The inside scoop on Amazon’s acquisitions, expansions, and biggest weaknesses
Amazon feels unstoppable.
The company Bezos built to sell books online is now arguably the most dominant and diversified company on earth, and the odds-on favorite to crack the $1T market cap first.
This seems to be the consensus, at least among technologists. But the majority are often very wrong, so let’s dive deeper.
This is the first in a series of in-depth articles on the future of the tech giants, including a breakdown of their business models, biggest threats, future plans, and probable acquisitions.
Gods of the Valley - A SeriesPart 1: Amazon Eats the World
Part 2: The Future of Google
Part 3: Facebook: The King of Communication
Part 4: Apple's Greatness Is Fading
Amazon’s Current Empire
Unlike most of the Fortune 500, Amazon is very diverse. It isn’t one or two products that drive their success; it’s an army. Amazon’s business is made up of five primary divisions: Amazon.com, AWS, Alexa, Whole Foods Market, and Amazon Prime.
Each of Amazon’s five primary divisions would, on its own, be an impressive business. Combined, they create the world’s largest flywheel.
To better understand the behemoth, let’s look at and analyze each of Amazon’s divisions.
1. Amazon Marketplace: the #1 e-commerce marketplace
Amazon is the most monopolistic and well-positioned marketplace the Western world has ever seen. Last year they did $136B in revenue, with double-digit growth every year.
And every year, Amazon seems to be expanding its reach and market share. To date, Amazon has ten marketplaces across the globe, from the obvious—Europe and North America—to Japan, China, and India and are in the process of rolling out in Australia.
The e-commerce business is booming, powered by great logistics and third-party sellers. Amazon is quite literally becoming the de facto online store.
2017 estimates show a staggering 44% of US e-commerce occurred on Amazon.com.
And Amazon has been growing at least 13% YoY (year-over-year) for each of the last five years.
And it gets better; the growth is diversified. In 2016, 35.5% of Amazon’s e-commerce revenue was international. That’s up from 34% in 2015.
All of this contributes to Amazon’s stock flying high.
But there is another layer to unpack: Amazon Basics. As an ex-Amazon seller, Amazon Basics is an ugly word. It boils down to Amazon analyzing third-party seller data and copying the best-performing products.
I have seen this happen to dozens of products and numerous friends. Amazon only cares about Amazon and serving customers. The dirty tactics they take with sellers are quite troubling and signal their future intentions. Ultimately, Amazon wants to replace all third-party sellers/products with Amazon Basics versions. Amazon wants to (and will) own the customer and every ounce of margin that comes with it.
This has implications both for buyers and sellers. For sellers, the issues are obvious. Yet Amazon is a bit like eating fast food, tasty in the short term and terrible in the long run. Brands cannot help but want access to their hundreds of millions of customers and thus sacrifice their future for short-term success. For buyers, the problem is equally bad.
Marketplaces die when the creator becomes the competitor.
As Amazon begins to limit options and over-promote their own products (which they already do in terms of which products get displayed), their pricing power increases. This could theoretically lead to increased (monopolistic) pricing and customer harm.
2. AWS: the #1 web services company
While the e-commerce business is incredibly powerful, AWS is arguably even better. (Note: I think Amazon should spin out AWS before regulators start anti-trust actions.)
Amazon built AWS for their marketplace. They needed the ability to host images and information for Amazon.com and, Bezos being Bezos, built the product in a modular fashion.
As AWS grew, Amazon constantly cut prices to crush competition, making AWS the easy choice.
“Your margin is my opportunity.” — Jeff Bezos
Today ~42% of the web is powered by AWS. That is more than double Microsoft, Google, and IBM (combined).
Yet given the easy-to-use system and affordable pricing, it makes sense.
And growth isn’t slowing down; quite the opposite. AWS accounts for 10% of Amazon’s overall revenue, with $4.6B in Q3 of 2017 (up 42% over last year) and $1.2B in profit (up 36% over last year).
