Shorting private markets

This is one of those things I’ll file in the “why didn’t I think of it before?” category.

The basic idea is that if you think there is a startup bubble, and that private companies (as a class) are being overvalued by investors, there exists a rather simple way to short the market – basically start your own company and sell equity to these investors!

The basic problem with shorting a market such as those for shares of privately held startups is that the shares are owned by a small set of investors, none of whom are likely to lend you stock that you can sell and buy back later. More importantly, markets in privately held stock can be incredibly illiquid, and it may take a long time indeed before the stocks move to what you think is their “right” level.

So what do you do? I’ll simply let the always excellent Matt Levine to provide the answer here:

We have talked a few times in the past about the difficulty of shorting unicorns: Investors can buy shares in the big venture-backed private tech companies, but they can’t sell those shares short, which arguably leads to those shares being overvalued as enthusiasts join in but skeptics are excluded. As I once said, though, “the way to profit from a bubble is by selling into it, and that people sometimes focus too narrowly on short-selling into it”: If you think that unicorns as a category are overvalued, the way to profit from that is not so much by shorting Uber as it is by founding your own dumb startup, raising a lot of money from overenthusiastic venture capitalists, paying yourself a big salary, and walking away whistling when the bubble collapses.

Same here! If you are skeptical of the ICO trend, the right thing to do is not to short all the new tokens that are coming to market. It’s to build your own token, do an initial coin offering, and walk off with the proceeds. For the sake of your own conscience, you can just go ahead and say that that’s what you’re doing, right in the ICO white paper. No one seems to mind.

Seriously! Why didn’t I think of this?

Tiered equity structure and investor conflict

About this time last year, I’d written this article for Mint about optionality in startup valuations. The basic idea there was that any venture capital investment into startups usually comes with “dirty terms” that seek to protect the investor’s capital.

So you have liquidity preferences that demand that the external investors get paid out first (according to a pre-decided formula) in case of a “liquidity event” (such as an IPO or an acquisition). You also have “ratchets”, which seek to protect an investor’s share in the company in case the company raises a subsequent round at a lower valuation.

These “dirty terms” are nothing but put options written by existing investors in a firm in favour of the new investors. And these options telescope. So the Series A round has options written by founders, employees and seed investors, in favour of Series A investors. At the time of Series B, Series A investors move to the short (writing) side of the options, which are written in favour of Series B investors. And so forth.

There are many reasons such clauses exist. One venture capitalist told me that his investors have similar optionality on their investments in his funds, and it is only fair he passes them on. Another told me that “good entrepreneurs” believe in their idea so much that they don’t want to even consider the thought that their company may not do well – which is when these options pay out, and so they are happy to write these options. And then you know that an embedded option can increase the optics of the “headline valuation” of a company, which is something some founders want.

In any case, in my piece for Mint I’d written about such optionality leading to potential conflicts among investors in different classes of stock, which might sometimes be a hindrance to further capital raises. Quoting from there,

The latest round of investors usually don’t mind a “down round” (an investment round that values the company lower than the preceding round) since their ratchets protect them, but earlier investors are short such ratchets, and don’t want to see their stakes diluted. Thus, when a company is unable to find investors who are willing to meet its current round of valuation, it can lead to conflict between different sets of investors in the company itself.

And now Mint reports that such conflicts are a main reason for Indian e-commerce biggie Snapdeal’s recent struggles, which has led to massive layoffs and a delay in funding. The story has played out exactly as I’d written in the paper last year.

Softbank, which invested last in Snapdeal and is long put options on the company’s value, is pushing the company to raise more funds at a lower valuation. However, Nexus and Kalaari, who had invested earlier and stand to lose significantly thanks to these options, are resisting such moves. And the company continues to stall.

I hope this story provides entrepreneurs and venture capitalists sufficient evidence that dirty terms can affect everyone up and down the chain, and can actually harm the business’s day-to-day operations. The cleaner a company keeps the liabilities side of the balance sheet (in having a small number of classes of equity), the better it is in the long run.

But then with Snap having IPOd by offering only non-voting shares to the public, I’m not too hopeful of equity truly being equitable any more!

British retail strategy

Right under where I currently live, there’s a Waitrose. Next door, there’s a Tesco Express. And a little down the road, there’s a Sainsbury Local. The day I got here, a week ago, I drove myself nuts trying to figure out which of these stores is the cheapest.

And after one week of random primary research, I think I have the classic economist’s answer – it depends. On what I’m looking to buy that is.

Each of these chains has built a reputation of sourcing excellent products and selling them to customers at a cheap price. The only thing is that each of them does it on a different kind of products. So there is a set of products that Tesco is easily the cheapest at, but the chain compensates for this by selling other products for a higher rate. It is similar with the other chains.

