Thursday, July 20, 2017

"Amazon Prime and other Subscription Businesses: How do you Value a Subscriber?"

This might be pertinent not just for Prime and others, but for Tesla, should it survive the model 3 ramp-up. More on that next week.
From 25iq, July 15:
Businesses increasingly don’t just sell products and services in a single transaction. Subscription and other businesses that focus on recurring sales have existed for a very long time. What is new is that many more businesses have adopted a subscription approach, which makes them look a lot more like a company in the the cable television business than an auto parts manufacturer.

Successfully implementing a subscription business model can be particularly hard since the customer acquisition cost (CAC) happens up front and the revenue appears over time. These subscription businesses have a revenue profile that is more like an annuity. This revenue profile is not like the manufacturer’s business that many people learned about from a college introduction to accounting class. Unlike an annuity, the revenue stream of a subscription business is subject to risk, uncertainty and ignorance. The good news is that it is precisely because there is risk, uncertainty and ignorance that an opportunity for profit exists. The bad news is that it can be hard to capture. The reality is that if you do not capture this profit your competitors may do so.

Someone may ask: Why should I worry about this? Will it be on the test? The answer is: Yes and yes. Charlie Munger says it best: “The number one idea is to view a stock as an ownership of the business and to judge the staying quality of the business in terms of its competitive advantage. Look for more value in terms of discounted future cash-flow than you are paying for. Move only when you have an advantage.” The text in bold in the Munger statement is critical with a subscription service like Amazon Prime- you can’t understand the value of the business by looking at just one month or even a few months since it is lifetime value that matters.

Why are these new subscription businesses being created more often? The economics of a subscription business can be very favorable if you get it right. A lot of financial leverage can be generated if the customer does not need to be acquired repeatedly. Customer acquisition cost is lower for a well-run subscription business even though it is more front loaded. Yes, subscription business models can have more predictable revenues, but that is not caused by the tooth fairy. More predictable revenues are a byproduct of lower overall CAC and some operational approaches and investments in customer retention. The trade-off is that a subscription business model can also be deadly if you get it wrong. Each of the key variables in a subscription business can be either: (1) many angels working together to build something wonderful, or (2) a pack of hungry wolves that can tear the business to shreds. Propelling more businesses to adopt a subscription business  model is a simple truth: if your competitors or competitors get this model right your business may be doomed.

The benefits of this new way of doing business was chronicled well in the book The Outsiders by Thorndike. One of the major innovators of this way of doing business model was John Malone in the cable television industry. Here is John Malone talking about the model he used to build many of his businesses:

“We decided… to go on a cash flow metric very much like real estate. Levered cash flow growth became the mantra out here. A number of our eastern competitors early on were still large industrial companies — Westinghouse, GE, — and they were on an earnings metric. It became obvious to us that if you were going to be measured on earnings, it would be real tough to stay in the cable industry and grow.” “I used to say in the cable industry that if your interest rate was lower than your growth rate, your present value is infinite. That’s why the cable industry created so many rich guys. It was the combination of tax-sheltered cash-flow growth that was, in effect, growing faster than the interest rate under which you could borrow money. If you do any arithmetic at all, the present value calculation tends toward infinity under that thesis.” “It’s not about earnings, it’s about wealth creation and levered cash-flow growth. Tell them you don’t care about earnings..” “The first thing you do is make sure you have enough juice to survive and you don’t have any credit issues that are going to bite you in the near term, and that you’ve thought about how you manage your way through those issues.” “I used to go to shareholder meetings and someone would ask about earnings, and I’d say, ‘I think you’re in the wrong meeting.’ That’s the wrong metric. In fact, in the cable industry, if you start generating earnings that means you’ve stopped growing and the government is now participating in what otherwise should be your growth metric.”

The more you understand about what John Malone has accomplished in his business the more you will understand what companies like Amazon are doing in their business....MUCH MORE