Discussion of Sophisticated Valuation Methodology

In the long run, companies should be valued based on future earnings flows. Since this is often nearly impossible to calculate, proxies are often used instead. I find it difficult to competently determine what proxies should be used for cyclical companies, so will ignore them as they are not in my universe in venture or public investing. The focus of this post will be on exploring valuation for high-growth companies.

Companies that are already at or near their long-term model for profitability are often valued based on a multiple of earnings. If they are still in their high growth phase, they are likely to have increasing earnings over time and should therefore command a higher multiple than those that are growing slowly or not at all. Much analysis has been done to compare various such entities based on how their multiple of earnings varies depending on their level of growth. There will be a strong correlation between their multiple of earnings and level of growth, but other factors such as the “dependability of growth and earnings” can lead to wide variations in valuations.  For example, a company that has a SaaS business model with greater than 100% revenue retention would usually be viewed as one where growth is “safer” … thus commanding a higher multiple than those with different models.

What about companies that are not near their long-term profit model?   

Many of the companies that have recently gone public are a long way from reaching their long-term business model, and so other methods of valuing them must be used. Often, Investment Bankers suggest a multiple of revenue as one method. By considering how “comparable” companies trade based on revenue and growth a suggested valuation can be derived:

Table 1 Valuation of Comparable Companies

Table 1 shows a sample of what an investment banker might use as one method of determining potential valuation. However, there are many weaknesses to this approach. The biggest of which is: “what makes a company a comparable?” Usually companies selected are in the same sector. But, within a sector, business models can vary widely. For example, a sector like eCommerce has companies that:

  1. Sell physical goods which are not their own brands
  2. Sell physical goods that are their own brands
  3. Are a marketplace in which sellers list their goods and the company facilitates sales, collects the money and pays the seller (e.g., eBay).  Such a company’s revenue is not the sales of the goods but instead the marketplace commission.
  4. Sell virtual goods that are their own

There can be wide variation in gross margin among the four categories, but in general, gross margins are higher as we go from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. In fact, companies in category 1 often have gross margins in the 20% to 40% range, those in category 2 in the 40% to 70% range, those in category 3 in the 70% to 90% range and those in category 4 in the 85% to 95% range. What this means is that all other things being equal the potential earnings at scale for these will depend more on its business model than on the sector.  

To test our theory of whether using a multiple of Gross Margin was a better measure of value than a multiple of revenue, we plotted the relationship between growth and valuation using each of these methods.  It turns out there is a correlation between valuation as a multiple of revenue based on revenue growth regardless of industry. We found the correlation coefficient for it to be 0.36, an indication of a moderate relationship. This was still far better than the correlation between slow growth and high growth plays that just happen to be in the same industry. So, I believe (based on evidence) that growth is a better indicator of multiple than industry sector.

In that same post we plotted the relationship between revenue growth and valuation as a multiple of gross margin dollars (GMD). For the remainder of this post I’ll use multiple to mean the multiple of GMD. Since it seemed obvious that GM% is a better indicator of future earnings than revenue, I wasn’t surprised that the correlation coefficient was a much higher 0.62, an indication of a much stronger relationship. While other factors like dependability of revenue, market size, perceived competitive advantage and more will affect the multiple, I decided that this method of assessing valuation was strong enough that I use the resulting least square regression formula as a way of getting a starting approximation for the value of a company that has yet to reach “business model maturity”.

Why Contribution Margin is a better indicator than Gross Margin of future earnings.

The reason the correlation coefficient between GMD multiples and revenue growth is 0.62 rather than a number much closer to 1.0 is that a number of other factors play a role in determining future earnings. For me, the most important one is Contribution Margin, which considers the marketing/sales cost spent each month to help drive revenue (think of it as GMD minus marketing/sales cost). Contribution Margin indicates how quickly the benefits of scaling the business will enable reaching mature earnings. When I look at a company that has low contribution margins it is difficult to see how it can generate substantial profits unless it can improve gross margin and/or reduce marketing spend as a percentage of sales. That is why the bull story on Spotify is that it will get the music labels to substantially reduce their royalty level (from close to 80%), or for Uber is that it will go to self-driving vehicles or why Blue Apron keeps reducing its marketing spend in an effort to increase contribution margin. The argument then becomes a speculation on why the multiple should be of a “theoretically” higher amount.  I would like to plot revenue growth versus the multiple of Contribution Margin to obtain a new least square formula, which I am confident would have a higher correlation coefficient.  Unfortunately, many companies do not readily identify variable marketing/sales cost so instead I analyze where it is likely to be, and factor that into how I view valuation.

Other Factors to Consider for Understanding a Company’s Valuation

  1. Recurring revenue models should have a higher multiple: Business to Business SaaS (Software as a Service) companies usually trade at higher multiples than those with other models that are growing at the same rate. The reason is simple: their customers are likely to stay on their platforms for a decade or more and often increase what they spend over time. This creates a situation where a portion of revenue growth can be sustained even before adding the marketing spend to acquire future customers which in turn should lead to higher Contribution Margins.
  2. Companies that are in markets that are likely to grow at a high rate for 5 years or more should have higher multiples: If the market a company plays in is growing quickly there is more opportunity to sustain high growth levels for a longer time, leading to a likelihood of greater future earnings.
  3. Companies with substantial competitive advantage should have higher multiples: Any company that has a product that it is difficult to replicate can elevate its margins and earnings for a long period of time. One of the best examples of this is pharmaceutical companies, where their drug patents last for 20 years. Even after the patent expires the original holder will continue to sell the drug at a much higher price than its generic alternatives and still maintain strong market share.
  4. Companies that are farther away from generating actual earnings should trade at lower multiples than those that are close or already generating some earnings: The reason for this is obvious to me but it is often not the case … especially for newly minted IPOs. I believe there is considerable risk that such companies will take many years to reach profitability (if they do at all) and that when they do it will only be a modest portion of revenue. I started this post by saying that eventually valuations should reflect the present value of future earnings flows. The longer it takes to get to mature earnings, the lower its present value (see table 2). If tangible earnings started 7 years out (vs immediately) the discounted value of the flow would be reduced by more than half – reflecting that the valuation of the company should be half that of a company with a similar earnings flow that started immediately.

Table 2: Present value of future dollars using a 12% discount rate

How I bet on my Valuation Methodology.

Consider the three recommendations in my last post that have had their IPO between November of 2017 and mid-2019: DocuSign, Stitch fix and Zoom. They all are profitable already. Two are B to B SaaS companies with greater than 100% revenue retention (that means that the cohort of customers they had a year ago, including those that churned, are spending more today than when they started). The third has existing customers increasing their year over spend as well. They are all growing at a strong pace.

SoundBytes

  • While I did not include it in my recommended stocks for 2020, I recently purchased shares in Pinterest (at $19.50 per share), one of the three 2019 Unicorn IPOs (of the nine I highlighted in my last post) that was already profitable. Based on my valuation methods it is at a reasonable valuation, grew 47% year over year in its last reported quarter, and appears well positioned to grow at a high level for many years. What I find surprising is the comparison to the valuation of Snap. Snap is growing at roughly the same pace (50% in the last reported quarter), had an adjusted EBITDA loss of nearly 10% in Q3 and yet was trading at nearly double the multiple of GMD. 
  • I can’t help mentioning that we predicted that Tesla was likely to have a great Q4 in our post in November, based on the long wait time for my getting a model 3 I had ordered, coupled with manufacturing cranking out more expensive model S and X versions for most of the quarter, and that the Chinese factory was starting to produce cars. At the time the stock was $333 per share. Now, after it has risen over 200 points a number of analysts are saying the same thing.

2020 Top Ten Predictions

I wanted to start this post by repeating something I discussed in my top ten lists in 2017 and 2018 which I learned while at Sanford Bernstein in my Wall Street days: “Owning companies that have strong competitive advantages and a great business model in a potentially mega-sized market can create the largest performance gains over time (assuming one is correct).” It does make my stock predictions somewhat boring (as they were on Wall Street where my top picks, Dell and Microsoft each appreciated over 100X over the ten years I was recommending them).

Let’s do a little simple math. Suppose one can generate an IRR of 26% per year (my target is to be over 25%) over a long period of time.  The wonder of compounding is that at 26% per year your assets will double every 3 years. In 6 years, this would mean 4X your original investment dollars and in 12 years the result would be 16X. For comparison purposes, at 5% per year your assets would only be 1.8X in 12 years and at 10% IRR 3.1X.  While 25%+ IRR represents very high performance, I have been fortunate enough to consistently exceed it (but always am worried that it can’t keep up)! For my recommendations of the past 6 years, the IRR is 34.8% and since this exceeds 26%, the 6-year performance  is roughly 6X rather than 4X.

