Hi everyone – this is Part 2 of our Coupang writeup. In this part, we cover Coupang’s flywheel as well as their many businesses and new initiatives.
If you haven’t already, you can read Part 1 here.
Hey there! Welcome to DJY Research. Every month, we produce an extensive research report on a global company. So far, we’ve covered companies like Tencent, Alibaba, Nintendo, and Grab, and will be releasing our 10th report shortly. We have decided to share a sample report for free, and will be releasing our Coupang report (Oct. 2021) in 3 parts.
This is Part 2 of our Coupang research report. In this deep dive, we will cover Coupang’s flywheel as well as their many other businesses and new initiatives.
In Part 1, we covered Coupang’s background history, explain their business, give context on the market they operate in, and explore competitive dynamics.
In Part 3, which will be released in the coming weeks, we will delve into our Revenue Build, Risks, and Conclusion. Please drop your email below to be updated when we release them.
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We have already mentioned some of the reasons why Coupang is superior to competitors, but we will flush out that line of reasoning below. The main vectors they compete on are 1) delivery speed, 2) order ease, 3) consistency, 4) trust, and 5) selection. We are not mentioning price specifically because they are not always the cheapest option, but they are cheap enough that the differences are not material to most consumers (our nonscientific price checks show roughly 10-15% price differences on the high end for 3P, but usually it is not a noticeable difference. 1P options are the same price or cheaper than alternatives). And as we mentioned earlier, the prices they offer are still usually far superior to the legacy department stores, sometimes by as much as 30%+ (but that is because the department stores can mark-up their products egregiously). Most Coupang consumers value the other aspects of their service more than getting a marginally better price and just trust that Coupang’s prices are fair enough that they no longer check the difference.
Delivery speed. Why this is desirable is straightforward: people prefer to have stuff delivered to them quicker than slower, but why they will continue to lead here is multifactorial. We have already mentioned that Coupang has their own logistics including warehouses, trucks, and delivery people. But Coupang’s advantage here goes beyond simply the capex for logistics assets and opex for people. It is the systems they have created marrying AI and process innovation that gives them such a leg up and will make it hard for a capital rich competitor to catch up. Forget how high volumes are necessary to rationalize the cost of a delivery network, the other thing they do is allow the network to be better optimized and learn to predict demand. With the prodigious order volume Coupang receives, they can utilize machine learning to optimize how much inventory to hold and where to hold it across their 10 current fulfillment centers. It is more than just the assets that matter, but how they are optimized to be at the right place at the right time that is critical and only possible with tons of volume running through the system. In turn, the more volume they have, the better they can optimize their network. Today, 70% of the population lives within 7 miles of a fulfillment center, and that will only increase, with 7 more fulfillment centers currently being built.
In addition to the data and volume advantage, they also are far ahead on process innovation, which is the more incremental improvements they continually work on to shave minutes off of each parcel that is delivered. It isn’t just automation with robotics and conveyor belts that enable this, but also innovative designs that reinvent parts of the delivery. Coupang started ditching boxes and opting for bags, which while saving costs, also allows them to reduce the space an order takes up in the truck. This means more packages can be delivered per truck, reducing the need for multiple delivery routes along the lane. Since re-engineering their fulfillment process, this work to reduce excess packaging has eliminated 75% of cardboard parcels. (More recently, Amazon has also been shipping items in bags.) The picture of the truck above shows how Coupang sorts items upstream, allowing for a Coupang delivery person to easily pick out the latest item. This is not something that can be easily copied as most logistics providers are not integrated between the warehouse that is packaging the order and the trucks’ routes, necessitating inefficiencies. You may have also noticed that the doors open on the side of the car instead of the back—since they own their own trucks, they can design them to be tooled for delivery, shaving fractions of a minute off of each delivery. Usually, a delivery person has to jump up into the back of the truck and walk in and then put the package towards the edge of the truck, jump down and then grab it. Coupang’s method allows them to just slide a door, pull out a tray and grab the package. It is seemingly small changes like this that add up to material time savings when applied across their entire network.
