I guess this will be online learning weekend. Yesterday I talked about MBA Mondays Live and the fact that it will be available via livestream and via archive.
Today, I'd like to tell you about an online conference being put on by our portfolio company Covestor. It is called the Next Invest Conference and it takes place this tuesday and wednesday (3/20 and 3/21). The conference partners include Motley Fool, Stocktwits, Seeking Alpha, Benzinga, TedX Wall Street and many of the biggest names in online investing.
Best of all, it is free to attend. If you are into online investing, either personally or via your startup, you should check this conference out. Details are here.
Mark Suster has a great post on this topic. In typical Mark fashion, it is long, with a lot of detail and substance. I highly recommend all entrepreneurs take the time to read it end to end.
For those who won't take the time to read it end to end, I'll summarize it.
Many high growth companies can be profitable. They have enough revenue to cover their essential costs and could easily decide to show a profitable income statement. But they don't make that choice. Instead they invest heavily in the business with the expectations that those investments will produce more revenue (by hiring salespeople), or additional products (by hiring engineers and product managers), or additional geographies (by hiring an international team), or any number of other value enhancing aspects of the business. The result of that decision is that the business loses money or simply breaks even (I prefer the latter approach).
There was a discussion of profits (or the lack of them) in the comments to the IPO Market blog post I wrote last week. A number of commenters pointed out that many web companies lack profits. I don't think that is actually true (certainly not for many that have gone public), but it is true that most, if not all, web companies are not optimizing for profits this year or next year. They are optimizing for the ultimate size of their businesss and the total amount of cash flow they can ultimately expect to generate when the business gets to maturity.
This is tricky stuff. If you are going to take all of your potential profits and reinvest them in the businesss in search of higher growth and greater profits in the future, you had better be right about those investments. And it is often hard for investors to see how those investments are going to pay off, so at times you can be penalized for making those choices. Right now the public markets seem to be paying companies more for long term growth than for near term profits, so it seems that public market investors (and VCs) are aligned in this respect. But that is not always the case. Markets are fickle. But the best entrepreneurs are focused on the long term vision and will invest in their businesses without paying too much mind to what investors want at any point in time.
We have an IPO market for web companies again. I don't have all the names in front of me, but this year has brought IPOs for Pandora, LinkedIn, Groupon, Zynga, and TripAdvisor. These five companies are all trading for north of $1bn market cap. Pandora is at ~$1.5bn. LinkedIn is at ~$6bn. Groupon is at ~$15bn, Zynga is at ~$7bn, and TripAdvisor is at ~$3.5bn.
We can (and surely will in the comments) argue about these valuations. Some will say they are too high. Some will say they are too low. That's what makes a market. But in the aggregate, these valuations do not seem ridiculous to me. The public market investors are valuing these companies at prices that have some rationality to them.
What is possibly more interesting is that the public markets are valuing these companies at less than the late stage private market might value them at. Again, I don't have the data in front of me (I'm on vacation), but I believe that some of these companies had private financings at our above these current market caps.
The past decade (post Internet bubble, post Sarbox) brought a new normal to the late stage venture capital market. Companies are staying private longer. They are doing multiple rounds of growth financing privately. And they are doing multiple rounds of secondary liquidity for the founders, angels, and early investors. Mike Moritz calls these financings the "new IPOs".
This "new normal" is allowing these companies to stay private and develop into real businesses. With a lot of revenue. The five companies I mentioned at the top of this post will have close to $5bn in revenue this year. The company with the least amount of revenue is Pandora which, as of its last quarterly report, is operating at a $300mm annual revenue run rate.
These companies also have built sophisticated management teams that are highly capable of managing a business to meet the expectations of public market investors. They have strong operating executives, strong financial executives, and strong product and engineering leadership. They should be well run public companies.
The five companies I mentioned at the top of this post are carrying a combined market cap of $33bn. So they trade at an average of 6.6x revenues. And that is not including the cash they have on their balance sheets. I am not going to do the math, but I would bet if you back out the excess cash, you might see revenue multiples of less than 6x for this cohort. These are full valuations in a historical context, but these are not crazy valuations. If these companies can continue to grow at the rates they are currently growing, and if they can generate significant cash flow from their businesses (some of these companies already are doing that), then they should be more valuable in the next couple years, generating gains for the public market investors who hold the stock.
When Zynga was pricing its offering last week and getting ready to start trading its stock, I got a note from a friend who said "let's hope for a '99 style first day pop." I responded that was the last thing I wanted to see. And thankfully we did not get that.
