Week Seven of Sheltering in Place

As hard as it would have been to believe back in the olden days (like in February) my wife and I are now in the 7th week of “Sheltering in Place” and it has just been extended another 4 weeks. The questions constantly being discussed among my colleagues, friends and family are:

  1. How long will this last?
  2. What will life be like at the beginning of the end of this initiative?
  3. When will things go back to normal?
  4. Who will the Warriors draft with their high pick this year (OK not everyone brings this one up)?

I’m not going to try to answer any of these as I’m sure you are all bombarded with potential answers and there are many who know more than I do regarding a pandemic. In this post I’ll try to grapple with 3 different questions, each of which deserves a section below.

Question 1: How will the long-term ramifications of Covid-19 impact success for companies and what can they do to enhance their opportunity?

This is a long-winded question and will get a long-winded answer. To begin, I believe this will only accelerate several trends that are already in place: online commerce gaining share, the use of video conferencing and the virtual workplace, as well as increased emphasis of companies being economically efficient. The pandemic has forced most people to be much more cautious at venturing out to accomplish such everyday tasks as shopping, eating in restaurants and going to the movies. Instead, they are learning that almost everything can be bought online (including food from some top restaurants), conferencing with Zoom provides a great experience at a low cost, and business efficiency will be correlated with survival.

My wife and I have long been online shoppers but as we shelter at home, we have increased the volume of purchases quite significantly. Department stores that were previously experiencing loss of share to online merchants but were resistant to devoting sufficient effort to their own online stores are in deep trouble. It appears likely that a number of well-known and not so well-known retailers will file for bankruptcy within the next few months. The combination of people becoming more comfortable with buying just about everything online and a major reduction in the number of physical outlets will open up more share for online players and for the online stores of multi-channel merchants.

During the current environment my board meetings (as well as everyone else’s) are being held as Zoom conference calls. For many companies, having such a meeting eliminates travel and hotel expenses for employees, board members and advisors. Replacing this with a Zoom conference call can mean lowering the cost to hundreds of dollars, from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, per meeting. While I am a big fan of the value of face to face, many companies will be re-evaluating whether having more of their meetings through video conferencing makes sense in an era when the technology has emerged as very viable and extremely cost effective. I’m not suggesting that all board meeting will be executed as video conference calls as face-face remains important, but perhaps companies will decide to do half of their meetings as a Zoom call. An interesting example is the NFL draft, where it was conducted through use of Zoom instead of renting a large stadium and paying for  travel expenses. Reviews have suggested that it was actually a better event than the prior year. I suspect the cost savings between all parties involved ran into the millions of dollars.

For many companies the pandemic has weakened revenue, putting pressure on survival. The government “bailout” PPP program helps, but by itself can prove insufficient to prop up companies with weak business models unless they have a very large cash reserve. The investment community was already shifting to focus more on efficient business models prior to Covid-19 but its disruption has helped to highlight the importance of building a profitable business.

Question 2: What should Companies do in the current environment?

What Azure has been suggesting for its portfolio companies is the following series of steps:

  1. If you are eligible, apply for government assistance through the PPP, SBA emergency loan or other programs.
  2. Create multiple models for your business under different scenarios (different dates that people will be back to normal, whether consumer spending will be reduced even after being back, whether customers will delay payments, etc.)
  3. If one or more of credible scenarios indicate that you will run out of cash, then cut costs as quickly as possible. For employees making over $100,000 per year (including founders) cutting them back to some amount that is still at $100,000 or more will have no impact on the forgiveness offered on the PPP loan.
  4. Make every attempt to extend any bank lines coming due as banks have been asked to cooperate with their customers.
  5. If you can afford it, be as kind as possible to your customers by extending terms, etc. Not all, but many, will remember your help and repay you with increased loyalty.
  6. While advertising seems an easy area to cut costs, make sure you evaluate the payback period for customer acquisition marketing as costs may be lower and online conversion may be higher (we have seen that with a number of our companies). In fact, if the payback is reasonably quick it may pay to play offense by being aggressive!
  7. If you have a strong cash position it may be a time to consider acquisitions as many companies will be struggling.
  8. If you have a product that customers are opting to purchase in this environment, think about trying to convert as many as possible to a subscription so that you can extend the relationship beyond the current situation. This can be done by offering attractive discounts for signing up for one or more years rather than month to month. For example, Zoom offers 2 months free if you opt for an annual plan versus a monthly plan. My wife and I decided the cost savings made it worth signing up for a full year.

Question 3: Who are the current and longer-term winners and losers as a result of Covid-19?

Winners

The biggest winners appear to be those that can leverage working at home, educating at home, buying at home, supplying infrastructure for increased online usage, and supplying products for increased cleanliness of surfaces and one’s self. In the public markets, I fortunately have 3 of my annual Blog recommendations included in these categories:

  • Zoom is the most obvious example of a beneficiary of people working and educating at home. It has reported that daily usage is up an astounding 30X between December and April. Its stock performance is just as astounding, up well over 100% year to date from the time of my pick in early January. The question for the company is whether they can harness this to make us permanently change how we communicate. For my wife and I, the number of Zoom calls we are on is now running between 5 and 10 per week. When I add my business calls the number is quite a bit higher. As they say: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” That is, we are permanent customers as are many of our friends and colleagues.

 

  • DocuSign is another of my blog picks that should benefit in both the near term and longer term from the impact of the virus and sheltering at home. Its stock reflects higher expectation as it has increased in value by 41% year-to-date. If more meetings are going to be virtual then more documents will require esignatures and DocuSign is the runaway leader in the category

 

  • There are many other pure play beneficiaries of a future where more people entertain themselves, work and educate at home. This includes Netflix (stock up over 25%) who has seen a large spike in usage, Slack (stock up 30% since January 27), and online educational plays (our former company Education.com has seen a large spike in traffic and revenue as has our existing portfolio company Showbie)

 

  • Amazon is the poster child for purchasing online. It has announced hiring of 175,000 employees for increased warehouse and logistics operations which Wall Street interpreted as a massive increase in demand driving the stock to new highs (its currently up over 25% YTD). It should also benefit from increased purchases of eBooks and increased online usage of its Web Services (I haven’t seen much chatter about AWS benefit but it should be very large and is highly profitable). Azure portfolio company, Open Road is seeing a significant increase in its sales of eBooks since sheltering-at-home began.

 

  • Infrastructure Companies whose revenue varies with web usage should also benefit as volumes are increasing massively: Zoom announced that daily usage is up 3,000%; many others I’ve heard have ranged from 50% to 700% or more. Schools are converting to online classes with student usage increasing to 4-7 hours per day. Gaming companies are also beneficiaries and users. I believe that total web traffic is up at least 50% and perhaps a lot more versus where it would have been.

 

  • Clorox is one of the major beneficiaries of our new emphasis on cleanliness through disinfecting our environment and washing our hands many times a day, as recommended by the new folk hero Dr. Fauci. While its stock is up 20% year-to-date, the question is whether the increased demand for disinfectants is a permanent change. I’m guessing that increased usage is permanent… but not to the extent we are seeing today.

Long-Term Losers

Losers span several industries and the question for many of the companies in these industries is how permanent the loss of demand will be. Let’s look at them sector by sector.

  • Department Stores are currently shut down in most of the United States. Companies already struggling are now experiencing substantial losses every week. Those that have a pharmacy or grocery area (like Walmart) can stay open, but the real key to reducing the losses is the effectiveness of their online offering. In most cases this is pretty weak, both in percentage of the retailer’s sales and the level of profitability given inefficient distribution and high levels of returns. I expect multiple brand name players to file for bankruptcy before the year is over.

 

  • The Travel Industry is being hit very hard by the shelter-in-place requirements. Airlines are flying planes that are nearly empty but trying to maintain their cash by not cancelling flights until close to the date of departure so that passengers cancelling will get credits rather than rebates. One hotel I spoke to when cancelling my reservation told me that occupancy was down 90%. Many have already closed their properties. While I expect business to improve greatly for both of these arenas when we are back to normal, they are both accumulating massive losses which might pressure viability. Further, when we are back to normal (whatever that becomes) I suspect that airline traffic will be down through at least mid-2021 as fears are elevated and will take some time to subside. Cruise lines may be in worse shape as the publicity around the various ships that had large portions of passengers and crew get Covid-19 has definitely caused many to reconsider vacationing this way. I expect this sector to be impacted at least through the end of 2021. Also, cruises have had to refund most fares as opposed to providing a credit for future travel.

 

  • Arena Entertainment providers and entertainers have been hurt badly by the closure of their venues during this time period. This includes movie theaters as well as complexes like the Chase Center and other arenas. The question becomes when will they be able to be open for full occupancy? And when they are will people stay away for some time. I expect many of them to be at full occupancy by early 2021 as younger people (who make up the majority who attend concerts) will drive renewal of demand for concerts.

Short-term Losers that can Return to Success

  • Advertising Platforms (TV, Web, etc) have seen demand drop as the travel industry, live events and brick and mortar retailers have little reason to maintain prior spending. Additionally, those companies looking to cut cost view advertising (especially brand building advertising) as a prime candidate for cuts. However, I believe that demand will return to normal as stores reopen and travel is permitted. As of now this appears to be sometime in Q3. While many companies in sectors that take longer to return to normal will still have reduced budgets, online players will likely increase spend, as will those seeing this as an opportunity to gain share.

 

  • The Sports Industry consists of teams, leagues, arenas, ticket sellers (like Stubhub), equipment providers and betting. All of these are experiencing close to zero revenue (with the exception of some equipment being sold for home use). Leagues (and teams) with large TV contracts are likely to reinitiate games without live audiences by July as participants can be restricted to those having tested for no virus immediately before a game. Even without an audience the TV money will make this profitable to do. Once these are back in play, betting will resume. Equipment providers can still sell T-shirts and other paraphernalia online, but once games resume their sales will increase. By as early as the fall, but no later than early 2021, I expect that many states will allow live audiences for games and that arenas will be back to normal capacity for them. This would allow ticket sellers and sports betting to be at normal capacity. Equipment suppliers also depend on school purchases as well as little league, etc. So, while revenue will begin growing in the fall it may not be back to normal before early 2021.  A noted exception will be providers of at home equipment, like Peloton, which will lose business from gyms in the short run but should see a large increase in at-home purchases.

 

  • Non-Internet Service Providers (other than delivery services) have a particularly hard time as physical services cannot be provided online. Things like the Geek Squad, physician checkups and procedures, elective surgeries, automotive services, personal care like haircuts and manicures, massages, and more have been suspended. But as long as the entities survive this period, I believe there will be no permanent impairment of their businesses.

 

Conclusion

Coming back to where this post began, I’m still wondering who the Warriors will draft! But more importantly, I hope all of you and your families are safe and healthy. We will get through this!

2020 Top Ten Predictions

I wanted to start this post by repeating something I discussed in my top ten lists in 2017 and 2018 which I learned while at Sanford Bernstein in my Wall Street days: “Owning companies that have strong competitive advantages and a great business model in a potentially mega-sized market can create the largest performance gains over time (assuming one is correct).” It does make my stock predictions somewhat boring (as they were on Wall Street where my top picks, Dell and Microsoft each appreciated over 100X over the ten years I was recommending them).

Let’s do a little simple math. Suppose one can generate an IRR of 26% per year (my target is to be over 25%) over a long period of time.  The wonder of compounding is that at 26% per year your assets will double every 3 years. In 6 years, this would mean 4X your original investment dollars and in 12 years the result would be 16X. For comparison purposes, at 5% per year your assets would only be 1.8X in 12 years and at 10% IRR 3.1X.  While 25%+ IRR represents very high performance, I have been fortunate enough to consistently exceed it (but always am worried that it can’t keep up)! For my recommendations of the past 6 years, the IRR is 34.8% and since this exceeds 26%, the 6-year performance  is roughly 6X rather than 4X.

What is the trick to achieving 25% plus IRR? Here are a few of my basic rules:

  1. Start with companies growing revenue 20% or more, where those closer to 20% also have opportunity to expand income faster than revenue
  2. Make sure the market they are attacking is large enough to support continued high growth for at least 5 years forward
  3. Stay away from companies that don’t have profitability in sight as companies eventually should trade at a multiple of earnings.
  4. Only choose companies with competitive advantages in their space
  5. Re-evaluate your choices periodically but don’t be consumed by short term movement

As I go through each of my 6 stock picks I have also considered where the stock currently trades relative to its growth and other performance metrics. With that in mind, as is my tendency (and was stated in my last post), I am continuing to recommend Tesla, Facebook, Amazon, Stitch Fix and DocuSign. I am adding Zoom Video Communications (ZM) to the list. For Zoom and Amazon I will recommend a more complex transaction to achieve my target return.

2020 Stock Recommendations:

1. Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $418/share)

Tesla is likely to continue to be a volatile stock, but it has so many positives in front of it that I believe it wise to continue to own it. The upward trend in units and revenue should be strong in 2020 because:

  • The model 3 continues to be one of the most attractive cars on the market. Electric Car Reviews has come out with a report stating that Model 3 cost of ownership not only blows away the Audi AS but is also lower than a Toyota Camry! The analysis is that the 5-year cost of ownership of the Tesla is $0.46 per mile while the Audi AS comes in 70% higher at $0.80 per mile. While Audi being more expensive is no surprise, what is shocking is how much more expensive it is. The report also determined that Toyota Camry has a higher cost as well ($0.49/mile)! Given the fact that the Tesla is a luxury vehicle and the Camry is far from that, why would anyone with this knowledge decide to buy a low-end car like a Camry over a Model 3 when the Camry costs more to own?  What gets the Tesla to a lower cost than the Camry is much lower fuel cost, virtually no maintenance cost and high resale value. While the Camry purchase price is lower, these factors more than make up for the initial price difference
  • China, the largest market for electronic vehicles, is about to take off in sales. With the new production facility in China going live, Tesla will be able to significantly increase production in 2020 and will benefit from the car no longer being subject to import duties in China.  
  • European demand for Teslas is increasing dramatically. With its Chinese plant going live, Tesla will be able to partly meet European demand which could be as high as the U.S. in the future. The company is building another factory in Europe in anticipation. The earliest indicator of just how much market share Tesla can reach has occurred in Norway where electric cars receive numerous incentives. Tesla is now the best selling car in that country and demand for electric cars there now exceeds gas driven vehicles.

While 2020 is shaping up as a stairstep uptick in sales for Tesla given increased capacity and demand, various factors augur continued growth well beyond 2020. For example, Tesla is only partway towards having a full lineup of vehicles. In the future it will add:

  • Pickup trucks – where pre-orders and recent surveys indicate it will acquire 10-20% of that market
  • A lower priced SUV – at Model 3 type pricing this will be attacking a much larger market than the Model X
  • A sports car – early specifications indicate that it could rival Ferrari in performance but at pricing more like a Porsche
  • A refreshed version of the Model S
  • A semi – where the lower cost of fuel and maintenance could mean strong market share.

2. Facebook stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $205/share)

Facebook, like Tesla, continues to have a great deal of controversy surrounding it and therefore may sometimes have price drops that its financial metrics do not warrant. This was the case in 2018 when the stock dropped 28% in value during that year. While 2019 partly recovered from what I believe was an excessive reaction, it’s important to note that the 2019 year-end price of $205/share was only 16% higher than at the end of 2017 while trailing revenue will have grown by about 75% in the 2-year period. The EPS run rate should be up in a similar way after a few quarters of lower earnings in early 2019. My point is that the stock remains at a low price given its metrics. I expect Q4 to be quite strong and believe 2020 will continue to show solid growth.

The Facebook platform is still increasing the number of active users, albeit by only about 5%-6%. Additionally, Facebook continues to increase inventory utilization and pricing. In fact, given what I anticipate will be added advertising spend due to the heated elections for president, senate seats, governorships etc., Facebook advertising inventory usage and rates could increase faster (see prediction 7 on election spending).  

Facebook should also benefit by an acceleration of commerce and increased monetization of advertising on Instagram. Facebook started monetizing that platform in 2017 and Instagram revenue has been growing exponentially and is likely to close out 2019 at well over $10 billion. A wild card for growth is potential monetization of WhatsApp. That platform now has over 1.5 billion active users with over 300 million active every day. It appears close to beginning monetization.

The factors discussed could enable Facebook to continue to grow revenue at 20% – 30% annually for another 3-5 years making it a sound longer term investment.

3. DocuSign stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $74/share)

DocuSign is the runaway leader in e-signatures facilitating multiple parties signing documents in a secure, reliable way for board resolutions, mortgages, investment documents, etc. Being the early leader creates a network effect, as hundreds of millions of people are in the DocuSign e-signature database. The company has worked hard to expand its scope of usage for both enterprise and smaller companies by adding software for full life-cycle management of agreements. This includes the process of generating, redlining, and negotiating agreements in a multi-user environment, all under secure conditions. On the small business side, the DocuSign product is called DocuSign Negotiate and is integrated with Salesforce.

The company is a SaaS company with a stable revenue base of over 560,000 customers at the end of October, up well over 20% from a year earlier. Its strategy is one of land and expand with revenue from existing customers increasing each year leading to a roughly 40% year over year revenue increase in the most recent quarter (fiscal Q3). SaaS products account for over 95% of revenue with professional services providing the rest. As a SaaS company, gross margins are high at 79% (on a non-GAAP basis).

The company has now reached positive earnings on a non-GAAP basis of $0.11/share versus $0.00 a year ago. I use non-GAAP as GAAP financials distort actual results by creating extra cost on the P&L if the company’s stock appreciates. These costs are theoretic rather than real.

My only concern with this recommendation is that the stock has had a 72% runup in 2019 but given its growth, move to positive earnings and the fact that SaaS companies trade at higher multiples of revenue than others I still believe it can outperform this year.

4. Stitch Fix Stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $25.66/share)

Stitch Fix offers customers, who are primarily women, the ability to shop from home by sending them a box with several items selected based on sophisticated analysis of her profile and prior purchases. The customer pays a $20 “styling fee” for the box which can be applied towards purchasing anything in the box. The company is the strong leader in the space with revenue approaching a $2 billion run rate. Unlike many of the recent IPO companies, it has shown an ability to balance growth and earnings. The stock had a strong 2019 ending the year at $25.66 per share up 51% over the 2018 closing price. Despite this, our valuation methodology continues to show it to be substantially under valued and it remains one of my picks for 2020. The likely cause of what I believe is a low valuation is a fear of Amazon making it difficult for Stitch Fix to succeed. As the company gets larger this fear should recede helping the multiple to expand.  

