Why Apple Acquiring Tesla Seems an Obvious Step…

…and why the obvious probably won’t happen!

A Look at Apple history

Apple’s progress from a company in trouble to becoming the first company to reach a trillion dollar market cap meant over 400X appreciation in Apple stock. The metamorphosis began when the company hired Fred Anderson as an Executive VP and CFO in 1996. Tim Cook joined the company as senior VP of worldwide operations in 1998. Fred and Tim improved the company operationally, eliminating wasteful spending that preceded their tenure. Of course, as most of you undoubtedly know, bringing back Steve Jobs by acquiring his company, NeXT Computer in early 1997 added a strategic genius and great marketer to an Apple that now had an improved business model. Virtually every successful current Apple product was conceived while Steve was there. After Fred retired in 2004, Tim Cook assumed even more of a leadership role than before and eventually became CEO shortly before Jobs’ death in 2011.  

Apple post Steve Jobs

Tim Cook is a great operator. In the years following the death of Steve Jobs he squeezed every bit of profit that is possible out of the iPad, iPod, iMacs, music content, app store sales and most of all the iPhone. Because great products have a long life cycle they can increase in sales for many years before flattening out and then declining.

Table 1: Illustrative Sales Lifecycle for Great Tech Product

Cook’s limit is that he cannot conceptualize new products in the way Steve Jobs did. After all, who, besides an Elon Musk, could? The problem for Apple is that if it is to return to double digit growth, it needs a really large, successful new product as the iPhone is flattening in sales and the Apple Watch and other new initiatives have not sufficiently moved the needle to offset it. Assuming Q4 revenue growth in FY 2019 is consistent with the first 9 months, then Apple’s compound growth over the 4 years from FY 15 to FY 19 will be 3.0% (see Table 2) including the benefit of acquisitions like Beats.

iPhone sales have flattened

The problem for Apple is that the iPhone is now in the mature part of its sales life cycle. In fact, unit sales appear to be declining (Graph 1) but Apple’s near monopoly pricing power has allowed it to defy the typical price cycle for technology products where average selling prices decline over time. The iPhone has gone from a price range of $99 to $299 in June 2009 to $999 to $1449 for the iPhoneX, while the older iPhone 7 is still available with minimal storage for $449. That’s a 4.5X price increase at the bottom and nearly 5X at the high end! This defies gravity for technology products.

Graph 1: iPhone Unit Sales (2007-2018)

In the many years I followed the PC market, it kept growing until reaching the following set of conditions (which the iPhone now also faces):

  1. Improvements in features were no longer enough to drive rapid replacement cycles
  2. Pricing was under pressure as component costs declined and it became more difficult to convince buyers to add capacity or capability sufficient to hold prices where they were
  3. The number of first time users available to buy product was no longer increasing each year
  4. Competition from lower priced suppliers created pricing pressure

Prior to that time PC pricing could be maintained by convincing buyers that they needed one or more of:

  1. The next generation of processor
  2. A larger or thinner screen
  3. Next generation storage technology

What is interesting when we contrast this with iPhones is that PC manufacturers struggled to maintain average selling prices (ASPs) until they finally began declining in the early 2000s. Similarly, products like DVD players, VCRs, LCD TVs and almost every other technology driven product had to drop dramatically in price to attract a mass market. In contrast to that, Apple has been able to increase average prices at  the same time that the iPhone became a mass market product. This helped Apple postpone the inevitable revenue flattening and subsequent decline due to lengthening replacement cycles and fewer first time buyers. In the past few years, other then the bump in FY 2018 from the launch of the high priced Model X early that fiscal year, iPhone revenue has essentially been flat to down. Since it is well over 50% of Apple revenue, this puts great pressure on overall revenue growth.

To get back to double digit growth Apple needs to enter a really large market

To be clear, Apple is likely to continue to be a successful, highly profitable company for many years even if it does not make any dramatic acquisitions. While its growth may be slow, its after tax profits has been above 20% for each of the past 5 years. Strong cash flow has enabled the company to buy back stock and to support increasing dividends every year since August 2014.

Despite this, I think Apple would be well served by using a portion of their cash to make an acquisition that enables them to enter a very large market with a product that already has a great brand, traction, and superior technology. This could protect them if the iPhone enters the downside of its revenue generating cycle (and it is starting to feel that will happen sometime in the next few years). Further, Apple would benefit if the company they acquired had a visionary leader who could be the new “Steve Jobs” for Apple.

There is no better opportunity than autos

If Apple laid out criteria for what sector to target, they might want to:

  1. Find a sector that is at least hundreds of billions of dollars in size
  2. Find a sector in the midst of major transition
  3. Find a sector where market share is widely spread
  4. Find a sector ripe for disruption where the vast majority of participants are “old school”

The Automobile industry matches every criterion:

Matching 1.  It is well over $3 trillion in size

Matching 2. Cars are transitioning to electric from gas and are becoming the next technology platform

Matching 3. Eight players have between 5% and 11% market share and 7 more between 2% and 5%

Matching 4. The top ten manufacturers all started well over 50 years ago

And no better fit for Apple than Tesla

Tesla reminds me of Apple in the late 1990s. Its advocates are passionate about the company and its products. It can charge a premium versus others because it has the best battery technology coupled with the smartest software technology. The company also designs its cars from the ground up, rather than retrofitting older models, focusing on what the modern buyer would most want. Like Jobs was at Apple, Musk cares about every detail of the product and insists on ease of use wherever possible. The business model includes owning distribution outlets much like Apple Stores have done for Apple. By owning the outlets, Tesla can control its brand image much better than any other auto manufacturer. While there has been much chatter about Google and Uber in terms of self-driving cars, Tesla is the furthest along at putting product into the market to test this technology.

Tesla may have many advantages over others, but it takes time to build up market share and the company is still around 0.5% of the market (in units). It takes several years to bring a new model to market and Tesla has yet to enter several categories. It also takes time and considerable capital to build out efficient manufacturing capability and Tesla has struggled to keep up with demand. But, the two directions that the market is moving towards are all electric cars and smart, autonomous vehicles. Tesla appears to have a multi-year lead in both. What this means is that with enough capital and strong operational direction Tesla seems poised to gain significant market share.

Apple could accelerate Tesla’s growth

If Apple acquired Tesla it could:

  1. Supply capital to accelerate launch of new models
  2. Supply capital for more factories
  3. Increase distribution by offering Tesla products in Apple Stores (this would be done virtually using large computer screens). An extra benefit from this would be adding buzz to Apple stores
  4. Supply operational knowhow that would increase Tesla efficiency
  5. Add to the luster of the Tesla brand by it being part of Apple
  6. Integrate improved entertainment product (and add subscriptions) into Tesla cars

These steps would likely drive continued high growth for Tesla. If, with this type of support, it could get to 5% share in 3-5 years that would put it around $200 billion in revenue which would be higher than the iPhone is currently. Additionally, Elon Musk is possibly the greatest innovator since Steve Jobs. As a result, Tesla would bring to Apple the best battery technology, the strongest power storage technology, and the leading solar energy company. More importantly, Apple would also gain a great innovator.