Additionally, as the picture above shows, they designed ecofriendly packages when they rolled out Rocket Fresh delivery for grocery, which are more efficient and ESG friendly as they are collected after each delivery. These bags also help enable cold-chain logistics, which is very important in order to lead in grocery. There are probably many more small changes they have implemented over the years that make minor improvements in the shipping process, but together create a formidable lead. It is all of these improvements that allow them to offer 1-day delivery on virtually 100% of orders, 365 days a year, and a sizeable amount that are <12 hours. To catch up to Coupang is much more than a capital investment at this point.
Order Ease. Consumers can very easily find what they want to buy and check-out with only a few clicks. Fixed price listing (common now, but remember eBay’s Auctions used to be the most popular platform) and preloaded payment and logistics info means a customer can find an item and buy it in under a minute. This contrasts to the Naver Shopping experience which has several extra steps and the merchant may not have your info. However, any competent ecommerce platform is capable of doing this today—they all know every extra click leads to lower conversion rates. (As we detailed in Part 1, Naver’s problem is unique.) Coupang though, does also have the advantage of a consumer’s order history, so they can easily reorder. Furthermore, many commonly ordered products can be put on an “automatically reorder” setting so the customer can set it up and forget about it.
It is worth mentioning though that the focus on making it as easy as possible to order does come at the cost of building a good “discovery” muscle. Similar to Amazon, Coupang customers come to the platform with high intentionality and utilize search to purchase what they are looking for the moment they find it. This of course has positives—frictionless purchasing that doesn’t give any competitor an opportunity to win business as the consumer will complete an order in minutes from realizing they need the item—but the negative side is that consumers are not usually in exploratory mode when they open the app. This is different from Alibaba’s Taobao or Sea Limited’s Shopee (to a lesser extent) where consumers like to browse more and value the recommendations. Coupang’s recommendations aren’t especially sophisticated and often include similar items to those recently purchased (similar to Amazon). We bring this up because it has some negative implications for advertising as less time spent on the platform means fewer impressions to sell. Nevertheless, the fewer impressions will likely be offset by being able to charge a higher price for ads given the higher conversion rates. Anyway, this helps us clarify that Coupang is focused on bottom of funnel, high-intentionality purchases, rather than the top of funnel discovery. The latter of which will become somewhat more of a focus with new initiatives like Coupang Live (detailed later).
Consistency. This one dovetails in with the other vectors (it is a flywheel after all!), but in short, a consumer can reliably expect a good experience every time they order on Coupang. This is because they own the logistics chain and half of the inventory is their own (1P) with the other half (3P) de facto kept to high standards through the ranking system and the threat of their 1P business moving into a 3P merchants’ business if they disappoint (more on this momentarily). Items are seldom out of stock, shipping is as expected, and the item received is as described, and if not, Coupang will take care of it.
Trust. This is won slowly over many positive customer transactions. Perhaps even more important though, when something does go wrong, Coupang makes sure to make it right. They do not tell the customer “too bad”, but instead readily offer refunds or replacements alongside apologies. Customers who are not satisfied with an item simply leave it outside their door and submit a photo of it to Coupang to receive credit. The ease at which they allow returns and readily capitulate that almost any issue is their fault has instilled significant trust in consumers. In some sense, you can think of their strategy as instead of reacquiring customers through marketing, they obviate the need to reacquire customers in the first place by avoiding potential churn events.
Selection. Selection is a vital advantage as the more stuff a platform has to sell, the more a customer can buy. The more spend that the platform can take of the consumers online spend, the less opportunities exist for a competitor to win that customer over. The idea is to become an “everything store”, which allows them to serve all of a consumer’s needs. While that is probably too extreme as there will be products that Coupang will never be able to carry (think Louis Vuitton Belts or chocolate from a local confectionary), honestly, they can get pretty close to everything with their millions of SKUs (it took us a while to think of something you can’t buy on Coupang!).