Stitch Fix continues to add higher-end brands and to increase its reach into men, plus sizes and kids. Its algorithms to personalize each box of clothes it ships keeps improving. Therefore, the company can spend less on acquiring new customers as it has increased its ability to get existing customers to spend more and come back more often. Stitch Fix can continue to grow its revenue from women in the U.S. with expansion opportunities in international markets over time. I believe the company can continue to grow by roughly 20% or more in 2020 and beyond.

Stitch Fix revenue growth (of over 21% in the latest reported quarter) comes from a combination of increasing the number of active clients by 17% to 3.4 million, coupled with driving higher revenue per active client. The company accomplished this while generating profits on a non-GAAP basis.

5. Amazon stock strategy will outpace the market (it closed last year at $1848/share).

Amazon shares increased by 23% last year while revenue in Q3 was up 24% year over year. This meant the stock performance mirrored revenue growth. Growth in the core commerce business has slowed but Amazon’s cloud and echo/Alexa businesses are strong enough to help the company maintain roughly 20% growth in 2020. The company continues to invest heavily in R&D with a push to create automated retail stores one of its latest initiatives. If that proves successful, Amazon can greatly expand its physical presence and potentially increase growth through the rollout of numerous brick and mortar locations. But at its current size, it will be difficult for the company to maintain over 20% revenue growth for many years (excluding acquisitions) so I am suggesting a more complex investment in this stock:

  1. Buy X shares of the stock (or keep the ones you have)
  2. Sell Amazon puts for the same number of shares with the puts expiring on January 15, 2021 and having a strike price of $1750. The most recent sale of these puts was for over $126
  3. So, net out of pocket cost would be reduced to $1722
  4. A 20% increase in the stock price (roughly Amazon’s growth rate) would mean 29% growth in value since the puts would expire worthless
  5. If the stock declined 226 points the option sale would be a break-even. Any decline beyond that and you would lose additional dollars.
  6. If the options still have a premium on December 31, I will measure their value on January 15, 2021 for the purposes of performance.

6. I’m adding Zoom Video Communications to the list but with an even more complex investment strategy (the stock is currently at $72.20)

I discussed Zoom Video Communications (ZM) in my post on June 24, 2019. In that post I described the reasons I liked Zoom for the long term:

  1. Revenue retention of a cohort was about 140%
  2. It acquires customers very efficiently with a payback period of 7 months as the host of a Zoom call invites various people to participate in the call and those who are not already Zoom users can be readily targeted by the company at little cost
  3. Gross Margins are over 80% and could increase
  4. The product has been rated best in class numerous times
  5. Its compression technology (the key ingredient in making video high quality) appears to have a multi-year lead over the competition
  6. Adding to those reasons it’s important to note that ZM is improving earnings and was slightly profitable in its most recent reported quarter

The fly in the ointment was that my valuation technology showed that it was overvalued. However, I came up with a way of “future pricing” the stock. Since I expected revenue to grow by about 150% over the next 7 quarters (at the time it was growing over 100% year over year) “future pricing” would make it an attractive stock. This was possible due to the extremely high premiums for options in the stock. So far that call is working out. Despite the company growing revenue in the 3 quarters subsequent to my post by over 57%, my concern about valuation has proven correct and the stock has declined from $76.92 to $72.20. If I closed out the position today by selling the stock and buying back the options (see Table 1) my return for less than 7.5 months would be a 42% profit. This has occurred despite the stock declining slightly due to shrinkage in the premiums.

Table 1: Previous Zoom trade and proposed trade

I typically prefer using longer term options for doing this type of trade as revenue growth of this magnitude should eventually cause the stock to rise, plus the premiums on options that are further out are much higher, reducing the risk profile, but I will construct this trade so that the options expire on January 15, 2021 to be able to evaluate it in one year. In measuring my performance we’ll use the closing stock price on the option expiration date, January 15, 2021 since premiums in options persist until their expiration date so the extra 2 weeks leads to better optimization of the trade.

So, here is the proposed trade (see table 1):

  1. Buy X shares of the stock at $72.20 (today’s price)
  2. Sell Calls for X shares expiring January 15, 2021 at a strike of $80/share for $11.50 (same as last price it traded)
  3. Sell puts for X shares expiring January 15, 2021 with strike of $65/share for $10.00 (same as last price it traded)

I expect revenue growth of 60% or more 4 quarters out. I also expect the stock to rise some portion of that, as it is now closer to its value than when I did the earlier transaction on May 31, 2019. Check my prior post for further analysis on Zoom, but here are 3 cases that matter at December 31, 2020:

  • Stock closes over $80/share (up 11% or more) at end of the year: the profit would be 58% of the net cost of the transaction
    • This would happen because the stock would be called, and you would get $80/share
    • The put would expire worthless
    • Since you paid a net cost of $50.70, net profit would be $29.30
  • Stock closes flat at $72.20:  your profit would be $21.50 (42%)
    • The put and the call would each expire worthless, so you would earn the original premiums you received when you sold them
    • The stock would be worth the same as what you paid
  • Stock closes at $57.85 on December 31: you would be at break even. If it closed lower, then losses would accumulate twice as quickly:
    • The put holder would require you to buy the stock at the put exercise price of $65, $7.15 more than it would be worth
    • The call would expire worthless
    • The original stock would have declined from $72.20 to $57.85, a loss of $14.35
    • The loss on the stock and put together would equal $21.50, the original premiums you received for those options

Outside of my stock picks, I always like to make a few non-stock predictions for the year ahead.

7. The major election year will cause a substantial increase in advertising dollars spent

According to Advertising Analytics political spending has grown an average of 27% per year since 2012. Both the rise of Super PACs and the launch of online donation tools such as ActBlue have substantially contributed to this growth. While much of the spend is targeted at TV, online platforms have seen an increasing share of the dollars, especially Facebook and Google. The spend is primarily in even years, as those are the ones with senate, house and gubernatorial races (except for minor exceptions). Of course, every 4th year this is boosted by the added spend from presidential candidates. The Wall Street Journal projects the 2020 amount will be about $9.9 billion…up nearly 60% from the 2016 election year. It should be noted that the forecast was prior to Bloomberg entering the race and if he remains a viable candidate an additional $2 billion or more could be added to this total.

The portion targeted at the digital world is projected to be about $2.8 billion or about 2.2% of total digital ad spending. Much of these dollars will likely go to Facebook and Google. This spend has a dual impact: first it adds to the revenue of each platform in a direct way, but secondly it can also cause the cost of advertising on those platforms to rise for others as well.

8. Automation of Retail will continue to gain momentum

This will happen in multiple ways, including:

  1. More Brick & Mortar locations will offer some or all the SKUs in the store for online purchase through Kiosks (assisted by clerks/sales personnel). By doing this, merchants will be able to offer a larger variety of items, styles, sizes and colors than can be carried in any one outlet. In addition, the consolidation of inventory achieved in this manner will add efficiency to the business model. In the case of clothing, such stores will carry samples of items so the customer can try them on, partly to optimize fit but also to determine whether he or she likes the way it looks and feels on them. If one observes the massive use of Kiosks at airports it becomes obvious that they reduce the number of employees needed and can speed up checking in. One conclusion is this will be the wave of the future for multiple consumer-based industries.
  2. Many more locations will begin incorporating technology to eliminate the number of employees needed in their stores. Amazon will likely be a leader in this, but others will also provide ways to reduce the cost of ordering, picking goods, checking out and receiving information while at the store.

9. The Warriors will come back strong in the 2020/21 season

Let me begin by saying that this prediction is not being made because I have been so humbled by my miss in the July post where I predicted that the Warriors could edge into the 2020 playoffs and then contend for a title if Klay returned in late February/early March. Rather, it is based on analysis of their opportunity for next season and also an attempt to add a little fun to my Top Ten List!  The benefit of this season:

  • Klay and Curry are getting substantial time off after 5 seasons of heavy stress. They should be refreshed at the start of next season
  • Russell, assuming he doesn’t keep missing games with injuries, is learning the Warriors style of play
  • Because of the injuries to Klay, Curry, Looney, and to a lesser extent Green and Russell, several of the younger members of the team are getting experience at a much more rapid rate than would normally be possible and the Warriors are able to have more time to evaluate them as potential long-term assets
  • If the Warriors continue to lose at their current rate, they will be able to get a high draft choice for the first time since 2012 when they drafted Harrison Barnes with the 7th pick. Since then their highest pick has been between the 28th and 30th player chosen (30 is the lowest pick in the first round)
  • The Warriors will have more cap space available to sign a quality veteran
  • Andre Iguodala might re-sign with the team, and while this is not necessary for my prediction it would be great for him and for the team
  • The veterans should be hungry again after several years of almost being bored during the regular season

I am assuming the Warriors will be relatively healthy next season for this to occur.

10. At least one of the major Unicorns will be acquired by a larger player

In 2019, there was a change to the investing environment where most companies that did not show a hint of potential profitability had difficulty maintaining their market price. This was particularly true of highly touted Unicorns, which mostly struggled to increase their share price dramatically from the price each closed on the day of their IPO. Table 2 shows the 9 Unicorns whose IPOs we highlighted in our last post. Other than Beyond Meat, Zoom and Pinterest, they all appear some distance from turning a proforma profit. Five of the other six are below their price on the first day’s close. A 6th, Peloton, is slightly above the IPO price (and further above the first days close). Beyond Meat grew revenue 250% in its latest quarter and moved to profitability as well. Its stock jumped on the first day and is even higher today.  While Pinterest is showing an ability to be profitable it is still between the price of the IPO and its close on the first day of trading.  Zoom, which is one of our recommended buys, was profitable (on a Non-GAAP basis) and grew revenue 85% in its most recent quarter. A 10th player, WeWork, had such substantial losses that it was unable to have a successful IPO.

Table 2: Recent Unicorn IPOs Stock Price & Profitability Comparisons

Something that each of these companies have in common is that they are all growing revenue at 30% or more, are attacking large markets, and are either in the leadership position in that market or are one of two in such a position. Because of this I believe one or more of these (and comparable Unicorns) could be an interesting acquisition for a much larger company who is willing to help make them profitable. For such an acquirer their growth and leadership position could be quite attractive.

Recap of 2019 Top Ten Predictions

Bull Markets have Tended to Favor My Stock Picks

I entered 2019 with some trepidation as my favored stocks are high beta and if the bear market of the latter portion of 2018 continued, I wasn’t sure I would once again beat the market…it was a pretty close call last year. However, I felt the companies I liked would continue to grow their revenue and hoped the market would reward their performance. As it turns out, the 5 stocks I included in my top ten list each showed solid company performance and the market returned to the bull side. The average gain for the stocks was 45.7% (versus the S&P gain of 24.3%).

Before reviewing each of my top ten from last year, I would like to once again reveal long term performance of the stock pick portion of my top ten list. For my picks, I assume equal weighting for each stock in each year to come up with my performance and then compound the yearly gains (or losses) to provide my 6-year performance. For the S&P my source is Multpl.com.  I’m comparing the S&P index at January 2 of each year to determine annual performance.  My compound gain for the 6-year period is 499% which equates to an IRR of 34.8%. The S&P was up 78% during the same 6-year period, an IRR of 10.1%.

The 2019 Top Ten Predictions Recap

One of my New Year’s pledges was to be more humble, so I would like to point out that I wasn’t 10 for 10 on my picks. One of my 5 stocks slightly under-performed the market and one of my non-stock forecasts was a mixed bag. The miss on the non-stock side was the only forecast outside of tech, once again highlighting that I am much better off sticking to the sector I know best (good advice for readers as well). However, I believe I had a pretty solid year in my forecasts as my stock portfolio (5 of the picks) significantly outperformed the market, with two at approximately market performance and three having amazing performance with increases of 51% to 72%. Regarding the 5 non-stock predictions, 4 were right on target and the 5th was very mixed. As a quick reminder, my predictions were:

Stock Portfolio 2019 Picks:

  • Tesla stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $333/share and opened this year at $310)
  • Facebook Stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $131/share)
  • Amazon Stock will outpace the market (it opened the year at $1502/share)
  • Stitch Fix stock appreciation will outpace the market (it closed last year at $17/share)
  • DocuSign stock will outpace the market in 2019 (it is currently at $43/share and opened the year at $41)

5 Non-Stock Predictions:

  • Replacing cashiers with technology will be proven out in 2019
  • Replacing cooks, baristas, and waitstaff with robots will begin to be proven in 2019
  • Influencers will be increasingly utilized to directly drive commerce
  • The Cannabis Sector should show substantial gains in 2019
  • 2019 will be the year of the unicorn IPO

In the discussion below, I’ve listed in bold each of my ten predictions and give an evaluation of how I fared on each.

Tesla stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $333/share and opened this year at $310)

Tesla proved to be a rocky ride through 2019 as detractors of the company created quite a bit of fear towards the middle of the year, driving the stock to a low of $177 in June. A sequence of good news followed, and the stock recovered and reached a high of $379 in front of the truck unveiling. I’m a very simplistic guy when I evaluate success as I use actual success as the measure as opposed to whether I would buy a product. Critics of the truck used Elon’s unsuccessful demonstration of the truck being “bulletproof” and the fact that it was missing mirrors and windshield wipers to criticize it. Since it is not expected to be production ready for about two years this is ridiculous! If the same critics applied a similar level of skepticism to the state of other planned competitive electric vehicles (some of which are two plus years away) one could conclude that none of them will be ready on time. I certainly think the various announced electric vehicles from others will all eventually ship, but do not expect them to match the Tesla battery and software capability given its 3 to 5-year lead. I said I’m a simple guy, so when I evaluate the truck, I look at the 250,000 pre-orders and notice it equates to over $12.5B in incremental revenue for the product! While many of these pre-orders will not convert, others likely will step in. To me that is strong indication that the truck will be an important contributor to Tesla growth once it goes into production.

Tesla stock recovered from the bad press surrounding the truck as orders for it mounted, the Chinese factory launch was on target and back order volume in the U.S. kept factories at maximum production.  Given a late year run the stock was up to $418 by year end, up 34.9% from the January opening price. But for continuing recommendations I use the prior year’s close as the benchmark (for measuring my performance) which places the gain at a lower 25.6% year over year as the January opening price was lower than the December 31 close. Either way this was a successful recommendation.

Facebook Stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $131/share)

Facebook, like Tesla, has many critics regarding its stock. In 2018 this led to a 28% decline in the stock. The problem for the critics is that it keeps turning out very strong financial numbers and eventually the stock price has to recognize that. It appears that 2019 revenue will be up roughly 30% over 2018. After several quarters of extraordinary expenses, the company returned to “normal” earnings levels of about 35% of revenue in the September quarter. I expect Q4 to be at a similar or even stronger profit level as it is the seasonally strongest quarter of the year given the company’s ability to charge high Christmas season advertising rates. As a result, the stock has had a banner year increasing to $205/share at year-end up 57% over the prior year’s close making this pick one of my three major winners.

Amazon Stock will outpace the market (it opened the year at $1502/share)

Amazon had another very solid growth year and the stock kept pace with its growth. Revenue will be up about 20% over 2018 and gross margins remain in the 40% range. For Amazon, Q4 is a wildly seasonal quarter where revenue could jump by close to 30% sequentially. While the incremental revenue tends to have gross margins in the 25% – 30% range as it is heavily driven by ecommerce, the company could post a solid profit increase over Q3. The stock pretty much followed revenue growth, posting a 23% year over year gain closing the year at $1848 per share. I view this as another winner, but it slightly under-performed the S&P index.

Stitch Fix stock appreciation will outpace the market (it closed last year at $17/share)

Stitch Fix, unlike many of the recent IPO companies, has shown an ability to balance growth and earnings. In its fiscal year ending in July, year over year growth increased from 26% in FY 2018 to over 28% in FY 2019 (although without the extra week in Q4 of FY 2019 year over year growth would have been about the same as the prior year). For fiscal 2020, the company guidance is for 23% – 25% revenue growth after adjusting for the extra week in Q4 of FY 2019. On December 9th, Stitch Fix reported Q1 results that exceeded market expectations. The stock reacted well ending the year at $25.66 per share and the year over year gain in calendar 2019 moved to a stellar level of 51% over the 2018 closing price.

DocuSign stock will outpace the market in 2019 (it is currently at $43/share and opened the year at $41)

DocuSign continued to execute well throughout calendar 2019. On December 5th it reported 40% revenue growth in its October quarter, exceeding analyst expectations. Given this momentum, DocuSign stock was the largest gainer among our 5 picks at 72% for the year ending at just over $74 per share (since this was a new recommendation, I used the higher $43 price at the time of the post to measure performance). The company also gave evidence that it is reducing losses and not burning cash. Since ~95% of its revenue is subscription, the company is able to maintain close to 80% gross margin (on a proforma basis) and is well positioned to continue to drive growth. But, remember that growth declines for very high growth companies so I would expect somewhat slower growth than 40% in 2020.

Replacing cashiers with technology will be proven out in 2019

A year ago, I emphasized that Amazon was in the early experimental phase of its Go Stores which are essentially cashierless using technology to record purchases and to bill for them. The company now has opened or announced 21 of these stores. The pace is slower than I expected as Amazon is still optimizing the experience and lowering the cost of the technology. Now, according to Bloomberg, the company appears ready to:

  • Open larger format supermarkets using the technology
  • Increase the pace of adding smaller format locations
  • Begin licensing the technology to other retailers, replicating the strategy it deployed in rolling out Amazon Web Services to others

Replacing cooks, baristas, and waitstaff with robots will begin to be proven in 2019

The rise of the robots for replacing baristas, cooks and waitstaff did indeed accelerate in 2019. In the coffee arena, Briggo now has robots making coffee in 7 locations (soon to be in SFO and already in the Austin Airport), Café X robotic coffee makers are now in 3 locations, and there are even other robots making coffee in Russia (GBL Robotics), Australia (Aabak) and Japan (HIS Co). There is similar expansion of robotic pizza and burger cooks from players like Zume Pizza and Creator and numerous robots now serving food. This emerging trend has been proven to work. As the cost of robots decline and minimum wage rises there will be further expansion of this usage including franchise approaches that might start in 2020.