What is the trick to achieving 25% plus IRR? Here are a few of my basic rules:

  1. Start with companies growing revenue 20% or more, where those closer to 20% also have opportunity to expand income faster than revenue
  2. Make sure the market they are attacking is large enough to support continued high growth for at least 5 years forward
  3. Stay away from companies that don’t have profitability in sight as companies eventually should trade at a multiple of earnings.
  4. Only choose companies with competitive advantages in their space
  5. Re-evaluate your choices periodically but don’t be consumed by short term movement

As I go through each of my 6 stock picks I have also considered where the stock currently trades relative to its growth and other performance metrics. With that in mind, as is my tendency (and was stated in my last post), I am continuing to recommend Tesla, Facebook, Amazon, Stitch Fix and DocuSign. I am adding Zoom Video Communications (ZM) to the list. For Zoom and Amazon I will recommend a more complex transaction to achieve my target return.

2020 Stock Recommendations:

1. Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $418/share)

Tesla is likely to continue to be a volatile stock, but it has so many positives in front of it that I believe it wise to continue to own it. The upward trend in units and revenue should be strong in 2020 because:

  • The model 3 continues to be one of the most attractive cars on the market. Electric Car Reviews has come out with a report stating that Model 3 cost of ownership not only blows away the Audi AS but is also lower than a Toyota Camry! The analysis is that the 5-year cost of ownership of the Tesla is $0.46 per mile while the Audi AS comes in 70% higher at $0.80 per mile. While Audi being more expensive is no surprise, what is shocking is how much more expensive it is. The report also determined that Toyota Camry has a higher cost as well ($0.49/mile)! Given the fact that the Tesla is a luxury vehicle and the Camry is far from that, why would anyone with this knowledge decide to buy a low-end car like a Camry over a Model 3 when the Camry costs more to own?  What gets the Tesla to a lower cost than the Camry is much lower fuel cost, virtually no maintenance cost and high resale value. While the Camry purchase price is lower, these factors more than make up for the initial price difference
  • China, the largest market for electronic vehicles, is about to take off in sales. With the new production facility in China going live, Tesla will be able to significantly increase production in 2020 and will benefit from the car no longer being subject to import duties in China.  
  • European demand for Teslas is increasing dramatically. With its Chinese plant going live, Tesla will be able to partly meet European demand which could be as high as the U.S. in the future. The company is building another factory in Europe in anticipation. The earliest indicator of just how much market share Tesla can reach has occurred in Norway where electric cars receive numerous incentives. Tesla is now the best selling car in that country and demand for electric cars there now exceeds gas driven vehicles.

While 2020 is shaping up as a stairstep uptick in sales for Tesla given increased capacity and demand, various factors augur continued growth well beyond 2020. For example, Tesla is only partway towards having a full lineup of vehicles. In the future it will add:

  • Pickup trucks – where pre-orders and recent surveys indicate it will acquire 10-20% of that market
  • A lower priced SUV – at Model 3 type pricing this will be attacking a much larger market than the Model X
  • A sports car – early specifications indicate that it could rival Ferrari in performance but at pricing more like a Porsche
  • A refreshed version of the Model S
  • A semi – where the lower cost of fuel and maintenance could mean strong market share.

2. Facebook stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $205/share)

Facebook, like Tesla, continues to have a great deal of controversy surrounding it and therefore may sometimes have price drops that its financial metrics do not warrant. This was the case in 2018 when the stock dropped 28% in value during that year. While 2019 partly recovered from what I believe was an excessive reaction, it’s important to note that the 2019 year-end price of $205/share was only 16% higher than at the end of 2017 while trailing revenue will have grown by about 75% in the 2-year period. The EPS run rate should be up in a similar way after a few quarters of lower earnings in early 2019. My point is that the stock remains at a low price given its metrics. I expect Q4 to be quite strong and believe 2020 will continue to show solid growth.

The Facebook platform is still increasing the number of active users, albeit by only about 5%-6%. Additionally, Facebook continues to increase inventory utilization and pricing. In fact, given what I anticipate will be added advertising spend due to the heated elections for president, senate seats, governorships etc., Facebook advertising inventory usage and rates could increase faster (see prediction 7 on election spending).  

Facebook should also benefit by an acceleration of commerce and increased monetization of advertising on Instagram. Facebook started monetizing that platform in 2017 and Instagram revenue has been growing exponentially and is likely to close out 2019 at well over $10 billion. A wild card for growth is potential monetization of WhatsApp. That platform now has over 1.5 billion active users with over 300 million active every day. It appears close to beginning monetization.

The factors discussed could enable Facebook to continue to grow revenue at 20% – 30% annually for another 3-5 years making it a sound longer term investment.

3. DocuSign stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $74/share)

DocuSign is the runaway leader in e-signatures facilitating multiple parties signing documents in a secure, reliable way for board resolutions, mortgages, investment documents, etc. Being the early leader creates a network effect, as hundreds of millions of people are in the DocuSign e-signature database. The company has worked hard to expand its scope of usage for both enterprise and smaller companies by adding software for full life-cycle management of agreements. This includes the process of generating, redlining, and negotiating agreements in a multi-user environment, all under secure conditions. On the small business side, the DocuSign product is called DocuSign Negotiate and is integrated with Salesforce.

The company is a SaaS company with a stable revenue base of over 560,000 customers at the end of October, up well over 20% from a year earlier. Its strategy is one of land and expand with revenue from existing customers increasing each year leading to a roughly 40% year over year revenue increase in the most recent quarter (fiscal Q3). SaaS products account for over 95% of revenue with professional services providing the rest. As a SaaS company, gross margins are high at 79% (on a non-GAAP basis).

The company has now reached positive earnings on a non-GAAP basis of $0.11/share versus $0.00 a year ago. I use non-GAAP as GAAP financials distort actual results by creating extra cost on the P&L if the company’s stock appreciates. These costs are theoretic rather than real.

My only concern with this recommendation is that the stock has had a 72% runup in 2019 but given its growth, move to positive earnings and the fact that SaaS companies trade at higher multiples of revenue than others I still believe it can outperform this year.

4. Stitch Fix Stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $25.66/share)

Stitch Fix offers customers, who are primarily women, the ability to shop from home by sending them a box with several items selected based on sophisticated analysis of her profile and prior purchases. The customer pays a $20 “styling fee” for the box which can be applied towards purchasing anything in the box. The company is the strong leader in the space with revenue approaching a $2 billion run rate. Unlike many of the recent IPO companies, it has shown an ability to balance growth and earnings. The stock had a strong 2019 ending the year at $25.66 per share up 51% over the 2018 closing price. Despite this, our valuation methodology continues to show it to be substantially under valued and it remains one of my picks for 2020. The likely cause of what I believe is a low valuation is a fear of Amazon making it difficult for Stitch Fix to succeed. As the company gets larger this fear should recede helping the multiple to expand.  

Stitch Fix continues to add higher-end brands and to increase its reach into men, plus sizes and kids. Its algorithms to personalize each box of clothes it ships keeps improving. Therefore, the company can spend less on acquiring new customers as it has increased its ability to get existing customers to spend more and come back more often. Stitch Fix can continue to grow its revenue from women in the U.S. with expansion opportunities in international markets over time. I believe the company can continue to grow by roughly 20% or more in 2020 and beyond.

Stitch Fix revenue growth (of over 21% in the latest reported quarter) comes from a combination of increasing the number of active clients by 17% to 3.4 million, coupled with driving higher revenue per active client. The company accomplished this while generating profits on a non-GAAP basis.

5. Amazon stock strategy will outpace the market (it closed last year at $1848/share).

Amazon shares increased by 23% last year while revenue in Q3 was up 24% year over year. This meant the stock performance mirrored revenue growth. Growth in the core commerce business has slowed but Amazon’s cloud and echo/Alexa businesses are strong enough to help the company maintain roughly 20% growth in 2020. The company continues to invest heavily in R&D with a push to create automated retail stores one of its latest initiatives. If that proves successful, Amazon can greatly expand its physical presence and potentially increase growth through the rollout of numerous brick and mortar locations. But at its current size, it will be difficult for the company to maintain over 20% revenue growth for many years (excluding acquisitions) so I am suggesting a more complex investment in this stock:

  1. Buy X shares of the stock (or keep the ones you have)
  2. Sell Amazon puts for the same number of shares with the puts expiring on January 15, 2021 and having a strike price of $1750. The most recent sale of these puts was for over $126
  3. So, net out of pocket cost would be reduced to $1722
  4. A 20% increase in the stock price (roughly Amazon’s growth rate) would mean 29% growth in value since the puts would expire worthless
  5. If the stock declined 226 points the option sale would be a break-even. Any decline beyond that and you would lose additional dollars.
  6. If the options still have a premium on December 31, I will measure their value on January 15, 2021 for the purposes of performance.

