Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Economics (Some key insights into customer businesses), Lifestyle (What happens when mental-health issues get in the way of work), Technology (The woman who will decide what emoji we get to use; All's fair game for Ransomware 2.0), Community (The story of Japan's 'untouchables') and Podcast (Ray Dalio on how should the rich be taxed most effectively)

Published: Jun 12, 2021 07:35:05 AM IST
Updated: Jun 12, 2021 02:12:49 PM IST

Image: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Economics (Some key insights into customer businesses), Lifestyle (What happens when mental-health issues get in the way of work), Technology (The woman who will decide what emoji we get to use; All’s fair game for Ransomware 2.0), Community (The story of Japan’s ‘untouchables’) and Podcast (Ray Dalio on how should the rich be taxed most effectively).

 Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended June 12, 2021.

1)     The Economics of Customer Businesses [Source: Morgan Stanley]
In this paper, the authors, Michael J. Mauboussin and Dan Callahan, focus on the customer as the basic unit of analysis. The idea of customer lifetime value (CLV) has been around for decades. CLV equals the present value of the cash flows that a customer generates while they are engaged with the firm minus the cost to acquire the customer. The rise of digitalization in the economy has allowed companies to gather unprecedented amounts of data on their customers and their behavior, permitting an assessment of overall value based on granular statistics. These tools are extremely valuable, but areas of potential improvement remain. The first is the introduction of more sophisticated statistical models to predict revenue through customer acquisition, churn rate, purchase frequency, and basket size. The second is a reckoning for all costs that allow the model to go from revenue to shareholder value.

The authors discuss the key elements of customer-based corporate valuation (CBCV), including customers, revenues, and costs and show how to model them using a cohort model. The accuracy of the inputs varies based on the information companies share and whether the business is based on subscriptions or non-subscriptions. But in any case, a thorough understanding of the model prompts the right questions. They also review some strategies companies can pursue to create consumer or supplier surplus. The important point is these strategies can avoid actions that are zero sum, where the company benefits at the expense of its customers or suppliers.

2)     Coursera’s IPO windfall: the takeaways for Indian edtech companies that plan to get listed [Source: The Economic Times
The listing of Coursera showed that there’s a lot of value to be unlocked in ed-tech. Education market-research company HolonIQ expects education to be a USD7 trillion industry globally by 2025, based on expenditure from governments, consumers, and companies, with spending on digital going up to USD400 billion. According to data platform Tracxn, just for MOOCs (massive open online courses), the total size is expected to be USD15.7 billion in 2025 globally, growing at a CAGR of 18.1% from 2019. Given HolonIQ’s estimates that ed-tech attracted USD16 billion of PE-VC investments globally in 2020, and Indian ed-tech companies received USD2.2 billion, based on data from Indian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association and research firm PGA Labs, there are now more companies already valued at levels higher than pre-IPO Coursera.

India is home to some of the most valued ed-tech companies. Besides Byju’s and Unacademy — Eruditus is not headquartered in the country — upGrad has been making strong strides in terms of valuation and growth. “With more than 11 million registered learners, India is the second-largest market for Coursera,” said Raghav Gupta, managing director, India and APAC, Coursera. While India remains a key growth market for Coursera, the top-funded tech companies in the country are searching for their next growth story. Despite the apparent lure of value creation, listed ed-tech companies are the real education unicorns of India. If the pandemic and NEP drive more edtech companies in India to unlock value via listing, there could be a game changer in the works.   

3)     What happens when mental-health issues get in the way of work [Source: Livemint
Naomi Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, did something recently that would be unthinkable. She said that she won’t talk to the press. The 23-year-old Ms. Osaka isn’t a typical professional, nor is the French Open a traditional workplace. But Ms. Osaka’s openness about her mental-health struggles is a public example of private issues companies are increasingly facing as a young generation more candid about such challenges joins the workforce, employers say. So, how can an individual’s mental-health needs be accommodated when those needs affect the ability to do parts of the job? A survey by McKinsey & Co. published earlier this year found that 65% of employers say employee mental health is supported well or very well; 51% of employee respondents agreed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has helped more employers understand workers’ individual needs and accept that work can often be done more flexibly or in ways more tailored to individual needs, says Maria Danaher of the law firm Ogletree Deakins, who advises and trains employers on issues including mental health. Tackling mental health at an individual level can be challenging for companies, says Andy Dunn, co-founder of menswear company Bonobos and chairman of clothing company Monica + Andy. Mr. Dunn, who until last year served as senior vice president of digital consumer brands at Walmart Inc., which acquired Bonobos in 2017, recalls an instance in which one employee had been acting mercurially and speaking in a demeaning way to other employees. Though company officials suspected mental-health issues were at play, Mr. Dunn says they didn’t know what to do, and the employee ultimately left the company. Checking on the employees’ mental health would be key to a company’s success in such uncertain times.

