A Kellogg MBA Competitive Analysis: Major Stakeholders in Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality (Microsoft Hololens)

Over the Winter Quarter, our Technology and Innovation Strategy class at Kellogg culminated in a final research paper. The paper looked at the shuttering of Google Glass and what Google’s next steps should be. As part of this, I got to look deeply into the current state of Virtual Reality, which I have been following and waiting for (hello Oculus!) since I was a child, and Augmented Reality. I will be posting portions of the paper (it’s quite long) in digestible chunks here over the next week. Our team was comprised of Melissa Caldwell, Raghu Chirravuri, Olga Gordon, Jeff Hoffman, and me, Michael Nguyen. 

To see all of the sections, see my tag virtual reality.

Microsoft (Hololens – Augmented Reality)

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The most direct threat to Google’s existing business is from Microsoft’s Hololens headset. Similar to Google Glass, Hololens is a stand-alone, untethered AR headset extended from the Xbox Kinect platform that will be released with the launch of Windows 10 by the end of 2015. Hololens differs from Glass, as it has a full computing platform built within the headset. Running on Windows 10, this headset can project images not just on top (as Google Glass) of what the user sees, but also can place 3D holographic objects into the real world and allow people to interact with those objects naturally with hands, fingers, and voice. This functionality means a Hololens wearer could watch a holographic large screen TV on a real living room wall, play with digital Legos on a kitchen table, or even walk across the surface of the moon and view details on the ground in high resolution.

The potential of Hololens lies in its integration into the complete Windows 10 ecosystem. Microsoft is focused on having one Windows 10 operating system across PCs, tablets, and mobile phones, and Hololens is meant to serve as a complete communications, productivity, and entertainment platform. This would allow apps running on any other Windows 10 platform would run just as easily run on Hololens, eliminating the inertia present in creating a developer ecosystem. Microsoft sees the evolution of the tablet as a portable computing device in Hololens, and possibly as an eventual replacement for the monitor. This is an attempt to define a new product category and jump-start it with an existing ecosystem, as Apple did with the iPad. Success will depend on how well the Windows 10 unified ecosystem works in reality.

We expect several shortcomings from the initial Hololens product, similar to Google’s own experience with Glass, including battery life, overheating, and outdoor usage. While Microsoft does have hardware experience from its video game and mobile phone (formerly Nokia) divisions, it is unlikely that a launch with such new technology and learning curve will soon reach a mass-market audience in both reception and pricing.

It is possible that in a future in which Hololens becomes successful, users will no longer rely on a Google search box to look for information, instead using the Cortana personal assistant interface in Windows 10 by pointing at an object in view or issuing a vocal command. Regardless of whether Hololens can be an immediate mass-market success, as an early mover, this is a significant attempt by Microsoft to own the category and define standards for how people engage and interact in AR, similar to how many standard mobile touch gestures were defined by Apple.

A Kellogg MBA Competitive Analysis: Major Stakeholders in Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality (Sony, Oculus, Valve)

Over the Winter Quarter, our Technology and Innovation Strategy class at Kellogg culminated in a final research paper. The paper looked at the shuttering of Google Glass and what Google’s next steps should be. As part of this, I got to look deeply into the current state of Virtual Reality, which I have been following and waiting for (hello Oculus!) since I was a child, and Augmented Reality. I will be posting portions of the paper (it’s quite long) in digestible chunks here over the next week. Our team was comprised of Melissa Caldwell, Raghu Chirravuri, Olga Gordon, Jeff Hoffman, and me, Michael Nguyen. 

To see all of the sections, see my tag virtual reality.

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Competitive Analysis: Major Stakeholders in Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality

While numerous firms are engaging in VR or AR headset platforms, firms that have major corporate backing to avoid being acquired and have the finances to pose a legitimate threat to Google are discussed below and in summary Table A.

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Sony (Project Morpheus – Virtual Reality) and Valve (HTC Vive – Virtual Reality)

Sony and Valve are similar in their focus on gaming entertainment through VR headsets. While Sony has its own console platform (Playstation), Valve focuses on the PC market, creating a consistent gaming experience for PC gamers regardless of hardware manufacturer or operating system through its Steam gaming platform. In March 2015, both companies revealed they are planning to release their products by the end of 2015. Sony will develop and manufacture its own headset, while Valve will work with partners such as HTC to release headsets, similar to Oculus and Samsung in producing Gear VR. With both firms’ focus on entertainment, these are greater threats to Oculus, discussed below, rather than Google AR and VR.