However, wide selection is harder than appreciated to build without adversely impacting the other factors we mentioned. The easiest way to build selection is to start a 3P marketplace where merchants just list inventory they already have so you do not have to invest in inventory nor worry about managing it. However, this brings in quality and consistency issues with slower shipping, customers dealing directly with merchants (who may not share the ethos of always satisfying the customer), and damaged items or fraud. Furthermore, winning over merchants isn’t so easy as lowering your take-rate. In fact, Naver offers a low take-rate at ~5% and even free listings for a limited time, but Coupang is still gaining share among 3P merchants. This is because merchants care most about the platform’s demand generation capabilities and tools that make selling easy. Also, selling to multiple channels creates complexity so the profits generated through each have to be worth the effort. To generate demand though, you need selection—the same chicken and egg conundrum we mentioned early with Naver. So, if a platform cannot reliably increase selection through 3P then they will have to build out their 1P inventory. This is much tougher than it seems though. Coupang has a lot of data on what SKUs sell and how quickly, which allows them to have the right amount of millions of different items. This is essential because if a platform is constantly out of the item a customer wants, they will go elsewhere. Knowing which items to buy and which warehouses to host them at in anticipation of demand takes a skilled procurement team and engineers backed by reams of data. A newcomer will not be able to buy in bulk like Coupang does so they won’t get volume discounts, which means higher prices for consumers or worse economics for the platform.
Aside from Coupang’s ability to exercise bulk volume purchasing leverage to demand discounts (something Walmart is infamous for, but all retailers do it), Coupang can also get better terms from suppliers that they are unlikely to extend to just any upstart. This all means their 1P business is somewhat entrenched, at least from the other internet platforms, as they won’t have the scale to get the prices or terms Coupang does. Most other ecommerce players are reluctant to do 1P anyway because then they have to own warehouses and hire warehouse workers, a capital and people intensive business that is far from their core competency. Coupang started by building out their 1P business and its strength brought customers in and once they had a lot of customers it was easy in turn to attract 3P merchants, which in turn attracts more customers. As Bom Kim is fond of saying, merchants go to wherever the customers are. This is also why Coupang can tilt the balance between merchants and consumers largely in the consumers’ favor. Their 1P offerings keep merchants on edge as Coupang can always enter the category the merchant is in if they present any reason to, whether that be charging what they see as too high of a price or if the 3P’s inventory or assortment is lacking. And even then, there is a good chance that Coupang eventually sources a similar product, so having good customer reviews and ratings as well as opting for fulfillment services (so delivery is faster) is probably smart to keep your position in the SERP. 1P is a powerful tool to get all their merchants on the same page and prioritize the consumer, even if they wouldn’t have wanted to otherwise. As restrictive as that may sound, it is all in order to ensure the consumer has a great experience consistently. The upside for the merchant is the ease of accessing 17mn consumers with preloaded payment and shipping information and who love to buy stuff online.
Rehashing something we glossed over above, the point on credit terms is actually critical to growing in a capital-efficient manner, so it is worth elaborating on. Coupang often doesn’t actually have to pay for their inventory upfront. Most supplier terms let them pay 30-90 days after taking delivery of the inventory. This means that Coupang can often sell an item and collect the cash before they have to pay the supplier for said inventory. This greatly reduces working capital as most of their inventory is effectively financed for free. It’s actually a bit better then since they receive cash for it before paying it out, so growing becomes a source of capital rather than a use (which makes it easier to self-finance growth).
As Coupang increases in scale, so does their ability to sell through inventory rapidly with incredible visibility into demand, allowing them to negotiate better supplier prices and decrease ASPs (or keep higher gross margins as most of their customers are not very price sensitive to a couple percent difference). Today they turn inventory at ~15x a year (using our GMV estimates instead of COGS), which takes a tremendous amount of demand and very sophisticated inventory management systems to handle well. That is all to say it will be very tough for a competitor to match Coupang’s selection advantage, especially as they already have the largest 1P & 3P SKU count in all of Korea with the most warehouse space and are still pressing farther ahead.
Rocket Wow. This is the last piece of Coupang’s lock on consumers. Similar to Amazon Prime in the US, Rocket Wow allows for free shipping with no minimums on items so a consumer can buy a single item quickly without thinking what else they need to buy in order to hit a basket minimum for free shipping. This reduces the bar to order and builds a perfunctory habit of buying on Coupang the second you need something. Coupang is also copying the Amazon playbook here too by rolling out Coupang Play, their video service that is free for Rocket Wow members. For now, Coupang doesn’t have a lot of great content (one of their biggest shows is SNL Korea), but they will keep adding to over time as the rationale of locking consumers into a loyalty program is strong. They don’t disclose members, but they are estimated to have around 5mn who pay just 2,900 Won a month (~$2.60).