Influencers will be increasingly utilized to directly drive commerce

The use of influencers to drive commerce accelerated in 2019. Possibly the most important development in the arena was the April 2019 launch by Instagram of social commerce. Instagram now let’s influencers use the app to tag and sell products directly, that is, their posts can be “shoppable”. Part of the series of steps Instagram took was adding “checkout” which lets customers purchase products without leaving the walls of the app.

A second increase in the trend is for major influencers to own a portion of companies that depend on their influence to drive a large volume of traffic. In that way they can capture more of the value of their immense influence. Using this concept, Rihanna has become the wealthiest female musician in the world at an estimated net worth of $600 million. The vast majority of her wealth is from ownership in companies where she uses her influence to drive revenue. The two primary ones are Fenty Beauty and Fenty Maison. Fenty Beauty was launched in late 2017 and appears to be valued at over $3 billion. Rihanna owns 15% – do the math! Fenty Maison is a partnership between LVMH (the largest luxury brand owner) and Rihanna announced in May of 2019. It is targeting fashion products and marks the first time the luxury conglomerate has launched a fashion brand from scratch since 1987. Rihanna has more than 70 million followers on Instagram and this clearly establishes her as someone who can influence commerce.

The Cannabis Sector should show substantial gains in 2019

The accuracy of this forecast was a mixed bag as the key companies grew revenue at extremely high rates, but their stock valuations declined resulting in poor performance of the cannabis index (which I had said should be a barometer). A few examples of the performance of the largest public companies in the sector are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Performance of Largest Public Cannabis Companies

*Note: Canopy last quarter was Sept 2019

In each case, the last reported quarter was calendar Q3. For Tilray, I subtracted the revenue from its acquisition of Manitoba Harvest so that the growth shown is organic growth. I consider this forecast a hit and a miss as I was correct regarding revenue (it was up an average of 282%) but the stocks did not follow suit, even modestly, as the average of the three was a decline of 54%. While my forecast was not for any individual company or stock in the sector, it was wrong regarding the stocks but right regarding company growth. The conclusion is humbling as I’m glad that I exercised constraint in not investing in a sector where I do not have solid knowledge of the way the stocks might perform.

2019 will be the year of the unicorn IPO

This proved true as many of the largest unicorns went public in 2019. Some of the most famous ones included on the list are: Beyond Meat, Chewy, Lyft, Peloton, Pinterest, Slack, The Real Real, Uber and Zoom. Of the 9 shown, four had initial valuations between $8 billion and $12 billion, two over $20 billion and Uber was the highest at an $82 billion valuation. Some unicorns found the public markets not as accepting of losses as the private market, with Lyft and Uber stock coming under considerable pressure and WeWork unable to find public buyers of its stock leading to a failed IPO and shakeup of company management. There is more to come in 2020 including another mega one: Airbnb.

2020 Predictions coming soon

Stay tuned for my top ten predictions for 2020…but please note that all 5 of the stocks recommended for 2019 will remain on the list.

Soundbyte

  • Before the basketball season began, I had a post predicting that the Warriors still had a reasonable chance to make the playoffs (if Klay returned in late February). Talk about feeling humble! I guess, counting this I had 3 misses on my predictions.

Comparing Recent IPO Companies – Should Performance Drive Valuation?

In a past life, while on Wall Street, one of my favorite calls was: “Buy Dell Short Kellogg”. My reasoning behind the call was that while Dell’s revenue and earnings growth was more than 10X that of Kellogg, somehow Kellogg had a much higher PE than Dell. Portfolio managers gave me various reasons they claimed were logical to explain the un-logical situation like: “Kellogg is more reliable at meeting earnings expectations” …. when in truth they had missed estimates 20 straight quarters. What I later came to believe was that the explanation was their overall comfort level with Kellogg because they understood cereal better than they understood a direct marketing PC hardware company at the time. My call worked out well as Dell not only had a revenue CAGR of nearly 50% from January 1995 (FY 95) through January of 2000 (and a 69% EPS CAGR) but also experienced significant multiple expansion while Kellogg revenue grew at just over 1% annually during the ensuing period and its earnings shrunk (as spend was against missed revenue expectations). The success of Dell was a major reason I was subsequently selected as the number one stock picker across Wall Street analysts for 2 years in a row.

I bring up history because history repeats. One of the reasons for my success in investing is that I look at metrics as a basis of long-term valuation. This means ignoring story lines of why the future is much brighter for those with weak metrics or rationales of why disaster will befall a company that has strong results. Of course, I also consider the strength of management, competitive advantages and market size. But one key thesis that comes after studying hundreds of “growth” companies over time is that momentum tends to persist, and strong business models will show solid contribution margin as an indicator of future profitability.

Given this preamble I’ll be comparing two companies that have recently IPO’d. Much like those that supported Kellogg, the supporters of the one with the weaker metrics will have many reasons why it trades at a much higher multiple (of revenue and gross margin dollars) than the one with stronger metrics.  

Based on financial theory, companies should be valued based on future cash flows. When a company is at a relatively mature stage, earnings and earnings growth will tend to be the proxy used and a company with higher growth usually trades at a higher multiple of earnings.   Since many companies that IPO have little or no earnings, many investors use a multiple of revenue to value them but I prefer to use gross margin or contribution margin (where marketing cost is broken out clearly) as a proxy for potential earnings as they are much better indicators of what portion of revenue can potentially translate to future earnings (see our previous post for valuation methodology).

I would like to hold off on naming the companies so readers can look at the metrics with an unbiased view (which is what I try to do). So, let’s refer to them as Company A and Company B. Table 1 shows their recent metrics.

Notes:

  • Growth for Company B included an extra week in the quarter. I estimate growth would have been about 27% year/year without the extra week
  • Disclosures on marketing seem inexact so these are estimates I believe to be materially correct
  • Pre-tax income for Company A is from prior quarter as the June quarter had considerable one-time expenses that would make it appear much worse

Company B is:

  1. Growing 2 -2 ½ times faster
  2. Has over 3X the gross margin percentage
  3. Over 28% contribution margin whereas Company A contribution margin is roughly at 0
  4. Company B is bordering on profitability already whereas Company A appears years away

Yet, Company A is trading at roughly 3.5X the multiple of revenue and almost 11X the multiple of gross margin dollars (I could not use multiple of contribution margin as Company A was too close to zero). In fairness to Company A, its gross margin was much higher in the prior quarter (at 27%). But even giving it the benefit of this higher number, Company B gross margins were still about 65% higher than Company A.

The apparent illogic in this comparison is much like what we saw when comparing Kellogg to Dell many years ago. The reasons for it are similar: investors, in general, feel more comfortable with Company A than they do with Company B. Additionally, Company A has a “story” on why things will change radically in the future. You may have guessed already that Company A is Uber. Company B is Stitchfix, and despite its moving to an industry leading position for buying clothing at home (using data science to customize each offering) there continues to be fear that Amazon will overwhelm it sometime in the future. While Uber stock has declined about 35% since it peaked in late June it still appears out of sync compared to Stitchfix.

I am a believer that, in general, performance should drive valuation, and have profited greatly by investing in companies that are growing at a healthy rate, appear to have a likelihood of continuing to do so in the near future and have metrics that indicate they are undervalued.

Soundbytes

  • It appears that many others are now beginning to focus more closely on gross margins which we have been doing for years. I would encourage a shift to contribution margin, where possible, as this considers the variable cost needed to acquire customers.
  • A few notes about Tesla following our 2019 predictions: My household is about to become a two Tesla family. My wife has owned her second Tesla, a Model S, for over 4 years and I just placed an order to buy a Model 3 as a replacement for my Mercedes 550S. Besides the obvious benefits to the environment, I’m also tired of having to go to gas stations every week. The Model 3 can go 310 miles on a charge, is extremely fast, has a great user interface and has autopilot. I looked at several other cars but found it hard to justify paying twice as much (or more) for a car with less pickup, inferior electronics, etc.
  • If you were wondering why Tesla stock has gone on a run it is because the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has added Tesla to its list of approved auto manufacturers (the news of the possibility broke over a week ago). It appears likely that Tesla will begin producing Model 3s out of the new Giga Factory in China some time in Q4. This not only adds capacity for Tesla to increase its unit sales substantially in 2020 but also will save the Company considerable money as it won’t need to ship cars from its US factory. Remember Tesla also is planning on a Giga Factory in Europe to service strong demand there. The company has said that it will choose the location by the end of 2019. Given the intense competition to be the selected location, it is likely that the site chosen will involve substantial incentives to Tesla. While I would not want to predict when it will be in production, Elon Musk expects the date to be sometime in 2021. Various announcements along the way could be positive for Tesla stock.

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

My Crazy Investment Technique for Solid Growth Stocks

You should not try it!

Applying Private Investment Analysis to the Rash of Mega-IPOs Occurring

The first half of 2019 saw a steady stream of technology IPOs. First Lyft, then Uber, then Zoom, all with different business models and revenue structures. As an early investor in technology companies, I spend a lot of time evaluating models for Venture Capital, but as a (recovering) investment analyst, I also like to take a view around how to structure a probability weighted investment once these companies have hit the public markets. The following post outlines a recent approach that I took to manage the volatility and return in these growth stocks.

Question: Which of the Recent technology IPOs Stands out as a Winning Business Model?

Investing in Lyft and Uber, post IPO, had little interest for me. On the positive side, Lyft revenue growth was 95% in Q1, 2019, but it had a negative contribution margin in 2018 and Q1 2019.  Uber’s growth was a much lower 20% in Q1, but it appears to have slightly better contribution margin than Lyft, possibly even as high as 5%. I expect Uber and Lyft to improve their contribution margin, but it is difficult to see either of them delivering a reasonable level of profitability in the near term as scaling revenue does not help profitability until contribution margin improves. Zoom Video, on the other hand, had contribution margin of roughly 25% coupled with over 100% revenue growth. It also seems on the verge of moving to profitability, especially if the company is willing to lower its growth target a bit.

Zoom has a Strong Combination of Winning Attributes

There is certainly risk in Zoom but based on the momentum we’re seeing in its usage (including an increasing number of startups who use Zoom for video pitches to Azure), the company looks to be in the midst of a multi-year escalation of revenue. Users have said that it is the easiest product to work with and I believe the quality of its video is best in class. The reasons for Zoom’s high growth include:

  1. Revenue retention of a cohort is currently 140% – meaning that the same set of customers (including those who churn) spend 40% more a year later. While this growth is probably not sustainable over the long term, its subscription model, based on plans that increase with usage, could keep the retention at over 100% for several years.
  2. It is very efficient in acquiring customers – with a payback period of 7 months, which is highly unusual for a SaaS software company. This is partly because of the viral nature of the product – the host of the Zoom call invites various people to participate (who may not be previous Zoom users). When you participate, you download Zoom software and are now in their network at no cost to Zoom. They then offer you a free service while attempting to upgrade you to paid.
  3. Gross Margins (GMs) are Software GMs – about 82% and increasing, making the long-term model likely to be quite profitable
  4. Currently the product has the reputation of being best in class (see here) for a comparison to Webex.
  5. Zoom’s compression technology is well ahead of any competitor according to my friend Mark Leslie (a superb technologist and former CEO of Veritas).

The Fly in the Ointment: My Valuation Technique shows it to be Over Valued

My valuation technique, published in one of our blog posts, provides a method of valuing companies based on revenue growth and gross margin. It helps parse which sub-scale companies are likely to be good investments before they reach the revenue levels needed to achieve long term profitability. For Zoom Video, the method shows that it is currently ahead of itself on valuation, but if it grows close to 100% (in the January quarter it was up 108%) this year it will catch up to the valuation suggested by my method. What this means is that the revenue multiple of the company is likely to compress over time.

Forward Pricing: Constructing a Way of Winning Big on Appreciation of Even 10%

So instead of just buying the stock, I constructed a complex transaction on May 29. Using it, I only required the stock to appreciate 10% in 20 months for me to earn 140% on my investment. I essentially “pre-bought” the stock for January 2021 (or will have the stock called at a large profit). Here is what I did:

  1. Bought shares of stock at $76.92
  2. Sold the same number of shares of call options at $85 strike price for $19.84/share
  3. Sold the same number of shares of put options at $70 strike for $22.08/share
  4. Both sets of options expire in Jan 2021 (20 months)
  5. Net out of pocket was $35/share

Given the momentum I think there is a high probability (75% or so) that the revenue run rate in January 2021 (when options mature) will be over 2.5x where it was in Q1 2019. If that is the case, it seems unlikely that the stock would be at a lower price per share than the day I made the purchase despite a potential for substantial contraction of Price/Revenue.

In January 2021, when the options expire, I will either own the same shares, or double the number of shares or I will have had my shares “called” at $85/share.

The possibilities are: 

  • If the stock is $85 or more at the call date, the stock would be called, and my profit would be roughly 140% of the net $35 invested
  • If the stock is between $70 and $85, I would net $42 from the options expiring worthless plus or minus the change in value from my purchase price of $76.92. The gain would exceed 100%
  • If the stock is below $70, I’ll own 2x shares at an average price of $52.50/share – which should be a reasonably good price to be at 20 months out.
  •  Of course, the options can be repurchased, and new options sold during the time period resulting in different outcomes.

Break-Even Point for the Transaction Is a 32% Decline in Zoom Video Stock Price

Portfolio Managers that are “Value Oriented” will undoubtedly have a problem with this, but I view this transaction as the equivalent of a value stock purchase (of a high flyer) since the break-even of $52/share should be a great buy in January 2021. Part of my reasoning is the downside protection offered: where my being forced to honor the put option would mean that in January 2021, I would own twice the number of shares at an average price of $52.50/share. If I’m right about the likelihood of 150% revenue growth during the period, it would mean price/revenue had declined about 73% or more. Is there some flaw in my logic or are the premiums on the options so high that the risk reward appears to favor this transaction?

I started writing this before Zoom reported their April quarter earnings, which again showed over 100% revenue growth year/year. As a result, the stock jumped and was about $100/share. I decided to do a similar transaction where my upside is 130% of net dollars invested…but that’s a story for another day.

Estimating the “Probabilistic” Return Using My Performance Estimates

Because I was uncomfortable with the valuation, I created the transaction described above. I believe going almost 2 years out provides protection against volatility and lowers risk. This can apply to other companies that are expected to grow at a high rate. As to my guess at probabilities:

  1. 75% that revenue run rate is 2.5x January 2019 (base) quarter in the quarter ending in January 2021. A 60% compound annual growth (CAG) for 2 years puts the revenue higher (they grew over 100% in the January 2019 quarter to revenue of $105.8M)
  2. 95% that revenue run rate is over 2.0X the base 2 years later (options expire in January of that year). This requires revenue CAG of 42%. Given that the existing customer revenue retention rate averaged 140% last year, this appears highly likely.
  3. 99% that revenue is over 1.5X the base in the January 2021 quarter (requires slightly over 22% CAG)
  4. 1% that revenue is less than 1.5X

Assuming the above is true, I believe that when I did the initial transaction the probabilities for the stock were (they are better today due to a strong April quarter):

  1. 50% that the stock trades over 1.5X today by January 2021 (it is almost there today, but could hit a speed bump)
  2. 80% that the stock is over $85/share (up 10% from when I did the trade) in January 2021
  3. 10% that the stock is between $70 and $85/share in January 2021
  4. 5% that the stock is between $52 and $70 in January 2021
  5. 5% that the stock is below $52

Obviously, probabilities are guesses since they heavily depend on market sentiment, whereas my revenue estimates are more solid as they are based upon analysis, I’m more comfortable with. Putting the guesses on probability together this meant:

  1. 80% probability of 140% profit = 2.4X
  2. 10% probability of 100% profit = 2.0X
  3. 5% probability of 50% profit (this assumes the stock is in the middle at $61/share) = 1.5X
  4. 5% probability of a loss assuming I don’t roll the options and don’t buy them back early. At $35/share, loss would be 100% = (1.0X)

If I’m right on these estimates, then the weighted probability is 120% profit. I’ve been doing something similar with Amazon for almost 2 years and have had great results to date. I also did part of my DocuSign buy this way in early January. Since then, the stock is up 27% and my trade is ahead over 50%. Clearly if DocuSign (or Amazon or Zoom) stock runs I won’t make the same money as a straight stock purchase would yield given that I’m capped out on those DocuSign shares at slightly under 100% profit, but the trade also provides substantial downside protection.

Conclusion: Investing in Newly Minted IPOs of High Growth Companies with Solid Contribution Margins Can be Done in a “Value Oriented” Way  

When deciding whether to invest in a company that IPOs, first consider the business model:

  • Are they growing at a high rate of at least 30%?
  • Experiencing increasing contribution margins already at 20% or more?
  • Is there visibility to profitability without a landscape change?

Next, try to get the stock on the IPO if possible. If you can’t, is there a way of pseudo buying it at a lower price? The transaction I constructed may be to complex for you to try and carries the additional risk that you might wind up owning twice the number of shares. If you decide to do it make sure you are comfortable with the potential future cash outlay.

R&D: Amazon’s Dirty Little Secret Weapon

 

Why doesn’t Amazon produce more earnings given its dominance?

Amazon just reported earnings and, as was the case in 2017 and 2016, emphasized that 2019 will be an investment year, so the strong operating margin expansion of 2018 would be capped in 2019. This, of course, is great fodder for bears on the stock as Amazon gave sceptics renewed opportunity to point out that it is a company that has a flawed business model and would find it difficult to ever earn a reasonable return on revenue.

In contrast, I believe that Amazon continues to transform itself into a potential strong profit performer. For example, taking the longer perspective, Amazon’s gross margins are now over 40% up from 27.2% five years ago (2013). So why doesn’t Amazon deliver higher operating margin than the slightly over 6% it reported in 2018? Amazon’s dirty little secret is that it continues to invest heavily in creating future dominance through R&D. Had it spent a similar amount in R&D to its long time competitor, Walmart, EBITDA would have nearly tripled… to over 17% of revenue! I must confess that in the past I haven’t paid enough attention to how much Amazon spends on R&D. As a result, I was surprised that Apple and Microsoft trailed it in voice recognition technology and that Amazon could lead IBM and Microsoft in cloud technology. The reason this occurred is not a surprising one: Amazon outspends Apple, Microsoft and IBM in R&D.

