Podcast: Amazon

Profitless Ponzi scheme, or the greatest company in the world led by an absolute genius? Amazon is a polarizing company. Quarter after quarter, as it grows ever larger gobbling up categories and adding businesses, Amazon manages to produce exactly no profit. It’s as if its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos engineered it that way. He has, and Bezos will continue on the same profitless path, says Benedict Evans in conversation with Ben Horowitz in this segment of the a16z podcast. Benedict and Ben (yeah, we know, two Bens) examine the company Bezos has constructed, and why, for Bezos at least as opposed to nervous investors, it works so well. How one of the world's great founders gets away with building a massive public company his way. 

See also my blog post

Why Amazon Has No Profits (And Why It Works)

(I also did a podcast with Ben Horowitz discussing these themes: see here)

Amazon has a tendency to polarize people. On one hand, there is the ruthless, relentless, ferociously efficient company that’s building the Sears Roebuck of the 21st Century. But on the other, there is the fact that almost 20 years after it was launched, it has yet to report a meaningful profit. This chart captures the contradiction pretty well - massive revenue growth, no profits, or so it would seem. But actually, neither of these lines gives you a good sense of what’s really going on.

Amazon discloses revenue in three segments - Media, Electronics & General Merchandise (‘EGM') and ‘Other’, which is mostly AWS. As this chart shows, these look very different (this and most of the following ones use ’TTM’ - trailing 12 months, which smooths out the seasonal fluctuations and makes it easier to see the underlying trends). The media business is still growing, but it’s the general merchandise that has powered the explosion in revenue in the past few years. Meanwhile, the ‘Other' line is growing but is still much smaller.

Splitting out the detail, we can see this trend both in North America (NA) and internationally...

Though the takeoff is particularly strong in the USA.

Media overall was only 25% of Amazon’s revenue last quarter, and 20% of North America.

And if we go back to ‘Other’ and zoom in, the growth is pretty dramatic there too.

It seems pretty likely that these businesses, selling very different products bought with different bargaining positions to different people with different shipping costs, have different margin potential.

This still doesn’t really give an accurate picture, though. Amazon is in fact organized not just in these segments, but in dozens and dozens of separate teams, each with their own internal P&L and a high degree of autonomy. So, say, shoes in Germany, electronics in France or makeup in the USA are all different teams. Each of these businesses, incidentally, sets its own prices. Meanwhile, all of these businesses are at different stages of maturity. Some are relatively old, and well established, and growing slower, and are profitable. Others are new startups building their business and losing money as they do so, like any other new business. Some are very profitable, and some sell at cost or at as loss-leaders to drive traffic and loyalty to the site. Books are a good example. There’s a widespread perception that Amazon sells books at a loss, but the average sales price actually seems to be very close to physical retailers - it discounts some books, but not all, and despite all the argument in the Agency lawsuits, quite how many and how much is (deliberately) as clear as mud.

Amazon is a bundle.

The clearest  expression of this is Prime, in which (amongst other things) entertainment content is included at a high fixed cost to Amazon (buying the rights) but no marginal cost beyond bandwidth, as a way to enhance the appeal of being a Prime ‘member'. Prime membership in turn draws people to switch more and more of their online and offline spending to Amazon. Trying to look at the profitability of the video alone misses the point.

And then there are the third party sales. Just as AWS is a platform both for Amazon's own internal technologies and for thousands of startups, so too the logistics and commerce infrastructure themselves are a platform for lots and lots of different Amazon businesses, and also for lots of other companies selling physical products through Amazon’s site. Third party sales of products through Amazon’s own platform are now 40% of unit sales, and the fees charged to these vendors are now 20% of Amazon’s revenue.

This means, in passing, that for close to half of the units sold on Amazon.com, Amazon does not set the price, it just takes a margin. This alone should point to the weakness of the idea that Amazon’s growth is based on selling at cost or at a loss.

The tricky thing about these third party (‘3P’) sales is that Amazon only recognizes revenue from the services it provides to those companies, not the value of the goods sold. So if you buy a pair of shoes on Amazon from a third party, Amazon might collect payment through your Amazon account and ship them from its warehouse using its shipping partners - but only show the shipping and payment fees it charged to the shoe vendor as revenue. It does not disclose the gross revenue (‘GMV’). Given that (as it does disclose) third party sales tend to have a higher unit value, this means that the total value of goods that pass though Amazon with Amazon taking a percentage is perhaps double the revenue that Amazon actually reports. So, the revenue line is not really telling you what's going on, and this is also one reason why gross margin is pretty misleading too. Gross profit has risen from 22.4% in 2011 to 27.2% in 2013, but this does not really reflect a change in consumer pricing and margins thereof, but rather this change in mix.

So, we have dozens of separate businesses within Amazon, and over two million third party seller accounts, all sitting on top of the Amazon fulfillment and commerce platform. Some of them are mature and profitable, and some are not. And someone at Amazon has the job of making sure that each quarter, this nets out to as close to zero as possible, at least as far as net income goes. That is, the problem with net income is that all it tells us is that every quarter, Amazon spends whatever’s left over to get the number to zero or thereabouts. There’s really no other way to achieve that sort of consistency.

If you listen closely, Amazon itself tells us this. The image below comes straight from Amazon - originally it was a napkin sketch by Jeff Bezos. Note that there’s no arrow pointing outwards labeled  'take profits.’ This is a closed loop. 