Combining all of the above factors together, you can see why consumers love them so much, and it shows up in the numbers. As the above graph shows, spend per buyer has gone up from $700 in 2018 to ~$1,500 currently. In the S1 they disclosed the below spend by cohort. It shows that every year spend by cohort increases, with users spending ~3.5x in year 4 as what they were in year 1. Interestingly, the spend per cohort ramps up quicker with later cohorts than earlier ones (acknowledging Covid likely distorted this in the past year). This makes sense as they have a lot more selection and better delivery in 2019 than 2016. Note that spend per buyer is indexed to year 1, so it is not clear how the $ of spend vary in the first year between cohorts, but either way in aggregate it has been trending up.
It is interesting to reflect back on Coupang’s roots as a Groupon-clone and notice that almost every issue that plagued the original business model has solved for with their new offerings. If it was Bom Kim’s aims to create something that customers didn’t just like, but loved, we think he was successful. No one consistently satisfies their customers to the extent that Coupang does, and building excess consumer surplus is usually a recipe for long-term success. With an understanding of the market and competitive dynamics, we will continue with our revenue build after briefly touching on their new initiatives and new markets.
Comprising only $180mn of revenue LTM, most of which is the Rocket Wow membership subscription fee, other revenues include a slew of new initiatives. Most of them are not only not profitable but are not even attempting to generate revenue yet.
Coupang Play. As we just mentioned, Coupang Play is their video service that is free for Rocket Wow members. They acquired an OTT player based in Singapore, Hooq, in July 2020 to build Coupang Play off of. Today, content is rather lacking with no really notable exclusive content, but they intend to invest 100bn won in content ($85mn) in the near term and longer-term plan to do more original content. There are a lot of other competitors in the SVOD space including Netflix, Wavve, Tving, and Disney Plus, but Coupang isn’t trying to make the best SVOD service, just one that is good enough to reduce Rocket Wow churn and thus increase the likelihood a buyer will be a lifetime customer of Coupang. With complaints of streaming quality and content, today it hardly locks the consumer into the Coupang ecosystem but over time they will improve it.
Coupang Live. Announced in the summer of 2021, Coupang is going to introduce their own livestreaming ecommerce channels. In contrasts to how other global peers have utilized livestreaming, Coupang plans to create studios and select KOLs (key opinion leaders also known as influencers) to sell products they endorse live, for a commission. This controlled and closed means of introducing livestreaming makes sense for Coupang given they do not have much “discovery” DNA in their company. In comparison, Taobao users often use the app just to browse—remember, Taobao can be translated to “find treasure”, so Alibaba having an open system where any creator can participate with users browsing as quasi-entertainment is natural to how the app has always been used. As noted, Coupang is more similar to Amazon where users come with high intentionality and get in and out quickly. Also, a more open platform would require content moderation, a proficiency Coupang has never had to build. However, if Coupang can attract popular KOLs with fun content, they should be able to earn an audience and perhaps they do open it up to more 3rd party merchants. Internet giants Naver and Kakao are also active here with a head start, but it is still a developing market.
Photos 1 and 2 are the home screen of Coupang Live, where users can discover livestreams and search by product/category.
Photos 3 and 4 are an ad and the actual livestreaming interface.
Photo 5 is a popup where viewers can see discounts (none for this particular video).
Photo 6 is information about the livestream including the time and host.
Photos 7 and 8 are more products and shows to explore.
Coupang Pay (Coupay). This is their payment mechanism that was launched in 2016 as Rocket Pay and later changed to Coupang Pay in 2019. The distinct one-swipe payment feature tempted users to quickly complete a purchase. While the original rational was to simply save on transaction fees by pushing customers to their inhouse payment mechanism, it later also became a subtle retention tool with rewards and cash back. There could also be an opportunity to expand beyond just an on-platform payment service. Last year they “spun-off” Coupang Pay off as a 100% wholly owned company, which should give them more autonomy to pursue ancillary financial opportunities. To speculate, they could extend Coupang pay to other online merchants (like Shop Pay or Naver Pay) and perhaps even move into POS to support merchants with omnichannel. On the other end, they could move into other consumer financial services like lending, BNPL, brokerage, P2P, insurance or asset management. However, Coupang is a late comer to financial services with Naver Pay, Kakao Pay and Samsung Pay far ahead with high adoption, so perhaps focusing on merchants services makes more sense.