Facebook (Oculus Rift – Virtual Reality)

The Oculus headset is a tethered (wired) unit that requires a high-end PC to power, creating a sit-down user experience. Oculus has gained traction in VR and AR by creating an ecosystem of applications and new hardware add-ons that add functionality to the device such as body movement and finger tracking for user interfaces.

Oculus initially had a pure focus on gaming and simulation rather than productivity, making it less of a threat to Google. However, with the Facebook purchase of Oculus VR and the announcement of the partnership with Samsung to release Gear VR (more detail below), the Oculus platform is more of a threat. Aside from its current dominance as a social platform over Google+, Facebook has also launched search, advertising, and portal-like products that combined form a significant threat to Google as the default source of information of the masses.

Oculus has released several developer headset kits to the community, with the first consumer-focused version expected in 2015. Oculus has repeatedly stated the consumer product must be oriented to the mass-market not only in functionality but also price. While Facebook does not have direct experience in producing hardware at mass levels, Samsung, its partner on the Gear VR, does. Thus, we believe that Oculus will be able to deliver a mass-market headset more quickly than other competitors.

Samsung (Oculus Rift / Gear VR – Virtual & Augmented Reality)

Samsung’s Gear VR is an untethered (wireless) headset that requires the Galaxy Note 4 mobile phone. Note 4 users simply insert the device into the headset. Using Oculus technology, the Gear VR has an advantage over Oculus because it supports AR through its outward facing camera. Unlike other AR solutions, Gear VR cannot not reasonably be worn outdoors. While Gear VR does not compare to full-powered VR solutions such as Oculus, the partnership creates two concerns for Google. First, Samsung is a dominant global hardware partner for Facebook, with experience in display and mobile technologies. With Samsung as a manufacturing partner, Oculus would have an advantage in merchandising over other platforms. Second, the partnership creates more exposure to the Oculus platform for users and app developers. The Gear VR was released in December 2014 at $199 (non-mass market focused “Innovator Edition”); based on Samsung’s aggression in the mobile market, we can expect rapid iterations on the platform and increased compatibility with new phones.

The Origins of RedOctane (Before Guitar Hero)

I am reading a Harvard case study about Netflix for a class at Kellogg right now and reading about its timing of switching to unlimited rentals in the summer of 2000 reminded me of when I first heard about the company that would become RedOctane, the producers of Guitar Hero (did you see: Rock Band is coming back) and a startup success story.

I remembere the exact article posted on April 17, 2000 at IGN: WebGameZone to Offer Import Rentals

Ever wanted to play the latest and greatest games out of Japan, but don’t quite have the budget to do so? There are many titles that are already out that deserve a good run through, but with prices floating around $70 each, one cannot afford to play them all. Well one online retailer noticed this and decided to start a bold new venture: renting import Dreamcast games Online.

WebGameZone is taking the high price of 70 dollars per game and changing it to a simple $4.99 rental. The company is already known for being the largest online videogame rental store, but until now has never offered the latest Japanese titles.

So what does a five dollar fee get you? How does 10 days of usage sound? That’s right… you get over a full week of gaming for the price of a typical fast food meal. After you are done with the game, you just send it back in the pre-paid, pre-labeled box that is provided.

Obviously, we can’t guarantee the quality of the site’s service, but it is certainly something import-hungry gamers may want to check out. Thirty import titles will be made available at first, with more and more being added as time goes on. This is truly a unique venture, and will be interesting to see if it works out.

Both Mike Won and I read the same article and while I am not sure exactly what happened next, one of us found out the company was in Sunnyvale (in Silicon Valley, 20 miles away from where we lived in San Jose), and I contacted them right away about internships. I would have happily worked for free, but got a quick response from Juan, came in a few days later, met the rest of the team (Kai Huang, Charles Huang, Dean Ku, etc.) and essentially had a part time job (probably at $7.50 an hour) at the age of 19 shipping game discs and learning about Japanese import games for the Sega Dreamcast. This probably all happened within 10 days. I was employee #9 or #10 until I left to finish my degree at UC-Berkeley in 2002, but my time there in that first stint is summarized in my LinkedIn profile:

In my first experience with RedOctane (formerly WebGameZone), I started as an intern, learning about shipping logistics. Over time, I was promoted to Customer Service and given complete freedom (and responsibility) to interact with customers and learn how to resolve issues without backup support in a loss limited structure.

Through these experiences, I learned vital lessons about the human psychology, empathy, effective communication, and stress management, critical lessons I still use on an everyday basis.