Amazon owns the infrastructure the majority of the internet is built on.
3. Alexa: the #1 voice assistant (hardware and software)
Amazon’s many-headed monster got a powerful new addition in 2014.
For those not reading between the lines, Amazon’s ambition is to own everything. Regardless of the nature of the product or purchase, Amazon eventually wants to offer it.
Alexa is the next iteration of this. Suddenly with the explosion of Alexa-powered devices, Amazon is sneaking a spy directly into your home.
This has nothing to do with Echo sales!
Hint: how do you buy things?
Alexa is designed to replace everything. The goal of the product is seamlessly purchasing everything. One-click checkout isn’t enough anymore.
“Hey Alexa, we’re out of toothpaste, toilet paper, and tampons.”
The beauty of Alexa (for Amazon) is selection. While customers who shop on Amazon.com currently have access to a wide variety of brands, ultimately Alexa defeats this. Eventually, every single product consumers ask Alexa for will be Amazon Basics (obviously the Alexa default). Once the trap of choice is removed (“I don’t care what brand of toilet paper”), customers are more inclined to buy, meaning any basic necessities will be provided by Amazon.
While the nifty voice controls are nice, this is Amazon’s true goal. And it is working wonderfully. According to Amazon, they sold 20M+ Echo units as of Q3 last year. I cannot even imagine how many more were sold for the holidays.
If only Amazon offered groceries …
4. Whole Foods: the tenth-largest grocer
Oh wait, Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017 for about $13B. Now things get interesting. Here’s a complete breakdown on the implications of the Whole Foods acquisition.
To summarize, Amazon bought a fully functional, balanced network of supply and demand.
Amazon failed numerous times with groceries because of the challenge of spoilage. Food needs to move fast. The Whole Foods acquisition allows Amazon to leverage existing demand and largely decrease supply risk while offering edible options to online customers. Worst case scenario, some ham and cheese don’t sell online so they slash prices in stores to liquidate inventory.
And the Alexa connection makes this even more interesting. As consumers interact with their incredibly convenient Amazon device, why wouldn’t consumers grab groceries online?
“Hey Alexa, please order one gallon of milk, one loaf of bread, two tubs of yogurt, and a jar of peanut butter every single week. And my recipe calls for pizza crust, tomato sauce, and pepperoni; can you add those to my list as well?”
With Alexa Discovery, the implications go even further. Can you imagine a Pinterest-esque future where you have favorites, Amazon uses AI to suggest meals, you star your favorites, and Amazon automatically orders the ingredients?
There is a reason the top supermarket chains’ values dropped a combined $13B following news of the acquisition.
5. Amazon Prime: #2 video streaming service, #6 music streaming service
Amazon’s last main pillar is complicated. Prime is both a free two-day shipping service and streaming for content and entertainment.
This is the perfect flywheel connector. Studies show Prime customers spend nearly twice as much on average as non-members ($1300 vs $700; numbers vary based on source). That alone is huge. And at $7.99 per month, Amazon is making even more money.
With Prime Music and Prime Video (both free with Amazon Prime), the added value is even greater. Both services provide unlimited streaming access to Amazon’s entire catalog of licensed and original content, competing with services like Spotify and Netflix respectively.
Though both Prime services currently have less original content and smaller libraries than competitors, they are essentially free, keeping people in Amazon’s ecosystem.
If you can get free two-day shipping plus not need Netflix or Spotify, you are ticking a lot of boxes.
It is estimated that 63 million US homes have Amazon Prime (up 35% year-to-date). And ultimately, Amazon just wants to increase Prime subscribers. These boost recurring revenue ($1.9B in Q1 of 2017) while nearly doubling organic purchases, all of which fuel the fire.
Amazon has five powerful business units, any of which would be a successful business in its own right.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Amazon also has compelling future growth opportunities.
Amazon’s Growth Opportunities
Going forward, Amazon’s strong leadership and vision of the future have put the company in an incredible position. Each of the five main divisions is experiencing strong growth and has the potential to go significantly bigger.