Photo 1 shows the Coupang Pay home screen
Photo 2 shows some of the banks that can be linked with Coupang Pay
MyShops. With the popularity of Naver’s Smart Store and the rise of companies like Shopify that empower a merchant to sell while still owning the consumer relationship, Coupang launched MyShops as a response. For the merchants who complain about Coupang’s fees or lack of sharing data, they can use MyShops to enable their digital store with just a 3.5% seller fee. This is still in its early days so we do not have much detail yet, but understandably merchants who wanted to get away from selling alongside Coupang’s 1P offerings may be reticent to team up with them, skeptical that sharing data could eventually invite competition. However, their ability to package fulfillment services with customers’ information preloaded into Coupang Pay may be a good enough value prop to placate their concerns.
Coupang Flex. This is a new effort to expand their delivery with 3rd party logistics providers where someone can sign-up to deliver parcels for Coupang with their own vehicles. As such they are independent contractors and not full employees like the rest of their delivery fleet. The idea here is likely to be able to have some ability to spin-up and down delivery capacity as needed. For many years the holiday seasons plagued Coupang as their logistics infrastructure was stretched to meet the elevated seasonal demand. In response they would quickly hire a bunch of drivers to get through the season, but then they were over-staffed and without the ability to directly terminate employees (Korean laws are very labor-friendly), they would neglect their new hires in hopes they left. Every year it was a similar story—one executive referred to it as “stop and go”. This is a terrible strategy to build employee loyalty and keep company moral high, but we can understand that there probably wasn’t any ideal solution under such growing pains at the time as they didn’t want to use 3PLs since they didn’t have the scale or ability to ensure 3rd party delivery quality. Nevertheless, flex capacity should eliminate that problem in the future.
Rocket Direct. This is an initiative for overseas sellers to access the Korean market through Coupang’s platform. It originally launched in the US with (3-4 day delivery times), but added China more recently. This helps them buttress their selection with unique inventory that may be hard to access easily otherwise. Shipping is free for Rocket Wow members.
Coupang Biz. To help facilitate B2B commerce, especially for SMBs, they rolled out “Coupang Biz”. They intend to add value by making transactions simpler with help on VAT refunds, payment acceptance and other tax complexities.
Coupang Eats. Launching in 2019, Coupang Eats is a food delivery service that was rolled out as a separate app with no order minimums or delivery fees to gain share against earlier incumbents. Baemin, later acquired by Delivery Hero, and Yogiyo are the two largest food deliveries players with 50-60% and 20-30% market share, respectively. Coupang Eats has a small foothold that is estimated around ~15%, but they haven’t launched nationally yet. While Coupang was late to the fight, they are trying to differentiate by being more driver friendly, offering to cover driver payments if an order is canceled in the middle of a trip and helping drivers who become entangled with litigation in the course of work. What is really interesting though, is that they used their inferior market position with weak order density to their advantage.
Usually, a successful food delivery services will have enough customer demand that they can batch orders (taking multiple orders from the same restaurant to different customers) or sometimes group them (taking multiple near-by restaurant orders to different customers). This allows a delivery person to take on more orders per trip, which increases the total value of that trip. The delivery platform can then split the earnings such that the delivery person makes more money, even after lowering their payout ratio, improving the margins of the platform. Given how minuscule margins are in the delivery business (think maybe making ~$1 at maturity of contribution margin for a $24 order) this uplift in earnings is critical to achieving profitability. As a delivery platform gets bigger, their density enables them to batch more orders and without reducing efficiency as much. However, there is no way around the fact that having a customer wait for a delivery man to drop off an order to someone else is always going to be slower no matter how much density you achieve. Baemin and Yogiyo were known to batch 3-5 orders per trip which meant consumers wait times went up. Coupang launched a “single order delivery service” which was faster than the incumbents who had shifted focus from market share to making the unit economics work. Of course though, when Coupang entered the market they wouldn’t have been able to batch orders anyway since they didn’t have density. So “single order delivery” was a clever strategy (and marketing) to spin what is usually considered a weakness in the business model. As it started gaining traction among consumers, Baemin had to launch their own one order per delivery service, which no doubt ended up squeezing their margins. This reminds us of the Bezos quip: “Your margin is my opportunity”.
Interestingly, Coupang Eats has an English-friendly version, whereas Coupang is Korean-only. This may hint that Coupang plans to expand internationally with Coupang Eats as a foothold. Photo 3 references Coupang Pay.
