Deepinder Goyal’s Tweet About Food Delivery in Mumbai

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock and aren’t sure who Deepinder Goyal is.

He sent this tweet out the other day:

… and I have questions. Lots of ’em.

  1. This wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago: a businessman raising a question about a government decision on a public, online forum, and getting a response from the authorities on that forum. You might say newspapers and television channels, but they weren’t public forums – you could read and view, but you couldn’t do much else besides. Does that make the world today a better place – that it is very easy and cheap to raise questions and expect answers? More importantly, is the opportunity cost worth it?
    That is, anybody can raise questions and comment online.1 Still worth it?
    I say yes, but your mileage may vary.
  2. This would have been possible ten years ago. Deepinder Goyal could have tweeted out this question, but it is unlikely that the Mumbai Police would have responded. For one thing, they only joined Twitter in December 2015. For another, the pressure on them to respond wouldn’t have been quite as much ten years ago. Twitter (and other social networks) have become village squares. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
  3. Deepinder Goyal is likelier to get a response than I am because he is way more popular. This isn’t a criticism of the Mumbai Police, to be clear. I’m just stating a thumb rule that I think makes sense: the more followers you have, the likelier it is that you will get a response. What are the incentives for the average Twitter user? What are the optimal strategies? What are the optimal strategies given everybody else’s optimal strategies? With what consequences?
  4. Likes, retweets and replies are effectively a currency we get to spend on Twitter (and other social networks likewise have their own currency).
    1. These are certainly a unit of account, because the value of a tweet at least partially lies in how viral it has become. (“Holy shit, this blew up over night! Check out my soundcloud!”)
    2. They are also a medium of exchange (you retweet my tweet, I’ll retweet yours – although the terms of trade are in some ways a function of the point above)
    3. They are a store of value too. Try complaining about stuff on Twitter (fridge not working, internet down, flight ticket reimbursement etc. etc.) if you want to understand how this works out in practice.
    4. How should we spend this currency that we have? How much of it do we have? How should we spend it, and what are we optimizing for? What should we be optimizing for? Why?
  5. If public authorities can be held to account on online forums, does that make them less accountable in offline forums? Does the substitution effect dominate the income effect? With what consequences?

  1. You only need to see the responses to this tweet to figure that out, for example.[]

Airbnb and the Asymmetry of Information

Devon Zuegel (@devonzuegel on Twitter, and definitely worth following) was less than happy with Airbnb recently:

And so of course I thought about Akerlof (1970)

This paper relates quality and uncertainty. The existence of goods of many grades poses interesting and important problems for
the theory of markets.

Akerlof, G. (1970). The Market for “Lemons”: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84(3), 488-500

It’s a paper that every undergraduate student ought to read. Not just economics undergraduate student, mind you, but every undergraduate student. Because it helps you get an understanding of many modern businesses today.

But first, a relatively simple explanation of the core idea of the paper:

Suppose buyers cannot distinguish between a high-quality car (a “peach”) and a “lemon”. Then they are only willing to pay a fixed price for a car that averages the value of a “peach” and “lemon” together (pavg). But sellers know whether they hold a peach or a lemon. Given the fixed price at which buyers will buy, sellers will sell only when they hold “lemons” (since plemon < pavg) and they will leave the market when they hold “peaches” (since ppeach > pavg). Eventually, as enough sellers of “peaches” leave the market, the average willingness-to-pay of buyers will decrease (since the average quality of cars on the market decreased), leading to even more sellers of high-quality cars to leave the market through a positive feedback loop.

Thus the uninformed buyer’s price creates an adverse selection problem that drives the high-quality cars from the market. Adverse selection is a market mechanism that can lead to a market collapse.

Akerlof’s paper shows how prices can determine the quality of goods traded on the market. Low prices drive away sellers of high-quality goods, leaving only lemons behind. In 2001, Akerlof, along with Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz, jointly received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, for their research on issues related to asymmetric information.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Market_for_Lemons#

Now, one way to understand the value of many businesses today is to realize that they’re solving asymmetry of information problems. Or at least, that’s how I think of it when I end up looking up the rating for a restaurant on Zomato in a unfamiliar part of town. I don’t know enough about this part of town, and I certainly don’t know this restaurant. Should I walk in for a meal or not?

I could always check if the people already inside are smiling or not, of course, but let’s face it, most of us will simply Zomato our way through this problem. Zomato is reducing the asymmetry of information problem. Successfully or not is a matter of opinion and perhaps controversy. But my argument here is that this is a potentially useful way of thinking about the problem: how to decide where to eat?

How to decide whom to recruit? Linkedin.

How to decide whom to trust? Look ’em up on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or wherever it is that people look up people these days.

How to decide which product to buy on Amazon? Check out the user ratings. In fact, sort by average user ratings! Yes, Amazon does provide this option.

How to decide which book to read? Goodreads.

How to… you get the drift, right. Part of the reason these firms are so highly valued by the public is because they solve the asymmetry of information problem.

And so does Airbnb. Or does it?