(Source: Amazon)

(Source: Amazon)

In any case, profits as reported in the net income line are a pretty bad way to try to understand a business like this - actual cash flow is better. As the saying goes, profit is opinion but cash is a fact, and Amazon itself talks about cash flow, not net income (Enron, for obvious and nefarious reasons, was the other way around). Amazon focuses very much on free cash flow (FCF), but it’s very useful to look also at operating cash flow (OCF), which is simply what you get adding back capital expenditure (‘capex'). In effect, OCF is the bulk of  running the business before the costs of the infrastructure, M&A and financing costs. This shows you the effect of selling at low prices. As we can see here, Amazon’s OCF margin has been very roughly stable for a decade, but the FCF has fallen, due to radically increased capex.

In absolute terms, you can therefore see a business that is spinning out rapidly growing amounts of operating cash flow - over $5bn in the last 12 months - and ploughing it back into the business as capex.

Charting this as lines rather than areas shows just how consistent the growth in capex has been.

One might suggest that in a logistics business with rapid revenue growth, rapid capex growth is only natural, and one should look at the ratio of capex to sales by itself. But in fact, the increase here is even more dramatic. Starting in 2009, Amazon began spending far more on capex for every dollar that comes in the door, and there’s no sign of the rate of increase slowing down.

If Amazon had held capex/sales at the same ratio from 2009, before it exploded, then FCF would look like this. That difference adds up to just over $3bn of cash in the last 12 months. That is, if Amazon was spending the same on capex per dollar of revenue as it was in 2009, it would have kept $3bn more in cash in the last 12 months.

So where’s all the extra capex going? And, crucially, does it need to stay at these new, higher levels to support Amazon's business, or can it come back down in the future?

It’s pretty apparent that the money is going into more fulfillment capacity (warehouses, to put it crudely) and to AWS. Hence, this chart shows an enormous increase in Amazon’s physical infrastructure, as measured in square feet - this is almost all fulfillment rather than data centers, though Amazon no longer gives a split.

Pulling apart precisely where the money's going, though, is a little fiddlier. The increase is driven by some combination of four things:

  1. More capacity for more products, including 3P products
  2. Proximity - as Amazon builds warehouses closer to customers, the shipping time goes down and so too does the shipping cost, a further flywheel effect for Prime
  3. AWS
  4. More expensive warehouses - that is, the existing business is becoming more expensive to run

The first two of these are straightforward investment in the future, often delivering higher future margins. AWS is a black box and a much debated puzzle, but it is also pretty much the definition of a new business that requires investment to grow. The real bear case here would be the last point - that the existing business is becoming more capex-intensive - that more dollars of capex are needed for every dollar of current revenue.

Just to make life harder for those looking to understand Amazon’s financials, the warehouse expansion, capex expansion and AWS build-out all started at roughly the same time, and at that same moment Amazon changed the way it reports to make it very hard to pick them apart. Until 2010 it split both property and asset value between fulfillment and data centers, but at that point it stopped, probably not by co-incidence (in 2010 Amazon had just 775k square feet for data centers and customer service combined). In the meantime, there are various metrics (capex per square foot, for example) that would show a shift of spending from cheap warehouse to expensive data centers - but they would also show a shift from maintaining existing warehouses to building new ones. So there is no direct, easy way we can see the split.

We can still, though, get a something of a sense of the key warehouse question - has the business got more expensive to run? It looks like the answer is no. First, the third party sales do not seem to be the issue: ratio of 3P units has not gone up at anything like the way the capex/sales has over the same period (here’s that chart again).

Neither is there any sign of a shift in the fulfillment costs over the period (Amazon seems to have forgotten to stop disclosing these). The physical product mix hasn’t got dramatically more expensive to ship, so would it get dramatically more capex-intensive to warehouse? This is obviously not an exact proxy, but it seems unlikely.

15.png

So, though we can’t be sure, it looks like the capex is not going up because Amazon’s existing business has become more expensive to run, but because Amazon is investing the growing pool of operation cash flow into the future. All of this brings us back to the beginning - Amazon’s business is delivering very rapid revenue growth but not accumulating any surplus cash or profits, because every penny of cash is being ploughed back into expanding the business further. But, this is not because any given business runs permanently at a loss - it is because the profits from what is already there are spent on making new businesses. In the past, that was mostly in operations, but in recent years the investment firehose has again been pointed at capex.

How long will this investment go on for? Well, do we believe that thee conversion of products and businesses to online commerce is finished? Let’s rebase that revenue chart, and look at it as share of US retail revenue. Excluding gasoline, food and things like timber and plants,all hard to ship, at least for now, Amazon has about 1%. 

Overall, US commerce is growing very consistently:

And Amazon is taking an accelerating share of it.

Amazon has perhaps 1% of the US retail market by value. Should it stop entering new categories and markets and instead take profit, and by extension leave those segments and markets for other companies? Or should it keep investing to sweep them into the platform? Jeff Bezos’s view is pretty clear: keep investing, because to take profit out of the business would be to waste the opportunity. He seems very happy to keep seizing new opportunities, creating new businesses, and using every last penny to do it.