6. I’m adding Zoom Video Communications to the list but with an even more complex investment strategy (the stock is currently at $72.20)

I discussed Zoom Video Communications (ZM) in my post on June 24, 2019. In that post I described the reasons I liked Zoom for the long term:

  1. Revenue retention of a cohort was about 140%
  2. It acquires customers very efficiently with a payback period of 7 months as the host of a Zoom call invites various people to participate in the call and those who are not already Zoom users can be readily targeted by the company at little cost
  3. Gross Margins are over 80% and could increase
  4. The product has been rated best in class numerous times
  5. Its compression technology (the key ingredient in making video high quality) appears to have a multi-year lead over the competition
  6. Adding to those reasons it’s important to note that ZM is improving earnings and was slightly profitable in its most recent reported quarter

The fly in the ointment was that my valuation technology showed that it was overvalued. However, I came up with a way of “future pricing” the stock. Since I expected revenue to grow by about 150% over the next 7 quarters (at the time it was growing over 100% year over year) “future pricing” would make it an attractive stock. This was possible due to the extremely high premiums for options in the stock. So far that call is working out. Despite the company growing revenue in the 3 quarters subsequent to my post by over 57%, my concern about valuation has proven correct and the stock has declined from $76.92 to $72.20. If I closed out the position today by selling the stock and buying back the options (see Table 1) my return for less than 7.5 months would be a 42% profit. This has occurred despite the stock declining slightly due to shrinkage in the premiums.

Table 1: Previous Zoom trade and proposed trade

I typically prefer using longer term options for doing this type of trade as revenue growth of this magnitude should eventually cause the stock to rise, plus the premiums on options that are further out are much higher, reducing the risk profile, but I will construct this trade so that the options expire on January 15, 2021 to be able to evaluate it in one year. In measuring my performance we’ll use the closing stock price on the option expiration date, January 15, 2021 since premiums in options persist until their expiration date so the extra 2 weeks leads to better optimization of the trade.

So, here is the proposed trade (see table 1):

  1. Buy X shares of the stock at $72.20 (today’s price)
  2. Sell Calls for X shares expiring January 15, 2021 at a strike of $80/share for $11.50 (same as last price it traded)
  3. Sell puts for X shares expiring January 15, 2021 with strike of $65/share for $10.00 (same as last price it traded)

I expect revenue growth of 60% or more 4 quarters out. I also expect the stock to rise some portion of that, as it is now closer to its value than when I did the earlier transaction on May 31, 2019. Check my prior post for further analysis on Zoom, but here are 3 cases that matter at December 31, 2020:

  • Stock closes over $80/share (up 11% or more) at end of the year: the profit would be 58% of the net cost of the transaction
    • This would happen because the stock would be called, and you would get $80/share
    • The put would expire worthless
    • Since you paid a net cost of $50.70, net profit would be $29.30
  • Stock closes flat at $72.20:  your profit would be $21.50 (42%)
    • The put and the call would each expire worthless, so you would earn the original premiums you received when you sold them
    • The stock would be worth the same as what you paid
  • Stock closes at $57.85 on December 31: you would be at break even. If it closed lower, then losses would accumulate twice as quickly:
    • The put holder would require you to buy the stock at the put exercise price of $65, $7.15 more than it would be worth
    • The call would expire worthless
    • The original stock would have declined from $72.20 to $57.85, a loss of $14.35
    • The loss on the stock and put together would equal $21.50, the original premiums you received for those options

Outside of my stock picks, I always like to make a few non-stock predictions for the year ahead.

7. The major election year will cause a substantial increase in advertising dollars spent

According to Advertising Analytics political spending has grown an average of 27% per year since 2012. Both the rise of Super PACs and the launch of online donation tools such as ActBlue have substantially contributed to this growth. While much of the spend is targeted at TV, online platforms have seen an increasing share of the dollars, especially Facebook and Google. The spend is primarily in even years, as those are the ones with senate, house and gubernatorial races (except for minor exceptions). Of course, every 4th year this is boosted by the added spend from presidential candidates. The Wall Street Journal projects the 2020 amount will be about $9.9 billion…up nearly 60% from the 2016 election year. It should be noted that the forecast was prior to Bloomberg entering the race and if he remains a viable candidate an additional $2 billion or more could be added to this total.

The portion targeted at the digital world is projected to be about $2.8 billion or about 2.2% of total digital ad spending. Much of these dollars will likely go to Facebook and Google. This spend has a dual impact: first it adds to the revenue of each platform in a direct way, but secondly it can also cause the cost of advertising on those platforms to rise for others as well.

8. Automation of Retail will continue to gain momentum

This will happen in multiple ways, including:

  1. More Brick & Mortar locations will offer some or all the SKUs in the store for online purchase through Kiosks (assisted by clerks/sales personnel). By doing this, merchants will be able to offer a larger variety of items, styles, sizes and colors than can be carried in any one outlet. In addition, the consolidation of inventory achieved in this manner will add efficiency to the business model. In the case of clothing, such stores will carry samples of items so the customer can try them on, partly to optimize fit but also to determine whether he or she likes the way it looks and feels on them. If one observes the massive use of Kiosks at airports it becomes obvious that they reduce the number of employees needed and can speed up checking in. One conclusion is this will be the wave of the future for multiple consumer-based industries.
  2. Many more locations will begin incorporating technology to eliminate the number of employees needed in their stores. Amazon will likely be a leader in this, but others will also provide ways to reduce the cost of ordering, picking goods, checking out and receiving information while at the store.

9. The Warriors will come back strong in the 2020/21 season

Let me begin by saying that this prediction is not being made because I have been so humbled by my miss in the July post where I predicted that the Warriors could edge into the 2020 playoffs and then contend for a title if Klay returned in late February/early March. Rather, it is based on analysis of their opportunity for next season and also an attempt to add a little fun to my Top Ten List!  The benefit of this season:

  • Klay and Curry are getting substantial time off after 5 seasons of heavy stress. They should be refreshed at the start of next season
  • Russell, assuming he doesn’t keep missing games with injuries, is learning the Warriors style of play
  • Because of the injuries to Klay, Curry, Looney, and to a lesser extent Green and Russell, several of the younger members of the team are getting experience at a much more rapid rate than would normally be possible and the Warriors are able to have more time to evaluate them as potential long-term assets
  • If the Warriors continue to lose at their current rate, they will be able to get a high draft choice for the first time since 2012 when they drafted Harrison Barnes with the 7th pick. Since then their highest pick has been between the 28th and 30th player chosen (30 is the lowest pick in the first round)
  • The Warriors will have more cap space available to sign a quality veteran
  • Andre Iguodala might re-sign with the team, and while this is not necessary for my prediction it would be great for him and for the team
  • The veterans should be hungry again after several years of almost being bored during the regular season

I am assuming the Warriors will be relatively healthy next season for this to occur.

10. At least one of the major Unicorns will be acquired by a larger player

In 2019, there was a change to the investing environment where most companies that did not show a hint of potential profitability had difficulty maintaining their market price. This was particularly true of highly touted Unicorns, which mostly struggled to increase their share price dramatically from the price each closed on the day of their IPO. Table 2 shows the 9 Unicorns whose IPOs we highlighted in our last post. Other than Beyond Meat, Zoom and Pinterest, they all appear some distance from turning a proforma profit. Five of the other six are below their price on the first day’s close. A 6th, Peloton, is slightly above the IPO price (and further above the first days close). Beyond Meat grew revenue 250% in its latest quarter and moved to profitability as well. Its stock jumped on the first day and is even higher today.  While Pinterest is showing an ability to be profitable it is still between the price of the IPO and its close on the first day of trading.  Zoom, which is one of our recommended buys, was profitable (on a Non-GAAP basis) and grew revenue 85% in its most recent quarter. A 10th player, WeWork, had such substantial losses that it was unable to have a successful IPO.

Table 2: Recent Unicorn IPOs Stock Price & Profitability Comparisons

Something that each of these companies have in common is that they are all growing revenue at 30% or more, are attacking large markets, and are either in the leadership position in that market or are one of two in such a position. Because of this I believe one or more of these (and comparable Unicorns) could be an interesting acquisition for a much larger company who is willing to help make them profitable. For such an acquirer their growth and leadership position could be quite attractive.

Recap of 2019 Top Ten Predictions

Bull Markets have Tended to Favor My Stock Picks

I entered 2019 with some trepidation as my favored stocks are high beta and if the bear market of the latter portion of 2018 continued, I wasn’t sure I would once again beat the market…it was a pretty close call last year. However, I felt the companies I liked would continue to grow their revenue and hoped the market would reward their performance. As it turns out, the 5 stocks I included in my top ten list each showed solid company performance and the market returned to the bull side. The average gain for the stocks was 45.7% (versus the S&P gain of 24.3%).

Before reviewing each of my top ten from last year, I would like to once again reveal long term performance of the stock pick portion of my top ten list. For my picks, I assume equal weighting for each stock in each year to come up with my performance and then compound the yearly gains (or losses) to provide my 6-year performance. For the S&P my source is Multpl.com.  I’m comparing the S&P index at January 2 of each year to determine annual performance.  My compound gain for the 6-year period is 499% which equates to an IRR of 34.8%. The S&P was up 78% during the same 6-year period, an IRR of 10.1%.