In fact, Amazon now outspends every company in the world (see Table 1) and have been dedicating a larger portion of available dollars to R&D (as measured by the % of gross margin dollars spent on R&D) than any other large technology company, except Qualcomm, for more than 10 years. Even though Amazon had less than 50% of Apple’s revenue and less than 1/3 of its gross margin dollars 5 years ago (2013) Amazon spent nearly 50% more than Apple on R&D that year… by 2018 the gap had increased to close to 100% more.

Table 1: Top 10 (and a few more) U.S. R&D Spenders in 2018 ($Bn)

Sources: market watch, analyst reports, annual filings

Note 1: Ford and GM may be in the top 10 but so far have not reported R&D in 2018. If they report it at year end the table could change. Walmart does not report R&D and their spend is generally unavailable, but I found a reference that said they expected to spend $1.1M in 2017.

Note 2: A 2018 global list would include auto makers VW and Toyota (with R&D of $15.8B and about 10.0B), drug company Roche (&10.8B) and tech company Samsung at $15.3B in place of the lowest 4 in Table 1.

The Innovators Financial Dilemma: Increasing Future Prospects can lower Current Earnings

When I was on Wall Street covering Microsoft (and others) Bill Gates would often point out that the company was going to make large investments the following year so they could stay ahead of competition. He said he was less concerned with what that meant for earnings. That investment helped drive Microsoft to dominance by the late 1990s. Companies are often confronted with the dilemma of whether to increase spending to drive future growth or to maximize current earnings. I believe that investment in R&D, when effective, is correlated to future success.

It is interesting to see how leaders in R&D spending have transitioned over the past 10 years. In 2008 the global leaders in R&D spending included 5 pharma companies, 3 auto makers and only 2 tech companies (Nokia and Microsoft which subsequently merged). In 2018, 6 of the top 7 spenders (Samsung plus the 5 shown in Table 1) were technology companies.

Table 2 – 2008 global R&D leaders ($Bn)

Note: *Facebook data from 2009, first available financials from S-1 filing

It’s hard to change without tanking one’s stock

When a company has a business model that allocates 1% of gross margin dollars to R&D, it is not easy to turn on the dime. If Walmart had decided to invest half as much as Amazon in R&D in 2018, its earnings would have decreased by 80% – 90% and its stock would have depreciated substantially. So, instead it began a buying binge several years ago to try to close the technology gap through acquisitions (which has a much smaller impact on operating margins). It remains to be seen if this strategy will succeed going forward but in the past 5 years Walmart revenue (including acquisitions) increased only 5% while Amazon’s was up 130% in the same period (also including acquisitions).

Whatever Happened to IBM?

When I was growing up, I thought of IBM as the king of tech. In the early 1990s it still seemed to rule the roost. The biggest fear for Microsoft was that IBM could overwhelm it, yet now it appears to be an also ran in technology. From 2014 to 2018, a heyday era for tech companies, its revenue shrank from $93 billion in 2014 to $80 billion in 2018. I can’t tell how much of the problem stems from under investing in R&D versus poor execution, but for the past 5 years it has spent an average of about 13% of GM on R&D, while the 6 tech companies in Table 1 have averaged about 24% of GM dollars with Apple the only one under 20%.

 

Soundbytes

Soundbyte I: Tesla

  • I recently had a long dialogue with a very smart fund manager and was struck by what I believe to be misinformation he had read regarding Tesla. There were 3 major points that he had heard:
    • The quality of Tesla cars was shoddy
    • Tesla could not maintain reasonable margins as it began producing lower priced Model 3s
    • The upcoming influx of electric cars from companies like Porsche, Jaguar and Audi would take substantial market share away from Tesla

I decided to do a bit of research to determine how valid each of these issues might be.

  • Tesla Quality: I found it hard to believe that the majority of Tesla owners thought the car was of poor quality since every one of the 15 or so people I knew who had bought one had already bought another or were planning to for their next car. So, I found a report on customer satisfaction from Consumer Reports, and I was not surprised to find that Tesla was the number 1 ranked car by customer satisfaction.
  • Tesla margins: this is much harder to predict. Since Tesla is relatively young as a manufacturer it has had numerous issues with production. Yet it is probably ahead of many others when it comes to automating its facilities. This tends to cause gross margins to be lower while volume ramps and higher subsequently. The combination of that, plus moving up the learning curve, should mean that Tesla lowers the cost of producing its products. However, Tesla charges more for cars with higher capacity for distance, but as I understand it uses software to limit battery capacity for lower priced cars. This would mean that a portion of the difference between a lower priced Model 3 and a higher priced one (the battery capacity) would be minimal change in cost, putting pressure on margins. The question becomes whether Tesla’s improving cost efficiencies offset the average price decline of a Model 3 as Tesla begins fulfilling demand for lower priced versions.
  • March 1 Update: After this post was complete (Thursday February 28) the company announced it was closing many showrooms to reduce costs. Then late today (Friday) announced that the $35,000 version of the model 3 is now available. So, we shall soon see the impact. I believe that if Tesla has increased capacity there will be very strong sales. It also likely will experience lower gross margin percentages as it climbs the learning curve and ramps production.
  • Will the influx of electric cars from others impact Tesla market share?

 

  1. Porsche is an electric sports car starting at $90K – at that price point it is competitive with model S not model 3. In competing with the S it comes down to whether one prefers a sports car to a sedan. I have owned a Porsche in the past and would only consider it if I wanted a sports car with limited seating capacity (but very cool). I loved my Porsche but decided to switch to sedans going forward. Since then I’ve owned only sedans for the past 10+ years. It also appears that early production is almost a year away, so it is unlikely to be competitive for 2019.
  2. Audi is at price points that do compete with the Model 3 and expects to start delivering cars in March. However, I think that is mainly in Europe where Tesla is an emerging brand so it might not impact them at all. When I look at the Audi models I don’t think they will appeal to Tesla buyers as they are very old-line designs (I would call them ugly). The range of the cars on a charge is not yet official but seems likely to be much lower than Tesla which has a big lead in battery technology.
  3. The Jaguar competes with the Tesla Model X but while cheaper, appears a weak competitor.

 

I don’t want to dismiss the fact that traditional players will be introducing a large number of electronic vehicles. The question really is whether the market size for electric cars is a fixed portion of all cars or whether it will become a much larger part of the entire market over time. I would compare this to fears that analysts had when Lotus and Wordperfect created Windows versions. They felt that Microsoft would lose share of windows spreadsheets and word processors. I agreed but pointed out that Windows was 10% of the entire market for spreadsheets, so having a 90% share gave Microsoft 9% of the overall spreadsheet market. I also predicted Microsoft would have over a 45% share when Windows was 100% of the market. So, while this would decrease Microsoft’s share of Windows spreadsheets, it would grow its total share of the market by 5X Of course we all were proven wrong as Microsoft eventually reached over 90% of the entire market.

For Tesla, the question becomes whether these rivals are helping accelerate the share electric cars will have of the overall market, rather than eroding Tesla volumes. I’m thinking that it’s the former, and that Tesla will have a great volume year in 2019 and that its biggest competitive issue will be whether the Model 3 is so strong that it will get people to buy it over the Model S. Of course, I could be wrong, but believe the odds favor Tesla in 2019, especially the first half of the year where the competitors are not that strong.

Soundbyte II: The NYC / Amazon Deal Collapses

I never cease to be amazed at how little regard some Politicians have for facts. I should likely not have been surprised by the furor created over Amazon locating a major facility in New York City. I thought the $44 billion or more in benefits to the City and State and massive job creation were such a win that no one would contest it. Instead, the dialog centered around the $ 3 billion in tax benefits to Amazon. All but 1/6 of the benefits (which was cash from the state) were based on existing laws and amounted to a reduction of future taxes rather than upfront cash. What a loss for the City.

2019 Top Ten Predictions

Opportunity Knocks!

The 2018 December selloff provides buying opportunity

One person’s loss is another’s gain. The market contraction in the last quarter of the year means that most stocks are at much lower prices than they were in Q3 of 2018. The 5 stocks that I’m recommending (and already own) were down considerably from their Q3 2018 highs. While this may be wishful thinking, returning to those highs by the end of 2019 would provide an average gain of 78%. Each of the 5 had revenue growth of 25% or more last year (and 3 were over 35%) and each is poised for another strong year in 2019.

For the 4 continued recommendations (all of which I mentioned I would recommend again in my last post), I’ll compare closing price on December 31, 2019 to the close on December 31, 2018 for calculating performance. For the new add to my list, I’ll use the stock price as I write this post. I won’t attempt to predict the overall market again (I’m just not that good at it) but feel that the 14% drop in Q4 means there is a better chance that it won’t take a nosedive. However, since stock picks are always relative to the market, success is based on whether my picks, on average, outperform the market.

I’ll start the post with stock picks and then follow with the remaining 5 predictions.

 2019 Stocks  

Tesla stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $333/share and is essentially the same as I write this)

In Q3, 2018 the Tesla model 3 was the bestselling car in the U.S. in terms of revenue and 5th highest by volume. This drove a 129% revenue increase versus a year earlier and $1.75 in earnings per share versus a loss of $4.22 in the prior quarter. I expect Q4 revenue to increase sequentially and growth year/year to exceed 100%. In Q3, Tesla reported that nearly half of vehicles traded in for the Model 3 were originally priced below $35,000. As Tesla begins offering sub-$40,000 versions of it, demand should include many buyers from this high-volume price range. Since the backlog for the Model 3 is about 300,000 units I expect 2019 sales to remain supply constrained if Tesla can offer lower price points (it already has announced a $2,000 price reduction). The important caveat to demand is that tax credits will be cut in H1 2019, from $7500 to $3750 and then cut again to $1875 in the second half of the year. Part of Tesla’s rationale for a $2000 price drop is to substantially offset the initial reduction of these tax credits.

Tesla began taking orders for its Q1 launch in Europe where demand over time could replicate that in the U.S. The average price of a Model 3 will initially be about $10,000 higher than in the U.S. Tesla is also building a major manufacturing facility in China (where Model 3 prices are currently over $20,000 higher than the U.S.). This Giga-Factory is expected to begin production in the latter half of 2019. While moving production to China for vehicles sold there should eliminate trade war issues, Tesla still expects to begin delivering Model 3s to Chinese customers in March.

The combination of a large backlog, reducing prices within the U.S. and launches in Europe and China should generate strong growth in 2019. Some investors fear price reductions might lead to lower gross margins. When I followed PC stocks on Wall Street, this was a constant question. My answer is the same as what proved true there: strong opportunity for continuous cost reduction should enable gross margins to remain in the 20-25% range in any location that is at volume production. So, perhaps the Chinese Giga-Factory and a future European factory will start at lower margins while volume ramps but expect margins in the U.S. (the bulk of revenue in 2019) to remain in the targeted range. Higher prices in Europe and China due to massive initial demand allows premium pricing which may keep margins close to 20%+ in each.

Facebook stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $131/share).

Facebook underperformed in 2018, closing the year down 28% despite revenue growth that should be 35% to 40% and EPS tracking to about 36% growth (despite a massive increase in SG&A to spur future results).  The stock reacted to the plethora of criticism regarding privacy of user information coupled with the continuing charges of Russian use of Facebook to impact the election. Before the wave of negative publicity, Facebook reached a high of $218/share in July. Facebook is likely to continue to increase its spending to address privacy issues and to burnish its image. However, scaling revenue could mean it keeps operating margins at a comparable level to 2018 rather than increasing them. Rumors of Facebook’s demise seem highly exaggerated!  According to a December 2018 JP Morgan survey of U.S. Internet users, the three most used social media products were Facebook (88% of participants), Facebook Messenger (61%) and Instagram (47%). Also, 82% of those surveyed picked a Facebook-owned platform as being the most important to them. Finally, the average Facebook user reported checking Facebook roughly 5 times per day with 56% of users spending 15 minutes to an hour or more on the platform on an average day. While Facebook has experienced a minor decrease in overall usage, Instagram usage has increased dramatically. Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp together give the company a growing and dominant position.

At the beginning of 2018 Facebook stock was trading at 34 times trailing EPS. By the end of the year the multiple of trailing EPS was below 18. If I assume EPS can grow 20%+ in 2019 (which is below my expectation but higher than the consensus forecast) than a multiple of 20 would put the stock at about $180/share by December 31. If it grew EPS, more in line with revenue and/or returned to a multiple closer to 34 it could reach well over 200.

Two key factors:

  1. A 20% increase in revenue (I expect the increase to be about 30%) adds over $11 billion in revenue. A comparable 20% increase in SG&A would provide over $4 billion in additional money to spend, affording the company ample dollars to devote to incremental marketing without impacting operating margins.
  2. Given the “low” stock price, Facebook increased its buyback program by $9 billion to $15 billion. Since it generates $6B – $7B in cash per quarter from operations (before capex) and has roughly $40 billion in cash and equivalents it could easily increase this further if the stock remains weak. The $15 billion could reduce the share count by as much as 3% in turn increasing EPS by a similar amount.

Amazon stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $1502/share).

While its stock dropped from its September high of $2050, Amazon remained one of the best market performers in 2018 closing the year at $1502/share. At its 2018 high of $2050, It may have gotten ahead of itself, but at year end it was up less than 2018 revenue growth. Leveraging increased scale meant net income grew faster than revenue and is likely to triple from 2017. Growth will be lower in Q4 then Q3 as Q4 2017 was the first quarter that included all revenue from Whole Foods. Still, I would not be surprised if Amazon beat expectations in Q4 since this is already factored into analyst forecasts. Amazon trades on revenue coupled with the prospect of increasingly mining the revenue into higher profits. But the company will always prioritize making long term investments over maximizing near term earnings. Growth in the core ecommerce business is likely to gradually slow, but Amazon has created numerous revenue streams like its cloud and echo/Alexa businesses that I expect to result in maintaining revenue growth in the 20% plus range in 2019. The prospect of competing with an efficient new brick and mortar offering (see prediction 6 in this post) could drive new excitement around the stock.

Profitability in 2019 could be reduced by: announced salary increases to low end workers; increasing the number of physical store locations; and greater marketing incentives for customers. Offsets to this include higher growth in stronger margin businesses like AWS and subscription services. The stock may gyrate a bit, but I expect it to continue to outperform.

Stitch Fix stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $17/share).

In my 2018 forecast I called this my riskiest pick and it was the most volatile which is saying a lot given the turbulence experience by Facebook, Tesla, and Amazon. I was feeling pretty smug when the stock reached a high of $52/share in September! I’m not sure how much of the subsequent drop was due to VCs and other early investors reducing their positions but this can have an impact on newly minted public companies. Whatever the case, the stock dropped from September’s high to a low point of $17.09 by year’s end. The drop was despite the company doing a good job balancing growth and profitability with October quarter revenue up 24% and earnings at $10.7 million up from $1.3 million in the prior year. Both beat analyst expectations. The stock was impacted because the number of users grew 22% (1-2% less than expected) despite revenue exceeding expectations at 24% growth. I’m not sure why this was an issue.

Stitch Fix continues to add higher-end brands and to increase its reach into men, plus sizes and kids. Its algorithms to personalize each box of clothes it ships keeps improving. Therefore, the company can spend less on acquiring new customers as it has increased its ability to get existing customers to spend more and come back more often. I believe the company can grow by roughly 20% or more in 2019. If it does and achieves anything close to the revenue multiple that it started with in 2018 (before the multiple doubled in mid-year), there would be a sizeable stock gain this year. But it is a thinly traded stock and likely to be quite volatile.

Docusign Stock will outpace the market in 2019 (it is currently at $43/share).

Docusign is a new recommendation. Like Stitch Fix, it is a recent IPO and could be volatile. Docusign is the runaway leader in e-signatures, facilitating multiple parties signing documents in a secure, reliable way on board resolutions, mortgages, investment documents, etc. Strong positives include:

  • A high value for a reasonable price – I am increasingly annoyed when I need to deal with manual signatures for documents.
  • As of October 31, 2018, Docusign had over 450,000 customers up from 350,000 customers one year earlier. Of which 50,000 are Enterprise/Commercial accounts;
  • There are hundreds of millions of users whose e-signatures are stored by the company making the network effect quite large;
  • Roughly 95% of revenue is from its SaaS product which has 80% gross margin with the rest from services where margins have improved and are now positive;
  • As a SaaS company with a stable revenue base growth is more predictable. The company exceeded revenue guidance each quarter with the October 31, 2018 quarter revenue up 37%;
  • Most customers pay annually in advance. This means cash flow from operations is positive despite the company recording an operating loss;
  • Customers expand their use resulting in retained customers growing revenue faster than decreases from churned customers making net revenue retention over 100%;
  • International expansion remains a large opportunity as international is only 18% of revenue.

Picks 6 – 10: Major Trends that will surface in 2019

I developed my primary method of stock picking at my first Wall Street firm, Stanford Bernstein. The head of research there, Chuck Cahn, emphasized that you could get small wins by correctly determining that a stock would trade up on certain news like a new product, a big customer win, and beating consensus forecasts. But larger and more predictable wins of 5X or more were possible if one identified a long-term winner riding a major trend and stuck with it for multiple years. All 5 of my stock picks fall into the latter category. I’ve been recommending Facebook, Tesla, and Amazon for 4 years or more. All 3 are now over 5X from when I first targeted them as I bought Tesla at $46 and Facebook at $24 in 2013 (before this blog) and they have been in my top 10 since. Amazon was first included in 2015 when it was at $288/share. Stitch Fix and DocuSign are riskier but if successful have substantial upside since both are early in their run of leveraging their key trends.

The next 4 picks are in early stages of trends that could lead to current and next generation companies experiencing benefits for many years. The first two go hand in hand as each describes transformation of physical retail/restaurants, namely, replacing staff with technology in a way that improves the customer experience. This is possible because we are getting closer to the tipping point where the front-end investment in technology can have a solid ROI from subsequent cost savings.