Still, investors put their money into companies, Amazon and any other, with the expectation that at some point they will get cash out.  With Amazon, Bezos is deferring that profit-producing, investor-rewarding day almost indefinitely into the future. This prompts the suggestion that Amazon is the world's biggest 'lifestyle business' - Bezos is running it for fun, not to deliver economic returns to shareholders, at least not any time soon.  

But while he certainly does seem to be having fun, he is also building a company, with all the cash he can get his hands on, to capture a larger and larger share of the future of commerce. When you buy Amazon stock (the main currency with which Amazon employees are paid, incidentally), you are buying a bet that he can convert a huge portion of all commerce to flow through the Amazon machine. The question to ask isn’t whether Amazon is some profitless ponzi scheme, but whether you believe Bezos can capture the future. That, and how long are you willing to wait?  

The next phase of smartphones

It’s now 7 years since the iPhone reset the phone business, and indeed the entire computing and internet businesses. But it was pretty clear at the time that the first iPhone was an MVP, and Google’s first Android… homage, the HTC G1, was even more so. It feels rather like the last 7 years have been spent adding all the things that really needed to be there to start with, both in hardware and software. For iOS and Android these have come in different orders, since their opening assumptions were very different, but they’ve ended up at much the same place in terms of the user experience and interaction model. There are small differences in how you interact, and there are always things that are on one platform before the other, but the basic user flows are very similar, and almost all the obvious gaps have been filled. 

Along these lines, my colleague Steven Sinofsky makes the point that for any new ‘thing' in computing, at the beginning everyone is doing roughly the same stuff because the stuff you need to add is pretty obvious and undifferentiated - you might deliver different things in different orders but you’ve got basically the same wish list. It’s once you’ve finished building out that stuff that things start to diverge. 

This, I think, is what we started to see at this year’s WWDC and Google IO - the end of the first 7 years and the start of a new phase, with the fundamental characters of Apple and Google asserting themselves. As Jean-Louis Gassée put it, iOS 8 is really iOS 2.0

Hence, WWDC was all about cloud as an enabler of rich native apps, while the most interesting parts of IO were about eroding the difference between apps and websites. In future versions of Android, Chrome tabs and apps appear together in the task list, search results can link directly to content within apps and Chromebooks can run Android apps - it seems that Google is trying to make ‘app versus web’ an irrelevant discussion - all content will act like part of the web, searchable and linkable by Google. Conversely for Apple, a lot of iOS 8 is about removing reasons to use the web at all, pulling more and more of the cloud into apps, while extensions create a bigger rather than smaller gap between what ‘apps’ and ‘web sites’ are, allowing apps to talk to each other and access each others’ cloud services without ever touching the web. 

Unlike the previous differences in philosophy between the platforms, which were mostly (to generalise massively) about method rather than outcome, these, especially as they evolve further over time, point to basic differences in how you do things on the two platforms, and in what it would even mean to do specific tasks on each.The user flows become different. The interaction models become different. I’ve said before that Apple’s approach is about a dumb cloud enabling rich apps while Google’s is about devices as dumb glass that are endpoints of cloud services. That’s going to lead to rather different experiences, and to ever more complex discussions within companies as to what sort of features they create across the two platforms and where they place their priorities. It also changes somewhat the character of the narrative that the generic shift of computing from local devices to the cloud is a structural problem for Apple, since what we mean, exactly, when we say ‘cloud’ on smartphones needs to be unpicked rather more. That's a subject for my next post. 

Meanwhile, this sort of divergence is why I’m a little skeptical about the other two big reveals in the last couple of months: the Fire Phone and Facebook’s mobile announcements at F8. Facebook is trying to build essential plumbing to connect the web and apps together, in particular with its deep linking project. But this is like building the plumbing for a building that’s still going up, and where you don’t know what it's going to look like. Making tools to connect apps and the web together when Apple and Google are shifting the definitions of those terms is going to be challenging. 

Amazon has a bigger problem. Most obviously, more and more of what it means to be ‘Android’ will come from the closed Google services that aren't part of AOSP and that it doesn’t have access to. If Amazon wants to free-ride on the Android app ecosystem, it will need to spend more and more time replicating the Google Android APIs that the apps it wants are using, or the apps just won’t work - presuming that Amazon even has the sorts of search-led assets to do that. But more fundamentally, AOSP is being pulled along by Google’s aims, and will change in radical and unexpected ways. This isn’t like building on Linux - it could be more like taking a fork of DOS just before Windows 3.1 came out. Are we quite sure (to speculate wildly for rhetorical effect) that we won’t be running Android apps in a sandbox on our ChromeOS phones in 5 years? Where would that leave Amazon’s fork? AOSP is not necessarily a neutral, transparent platform for Amazon to build on. 

Amazon and Android forks

The general reaction to Amazon's Fire Phone has been a puzzled shrug. It's a good but unexceptional device with entirely conventional high-end and high-margin pricing - a move as out of character for Amazon as the purchase of Beats was for Apple (and probably driven in part by the way the US pricing structure makes even $400 phones ’free’). There's an interesting quasi-3D UI feature and a big flashing BUY button, in line with Amazon's role as the Sears Roebuck of the 21st century, but little that really changes anything or couldn’t be done on any other smartphone anyway. And that leaves people wondering why Amazon bothered. The most productive line of thought, I think, is to look at Prime, Amazon's whale service, and the role that the Fire Phone plays in securing that relationship. 