The 2019 Top Ten Predictions Recap

One of my New Year’s pledges was to be more humble, so I would like to point out that I wasn’t 10 for 10 on my picks. One of my 5 stocks slightly under-performed the market and one of my non-stock forecasts was a mixed bag. The miss on the non-stock side was the only forecast outside of tech, once again highlighting that I am much better off sticking to the sector I know best (good advice for readers as well). However, I believe I had a pretty solid year in my forecasts as my stock portfolio (5 of the picks) significantly outperformed the market, with two at approximately market performance and three having amazing performance with increases of 51% to 72%. Regarding the 5 non-stock predictions, 4 were right on target and the 5th was very mixed. As a quick reminder, my predictions were:

Stock Portfolio 2019 Picks:

  • Tesla stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $333/share and opened this year at $310)
  • Facebook Stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $131/share)
  • Amazon Stock will outpace the market (it opened the year at $1502/share)
  • Stitch Fix stock appreciation will outpace the market (it closed last year at $17/share)
  • DocuSign stock will outpace the market in 2019 (it is currently at $43/share and opened the year at $41)

5 Non-Stock Predictions:

  • Replacing cashiers with technology will be proven out in 2019
  • Replacing cooks, baristas, and waitstaff with robots will begin to be proven in 2019
  • Influencers will be increasingly utilized to directly drive commerce
  • The Cannabis Sector should show substantial gains in 2019
  • 2019 will be the year of the unicorn IPO

In the discussion below, I’ve listed in bold each of my ten predictions and give an evaluation of how I fared on each.

Tesla stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $333/share and opened this year at $310)

Tesla proved to be a rocky ride through 2019 as detractors of the company created quite a bit of fear towards the middle of the year, driving the stock to a low of $177 in June. A sequence of good news followed, and the stock recovered and reached a high of $379 in front of the truck unveiling. I’m a very simplistic guy when I evaluate success as I use actual success as the measure as opposed to whether I would buy a product. Critics of the truck used Elon’s unsuccessful demonstration of the truck being “bulletproof” and the fact that it was missing mirrors and windshield wipers to criticize it. Since it is not expected to be production ready for about two years this is ridiculous! If the same critics applied a similar level of skepticism to the state of other planned competitive electric vehicles (some of which are two plus years away) one could conclude that none of them will be ready on time. I certainly think the various announced electric vehicles from others will all eventually ship, but do not expect them to match the Tesla battery and software capability given its 3 to 5-year lead. I said I’m a simple guy, so when I evaluate the truck, I look at the 250,000 pre-orders and notice it equates to over $12.5B in incremental revenue for the product! While many of these pre-orders will not convert, others likely will step in. To me that is strong indication that the truck will be an important contributor to Tesla growth once it goes into production.

Tesla stock recovered from the bad press surrounding the truck as orders for it mounted, the Chinese factory launch was on target and back order volume in the U.S. kept factories at maximum production.  Given a late year run the stock was up to $418 by year end, up 34.9% from the January opening price. But for continuing recommendations I use the prior year’s close as the benchmark (for measuring my performance) which places the gain at a lower 25.6% year over year as the January opening price was lower than the December 31 close. Either way this was a successful recommendation.

Facebook Stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $131/share)

Facebook, like Tesla, has many critics regarding its stock. In 2018 this led to a 28% decline in the stock. The problem for the critics is that it keeps turning out very strong financial numbers and eventually the stock price has to recognize that. It appears that 2019 revenue will be up roughly 30% over 2018. After several quarters of extraordinary expenses, the company returned to “normal” earnings levels of about 35% of revenue in the September quarter. I expect Q4 to be at a similar or even stronger profit level as it is the seasonally strongest quarter of the year given the company’s ability to charge high Christmas season advertising rates. As a result, the stock has had a banner year increasing to $205/share at year-end up 57% over the prior year’s close making this pick one of my three major winners.

Amazon Stock will outpace the market (it opened the year at $1502/share)

Amazon had another very solid growth year and the stock kept pace with its growth. Revenue will be up about 20% over 2018 and gross margins remain in the 40% range. For Amazon, Q4 is a wildly seasonal quarter where revenue could jump by close to 30% sequentially. While the incremental revenue tends to have gross margins in the 25% – 30% range as it is heavily driven by ecommerce, the company could post a solid profit increase over Q3. The stock pretty much followed revenue growth, posting a 23% year over year gain closing the year at $1848 per share. I view this as another winner, but it slightly under-performed the S&P index.

Stitch Fix stock appreciation will outpace the market (it closed last year at $17/share)

Stitch Fix, unlike many of the recent IPO companies, has shown an ability to balance growth and earnings. In its fiscal year ending in July, year over year growth increased from 26% in FY 2018 to over 28% in FY 2019 (although without the extra week in Q4 of FY 2019 year over year growth would have been about the same as the prior year). For fiscal 2020, the company guidance is for 23% – 25% revenue growth after adjusting for the extra week in Q4 of FY 2019. On December 9th, Stitch Fix reported Q1 results that exceeded market expectations. The stock reacted well ending the year at $25.66 per share and the year over year gain in calendar 2019 moved to a stellar level of 51% over the 2018 closing price.

DocuSign stock will outpace the market in 2019 (it is currently at $43/share and opened the year at $41)

DocuSign continued to execute well throughout calendar 2019. On December 5th it reported 40% revenue growth in its October quarter, exceeding analyst expectations. Given this momentum, DocuSign stock was the largest gainer among our 5 picks at 72% for the year ending at just over $74 per share (since this was a new recommendation, I used the higher $43 price at the time of the post to measure performance). The company also gave evidence that it is reducing losses and not burning cash. Since ~95% of its revenue is subscription, the company is able to maintain close to 80% gross margin (on a proforma basis) and is well positioned to continue to drive growth. But, remember that growth declines for very high growth companies so I would expect somewhat slower growth than 40% in 2020.

Replacing cashiers with technology will be proven out in 2019

A year ago, I emphasized that Amazon was in the early experimental phase of its Go Stores which are essentially cashierless using technology to record purchases and to bill for them. The company now has opened or announced 21 of these stores. The pace is slower than I expected as Amazon is still optimizing the experience and lowering the cost of the technology. Now, according to Bloomberg, the company appears ready to:

  • Open larger format supermarkets using the technology
  • Increase the pace of adding smaller format locations
  • Begin licensing the technology to other retailers, replicating the strategy it deployed in rolling out Amazon Web Services to others

Replacing cooks, baristas, and waitstaff with robots will begin to be proven in 2019

The rise of the robots for replacing baristas, cooks and waitstaff did indeed accelerate in 2019. In the coffee arena, Briggo now has robots making coffee in 7 locations (soon to be in SFO and already in the Austin Airport), Café X robotic coffee makers are now in 3 locations, and there are even other robots making coffee in Russia (GBL Robotics), Australia (Aabak) and Japan (HIS Co). There is similar expansion of robotic pizza and burger cooks from players like Zume Pizza and Creator and numerous robots now serving food. This emerging trend has been proven to work. As the cost of robots decline and minimum wage rises there will be further expansion of this usage including franchise approaches that might start in 2020.

Influencers will be increasingly utilized to directly drive commerce

The use of influencers to drive commerce accelerated in 2019. Possibly the most important development in the arena was the April 2019 launch by Instagram of social commerce. Instagram now let’s influencers use the app to tag and sell products directly, that is, their posts can be “shoppable”. Part of the series of steps Instagram took was adding “checkout” which lets customers purchase products without leaving the walls of the app.

A second increase in the trend is for major influencers to own a portion of companies that depend on their influence to drive a large volume of traffic. In that way they can capture more of the value of their immense influence. Using this concept, Rihanna has become the wealthiest female musician in the world at an estimated net worth of $600 million. The vast majority of her wealth is from ownership in companies where she uses her influence to drive revenue. The two primary ones are Fenty Beauty and Fenty Maison. Fenty Beauty was launched in late 2017 and appears to be valued at over $3 billion. Rihanna owns 15% – do the math! Fenty Maison is a partnership between LVMH (the largest luxury brand owner) and Rihanna announced in May of 2019. It is targeting fashion products and marks the first time the luxury conglomerate has launched a fashion brand from scratch since 1987. Rihanna has more than 70 million followers on Instagram and this clearly establishes her as someone who can influence commerce.

The Cannabis Sector should show substantial gains in 2019

The accuracy of this forecast was a mixed bag as the key companies grew revenue at extremely high rates, but their stock valuations declined resulting in poor performance of the cannabis index (which I had said should be a barometer). A few examples of the performance of the largest public companies in the sector are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Performance of Largest Public Cannabis Companies

*Note: Canopy last quarter was Sept 2019

In each case, the last reported quarter was calendar Q3. For Tilray, I subtracted the revenue from its acquisition of Manitoba Harvest so that the growth shown is organic growth. I consider this forecast a hit and a miss as I was correct regarding revenue (it was up an average of 282%) but the stocks did not follow suit, even modestly, as the average of the three was a decline of 54%. While my forecast was not for any individual company or stock in the sector, it was wrong regarding the stocks but right regarding company growth. The conclusion is humbling as I’m glad that I exercised constraint in not investing in a sector where I do not have solid knowledge of the way the stocks might perform.

2019 will be the year of the unicorn IPO

This proved true as many of the largest unicorns went public in 2019. Some of the most famous ones included on the list are: Beyond Meat, Chewy, Lyft, Peloton, Pinterest, Slack, The Real Real, Uber and Zoom. Of the 9 shown, four had initial valuations between $8 billion and $12 billion, two over $20 billion and Uber was the highest at an $82 billion valuation. Some unicorns found the public markets not as accepting of losses as the private market, with Lyft and Uber stock coming under considerable pressure and WeWork unable to find public buyers of its stock leading to a failed IPO and shakeup of company management. There is more to come in 2020 including another mega one: Airbnb.