Some research I read a year or two back showed that while Amazon was easily the cheapest retailer in the US for big-ticket purchases, their prices for other less price-sensitive items was not as competitive. In other words, Amazon let go of the margin on high-publicity goods, and made up for it on goods where customers didn’t notice as much.

It’s the same with British retailers – each of their claims of being the cheapest is true, but that applies only to a section of the products. And by sacrificing the margin on these products, they manage to attract a sufficient number of customers to their stores, who also buy other stuff that is not as competitively priced!

Now, it is possible for an intelligent customer to conduct deep research and figure out the cheapest shop for each stock keeping unit. The lack of quick patterns of who is cheap for what, however, means that the cost of such research and visiting multiple shops usually far exceeds the benefits of buying everything from the cheapest source.

I must mention that this approach may not apply in online retail where at the point of browsing a customer is not “stuck” to any particular shop (unlike in offline where a customer is at a physical store location while browsing).

Variable pricing need not be boring at all!

Pizza from dominos – good and bad

Last night we decided we wanted pizza from dominos for dinner. Having been used to Swiggy, I instinctively googled for dominos and tried to place the order online.

There is one major fuckup with the dominos website – it asks you to pick the retail outlet closest to you, rather than taking your location and picking it yourself. And so it happened that we picked an outlet not closest to us.

I quickly got a call from the guy at the outlet where my order had gone, expressing his inability to deliver it, and saying he’ll cancel my order. I gave him a mouthful – it’s 2016, and why couldn’t he have simply transferred the order to the outlet that is supposed to service me?

I was considering cancelling the order and not ordering again (a self-injurious move, since we wanted Dominos pizza, not just pizza), when the guy from the outlet in whose coverage area I fell called. He explained the situation once again, saying my original order was to be cancelled, and he would have to take a new order.

Again – it wasn’t just a fuckup in the payment in the Dominos system, in which case they could’ve simply transferred my order to this new guy. So I had to repeat my entire order once again to this guy (not so much of a problem since I was only getting one pizza) and my address as well (it’s a long address which I prefer filling online).

Then there was the small matter of payment – one reason I’d ordered online was that I could pay electronically (I used PayTM). When I asked him if I could pay online for the new order he said I had to repeat the entire process of online ordering – there was no order ID against which I could simply logon and pay.

I played my trump card at this time – asked him to make sure the delivery guy had change for Rs. 2000 (I’d lined up at a bank 2 weeks back and withdrawn a month’s worth of cash, only that it was all in Rs. 2000 notes). He instantly agreed. Half an hour later, the pizza, along with change for Rs. 2000 was at my door.

The good thing about the experience was that the delivery process was smooth, and more importantly, the outlet where my order reached had taken initiative in communicating it to the outlet under whose coverage my house fell – the salespersons weren’t willing to take a chance to miss a sale that had fallen at their door.

The bad thing is that Jubilant Foodworks’ technology sucks, big time. Thanks to the heavily funded and highly unprofitable startups we usually order from, we’re used to a high level of technology from the food delivery kind of businesses. Given that Jubilant is a highly profitable company it shouldn’t be too hard for them to license the software of one of these new so-called “foodtech” companies to further enhance the experience.

No clue why they haven’t done it yet!

PS: I realise I’ve written this blogpost in the style I used to write in over a decade ago. Some habits die hard.

Why PayTM is winning the payments “battle” in India

For the last one year or so, ever since I started using IMPS at scale, and read up the UPI protocol, I’ve been bullish about Indian banks winning the so-called “payments battle”. If and when the adoption of electronic payments in India takes off, I’ve been expecting banks to cash in ahead of the “prepaid payments instruments” operators.

The events of the last one week, however, have made me revise this prediction. While the disruption of the cash economy by withdrawal of 85% of all notes in circulation has no doubt given a major boost to the electronic payments industry, only some are in a position to do anything about this.

The major problem for banks in the last one week has been that they’ve been tasked with the unenviable task of exchanging the now invalid currency, taking deposits and issuing new currency. With stringent know-your-customer (KYC) norms, the process hasn’t been an easy one, and banks have been working overtime (along with customers working overtime standing in line) to make sure hard currency is in the market again.

While by all accounts banks have been undertaking this task rather well, the problem has been that they’ve had little bandwidth to do anything else. This was a wonderful opportunity for banks, for example, to acquire small merchants to accept payments using UPI. It was an opportune time to push the adoption of credit card payment terminals to merchants who so far didn’t possess them. Banks could’ve also used the opportunity to open savings accounts for the hitherto unbanked, so they had a place to park their cash.

As it stands, the demands of cash management have been so overwhelming that the above are literally last priorities for the bank. Leave alone expand their networks, banks are even unable to service the existing point of sale machines on their network, as one distraught shopkeeper mentioned to me on Saturday.