But Amazon isn’t satisfied. Today, we’re seeing Amazon invest in its next bit opportunities. Let’s explore those in more detail.
1. Expand Amazon Basics
As previously stated, Amazon Basics is Amazon’s ultimate goal. Once they own the end-to-end, they will have won. That said, while Amazon is devoting significant resources to scaling up their Basics product line, they have a long way to go.
As of Dec 14th, 2017, the Amazon Basics line comprised 1500 products (up from ~300 in 2013). Look for this trend to continue and accelerate. With over 480M products listed on Amazon.com alone, there is plenty of room for improvement.
2. Spin out AWS
I believe that Amazon runs the risk of regulation. While Amazon isn’t under attack like Facebook, Google, or Twitter, Amazon is approaching the point of market domination (monopoly) in numerous areas.
As individuals and lawmakers wise up, expect regulatory pressures to be applied. Amazon could preempt antitrust sentiment/action by spinning out AWS. As it stands today, AWS is the only division of Amazon not focused on commerce and logistics and is the best suited to be a standalone business.
This would greatly decrease the risk of government intervention (both locally and abroad). And let’s face it, everything Amazon does somehow pumps up the stock price. Odds are the combined market caps of the two companies would exceed Amazon’s current $604B cap.
3. Expand offline retail
Amazon seems determined to build a local retail presence because while one-click shopping is lucrative, Amazon understands the importance of experiences (and shopping). And Amazon.com is optimized for conversions and upsells, and they are betting that bricks-and-clicks experiences can further increase sales.
I’d be inclined to agree. Many Americans love trying on clothes and “shopping.” And, as discussed in a previous post, local retail makes a ton of sense for products that either:
- have a high online return rate
- have a high value-to-weight (or size) ratio
Expect to see Amazon rapidly expanding local operations to test in-store experiences. More on this in our acquisitions section.
Because malls are (were) a thing for a reason …
4. Increase video production
Have you seen “The Big Sick”? The Amazon Studios movie written by Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh from Silicon Valley) was one of the best movies I have seen in a long time.
Amazon spent $4.5B for original content in 2017. They see an opportunity to attack Netflix ($90.57B market cap) by creating great shows and movies for Prime Video. And the future of video and entertainment is, of course, streaming services; Amazon sees this.
As Amazon increases its video library, its evergreen content will not only delight existing customers but attract new ones.
And in a world where content (and attention) is king, Amazon successfully owning the hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers is very profitable.
5. Increase food focus
While Amazon’s $13B acquisition of Whole Foods is exciting, the US grocery market is worth about $800B (about six times Amazon’s worldwide sales).
That’s saying something. For Amazon to succeed in this massive market will require focus and resource allocation. If they do it right, Amazon could easily double or triple their business in the next several years.
For more on how and the implications of the acquisition, see this post.
6. Explore pharma
Drugs are big business, especially in America, hence why Amazon is interested. And the mere rumor of Amazon exploring pharma caused the stocks of major pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to tumble.
That’s an entirely new easy-to-access market nearly the size of groceries. And for Amazon, it is a walk in the park. They already have the best logistics in the world. And customers already know, like, and trust them.
Once Amazon-branded generics are available, what percentage of consumers do you think will skip the inconvenient, overly expensive pharmacy?
It is time to push some pills …
Other Factors to Consider
I’ve written before about how tech giants are beating start-ups at their own game, and Amazon is the best example of this. There are few companies as prepared to manage disruptive change as Amazon.
Amazon is one of the best-managed businesses in the world.
This comes from a results-driven culture of experimentation, taking (and rewarding risks), customer focus, constructive disagreements, and ownership. And if you look at Amazon, the company really lives its rules. (For a more detailed description of how Bezos maintains such a killer culture, see this post).
But there are several things Jeff has done incredibly well while building Amazon. First and foremost is following through on promises with unyielding, efficient execution.