2020 Predictions coming soon

Stay tuned for my top ten predictions for 2020…but please note that all 5 of the stocks recommended for 2019 will remain on the list.

Soundbyte

  • Before the basketball season began, I had a post predicting that the Warriors still had a reasonable chance to make the playoffs (if Klay returned in late February). Talk about feeling humble! I guess, counting this I had 3 misses on my predictions.

Calculating and Acting on the Right KPIs is Critical for Success

Advanced metrics for Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and Lifetime Value (LTV)

What is the purpose of CAC, LTV and Payback Period?

Often entrepreneurs we meet have a list of their KPI’s, but as we dig deeper, it becomes clear that they don’t fully comprehend the purpose of the KPI or why we think that they are so critical in helping us understand the health of a business. I’m a believer in thoroughly understanding the economics of your business, and the metrics around Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), Customer Lifetime Revenue (LTR), Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) and Payback Period are important metrics to work on improving. In this post we use the word customer to mean a ‘buyer’, someone who actually orders product and will use customer and buyer interchangeably.

  • LTR (Customer Lifetime Revenue) is the total revenue from a customer over their estimated lifetime (we prefer using 5 years as representing lifetime)
  • MCA (Marketing Spend for Customer Acquisition) is the marketing cost directed towards new customer acquisition
  • CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) captures the cost of acquiring a new buyer
  • LTV (Customer Lifetime Value) is the estimated lifetime profits on new customers once they have been acquired
  • Net LTV is the estimated lifetime profits on a new customer taking acquisition cost into account or: LTV – CAC
  • Payback Period is the time for a new customer to generate profits that equals his or her CAC

When LTV is compared to CAC a measure of the future health of the business can be seen. Most VCs will be loath to invest in any company where the ratio of LTV/CAC is less than 3X and enthusiastic when it exceeds 5X. I also favor companies with a short payback period especially if the recovery is from the first transaction as this means almost no cash is consumed when acquiring a customer.

I have previously written about Contribution Margin (gross margin less marketing and sales spend) being one of the most important metrics for companies as it tells me how scaling revenue will help cover G&A and R&D costs. Once Contribution Margin exceeds these costs there is operating profit. A company with low Contribution Margin needs much greater scale to be able to reach profitability than one with high Contribution Margin. Both the LTV/CAC ratio and Payback Period are important predictors of future Contribution Margin levels. Table 1 shows two companies with the same revenue, R&D and G&A cost. Assuming R&D and G&A are fixed for both, at 5% Contribution Margin Company A would need to reach $50 million in revenue to break-even while Company B would be at break-even at under $4 million in revenue given its 65% Contribution Margin.

Break Even Revenue = (R&D + G&A)/ (Contribution Margin %)

For Company A = $2,500,000/ (5%) = $50,000,000

For Company B = $2,500,000/ (65%) = $3,846,154

The problem for Company A stems from the fact that for every $40 spent in acquiring a customer the total LTV (or subsequent profits on the customer) is only $76 making Net LTV $36. With such a low ratio of LTV/CAC, Contribution Margin is also quite low. I’ve chosen two extremes in gross margin to better illustrate the impact of gross margin on Contribution Margin. 

Table 1: Illustrative Example on the Importance of Contribution Margin

In a second example, Table 2, we show the impact of much more efficient marketing and remarketing on a company’s results. We assume gross margin, R&D and G&A are the same for Company C and Company D, but that Company D is much more efficient at acquiring and retaining customers, resulting in a lower CAC and a higher LTR and LTV for Company D. This could be due to higher spending on branding and remarketing, but also because they are very focused on the metrics that help them optimize acquisition and LTR. The result is considerably higher LTV/CAC and significantly higher Contribution Margin. 

Table 2: Impact of Efficient Marketing & Remarketing on a Company’s Results

A few rules regarding Contribution Margin

  1. Higher Gross Margin means greater opportunity for high Contribution Margin – for example, Company A at 20% Gross Margin is severely limited in reaching a reasonable Contribution Margin while Company B at 80% Gross Margin has an opportunity for high Contribution Margin and can reach profitability at lower revenue levels
  2. Companies with many new customers acquired through “free” methods like SEO, viral marketing, etc. have higher Contribution Margins than similar companies with a low proportion of free acquisitions.  Notice Company D can spend less on marketing than Company C because it acquires half of its customers from free sources whereas Company C has none from free sources.
  3. Returning buyers contribute heavily to Contribution Margin since they require little if any marketing cost. A high LTV/CAC ratio usually means customers return more often, which in turn should increase future Contribution Margin. Company D with its very high LTV/CAC likely has much lower churn than Company C and therefore most of its marketing spend is for adding incremental customers rather than just replacing those that churn. If a company simply stopped spending on marketing, its revenue would be from existing customers and new customers acquired from free methods making Contribution Margin roughly equal to Gross Margin. Of course, lack of marketing could have a major impact on future growth
  4. All other things being equal, companies with short Payback Periods tend to have higher Contribution Margin than those with longer Payback Periods

Marketing Spend on Branding versus Customer Acquisition

Branding is the communication of characteristics, values and attributes of an organization and its products. What is the purpose of spending on branding?  To create a strong image of the company and its products so that existing customers want to stay and spending on customer acquisition will be more efficient. Great brands should have a lower CAC and higher LTV than weak brands.

Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign worked well in establishing a brand message that resonated. Their more recent campaign centered around Colin Kaepernick was riskier as it had pictures of the quarterback and the slogan: “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything”. While Kaepernick is controversial, he appeals to a large part of the Nike existing and potential buying audience. The campaign helped lift sales by 27% in the first 4 days following the ad launch. Karen McFarlane, founder Kaye Media Partners summed up Nike’s strategy: “Nike’s mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. Colin Kaepernick, through his advocacy, conviction, and talent on and off the field, exemplifies those values in the strongest of terms. Couple that with Nike’s commitment to diversity and community, particularly against the backdrop of today’s America where politics have amplified cultural divisions, Nike took the opportunity to lean into their mission and values.”

Marketing campaigns that are for direct customer acquisition differ from branding campaigns as their goal is to directly acquire customers. It is not always clear whether marketing dollars should be classified as acquisition or branding. The key point is that branding is building for the future, whereas acquisition campaigns are measured by how efficiently they deliver current customers. This brings us back to measuring CAC, as the question becomes whether branding campaigns are part of the calculation of CAC. I believe they are not, as CAC should represent the direct cost of acquiring a customer so that increasing that spend will allow us to estimate how many more customers will result. So, I conclude that marketing for branding should be excluded from the calculation of CAC but can be an important strategy to improve efficiency in acquiring customers and maximizing their value. It should be part of the Contribution Margin calculation.

Paid CAC vs Blended CAC

If CAC represents what it costs to acquire a customer, what about those customers that are acquired through SEO, viral marketing, or some other free method? If one simply divides the spend on Marketing for Customer Acquisition (or MCA) by the total number of new customers, the result will be deceptive if it is used to estimate how many more customers will be acquired if MCA spend is increased. Instead companies should calculate CAC in two ways:

Blended CAC = MCA/ (total number of new customers)

Acquisition CAC = MCA/ (number of new customers generated from acquisition marketing only)

Attribution Models and how they help understand CAC by Channel

CAC helps predict the impact of different levels of spending on marketing. Companies also need to know where spending has the best impact, and therefore need to calculate a CAC (and LTV) for each channel of marketing. If a company uses multiple channels like Facebook, Google, and Snap they need to assign credit to each channel for the customers generated from that channel as compared to the spend for that channel to determine the channel CAC. The most simplistic way of doing this is to say, for example, that Google advertising gets credit for the customer if the purchase by the customer occurs after clicking to the site from Google. But what if a consumer sees a Facebook ad, goes to the site to look at products, then a week later comes back to the site from a Snap ad, and then visits the site again because the company sent them an email that they click on, and finally buys something after clicking on a Google ad?  Should Google get the entire credit for the customer?

Attribution models from companies like Amplitude and Hive attempt to appropriately credit each channel touchpoint for the role it played in acquiring a customer. For example, a company might assign 50% of the credit to the last touchpoint and divide the other 50% equally among prior touchpoints or use some other formula that is believed to capture how each channel participated in driving that consumer towards a purchase. Attribution models attempt to help companies understand how scaling spend in each channel will impact customer acquisition. For example:

Google CAC = (Google marketing spend)/ (number of customers attributed to Google ads)

One question that arises when using attribution models to credit each channel is whether “free” areas should share the credit when both paid and free touchpoints occur before converting a consumer into a buyer. The issue is whether the free touchpoints would have occurred had the company not spent on paid marketing. In my prior example the customer would never have received an email from the company had they not first seen the Facebook and Snap ads so eliminating these ads would also eliminate the email which in turn probably means they never would have become a customer. In a similar way, someone who clicked on a Google ad but did not buy, might later do a search for the product, and go to the site from SEO and then buy. So, one method of assigning attribution would be to divide the entire attribution among paid channels if a consumer touched both paid and free ones before becoming a customer. If the consumer only went to free channels, then they would count in blended CAC but not as a customer in calculating paid CAC or CAC by paid channel.