And that brings us back to Devon Zuegel’s tweet.

Every review left on Airbnb informs potential users about the quality of a stay at a particular host’s place. The more information they are able to glean from reviews left by previous users, the more they are likely to definitively transact…or not. That is, potential users will either stay at a particular place, or will definitely not.

Since Airbnb gets a cut from each transaction, but not from each no-stay, they have an incentive to put up only positive reviews. And that is the problem that we have to think about when we read Devon Zuegel’s tweets. Is Airbnb incentivized to leave only positive reviews up? Short answer: yes. Therefore, will they leave only positive reviews up? I’d say it’s a question of horizons, but it is also a question of the calculus.

Airbnb will not last for very long if they pull down every single negative review, because that will destroy trust.

But:

  • every now and then…
  • particularly for really highly rated hosts…
  • especially during a pandemic…
  • will the odd negative review…
  • have a higher chance of being pulled down?

Nothing in life is ever black and white, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. So no, Airbnb will not pull down every single negative review, but we also shouldn’t assume that it will leave every single negative review up.

More information in the hands of the consumer is a wonderful thing, and it does reduce the asymmetry of information. But who is providing the information to the consumers, and what are their incentives? What if the providers of the good/service are the ones that are making information available to the eventual consumers? Will that need to be regulated, and if so, how?

Zomato, LinkedIn, Uber, Airbnb – it’s a great time to be alive, because these firms, and many others like them, have provided for many services that would simply have not been possible otherwise. They have successfully reduced the asymmetry of information problem. But it’s not the end of the asymmetry of information problem, not just yet.

If anything, it just got more interesting.

Etc: Links for 20th December, 2019

  1. The coolest things that David Perell learnt in 2019. He has a paragraph on Twitter, from Bill Gurley, that I wholeheartedly agree with. Tempers run high on Twitter, true, but it is a magnificent learning tool for me.
    ..
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    “One of the examples is a famous New York City physician who was renowned for his ability to predict that patients would get typhoid. He predicted the sickness time and again. He would palpate their tounge (feel around their tongue) and predict, weeks before patients had a single symptom, over and over, and became famous, and as one of his colleagues said, he was a more productive carrier of typhoid than even Typhoid Mary because he was giving his patients Typhoid with his hands. In that case, the feedback he was receiving was reinforcing exactly the wrong lesson.”
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  2. Two articles that I got to read as a consequence of subscribing to Joanna Lobo’s Newsletter (if you are interested in writing, either as a hobby or a career, this is a newsletter worth subscribing to). The first is about the perils of comfort food…
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    “Every meal was meticulously pre-portioned and packaged for every individual. We never ate family-style, which was how I grew up eating, and how I learned that portion control is often not within your control: You are not just eating for yourself, and the choice to eat (and how much) often symbolizes love and affection more than physical nourishment. What is considered a “serving” when your chopsticks keep dipping back into shared plates and the diet app you use doesn’t even know what 鱼香茄子 (Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce) is? How can you not overeat when people were heaping dishes onto your plate without you asking? Is it rude to not finish that tofu someone offered you? What is fullness?”
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  3. “A Zomato spokesperson tells Open they are currently in the process of doing away with their food-reviewing levels. The titles have already been removed from the mobile app, the spokesperson says, and they will soon be removed from the website too. According to her, this has nothing to do with complaints about soliciting money, or restaurants and connoisseurs coming together to bump up an establishment’s ratings. “We are just coming up with a newer version, a new engagement tool for users,” the spokesperson says over the phone.”
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    A long read about gaming restaurant reviews.
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  4. Bourbaki’s influence is still alive and well. Now in “his” 80th year of research, in 2016 “he” published the 11th volume of the “Elements of Mathematics”. The Bourbaki group, with its ever-changing cast of members, still holds regular seminars at the University of Paris.
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    A lovely essay from the Madras Courier about Bourbaki, the “guy”.
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  5. Lots of links to work through in this video, but worth your time! Stats nerds only.

Tech: Links for 17th December, 2019

Five articles from The Ken today.

This is not, by any means, either an endorsement or a recommendation to subscribe to The Ken, neither do I have any contacts at this website. I have been a subscriber for a while now (though not yet a paying one), and I wanted to share a selection of their free articles to acquaint you with their write-ups, their business, and to familiarize you some alternative business models in the world of media.

  1. On the food delivery plastic problem (menace?) in India.
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    “Aggregators are stuck in an awkward spot between arbitrary regulations on plastic containers, and a partner network that, at best, is extremely heterogeneous in its attitude towards reducing plastic waste at source. The lack of suitable alternatives makes the job even harder. By Zomato’s own account, plastic waste from online food delivery adds almost 22,000 metric tonnes to India’s garbage pile every month, most of which, they admit, is dumped sans recycling.”
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  2. “The Indian grocery market is currently a $400-$500 billion market, according to Ankur Pahwa, head of e-commerce and consumer internet at advisory services firm EY. However, says Pahwa, the penetration of e-commerce in this space is just 0.5% at the moment because of the supply chain challenges involved. Despite this, Pahwa predicts the share of online groceries will double by 2021.”
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    Cracking the un-crackable: dealing with groceries and hyperlocal deliveries in India.
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  3. What’s bugging TrueCaller? No excerpts: read the whole thing! Also, yes, I have uninstalled the app after reading this.
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  4. “Tesla’s hardly the only one powering the shift to lithium. Battery-makers like Korea’s LG Chem, China’s BYD and CATL, as well as Japan’s Panasonic are doubling down on lithium-ion battery production to capture the world’s largest electric vehicle (EV) market in China.