Promoted from Intern/Shipping Logistics (2000) to Customer Service / Game Inventory Buyer (2001).

Other fun links I found: (but couldn’t find the old logo)

Free Rental Offer

RedOctane Begins Renting Import PlayStation 2 Games

Woa! WebGameZone actually sent it to me!!

I Was Right! [About Coffee Meets Bagel]

It’s not often that I can say I was right, but I feel can do it this time. Six weeks ago, I wrote (about dating service Coffee Meets Bagel):

CMB received $2.8M in venture capital last May, which would not cover its marketing budget for this next year. Yet, its is only asking for 500K from Shark Tank. This leads me to believe CMB is mainly on Shark Tank for the PR and don’t want to give up very much equity, has another round coming, or does not intend to go with its stated marketing plan at all – it would not have the money for it. If it needs to grow massively to become profitable, CMB has no other option than to take the buyout offer.

And so it turns out CMB 1) indeed needed the money despite raising 2.8M eight months ago, 2) didn’t want to give up much equity to get it 3) because they had another round coming 4) to fuel marketing.

In other words, good PR boost. I do think it is odd to raise so much more money so recently after the venture round. CMB must have started looking for more money just 3-4 months after that round. This also suggests that the investors believe the product has hit the right mix of stickiness (if people come on – they will stay, and thus funds are needed to accelerate users into the app).

On Feb 18:

Dating App Coffee Meets Bagel Lands $7.8 Million In Series A

Coffee Meets Bagel, the dating service that focuses on quality over quantity, has today announced the close of a $7.8 million Series A financing round led by existing investor DCM Ventures. Quest Ventures and Azure Capital also participated in the round.

Analyzing the Shark Tank – Coffee Meets Bagel Episode [Startups]

I do not really watch Shark Tank, but two recent episodes struck my interest. The first was the episode with Singtrix, which has a connection to my time with RedOctane and Guitar Hero. The other was about Coffee Meets Bagel, the January 9th episode (thanks to Kevin Tung Nguyen for sharing the episode) that you can watch below:

Coffee Meets Bagel (CMB) relates because of my work at FriendsPlus, which we sold pre-launch to Noi.vn, Vietnam’s largest dating service in 2013. Like CMB, FriendsPlus focused on creating a non-meat market dating environment focused on the needs of female users, encouraging offline meets between users who explicitly opted in to each other. Some commentary on the episode and CMB:

