September 28, 2016
Katzenberg admits his greatest motivator is, well, winning. An avid gambler, he got kicked out of summer camp at age 15 for playing cards (that was for M&M’s; these days he plays poker for much higher stakes). But DreamWorks wasn’t always a straight flush. The original production company never lived up to the expectations generated by its high-wattage founders: Katzenberg, Spielberg, and music and film mogul David Geffen. DreamWorks Animation, which became independent in 2004, had more success—but never attained the scale to secure its future in an increasingly conglomerate-heavy Hollywood. ... Still, under Katzenberg’s direction, the animation studio, based in Glendale, Calif., was prolific, sometimes profitable—and most important, prescient. In 22 years, including as a division of DreamWorks SKG, it produced 32 films, garnering more than $13.5 billion in worldwide box-office revenue. ... He was early to recognize that companies other than Disney could turn animated franchises into enduring revenue sources, early to see the importance of streaming-media distribution, and early to spot China’s potential to reshape the industry. ... Developing cartoon movies for kids, done right, can pay off big: If you create lovable and “sticky” characters, you can relatively easily monetize that initial IP investment across multiple movies, TV spinoffs, and lines of merchandise. ... The process is slow and costly. Films take three to four years to complete, progressing from ideation to storyboarding to using computer-generated imagery to animate minute details like the movement of hair and the texture of powdery snow. At DreamWorks Animation, a typical movie cost upwards of $140 million—not including marketing.
But in my underwriting of the investment I priced much too high the perks of being Mr. One-Forty-Second. Which wouldn’t have been so bad had I understood anything about how the restaurant business in New York City works. ... That business, more or less, stinks. New York restaurants are at the intersection of the low-margin world of food businesses like grocery stores (low margin because so many compete in the all-out war to sell food) and taste-predicting nobody-knows-anything businesses like Hollywood. I spoke to one of the two owners of the restaurant, who wished to remain anonymous in case he decided to keep his hand in the restaurant business. He provided me with the Manhattan math, from the seven-year profit-and-loss statement. If you as a customer generated a hundred-dollar tab, about thirty-seven dollars went to the staff (plus the twenty or so dollars you tipped); twenty-nine dollars went to buying the food and beverages that became your meal; fifteen dollars went to the landlord; six dollars went for supplies (such as new forks) and maintenance (hello, plumber); five dollars went to bank fees, insurance, and workers’ comp; five dollars went to other costs (utilities, permits); and just under three dollars (two dollars and eighty cents, to be exact) was left over for operating income. For the record, that is less than was paid in credit-card fees.
Hampton Creek never publicly admitted its numbers were wrong. It scrubbed its site of sustainability claims, and the Cookie Calculator vanished. Such quiet backpedaling might be forgivable at many young companies—overeager math isn’t unheard of in Silicon Valley. But at Hampton Creek, it fits a pattern of mistaken or exaggerated claims that may prove to be deliberately deceptive. ... the company deployed a national network of contractors to secretly buy back Just Mayo from grocery store shelves. ... Tetrick used supermarket sales figures much as he used the environmental claims—to raise venture capital ... His pitch: He would liberate billions of hens from the fetid misery of overstuffed cages—and in the process save water and grain and cut carbon pollution. Profane, charismatic, and built like the linebacker he once was, Tetrick became a tenacious evangelist for eliminating animal protein from the world’s diet. ... Tetrick contends that the mayo buyback program was primarily for quality-control purposes and cost just $77,000. ... A former accounting employee who worked with the company’s profit and loss statements says costs for the buybacks were included in several expense categories on the P&L, including one line item called “Inventory Consumed for Samples and Internal Testing.” As buybacks surged in 2014, Hampton Creek expensed about $1.4 million under this unusual category over five months, compared with $1.9 million of net sales in the period.
Salerno is up against many things — startup costs, consumer whims, a complicated and inefficient regulatory apparatus — but most immediately, he’s up against FanDuel and DraftKings, behemoths that have dominated the industry for the past half-dozen years. You know them because you’re one of the millions of customers who assemble football or baseball lineups on their sites, hoping to score payouts worth hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions. ... Or perhaps you’ve followed the regulatory crackdown that, since last October, has driven the industry to the brink of extinction. Like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, other self-described disruptors that operated in legal gray zones and got in trouble, daily fantasy sports companies are now at a major moment of reckoning. ... Salerno thinks he’s come up with a daily fantasy game that does right by everyone. In his model, customers wager in a style that resembles horse-race betting, one already legal in most of the country. If Salerno is successful, he’ll have not only staked out profitable territory in the high-risk, legally ambiguous, crowded, and very, very lucrative world of daily fantasy sports, he’ll have invented a fairer — and, crucially, more legal — way to play the game, showing two of the world’s hottest startups that it pays to play by the rules. ... He was among the first operators to allow people to place bets over the phone. In 1984, he co-developed hardware and software that let patrons trade their betting slips for computer-generated tickets and cashiers instantly look up every bet and payout; the first-of-its-kind system became a virtual monopoly across Vegas when Nevada required all race and sports books to be computerized. In 2002, Salerno developed one of the first self-service kiosks where gamblers could place sports bets 24 hours a day.
Island eradications are always high-stakes, high-wire endeavors — you get, more or less, one big shot at taking out a whole species. Then you wait, sometimes years, to see if the invader has truly been eliminated or has, instead, come back. The coming back from the dead is called the Lazarus effect. Often all it takes is one pregnant female or a breeding pair to undo years of planning and millions of spent dollars. In the ants’ case, one stalwart queen stowed away underground could undo everything Boser had been plotting. ... How do you eradicate tens of millions, if not billions, of tiny insects that live under several dozen square miles of extremely rugged terrain? Killing each ant would be an impossible task. But kill the queen and you initiate a colony collapse, for the queen is the only source of new ants. Only, Argentine ant colonies often boast several queens, so even the ant’s central weakness required a comprehensive plan of attack: Boser needed to poison all the queens at once. If she did that, Santa Cruz would be one step closer to perfection.