The Cost of such an acquisition is well within Apple’s means

At the end of fiscal Q3, Apple had about $95 billion in cash and equivalents plus another $116 billion in marketable securities. It also has averaged over $50 billion in after tax profits annually for the past 5 fiscal years (including the current one). Tesla market cap is about $40 billion. I’m guessing Apple could potentially acquire it for less than $60 billion (which would be a large premium over where it is trading). This would be easy for Apple to afford and would create zero dilution for Apple stockholders.

If the Fit is so strong and the means are there, why won’t it happen?

I can sum up the answer in one word – ego.  I’m not sure Tim Cook is willing to admit that Elon would be a far better strategist for Apple than him. I’m not sure he would be willing to give Elon the role of guiding Apple on the product side. I’m not sure Elon Musk is willing to admit he is not the operator that Tim Cook is (remember Steve Jobs had to find out he needed the right operating/financial partners by getting fired by Apple and essentially failing at NeXT). I’m not sure Elon is willing to give up being the CEO and controlling decision-maker for his companies.

So, this probably will never happen but if it did, I believe it would be the greatest business powerhouse in history!

Soundbytes

  1. USA Today just published a story that agreed with our last Soundbytes analysis of why Klay Thompson is underrated.
  2. I expect Zoom Video to beat revenue estimates of $129 million to $130 million for the July Quarter by about $5 million or more

The Warriors Ain’t Dead Yet!

Why the team is still a contender

My long term readers know that every so often the blog wanders into the sports arena. In doing so, I apply the same type of analysis that I do for public stocks and for VC investments to sports, and usually, basketball. Given all the turmoil that has occurred in the NBA this off-season, including the Warriors losing Durant, Iguodala, Livingston, Cousins and several other players, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate the newly changed team. Both ESPN and CBS power rankings have them 7th in the West and 11th in the NBA. I find that an overreaction as the Warriors may have beaten the Raptors if Klay Thompson not been injured, they swept Portland, and won the last 2 Rockets games without Durant. At the time this drove a lot of chatter that the team might be better off without Durant (I disagree).

But rather then compare the revised roster to last year’s, it seems more closely matched with the 2014-15 team, as that was a championship team that did not include Kevin Durant. I will make 2 key assumptions:

  1. Klay Thompson will return by the end of February and be as effective as he was before his injury
  2. The Warriors will make the playoffs despite missing Thompson for the majority of the season

It all starts with Curry

A third key assumption that has been proven over and over again is that players that come to the Warriors usually perform better as they benefit from the “Curry Effect”, namely, getting more shots without having someone closely guarding them, (The Curry Effect), resulting in an average improved shooting percentage of over 5%. In all fairness, it really is the “Curry plus Thompson Effect” as the extreme focus on preventing the two of them from taking 3 point shots is what frees up others. It helps that Curry is unselfish and readily passes the ball when he is double or triple teamed. Thompson’s passing has improved substantially but since he gets his shot off so quickly, he has less need to pass it. Last year both shot over 40% from 3 despite defensive efforts focused on preventing each of them from taking those shots.

Starting Teams: 2019-20 vs 2014-15

Table 1

Curry, Thompson and Green, the heart and soul of the Warriors, all remain from the 2014-15 roster, and now are at their peaks. In the 2014-15 season when Green first became a starter, Curry was one year away from reaching his peak and Thompson was just coming into his own especially on defense. I believe each of them is better today then they were at that time. At his best, Bogut may have been better than Cauley-Stein, but by 2014 Bogut had been through a number of injuries. Last year Cauley-Stein averaged nearly double the points of 2014 Bogut (11.9 vs 6.3), took slightly more rebounds per game and was a better free throw shooter. Stein, much like Bogut, is also considered a solid pick setter and defender. Russell is someone who should benefit greatly from playing with Curry. Even without that, last season he averaged over twice as many points per game as 2014 Barnes (21.1 vs 10.1) which should take considerable pressure off Curry (and Klay when he returns). However, Barnes was a better defender in 2014 than Russell is today. I give the edge to all 5 starters on the 2019 starting team compared to the 5 that started in 2014-15.

Thompson may be the most underrated player in the league!

It’s unfortunate that Thompson was injured in game 6 of the 2019 finals as he was once again proving just how good he can be. Not only was he playing lockdown defense, but he also drove the offense in what has been referred to as a typical Klay game 6. In just 32 minutes, before getting injured, he scored 30 points on 83% effective shooting percentage (67% on 3s), went 10 for 10 on free throws, and had 5 rebounds and 2 steals. I believe Golden State, even without Durant, would have forced a game 7 if Thompson did not get injured.

It boggles my mind that one of the websites could refer to Thompson as “an average player” who did not merit a max contract. This is bordering on the ridiculous and has a lot to do with the fact that the most important measure of shooting, effective shooting percentage (where each 3 made counts as 1½ 2 point shots made) does not normally get reported (or even noticed). In Table 2, I list the top 31 scorers from last season (everyone who averaged at least 20 points per game) and rank them by effective shooting. Thompson is number 8 in effective shooting and number 3 in 3-point percentage among this group. So, if effective shooting percentage was regularly published, Thompson would show up consistently helping the perception of his value. When this is coupled with his being a third team all-defensive player (i.e., one of the top 15 defenders in the league) it appears clear that he should be considered one of the top 15 players in the league.

Table 2: Top Scorers 2018-2019 Season

6th Man 2019-20 vs 2014-15

Kevon Looney has emerged as a potential star in the works. While he may not yet be the defensive presence of Iguodala, he is getting close. His scoring per minute played was higher than Andre’s 2014-15 numbers and his rebounds per minute were more than twice as much. While Iguodala had greater presence and could run the team as well as assist others in scoring, Looney at least partly makes up for this in his ability to set screens. Looney also has a much higher effective shooting percentage (62.7% vs 54.0%) than Andre had in 2014-15. While Kevon doesn’t shoot 3s he gets many points by putting back offensive rebounds and dunking lob passes. Overall, I give the edge to Iguodala based on the Looney of last season but given Looney’s potential to improve this might be dead even in the coming one.

Rest of the Bench for the 2 teams

It is the bench that is hardest to evaluate. Unlike last year’s bench, the 2014-15 bench was quite strong which spawned the Warrior logo “Strength in Numbers”. It included quality veteran players like Leandro Barbosa, David Lee, Mareese Sprouts and Shaun Livingston, who was playing at a much higher level than last season. The four of these together averaged over 26 points per game.  This coming year’s bench is much younger and more athletic. It includes Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson, Alfonzo McKinnie and Omari Spellman, plus several rookies and Jacob Evans III. The first four are all capable of scoring and are solid 3-point shooters (they could increase to well above average once with the Warriors). I expect that group, coupled with one or two of the others, to exceed the 2014-15 bench in defense…but may not have as much scoring fire power. The team is likely to give one or two of the rookies as well as Evans opportunities to earn minutes as well. The bench is an improvement over last year but may not be as strong as the 2014-15 squads.

Overall Assessment

I believe the 2019-2020 squad is better than the championship team of 2015. The starting lineup features the core 3 players who have improved since then, D’Angelo Russell who was an all-star last year, and a solid center in Willie Cauley-Stein making the edge substantial. Looney as 6th man is already giving evidence of future stardom. While he was not quite the Andre Iguodala of 2014-15, the difference is modest, and Looney continues to improve. The 2014-15 bench appears superior to that of next season, but the edge is not great as the newer group should be stronger defensively and is not far off the older group as scorers – the question will be how well they gel and how much the Curry/Klay factor improves their scoring. Finally, I think Kerr is a better coach today than he was given the last 5 years of experience.