  • The team should have been prepared for questions about user numbers. By deflecting the question multiple times, one wonders if they have given different numbers to different people and thus could not say publicly on television what the current numbers were (they would not want to be shown lying), or if CMB is simply at the bottom of the range given (100-500K users). As Cuban implies, there is a big difference between 100K and 500K users, especially considering that CMB has been around for close to 3 years (more on that below) – it suggests limited market or non-compelling and non-naturally sustainable growth.
  • The team mentions that CMB was invested in by a Match co-founder. That person is Peng Ong, who I actually know. Tinder is invested in by Match, the firm. CMB launched in April 2012, 5 months before Tinder, but Tinder is estimated to have 50 million users today. The team cites Match’s 800M in revenue as a sign of their own potential. That’s the same logic that says you should automatically advertise on Facebook because it has 1 Billion users. Yes, there is some superficial logic there, but you need to delve a bit deeper.
  • The Sharks are right in that CMB can easily be copied – look at the popular Noonswoon from Thailand.
  • CMB’s revenue and users are a bit alarming. I discuss it over the next points.
  • Last year, CMB generated $87K in revenue. If that is $0.50 per user on average, this would imply 170K users. This is reasonable for this type of product and follows what the team said. I don’t know how long the average user stays with the product. If they actually have more than 170K users, revenue is actually less than $0.50 per user. Remember this $0.50 figure for later.
  • This year, CMB expects to make $1M USD, but expects to lose $1M, which means costs were $2M USD. Current user acquisition is $0.30 per user.
  • CMB expects to break even at $10M in revenue next year, from 4M users. They expect to spend 3-4M (let’s assume it’s 4M) in to bring on those new 4M users. That is $1 per user. They expect $2.50 per user in revenue, but did not include CMB’s existing users in that revenue figure. This leads me to believe that CMB user lifetime with the service is not particularly long (1 year or less) or that the number of current users and the revenue generated from them is not significant enough to include. This implies the lower user figure in the given 100-500K user range. Increased user acquisition costs suggests this product does not spread virally, something about it does not compel others to talk about it, or you are trying too hard to bring someone who may not be the right fit for your product. If this is the case, the projected gain in average revenue per user (ARPU) for these kinds of users is also a concern.
  • How did CMB estimate $2.50 per user per year moving forward? CMB is going to jump from $0.50 to $2.50 (500%) in 1 year?  How does adding users generate more money per user? Since the revenue is from digital currency / microtransactions, does having more users make the product more sticky? If so, this implies the business is not sustainable now. If that is true, and focusing on this niche is not sustainable, what does this imply about the value the product is creating for its current users? Does having more users actually mean more date / chat frequency which means I need to buy more microtransactions? Again, this is not a meat market like Tinder in which you go on to browse (consume) through people – for Tinder, you need a ton of users. For CMB, you are getting one match per day carefully selected for you. Are there more types of transactions that CMB will be processing in the future that will generate new forms of revenue?
  • Let’s compare CMB to a Facebook type of product. Facebook generates more revenue by adding more business models. Example, Facebook could sell different types of ad products, and can charge more money with an increased user base (market power) increasing the efficiency of those ads. It can also take a share of revenue that is generated within the platform (apps, games), or sell emoticons. Thus, more users could lead to more revenue, but you also need to add more models for those users, it’s not automatic. This concerns me about CMB – it currently just sells digital currency.
  • Why is there such a high burn rate (company spending)? With $2M in expenses, this is over $150K in burn per month. You might want to look at CMB’s jobs page to find out where the money is going: https://coffeemeetsbagel.com/jobs/. From my experience: company trips costs a sh*tload of money. Based on LinkedIn, I found about 15 full-time employees at the company. Let’s say on average, each employee costs the company $100,000 each per year (this is low when you include office space, benefits, etc.). The founders mentioned they each make 100K, which for the Bay Area, is low. Based on CMB’s $1M revenue, and $1M in losses figure, however, the team is suggesting they spend 133K per employee per year, which is possible. (This doesn’t include marketing, which at .30 per user at 170K users, would only be about 50K and can be ignored for now). I know that the Bay Area is a different beast with employee expectations, but in my opinion, startups in need of cash need to learn how to conserve cash better.
  • CMB will break even at $10M in revenue and 4M+ users. With $4M going in advertising, where does the other $6M go? If you stick to the $133K per employee figure, the company would need to grow to 45 people. Perhaps some people are getting raises. Infrastructure should not be a particularly significant cost yet. I don’t think you can have 45 people in a co-working space either. If the cost goes to $150K per employee, that is still 40 employees. If the team can cut the fancy office, parties, trips and focus on profitability, I expect there is a good amount of fat that can be cut. (One of RedOctane’s first offices was a big warehouse with no air conditioning in Sunnyvale – no frills worked out for them)
  • I wonder if CMB’s quoted revenues include the 30% share that is given to Google Play and iTunes for microtransactions. Otherwise, there is no cost of goods (COGS).
  • Why does CMB need to grow to be profitable? This, along with CMB’s slow user growth after nearly 3 years troubles me. I could understand the growth in the sense it’s not a meat market app. It’s for people who want quality, real relevance over gross quantity. But why can’t it be profitable now? This makes me question the revenue model. Is CMB going against its core by going to mass-market advertising? If the app is not for everyone, it should be positioned accordingly. I don’t see how growth rescues them long term.
  • So what should CMB do? I would consider changing to a premium / subscription model to get revenue from more (higher % of users pay, but less overall users) users at higher rates and focus on that smaller niche audience to reach profitability. Do people pay for love? Yes, as long as it is provides real value. CMB seems to be providing that.
  • The Mark Cuban $30M offer: I don’t think he is actually making the offer, he is saying “what if”, to which the proper response to a hypothetical is of course no. If you say yes, you have publicly given a limit to what your company is worth (the team has suggested a $10M valuation with $500K for 5%) for no reason. You would never want to create the sense you do not believe in your product to preposterous levels. If it were a legit offer, I believe they should have taken it. 3X valuation is nothing to joke at, as much as the team may claim to look at Match’s $800M in revenue or Tinder’s billions in valuation. The team suggested CMB is a cash hungry business intent on growth. CMB received $2.8M in venture capital last May, which would not cover its marketing budget for this next year. Yet, its is only asking for 500K from Shark Tank. This leads me to believe CMB is mainly on Shark Tank for the PR and don’t want to give up very much equity, has another round coming, or does not intend to go with its stated marketing plan at all – it would not have the money for it. If it needs to grow massively to become profitable, CMB has no other option than to take the buyout offer.