This is where the opportunity for the likes of PayTM lies. Freed of the responsibilities of branch banking and currency exchange, they’ve been far better placed to acquire customers and merchants and improve their volume of sales. Of course, their big problem is that they’re not interoperable – I can’t pay using Mobikwik wallet to a merchant who can accept using PayTM. Nevertheless, they’ve had the sales and operational bandwidth to press on with their network expansion, and by the time the banks can get back to focussing on this, it might be too late.

And among the Prepaid Payment Instrument (PPI) operators again, PayTM is better poised to exploit the opportunity than its peers, mainly thanks to recall. Thanks to the Uber deal, they have a foothold in the premium market unlike the likes of Freecharge which are only in the low-end mobile recharge market. And PayTM has also had cash to burn to create recall – with deals such as sponsorship of Indian cricket matches.

It’s no surprise that soon after the announcement of withdrawal of large currency was made, PayTM took out full page ads in all major newspapers. They correctly guessed that this was an opportunity they could not afford to miss.

PS: PayTM has a payments bank license, so once they start those operations, they’ll become interoperable with the banking system, with IMPS and UPI and all that.

Buying, Trying and Sizing

The traditional paradigm of apparel purchase has been to try and then buy. You visit a retail store, pick what you like, try them out in the store’s dressing rooms and then buy a subset. In this paradigm, it is okay for sizing to not be standardised, since how the garment actually fits on you plays a larger part in your decision making than how it is supposed to fit on you.

With the coming of online retail, however, this paradigm is being reversed, since here you first buy, and then try, and then return the garment if it doesn’t fit properly. This time, the transaction cost of returning a garment is much higher than in the offline retail case.

So I hope that with online retail gaining currency in apparel purchase, manufacturers will start paying more attention to standardised sizing, and make sure that a garment’s dimensions are exactly what is mentioned on the online retailer’s site.

The question is who should take the lead on enforcing this. It cannot be the manufacturer, for had they been concerned already about standardised sizing, they would’ve implemented it already. So far the retailer has only been an intermediary (a “pipe”, as Sangeet would put it).

However, with the transaction cost of failed transactions being borne by the retailers, and these transaction costs being rather high in online retail, I expect the likes of Amazon and Myntra to take the lead in ensuring that sizing is standardised, perhaps by pushing up the ease of search of garments from manufacturers who already practice such sizing (these retailers have sufficient data to measure this easily).

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Given history, I don’t expect retailers to collaborate in coming up this a standard. So assuming each major online retailer comes up with its own standard, the question is if it will start off being uniform or if it will converge to a common standard over time.

I also wonder if the lead in standardising sizes will be taken by private brands of the online retailers, since they have the most skin in the game in terms of costs, before other manufacturers will follow suit.

In any case, I trust that soon (how “soon” that soon is is questionable) I’ll be able to just look at the stated sizing on a garment and buy it (if it’s of my liking) without wondering how well it’ll fit me.

Shopping offline can be underwhelming

Maybe to compensate for the amount I’ve been buying on Amazon over the last few days (mostly baby stuff), I set off on Sunday to buy some stuff offline. And it was a most disappointing experience.

The biggest problem was the lack of choice and availability and inventory. I first went to a Levi’s showroom to buy a pair of jeans, having ripped three of them in the course of the last year (thanks to squatting I’m guessing).

I asked for comfort fit jeans and was shown a pair. Was rather underwhelming and I asked for more. Turned out that was the only pair of comfort fit jeans in the store.

And then I was looking to buy a pair of shorts. At least three stores on Jayanagar 11th Main Road were visited, only to be told none of them stocked shorts (Levi’s, Wills Lifestyle, Woodlands). I might have cribbed about lack of effective categorisation in online shopping but it’s a more acute problem offline, given the transaction cost of going to a store.

On Jayanagar 11th Main Road, for example, you have brand stores of every conceivable brand, but few stores have chosen to differentiate themselves by what they sell, rather than what brand. So you lack stores that specialise in shorts, or T-shirts, and so on.

For a while now I’ve been looking for a new pair of spectacles (hate my current frame, so I end up wearing contact lenses even when I don’t want to). GKB offered some choice, but nothing spectacular. SR Gopal Rao said they didn’t have large size frames, and had no clue when they’d arrive.

And there ended my shopping trip. The only things I’d been successful buying was a packet of freshly made rusks from a bakery (feel damn lucky most bakeries in Bangalore have in-house kitchen where they bake stuff fresh) and some medicines.

When your demands run into the so-called “long tail”, I guess nowadays online is the best bet. So I’ll possibly buy another pair of jeans online, having bought one pair from Korra and returned a pair to Amazon. I don’t normally buy clothes online, but on other tabs of my browser I’m checking out shorts on Amazon.

Oh, and I must mention Lenskart, who might end up getting an order for a pair of spectacles. They’ve set up what I call “experience centres” where you can check out their range of frames and try them on. Orders are fulfilled through their online store, since prescription glasses cannot be sold over the counter anyway (since the glasses need to be ground). I strongly believe that this is how retail will shape out in the future.