Replacing Cashiers with technology will be proven out in 2019

In October 2015 I predicted that Amazon (and others like Warby Parker) would move into physical retail between then and 2020. This has occurred with Amazon first opening bookstores and then buying Whole Foods, and Warby Parker expanding its number of physical locations to about 100 by the end of 2018. My reasoning then was simple: over 92% of purchases in the U.S. were made offline. Since Amazon had substantial share of e-commerce it would begin to have its growth limited if it didn’t create an off-line presence.

Now, for Amazon to maintain a 20% or greater revenue growth rate it’s even more important for it to increase its attack on offline commerce (now about 90% of U.S. retail) I’m not saying it won’t continue to try to increase its 50% share of online but at its current size offline offers a greater opportunity for growth.

A key to Amazon’s success has been its ability to attack new markets in ways that give it a competitive advantage. Examples of this are numerous but three of the most striking are Amazon Cloud Services (where it is the industry leader), the Kindle (allowing it to own 70% share of eBook sales) and Prime (converting millions of customers to a subscription which in turn incentivized buying more from Amazon due to free shipping).

Now the company is testing an effort to transform brick and mortar retail by replacing staff with technology and in doing so improving the buying experience. The format is called Go stores and there are currently 5 test locations. Downloading the Amazon Go App enables the user to use it to open the automated doors. The store is stocked (I think by actual people) with many of the same categories of products as a 7-Eleven, in a more modern way. Food items include La Boulangerie pastries, sushi, salads, an assortment of sandwiches and even meal kits. Like a 7-Eleven, it also has convenience items like cold medicine, aspirins, etc. The store uses cameras and sensors to track your movements, items you remove from the shelves and even whether you put an item back. When you leave, the app provides you with a digital receipt. Not only does the removal of cashiers save Amazon money but the system improves customer service by eliminating any need to wait in line. I expect Amazon to open thousands of these stores over the next 3-5 years as it perfects the concept. In the future I believe it will have locations that offer different types of inventory. While Amazon may be an early experimenter here, there is opportunity for others to offer similar locations relying on third party technology.

Replacing Cooks, Baristas and Waitstaff with robots will begin to be proven in 2019

The second step in reducing physical location staff will accelerate in 2019. There are already:

  1. Robotic coffee bars:  CafeX opened in San Francisco last year, and in them one orders drip coffee, cappuccino, latte, or hot chocolate using an app on your phone or an iPad available at a kiosk. The coffee is made and served by a robot “barista” with the charge automatically put on your credit card. Ordering, billing, and preparation are automatic, but there is still one staff member in the shop to make sure things go smoothly.
  2. The first robotic burger restaurant: Creator opened in San Francisco last June. It was in beta mode through September before opening to the general public. While a “robot” makes the burgers, Creator is not as automated as CafeX as humans prepare the sauces and prep the items that go into the machine. Creator also hasn’t automated ordering/payment. Startup Momentum Machines expects to open a robotic burger restaurant and has gotten substantial backing from well-known VCs.
  3. Robots replacing waitstaff: For example, at Robo Sushi in Toronto, a “Butlertron” escorts you to your table, you order via an iPad and a second robot delivers your meal. Unlike the robots in the coffee bar and burger restaurant these are made into cute characters rather than a machine. Several Japanese companies are investing in robotic machines that make several of the items offered at a sushi restaurant.
  4. Robotic Pizza restaurants: The furthest along in automation is the Pizza industry. Zume Pizza, a startup that uses robots to make pizzas, has recently received a $375 million investment from Softbank. Zume currently uses a mix of humans and robots to create and deliver their pizzas and is operational in the Bay Area. Pizza Hut and Dominos are working on drones and/or self-driving vehicles to deliver pizzas. And Little Caesars was just issued a patent for a robotic arm and other automated mechanisms used to create a pizza.

At CES, a robot that makes breads was announced. What all these have in common is replacing low end high turnover employees with technology for repetitive tasks. The cost of labor continues to rise while the cost of technology shrinks a la Moore’s Law. It is just a matter of time before these early experiments turn into a flood of change. I expect many of these experiments will turn into “proof points” in 2019. Successful experiments will generate substantial adoption in subsequent years. Opportunities exist to invest in both suppliers and users of many robotic technologies.

“Influencers” will be increasingly utilized to directly drive Commerce

Companies have long employed Influencers as spokespersons for products and in some cases even as brands (a la Michael Jordon and Stephan Curry basketball shoes or George Forman Grills). They appear on TV ads for products and sometimes used their social reach to tout them. Blogger, a prior Azure investment, understood how to use popular bloggers in advertising campaigns. But Blogger ads, like most TV ads did not directly offer the products to potential customers. Now we are on the verge of two major changes: tech players creating structured ways to enable fans of major influencers (with millions of followers) to use one-click to directly buy products; and technology companies that can economically harness the cumulative power of hundreds of micro-influencers (tens of thousands of fans) to replicate the reach of a major influencer. I expect to see strong growth in this method of Social Commerce this year.

The Cannabis Sector should show substantial gains in 2019

In my last post I said about the Cannabis Sector: “The industry remains at a very early stage, but numerous companies are now public, and the recent market correction has the shares of most of these at more reasonable levels. While I urge great care in stock selection, it appears that the industry has emerged as one to consider investing in.” Earlier in this post, I mentioned that riding a multi-year wave with a winning company in that segment is a way to have strong returns. I’m not knowledgeable enough regarding public Cannabis companies, so I haven’t included any among my stock recommendations. However, I expect industry wide revenue to grow exponentially. The 12 largest public Cannabis companies by descending market cap are: Canopy Growth Corp (the largest at over $11B), Tilray, Aurora Cannabis, GW Pharmaceuticals, Curealeaf Holdings, Aphria, Green Thumb Industries, Cronos Group, Medmen Enterprises, Acreage Holdings, Charlotte’s Web Holdings and Trulieve Cannabis.

I believe one or more of these will deliver major returns over the next 5 years. Last year I felt we would see good fundamentals from the industry but that stocks were inflated. Given that the North American Cannabis Index opened this year at 208 well down from its 2018 high of 386 investing now seems timely. I’ll use this index as the measure of performance of this pick.

2019 will be the Year of the Unicorn IPO

Many Unicorns went public in 2018, but this year is poised to be considerably larger and could drive the largest IPO market fund raising in at least 5 years.  Disbelievers will say: “the market is way down so companies should wait longer.” The reality is the Nasdaq is off from its all-time high in August by about 15% but is higher than its highest level at any time before 2018. Investment funds are looking for new high growth companies to invest in. It appears very likely that as many as 5 mega-players will go public this year if the market doesn’t trade off from here. Each of them is a huge brand that should have very strong individual support. Institutional investors may not be as optimistic if they are priced too high due to the prices private investors have previously paid. They are: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Slack. Each is one of the dominant participants in a major wave, foreshadowing substantial future revenue growth. Because information has been relatively private, I have less knowledge of their business models so can’t comment on whether I would be a buyer. Assuming several of these have successful IPOs many of the other 300 or so Unicorns may rush to follow.

It will be an interesting year!

Recap of 2018 Top Ten Predictions

Have the bears finally won back control?

Oh, what a difference a month or 3 makes! If only 2018 had ended earlier…

I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have liked 2018 results to have been as of November 30th (or even better, October 1st). My stock forecasts were looking a lot better on those dates (and if I were smarter, perhaps I would have taken some of the gains at that point). My average gain was over 34% on October 1st (versus the S&P being up 8.5%) and was still holding at +10% as of November 30th with the S&P ahead 2.4%. Unfortunately, the year includes a disastrous December and my 4 stock picks ended the year at a 6.6% average loss. Since stock picks are always relative to the market, I take some solace in minutely beating the performance of the S&P which was down 7.0% for the year, especially since I favor very high beta stocks.

Before reviewing each of my picks from last year, I would like to provide a longer term view of my performance as it has now been 5 years that I’ve published my blog’s stock picks. Even with a down year in 2018 my compound gain is 310% versus an S&P gain of 38% over the same period. This translates to an average annual gain of 25% per year which coincidently is the target I set in my book (published years ago and now out of print).

Table 1: Mike’s Annual Blog Stock Pick Performance (5 Years)

Unlike last year, I certainly cannot take a victory lap for my 10 forecasts as I missed on 3 of the 10 and barely beat the S&P for my average among my 4 stock picks (all of which will be included again in my 2019 top ten). I’ve listed in bold each of my 2018 stock picks and trend forecasts below and give a personal, and only modestly biased, evaluation of how I fared on each.

  1. Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market (it opened the year at $312/share)

Tesla had an extraordinary Q3, 2018 as the model 3 launch showed how potent a player the company is becoming. In the quarter the Model 3 was the best selling car in the U.S. in terms of revenue and 5th highest by volume. This drove a greater than 100% revenue increase versus a year earlier and $1.75 in earnings per share versus a loss of $4.22 in the prior quarter. Given that the starting price for a model 3 was at $49,000, it is rather amazing that it could generate that volume of sales. Since the backlog for the Model 3 appears to remain at well over 300,000 cars and Tesla is closing in on a launch in Europe, Tesla seems assured of continued strong revenue through 2019 and likely beyond. However, much of the backlog is awaiting the lower priced (sub $40,000) version of the car which I believe will be available in Q2, 2019. As I had predicted, the Model 3 ramp up in production volume led to improved gross margins which exceeded 20% in the quarter. Despite the down market, Tesla stock was up about 7% in 2018. While we will continue recommending the stock, the phaseout of tax credits for buying an electric car has already begun. In its Q3 update Tesla stated that “better than expected Model 3 cost reductions is allowing us to bring more affordable options to the market sooner.” Yet, despite this forecast, the recently announced price decreases drove the stock down.

  1. Facebook stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market (it opened the year at $182/share).

Facebook stock did not perform well in 2018, closing the year down 28%, making this pick a losing proposition last year. This comes despite revenue growth that should be between 35% and 40%, and net income that is tracking towards about 35% growth (despite a massive increase in SG&A to spur future results).  What impacted the stock heavily was the plethora of criticism regarding privacy of user information coupled with the continuing charges of Russian usage to impact the election. Before the wave after wave of negative publicity the stock had reached a new high of $218/share in July. Because of the need to improve its reputation, Facebook is likely to continue to increase its spending to address privacy issues and to burnish its image. In summary, the fundamentals of the company remained quite sound in 2018 but the barrage of issues torpedoed the stock.

  1. Amazon stock appreciation will outpace the market (it opened the year at $1188/share).

While its stock dropped considerably from its September high of $2050, Amazon remained one of the best market performers in 2018 closing the year at over $1500/share. The company continued to execute well, growing every part of its business. It also began to leverage its scale as net income grew considerably faster than revenue and is likely to be well over triple that of 2017. Growth should be lower in Q4 2018 than earlier in the year as Q4 2017 was the first quarter that included all revenue from the acquisition of Whole Foods. Since the analyst consensus forecast already reflects Whole Foods revenue being in Q4 last year, as well as concerns over Amazon maintaining strong performance in Q4, I would not be surprised if Amazon was able to beat expectations in Q4.

  1. Stitch Fix stock appreciation will outpace the market (it opened the year at $25/share).

In my forecast I stated that this was my riskiest pick and it certainly proved the most volatile (which is saying a lot given the turbulence experience by Facebook, Tesla, and Amazon). I was feeling pretty smug when the stock reached a high of $52/share in September with a little over 3 months left in the year! Obviously, I was less sanguine as it dropped precipitously from September’s high to a low point of $17.09 by year’s end. I’m hoping that those of you who followed my advice trimmed back when the stock soared (I confess that I didn’t). The company continued to balance growth and profitability throughout the calendar year with October quarter revenue (up 24%) and earnings ($10.7 million up from $1.3 million in the prior year) both beating analyst expectations. Yet, concerns over user growth severely impacted the stock. I’m somewhat surprised by this as the users grew 22% and revenue 24% – since revenue beat expectations this means that analysts did not forecast an increase in average revenue per user. But the bottom line is, despite solid fundamentals the stock did not perform well.

  1. The stock market will rise in 2018 (the S&P opened the year at 2,696 on January 2).

When I made this forecast, I pointed out that I’m not particularly good at forecasting the overall market. My belief was based on the fact that the tax cut for corporations would mean a rise in earnings that exceeded the norm. I felt stronger earnings growth would be enough to offset the risk of the longest bull market in history turning negative. I sited the likelihood of higher interest rates being an additional risk. The market almost made it through the year as it was still up heading into December, but the combination of 4 interest rate hikes in the year coupled with considerable criticism of President Trumps behavior was just too much for the market by December. I view this as a partial victory as I had all the fundamentals right and came within less than a month of being right for the year when many felt the bears would gain control in early 2018.

  1. Battles between the federal government and states will continue over marijuana use but the cannabis industry will emerge as one to invest in.

During the year the legalization of marijuana for recreational use continued to increase on a state by state basis with the number increasing from 6 at the start of the year to 10 by years end. Use of medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states. Several other states, while not formally legalizing it have lowered restrictions on individual use. The industry remains at a very early stage, but numerous companies are now public, and the recent market correction has the shares of most of these at more reasonable levels. While I would urge great care in stock selection, it appears that the industry has emerged as one to consider investing in.

  1. At least one city will announce a new approach to urban transport.

In this prediction I cited the likelihood that at least one city would commit to testing a system of small footprint automated cars on a dedicated route (as discussed in our post on December 14, 2017) as this appears to be a more cost effective solution than rail, bus, Uber, etc. Kyoto has now announced that it signed an agreement to test the system offered by Wayfarer and the company is now out of stealth mode. Wayfarer expects to provide substantial capacity at a fraction of the cost of other alternatives: both in the initial cost of the infrastructure/equipment and the annual cost of running the system. Of course, once there is a live installation in Kyoto or one of their other prospective customers, the validity of this system will be authenticated (or not).

  1. Offline retailers will increase the velocity of moving towards omnichannel.

This forecast discussed both acquisitions of e-commerce companies by offline retailers (with Walmart leading the way) and introducing more online technology in physical stores. Walmart did continue its online buying spree in 2018 with major acquisitions of Art.com, Bare Necessities, Eloquii, Cornershop and Flipkart (the largest at $16 billion). In the case of the acquisitions that are online brands, Walmart intends to introduce these into their physical stores and continue to sell them online. Nordstrom has also moved further to integrate its online and offline business by taking valuable floor space in stores and repurposing it for online buyers to pick up and try on clothes they have purchased online. By placing the location in a very prominent spot, I’m sure Nordstrom is thinking it will help spur more customers to buy online. By having in store locations for picking up and trying on, Nordstrom should reduce returns, lower the cost of shipping, and bring additional customers into their stores (who otherwise might not visit them).

  1. Social Commerce will begin to emerge as a new category

Recall that social commerce involves the integration of social media with commerce through tactics like:

  1. A feed-based user experience
  2. Having friends’ actions impact one’s feed
  3. Following trend setters to see what they are buying, wearing, and/or favoring
  4. One click to buy

Now, about 25% – 30% of shoppers say that social platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have influence over their purchases. On June 28, 2018 Snapchat began a program for its influencers to use Social Commerce through a tool that allows users to view a video from the influencer and then to swipe up on a product shown in the video to buy it. In September, The Verge reported that Instagram is developing a new app for social commerce. Pinterest and Facebook have been in the social commerce fray longer and have increasing success. It appears that 2018 was the year the social commerce wars accelerated.

  1. “The Empire Strikes Back”: automobile manufacturers will begin to take steps to reclaim use of its GPS.

Carmakers face a serious problem regarding their built-in navigation systems. Consumers are forced to pay hundreds of dollars for them and then use free apps on their phones like Waze or Google maps instead. This does not endear them to consumers. The problem is that carmakers are not great at software design but have been reluctant to use third party providers for their GPS and entertainment. Now, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance has agreed to design Google’s Android OS, including Google navigation, into their next generation cars expected starting in 2021. This is a win for users as that will provide a competent GPS that utilizes the existing screen in cars as opposed to having to rely on your phone app for navigation.

In another win for consumers, Amazon and Telenav (a connected car and location based services provider) announced a significant partnership today, January 7, 2019. As part of it, Amazon’s voice assistant will now be part of Telenavs in-car navigation systems. With this included, Telenav’s next generation system will enable its customers, like General Motors, to provide a “smart assistant” thereby making the system included with cars the one to use rather than one’s phone apps.

Stay tuned for my top ten predictions for 2019…but remember that I have already said the 4 stocks recommended for 2018 will remain on the list.

Amazon HQ Award: Huge Positive for New York City and State

My December 2016 post analyzed the Trump deal to retain Carrier workers in the United States and concluded it was positive for the country and for the state of Indiana. It saved 800 jobs and had a payback to the government of more than 14X their investment. I was clear in the post that I hadn’t voted for Trump and consider myself an independent. While I remain an independent, the opportunity to analyze the recently announced deal to get Amazon to commit 25,000 – 40,000 jobs for New York City is irresistible to me as my conclusions will be in support of politicians on the opposite side of the spectrum from Trump: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. I believe that:

Analysis of benefits and drawbacks of any major negotiation should be politically independent.

Unfortunately, this has become less and less the case given the divisive politics that we have in our country. What was shocking to me in this case was that some members of their own party (Democrats), heavily criticized de Blasio and Cuomo.

Major Assumption: Jobs are good for a City/State if the cost to government is reasonable

One of the major responsibilities of a political leader is improving the economy in their State/City. The crux of the discussion is really the question: ‘what is a reasonable cost’ for doing so? On one hand, it can be measured in pure cash flow of moneys paid to Amazon (or any other entity a government wants to attract) versus the cash the government will receive from additional tax dollars. On the other hand, there are other factors that benefit or degrade life in the community. Since the former is more measurable, I’ll start with that.

What are the Actual Out-of-Pocket dollars New York City (NYC) and New York State (NYS) will give to Amazon?