They May Have Improved vs 2014-15, but so has the Competition

ESPN and CBS power rankings reflect the fact that multiple teams have created new “super star” two-somes:

  • Lakers: Lebron and Anthony Davis
  • Clippers: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
  • Houston: Harden and Westbrook (in place of Chris Paul)
  • Nets: Kyrie Irving and Durant

Contenders also include improving young teams like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, and Utah plus an improved Portland squad. This makes the landscape much tougher than when the Warriors won their 2015 championship. Yet, none of these teams seem better than the Cleveland team (led by a younger LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) the Warriors beat in 2015. So, assuming Klay returns by late February and is back to par, I believe the Warriors will remain strong contenders given the starting team with four all-stars augmented by Willie Cauley-Stein and an improving Kevon Looney as 6th man. However, it will be much tougher going in the early rounds in the playoffs, making getting to the finals longer odds than in each of the past 5 years.

SoundBytes

  1. An examination of Table 2 reveals several interesting facts:
  2. Curry, once again is the leader among top scorers in effective shooting and the only one over 60%
  3. Antetokounmpo is only slightly behind despite being a very poor 3-point shooter. If he can improve his distance shooting, he may become unstoppable
  4. Russell Westbrook, once again, had the worst effective shooting percent of anyone who averaged 20 points or more. In fact, he was significantly below the league average. Part of the reason is despite being a very poor 3-point shooter he continues to take too many distance shots. Whereas most players find that taking 3s increases their effective shooting percent, for Westbrook it lowers it. I haven’t been able to check this, but one broadcaster stated that he has the lowest 3-point percentage of any player in history that has taken over 2500 3-point shots!
  5. I believe that Westbrook has a diminished chance to accumulate as many triple doubles next season as he has in the past. There is only one ball and both he and Harden tend to hold it most of the time. When Chris Paul came to the Rockets his assists per game decreased by about 15% compared to his prior 3 season average.

How to Improve Contribution Margin

This post is the third in my series on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), with a heavy emphasis on contribution margin (CM). Previously, I analyzed why CM is such a strong predictor of success. Given that, companies should consistently look at ways of improving it while still maintaining sufficient growth in their business.

In Azure’s recent full day marketing seminar for our consumer (B2C) focused companies, my session highlighted 6 methods of improving CM:

  1. Increase follow-on sales from existing customers
  2. Raise the average invoice value of the initial and subsequent sales to a customer
  3. Increase GM (Gross Margin) through price increases
  4. Increase GM by reducing cost of goods sold (COGs)
  5. Reduce Blended CAC (cost of customer acquisition) by increasing free or very low cost traffic
  6. Decrease marketing spend as a % of revenue

Before drilling down on each of these I want to define several key terms that will be used throughout the discussion:

  • Contribution Margin = GM – Marketing/Sales Costs – other cost that vary with sales
  • Paid CAC = Market Spend/New Customers acquired through this spend
  • Blended CAC = Market Spend/All new customers
  • CAC Recovery Time (CAC RT) = the number of months until variable profit on a customer equals CAC
  • LTV/CAC = Life Time Value (LTV) of a customer/CAC

I will now review each of these strategies and provide some thoughts on how to activate these in consumer-facing businesses:

1. Increase Follow-On sales from existing customers 

Since existing customers have little or no cost associated with getting them to buy, this will decrease blended CAC, increasing CM.

  • Increasing customer retention through improvements in customer care, more interesting and more targeted emails to a customer, or launching a subscription of one kind or another can all help.

On the first point here is an email I received shortly after subscribing to Harry’s, that I thought did an excellent job at engaging me with their customer support, increasing my likelihood to keep my subscription active:

Hi there,
My name is Katie, and I’m a member of the Harry’s team. I wanted to reach out and say thanks for supporting Harry’s.
You are important to us, and I am here to personally help you however I can to make your Harry’s experience as smooth as possible – both literally and figuratively. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any thoughts or questions about your Harry’s products or Shave Plan, or just life in general. (And just a reminder that your next box is scheduled to ship on October 27th.) Thanks again for your support, and I hope to speak soon!
All the best,
Katie

On the subscription concept, think about Amazon Prime. How many of you buy more frequently from Amazon because of being a prime member?

  • Add to product portfolio. By giving your customers more options of what to buy (all within the concept of your brand) customers are given the opportunity to spend more often.
  • Make sure your emails are interesting. This will increase the open rate and drive more follow on sales. If all your emails are about discounting your product, then customers will have less interest in opening them and your brand will be devalued. I’ve received emails from numerous sites that say an X% discount is available until a certain date, and then when that date passes, I receive a new offer that is the same or sometimes better.  The most frequently opened emails have headers and content that creates interest beyond whatever products you sell. A/B test different headers and different content. It doesn’t matter how small or large you are or how many emails you send, it always pays to try different variations to increase open rates and conversion. Experiment with different messaging to different customer segments like those who purchased recently, those who “liked” an item, those that have never purchased, etc.
  • Build a Community of your customers. The more you can get customers engaged with you and with each other, the more committed to you they become and the longer they are retained. Think through how you can build an active community among your users through shared photos, videos, chatting, podcasts or events. Most of this should not involve trying to push new purchases but engaging your community to interact with you and each other.

2. Raise the average invoice value of the initial and subsequent sales to a customer

Since shipping costs will not increase proportionately, this will raise GM dollars and therefore CM.

  • Increase pricing. Most startups underprice their product thinking that will increase market adoption. Even some of the largest companies in the world have found there was ample room to increase prices. Thinking differently, Apple upped prices to over $1,000 for an iPhone. And then increased it again to $1,349 for the top of the line product. Five years ago, how many of you thought people would pay over $1,000 for a cell phone? This shows that unless you A/B test different price points you have no idea whether a price increase is the right strategy.
  • Upsell logical add-on products. While trying to get a customer to add to their shopping cart may seem obvious, many companies do not do this on a consistent basis. Some examples of ones that have: a flower company added vases to the offer, a mattress company added pillows and sheets; a subscription razor company added shaving gel; a cell phone company added a case. All of these led to reasonable attach rates of the add-on product and higher average invoice value. Testing what you could add to generate upsell should be a constant process.
  • “Selling” value added services is another form of upsell. This could include things like concierge customer service, service contacts, premier membership with benefits like: invites to special events, early access to new products, reduced shipping cost, preferred discounts on products, etc. If you get your customers to engage in one or more services, you will significantly increase their connection to your product and likely increase retention.

3. Increase Gross Margin through price Increases

Surprisingly, sometimes higher prices position a product as premium (having more value) and generate increased unit sales. Often higher prices generate more revenue even when fewer unit sales result. What may be counter intuitive is that GM$ can increase even if revenue declines. For example, suppose a company has COGs of $50 for a product and is currently pricing it at $100. If a price increase of 20% causes 20% lower unit sales, revenue would decline by 4% while GM$ would increase 12%. Higher gross margin dollars provide more ability to spend on marketing.