Look at the Whole Foods acquisition and the pharma announcement. Amazon’s rewarded by the market every time. In the eyes of the public, Bezos can do no wrong.
Bezos has carefully crafted the image of ruthless reliability that allows Amazon the leeway needed to build for the future without focusing on short-term profit.
Plus it helps that Bezos owns 17% of the company and is able to steer the ship.
Have you ever seen the inside of an Amazon warehouse? If not, watch this video:
The level of efficiency and automation is unprecedented. Everything is measured and streamlined. This helps Amazon keep costs low and quality high, even at a massive scale, leading to vastly better unit economics. This makes Amazon’s incredibly low prices possible so no one can compete on price.
Amazon has some of the best AI experts, period. Between the folks building Alexa to the millions of A/B tests running every day and the eerily accurate product recommendations, Amazon’s combination of data and machine learning is rivaled only by Google.
And as anyone with experience in data and AI understands, this creates a flywheel where the rich get richer, which we clearly see with Amazon.
While Amazon is clearly one of if not the top tech company, its bank account is a bit smaller than others in the industry. At only $22B, Amazon cannot be overly aggressive with acquisitions. Nonetheless, Amazon’s stock surged nearly 32% following the Whole Foods acquisition.
In the eyes of the markets, Bezos can do no wrong. Keeping this in mind, Amazon can probably afford to spend well north of $22B for the right strategic acquisition.
Here are the six most logical acquisitions for Amazon to make:
1. Video: With Amazon’s increased focus on Prime Video to compete with Netflix, an acquisition only seems logical. There are several ways this could play out and many potential candidates.
Likely Amazon can’t afford Netflix. If they could structure a deal, however, this would kill cable for good and effectively make Amazon czar of entertainment (among many other things).
As Disney recently acquired Hulu, and Time Warner has snatched up HBO, both of these services are probably off the table. If Amazon could acquire them, though, it would be a huge win.
For the most realistic scenarios, Amazon should target smaller film studios and YouTubers to add to the Amazon platform. By bringing content from several genres (and hopefully stealing YouTuber followings), Amazon can further seed Prime Video with both long- and short-form video entertainment, effectively attacking both Netflix and Youtube in a single swoop.
2. Music: Much like video, Prime Music is a driving force behind Prime subscriptions, which drives the flywheel further downstream. As such, growing the service should be top of mind for execs.
Unlike video, music presents much easier and likely more lucrative acquisition opportunities for Amazon.
Pandora, the most-used music streaming service (free version), has a market cap of only $1.13B. That is chump change for Amazon. Between distribution and licensing deals, this could prove very enticing for Amazon to expand its subscriber base.
The other interesting player here would be SoundCloud, the streaming service that nearly goes bankrupt every few months. As Soundcloud clearly hasn’t figured out monetization, this could be an interesting plug and play with Amazon’s existing infrastructure and customer base.
SoundCloud has raised $467M to date. They aren’t worth that now. An acquisition (or takeover) could pay back investors and set Amazon up for success.
SoundCloud specifically could also provide Amazon with an inroad into the podcasting arena (a hot, under-monetized space with huge potential).
3. Big box retailer: While retail is dying, Amazon is thriving. Rather than building stores themselves, an acquisition could make a lot of sense here. Target specifically could provide many synergistic benefits and likely murder Walmart.
Target has 1828 stores throughout North America. While these stores are bigger than I imagine Amazon would want, the distribution, storage space and upsell abilities would be very very interesting. And as Target’s market cap is only $37.58B (~1/9 of Walmart’s cap), this is definitely something Amazon could afford.
Add the fact that Target shoppers are Amazon’s ideal customers, and you have a pretty interesting opportunity.
4. Fashion company: Amazon owns the customers and is expanding rapidly into fashion. Unlike most products, however, clothes are best tried on. And it isn’t just about fit.
Clothes shopping is much more about feeling than function. The emotion of trying on the perfect top or pair of skinny jeans is what drives the sale. People envision a better version of themselves, then they buy.