To me, though, the interesting thing is less the phone than the platform and what it it represents - that is to say, the first real attempt to sell phone that forks Android outside China*.  

Android itself is open source, and anyone is free to take the code (AOSP) and build whatever they want. Android is the new Linux, in this sense. But AOSP doesn't give you Google's own smartphone apps and it doesn’t give you all the system services Google has built. So if you make an Android device without reference to Google, and change a bunch of things ('fork Android') your device won’t have the app store and the maps, and it won’t have the Google services APIs that lots of third-party apps need, most obviously push notifications, in-app payments, location and embedded maps. There are lots of other things Google makes as well, but those are both the important and the hard parts. 

Without this Google layer you really only have a featurephone, and to get Google's layer you need to submit to Google's control over what you make, which amongst other things means that you have to use Google's interface and you have to take the whole package - whatever Google wants on the phone goes on the phone. (The core mechanic here is that you have to pass the compatibility test). Hence, Google uses access to its apps and services as a lever to control Android. This is pretty similar to the way that Microsoft used Office and Windows: selling an Android phone without Google's services is like selling a Windows PC that doesn't have Office and can't run it. 

In China all of this works differently. Google services are either blocked or weak or both (the Chinese unaccountably didn't let Google send its mapping cars down every road in the country), while the Chinese internet giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent ('BAT') and scores of others have built lots of great Android services of their own. So the vast majority of Android phones sold in China (even from Samsung or Motorola) come with no Google apps and integrate these instead. 

Outside China, though, if you want to use Android as a platform but do something different, you need to build or buy those core functions yourself, and that’s what Amazon has tried to do. It has licensed Nokia’s HERE mapping platform, it has built an app store for Android, and it has built its own versions of the key enabling APIS - location, push notifications etc. 

The problem is that the maps and the app store are not commodities. Adding them is not just a matter of spending the money. Google's Maps platform is very good and HERE, at least in western markets, is not as good. As with Apple Maps, it works, mostly, but the gap is clear and there is no roadmap that points to that gap closing. For apps, though an app store itself is perhaps a commodity, Amazon has only persuaded a minority of Android developers to load their apps into its store, partly since this means they have to swap out Google’s APIs (for maps etc) for Amazon’s, and that is not necessarily trivial. Amazon has done just about as good a job as one could expect anyone to do at this stage, and there are very few other companies that could get this far - perhaps only Microsoft. But it hasn’t, remotely, reached parity with Google. 

And so Amazon is testing the proposition that you have to have Play (or iTunes) and Google Maps to sell a smartphone outside China - or, rather, it is testing just how good the app store and maps have to be. How many of the latest cutting-edge apps do you have to have, if you cover the basics? How close do you have to get to Google Maps’ coverage? We know Windows Phone does not have enough apps, but can the Amazon store get there?

These same questions apply to any Android OEM that might be thinking of asserting greater independence from Google (such as Samsung), with a further complication. Google’s agreements with OEMs have been leaked several times, and they include clauses that prevent you from having a foot in both camps: you cannot sell a forked device and carry on selling official Google Android devices. So you can’t experiment on the margins (Samsung can't sell a phone running Amazon's Fire software) - you have to walk away from Google entirely, or not at all. That's really no choice at all at the moment. 

All of this takes us to the elemental question - why, exactly, are you forking Android? What important problem do you solve that’s worth reinventing the wheel, while taking on the risk of building on someone else’s platform, open-source or not? Why are you asking people to buy a phone with second-rate maps and a second-rate app store? Are you offering them something you couldn’t otherwise do in return, or just addressing your own strategic concerns? Are you solving a user problem or your own problem?

Both Xiaomi and Cyanogenmod (an a16z portfolio company) have built their own very custom versions of Android that do none the less pass the compatibility test. And though Xiaomi differentiates on software, Xiaomi phones outside of China ship with Google Apps. Hugo Barra called it 'a compatible fork'. After all, it’s not as though you’re not allowed to change Android at all. Google describes the compatibility test as follows: 

"Enable device manufacturers to differentiate while being compatible. The Android compatibility program focuses on the aspects of Android relevant to running third-party applications, which allows device manufacturers the flexibility to create unique devices that are nonetheless compatible."

Generally, Android OEMs have been no better at differentiating on software than were PC OEMs, even though Google allows you to change more than Microsoft did. But it doesn’t follow that you can’t make Android visibly better without forking it if you bring the right skills and culture - Xiaomi and Cyanogenmod (and a number of other Chinese companies) show that. 

Hence, it seems to me that the forking question really flows not from a specific feature that you want to implement but the fundamental principle of controlling your destiny - you want a platform that’s 'yours'. 

That is, a central strategic problem for both Amazon and Facebook, amongst others, is that their businesses have moved from the essentially neutral platform of the web browser, where there has been no real change in the user interaction model in 20 years, to the much messier, mediated and fast-changing platform of smartphones, where the web is just one icon and platform owners are continually adding new ways for users to discover and engage with content, such as iBeacon or Google Now. They didn’t need to make browsers because browsers had become transparent commodities, but smartphones aren’t. This of course is why Google itself made (or rather bought) Android - to make sure that it would not be shut out in this new environment. Making an entire new OS is not an sensible option for Amazon or Facebook at this stage, but building on top of a free, open-source one is worth at least thinking about. But, again, in doing that you need to solve the users' problems, not just your own. 

