I have been going through old interviews by Meituan founder, Wang Xing. He is obsessed with the mechanism of information transmission in our society and technological advances that improves information transmission brings about drastic changes to how people interact and conduct their daily lives. And when people change their ways of conducting daily lives, it usually means formation of new businesses that take advantage of these changes. Incumbent businesses that rely on the older way of information transmission will be left in shatters.
Wang Xing likes to define information technology (IT) as technology that enables the flow of information. So in this sense, just like Internet and smartphones, older technologies such as printing press & books are also IT. In fact, three out of the four ancient Chinese inventions (papermaking, printing, gunpowder and compass) are about IT. Papermaking is about storage of information. Printing is about mass replication of information. Finally compass is about production of geospatial information.
Internet brought about a revolution in terms of information transmission. Not only does it lower the cost of information transmission, it also unlocks new ways to transmit information. For example, social networks built on top of Internet allows information to pass through the network of humans. We share news, products, services, personal experiences with our friends on social network. Direct to consumer businesses have taken advantage of this change. This is challenging the long-held belief that FMCG companies have impregnable moats.
Technology does not just reduce cost of information transmission. They also allow new types of information to be transmitted. For example smartphone allows the individual location information to be transmitted instantly and hence new businesses such as ride-hailing and food delivery platforms to emerge. Smartphones also allow companies like Meituan which is a marketplace for local services such as hairdressers, beauty salons and restaurants to market to potential audiences more efficiently than before. Meituan will show consumers nearby local services based on location information which are most relevant to the user.
The impact of information flow is even more nuanced than just allowing new business models to emerge. I believe that because the digital revolution has brought about reduced communication and management costs which has reduced the transaction costs within a firm. This partly explains why we are seeing companies becoming larger than ever. I don’t think this trend will reverse.
As investors, the appreciation of the magnitude of changes and the path of change can be very lucrative. For example Uber drivers have driven demand for vehicle hires and this demand for rental vehicle has driven fleet sales in Brazil. Since fleet sale is done at wholesale price, this meant that auto OEMs has to accept lower unit price and margin compression.
The increased digitalisation will transform the food industry in the next 10 years. The first step has been the arrival of the food delivery platform which brings food from the restaurants to the consumers. This can happen because the consumer side has been “digitalised” with smartphone. The next step is to digitalise the restaurant. Currently the bottleneck in terms of food delivery efficiency lies with waiting time at the restaurants. Digitalisation of the kitchen will allow the food delivery platform to predict cooking time much more accurately. Then it is about the logistics. Instead of delivering with clumsy human beings, the next step is to deliver with autonomous robots. Eventually, I believe that food production will be centralised and cost of food comes down dramatically. People will continue to go to restaurants for social experiences. But new flats might not have kitchens anymore.
After studying Wang Xing carefully, I am 100% with him that digitalisation will continue to change the society. And the next stage of change is mostly focused on the enterprise side. While Warren Buffett has derided “change” as detrimental to the investors, I think “change” can be quite lucrative if it is misunderstood by most.