 

4. Improving GM by reducing COGs

  • Better Pricing: When your volume increases, ask for better pricing from suppliers. Just as its important to price test regularly, its also important to talk to multiple potential suppliers of your parts/product. An existing supplier may not be eager to voluntarily offer a price discount that goes with increased volume but is more likely to do so if it knows you are checking with others.
  • Changing Packaging: Packaging should be re-examined regularly as improvements may help customer retention. But it also may be possible to lower the cost of the packaging or to change it in a way that lowers shipping costs since that may be based on the size of the box rather than weight.
  • Shipping Costs: Lower shipping cost per $ of revenue (increasing GM and CM) by generating larger orders. In addition to upsell, this can be done by offering better discounts if the order size is larger. One site I have purchased from offers 10% discount if your net spend (after discount) is over $100, 15% if over $150 and 20% if over $200. Getting to the highest discount lowers the price of the product by enough to motivate buyers (including me) to try to buy over $200 in merchandise. The extra revenue creates incremental product margin dollars and decreases shipping cost as a percentage of revenue. This in turn increases GM$.

For a subscription company this can be done by scheduling less frequent (larger) deliveries. The shipping cost of the larger order will be a much smaller percent of revenue, raising GM.

  • Opening a Second distribution center to reduce shipping cost. Orders shipped from a west coast distribution center to an east coast customer will have 5 zone pricing. By having a second distribution center in a place like Columbus, Ohio (a frequently used location) those same orders will usually be 1 zone, sometimes 2 zone pricing, resulting in substantial savings per order. The caveat here is that a company needs enough volume for the total savings on orders to exceed the fixed cost of a second distribution center.

5. Improving CM by driving “free” or “nearly free” traffic

The higher the proportion of free or inexpensive traffic to total traffic, the lower the blended CAC.

  • Improving SEO (search engine optimization). I’ve learned from SEO experts that optimizing SEO is not free, but rather very low cost compared to paid traffic. Our previous post walks through some of the science involved in making improvements. I would suggest using an SEO consultant as it is likely to lead to far better results.
  • Convert a visitor not ready to buy to an email recipient. If you do that than you will have subsequent opportunities to market to her or him. A slightly costlier version of this is to use remarketing to woo visitors who came to your site but didn’t buy. While using remarketing (advertising) has a cost, it is usually much lower CAC than other methods.
  • Produce emails that get forwarded and go viral. Such emails need to motivate recipients to forward them due to being very funny, of human interest, etc. While there is typically a product offering embedded in them, the header emphasizes the reason to read it. One Azure portfolio company, Shinesty, recently had an email that was opened by about 7X the number of people it was initially sent to.  That generated a lot of potential customers without spending extra marketing dollars. Engaging emails has enabled Shinesty to maintain high CM and high growth.
  • Use social networking to generate incremental customers. Having the right posts on a social network like Instagram can lead to new potential customers finding out about you and lead to additional sales.
  • Optimize Customer Retention. Or as my good friend Chris Bruzzo (CMO of EA) spoke about at the Azure Marketing conference: “Love the ones you’re with.” Existing customers are usually the largest source of “free” buyers in a period. The longer you retain a customer, the more repeat buyers you have, increasing contribution margin. So, it’s imperative to take great care of your existing customers.
  • Drive PR. Like SEO, there is some cost involved in this but if you are judicious in any agency spend and thoughtful in creating news worthy press releases this can be a great source of traffic at a modest cost. However, I recommend you try to understand what you are getting from PR because I have seen situations where the spend did not produce meaningful results.

6. Decrease Marketing Spend as a % of Revenue.

The CAC Recovery Time plays a major role in how to manage your market spend to balance growth and burn. For example, if CAC Recovery Time is one month, spending more will not drive up burn appreciably. If it takes more than a year to recover your CAC, moderating market spend is critical to achieving a reasonable CM. If you recoup CAC faster, you can invest more quickly in the next round of customers. In the consumer space, I won’t invest in a company that has a long (a year or more) CAC Recovery Time as customers are likely to churn in an average of 2-3 years, making it difficult to achieve a reasonable business model. For B2B company’s customer longevity tends to be much longer, and the LTV/CAC can be 5X or more even if CAC Recovery Time is a year.

When a company decreases its market spend as a % of revenue it may experience lower growth but better CM. However, many companies have waste in their marketing spend so it’s important to measure the efficacy of each area of spend separately and to eliminate programs with a low return. This will allow you to reduce the spend with minimal impact on growth rates. There is a balance needed to try to optimize the relationship between CM and revenue growth as higher burn requires raising money more frequently and can put your company at risk. On the other hand, a company generating $1M in revenue needs to be growing at 100% or more to warrant most VCs to consider investing. Since CM should improve with scale, spending more on marketing may be a viable strategy for early stage companies. Once a company reaches $10M in revenue, annual growth of 50% will get it to $76M in revenue in 5 years so such a company should consider better CM rather than driving much higher growth rates and continuing to burn excessive cash.

In summary, Contribution Margin is the lifeblood of a company. If it is weak, the company is likely to fail over time. If it is strong and revenue growth is high, success seems likely. Improving CM is an ongoing process. I realize many of you probably feel much of what I’ve said is obvious, but my question is:“How many of these suggestions are you already doing on a regular basis?”

While you may be using several of the suggestions in this post, I encourage you to try more and to also double down where you can on the ones you already are trying. The results will make your company more valuable!

 

SoundBytes

  • I just want to remind readers that my collaborator on my blog posts, Andrea Drager, doesn’t typically take a bow for her significant contributions. Also, in this post, Chris Bruzzo added several improvements that have been incorporated. So many thanks to Andrea and Chris.
  • Can’t help but comment on the start to the NBA season. Not surprisingly, the Warriors are off to a great start with Curry and Durant leading the way. Greene and Thompson now have moved close to their usual contribution so I’m hopeful that the team can keep up its current pace.
  • What surprised me early on was the lack of recognition that both Toronto and San Antonio would be greatly improved. Remember, while San Antonio lost Kawhi, he only played a few games last year so with the addition of DeRozan should improve and once again reach the playoffs. For Toronto the change to Kawhi is a marked improvement placing them very competitive with the Celtics for eastern leadership.
  • I also feel it necessary to comment on the “Las Vegas” Raiders. I call them that already as they have shown zero regard for Oakland fans. While commentators have criticized their trading of all-star level players for draft choices, this is precisely on-strategy. When they get to Vegas they want a brand-new set of rising stars that the new fan base can identify with (using the numerous first round draft choices they traded for), and they don’t mind having the worst record in the league while still in Oakland. I believe Oakland fans should stop attending games as a response. I also think the NFL continues to shoot itself in the foot, allowing one of the most loyal and visible fan bases in the league to once again be abandoned

The Valuation Bible

Facebook valuation image

After many years of successfully picking public and private companies to invest in, I thought I’d share some of the core fundamentals I use to think about how a company should be valued. Let me start by saying numerous companies defy the logic that I will lay out in this post, often for good reasons, sometimes for poor ones. However, eventually most companies will likely approach this method, so it should at least be used as a sanity check against valuations.

When a company is young, it may not have any earnings at all, or it may be at an earnings level (relative to revenue) that is expected to rise. In this post, I’ll start by considering more mature companies that are approaching their long-term model for earnings to establish a framework, before addressing how this framework applies to less mature companies. The post will be followed by another one where I apply the rules to Tesla and discuss how it carries over into private companies.