Facebook is also poking away at this issue (such as with the abortive Home), but as Mark Zuckerberg pointed out, even a really successful Facebook Phone would only be used by 5% or 10% of Facebook’s users, so would really just be a distraction. Instead, faced with a very different set of competitive dynamics on mobile, Facebook is exploring the unbundling of its product with a 'constellation' of different apps. That is, Facebook is embracing this new and more complex environment. With the Fire Phone Amazon is going the other way - greater bundling rather than less.

I do wonder what might appear if Facebook's strategy was applied to Amazon's product - if there were half-a-dozen different interesting and useful Amazon apps for finding and buying products. But Amazon has never been a user experience company in that sense - it thinks about user experience the way Fedex does, as something to focus on ruthlessly, but not as a playground for new experiences. That means it's going to be very interesting to see how it can enchant and delight people who buy its phone. 

 

*Note: when I wrote this on a Sunday evening the fact that Nokia (and hence now Microsoft) has been selling a forked Android phone for the last 6 months passed completely out of my mind, even though I played with one at MWC and rather liked it. It's done rather well in emerging markets, apparently, and is on sale in parts of  Europe) but isn't even for sale in the USA. The main driver is that Windows Phone doesn't fit well into the hardware required of that price. The points in the blog post all remain, though. 

The Amazon Rorschach blot

I've written several times about Amazon and its profits, which tend to be the topic of a polarized debate. Either it's a brilliant company investing every penny of cash in building the future, or it's a Ponzi scheme doomed to collapse. The great thing about this chart is that you can use it to support either view. It's the Rorschach Blot of charts. One thing is easy to agree on, though: competing directly with a company like this is very hard. 

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 3.46.24 PM.png

(If you look very closely, you can see that in 2010 the company accidentally made a profit. )

Amazon's PR genius

Amazon is pretty much the most secretive company in consumer tech. Apple gives almost all the operating metrics you could reasonably ask for, but Amazon has never disclosed unit sales for Kindle and is systematically opaque about every aspect of the business. It generally refuses even to comment on news stories, which can sometimes be rather funny, as in this quote from a New York Times article about this issue: 

“Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’ “ Mr. Marcus said.

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment. (Link)

However, there is one area where Amazon doesn't stonewall: the warehouses and logistics operation. There's a steady flow of informative and interesting press pieces on this topic. This is partly because it is more interesting to a general audience and partly because you can get raw material without going through Amazon - you can ask the workers and local people about a huge fulfilment centre. But it's also because Amazon gives access: photographers and journalists are allowed in. And the warehouses make for great pictures.

If the only thing Amazon is happy to see talked about is its logistics platform, this is probably deliberate. All the coverage supports two narratives: 

  • Amazon offers very good value
  • Amazon is impossible to compete with

Price is obviously a large part of the consumer story, but talking about logistics is a competitive weapon just like not talking about Kindle sales. Every story about how Amazon has built an amazing, incredibly efficient, incredibly low-cost distribution platform is another ecommerce start-up that doesn't get funded, or even started. Jeff Bezos famously said that he was happy for Amazon to be misunderstood for long periods of time, but no-one is in any danger of underestimating the scale of Amazon's distribution. 

Even apparently negative stories, for example about how hard the workers are driven, benefit Amazon, much like a mobster's reputation: 'don't try competing with these guys'. Hence, one could suggest that even if a journalist sets out to make Amazon look bad, the result is generally something that looks and feels negative but still actually helps the company. 

The same of course applies to stories about how Amazon deals with partners. It's pretty clear that the pleasantness of dealing with Amazon as a customer is quite opposite to the experience of dealing with it as a supplier. Amazon named a project for dealing with small publishers 'Project Gazelle' because Jeff Bezos said Amazon “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” The lawyers renamed it the "Small Publishers Negotiation Program". (Link) Publishers get outraged by this sort of thing, but to consumers these stories can often read as "Amazon squeezes fat lazy industry to give me better prices".

All of this leads to the question; is there any company more successful at controlling the public narrative than Amazon? Nothing it cares about ever leaks. Almost all of the press coverage, even the negative stories, runs to a script that Bezos could have written - "We do amazing things to get low prices to customers" and "it's incredibly hard to compete with us". Of course, both of those things may well be true. 

Simplicity

Unlike most other industries, tech companies are often very secretive about their product plans. Apple is the obvious example, but rivals like Google or Amazon are often even more closed-mouthed. And in parallel, there is often somewhat frantic speculation about what they’ll announce next.

Yet at the same time, these are often fairly simple companies with pretty predictable strategies.

Apple sells devices - circuit boards in boxes at a 30-50% gross margin. It makes them with a certain kind of experience, where it can add significant value in the software and hardware integration. It wants to control as much of the experience as is possible. It will not sell devices below a certain quality of experience just to hit a price point.

Amazon is an ecommerce platform - a warehouse with a search engine. As every new category goes online - as buyers and sellers become willing to buy and sell that product online - Amazon is there with the best logistics and the best selling platform. Meanwhile, it continually reinvests profits in infrastructure and new businesses to drive further growth - taking profit now is just wasted investment.

