest the market in 2016, when there is more money available.

Top 10 Predictions for 2015

I’ve been very lucky to have a history of correctly predicting trends, especially in identifying stocks that would outperform. I say lucky because even assuming one gets the analysis right, the prediction can still be wrong due to poor management execution and/or unforeseen events. Last year I highlighted 10 trends that would occur in 2014 and I’m pleased that each proved accurate (see 2014 Predictions). Rather than pat myself on the back for past performance, my high-risk, A-type personality makes me go back into the fray for 2015. Last year’s highlighted stocks, Tesla and Facebook, were up 48% and 43%, respectively, from January 3 to December 31, 2014 vs. 15% for the Nasdaq and under 13% for the S&P 500. This year, I’ll identify more than two stocks to watch as I am probably over-confident due to past success. But because I’m not doing the level of work that I did on Wall Street, there is significant risk in assuming I’m correct.

So consider yourself forewarned.

  1. Facebook will have a strong 2015. I have not sold my Facebook shares (I’m up over 3x since acquiring them in mid-2013). Momentum appears just as solid as it did a year ago and revenue and earnings multiples have contracted. In 2014, revenue grew over 60% and earnings per share nearly 100% (using analyst estimates for Q4) vs the share price increase of 43%. Beware that high growth stocks can go through periods of multiple contraction, but Facebook ($75/share) seems well positioned to continue to see revenue surge and EPS increase even faster.
  1. Tesla should have another good year in 2015. I continue to hold my stock and think it will perform well despite expecting numerous wild gyrations ($192/share). Because the SUV launch has been delayed to 2016, revenue growth could taper off from the approximately 75% in 2014 (using analyst Q4 estimates). Investors could fear that lower gas prices will impact people’s desire for an all-electric car. But, do you believe customers paying $90,000 for a Tesla are doing so to save on fuel? I don’t. Tesla sales will be helped by: increasing distribution, more locations to charge one’s car (reducing one of the biggest buying inhibitors), more knowledge of the car, increasing awareness of its relative price attractiveness given the new $136,000 BMW I8 high-end sports hybrid and continued governmental incentives to buy an electric vehicle.
  1. Amazon should rebound in 2015. Last year the stock was down over 22% for a variety of short-term reasons. Amazon 2014 revenue is expected to be about 20% over 2013 revenue. Its competitive advantages in retail, if anything, improved as its local delivery capabilities continued to dominate competition (we expect Amazon to leverage this further by opening showrooms/ordering centers in several cities in 2015) and Amazon Prime service saw further and further adoption. But, 2014 was a year of substantial investment and this hurt the stock ($288/share). Such investment stimulating increased market share has occurred before and the stock typically bounces back subsequently. While it doesn’t have the growth dynamics of Facebook or Tesla and I don’t own the stock yet, I believe it is worth considering for any portfolio.
  1. Netflix power in the industry should increase in 2015. Like HBO before it, Netflix’ superior economics provides the opportunity to create more of its own proprietary content. It also may see more opportunity to launch movies online simultaneous to their launch in theaters – the success of The Interview could help drive this trend and no one is better positioned than Netflix to exploit it. After peaking mid-year at $480/share, the stock closed 2014 slightly down from a year earlier and is now at $332.
  1. Azure portfolio company, Yik Yak, will continue to emerge as the next important social network. This will cause a number of entrenched competitors to modify their products to try to slow Yik Yak growth. The most vulnerable public entity is Twitter as Yik Yak is the next, more modern version of Twitter. Given Twitter’s large user base, this will not likely affect its stock in 2015, but it is something to monitor.
  1. Curated Commerce will continue to emerge. This trend was one we forecast in last year’s blog and appears to have solid resonance. A number of startups in the category saw valuations rise to $300M – $1B including Honest Company, Birchbox, Stitchfix, and Dollar Shave Club. There is more to come as many shoppers want a better shopping experience from etailers. To date, most web shopping starts with knowing what item one wants to buy rather than “browsing”. The best brick and mortar retailers create a shopping experience by stocking items that are pleasing to those that visit their store. Most of us know people that prefer shopping in a particular store due to this experience. This trend is emerging on the web and will continue in 2015. At Azure, we continue to believe in this model and made investments into Julep, Le Tote, The Bouqs and Filter Easy in 2014.
  1. Wearable activity will slow. With the exception of the iWatch which is expected to release in early 2015, the hype around wearable devices will be more muted. Fitness trackers, wearable cameras, smart watches, heart rate monitors, and GPS tracking devices will largely be replaced by phone or watch-based apps. An early indication of this trend was an October 2014 report that claimed Apple had plans to remove Fitbit products from its physical retail stores. 
  1. Robotics will continue to make further inroads with products that provide value. Specifically, the commercial use of UAVs and drones will continue to accelerate. The recent FAA issuance of permits to use drones to monitor crops and photograph properties for sale is an initial first step in a broader application of UAVs. Companies involved in infrastructure and software related to UAVs will continue to attract more interest. 
  1. Part-time employees and replacing people with technology will continue to be a larger part of the work force. The Affordable care Act and increasing minimum wages will each be a force in driving this trend.
  1. 3D printers will be increasingly used in smaller batch and custom manufacturing.


  • Switched to an iPhone from Blackberry and while this may sound prehistoric, I will miss many of the efficiencies of a Blackberry that the iPhone lacks; but I had to change because the iPhone is so much better for online, graphics and had apps I felt were mandatory and it made more sense to switch than to buy the newest Blackberry.
  • Wanted to put a stake in the ground predicting the Cavaliers will have a much better second half of the season assuming LeBron is healthy.

Wal-Mart is making progress in ecommerce but it is less than people think

Many years ago it became obvious to some of us that online retail would continue to grow at a much faster pace than brick and mortar stores. This appeared to be less obvious to traditional retailers until more recently. In 2001, I suggested to some colleagues that Wal-Mart should acquire Amazon to gain an edge in online retail (Amazon stock was about $5 a share at the time). This idea was scoffed at. I bought Amazon stock but, clearly, didn’t maximize my execution as I sold it within 18 months for 3 times the return (it’s now $317). I’m guessing there were also some prescient investment bankers who received a similar response after suggesting that Wal-Mart buy Amazon. Who knows what the world would be like today had that occurred, as Amazon could easily have been derailed under Wal-Mart management. Continue reading