I can’t tell if its rhetoric or a lack of clear communication, but many detractors, like state Senator Michael Gianaris, are saying “We’ve got $3 billion dollars to spend, how would you spend it? Amazon would be very low on the list of where that money would go.” To be blunt, this is a ridiculous comment. NYC is spending zero dollars in cash and while the state is providing $505 million of actual cash as a capital grant, far more money will flow back to it. The Capital grant is based on $2.5 billion that Amazon has promised to invest in New York City (to build their HQ, a 600-seat public school, affordable space for manufacturers and to develop a 3.5-acre waterfront esplanade and park).

The rest of the $3 billion falls into 3 incentive programs that have existed for many years to help woo companies to NYS. They are:

  1. The Excelsior Jobs Program was created in 2010 to replace the expiring Empire Zone Program. Like the prior program, it’s objectives are to provide job creation incentives to firms in targeted industries, like high-tech, for relocating in NYS. The credits are based on the wages added and several other factors. This program, which is available to all companies in the targeted sectors, will generate $1.2 billion in state business income tax credits for Amazon if it meets its commitments.
  2. The Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP), first established in 2003, targets creating jobs in parts of the city more in need of them, rather than adding to the heavy cluster in downtown and midtown Manhattan, namely the outer boroughs or north of 96th street in Manhattan. The tax credits generated from this program total $897 million and can be used towards reducing Amazon’s New York City corporate taxes over 12 years. This credit is based on the rules of the existing law.
  3. The Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP), which replaced a prior program, created in 2008, provides tax incentives for commercial and industrial buildings that are built, modernized, or expanded. The credits are based on the taxable value created if the city believes it is beneficial based on its location and other factors. This program is generally available and the $386 million in credits are directly tied to the rules of the law.

Table 1: Benefits to Amazon from NYS and NYC

It is important to note most of the benefits to Amazon are “as of right”, so any company can get them. Since these programs scale based on the number of employees or the amount of capital investment, the sheer size of the Amazon commitment creates a “sticker shock” given the associated benefits. The 3 programs were not created for Amazon but have been in existence for years to encourage job creation and industrial development in targeted areas. The credits under REAP and ICAP appear to be as mandated by those programs and not discretionary. It’s harder for me to tie the state tax abatement amount granted under the Excelsior program (by the state) to the law, but the calculation appears to follow it with some judgement in the cap of what is awarded. The capital grant seems to be the only discretionary part of the package and is the only portion that involves out of pocket dollars from the state (the city will not provide any cash incentives).

Could New York Have won the HQ with lesser incentives?

Given the large return on investment to NYC and NYS, the only question in my mind is whether they could have succeeded with even less incentives and generated an even greater return! A whitepaper by Reis, an analytic company for real estate evaluation, judged New York City as a top candidate without considering incentives offered to Amazon. It’s difficult to judge whether New York City would have been chosen with reduced incentives. On the one hand it has the best public transportation, strong cultural advantages, and several great Universities (as a source of employees), especially the new Cornell-Technion campus located directly next to Amazon’s HQ2 location. On the other hand, it is a very expensive place to do business which is why these incentive programs were created to begin with. As a basis of comparison, consider the bundle of incentives Wisconsin offered to get the Taiwanese technology company Foxconn to build a U.S. plant there. For the 13,000 jobs (at an average annual wage of $53,000) that Foxconn has committed to, Wisconsin plus the County and local village have provided about $3.8 billion in tax credits and breaks. The taxable wages in NY will be 6-9 times as much and the incentives are lower. Therefore, I suspect other locations offered Amazon incentives at the same or a greater level as those from New York.

How Does Revenue to the City and State Compare to the out of pocket cost?

I’m going to make the following assumptions:

  1. New York State Corporate Tax is 6.5% and NYC is 8.85% but I’m assuming the business tax incentives from Excelsior and REAP will be sufficient to preclude Amazon paying any incremental taxes to NYC or NYS (above what they currently pay) for the 12 years they apply. Subsequently, there should be substantial incremental taxes for the additional 8 years of the time horizon I’m using. Since I’m not including this income flow to the city and state, there is considerable upside to my calculations.
  2. The PILOT program payments, estimated by Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, at $600 to $650 million are the only real estate taxes Amazon will pay. I’m not sure what it would have been without the ICAP credit but the range for the PILOT program amount appears to be known.
  3. NYS and/or NYC will benefit from income, sales and property taxes on employees hired by Amazon and taxes on any additional jobs that get created because of Amazon. I’ll assume taxes are on full wages but that employees have no other income (like interest, capital gains, etc.) and all individuals are single. This puts my model for some who are married without a working spouse at higher taxes then they will pay, but my estimates will be too low for those with a working spouse or any with other sources of income. For this purpose, I’ll use the initial 25,000 jobs plus half of the additional 15,000 (32,500) as the average number over a 20 year period. Since the incremental employment should average longer, that seemed a conservative average to use. I’ll also use an average starting salary of $150,000 for the future Amazon employees as that has been in the announcement. As another assumption, to keep my calculations below what should occur, I haven’t assumed any increases in salary. Even a 4% increase per year would cause salaries to more than double by the end of the 20 years (and NYS and NYC income taxes grow by even more). Since those involved in the project would likely have wage increases over time their income and other taxes would be considerably higher than those based on my assumptions. This coupled with the fact that the negotiators for NYC and NYS used 25 years as the horizon, means their tax calculations will be considerably higher (and more accurate) than mine for the direct employees.

I used the website Smart Asset calculator to generate estimates of NYS and NYC Income tax, sales tax, and property tax per year for each income level. As stated before, the actual numbers will be higher because many of these individuals will have other sources of income, a working spouse and will have salaries escalating over time. Table 2 shows the totals for these estimated taxes to be nearly $15B.

Table 2: NYS & NYC Tax Impact from Amazon HQ

 

  1. Scholars have found strong evidence of the presence of a local multiplier effect. These come from the direct employees hired, indirect jobs created from suppliers and partners and induced jobs that are a result of the spending of the direct and indirect jobs as well as each layer of induced jobs. For example, a noted scholar on the subject, Enrico Moretti, determined that when Apple Computer was employing 12,000 workers locally, an additional 60,000 jobs were created. These included 36,000 unskilled positions like restaurant or retail workers, and 24,000 skilled jobs like lawyers or doctors. If I assume this 5 to 1 ratio would hold for the highly paid Amazon workers, then 32,500 technology jobs would generate 162,500 more jobs in NYC! Based on the Apple example, 60% of these would be unskilled and 40% highly skilled. Assuming an average salary of $35,000 for the unskilled, an average of $100,00 for half of the skilled and $150,000 for the other half, taxes generated from the multiplier effect over the 20 years would be over $28 billion.

Table 3: NYS & NYC Tax Impact from Amazon HQ Multiplier Effect

  1. The $2.5 billion Amazon has committed to spend on capital projects would in turn generate further jobs in construction and an associated multiplier impact, but since this is a temporary benefit over 2-5 years, I have omitted it from the analysis.
  2. The $43 billion estimated total of these income streams to the city and state assume the tax abatements cause no incremental corporate taxes from Amazon. While Amazon will be paying rent on the land leased from the city, I also left out this benefit as I couldn’t estimate the amount. While I believe the actual benefit could be higher, consider that even if I’m off by 75% on the multiplier effect, the total would still be over $22 billion and the payback about 44X the $505 million cash outlay!

Other Benefits and Negatives of Attracting Amazon

There are a variety of more difficult factors to analyze than the straight forward financial windfall the city and state will get from this agreement. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area has taught me that what I may view as obvious might not be so to others. Becoming the Florence of the Tech World has meant that the Bay Area is incredibly wealthy, in turn generating a huge tax base for government to use to fund helping the homeless, stem research and many other perceived public good initiatives. Attracting 25,000 – 40,000 technology jobs will vault New York City into a clear contender for tech community leadership. It will lead to others following and to the creation of more startups, one or two who could become the next Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, or Microsoft (generating more jobs and more tax income to NYC and NYS). This is not universally celebrated in the Bay Area as it also has led to traffic congestion, higher housing prices, and increased cost of entertainment. But It has meant increased employment opportunities across the full spectrum of jobs. However, an average worker, while making more than elsewhere, can find it a difficult place to afford. In New York City these issues are partly offset for those renting apartments due to rent control and rent stabilization as over 50% of all rental units are under some form of regulation.

New York City is large enough to be able to absorb 25,000 to 40,000 workers relatively easily, but it could add to the problems for the already strained subway system. I believe it’s no accident that Amazon chose a location near the water so that its employees could take advantage of the new, highly praised, NYC Ferry system. While many of the workers may choose to live near the Amazon facilities, some may decide to buy houses in locations that require utilizing mass transit. If I were to guess, I would say a portion of the increased cash flow, to the city will be used to improve the subway system, Long Island Railroad and to add more Ferries each of which will benefit all New Yorkers.

Conclusion: The Amazon Agreement for HQ2 to be in NYC is a Huge Positive for NYC and NYS

While detractors may nitpick at the deal, it has a great ROI for the City and State, will increase employment, provide revenue to improve mass transit and follows incentives mandated by existing laws. Clearly a coup for Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.

Soundbytes

  • The SF Chronicle published an article on November 28, 2018 touting Stephan Curry’s strong credentials as a possible MVP this year. In it they used several of the statistics we discussed a year ago. Namely, how much better his teammates shoot when they play with Curry and his amazing plus/minus.
  • Sticking with sports, I can’t help ruminating on how the NFL keeps shooting itself in the foot. I won’t comment on the latest unsavory incidents among players towards women or the Kaepernick fiasco. Instead, I keep thinking about what to call the team about to leave Oakland:
    • Oakland Raiders, their current name
    • Oakland Traders, given their propensity to exchange top players for draft choices
    • Oakland Traitors, trading away their best current players, which has insured a terrible season – thus completing the betrayal of the City of Oakland and the most loyal and colorful fan base in the league

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

Why Contribution Margin is a Strong Predictor of Success for Companies

In the last post I concluded with a brief discussion of Contribution Margin as a key KPI. Recall:

Contribution Margin = Variable Profits – Sales and Marketing Cost

The higher the contribution margin, the more dollars available towards covering G&A. Once contribution margin exceeds G&A, a company reaches operating profits. For simplicity in this post, I’ll use gross margin (GM) as the definition of variable profits even though there may be other costs that vary directly with revenue.

The Drivers of Contribution Margin (CM)

There is an absolute correlation between GM percent and CM. Very high gross margin companies will, in general, get to strong contribution margins and low gross margin companies will struggle to get there. But the sales and marketing needed to drive growth is just as important. There are several underlying factors in how much needs to be spent on sales and marketing to drive growth:

  1. The profits on a new customer relative to the cost of acquiring her (or him). That is, the CAC (customer acquisition cost) for customers derived from paid advertising compared to the profits on those customers’ first purchase
  2. The portion of new traffic that is “free” from SEO (search engine optimization), PR, existing customers recommending your products, etc.
  3. The portion of revenue that comes from repeat customers

The Relationship Between CAC and First Purchase Profits Has a Dramatic Impact on CM

Suppose Company A spends $60 to acquire a customer and has GM of $90 on the initial purchase by that customer. The contribution margin will already be positive $30 without accounting for customers that are organic or those that are repeat customers; in other words, this tends to be extremely positive! Of course, the startups I see in eCommerce are rarely in this situation but those that are can get to profitability fairly quickly if this relationship holds as they scale.

It would be more typical for companies to find that the initial purchase GM only covers a portion of CAC but that subsequent purchases lead to a positive relationship between the LTV (life time value) of the customer and CAC. If I assume the spend to acquire a customer is $60 and the GM is $30 then the CM on the first purchase would be negative (-$30), and it would take a second purchase with the same GM dollars to cover that initial cost. Most startups require several purchases before recovering CAC which in turn means requiring investment dollars to cover the outlay.

Free Traffic and Contribution Margin

If a company can generate a high proportion of free/organic traffic, there is a benefit to contribution margin. CAC is defined as the marketing spend divided by the number of new customers derived from this spend. Blended CAC is defined as the marketing spend divided by all customers who purchased in the period. The more organically generated and return customers, the lower the “blended CAC”. Using the above example, suppose 50% of the new customers for Company A come from organic (free) traffic. Then the “blended CAC“ would be 50% of the paid CAC. In the above example that would be $30 instead of $60 and if the GM was only $30 the initial purchase would cover blended CAC.

Of course, in addition to obtaining customers for free from organic traffic, companies, as they build their customer base, have an increasing opportunity to obtain free traffic by getting existing customers to buy again. So, a company should never forget that maintaining a persistent relationship with customers leads to improved Contribution Margin.

Spending to Drive Higher Growth Can Mean Lower Contribution Margin

Unless the GM on the first purchase a new customer makes exceeds their CAC, there is an inverse relationship between expanding growth and achieving high contribution margin. Think of it this way: suppose that going into a month the likely organic traffic and repeat buyers are somewhat set. Boosting that month’s growth means increasing the number of new paid customers, which in turn makes paid customers a higher proportion of blended CAC and therefore increases CAC. For an example consider the following assumptions for Company B:

  • The GM is $60 on an average order of $100
  • Paid CAC is $150
  • The company will have 1,000 new customers through organic means and 2,000 repeat buyers or $300,000 in revenue with 60% GM ($180,000) from these customers before spending on paid customers
  • G&A besides marketing for the month will be $150,000
  • Last year Company B had $400,000 in revenue in the same month
  • The company is considering the ramifications of targeting 25%, 50% or 100% year-over-year growth

Table 1: The Relationship Between Contribution Margin & Growth

Since the paid CAC is $150 while Gross Margin is only $60 per new customer, each acquired customer generates negative $90 in contribution margin in the period. As can be seen in Table 1, the company would shrink 25% if there is no acquisition spend but would have $180,000 in contribution margin and positive operating profit. On the other end of the spectrum, driving 100% growth requires spending $750,000 to acquire 5,000 new customers and results in a negative $270,000 in contribution margin and an Operating Loss of $420,000 in the period. Of course, if new customers are expected to make multiple future purchases than the number of repeat customers would rise in future periods.

Subscription Models Create More Consistency but are not a Panacea

When a company’s customers are monthly subscribers, each month starts with the prior month’s base less churn. To put it another way, if churn from the prior month is modest (for example 5%) then that month already has 95% of the prior months revenue from repeat customers. Additionally, if the company increases the average invoice value from these customers, it might even have a starting point where return customers account for as much revenue as the prior month. For B-to-B companies, high revenue retention is the norm, where an average customer will pay them for 10 years or more.

Consumer ecommerce subscriptions typically have much more substantial churn, with an average life of two years being closer to the norm. Additionally, the highest level of churn (which can be as much as 30% or more) occurs in the second month, and the next highest, the third month before tapering off. What this means is that companies trying to drive high sequential growth will have a higher % churn rate than those that target more modest growth. Part of a company’s acquisition spend is needed just to stay even. For example, if we assume all new customers come from paid acquisition, the CAC is $200, and that 15% of 10,000 customers churn then the first $300,000 in marketing spend would just serve to replace the churned customers and additional spend would be needed to drive sequential growth.

Investing in Companies with High Contribution Margin

As a VC, I tend to appreciate strong business models and like to invest after some baseline proof points are in place.  In my last post I outlined a number of metrics that were important ways to track a company’s health with the ratio of LTV (life time value) to CAC being one of the most important. When a company has a high contribution margin they have the time to build that ratio by adding more products or establishing subscriptions without burning through a lot of capital. Further, companies that have a high LTV/CAC ratio should have a high contribution margin as they mature since this usually means customers buy many times – leading to an expansion in repeat business as part of each month’s total revenue.

This thought process also applies to public companies. One of the most extreme is Facebook, which I’ve owned and recommended for five years. Even after the recent pullback its stock price is about 7x what it was five years ago (or has appreciated at a compound rate of nearly 50% per year since I’ve been recommending it). Not a surprise as Facebook’s contribution margin runs over 70% and revenue was up year/year 42% in Q2. These are extraordinary numbers for a company its size.

To give the reader some idea of how this method can be used as one screen for public companies, Table 2 shows gross margin, contribution margin, revenue growth and this year’s stock market performance for seven public companies.

Table 2: Public Company Contribution Margin Analysis

Two of the seven companies shown stand out as having both high Contribution Margin and strong revenue growth: Etsy and Stitch Fix. Each had year/year revenue growth of around 30% in Q2 coupled with 44% and 29% contribution margins, respectively. This likely has been a factor in Stitch Fix stock appreciating 53% and Etsy 135% since the beginning of the year.

Three of the seven have weak models and are struggling to balance revenue growth and contribution margin: Blue Apron, Overstock, and Groupon. Both Blue Apron and Groupon have been attempting to reduce their losses by dropping their marketing spend. While this increased their CM by 10% and 20% respectively, it also meant that they both have negative growth while still losing money. The losses for Blue Apron were over 16% of revenue. This coupled with shrinking revenue feels like a lethal combination. Blue Apron stock is only down a marginal amount year-to-date but is 59% lower than one year ago. Groupon, because of much higher gross margins than Blue Apron (52% vs 35%), still seems to have a chance to turn things around, but does have a lot of work to do. Overstock went in the other direction, increasing marketing spend to drive modest revenue growth of 12%. But this led to a negative CM and substantially increased losses. That strategy did not seem to benefit shareholders as the stock has declined 53% since the beginning of the year.

eBay is a healthy company from a contribution margin point of view but has sub 10% revenue growth. I can’t tell if increasing their market spend by a substantial amount (at the cost of lower CM) would be a better balance for them.

For me, Spotify is the one anomaly in the table as its stock has appreciated 46% since the IPO despite weak contribution margins which was one reason for my negative view expressed in a prior post. I think that is driven by three reasons: its product is an iconic brand; there is not a lot of float in the stock creating some scarcity; and contribution margin has been improving giving bulls on the stock a belief that it can get to profitability eventually. I say it is an anomaly, as comparing it to Facebook, it is hard to justify the relative valuations. Facebook grew 42% in Q2, Spotify 26%; Facebook is trading at a P/E of 24 whereas even if we assume Spotify can eventually get to generating 6% net profit (it currently is at a 7% loss before finance charges and 31% loss after finance charges, so this feels optimistic) Spotify would be trading at 112 times this theoretic future earnings.