It is not healthy for companies to trade at prices well beyond what they are worth. It puts incredible pressure on the team to deliver results that can't be delivered. And when the stock inevitably comes back to reality, the team feels like they somehow failed. Morale is impacted. The whole things is madness. And who benefits from that first day pop? Only the best customers of the banks who led the offerings. Why should they get a windfall when they did nothing to build the company and when they will be out of the stock so fast it will make your head spin?
The IPO market for web companies we have right now is rationale. We can argue whether it is pricing thse offerings correctly. But it feels about right to me. I believe we will see a bunch of IPOs next year, led by Facebook, which is the poster child of this whole "stay private longer" movement. If we as an industry can be patient, keep our companies private longer until they are truly IPO ready, then we should have a sustainable IPO market. That's where we seem to be headed. Let's not get greedy and screw it up.
Disclosure: USV has a significant holding in Zynga therefore I am long that stock through my interest in USV.
But as Dan Frommer points out in this excellent post on Splatf, the street may be overreacting to Netflix's downward guidance. Netflix has pulled off one of the most amazing customer transitions I've seen. They used a dominant position in the physical distribution of DVDs to build a dominant position in the streaming business. That's damn hard to do and it is something you rarely see because it is difficult for most companies to cannibalize a highly profitable franchise.
But that transition isn't always easy and right now, consumers are abandoning DVDs more quickly than they are adopting streaming. And Netflix' recent price increases haven't helped.
But let's go back to Dan's post. Look at this slide:
Netflix told the street that they are now expecting 1mm less subscribers by the end of this year. That's a big miss. But as Dan points out, 80% of that miss is coming from the DVD side of the house. By the end of this year, if the current guidance is correct, Netflix will have 21.8mm streaming customers. That's a huge customer base for the next important film and TV distribution format.
Netflix will produce about $500mm a year of EBTIDA based on a "back of the envelope" calculation I did using Google Finance. With a market cap that is now down to about $8bn, the stock now trades at 16xEBITDA. That's a lot better than 32xEBITDA where it was two months ago.
I don't own Netflix. I don't own any public stocks in my own account these days and haven't since I closed out positions I bought (and blogged about) during the market meltdown in 2008. I do have some managed models on Covestor and some hedge fund interests. They may own Netflix, but I'm not aware of it and if they do, my exposure to Netflix would be minimal. I am not going to go out and buy Netflix after writing this post.
But I do think what we are witnessing here is the speculative forces coming out of a stock in reaction to some bad news. My instinct is that Netflix is still the company to beat in premium streaming video and that they are building a killer franchise in the next important distribution system for film and television shows. And thanks to some excellent analysis by Dan, we can see why that is so.
My going into breakfast position was that the IPO market isn't all that it is cracked up to be. That the emerging secondary market is allowing companies to stay private longer (maybe forever) while allowing founders, angels, and early stage VCs to get liquidity. I believe that the IPO market should only be for the very best companies that can sustain value creation for long periods of time for their shareholders post the public offering. I think that is a very high threshold that most VC-backed companies cannot meet.
Alan's going into breakfast position is that we have lost our way (read his BI post for details). Back in the days of the IPOs of Apple and Intel, great tech companies would go public at low valuations, there were dozens of small market makers who would do research on the stocks, and most of the investors in these deals were individuals. Now we have markets that are largely closed to the individual investor. VC investing is largely instititional and limited to "qualified investors" (ie rich people). The secondary markets are also largely limited to qualified investors. And the IPOs these days are sold to a dozen or so large hedge funds who are also dominated by institutional investors and rich people.
Like all good discussions, we both came away with an appreciation for each other's point of view. I agree with Alan that we need a way to allow the individual investor to participate in the value creation that large tech companies can provide. And I recognize the the vast majority of people who have participated in the value creation from Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, and Groupon have been institutions and the very wealthy. That doesn't seem right or fair.
I think the SEC needs to rethink the capital market regulations and structure we have in our country. The secondary private market is a good thing and does allow great companies to stay private longer while providing liquidity for founders, angels, and early VCs. But there are issues with the secondary markets as they exist today. There are no disclosure requirements. There is little or no way for individual investors to participate. The 500 shareholder rule is creating all kinds of problems for companies. And we don't have a public market system that allows companies to be public at lower valuations with less capital raised. Alan believes we need a "new nasdaq" where companies can list for $250mm or less and have liquid markets in their stocks that individuals can participate in.
The US has a vibrant tech economy, a VC industry that is the envy of the world, and public markets that are highly liquid. We can and should stimulate the development of some additional layers of capital markets between the VC market and the current IPO market. A vibrant and fair secondary market that provides individuals some access and a new "low cap public market" are the natural additional layers to our current system. I'd also like to see more access for individuals into the VC market.
I hope the SEC is thinking about all of this. I hope they read Alan's post and this post. It is important stuff.