With a mission to electrify 30% of its vehicles by 2025, what share does India have of this global, lucrative and largely Asian manufacturing pie?

Currently, zero.”
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On trying to understand why India doesn’t have a gigafactory yet – and might not in the near future, with a short concluding section on how to make the best of what is a bad situation.
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5. “Hotstar’s watershed moment came in May 2019, when it broke its own global record of 10.3 million concurrent viewers. 18.6 million watched the final game of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament during the weekend of 11-12 May. It shattered the record again in July when 25.3 million tuned in to watch India take on New Zealand in the Cricket World Cup semi-final.

But its appeal isn’t just sports. Hotstar has given viewers major titles like Game of Thrones—which it said was its most popular show in 2019—and blockbuster films like Marvel’s Avengers: End Game.”
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On understanding Hotstar better.

Etc: Links for 27th September, 2019

  1. Inside the lives of food delivery riders.
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  2. “Michael Shermer, who advances the case for moral behaviour determined by science and reason in The Moral Arc, argues that the arc of our moral universe is expanding and over history, “we have been steadily—albeit at times haltingly—expanding the moral sphere to include more members of our species (and now even other species) as legitimate participants in the moral community.” ”
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    I look forward to this day. I have a six year old daughter.
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  3. Do you like bananas?
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  4. Speaking of which, I enjoyed listening to this podcast a couple of years ago. Vikram Doctor on bananas.
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  5. “Musk’s believers argue that the details of his ventures don’t matter: It’s the grand vision that counts. “The guy has a will to make stuff happen that is extraordinary,” says someone who worked closely with Musk. “He willed Tesla to happen. And in willing a reality into existence, he might not stick to the facts.” But in the case of SolarCity, Musk’s penchant for making promises he can’t deliver on turned out to matter a great deal—and could even pose a threat to his entire empire.”
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    An update on Mr. Musk and his endeavors.

Links for 15th April, 2019

  1. “But Bengaluru’s enthusiasm for pubbing as a well-established cultural and social activity pushes things along. Everyone meets over a beer—it is the new coffee. Work meetings are held over beer. Older millennials organize and participate in beer tastings and beer-and-food pairings. Co-working spaces like WeWork offer beer on tap. And most craft-beer lovers drink it not to get drunk, but for the taste and a mild high, as well as the social aspect of hanging out over a beer.”
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    I’ll be visiting Bangalore later on this week, and this couldn’t have come at a better time in Livemint! A long read, but informative in many ways about Bangalore and it’s modern drinking culture.
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  2. “Most people think that now is a terrible time to visit Iran. The renewed US sanctions on the country mean that popular travel websites like Expedia, Airbnb and Booking.com don’t work in Iran. International debit and credit cards can’t be used to make payments or withdraw money from ATMs. Most travel insurance policies don’t cover Iran. And social networks like Twitter and Facebook are technically banned.”
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    The rest of the article explains why, in fact, this is a pretty good time to visit Iran. Stunning photographs – Iran really does seem like it is worth a visit.
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  3. “Gradually, as the demand for Manbeasts increases, more Manbeasts will come forth. That’s supply and demand in action, and it’s a good thing. Manbeasts aren’t blind sloggers. They bring insane skill to the game, and it is glorious to watch. On top of everything else, Andre Russell is a bloody good batsman.”
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    Amit Varma explains T20 cricket using economics, at which he is rather good. Here’s the scary bit: Dre Russell is the start of the crazy hitting phenomenon, per Amit Varma. Read to find out why.
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  4. “Food delivery in India is creating an entirely new market; 70% of our regular users in Kolhapur had never tried food delivery in their life (even over a phone call), and Zomato was the first food delivery experience of their lives. All the marketing investment we made in FY19 will bear fruit in FY20 and beyond — when we realise the LTV (Lifetime Value) of the users that we have acquired.”
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    Zomato is a firm worth following for a variety of reasons: interesting business models, upfront communications, and Akshar Pathak does a great job too. But read the annual report for some fairly impressive statistics and trends about food in India.
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  5. “Great to hear! Check out this page: “Advice for Aspiring Astrophysicists” (and, if you’d like a shorter thread, this Storify). Basically you should learn a lot of math and physics and programming and communication skills, and, if at all possible, try to get involved in some kind of research. See the page for more tips. Good luck!”
    I, along with the rest of the planet, have been reading about astronomy for obvious reasons. This link was informal and informative – which is a very rare combination.