Where does Marketing to an existing customer fit in?

CAC is meant to measure new customer acquisition. So, marketing to an existing customer to get them to buy more should not be part of CAC but rather should be subtracted from MCA. I view it as a cost that reduces Lifetime Value (LTV). Many startups ignore the possibility of “reactivating” churned customers through marketing spend. Several Azure portfolio companies have seen success in deploying a reactivation strategy. I consider this spend as marketing to an existing customer and resulting profits an increase in LTV. Revising the definition of LTV (see Table 1):

LTV = LTR – COGS – Marketing Costs to existing customers

MCA (Marketing Cost for Customer Acquisition) = Marketing Costs – branding costs – marketing to existing customers

In Table 1, remarketing expense is 1% of Lifetime revenue for both Company A and Company B or:

Company A LTV = (GM% – remarketing%) X LTR = (20% – 1%) X $400 = $76

Company B LTV = (80%– 1%) X $400 = $316

What about new customers that return the product?

This is a thorny issue. If a consumer buys their first product from a company and then returns it, is she a customer? I think it would not be wrong with interpreting this either way. But I prefer considering her a customer as she was a buyer, and while the return zeros out the revenue from that purchase, she did become a customer. There is ample opportunity for marketing to her again. Considering her a customer lowers CAC as there are more customers for the spend, but it also lowers LTV for the same reason. So, if the interpretation is applied consistently over both CAC and LTV, I believe it would be correct.

More mature companies should apply the methods shown here to better understand their business

By better understanding acquisition CAC and LTV of each channel of customer acquisition a company can direct more spending to the most efficient ones (those with the highest LTV/CAC). By experimenting with “reactivation” spending a company can determine if this improves LTV/CAC. Companies that improve LTV/CAC will likely generate higher Contribution Margin. Those that increase the proportion of customers acquired for “free” can also improve Contribution Margin. Improving CAC and LTV can be accomplished in several ways as described in prior posts:

Optimizing the cost of customer acquisition modeling metrics to drive startup success (March 2014)

How to improve Contribution Margin (Nov 2018)

Without proper metrics a company is essentially flying blind and will be far less likely to succeed. This post provides a blueprint towards a more sophisticated approach to understanding any business.

Defining Key Elements of the New Model for Retail

In our October, 2015 Soundbytes (https://soundbytes2.com/2015/10/)  I predicted that Omnichannel selling would become prevalent over the ensuing years with brick and mortar retailers being forced to offer an online solution, ecommerce companies needing to access buyers at physical locations and online brands (referred to as DTC or direct to consumer) being carried by 3rd party physical stores. Since that post, these trends have accelerated (including Amazon’s announcement last week that it is opening another “4-star store” in the bay area). Having had more time to observe this progression, I have developed several theories regarding this evolving new world that I would like to share in this post.  

Issues for Brick and Mortar Stores when they Create an Online Presence

Physical retailers are not set up to handle volumes of online sales. Their distribution centers are geared towards sending larger volumes of products to their stores rather than having the technology and know-how to deal directly with consumers (a situation which motivated Walmart to buy Jet for $3.3 billion). In general, a retailer starting to sell online will need to create one or more new distribution centers that are geared towards satisfying direct to consumer online demand.  

Another rude awakening for brick and mortar retailers when they go online is a dramatic increase in returns. On average, returns are about 9% of purchases from a retail store and 30% when purchased online. The discrepancy is even greater for clothing (especially shoes) as fit becomes a major issue. Given that consumers expect free shipping, and most want free return shipping, this becomes a cost that can eviscerate margins. The volume of returns also creates the problem of handling reverse logistics, that is tracking the return, crediting the customer, putting it back into the inventory system as available and restocking it into the appropriate bin location. Then there is the question as to whether the item can still be resold. For clothing this may require adding the cost of cleaning and pressing operations to keep the item fresh and having the systems to track movement of the inventory through this process.

Lastly, the question becomes whether a brick and mortar retailers’ online sales will (at least partly) cannibalize their in-store sales. If so, this, coupled with the growth of online buying, can make existing store footprints too large, reducing store profits.

If Brick and Mortar Retailers Struggle with an Omnichannel Approach, why do DTC Brands Want to Create an Offline Presence?

The answer is a pretty simple one: market access and customer acquisition.  Despite a steady gain of share for online sales, brick and mortar still accounts for over 70% of consumer purchases. Not too long ago, Facebook was a pretty efficient channel to acquire customers. For the past 5 years, Azure portfolio companies have experienced a steep rise in CAC (customer acquisition cost) when using Facebook as the acquisition vehicle. There are many theories as to why, but it seems obvious to me that it is simply the law of supply versus demand. Facebook usage growth has slowed but the demand for ad inventory has increased dramatically, driving up prices. For large brands that use advertising for brand building rather than customer acquisition this does not appear to be a problem, especially when comparing its value to ads on television. For brands that use it for customer acquisition, doubling CAC changes the ratio of LTV (lifetime value or lifetime profits on a customer) to CAC making this method of customer acquisition far less effective.

The combination of these factors has led larger (and smaller) online brands to open brick and mortar outlets. Players like Warby Parker, Casper, Bonobos and even Tesla have done it by creating stores that are a different experience than traditional retail. Warby Parker, Bonobos and Tesla do not stock inventory but rather use the presence to attract customers and enable them to try on/test drive their products. I have bought products, essentially online, while at Warby Parker and Tesla physical locations.

I then had to wait between 2 to 6 weeks for the product to be manufactured and delivered (see the soundbite on Tesla below). What this means in each of their cases is that they kept their business models as ones of “manufacture to demand” rather than build to inventory.  It seems clear that for all four of the companies cited above there is a belief that these physical outlets are a cost effective way of attracting customers with a CAC that is competitive to online ads. They also effectively use online follow-up once you have visited their brick and mortar outlet, thus creating a blend of the two methods. Once the customer is acquired, repeat purchases may occur directly online or in a combination of online and offline.

The Future Blend of Online/Offline

While we have seen a steady progression of companies experimenting with Omnichannel whether they started as offline or online players, we have yet to see an optimal solution. Rather, various players have demonstrated parts of that optimization. So, I’d like to outline a few thoughts regarding what steps might lead to more optimization:

  1. To the degree possible, online purchases by consumers should have an in-store pickup and review option at some savings versus shipping to the home. For clothing, there should also be an opportunity to try the online purchased items on before leaving the store. In that way consumers have the ability to buy online, coupled with the convenience of trying products on in a store. This would expose the customer to a broader set of inventory (online) than even a large footprint store might be able to carry. It would improve fit, lower cost to the brand (by lowering returns and reducing shipping cost) while allowing the brand to begin acquiring better information on fit – insuring an improvement for the next online purchase. A secondary benefit would be the increase in store traffic that was created.
  2. Many retailers will add Rental to the mix of options offered to customers to improve profits. Azure portfolio company, Le Tote, is a subscription rental company for everyday women’s clothes. As women give feedback on a large variety of aspects of fit and preferences it can improve the fit dramatically with each successive box. Retailers need to have systems that replicates this knowledge of their customers. The problem for pure brick and mortar retailers is that they have not had a relationship that enables them to get the feedback…and they don’t have software systems to build this knowledge even if they were to get it. Le Tote has also built up strong knowledge of women’s preferences as to style and has created successful house brands that leverage that knowledge based on massive feedback from subscribers. You may have seen the announcement that Le Tote has just acquired Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store in the country. It plans to use the millions of existing Lord & Taylor customers as a source of potential subscribers to its service. It also has a rental vehicle that can be used to improve monetization of items that don’t sell through at the stores.
  3. Successful online brands will be carried by offline retailers. This has already started to occur but will accelerate over time as DTC brands like Le Tote (and perhaps Stitchfix) use their tens of millions of specific customer feedback data points to produce products that meet the needs expressed in the feedback. If they have correctly mined the data, these brands should be quite successful in offline stores, whether it be their own or a third party retailers’ outlet. The benefit to the retailor in carrying online brands is two-fold: first the online brands that have effectively analyzed their data create products they know can sell in each geography; and second carrying online brands will improve the image of the retailor in the eyes of shoppers who view DTC companies as more forward thinking.
  4. Department store footprints will need to shrink or be shared with online players. The issue discussed earlier of overall ecommerce coupled with brick and mortar stores cannibalizing store demand when they start selling online can be dramatically mitigated by having smaller stores. In that way retailers can maintain their brand presence, continue to get foot traffic, and improve store efficiency.  Any larger footprint store may need to take part of its space and either sublet it (as Macys is doing in some locations) or attract online brands that are willing to pay for a presence in those stores in the form of a percentage of revenue generated or rent. The offer to DTC brands may be to have a pop-up for a set period, or to agree to a longer-term relationship. By working with DTC brands in this way retailers can improve gross margin per square foot (a critical KPI for brick and mortar players) for poorly utilized portions of their store footprints. The secondary benefit to the retailer would be that the online brands will generate additional traffic to the stores. There are already a few startups that are creating a store within a store concept that carries DTC brands. They hope to be the middleman between DTC brands and large retailers/shopping malls making it easier for the DTC brands to penetrate more locations, and easier for the retailer to deal with one new player that will install multiple DTC brands in their locations.
  5. There will be more combinations of online and offline companies merging. By doing that the expertise needed for each area of the business can be optimized. The online companies presumably have better software, logistics and more efficient methods of acquiring online customers. The brick and mortar retailers have greater knowledge of running a physical store, an existing footprint to carry the online brands, locations that allow for delivery to their stores, and a customer base to market to online (reducing the CAC and increasing LTV).
  6. For Omnichannel companies, revenue attribution is complex but becomes essential to managing where dollars are spent. Revenue attribution is the tracking, connecting, and crediting marketing efforts to their downstream revenue creation. For example, if a potential customer responds to a Facebook ad by going online to look at items, then visits a store to check them out live, but eventually buys one or more of the items in response to a google ad, the question becomes: which channel should get credit for acquiring the customer? This is important as the answer may impact company strategy and help determine where marketing dollars get spent. Several Azure portfolio companies are now using 3rd party software from companies like Hive to appropriately give attribution to each channel that helped contribute to the eventual sale. This process is important as it helps determine future spending. We expect better run Omnichannel companies to evolve their analysis of marketing to include attribution models.  