I believe we are on the upswing in the web investing space right now. There could well be a fair bit more to go. But we will get to the valley at some point. If you still own whatever you bought on the upswing, don't sell it there. Hold on until the next upswing.
Markets come and go. Good businesses don't. Thanks Howard for my daily reminder of that.
Most of what I've been saying recently about valuations here at AVC has been negative. I think we are in a "focus on the upside" phase in the web investing sector and I've been pretty liberal with my thoughts on that.
But when friends have privately asked me whether they should take some of the Facebook shares their Goldman representative has offered them, I mostly tell them I think they should. I don't think anyone should bet their net worth on Facebook at $50bn, but I think it is a pretty good bet that Facebook will one day be worth more than $50bn. Is it today? Hard to say. I don't have access to Facebook's P&L, cash flows, and balance sheet. But from what I have heard Facebook should do between $1bn and $2bn of EBITDA in 2011 and possibly more. 25x to 50x EBITDA for one of, if not the premier Internet company in the world is not crazy. And if you just think how much market power (i'm talking driving traffic, audience, brand, attention, value) Facebook has relative to the other Internet services which are valued well north of $50bn, I think it is pretty obvious that there is more value to be created in Facebook stock.
How do I reconcile these conflicting thoughts, that the web sector has gotten overheated and that the coming Internet IPOs might in fact be good buys? Well, to be honest, I haven't completely reconciled those thoughts. First of all, we don't know how these deals will be priced. Will Facebook shares be offered to the public at $75bn, $100bn, even higher? We just don't know. And how will Groupon, Demand Media, LinkedIn, Skype, and other offerings be priced? Don't know yet.
But it is very possible that some or all of these deals will be good buys even in the face of an overheated valuation environment. The public Internet names, most of which went public eight to ten years ago (or more), are mostly carrying full but not crazy valuations. If this new crop is priced off of those comps, then they could be worth buying and owning. And, as John points out in his post, if these companies contiue to grow rapidly and throw off ever larger amounts of cash, then they could easily be worth well north of what they are worth today.
In the spirit of complete transparency, I do not plan to purchase any of these offerings. I have plenty of personal exposure to the web sector right now and am adding to it every day via our firm and other private deals and funds I am part of. I don't particuarly like to buy and own public stocks unless we are in a really down market and I see unbelievable values. So I am not going to be calling the banks and asking for allocations. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't. But whatever you do, make sure to do your work and understand what the price is and that it makes sense. Blindly buying something just because it is "hot" is never a good idea.
Peter Thiel, entrepreneur, VC, angel, Facebook board member, and hedge fund manager, penned a long and thoughtful piece about the possibility of an impending apocalypse and how that might lead to financial bubbles. It was written in 2008 but I only came across it yesterday (on Hacker News). He calls it The Optimistic Thought Experiment. I you are an investor and haven't seen it before, I suggest you go read it in its entirety.
For those who would rather have the cliff notes, Peter's argument goes like this (Peter's words are in italics, mine are not):
1) if the truth were to be told, our slumber is not as peaceful as it once was. Beginning with the Great War in 1914, and accelerating after 1945, there has re-emerged an apocalyptic dimension to the modern world. In a strange way, however, this apocalyptic dimension has arisen from the very place that was meant to liberate us from antediluvian fears.
Peter argues that science in all of its form (nuclear weapons, biological catastrophes, etc) has vastly increased the probability of some form of apocalypse.
2) A mutual fund manager might not benefit from reflecting about the danger of thermonuclear war, since in that future world there would be no mutual funds and no mutual fund managers left. Because it is not profitable to think about one ’s death, it is more useful to act as though one will live forever.
Peter argues that betting on the apocalypse makes no sense so rational investors don't do it.
3) Globalization may end by accident or by terrible miscalculation: It may end by world war. Because there would be no winners in a new world war, every path away from globalization will end in catastrophe. Thus, in spite of the many uncertainties surrounding the costs and benefits of a more globally integrated world, investors have no choice but to bet on globalization. There are no good investments in a twenty-first century where globalization fails.
Peter argues that globalization is the anti-apocalypse bet.
4) Even the most preposterous bubbles of recent decades — Japan in the late 1980s and high-end real estate today — would have been far more restrained, had they not been stoked much further by the narrative of globalization.
He goes on to connect financial bubbles with bets on globalization. This is the most fascinating part of the essay to me. I've gone back and read it a few times now.
5) the pace and amplitude of these booms has accelerated tremendously, in complete contradiction to the widespread notion that markets are becoming more smooth and efficient over time. During the last quarter century, the world has seen more asset booms or bubbles than in all previous times put together: Japan; Asia (ex-Japan and ex-China) pre- 1997; the internet; real estate; China since 1997; Web 2.0; emerging markets more generally; private equity; and hedge funds, to name a few.