So if Amazon decided not to buy an all-around retailer (like Target) but to instead focus on fashion, Nordstrom could make a good choice. The luxury department store has 349 stores throughout North America and, with an $8B market cap, it is comparable to Whole Foods.
Other great options include Kohl’s, Macy’s, or J.C. Penney, each with unique advantages.
Don’t forget Amazon Basics; their goal is to make everything themselves. By being closer to customers, Amazon’s designers could more rapidly iterate on fashion trends before rolling out nationwide (Amazon’s better than anyone at experimentation).
Realistically, it is impossible to predict, but look for Amazon to make a play in the fashion space in the next two years.
5. Wild card 1—Ride-sharing: This is an out-there theory with incredible potential. If you believe as I do that Uber is in trouble and ride-sharing is a tough market, acquiring Lyft makes perfect sense. Here is why.
The unit economics of ride-sharing currently don’t work. Due to the local versus global nature of the networks, every city can present competition. As a result, ride-sharing is often a race to the bottom.
Yet how much do brands pay for advertising? Especially when you have the customers’ attention, this is valuable. Lyft could create the ultimate Amazon sales vehicle, quite literally upselling customers in the car.
In South Africa, Uber drivers often add screens with advertising to increase their overall income. A similar system, either as a partnership or acquisition, could make Amazon a lot of money. Between riders’ locational data, Prime Music, video-on-demand, and the always obvious Amazon.com upsells, this could be a big value driver (pun intended).
Plus Amazon could up the ante with Prime, offering discounted fares on Amazon’s Lyft service. This would swing the ball in Lyft’s favor while subsequently increasing the number of Prime subscribers (which drives Amazon’s flywheel doubly).
And if you believe car ownership is dead, driverless cars are the future, and autonomous vehicles are an incredible opportunity, this sets Amazon up to own even more of customer lives.
6. Wild card 2—Telco: Imagine if Amazon owned Sprint. While easily the smallest of the US carriers, Sprint still has 50.4M customers.
And Amazon is already the place many consumers go to buy a phone. Well, what if Amazon offered you a free month of Sprint every time you looked at phones (or some other enticing offer)? How many would bite?
I’ll bet a lot. And Amazon has free advertising on its own platform (plus in Whole Foods). Amazon could easily start to upsell mobile services (as most grocers already do with prepaid plans).
And while Sprint’s valued at $22.76B, this would likely be doable for Amazon. The impact on existing service providers would be huge. Given Amazon’s tendency to cut prices and reduce margins, users would flock to Amazon, greatly increasing the value of the acquisition, and crushing competitors in the process.
Plus as net neutrality dies (I hate it but at the same time … ), imagine the possibilities for an Amazon-Sprint supercompany. Zero-rating will probably be the first (and hopefully only) impact of repealing net neutrality.
With a merger in place, zero-rating Amazon.com and Prime Music/Video would greatly drive increased traffic/usage from Sprint customers. And others would sign up for just this reason.
It is hard to give Amazon anything other than an A+. That said, due to the nature of disruption and the potential of decentralized blockchain startups to upset the status quo, I’ll give Amazon an A.
Really, the only two weaknesses Amazon has are regulatory risk and operating costs. The latter, we have not discussed, but bears discussion.
Currently, Amazon is not (or barely) profitable. That is the only reason Bezos isn’t getting an A+. And while the markets have shown that profits aren’t important now, the climate can always change. If and when capital markets shift or Amazon suffers a big hit, their stock could tumble. At the very least they could have some rocky times and less smooth sailing.
That said, I am very sure of Amazon. Welcome to the monopoly man of the future, Mr. Jeff Bezos …
Amazon is quite a company.
The five-headed ferocious dragon is dangerous and dominant in nearly every area of their operations. And betting against Bezos is never a good idea.
But how will other tech giants stack up?
All Rights Reserved for Matt Ward