Other than that smart marketing strategy, Coupang is basically using the playbook that many other delivery services used—giving consumers promotions to try their service and then continuing to subsidize them until they build a habit. Their data across 17mn consumers though should theoretically let them better tailor these offers. Coupang Eats also utilizes Coupang Pay, which has its own rewards which can create more tie-in to the Coupang ecosystem. Given the large amount of spend in the food category, this could become a significant increase in TPV (total payment volume) per Coupang Pay user. Of course, their mature market share is unclear and if they can never batch, their ultimate profitability will be minimal. On the other hand, South Korea with very high population density and a large affluent population, would seem to be the ideal market for food delivery so perhaps the market dynamics help boost the business model’s profitability. We have a sketch of what success here could look like in terms of valuation towards the end of the piece.
Coupang Eats Marts. Within the Coupang Eats app consumers can access what is called “Coupang Eats Marts”. This initiative closes the gap between their food delivery service and their core commerce offerings. Marts is on-demand delivery for local services, but is supported by mini-fulfillment centers embedded in cities. Using the same network they are building with food delivery, they are coupling their competence in product procurement and fulfillment to launch a new category called “Q commerce” or quick commerce. Coupang keeps some drivers at their fulfillment centers waiting for orders to come in, which decreases time to deliver to often just 10 minutes. In the US, there are some concerns that as DoorDash increases their product selection more purchases could move from Amazon to DoorDash, while we don’t totally buy this argument, Coupang is nevertheless supplanting a potential disrupter. Baemin has launched Bmart which does a similar thing but their lack of experience with product purchasing and warehouse stocking is hurting them here. Also, since Coupang has their main warehouse that can deliver items to consumers in often <12 hours, they would presumably be very quick to restock their micro fulfillment centers which typically carry lower inventory due to size constraints. This offering is also tangential to their Fresh grocery delivery service, which though not disclosed anywhere, likely shares a lot of the same local fulfillment infrastructure. While we are not sure how many items people are sensitive to receiving in 10 minutes versus same day, it is encouraging to see Coupang is still innovating. As Bom Kim has noted before, they like to try new things for a year or two and if its not working they can shut it down. For now though, it seems to be gaining some consumer traction.
With a strong presence in South Korea, Coupang is looking for new markets to expand to. However, since most adjacent markets already have large incumbents, they are looking to enter new markets with a unique value prop. For most of these markets that is an offering they refer to as Q-commerce, which is similar to Coupang Eats Marts.
Japan. They launched in Japan just 4 months ago in June 2021. Available in just a district of Tokyo for now, they are using a small fulfillment center to make local deliveries with a focus on fresh grocery and other daily essentials. Initially they rolled out with around ~300 items including an assortment of 70 different kinds of produce, 4 types of meat/fish, 10 bento boxes (premade lunches) and select other daily essentials. This is a far cry from the millions of items available in Korea, but if they can achieve some success competing on delivery speed they will be able to continue to increase selection and start to spin up a flywheel. This is a different offering than what competitors offer since the orders are coming from a single fulfillment center with delivery people waiting to dispatch as soon as orders come in, saving time from having to drive to a convenience store or supermarket.
Taiwan. A month after entering Japan they rolled out a Taiwan offering available only in a subsection of Taipei. Similar to Japan, they are operating their own fulfillment center with delivery people queuing there so they can complete delivery orders in just 10 minutes. The close launch of both markets makes us think they planned both at the same time as an experiment and does not imply they expanded because they are succeeding in Japan. However, they have launched a second fulfillment center in Taipei which sounds positive, but it is still far too early to know if either market will work.
Singapore. They haven’t launched a service in Singapore yet, but they have set up an office here, hiring in various positions across logistics, marketing, and IT. Singapore is home to Shopee headquarters and it appears they want to use this location as their global head of operations given its centric location in Southeast Asia and diverse talent pool.
All of these international operations are too nascent to consider in their valuation, but they are all call options. In Part 3, we will move back to their core Korean commerce operations to see how profitable they can be at maturity.
We hope you enjoyed Part 2 of our Coupang piece! As a reminder, you can read Part 1 here.
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Part 3, which will be released for free in the coming weeks, will delve into our Revenue Build, Risks, and Conclusion. Please drop your email below to be updated when we release it.
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