 

SoundBytes

I found the recent controversy over Elon Musk’s sharing his thoughts on taking Tesla private interesting. On the one hand, people want transparency from companies and Elon certainly provides that! On the other hand, it clearly impacted the stock price for a few days and the SEC abhors anything that can be construed as stock manipulation. Of course, Elon may not have been as careful as he should have been when he sent out his tweet regarding whether financing was lined up…but like most entrepreneurs he was optimistic.

Interesting KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for a Subscription Company

what-are-key-performance-indicators-kpis

In working with early stage businesses, I often get the question as to what metrics should management and the board use to help understand a company’s progress. It is important for every company to establish a set of consistent KPIs that are used to objectively track progress. While these need to be a part of each board package, it is even more important for the executive team to utilize this for managing their company. While this post focuses on SaaS/Subscription companies, the majority of it applies to most other types of businesses.

Areas KPIs Should Cover

  1. P&L Trends
  2. MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) and LTR (Lifetime Revenue)
  3. CAC (Cost of Customer Acquisition)
    1. Marketing to create leads
    2. Customers acquired electronically
    3. Customers acquired using sales professionals
  4. Gross Margin and LTV (Life Time Value of a customer)
  5. Marketing Efficiency

Many companies will also need KPIs regarding inventory in addition to the ones above.

While there may be very complex analysis behind some of these numbers, it’s important to try to keep KPIs to 2-5 pages of a board package. Use of the right KPIs will give a solid, objective, consistent top-down view of the company’s progress. The P&L portion of the package is obviously critical, but I have a possibly unique view on how this should be included in the body of a board package.

P&L Trends: Less is More

One mistake many companies make is confusing detail with better analysis. I often see models that have 50-100 line items for expenses and show this by month for 3 or more years out… but show one or no years of history. What this does is waste a great deal of time on predicting things that are inconsequential and controllable (by month), while eliminating all perspective. Things like seasonality are lost if one is unable to view 3 years of revenue at a time without scrolling from page to page. Of course, for the current year’s budget it is appropriate for management to establish monthly expectations in detail, but for any long-term planning, success revolves around revenue, gross margins, marketing/sales spend and the number of employees. For some companies that are deep technology players there may be significant costs in R&D other than payroll, but this is the exception. By using a simple formula for G&A based on the number of employees, the board can apply a sanity check on whether cost estimates in the long-term model will be on target assuming revenue is on target. So why spend excessive time on nits? Aggregating cost frees up time for better understanding how and why revenue will ramp, the relationship between revenue types and gross margin, the cost of acquiring a customer, the lifetime value of a customer and the average spend per employee.

In a similar way, the board is well served by viewing a simple P&L by quarter for 2 prior years plus the current one (with a forecast of remaining quarters). The lines could be:

Table1: P&L by Quarter

A second version of the P&L should be produced for budget comparison purposes. It should have the same rows but have the columns be current period actual, current period budget, year to date (YTD) actual, year to date budget, current full year forecast, budget for the full year.

Table 2: P&L Actual / Budget Comparison

Tracking MRR and LTR

For any SaaS/Subscription company (I’ll simply refer to this as SaaS going forward) MRR growth is the lifeblood of the company with two caveats: excessive churn makes MRR less valuable and excessive cost in growing MRR also leads to deceptive prosperity. More about that further on. MRR should be viewed on a rolling basis. It can be done by quarter for the board but by month for the management team. Doing it by quarter for the board enables seeing a 3-year trend on one page and gives the board sufficient perspective for oversight. Management needs to track this monthly to better manage the business. A relatively simple set of KPIs for each of 12 quarterly periods would be:

Table 3: MRR and Retention

Calculating Life Time Revenue through Cohort Analysis

The detailed method of calculating LTR does not need to be shown in every board package but should be included at least once per year, but calculated monthly for management.

The LTR calculation uses a grid where the columns would be the various Quarterly cohorts, that is all customers that first purchased that quarter (management might also do this using monthly instead of quarterly). This analysis can be applied to non-SaaS companies as well as SaaS entities. The first row would be the number of customers in the cohort. The next row would be the first month’s revenue for the cohort, the next the second months revenue, and so on until reaching 36 months (or whatever number the board prefers for B2B…I prefer 60 months). The next row would be the total for the full period and the final row would be the average Lifetime Revenue, LTR, per member of the cohort.

Table 4: Customer Lifetime Revenue

A second table would replicate the grid but show average per member of the cohort for each month (row). That table allows comparisons of cohorts to see if the average revenue of a newer cohort is getting better or worse than older ones for month 2 or month 6 or month 36, etc.

Table 5: Average Revenue per Cohort

Cohorts that have a full 36 months of data need to be at least 36 months old. What this means is that more recent cohorts will not have a full set of information but still can be used to see what trends have occurred. For example, is the second months average revenue for a current cohort much less than it was for a cohort one year ago? While newer cohorts do not have full sets of monthly revenue data, they still are very relevant in calculating more recent LTR. This can be done by using average monthly declines in sequential months and applying them to cohorts with fewer months of data.

Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)

Calculating CAC is done in a variety of ways and is quite different for customers acquired electronically versus those obtained by a sales force.  Many companies I’ve seen have a combination of the two.

Marketing used to generate leads should always be considered part of CAC. The marketing cost in a month first is divided by the number of leads to generate a cost/lead. The next step is to estimate the conversion rate of leads to customers. A simple table would be as follows:

Table 6: Customer Acquisition Costs

table 6.1

For an eCommerce company, the additional cost to convert might be one free month of product or a heavily subsidized price for the first month. If the customer is getting the item before becoming a regular paying customer than the CAC would be:

CAC = MCTC / the percent that converts from the promotional trial to a paying customer.

CAC when a Sales Force is Involved

For many eCommerce companies and B2B companies that sell electronically, marketing is the primary cost involved in acquiring a paying customer. For those utilizing a sales force, the marketing expense plus the sales expense must be accumulated to determine CAC.

Typically, what this means is steps 1 through 3 above would still be used to determine CPL, but step 1 above might include marketing personnel used to generate leads plus external marketing spend:

  1. CPL (cost per lead) as above
  2. Sales Cost = current month’s cost of the sales force including T&E
  3. New Customers in the month = NC
  4. Conversion Rate to Customer = NC/number of leads= Y%
  5. CAC = CPL/Y% + (Sales Cost)/NC

There are many nuances ignored in the simple method shown. For example, some leads may take many months to close. Some may go through a pilot before closing. Therefore, there are more sophisticated methods of calculating CAC but using this method would begin the process of understanding an important indicator of efficiency of customer acquisition.

Gross Margin (GM) is a Critical Part of the Equation

While revenue is obviously an important measure of success, not all revenue is the same. Revenue that generates 90% gross margin is a lot more valuable per dollar than revenue that generates 15% gross margin. When measuring a company’s potential for future success it’s important to understand what level of revenue is required to reach profitability. A first step is understanding how gross margin may evolve. When a business scales there are many opportunities to improve margins:

  • Larger volumes may lead to larger discounts from suppliers
  • Larger volumes for products that are software/content may lower the hosting cost as a percent of revenue
  • Shipping to a larger number of customers may allow opening additional distribution centers (DCs) to facilitate serving customers from a DC closer to their location lowering shipping cost
  • Larger volumes may mean improved efficiency in the warehouse. For example, it may make more automation cost effective

When forecasting gross margin, it is important to be cautious in predicting some of these savings. The board should question radical changes in GM in the forecast. Certain efficiencies should be seen in a quarterly trend, and a marked improvement from the trend needs to be justified. The more significant jump in GM from a second DC can be calculated by looking at the change in shipping rates for customers that will be serviced from the new DC vs what rates are for these customers from the existing one.

Calculating LTV (Lifetime Value)

Gross Margin, by itself may be off as a measure of variable profits of a customer. If payment is by credit card, then the credit card cost per customer is part of variable costs. Some companies do not include shipping charges as part of cost of goods, but they should always be part of variable cost. Customer service cost is typically another cost that rises in proportion to the number of customers. So:

Variable cost = Cost of Goods sold plus any cost that varies directly with sales

Variable Profit = Revenue – Variable Cost

Variable Profit% (VP%) = (Variable Profit)/Revenue

LTV = LTR x VP%

The calculation of VP% should be based on current numbers as they will apply going forward. Determining a company’s marketing efficiency requires comparing LTV to the cost of customer acquisition. As mentioned earlier in the post, if the CAC is too large a proportion of LTV, a company may be showing deceptive (profitless) growth. So, the next set of KPIs address marketing efficiency.

Marketing Efficiency

It does not make sense to invest in an inefficient company as they will burn through capital at a rapid rate and will find it difficult to become profitable. A key measure of efficiency is the relationship between LTV and CAC or LTV/CAC. Essentially this is how many dollars of variable profit the company will make for every dollar it spends on marketing and sales. A ratio of 5 or more usually means the company is efficient. The period used for calculating LTR will influence this number. Since churn tends to be much lower for B2B companies, 5 years is often used to calculate LTR and LTV. But, using 5 years means waiting longer to receive resulting profits and can obscure cash flow implications of slower recovery of CAC. So, a second metric important to understand burn is how long it takes to recover CAC:

CAC Recovery Time = number of months until variable profit equals the CAC

The longer the CAC recovery time, the more capital required to finance growth. Of course, existing customers are also contributing to the month’s revenue alongside new customers. So, another interesting KPI is contribution margin which measures the current state of balance between marketing/sales and Variable Profits:

Contribution Margin = Variable Profits – Sales and Marketing Cost

Early on this number will be negative as there aren’t enough older customers to cover the investment in new ones. But eventually the contribution margin in a month needs to turn positive. To reach profitability it needs to exceed all other costs of the business (G&A, R&D, etc.). By reducing a month’s marketing cost, a company can improve contribution margin that month at the expense of sequential growth… which is why this is a balancing act.

I realize this post is long but wanted to include a substantial portion of KPIs in one post. However, I’ll leave more detailed measurement of sales force productivity and deeper analysis of several of the KPIs discussed here for one or more future posts.

Soundbytes

I’ll begin by apologizing for a midyear brag, but I always tell others to enjoy success and therefore am about to do that myself. In my top ten predictions for 2018 I included a market prediction and 4 stock predictions. I was feeling pretty good that they were all working well when I started to create this post. However, the stock prices for high growth stocks can experience serious shifts in very short periods. Facebook and Tesla both had (what I consider) minor shortfalls against expectations in the 10 days since and have subsequently declined quite a bit in that period. But given the strength of my other two recommendations, Amazon and Stitchfix, the four still have an average gain of 15% as of July 27. Since I’ve only felt comfortable predicting the market when it was easy (after 9/11 and after the 2008 mortgage blowup), I was nervous about predicting the S&P would be up this year as it was a closer call and was somewhat controversial given the length of the bull market prior to this year. But it seemed obvious that the new tax law would be very positive for corporate earnings. So, I thought the S&P would be up despite the likelihood of rising interest rates. So far, it is ahead 4.4% year to date driven by stronger earnings. Since I always fear that my record of annual wins can’t continue I wanted to take a midyear victory lap just in case everything collapses in the second half of the year (which I don’t expect but always fear). So I continue to hold all 4 stocks and in fact bought a bit more Facebook today.

Highlights From the 2018 Azure CEO Summit

It’s All About the Network

On June 13th, 2018, Azure held our 12th Annual CEO Summit, hosted at the Citrix Templeton Conference Center. Success for our companies is typically predicated on the breadth and depth of their networks in Silicon Valley and beyond. This event is a cornerstone of how we support this, providing a highly curated, facilitated opportunity to expand connections for business development, fund-raising, and strategic partner dialogue. It is also an opportunity for our portfolio companies to develop strong relationships with our investors, networks, and among each other, which provides business partnership opportunities, potential future investors and is a first step towards engaging with future acquirers. An incidental benefit to Azure is that the appeal of the event also leads to expansion of our own network.

Throughout the day, we had participation of nearly 70 corporate entities, venture funds and financial institutions, including Amazon, Google, Apple, P&G, Citrix, Ericsson, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Trinet, Arcserv, Citibank, SVB, and UBS, in addition to 28 of Azure’s portfolio companies, and six Canadian startups which were invited as part of Azure’s Canada-Bridge initiative. The Canadian companies were selected from a group of about 100 nominated by Canadian VCs. At the event, the six winners gained access to Azure’s Silicon Valley network not only through participation along with our portfolio CEOs in the approximately 370 one-on-one meetings we arranged but also through networking opportunities throughout the rest of the day and into the evening.

Nearly all the Azure portfolio companies participating gave demo-day style presentations to the full audience, which expanded the reach of their message beyond the more intimate one-on-one meetings.

Visionary Keynote Speakers

Azure was quite fortunate in once again having several visionary keynote speakers who provided inspiration and thought-provoking inputs from their experiences as highly successful entrepreneurs and investors.

The first was David Ko, currently President and COO, Rally Health, and formerly SVP, Yahoo and COO, Zynga (famous for Farmville which peaked at 34.5 million daily active users). David provided his vision for the consumer-focused future for managing health and shared lessons learned from his journeys both in taking Zynga public and in leading Rally Health as it has grown in eight years from a company with low single-digit millions in revenue to more than a billion in revenue. Rally works with more than 200,000 employers to help drive employee engagement in their health. Accessible to more than 35 million people, Rally’s digital platform and solutions help people adopt healthier lifestyles, select health benefits, and choose the best doctor at the right price for their needs. The company’s wellness solution focuses on four key areas to improve health: nutrition, exercise, stress reduction and preventive health. Given the astronomical increase in the portion of U.S. GDP spent on healthcare, David pointed out how critical it is to help individuals improve their “wellness” tactics. He believes this is one of the waves of the future to curb further acceleration of healthcare cost.

Shai Agassi, Former President, Product and Technology Group, SAP, and former CEO, Better Place responded to questions posed by me and the audience during a fireside chat.  Shai first shared his experience of building a business that successfully became integrated into SAP, but the heart of his session revolved around his perspectives on the evolution of the electric car and the future emergence of (safe) automated vehicles. He painted a vivid picture of what the oncoming transition to a new generation of vehicles means for the future, where automated, electric cars will become the norm (in 5-10 years). As a result, he believes people will reduce their use of their own cars and instead, use an “automated Uber-like service” for much of their transportation. In such a world, many people won’t own a car and for those that do, their autos will have much longer useful lives thereby reducing the need to replace cars with the same frequency. If he proves correct, this would clearly have major ramifications for auto manufacturers and the oil industry.

Our final keynote speaker was Ron Suber, President Emeritus, Prosper Marketplace, who is referred to as “The Godfather of Fintech”.  Ron shared with us his perspective that we’re at the beginning stages of the ‘Golden Age of Fintech’ which he believes will be a 20-year cycle. He expects to continue to see a migration to digital, accessible platforms driven by innovation by existing players and new entrants to the market that will disrupt the incumbents. What must be scary to incumbents is that the new entrants in fintech include tech behemoths like Paypal, Google, Amazon, Tencent (owner of WeChat), Facebook and Apple.  While traditional banks may have access to several hundred million customers, these players can leverage their existing reach into relationships with billions of potential customers. For example,  WeChat and Instagram have both recently surpassed one billion users. With digital/mobile purchasing continuing to gain market share, a player like Apple can nearly force its users to include Apple Pay as one of their apps giving Apple some unique competitive advantages. Amazon and WeChat (in China) are in a strong position to leverage their user bases.

All That Plus a Great Dinner

After an action packed daytime agenda, the Summit concluded with a casual cocktail hour and outdoor dinner in Atherton. Most attendees joined, and additional members of the Azure network were invited as well. The dinner enabled significant networking to continue and provided an additional forum for some who were not able to be at the daytime event to meet some of our portfolio executives.

The Bottom Line – It’s About Results

How do we measure the success of the Summit? We consider it successful if several of our companies garner potential investors, strike business development deals, etc.  As I write this, only nine days after the event, we already know of a number of investment follow-ups, more than ten business-development deals being discussed, and multiple debt financing conversations. Investment banks and corporate players have increased awareness of the quality of numerous companies who presented. Needless to say, Azure is pleased with the bottom line.

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

Ten Predictions for 2018

In my recap of 2017 predictions I pointed out how boring my stock predictions have been with Tesla and Facebook on my list every year since 2013 and Amazon on for two of the past three years. But what I learned on Wall Street is that sticking with companies that have strong competitive advantages in a potentially mega-sized market can create great performance over time (assuming one is correct)! So here we go again, because as stated in my January 5 post, I am again including Tesla, Facebook and Amazon in my Top ten list for 2018. I believe they each continue to offer strong upside, as explained below. I’m also adding a younger company, with a modest market cap, thus more potential upside coupled with more risk. The company is Stitch Fix, an early leader in providing women with the ability to shop for fashion-forward clothes at home. My belief in the four companies is backed up by my having an equity position in each of them.

I’m expecting the four stocks to outperform the market. So, in a steeply declining market, out-performance might occur with the stock itself being down (but less than the market). Having mentioned the possibility of a down market, I’m predicting the market will rise this year. This is a bit scary for me, as predicting the market as a whole is not my specialty.

We’ll start with the stock picks (with January 2 opening prices of stocks shown in parenthesis) and then move on to the remainder of my 10 predictions.

1. Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market (it opened the year at $312/share).

The good news and bad news on Tesla is the delays in production of the Model 3. The good part is that we can still look forward to massive increases in the number of cars the company sells once Tesla gets production ramping (I estimate the Model 3 backlog is well in excess of 500,000 units going into 2018 and demand appears to be growing). In 2017, Tesla shipped between 80,000 and 100,000 vehicles with revenue up 30% in Q3 without help from the model 3. If the company is successful at ramping capacity (and acquiring needed parts), it expects to reach a production rate of 5,000 cars per week by the end of Q1 and 10,000 by the end of the year. That could mean that the number of units produced in Q4 2018 will be more than four times that sold in Q4 2017 (with revenue about 2.0-2.5x due to the Model 3 being a lower priced car). Additionally, while it is modest compared to revenue from selling autos, the company appears to be the leader in battery production. It recently announced the largest battery deal ever, a $50 million contract (now completed on time) to supply what is essentially a massive backup battery complex for energy to Southern Australia. While this type of project is unlikely to be a major portion of revenue in the near term, it can add to Tesla’s growth rate and profitability.