Conclusion: The future winners in retail will be those that successfully migrate to the most optimal omnichannel models

What I have described in this post is inevitable. Some large proportion of customers will always want to do some or all of their shopping at a brick & mortar store. By blending the positive attributes of physical retail with the accessibility to the larger number of options that can exist online, companies can move to more optimal models that address all potential customers. But unless this is done in an intelligent way booby traps like inefficient floor space, excessive returns, high shipping costs and more will rear their ugly heads. This post describes steps for retailers/brands to take that are a starting point for optimizing an omnichannel approach.  

Soundbytes

  • When I had just left Wall Street, I received calls from the press and a very large investor in Hewlett Packard regarding my opinion of the proposed acquisition of Compaq Computer. I said: “HP is in 6 business areas with Imaging being their best and PCs their worst. Doubling up on the worst of the 6 does not make sense to me.” When asked what they should do instead, I replied: “Double up on the best business: acquire Xerox.” My how the tide has turned as Xerox was in trouble then and could have been bought at a very low price. Now it appears Xerox may acquire HP. To be clear, Xerox is still a much smaller market cap company…but I’m enjoying seeing how this process will work out.

  • In the last Soundbytes, I mentioned that I had purchased a Tesla Model 3. What is interesting is that 6 weeks later I am being told that it may take as long as 3-4 more weeks before I receive the car.  This means delivery times have extended to at least 9 weeks. I can’t say how reliable this is but the salesperson I am dealing with told me that Tesla has prioritized production of Model S, Model X and shipments to Europe and Asia over even the more expensive versions of Model 3’s (mine cost almost $59,000 before sales tax). One can easily conclude that production must be at full capacity and that the mix this quarter will contain more higher priced cars. So, demand in the quarter appears to be in excess of 100,000 units and price per car appears strong. Assuming the combination of maximum production in the U.S. and some production out of the Chinese factory, supply might also exceed 100,000 units. If the supply is available, then Tesla should have a strong Q4. However, there is the risk that Tesla doesn’t have the parts to supply both factories or that they have somehow become less efficient. The latest thing to drive down the Tesla stock price is the missteps in showcasing the new truck. I’m not sure why a company should be castigated for an esoteric feature not working in a prototype of a product that won’t be in production until sometime in 2021. Remember, Tesla at its core is a technology company producing next gen autos. I’ve seen other technology companies like Microsoft and Oracle have glitches in demos of future products without such a reaction. As for the design of the truck, I believe Tesla is targeting a 10% to 20% share of the truck market with a differentiated product rather than attempting to attract all potential buyers. 10% of the U.S. pickup market would result in 250,000 units per year. The company has announced pre-orders for the vehicle have already reached 200,000. If these orders are real, they have a home run on their hands but since the deposit is only $100 there is no guarantee that all deposits will convert to actual purchases when the truck goes into production.  

Comparing Recent IPO Companies – Should Performance Drive Valuation?

In a past life, while on Wall Street, one of my favorite calls was: “Buy Dell Short Kellogg”. My reasoning behind the call was that while Dell’s revenue and earnings growth was more than 10X that of Kellogg, somehow Kellogg had a much higher PE than Dell. Portfolio managers gave me various reasons they claimed were logical to explain the un-logical situation like: “Kellogg is more reliable at meeting earnings expectations” …. when in truth they had missed estimates 20 straight quarters. What I later came to believe was that the explanation was their overall comfort level with Kellogg because they understood cereal better than they understood a direct marketing PC hardware company at the time. My call worked out well as Dell not only had a revenue CAGR of nearly 50% from January 1995 (FY 95) through January of 2000 (and a 69% EPS CAGR) but also experienced significant multiple expansion while Kellogg revenue grew at just over 1% annually during the ensuing period and its earnings shrunk (as spend was against missed revenue expectations). The success of Dell was a major reason I was subsequently selected as the number one stock picker across Wall Street analysts for 2 years in a row.

I bring up history because history repeats. One of the reasons for my success in investing is that I look at metrics as a basis of long-term valuation. This means ignoring story lines of why the future is much brighter for those with weak metrics or rationales of why disaster will befall a company that has strong results. Of course, I also consider the strength of management, competitive advantages and market size. But one key thesis that comes after studying hundreds of “growth” companies over time is that momentum tends to persist, and strong business models will show solid contribution margin as an indicator of future profitability.

Given this preamble I’ll be comparing two companies that have recently IPO’d. Much like those that supported Kellogg, the supporters of the one with the weaker metrics will have many reasons why it trades at a much higher multiple (of revenue and gross margin dollars) than the one with stronger metrics.  

Based on financial theory, companies should be valued based on future cash flows. When a company is at a relatively mature stage, earnings and earnings growth will tend to be the proxy used and a company with higher growth usually trades at a higher multiple of earnings.   Since many companies that IPO have little or no earnings, many investors use a multiple of revenue to value them but I prefer to use gross margin or contribution margin (where marketing cost is broken out clearly) as a proxy for potential earnings as they are much better indicators of what portion of revenue can potentially translate to future earnings (see our previous post for valuation methodology).

I would like to hold off on naming the companies so readers can look at the metrics with an unbiased view (which is what I try to do). So, let’s refer to them as Company A and Company B. Table 1 shows their recent metrics.

Notes:

  • Growth for Company B included an extra week in the quarter. I estimate growth would have been about 27% year/year without the extra week
  • Disclosures on marketing seem inexact so these are estimates I believe to be materially correct
  • Pre-tax income for Company A is from prior quarter as the June quarter had considerable one-time expenses that would make it appear much worse

Company B is:

  1. Growing 2 -2 ½ times faster
  2. Has over 3X the gross margin percentage
  3. Over 28% contribution margin whereas Company A contribution margin is roughly at 0
  4. Company B is bordering on profitability already whereas Company A appears years away

Yet, Company A is trading at roughly 3.5X the multiple of revenue and almost 11X the multiple of gross margin dollars (I could not use multiple of contribution margin as Company A was too close to zero). In fairness to Company A, its gross margin was much higher in the prior quarter (at 27%). But even giving it the benefit of this higher number, Company B gross margins were still about 65% higher than Company A.

The apparent illogic in this comparison is much like what we saw when comparing Kellogg to Dell many years ago. The reasons for it are similar: investors, in general, feel more comfortable with Company A than they do with Company B. Additionally, Company A has a “story” on why things will change radically in the future. You may have guessed already that Company A is Uber. Company B is Stitchfix, and despite its moving to an industry leading position for buying clothing at home (using data science to customize each offering) there continues to be fear that Amazon will overwhelm it sometime in the future. While Uber stock has declined about 35% since it peaked in late June it still appears out of sync compared to Stitchfix.

I am a believer that, in general, performance should drive valuation, and have profited greatly by investing in companies that are growing at a healthy rate, appear to have a likelihood of continuing to do so in the near future and have metrics that indicate they are undervalued.

Soundbytes

  • It appears that many others are now beginning to focus more closely on gross margins which we have been doing for years. I would encourage a shift to contribution margin, where possible, as this considers the variable cost needed to acquire customers.
  • A few notes about Tesla following our 2019 predictions: My household is about to become a two Tesla family. My wife has owned her second Tesla, a Model S, for over 4 years and I just placed an order to buy a Model 3 as a replacement for my Mercedes 550S. Besides the obvious benefits to the environment, I’m also tired of having to go to gas stations every week. The Model 3 can go 310 miles on a charge, is extremely fast, has a great user interface and has autopilot. I looked at several other cars but found it hard to justify paying twice as much (or more) for a car with less pickup, inferior electronics, etc.
  • If you were wondering why Tesla stock has gone on a run it is because the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has added Tesla to its list of approved auto manufacturers (the news of the possibility broke over a week ago). It appears likely that Tesla will begin producing Model 3s out of the new Giga Factory in China some time in Q4. This not only adds capacity for Tesla to increase its unit sales substantially in 2020 but also will save the Company considerable money as it won’t need to ship cars from its US factory. Remember Tesla also is planning on a Giga Factory in Europe to service strong demand there. The company has said that it will choose the location by the end of 2019. Given the intense competition to be the selected location, it is likely that the site chosen will involve substantial incentives to Tesla. While I would not want to predict when it will be in production, Elon Musk expects the date to be sometime in 2021. Various announcements along the way could be positive for Tesla stock.