4)     Jennifer Daniel, the woman who will decide what emoji we get to use [Source: Economic Times]
We all, or at least most of us, talk more in terms of emoji when chatting with someone or posting something on the social media. Today’s emoji catalogue includes nearly 3,000 illustrations representing everything from emotions to food, natural phenomena, flags, and people at various stages of life. Behind all those symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies aiming to make text and emoji readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages look the same on all devices; a Japanese character should be typographically consistent across all media, for example. Jennifer Daniel is the first woman at the helm of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a fierce advocate for inclusive, thoughtful emoji.

Now she’s on a mission to bring emoji to a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. “There isn’t a precedent here,” Daniel says of her job. And to Daniel, that’s exciting not just for her but for the future of human communication. She believes that 80% of our communication is nonverbal. Emoji are shared alongside words. Talking about the goals she wants to achieve, she says, “One of the goals I have is to make sure the emoji are globally relevant concepts. They have to relate to everyone in the world. That’s not to say that globally relevant means the emoji means the same thing all around the world. Hand gestures can mean different things, for example. But we have to know the history.”

5)     Will poorer countries benefit from international tax reform? [Source: The Economist
International tax reform pits tax-hungry governments against giant multinational companies and their armies of tax advisers. It sets high-tax jurisdictions against low-tax havens. And it requires rich- and poor-country governments to somehow reach agreement. The 139 countries haggling at a forum run by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, have yet to reach a consensus. Poorer countries worry that the proposals on the table discussed are too complicated, inflexible and unfair. The reforms being discussed, and supported by America’s Biden administration, would reallocate the right to tax a slice of some companies’ profits, and agree on a global minimum corporate-tax rate, perhaps of 15%.

On May 12th, the African Tax Administration Forum (ATAF), a group of national agencies, criticised the idea of reallocating the right to tax the portion of multinationals’ profits above some “routine” level, as “far too complex”, suggesting that a share of total profits be reallocated instead. The biggest complaint is that rich countries may get the bulk of taxable profits being grabbed back from havens, while poor ones are left with the scraps. In October, the OECD estimated that a reallocation of taxing rights on some companies might help raise corporate-tax revenues in poor countries by around 1%. The complex knock-on effects of a proposed minimum tax of 15% could raise poor countries’ corporate-tax take by another 2-4%. Even so, rich countries will probably make bigger gains still.

6)     Healthcare, pharma, fuel, food: all’s fair game for Ransomware 2.0 [Source: The Ken
Globally, there has been a spurt in ransomware attacks over the last year, and India, according to multiple reports, is the most-targeted country in the world. “We are literally getting a dozen calls in a week for incident response and retrieval of data,” an executive with a Mumbai-based cybersecurity company. These hacker groups don’t discriminate when it comes to choosing victims. Hospital chains and pharmaceutical companies are as much of a target as any other large industrial business, manufacturer, or tech company. While ransomware attacks aren’t new, the recent surge of attacks is being attributed to the pandemic and the resultant work-from-home situation, among other factors. Almost overnight, companies had to open up internal servers so they could be accessed through the internet and personal devices—often running pirated or unpatched software—making networks and systems more vulnerable.

In the last two years, ransomware has transformed from sporadic occurrences here and there to radically organised crime. Hacker groups no longer work alone. Instead, they specialise in certain areas and team up for maximum damage and profit. Ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) operators are the bigwigs, similar to a weapons cartel. Except here, their weapon of choice is the complete package of malware and tools needed to breach, encrypt, and exfiltrate data. Globally, computer emergency response teams have issued advisories, listing basic dos and don’ts. Besides patching software and systems and deploying security endpoint applications and firewalls, the advisories also detail measures for secure video conferencing and desktop access. Though these attacks happen on largely private networks, they can often have wider, real-world consequences.