And then Peter explains that the recent slate of financial bubbles, which he calls unprecedented in history, are related to the growing sense of impending doom.
And here is the money quote:
But because we do not know how our story of globalization will end, we do not yet know which it is. Let us return to our thought experiment. Let us assume that, in the event of successful globalization, a given business would be worth $ 100/share, but that there is only an intermediate chance (say 1:10) of successful globalization. The other case is too terrible to consider. Theoretically, the share should be worth $ 10, but in every world where investors survive, it will be worth $100.Would it make sense to pay more than $10, and indeed any price up to $100? Whether in hope or desperation, the perceived lack of alternatives may push valuations to much greater extremes than in nonapocalyptic times.
It's a fascinating argument. I can't say whether I buy it or not. But it's in my head now and as a result it will be part of the way I look at the world, investing, and valuations. How much it will be a part of that remains to be seen.
At the end of the essay, Peter talks about China, Web 2.0, and hedge funds in the context of this "optimistic thought experiment". I've been thinking a lot about all three having most of my eggs in the middle basket and having taken a lot of eggs out of the latter basket and thinking about putting some eggs in the first basket. It was a good time for me to come across this essay.
When you want to look up information on publicly traded companies, it helps to know the ticker symbol. Microsft's ticker is MSFT, Google's ticker is GOOG, Apple's ticker is AAPL. Every publicly traded company has a ticker.
But private companies don't have tickers. And as more and more private companies are attaining status and drawing the attention of mainstream media and the investment community, it is time for that to change.
I'd like to see services like Tracked.com (a portfolio company of ours: $TRACK), Google Finance, Yahoo Finance, Crunchbase, Wikinvest, and their competitors adopt these tickers. If everyone supported the TWIT symbol for Twitter, the FBOOK symbol for Facebook, and the SKYPE symbol for Skype it would make it a lot easier to aggregate financial and other information on these companies.
I have been an investor and on the board of a company called Alacra for over ten years. We made the investment in the Flatiron partnership. One of Alacra's most successful services is called Concordance. They manage symbology for large enterprises with large datasets. It is a critical service for large banks, brokers, accountants, consultants, law firms, and other knowledge driven industries.
Unique identifiers are so helpful when you are trying to make sense of large amounts of data. It is particularly helpful in the case of company specific information and it is also expected in the investment community.
So I hope this effort by Stocktwits and Second Market gains traction with the other web services that aggregate information on private and public companies. I'll do my part by tweeting with these tickers (using the $ticker standard set by Stocktwits) when I talk about private companies on Twitter. I hope others will do the same.
And Stocktwits and Second Market can make my life easier by making sure that companies like Alacra and Wikinvest that don't have private company symbols get them asap. I wonder if they should open up this database in some way so that companies can issue themselves tickers. It seems like trying to manage this as a closed system won't scale very well and some kind of open system will work better. I'm curious what others think.
The Gotham Gal and I have our assets spread across a number of asset classes and money managers and our allocations and managers have changed a fair bit over the years. We’ve seen a bunch of managers in action up close and personal.
Right now, my favorite money manager is an optical surgeon named Robert Freedland. Robert is 56 years old, he’s been managing his own investments for 42 years, and he’s been blogging and podcasting about stocks for the past seven years. I invest with Robert on Covestor (which in the spirit of full disclosure is a portfolio company of Union Square Ventures).
About a year ago, we put a modest but non-trivial amount of cash into a Covestor account. We only invest with model managers in risk tiers 1 and 2 to keep our capital at lower risk. There were about five or six model managers in those tiers at that time so I put the minimum on all of them. I would check each month and slowly I left most of the managers. But I kept putting more money with Robert. And he kept performing. Now we have close to half of our Covestor portfolio with Robert and I am thinking of giving him even more.
We are up about 11% on the money we’ve had with Robert in the past year. Since some of those funds went in a year ago, but most went in more recently, I suspect our annualized returns are closer to the 17% return he’s annualized since he started on Covestor.
I like that Robert has delivered excellent performance with an emphasis on value investing in highly liquid stocks. I like that he doesn’t short stocks and doesn’t own anything I don’t understand or recognize. I like the fact that he has a strategy and he sticks with it. And most of all, I like that he is investing his own capital as well as mine.
If you want to invest with Robert, you can. He has a $5,000 minimum and you’ll need to open a Covestor account to do it. This is not a recommendation to invest with Robert, but it is an acknowledgement that there are great investors out there who don’t work on Wall Street and that thanks to the Internet they can manage your money as well as their own money and that is a very good thing.