Google is a search engine and an advertising business, powered by a a decade-old machine learning engine that it feeds with as much data as possible, and it needs reach, in every sense - to feed the machine with data and to deliver search results (and advertising).

One could certainly quibble about how I’ve phrased these, and perhaps add or subtract things. Nor is any of it especially insightful. But that’s the point. These companies do actually tell you what they’re trying do to. Apple and Amazon in particular are very public and explicit about their strategies: Tim Cook (and Steve Jobs before him) and Jeff Bezos say variations of these things over and over again.

Yet somehow, people don’t hear them, and come up with ideas about what these companies will do that are totally at odds with their actual strategies. For example, Google wants Motorola to be a rival to Samsung. Apple will build a global pay TV network or a mobile operator, or an MVNO. Apple will make a mind-blowing new product every six months. Amazon will never be profitable. And so on, and so on.

In truth, though, the best way to understand these companies is to listen to what they say.

Amazon's profits

The problem with Amazon is not that it doesn’t make a profit, but that you don’t actually know what the profits are. 

On the face of it, this sounds like an absurd statement - it doesn’t make any profits. After all, look at this chart - massive revenue growth, zero profit. 

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 17.13.44.png

If we’re going to do this properly, of course, we should look at free cash flow, or rather (to smooth out the seasonality) trailing 12 months free cash flow (which is also Amazon's preferred metric). 

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 10.22.01 pm.png

But, of course, this doesn’t show any profits either - in fact what (relatively) little FCF there used to be has now been reduced to close to zero by capex (though this also includes a one-off $1.4bn for purchasing Amazon's headquarters building in Seattle in Q4 2012). Amazon is, very obviously, reinvesting every penny that it can squeeze out of the business back into growth, in pricing, market expansion and capex. 

This leads to two views of the company. One, to put it crudely, is that at some point, when it has gained enough market share to get away with it, it will ‘flip a switch’, put up prices or cut capex and start making a return. 

The other view is that this isn’t actually possible - that Amazon is a sort of Ponzi scheme. It can only grow by running at zero profit - as soon as it puts up prices or cuts capex the business will collapse, and as soon as the share price stops going up all the staff will leave. 

It is certainly true that you can’t just decide to change your business model to be be profitable, as Horace Dedui points out with some precision here. But there's another angle to the Amazon story - it isn’t actually one business. 

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This chart shows the revenue segments that Amazon reports. These are in different industries, at different stages of development, and in different markets. It seems pretty likely that their underlying economics are different too. Not, that is, the FCF or net incomes that Amazon reports after all that re-investment, but the underlying performance of the divisions.

Moreover, even this isn’t the full story, since Amazon is actually a lot more atomised. Most separate product lines have their own internal owner and P&L by country or region (with a lot of internal transparency, incidentally). Some of them fail and get killed, some have only just started and some are doing very well. 

Meanwhile, Amazon is constantly creating new business lines. When they start, like any new business, they're loss making. But they don't 'flip a switch' to get to profitability - they just grow and execute, like any other business. 

This means that Amazon's earnings are actually driven a mix of four overlapping factors: 

  • Capex in new distribution
  • 'Artificially' low prices
  • Operating losses at new ventures
  • Offsetting profits at established ventures

We have very little idea, from outside, what the mix is. All we know is that Bezos diverts any profit that arrives at the bottom of the P&L back into these to keep the final result at zero. But at least two offer a switch that can be 'pressed' for profit without any damage to the business or any conceptual problem. 

To put this another way, Amazon is LOTS of different startup ecommerce businesses on one platform. All the profits from the ones that work are spent on new, loss-making ones. 

This prompts two analogies. The first is GE, which also managed its earnings with great care, so that it was hard for anyone outside really to tell what was going on. 

The other is Marxism. As Karl Popper pointed out, the problem with the Marxist theory of historical materialism was that you couldn't disprove it. Any scientific theory is susceptible to disproof: something could happen that would show it to be untrue. But there isn't anything that would disprove Marxism - the Marxist can always say 'the conditions for revolution weren't right, but just wait, it will come next century'. 

Equally, the problem with saying 'we can't tell from outside how Amazon is really doing, but it will become profitable, just wait and see' is that you could be waiting for ever without ever knowing if you're wrong. 

Falling interest in Kindle and Nook: the decline of ereaders?

I'm a big fan of Google Trends. It's partial, and you need to think carefully about what you're actually looking at, but used properly it can be very revealing of market trends.

So, caveats aside, this chart shows US search volume for Kindle, Kindle Fire and Nook. Three things stand out: 

  • A large and unsurprising spike at each Christmas
  • A really substantial decline for 2012 versus 2011 - close to 50%
  • The Kindle Fire, supposedly the future-proof successor to the Kindle, appears to be falling, not growing

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Amazon, of course, tells us nothing tangible about how the Kindle is doing, but Nook's numbers (as reported by Barnes & Noble) are looking terrible, which is consistent with this.

It seems to me that several things may be going on here:

  • General-purpose tablets (mainly the iPad) are more proving more compelling to consumers than special purpose tablets like the Nook and even the (rather more capable) Kindle Fire
  • Cheap general purpose tablets (which are very hard to capture in Google Trends, as an aside) have removed or reduced the price advantage the Nook and Fire had last year
  • These devices have quite long lives - especially ereaders (i.e. the Kindle). Maybe most of the addressable market bought one in 2010 and 2011 and those people didn't come back to the market in 2012

There's a broader story here, of course, in the way that the growth rate of ebooks seems to be slowing as they reach a third or so of the market.