Why Apple Acquiring Tesla Seems an Obvious Step…

…and why the obvious probably won’t happen!

A Look at Apple history

Apple’s progress from a company in trouble to becoming the first company to reach a trillion dollar market cap meant over 400X appreciation in Apple stock. The metamorphosis began when the company hired Fred Anderson as an Executive VP and CFO in 1996. Tim Cook joined the company as senior VP of worldwide operations in 1998. Fred and Tim improved the company operationally, eliminating wasteful spending that preceded their tenure. Of course, as most of you undoubtedly know, bringing back Steve Jobs by acquiring his company, NeXT Computer in early 1997 added a strategic genius and great marketer to an Apple that now had an improved business model. Virtually every successful current Apple product was conceived while Steve was there. After Fred retired in 2004, Tim Cook assumed even more of a leadership role than before and eventually became CEO shortly before Jobs’ death in 2011.  

Apple post Steve Jobs

Tim Cook is a great operator. In the years following the death of Steve Jobs he squeezed every bit of profit that is possible out of the iPad, iPod, iMacs, music content, app store sales and most of all the iPhone. Because great products have a long life cycle they can increase in sales for many years before flattening out and then declining.

Table 1: Illustrative Sales Lifecycle for Great Tech Product

Cook’s limit is that he cannot conceptualize new products in the way Steve Jobs did. After all, who, besides an Elon Musk, could? The problem for Apple is that if it is to return to double digit growth, it needs a really large, successful new product as the iPhone is flattening in sales and the Apple Watch and other new initiatives have not sufficiently moved the needle to offset it. Assuming Q4 revenue growth in FY 2019 is consistent with the first 9 months, then Apple’s compound growth over the 4 years from FY 15 to FY 19 will be 3.0% (see Table 2) including the benefit of acquisitions like Beats.

iPhone sales have flattened

The problem for Apple is that the iPhone is now in the mature part of its sales life cycle. In fact, unit sales appear to be declining (Graph 1) but Apple’s near monopoly pricing power has allowed it to defy the typical price cycle for technology products where average selling prices decline over time. The iPhone has gone from a price range of $99 to $299 in June 2009 to $999 to $1449 for the iPhoneX, while the older iPhone 7 is still available with minimal storage for $449. That’s a 4.5X price increase at the bottom and nearly 5X at the high end! This defies gravity for technology products.

Graph 1: iPhone Unit Sales (2007-2018)

In the many years I followed the PC market, it kept growing until reaching the following set of conditions (which the iPhone now also faces):

  1. Improvements in features were no longer enough to drive rapid replacement cycles
  2. Pricing was under pressure as component costs declined and it became more difficult to convince buyers to add capacity or capability sufficient to hold prices where they were
  3. The number of first time users available to buy product was no longer increasing each year
  4. Competition from lower priced suppliers created pricing pressure

Prior to that time PC pricing could be maintained by convincing buyers that they needed one or more of:

  1. The next generation of processor
  2. A larger or thinner screen
  3. Next generation storage technology

What is interesting when we contrast this with iPhones is that PC manufacturers struggled to maintain average selling prices (ASPs) until they finally began declining in the early 2000s. Similarly, products like DVD players, VCRs, LCD TVs and almost every other technology driven product had to drop dramatically in price to attract a mass market. In contrast to that, Apple has been able to increase average prices at  the same time that the iPhone became a mass market product. This helped Apple postpone the inevitable revenue flattening and subsequent decline due to lengthening replacement cycles and fewer first time buyers. In the past few years, other then the bump in FY 2018 from the launch of the high priced Model X early that fiscal year, iPhone revenue has essentially been flat to down. Since it is well over 50% of Apple revenue, this puts great pressure on overall revenue growth.

To get back to double digit growth Apple needs to enter a really large market

To be clear, Apple is likely to continue to be a successful, highly profitable company for many years even if it does not make any dramatic acquisitions. While its growth may be slow, its after tax profits has been above 20% for each of the past 5 years. Strong cash flow has enabled the company to buy back stock and to support increasing dividends every year since August 2014.

Despite this, I think Apple would be well served by using a portion of their cash to make an acquisition that enables them to enter a very large market with a product that already has a great brand, traction, and superior technology. This could protect them if the iPhone enters the downside of its revenue generating cycle (and it is starting to feel that will happen sometime in the next few years). Further, Apple would benefit if the company they acquired had a visionary leader who could be the new “Steve Jobs” for Apple.

There is no better opportunity than autos

If Apple laid out criteria for what sector to target, they might want to:

  1. Find a sector that is at least hundreds of billions of dollars in size
  2. Find a sector in the midst of major transition
  3. Find a sector where market share is widely spread
  4. Find a sector ripe for disruption where the vast majority of participants are “old school”

The Automobile industry matches every criterion:

Matching 1.  It is well over $3 trillion in size

Matching 2. Cars are transitioning to electric from gas and are becoming the next technology platform

Matching 3. Eight players have between 5% and 11% market share and 7 more between 2% and 5%

Matching 4. The top ten manufacturers all started well over 50 years ago

And no better fit for Apple than Tesla

Tesla reminds me of Apple in the late 1990s. Its advocates are passionate about the company and its products. It can charge a premium versus others because it has the best battery technology coupled with the smartest software technology. The company also designs its cars from the ground up, rather than retrofitting older models, focusing on what the modern buyer would most want. Like Jobs was at Apple, Musk cares about every detail of the product and insists on ease of use wherever possible. The business model includes owning distribution outlets much like Apple Stores have done for Apple. By owning the outlets, Tesla can control its brand image much better than any other auto manufacturer. While there has been much chatter about Google and Uber in terms of self-driving cars, Tesla is the furthest along at putting product into the market to test this technology.

Tesla may have many advantages over others, but it takes time to build up market share and the company is still around 0.5% of the market (in units). It takes several years to bring a new model to market and Tesla has yet to enter several categories. It also takes time and considerable capital to build out efficient manufacturing capability and Tesla has struggled to keep up with demand. But, the two directions that the market is moving towards are all electric cars and smart, autonomous vehicles. Tesla appears to have a multi-year lead in both. What this means is that with enough capital and strong operational direction Tesla seems poised to gain significant market share.

Apple could accelerate Tesla’s growth

If Apple acquired Tesla it could:

  1. Supply capital to accelerate launch of new models
  2. Supply capital for more factories
  3. Increase distribution by offering Tesla products in Apple Stores (this would be done virtually using large computer screens). An extra benefit from this would be adding buzz to Apple stores
  4. Supply operational knowhow that would increase Tesla efficiency
  5. Add to the luster of the Tesla brand by it being part of Apple
  6. Integrate improved entertainment product (and add subscriptions) into Tesla cars

These steps would likely drive continued high growth for Tesla. If, with this type of support, it could get to 5% share in 3-5 years that would put it around $200 billion in revenue which would be higher than the iPhone is currently. Additionally, Elon Musk is possibly the greatest innovator since Steve Jobs. As a result, Tesla would bring to Apple the best battery technology, the strongest power storage technology, and the leading solar energy company. More importantly, Apple would also gain a great innovator.

The Cost of such an acquisition is well within Apple’s means

At the end of fiscal Q3, Apple had about $95 billion in cash and equivalents plus another $116 billion in marketable securities. It also has averaged over $50 billion in after tax profits annually for the past 5 fiscal years (including the current one). Tesla market cap is about $40 billion. I’m guessing Apple could potentially acquire it for less than $60 billion (which would be a large premium over where it is trading). This would be easy for Apple to afford and would create zero dilution for Apple stockholders.

If the Fit is so strong and the means are there, why won’t it happen?

I can sum up the answer in one word – ego.  I’m not sure Tim Cook is willing to admit that Elon would be a far better strategist for Apple than him. I’m not sure he would be willing to give Elon the role of guiding Apple on the product side. I’m not sure Elon Musk is willing to admit he is not the operator that Tim Cook is (remember Steve Jobs had to find out he needed the right operating/financial partners by getting fired by Apple and essentially failing at NeXT). I’m not sure Elon is willing to give up being the CEO and controlling decision-maker for his companies.

So, this probably will never happen but if it did, I believe it would be the greatest business powerhouse in history!

Soundbytes

  1. USA Today just published a story that agreed with our last Soundbytes analysis of why Klay Thompson is underrated.
  2. I expect Zoom Video to beat revenue estimates of $129 million to $130 million for the July Quarter by about $5 million or more