7)     Good ol’ jeans are facing pandemic blues; a stitch in time may help denim makers [Source: Economic Times
Jeans have been a staple wear for most of the Indians. But, the pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the denims industry in FY21. “The number of occasions that a person can wear a pair of their favourite jeans has obviously gone down due to the pandemic. Add to that the staggered operations of our manufacturing and retail facilities, which is making it harder to do business. We haven’t seen any sales in the last two months. The second wave has definitely hit the business worse than the last time,” says Sanjay Vakharia, managing director, Spykar Jeans. Barring marginal growth in FY15 and FY18, the sales of denim fabric has been on the decline. And this was the case even before to the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with over production on the one hand and sluggish sales on the other.

One of the biggest drivers for denims is their falling price point. While old-school manufacturers continue to focus on standard-priced denims, the sweet spot for a pair is in the range of Rs1,500-1,800. But, there are many challenges as well. The denim industry comes under a lot of scrutiny for its water usage, and environmental impact. Another challenge faced by denims as a category is the rise of other fabrics in the ready-to-wear apparel market. For example, Numero Uno generated nearly 45% revenue from its other-than-denim categories of apparel and shoes. The denims category has gone through several changes in terms of look, fabric, innovation in washes, and wearability. What, however, has remained unchanged is its love among consumers.

8)     Comedian gets serious: An interview with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky [Source: The Economist
In a country where politics has long been dominated by oligarchs and treated as a means for personal gain, the victory of a man whose only asset was his popularity seemed a miracle. “People saw a Cinderella story and identified themselves with the life behind the screen,” says Mr. Volodymyr Zelensky. While his presidency has been eventful, reform has been slow and the results are mixed. He has stuck to his red lines when negotiating over the future of Donbas, the south-eastern region of Ukraine that was plunged into war in 2014 by Russia-backed separatists; and he held his nerve when Moscow massed troops on his border a few weeks ago. He showed guts when he took on Viktor Medvedchuk, a powerful oligarch and a friend of Mr. Putin.

But, the country’s justice system remains unreformed and the rule of law is as patchy as ever. Mr. Zelensky has turned his presidency into a quest: he has broken into a closed political system and stuck up for ordinary people. They have cheered him on. His attack on the oligarchs is popular, as is his defiance of Russia and his government’s big investment in new roads. He is still, by far, the most trusted politician in Ukraine: 30% say they would vote for him today, the same number that did in the first round of voting two years ago.

9) Podcast: Ray Dalio on how should the rich be taxed most effectively [Source: The Economist
In this podcast, Ray Dalio, an American investor, billionaire and the founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, assesses President Biden's plans to tax the rich. He talks about whether his firm's distinctive culture is cultish and whether the Redditers were right in their criticism of hedge funds over GameStop. Also, the need to place some chips on China’s economic power and the power of meditation. He says every company has got to have some culture and it needs to be clear.

Talking about his political stance, he has not supported any political party. The only person that he has ever supported is John McCain, because he was bipartisan. He says that he doesn’t care whether it’s the left r the right, as long as they both are together and productive. He further talks about China’s accomplishments and the way they have opened up to entrepreneurship. Lastly, he talks about how he would have loved to play the saxophone (his father was a Jazz musician) and how much he loves meditation.

10) ‘I wanted to escape this life by hiding who I was’
[Source: The Straits Times]
This article throws light on the discrimination based on caste in Japan. Professor Risa Kumamoto, 48, has indeed come a long way from her childhood home – a hamlet of shunned “untouchables” – and escaped the grips of oppressive poverty and outright discrimination. Now lecturing at Kindai University in Osaka, she is a respected academic in the fields of human rights research and sociology. But as a descendant of burakumin (literally “hamlet people”), getting to where she is entailed overcoming a mountain of odds. Burakumin are the underclass in a centuries-old social hierarchy that is a relic of the feudal shogunate era. She was able to get an education, but her ancestry continued to dog her.

Prof. Kumamoto vividly remembers how, in university, her then boyfriend told her to hide her identity. “He told me, ‘You are a good person, but it is better not to mention your burakumin background to my family for your own good. This isn’t discrimination, but mentioning it draws unnecessary attention to it, so it is just better not to talk about it at all.’ While buraku hamlets have been torn down in areas around and north of Tokyo, they still exist, albeit with facilities modernised and gates torn down, in western Japan areas such as Osaka and Kyoto. Available official figures, from 1993, indicate that 4,442 such communities existed nationwide. Today, the Japanese government recognises only those who still live in those hamlets as burakumin – about 900,000, by official estimates. The Buraku Liberation League (BLL), however, said the actual number is closer to three million.  

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