The UK data shows a trend that's slightly different: Nook is MUCH weaker (reflecting the absence of real distribution or brand) and Kindle Christmas interest held up better in 2012, probably reflecting the later UK date - ebooks seems to be about 1 Christmas behind the USA. However, the drop-off seems to be sharper in the beginning of 2013 than in the beginning of 2012, just as in the USA.  

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The same point is even more clear if we look at search volume for 'ebooks'. The deceleration is clear.

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Price

From 2007 to 2012 annual mobile handset sales grew from 1.1bn units to 1.7bn units. This was, obviously enough, driven by an expansion in the number of ‘human’ mobile phone users from 2.1bn to 3.2bn (the number of total connections was much higher).  

Almost all of the growth in subscribers and hence in handset volume growth came from the low end at low prices. So, one would have expected the average price of a phone to fall. It didn't. 

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ASPs (average selling prices) did indeed fall for a while, bottoming out in late 2010, but since then they've almost doubled, to a little over $180 per phone at the end of 2012. 

The reason for this, of course, is the arrival of smartphones, which have persuaded people to pay more for a phone than they ever did before. The iPhone, most obviously, sells in a super-premium $600+ bracket that barely existed before, and parts of the Android market (and to some extent Nokia) have followed.  At the end of 2012, top-end smartphones amounted to about 17% of total phone volumes, and about half the revenue. Meanwhile a quarter of phones sold were still plain old basic voice phones. 

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The interesting question, to me, is what the third and fourth smartphone bought by a given person will cost.  When do people decide that a $150 smartphone is good enough that it's an acceptable replacement for a two-year-old smartphone that cost $300 new? Or, do they decide to upgrade - to buy an iPhone 6 or Samsung GS5? Or do they just wait - buy a phone every three years instead of every two?

Moore's Law is working away on phones, and a $150 phone is indeed as good as a $300-$400 phone from two years ago - but the new $300 phone is also a dramatic improvement. The perceptible improvement of new product categories follows a curve over time: 20 years ago a new PC was noticeably better than a 2 year old PC, but today the gap with even a 5 year old PC can be pretty hard to spot. Hence, the PC replacement cycle has lengthened to 5 years, and average selling prices have steadily fallen.  Phones today are at the steep part of the curve: there are still compelling reasons to spend the extra money, and to upgrade relatively frequently (and of course a phone gets scuffed and scratched). 

Also skewing the purchase decision, of course, is subsidy: a $150 saving is only the price of a coffee and pastry each month over a 24m contract. This applies especially in the USA, where even a $400+ iPhone 4 costs the same to consumers as a $150 Android - both phones are 'free' and there's no difference in the contact price based on which you choose. 

My suspicion is that we'll see a polarisation in the market. There is a portion of the market that will pay a premium price for the best phone possible - and for these people $600 (however manifested) is not actually that much money every two years. But the $300 segment may well get squeezed, between people trading up, paying the price of a coffee and croissant and getting an iPhone, and people trading down to a perfectly good $150 phone. 

It is also, of course, entirely possible that the phone they trade down to is a $200 iPhone, a $150 Google 'Chrome' phone or a $100 Kindle Fire phone. At that point everything changes again. 

"FCF is evil"

Amazon explicitly states that we should focus on trailing 12m free cash flow, not net income, as the key performance metric. (The thing about FCF, of course, is that it's hugely positive in the Christmas quarter as all the cash comes in, and then hugely negative in the March quarter as Amazon pays all the suppliers: using trailing 12m smooths this out.)

This, therefore, is a chart of Amazon's preferred profitability metric.  

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It seems pretty clear that Amazon is optimising its cashflow to zero: pushing it as low as it is possible to go and still run the business. This is rather like Tim Cook at Apple managing inventory to zero: Amazon manages cashflow and profits to zero. 

The really striking thing is if you compare this to revenue, in this indexed chart.

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Over the last 3 years, Amazon revenue is up 130% and it's chosen profitability metric is down by two thirds. This is not a coincidence. 

Jeff Bezos says that "your margin is my opportunity": this is what that means.

Bull and bear case for Amazon

This chart, rather neatly, encapsulates both the bull and the bear cases for Amazon. On one hand, the revenue growth is dramatic. Amazon is taking an ever larger share of US retail revenue - but is still only about 2% of US non-food retail revenue. Yet... where are the profits?

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There's always been a suspicion that Amazon is managing earnings to zero - deliberately hitting zero at the bottom line both to drive share and to conceal the operating dynamics of the business. But on the other hand, this might just be the world's biggest lifestyle business, run for the entertainment of Jeff Bezos rather than the enrichment of shareholders. And of course, what sort of profits should a volume retailer ever expect to achieve, realistically? Walmart gets 3-4% at best. 

To put this another way, Amazon appears to treat FCF the way Apple treats inventory: as something evil to optimise down. 

Amazon Phone

And so it begins. Amazon is taking advantage of years of poor Google execution and moving to fill the void. It is finally deploying the pieces it has put in place over the past few years to start moving its purchasing and content ecosystem into phones at the OS level. Content first. Apps, photo sharing, contacts etc soon. And some time in the future, perhaps, a Fire Phone.