2. Facebook stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market (it opened the year at $182/share).

The core Facebook user base growth has slowed considerably but Facebook has a product portfolio that includes Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus. This gives Facebook multiple opportunities for revenue growth: Improve the revenue per DAU (daily active user) on Facebook itself; increase efforts to monetize Instagram and WhatsApp in more meaningful ways; and build the install base of Oculus. Facebook advertising rates have been increasing steadily as more mainstream companies shift budget from traditional advertising to Facebook, especially in view of declining TV viewership coupled with increased use of DVRs (allowing viewers to skip ads). Higher advertising rates, combined with modest growth in DAUs, should lead to continued strong revenue growth. And while the Oculus product did not get out of the gate as fast as expected, it began picking up steam in Q3 2017 after Facebook reduced prices. At 210,000 units for the quarter it may have contributed up to 5% of Q3 revenue. The wild card here is if a “killer app” (a software application that becomes a must have) launches that is only available on the Oculus, sales of Oculus could jump substantially in a short time.

3. Amazon stock appreciation will outpace the market (it opened the year at $1188/share).

Amazon, remarkably, increased its revenue growth rate in 2017 as compared to 2016. This is unusual for companies of this size. In 2018, we expect online to continue to pick up share in retail and Amazon to gain more share of online. The acquisition of Whole Foods will add approximately $4B per quarter in revenue, boosting year/year revenue growth of Amazon an additional 9%-11% per quarter, if Whole Foods revenue remains flattish. If Amazon achieves organic growth of 25% (in Q3 it was 29% so that would be a drop) in 2018, this would put the 3 quarters starting in Q4 2017 at about 35% growth. While we do expect Amazon to boost Whole Foods revenue, that is not required to reach those levels. In Q4 2018, reported revenue will return to organic growth levels. The Amazon story also features two other important growth drivers. First, I expect the Echo to have another substantial growth year and continue to emerge as a new platform in the home. Additionally, Amazon appears poised to benefit from continued business migration to the cloud coupled with increased market share and higher average revenue per cloud customer. This will be driven by modest price increases and introduction of more services as part of its cloud offering. The success of the Amazon Echo with industry leading voice technology should continue to provide another boost to Amazon’s revenue. Additionally, having a large footprint of physical stores will allow Amazon to increase distribution of many products.

4. Stitch Fix stock appreciation will outpace the market (it opened the year at $25/share and is at the same level as I write this post).

Stitch Fix is my riskiest stock forecast. As a new public company, it has yet to establish a track record of performance that one can depend upon. On the other hand, it’s the early leader in a massive market that will increasingly move online, at-home shopping for fashion forward clothes. The number of people who prefer shopping at home to going to a physical store is on the increase. The type of goods they wish to buy expands every year. Now, clothing is becoming a new category on the rapid rise (it grew from 11% of overall clothing retail sales in 2011 to 19% in 2016). It is important for women buying this way to feel that the provider understands what they want and facilitates making it easy to obtain clothes they prefer. Stitch Fix uses substantial data analysis to personalize each box it sends a customer. The woman can try them on, keep (and pay for) those they like, and return the rest very easily.

5. The stock market will rise in 2018 (the S&P opened the year at 2,696 on January 2).

While I have been accurate on recommending individual stocks over a long period, I rarely believe that I understand what will happen to the overall market. Two prior exceptions were after 9/11 and after the 2008 mortgage crisis generated meltdown. I was correct both times but those seemed like easy calls. So, it is with great trepidation that I’m including this prediction as it is based on logic and I know the market does not always follow logic! To put it simply, the new tax bill is quite favorable to corporations and therefore should boost after-tax earnings. What larger corporations pay is often a blend of taxes on U.S. earnings and those on earnings in various countries outside the U.S. There can be numerous other factors as well. Companies like Microsoft have lower blended tax rates because much of R&D and corporate overhead is in the United States and several of its key products are sold out of a subsidiary in a low tax location, thereby lowering the portion of pre-tax earnings here. This and other factors (like tax benefits in fiscal 2017 from previous phone business losses) led to blended tax rates in fiscal 2015, 2016 and 2017 of 34%, 15% and 8%, respectively. Walmart, on the other hand, generated over 75% of its pre-tax earnings in the United States over the past three fiscal years, so their blended rate was over 30% in each of those years

Table 1: Walmart Blended Tax Rates 2015-2017

The degree to which any specific company’s pre-tax earnings mix changes between the United States and other countries is unpredictable to me, so I’m providing a table showing the impact on after-tax earnings growth for theoretical companies instead. Table 2 shows the impact of lowering the U.S. corporate from 35% to 21% on four example companies. To provide context, I show two companies growing pre-tax earnings by 10% and two companies by 30%. If blended tax rates didn’t change, EPS would grow by the same amount as pre-tax earnings. For Companies 1 and 3, Table 2 shows what the increase in earnings would be if their blended 2017 tax rate was 35% and 2018 shifts to 21%. For companies 2 and 4, Table 2 shows what the increase in earnings would be if the 2017 rate was 30% (Walmart’s blended rate the past three years) and the 2018 blended rate is 20%.

Table 2: Impact on After-Tax Earnings Growth

As you can see, companies that have the majority of 2018 pre-tax earnings subject to the full U.S. tax rate could experience EPS growth 15%-30% above their pre-tax earnings growth. On the other hand, if a company has a minimal amount of earnings in the U.S. (like the 5% of earnings Microsoft had in fiscal 2017), the benefit will be minimal. Whatever benefits do accrue will also boost cash, leading to potential investments that could help future earnings.  If companies that have maximum benefits from this have no decline in their P/E ratio, this would mean a substantial increase in their share price, thus the forecast of an up market. But as I learned on Wall Street, it’s important to sight risk. The biggest risks to this forecast are the expected rise in interest rates this year (which usually is negative for the market) and the fact that the market is already at all-time highs.

6. Battles between the federal government and states will continue over marijuana use but the cannabis industry will emerge as one to invest in.

The battle over legalization of Marijuana reached a turning point in 2017 as polls showed that over 60% of Americans now favor full legalization (as compared to 12% in 1969). Prior to 2000, only three states (California, Oregon and Maine) had made medical cannabis legal. Now 29 states have made it legal for medical use and six have legalized sale for recreational use. Given the swing in voter sentiment (and a need for additional sources of tax revenue), more states are moving towards legalization for recreational and medical purposes. This has put the “legal” marijuana industry on a torrid growth curve. In Colorado, one of the first states to broadly legalize use, revenue is over $1 billion per year and overall 2017 industry revenue is estimated at nearly $8 billion, up 20% year/year. Given expected legalization by more states and the ability to market product openly once it is legal, New Frontier Data predicts that industry revenue will more than triple by 2025. The industry is making a strong case that medical use has compelling results for a wide variety of illnesses and high margin, medical use is forecast to generate over 50% of the 2025 revenue. Given this backdrop, public cannabis companies have had very strong performance. Despite this, in 2016, VCs only invested about $49 million in the sector. We expect that number to escalate dramatically in 2017 through 2019. While public cannabis stocks are trading at nosebleed valuations, they could have continued strong performance as market share consolidates and more states (and Canada) head towards legalization. One caveat to this is that Federal law still makes marijuana use illegal and the Trump administration is adopting a more aggressive policy towards pursuing producers, even in states that have made use legal. The states that have legalized marijuana use are gearing up to battle the federal government.

7. At least one city will announce a new approach to Urban transport

Traffic congestion in cities continues to worsen. Our post on December 14, 2017 discussed a new approach to urban transportation, utilizing small footprint automated cars (one to two passengers, no trunk, no driver) in a dedicated corridor. This appears much more cost effective than a Rapid Bus Transit solution and far more affordable than new subway lines. As discussed in that post, Uber and other ride services increase traffic and don’t appear to be a solution. The thought that automating these vehicles will relieve pressure is overly optimistic. I expect at least one city to commit to testing the method discussed in the December post before the end of this year – it is unlikely to be a U.S. city. The approach outlined in that post is one of several that is likely to be tried over the coming years as new thinking is clearly needed to prevent the traffic congestion that makes cities less livable.

8. Offline retailers will increase the velocity of moving towards omnichannel.

Retailers will adopt more of a multi-pronged approach to increasing their participation in e-commerce. I expect this to include:

  • An increased pace of acquisition of e-commerce companies, technologies and brands with Walmart leading the way. Walmart and others need to participate more heavily in online as their core offline business continues to lose share to online. In 2017, Walmart made several large acquisitions and has emerged as the leader among large retailers in moving online. This, in turn, has helped its stock performance. After a stellar 12 months in which the stock was up over 40%, it finally exceeded its January 2015 high of $89 per share (it reached $101/share as we are finalizing the post). I expect Walmart and others in physical retail to make acquisitions that are meaningful in 2018 so as to speed up the transformation of their businesses to an omnichannel approach.
  • Collaborating to introduce more online/technology into their physical stores (which Amazon is likely to do in Whole Foods stores). This can take the form of screens in the stores to order online (a la William Sonoma), having online purchases shipped to your local store (already done by Nordstrom) and adding substantial ability to use technology to create personalized items right at the store, which would subsequently be produced and shipped by a partner.

9. Social commerce will begin to emerge as a new category.

Many e-commerce sites have added elements of social, and many social sites have begun trying to sell various products. But few of these have a fully integrated social approach to e-commerce. The elements of a social approach to e-commerce include:

  • A feed-based user experience
  • Friends’ actions impact your feed
  • Following trend setters to see what they are buying, wearing, and favoring
  • Notifications based on your likes and tastes
  • One click to buy
  • Following particular stores and/or friends

I expect to see existing e-commerce players adding more elements of social, existing social players improving their approach to commerce and a rising trend of emerging companies focused on fully integrated social commerce.

10. “The Empire Strikes Back”: automobile manufacturers will begin to take steps to reclaim use of its GPS.

It is almost shameful that automobile manufacturers, other than Tesla, have lost substantial usage of their onboard GPS systems as many people use their cell phones or a small device to run Google, Waze (owned by Google) or Garmin instead of the larger screen in their car. In the hundreds of times I’ve taken an Uber or Lyft, I’ve never seen the driver use their car’s system. To modernize their existing systems, manufacturers may need to license software from a third party. Several companies are offering next generation products that claim to replicate the optimization offered by Waze but also add new features that go beyond it like offering to order coffee and other items to enable the driver to stop at a nearby location and have the product prepaid and waiting for them. In addition to adding value to the user, this also leads to a lead-gen revenue opportunity. In 2018, I expect one or more auto manufacturers to commit to including a third-party product in one or more of their models.

Soundbytes

Tesla model 3 sample car generates huge buzz at Stanford Mall in Menlo Park California. This past weekend my wife and I experienced something we had not seen before – a substantial line of people waiting to check out a car, one of the first Model 3 cars seen live. We were walking through the Stanford Mall where Tesla has a “Guide Store” and came upon a line of about 60 people willing to wait a few hours to get to check out one of the two Model 3’s available for perusal in California (the other was in L.A.). An hour later we came back, and the line had grown to 80 people. To be clear, the car was not available for a test drive, only for seeing it, sitting in it, finding out more info, etc. Given the buzz involved, it seems to me that as other locations are given Model 3 cars to look at, the number of people ordering a Model 3 each week might increase faster than Tesla’s capacity to fulfill.

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).

Using Technology to Revolutionize Urban Transit

Winter Traffic Photo

Worsening traffic requires new solutions

As our population increases, the traffic congestion in cities continues to worsen. In the Bay Area my commute into the city now takes about 20% longer than it did 10 years ago, and driving outside of typical rush hours is now often a major problem. In New York, the subway system helps quite a bit, but most of Manhattan is gridlocked for much of the day.

The two key ways of relieving cities from traffic snarl are:

  1. Reduce the number of vehicles on city streets
  2. Increase the speed at which vehicles move through city streets

Metro areas have been experimenting with different measures to improve car speed, such as:

  1. Encouraging carpooling and implementing high occupancy vehicle lanes on arteries that lead to urban centers
  2. Converting more streets to one-way with longer periods of green lights
  3. Prohibiting turns onto many streets as turning cars often cause congestion

No matter what a city does, traffic will continue to get worse unless compelling and effective urban transportation systems are created and/or enhanced. With that in mind, this post will review current alternatives and discuss various ways of attacking this problem.

Ride sharing services have increased congestion

Uber and Lyft have not helped relieve congestion. They have probably even led to increasing it, as so many rideshare vehicles are cruising the streets while awaiting their next ride. While the escalation of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft may have reduced the number of people who commute using their own car to work, they have merely substituted an Uber driver for a personal driver. Commuters parked their cars when arriving at work while ridesharing drivers continue to cruise after dropping off a passenger, so the real benefit here has been in reducing demand for parking, not improving traffic congestion.

A simple way to think about this is that the total cars on the street at any point in time consists of those with someone going to a destination plus those cruising awaiting picking up a passenger. Uber does not reduce the number of people going to a destination by car (and probably increases it as some Uber riders would have taken public transportation if not for Uber).

The use of optimal traffic-aware routing GPS apps like Waze doesn’t reduce traffic but spreads it more evenly among alternate routes, therefore providing a modest increase in the speed that vehicles move through city streets. The thought that automating these vehicles will relieve pressure is unrealistic, as automated vehicles will still be subject to the same movement as those with drivers (who use Waze). Automating ridesharing cars can modestly reduce the number of cruising vehicles, as Uber and Lyft can optimize the number that remain in cruise mode. However, this will not reduce the number of cars transporting someone to a destination. So, it is clear to me that ridesharing services increase rather than reduce the number of vehicles on city streets and will continue to do so even when they are driverless.

Metro rail systems effectively reduce traffic but are expensive and can take decades to implement

Realistically, improving traffic flow requires cities to enhance their urban transport system, thereby reducing the number of vehicles on their streets. There are several historic alternatives but the only one that can move significant numbers of passengers from point A to point B without impacting other traffic is a rail system. However, construction of a rail system is costly, highly disruptive, and can take decades to go from concept to completion. For example, the New York City Second Avenue Line was tentatively approved in 1919. It is educational to read the history of reasons for delays, but the actual project didn’t begin until 2005 despite many millions of dollars being spent on planning, well before that date. The first construction commenced in April 2007. The first phase of the construction cost $4.5 billion and included 3 stations and 2 miles of tunnels. This phase was complete, and the line opened in January 2017. By May daily ridership was approximately 176,000 passengers. A second phase is projected to cost an additional $6 billion, add 1.5 more miles to the line and be completed 10-12 years from now (assuming no delays). Phase 1 and 2 together from actual start to hopeful finish will be over two decades from the 2005 start date…and about a century from when the line was first considered!

Dedicated bus rapid transit, less costly and less effective

Most urban transportation networks include bus lines through city streets. While buses do reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, they have several challenges that keep them from being the most efficient method of urban transport:

  1. They need to stop at traffic lights, slowing down passenger movement
  2. When they stop to let one passenger on or off, all other passengers are delayed
  3. They are very large and often cause other street traffic to be forced to slow down

One way of improving bus efficiency is a Dedicated Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT). Such a system creates a dedicated corridor for buses to use. A key to increasing the number of passengers such a system can transport is to remove them from normal traffic (thus the dedicated lanes) and to reduce or eliminate the need to stop for traffic lights by either altering the timing to automatically accommodate minimal stoppage of the buses or by creating overpasses and/or underpasses. If traffic lights are altered, the bus doesn’t stop for a traffic light but that can mean cross traffic stops longer, thus increasing cross traffic congestion. Elimination of interference using underpasses and/or overpasses at each intersection can be quite costly given the substantial size of buses. San Francisco has adopted the first, less optimal, less costly, approach along a two-mile corridor of Van Ness Avenue. The cost will still be over $200 million (excluding new buses) and it is expected to increase ridership from about 16,000 passengers per day to as much as 22,000 (which I’m estimating translates to 2,000-3,000 passengers per hour in each direction during peak hours). Given the increased time cross traffic will need to wait, it isn’t clear how much actual benefit will occur.

Will Automated Car Rapid Transit (ACRT) be the most cost effective solution?

I recently met with a company that expects to create a new alternative using very small automated car rapid transit (ACRT) that costs a fraction of and has more than double the capacity of a BRT.  The basic concept is to create a corridor similar to that of a BRT, utilizing underpasses under some streets and bridges over other streets. Therefore, cross traffic would not be affected by longer traffic light stoppages. Since the size of an underpass (tunnel) to accommodate a very small car is a fraction of that of a very large bus, so is the cost. The cars would be specially designed driverless automated cars that have no trunk, no back seats and hold one or two passengers. The same 3.5 to 4.0-meter-wide lane needed for a BRT would be sufficient for more than two lanes of such cars. Since the cars would be autonomous, speed and distance between cars could be controlled so that all cars in the corridor move at 30 miles per hour unless they exited. Since there would be overpasses and underpasses across each cross street, the cars would not stop for lights. Each vehicle would hold one or two passengers going to the same stop, so the car would not slow until it reached that destination. When it did, it would pull off the road without reducing speed until it was on the exit ramp.

The company claims that it will have the capacity to transport 10,000 passengers per hour per lane with the same setup as the Van Ness corridor if underpasses and overpasses were added. Since a capacity of 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction would provide significant excess capacity compared to likely usage, 2 lanes (3 meters in total width instead of 7-8 meters) is all that such a system would require. The reduced width would reduce construction cost while still providing excess capacity. Passengers would arrive at destinations much sooner than by bus as the autos would get there at 30 miles per hour without stopping even once. This translates to a 2-mile trip taking 4 minutes! Compare that to any experience you have had taking a bus.  The speed of movement also helps make each vehicle available to many more passengers during a day. While it is still unproven, this technology appears to offer significant cost/benefit vs other alternatives.

Conclusion

The population expansion within urban areas will continue to drive increased traffic unless additional solutions are implemented. If it works as well in practice as it does in theory, an ACRT like the one described above offers one potential way of improving transport efficiency. However, this is only one of many potential approaches to solving the problem of increased congestion. Regardless of the technology used, this is a space where innovation must happen if cities are to remain livable. While investment in underground rail is also a potential way of mitigating the problem, it will remain an extremely costly alternative unless innovation occurs in that domain.