Growth and Earnings are the Starting Points for Valuing Mature Companies

When a company is public, the most frequently cited metric for valuation is its price to earnings ratio (PE). This may be done based on either a trailing 12 months or a forward 12 months. In classic finance theory a company should be valued based on the present value of future cash flows. What this leads to is our first rule:

Rule 1: Higher Growth Rates should result in a higher PE ratio.

When I was on Wall Street, I studied hundreds of growth companies (this analysis does not apply to cyclical companies) over the prior 10-year period and found that there was a very strong correlation between a given year’s revenue growth rate and the next year’s revenue growth rate. While the growth rate usually declined year over year if it was over 10%, on average this decline was less than 20% of the prior year’s growth rate. What this means is that if we took a group of companies with a revenue growth rate of 40% this year, the average organic growth for the group would likely be about 33%-38% the next year. Of course, things like recessions, major new product releases, tax changes, and more could impact this, but over a lengthy period of time this tended to be a good sanity test. As of January 2, 2018, the average S&P company had a PE ratio of 25 on trailing earnings and was growing revenue at 5% per year. Rule 1 implies that companies growing faster should have higher PEs and those growing slower, lower PEs than the average.

Graph 1: Growth Rates vs. Price Earnings Ratios

graph

The graph shows the correlation between growth and PE based on the valuations of 21 public companies. Based on Rule 1, those above the line may be relatively under-priced and those below relatively over-priced. I say ‘may be’ as there are many other factors to consider, and the above is only one of several ways to value companies. Notice that most of the theoretically over-priced companies with growth rates of under 5% are traditional companies that have long histories of success and pay a dividend. What may be the case is that it takes several years for the market to adjust to their changed circumstances or they may be valued based on the return from the dividend. For example, is Coca Cola trading on: past glory, its 3.5% dividend, or is there something about current earnings that is deceptive (revenue growth has been a problem for several years as people switch from soda to healthier drinks)? I am not up to speed enough to know the answer. Those above the line may be buys despite appearing to be highly valued by other measures.

Relatively early in my career (in 1993-1995) I applied this theory to make one of my best calls on Wall Street: “Buy Dell sell Kellogg”. At the time Dell was growing revenue over 50% per year and Kellogg was struggling to grow it over 4% annually (its compounded growth from 1992 to 1995, this was partly based on price increases). Yet Dell’s PE was about half that of Kellogg and well below the S&P average. So, the call, while radical at the time, was an obvious consequence of Rule 1. Fortunately for me, Dell’s stock appreciated over 65X from January 1993 to January 2000 (and well over 100X while I had it as a top pick) while Kellogg, despite large appreciation in the overall stock market, saw its stock decline slightly over the same 7-year period (but holders did receive annual dividends).

Rule 2: Predictability of Revenue and Earnings Growth should drive a higher trailing PE

Investors place a great deal of value on predictability of growth and earnings, which is why companies with subscription/SaaS models tend to get higher multiples than those with regular sales models. It is also why companies with large sales backlogs usually get additional value. In both cases, investors can more readily value the companies on forward earnings since they are more predictable.

Rule 3: Market Opportunity should impact the Valuation of Emerging Leaders

When one considers why high growth rates might persist, the size of the market opportunity should be viewed as a major factor. The trick here is to make sure the market being considered is really the appropriate one for that company. In the early 1990s, Dell had a relatively small share of a rapidly growing PC market. Given its competitive advantages, I expected Dell to gain share in this mushrooming market. At the same time, Kellogg had a stable share of a relatively flat cereal market, hardly a formula for growth. In recent times, I have consistently recommended Facebook in this blog for the very same reasons I had recommended Dell: in 2013, Facebook had a modest share of the online advertising, a market expected to grow rapidly. Given the advantages Facebook had (and they were apparent as I saw every Azure ecommerce portfolio company moving a large portion of marketing spend to Facebook), it was relatively easy for me to realize that Facebook would rapidly gain share. During the time I’ve owned it and recommended it, this has worked out well as the share price is up over 8X.

How the rules can be applied to companies that are pre-profit

As a VC, it is important to evaluate what companies should be valued at well before they are profitable. While this is nearly impossible to do when we first invest (and won’t be covered in this post), it is feasible to get a realistic range when an offer comes in to acquire a portfolio company that has started to mature. Since they are not profitable, how can I apply a PE ratio?

What needs to be done is to try to forecast eventual profitability when the company matures. A first step is to see where current gross margins are and to understand whether they can realistically increase. The word realistic is the key one here. For example, if a young ecommerce company currently has one distribution center on the west coast, like our portfolio company Le Tote, the impact on shipping costs of adding a second eastern distribution center can be modeled based on current customer locations and known shipping rates from each distribution center. Such modeling, in the case of Le Tote, shows that gross margins will increase 5%-7% once the second distribution center is fully functional. On the other hand, a company that builds revenue city by city, like food service providers, may have little opportunity to save on shipping.

  • Calculating variable Profit Margin

Once the forecast range for “mature” gross margin is estimated, the next step is to identify other costs that will increase in some proportion to revenue. For example, if a company is an ecommerce company that acquires most of its new customers through Facebook, Google and other advertising and has high churn, the spend on customer acquisition may continue to increase in direct proportion to revenue. Similarly, if customer service needs to be labor intensive, this can also be a variable cost. So, the next step in the process is to access where one expects the “variable profit margin” to wind up. While I don’t know the company well, this appears to be a significant issue for Blue Apron: marketing and cost of goods add up to about 90% of revenue. I suspect that customer support probably eats up (no pun intended) 5-10% of what is left, putting variable margins very close to zero. If I assume that the company can eventually generate 10% variable profit margin (which is giving it credit for strong execution), it would need to reach about $4 billion in annual revenue to reach break-even if other costs (product, technology and G&A) do not increase. That means increasing revenue nearly 5-fold. At their current YTD growth rate this would take 9 years and explains why the stock has a low valuation.

  • Estimating Long Term Net Margin

Once the variable profit margin is determined, the next step would be to estimate what the long-term ratio of all other operating cost might be as a percent of revenue. Using this estimate I can determine a Theoretic Net Earnings Percent. Applying this percent to current (or next years) revenue yields a Theoretic Earnings and a Theoretic PE (TPE):

TPE= Market Cap/Theoretic Earnings     

To give you a sense of how I successfully use this, review my recap of the Top Ten Predictions from 2017 where I correctly predicted that Spotify would not go public last year despite strong top line growth as it was hard to see how its business model could support more than 2% or so positive operating margin, and that required renegotiating royalty deals with record labels.  Now that Spotify has successfully negotiated a 3% lower royalty rate from several of the labels, it appears that the 16% gross margins in 2016 could rise to 19% or more by the end of 2018. This means that variable margins (after marketing cost) might be 6%. This would narrow its losses, but still means it might be several years before the company achieves the 2% operating margins discussed in that post. As a result, Spotify appears headed for a non-traditional IPO, clearly fearing that portfolio managers would not be likely to value it at its private valuation price since that would lead to a TPE of over 200. Since Spotify is loved by many consumers, individuals might be willing to overpay relative to my valuation analysis.

Our next post will pick up this theme by walking through why this leads me to believe Tesla continues to have upside, and then discussing how entrepreneurs should view exit opportunities.