This sort of pre-load / embed solution is lower-risk and easier to execute than a full-on 'Fire Phone', with a completely forked Android and custom hardware: phones are harder than tablets in all sorts of ways. HTC makes it and (with VZW) distributes it, Amazon adds the sizzle.

I saw a job ad that's almost certainly for Amazon the other day: "Head of Strategic Mobile App Partnerships", in Luxembourg, working on "a groundbreaking new mobile platform". More to come, I suspect. This certainly won't be confined to Verizon Wireless in the USA. 

I also wonder how long this will be an HTC exclusive. HTC could certainly use the help, but I'd expect all the Android OEMs to be interested: all of them except Samsung are struggling and they have no love for Google. But of course if all Android phones have this then they're back to selling commodities. 

And how does Google react? It has the power to withhold access to Google Apps (GMail, Google play, maps etc) for devices that fork Android, but additional preloaded services are hard to fit into that category. Moreover, how soon will Amazon be able to offer all of that functionality itself? Maps are probably the biggest hurdle - but now we have Nokia offering its own (equally good) maps in an iOS and HTML5 solution on all mobile devices...

What is Amazon's strategic objective? This isn't really about selling content and apps on mobile - even Apple makes no money doing that. Rather, as with the  Kindle Fire, Amazon is trying to create buying devices. Mobile devices sit next to Vogue and How To Spend It, and on the coffee table in front of the TV. They are ready and waiting for a call to action, to capture purchase intent. Amazon is a leveraged play on the conversion of physical retail to ecommerce, and mobile is the means of acquisition. 

How Many Tablets Are In The USA? And Does It Matter?

Another day, another number for tablet market share. Pew has released its latest survey for the US market, suggesting (amongst many other things) that Apple now has ‘just’ 52% share of the US tablet install base.

Transient

So, do we believe this? And what might it mean?

The tablet market is problematic to analyse because there is an almost complete absence of real data. Apple gives global quarterly unit shipments (indeed, it is by far the most open company in this market), as does RIM (but its numbers are too small to be meaningful) and Motorola used to, but otherwise we’re groping in the dark. Google gives data for the share of the devices connecting to Google Play that have large screens, but this is global, may not be a good sample and is contaminated by poor reporting (for example, at least one Samsung device changed the screen size it reported after a software update). Then there are the industry data firms, which generally base their pitch on aggregating data from the manufacturers, but I rather doubt Amazon is telling them anything. That leaves surveys (if you believe them) and triangulation: in other words, analysis.

We know from the Apple/Samsung patent lawsuit disclosures that Samsung sold just 1.4m Android tablets in the US through June 2012 (excluding the 5″ ‘phablet’ models and some newer models that weren’t subject to the lawsuit, though) where Apple sold 34m – 20m in the last 12 months.

Then, Amazon says the Fire has ’22% share in the USA’, but gives no indication of how it calculated this, or even if it is cumulative or for the most recent quarter (and it has been suggested it comes from… an industry data firm). Meanwhile Nook business unit revenue was $200m in Q2 (including tablets, ebooks and ereaders), so B&N must be selling well under 500k Nook units a quarter. For context, B&N claims 25% or so ebook market share versus over 60% for Amazon.

So…

It looks like there are 30m iPads in the USA (depending on how many you think have been replaced by newer models but not handed on). If one assumes 10m Fires, 2.5m Nooks and 5m ‘Pure Android’ tablets (i.e. excluding the Android-based Fire and Nook), that gets 47.5m total, Amazon to 21%, Apple to 63% and gives Samsung, say, 30% of those pure tablets, all of which is internally consistent. However,the Fire number seems a little high and it also leaves ‘Pure Android’ looking rather small compared to the Pew number. Indeed, the only way to match Pew’s number (while keeping the other numbers the same) is to assume that there are fewer iPads (say 25m) and at least 10m ‘Pure Android’ tablets. I’m not sure I believe that. Incidentally, this would also imply that Samsung has well under 20% share.

Of course, only Google knows the answer to this one, and with customary opacity they’re not saying. But whether Android has 5 or 10m tablets in the USA is relatively uninteresting – the important question is what those tablets really look like and how they’re used. How many are the Nexus 7? How many are cheap generic plastic Chinese units at $150 or below? And with Amazon ramping up its Fire proposition and going down to $160, will people keep buying those generic units or even the Nexus or will they turn to a brand with a clear content proposition? Which devices are likely to sell themselves best as an impulse purchase in a supermarket bay in early December?

I suspect Android tablets face an even bigger self-selection issue than Android phones. Given you can get a great app and content experience from Apple for $400 (or lower if the iPad Mini exists) and a great content experience from Amazon for $160, what sort of person with what sort of use case will buy the pure Android tablet, and will they be the kind of person that would install cool new apps and buy stuff? Or are they buying a ‘web tablet’ at Walgreens? Certainly, UK retailers are ramping up for a ‘cheap Android tablet Christmas’.

That doesn’t really matter to Google, of course – all of these devices, even the iPad, are expanding the inventory for Adsense. But they’re probably not a great target market for anything other than generic web use – even less than Android phones have proven to be. 

(Cross posted from my Forbes.com blog)