 

SoundBytes

I’ve often written about effective shooting percentage relative to Stephen Curry, and once again he leads the league among players who average 15 points or more per game. What also accounts for the Warriors success is the effective shooting of Klay Thompson, who is 3rd in the league, and Kevin Durant who is 6th. Not surprisingly, Lebron is also in the top 10 (4th). The table below shows the top ten among players averaging 15 points or more per game.  Of the top ten scorers in the league, 6 are among the top 10 effective shooters with James Harden only slightly behind at 54.8%. The remaining 3 are Cousins (53.0%), Lillard (52.2%), and Westbrook, the only one below the league average of 52.1% at 47.4%.

Table: Top Ten Effective Shooters in the League

table

*Note: Bolded players denote those in the top 10 in Points per Game

Re-cap of 2017 Top Ten Predictions

I started 2017 by saying:

When I was on Wall Street I became very boring by having the same three strong buy recommendations for many years…  until I downgraded Compaq in 1998 (it was about 30X the original price at that point). The other two, Microsoft and Dell, remained strong recommendations until I left Wall Street in 2000. At the time, they were each well over 100X the price of my original recommendation. I mention this because my favorite stocks for this blog include Facebook and Tesla for the 4th year in a row. They are both over 5X what I paid for them in 2013 ($23 and $45, respectively) and I continue to own both. Will they get to 100X or more? This is not likely, as companies like them have had much higher valuations when going public compared with Microsoft or Dell, but I believe they continue to offer strong upside, as explained below.

Be advised that my top ten for 2018 will continue to include all three picks from 2017. I’m quite pleased that I continue to be fortunate, as the three were up an average of 53% in 2017. Furthermore, each of my top ten forecasts proved pretty accurate, as well!

I’ve listed in bold the 2017 stock picks and trend forecasts below, and give a personal evaluation of how I fared on each. For context, the S&P was up 19% and the Nasdaq 28% in 2017.

  1. Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market. Tesla, once again, posted very strong performance.  While the Model 3 experienced considerable delays, backorders for it continued to climb as ratings were very strong. As of mid-August, Tesla was adding a net of 1,800 orders per day and I believe it probably closed the year at over a 500,000-unit backlog. So, while the stock tailed off a bit from its high ($385 in September), it was up 45% from January 3, 2017 to January 2, 2018 and ended the year at 7 times the original price I paid in 2013 when I started recommending it. Its competitors are working hard to catch up, but they are still trailing by quite a bit.
  2. Facebook stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market. Facebook stock appreciated 57% year/year and opened on January 2, 2018 at $182 (nearly 8 times my original price paid in 2013 when I started recommending it). This was on the heels of 47% revenue growth (through 3 quarters) and even higher earnings growth.
  3. Amazon stock appreciation will outpace the market. Amazon stock appreciated 57% in 2017 and opened on January 2, 2018 at $1,188 per share. It had been on my recommended list in 2015 when it appreciated 137%. Taking it off in 2016 was based on Amazon’s stock price getting a bit ahead of itself (and revenue did catch up that year growing 25% while the stock was only up about 12%). In 2017, the company increased its growth rate (even before the acquisition of Whole Foods) and appeared to consolidate its ability to dominate online retail.
  4. Both online and offline retailers will increasingly use an omnichannel approach. Traditional retailers started accelerating the pace at which they attempted to blend online and offline in 2017. Walmart led, finally realizing it had to step up its game to compete with Amazon. While its biggest acquisition was Jet.com for over $3 billion, it also acquired Bonobos, Modcloth.com, Moosejaw, Shoebuy.com and Hayneedle.com, creating a portfolio of online brands that could also be sold offline. Target focused on becoming a leader in one-day delivery by acquiring Shipt and Grand Junction, two leaders in home delivery. While I had not predicted anything as large as a Whole Foods acquisition for Amazon, I did forecast that they would increase their footprint of physical locations (see October 2016 Soundbytes). The strategy for online brands to open “Guide” brick and mortar stores ( e.g. Tesla, Warby Parker, Everlane, etc.) continued at a rapid pace.
  5. A giant piloted robot will be demo’d as the next form of entertainment. As expected, Azure portfolio company, Megabots, delivered on this forecast by staging an international fight with a giant robot from Japan. The fight was not live as the robots are still “temperamental” (meaning they occasionally stop working during combat). However, interest in this new form of entertainment was incredible as the video of the fight garnered over 5 million views (which is in the range of an average prime-time TV show). There is still a large amount of work to be done to convert this to an ongoing form of entertainment, but all the ingredients are there.
  6. Virtual and Augmented reality products will escalate. Sales of VR/AR headsets appear to have well exceeded 10 million units for the year with some market gain for higher-end products. The types of applications have expanded from gaming to room design (and viewing), travel, inventory management, education, healthcare, entertainment and more. While the actual growth in unit sales fell short of what many expected, it still was substantial. With Apple’s acquisition of Vrvana (augmented reality headset maker) it seems clear that Apple plans to launch multiple products in the category over the next 2-3 years, and with Facebook’s launch of ArKIT, it’s social AR development platform, there is clearly a lot of focus and growth ahead.
  7. Magic Leap will disappoint in 2017. Magic Leap, after 5 years of development and $1.5 billion of investment, did not launch a product in 2017. But, in late December they announced that their first product will launch in 2018. Once again, the company has made strong claims for what its product will do, and some have said early adopters (at a very hefty price likely to be in the $1,500 range) are said to be like those who bought the first iPod. So, while it disappointed in 2017, it is difficult to tell whether or not this will eventually be a winning company as it’s hard to separate hype from reality.
  8. Cable companies will see a slide in adoption. According to eMarketer, “cord cutting”, i.e. getting rid of cable, reached record proportions in 2017, well exceeding their prior forecast. Just as worrisome to providers, the average time watching TV dropped as well, implying decreased dependence on traditional consumption. Given the increase now evident in cord cutting, UBS (as I did a year ago) is now forecasting substantial acceleration of the decline in subscribers. While the number of subscribers bounced around a bit between 2011 and 2015, when all was said and done, the aggregate drop in that four-year period was less than 0.02%. UBS now forecasts that between the end of 2016 and the end of 2018 the drop will be 7.3%. The more the industry tries to offset the drop by price increases, the more they will accelerate the pace of cord cutting.
  9. Spotify will either postpone its IPO or have a disappointing one. When we made this forecast, Spotify was expected to go public in Q2 2017. Spotify postponed its IPO into 2018 while working on new contracts with the major music labels to try to improve its business model. It was successful in these negotiations in that the labels all agreed to new terms. Since the terms were not announced, we’ll need to see financials for Q1 2018 to better understand the magnitude of improvement. In the first half of the year, Spotify reported that gross margins improved from 16% to 22%, but this merely cut its loss level rather than move the company to profitability. It has stated that it expects to do a non-traditional IPO (a direct listing without using an investment bank) in the first half of 2018. If the valuation approaches its last private round, I would caution investors to stay away, as that valuation, coupled with 22% gross margins (and over 12% of revenue in sales and marketing cost to acquire customers), implies net margin in the mid-single digits at best (assuming they can reduce R&D and G&A as a percent of revenue). This becomes much more challenging in the face of a $1.6 billion lawsuit filed against it for illegally offering songs without compensating the music publisher. Even if they managed to successfully fight the lawsuit and improve margin, Spotify would be valued at close to 100 times “potential earnings” and these earnings may not even materialize.
  10. Amazon’s Echo will gain considerable traction in 2017. Sales of the Echo exploded in 2017 with Amazon announcing that it “sold 10s of millions of Alexa-enabled devices” exceeding our aggressive forecast of 2-3x the 4.4 million units sold in 2016. The Alexa app was also the top app for both Android and iOS phones. It clearly has carved out a niche as a new major platform.

Stay tuned for my top 10 predictions of 2018!

 

SoundBytes

  • In our December 20, 2017 post, I discussed just how much Steph Curry improves teammate performance and how effective a shooter he is. I also mentioned that Russell Westbrook leading the league in scoring in the prior season might have been detrimental to his team as his shooting percentage falls well below the league average. Now, in his first game returning to the lineup, Curry had an effective shooting percentage that exceeded 100% while scoring 38 points (this means scoring more than 2 points for every shot taken). It would be interesting to know if Curry is the first player ever to score over 35 points with an effective shooting percentage above 100%! Also, as of now, the Warriors are scoring over 15 points more per game this season with Curry in the lineup than they did for the 11 games he was out (which directly ties to the 7.4% improvement in field goal percentage that his teammates achieve when playing with Curry as discussed in the post).

Ending the Year on a High Note…or should I say Basketball Note

Deeper analysis on what constitutes MVP Value

Blog 35 photo

In my blog post dated February 3, 2017, I discussed several statistics that are noteworthy in analyzing how much a basketball player contributes to his team’s success. In it, I compared Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook using several advanced statistics that are not typically highlighted.

The first statistic: Primary plus Secondary Assists per Minute a player has the ball. Time with the ball equates to assist opportunity, so holding the ball most of the time one’s team is on offense reduces the opportunity for others on the team to have assists. This may lead to fewer assisted baskets for the whole team, but more for the individual player. As of the time of the post, Curry had 1.74 assists (primary plus secondary) per minute he had the ball, while Westbrook only had 1.30 assists per minute. Curry’s efficiency in assists is one of the reasons the Warriors total almost 50% more assists per game than the Thunder, make many more easy baskets, and lead the league in field goal percentage.

The second statistic: Effective Field Goal Percentages (where making a 3-point shot counts the same as making 1 ½ 2-point shots). Again, Curry was vastly superior to Westbrook at 59.1% vs 46.4%. What this means is that Westbrook scores more because he takes many more shots, but these shots are not very efficient for his team, as Westbrook’s shooting percentage continued to be well below the league average of 45.7% (Westbrook’s was 42.5% last season and is 39.6% this season to date).

The third statistic: Plus/Minus.  Plus/Minus reflects the number of points your team outscores opponents while you are on the floor.  Curry led the league in this in 2013, 2014, and 2016 and leads year-to-date this season. In 2015 he finished second by a hair to a teammate. Westbrook has had positive results, but last year averaged 3.2 per 36 minutes vs Curry’s 13.8. One challenge to the impressiveness of this statistic for Curry is whether his leading the league in Plus/Minus is due to the quality of players around him. In refute, it is interesting to note that he led the league in 2013 when Greene was a sub, Durant wasn’t on the team and Thompson was not the player he is today.

The background shown above brings me to today’s post which outlines another way of looking at a player’s value. The measurement I’m advocating is: How much does he help teammates improve? My thesis is that if the key player on a team creates a culture of passing the ball and setting up teammates, everyone benefits. Currently the value of helping teammates is only measured by the number of assists a player records. But, if I’m right, and the volume of assists is the wrong measure of helping teammates excel (as sometimes assists are the result of holding the ball most of the time) then I should be able to verify this through teammate performance. If most players improve their performance by getting easier shots when playing with Westbrook or Curry, then this should translate into a better shooting percentage. That would mean we should be able to see that most teammates who played on another team the year before or the year after would show a distinct improvement in shooting percentage while on his team. This is unlikely to apply across the board as some players get better or worse from year to year, and other players on one’s team also impact this data. That being said, looking at this across players that switch teams is relevant, especially if there is a consistent trend.

To measure this for Russell Westbrook, I’ve chosen 5 of the most prominent players that recently switched teams to or from Oklahoma City: Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Enes Kantor. Three left Oklahoma City and two went there from another team. For the two that went there, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, I’ll compare year-to-date this season (playing with Westbrook) vs their shooting percentage last year (without Westbrook). For Kantor and Oladipo, the percentage last year will be titled “with Westbrook” and this year “without Westbrook” and for Durant, the seasons in question are the 2015-16 season (with Westbrook) vs the 2016-17 season (without Westbrook).

Shooting Percentage

Table 0

Given that the league average is to shoot 45.7%, shooting below that can hurt a team, while shooting above that should help. An average team takes 85.4 shots per game, so a 4.0% swing translates to over 8.0 points a game. To put that in perspective, the three teams with the best records this season are the Rockets, Warriors and Celtics and they had first, second and fourth best Plus/Minus for the season at +11.0, +11.0 and +5.9, respectively. The Thunder came in at plus 0.8. If they scored 8 more points a game (without giving up more) their Plus/Minus would have been on a par with the top three teams, and their record likely would be quite a bit better than 12 and 14.

Curry and His Teammates Make Others Better

How does Curry compare? Let’s look at the same statistics for Durant, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Zaza Pachulia and Ian Clark (the primary player who left the Warriors). For Barnes, Bogut, Pachulia and Durant I’ll compare the 2015 and 2016 seasons and for Clark I’ll use 2016 vs this season-to-date.

Table 1

So, besides being one of the best shooters to play the game, Curry also has a dramatic impact on the efficiency of other players on his team. Perhaps it’s because opponents need to double team him, which allows other players to be less guarded. Perhaps it’s because he bought into Kerr’s “spread the floor, move the ball philosophy”. Whatever the case, his willingness to give up the ball certainly has an impact. And that impact, plus his own shooting efficiency, clearly leads to the Warriors being an impressive scoring machine. As an aside, recent Warrior additions Casspi and Young are also having the best shooting percentages of their careers.

Westbrook is a Great Player Who Could be Even Better

I want to make it clear that I believe Russell Westbrook is a great player. His speed, agility and general athleticism allow him to do things that few other players can match. He can be extremely effective driving to the basket when it is done under control. But, he is not a great outside shooter and could help his team more by taking fewer outside shots and playing less one/one basketball. Many believed that the addition of George and Anthony would make Oklahoma City a force to be reckoned with, but to date this has not been the case. Despite the theoretic offensive power these three bring to the table, the team is 24th in the league in scoring at 101.8 per game, 15 points per game behind the league leading Warriors. This may change over the course of the season but I believe that each of them playing less one/one basketball would help.

They got it right: Why Stephen Curry deserves to be a First Team All-Star

Curry vs. Westbrook

Much has been written about the fact that Russell Westbrook was not chosen for the first team on the Western All-Stars. The implication appears to be that he was more deserving than Curry. I believe that Westbrook is one of the greatest athletes to play the game and one of the better players currently in the league. Yet, I also feel strongly that so much weight is being placed on his triple doubles that he is being unfairly anointed as the more deserving player. This post takes a deeper dive into the available data and, I believe, shows that Curry has a greater impact on winning games and is deserving of the first team honor. So, as is my want to analyze everything, I spent some time dissecting the comparison between the two.  It is tricky comparing the greatest shooter to ever play the game to one of the greatest athletes to ever play, but I’ll attempt it, statistic by statistic.

 

Rebounding

Westbrook is probably the best rebounding guard of all time (with Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson close behind). This season he is averaging 10.4 rebounds per game while Curry is at 4.3. There is no question that Westbrook wins hands down in this comparison with Curry, who is a reasonably good rebounding point guard.  But on rebounds per 36 minutes played this season, Westbrook’s stats are even better than Oscar’s in his best year. In that year, Robertson averaged 12.5 rebounds playing over 44 minutes a game which equates to 10.2 per 36 minutes vs Westbrook’s 10.8 per 36 minutes (Magic never averaged 10 rebounds per game for a season).

 

Assists

You may be surprised when I say that Curry is a better assist producer than Westbrook this season. How can this be when Westbrook averages 10.3 assists per game and Curry only 6.2?  Since Oklahoma City plays a very different style of offense than the Warriors, Westbrook has the ball in his hands a much larger percentage of the time. They both usually bring the ball up the court but once over half court, the difference is striking. Curry tends to pass it off a high proportion of the time while Westbrook holds onto it far longer. Because of the way Curry plays, he leads the league in secondary assists (passes that set up another player to make an assist) at 2.3 per game while Westbrook is 35th in the league at 1.1 per game. The longer one holds the ball the more likely they will shoot it, commit a turnover or have an assist and the less likely they will get a secondary assist. The reason is that if they keep the ball until the 24 second clock has nearly run out before passing, the person they pass it to needs to shoot (even if the shot is a poor one) rather than try to set up someone else who has an easier shot. For example, if a player always had the ball for the first 20 seconds of the 24 second clock, they would likely have all assists for the team while on the court.

Table 1: Assist Statistic Comparison

Curry vs. Westbrook Assists
*NBA.com statistics average per game through Feb 1st, 2017

When in the game, Westbrook holds the ball about 50% of the time his team is on offense, he gets a large proportion of the team’s assists. But that style of play also means that the team winds up with fewer assists in total. In fact, while the Warriors rank #1 in assists as a team by a huge margin at 31.1 per game (Houston is second at 25.6), Oklahoma City is 20th in the league at 21.2 per game. If you agree that the opportunity to get an assist increases with the number of minutes the ball is in the player’s possession, then an interesting statistic is the number of assists per minute that a player possesses the ball (see Table 1). If we compare the two players from that perspective, we see that Curry has 1.27 assists per minute and Westbrook 1.17. Curry also has 0.47 secondary assists per minute while Westbrook only 0.13. This brings the total primary and secondary assist comparison to 1.74 per minute of possession for Curry and 1.30 for Westbrook, a fairly substantial difference. It also helps understand why the Warriors average so many more assists per game than Oklahoma City and get many more easy baskets. This leads to them having the highest field goal percentage in the league, 50.1%.

 

Shooting

Russell Westbrook leads the league in scoring, yet his scoring is less valuable to his team than Stephen Curry’s is to the Warriors. This sounds counterintuitive but it is related to the shooting efficiency of the player: Curry is extremely efficient and Westbrook is inefficient as a shooter. To help understand the significance of this I’ll use an extreme example. Suppose the worst shooter on a team took every one of a team’s 80 shots in a game and made 30% of them including two 3-point shots. He would score 24 baskets and lead the league in scoring by a mile at over 50 points per game (assuming he also got a few foul shots). However, his team would only average 50 or so points per game and likely would lose every one of them. If, instead, he took 20 of the 80 shots and players who were 50% shooters had the opportunity to take the other 60, the team’s field goals would increase from 24 to 36. Westbrook’s case is not the extreme of our example but none-the-less Westbrook has the lowest efficiency of the 7 people on his team who play the most minutes. So, I believe his team overall would score more points if other players had more shooting opportunities. Let’s look at the numbers.

Table 2: Shot Statistic Comparison

shots-table
*NBA.com statistics average per game through Feb 1st, 2017

Westbrook’s shooting percentage of 42.0% is lower than the worst shooting team in the league, Memphis at 43.2%, and, as mentioned is the lowest of the 7 people on his team that play the most minutes. Curry has a 5.5% higher percentage than Westbrook. But the difference in their effectiveness is even greater as Curry makes far more three point shots. Effective shooting percentage adjusts for 3 point shots made by considering them equal to 1½ two point shots. Curry’s effective shooting percentage is 59.1% and Westbrook’s is 46.4%, an extraordinary difference. However, Westbrook gets to the foul line more often and “true shooting percent” takes that into account by assuming about 2.3 foul shots have replaced one field goal attempt (2.3 is used rather than 2.0 to account for 3 point plays and being fouled on a 3-point shot). Using the “true shooting percentage” brings Westbrook’s efficiency slightly closer to Curry’s, but it is still nearly 10% below Curry (see table 2). What this means is very simple – if Curry took as many shots as Westbrook he would score far more. In fact, at his efficiency level he would average 36.1 points per game versus Westbrook’s 30.7. While it is difficult to prove this, I believe if Westbrook reduced his number of shots Oklahoma City would score more points, as other players on his team, with a higher shooting percentage, would have the opportunity to shoot more. And he might be able to boost his efficiency as a shooter by eliminating some ill-advised shots.

 

Turnovers vs Steals

This comparison determines how many net possessions a player loses for his team by committing more turnovers than he has steals. Stephen Curry averages 2.9 turnovers and 1.7 steals per game, resulting in a net loss of 1.2 possessions per game. Russell Westbrook commits about 5.5 turnovers per game and has an average of 1.6 steals, resulting in a net loss of 3.9 possessions per game, over 3 times the amount for Curry.

 

Plus/Minus

In many ways, this statistic is the most important one as it measures how much more a player’s team scores than its opponents when that player is on the floor. However, the number is impacted by who else is on your team so the quality of your teammates clearly will contribute.  Nonetheless, the total impact Curry has on a game through high effective shooting percent and assists/minute with the ball is certainly reflected in the average point differential for his team when he is on the floor. Curry leads the league in plus/minus for the season as his team averages 14.5 more points than its opponents per 36 minutes he plays.  Westbrook’s total for the season is 41st in the league and his team averages +3.4 points per 36 minutes.

 

Summing Up

While Russell Westbrook is certainly a worthy all-star, I believe that Stephen Curry deserves having been voted a starter (as does James Harden but I don’t think Harden’s selection has been questioned). Westbrook stands out as a great rebounding guard, but other aspects of his amazing triple double run are less remarkable when compared to Curry. Curry is a far more efficient scorer and any impartial analysis shows that he would average more points than Westbrook if he took the same number of shots. At the same time, Curry makes his teammates better by forcing opponents to space the floor, helping create more open shots for Durant, Thompson and others. He deserves some of the credit for Durant becoming a more efficient scorer this year than any time in his career. While Westbrook records a far larger number of assists per game than Curry, Curry is a more effective assist creator for the time he has the ball, helping the Warriors flirt with the 32-year-old record for team assists per game while Oklahoma City ranks 20th of the 30 current NBA teams with 10 less assists per game than the Warriors.