Mike Kwatinetz is a Founding General Partner at Azure Capital Partners and a Venture Capitalist investing in application software (SaaS), ecommerce, consumer web and infrastructure technology companies. Successful exits include: Bill Me Later, VMware, TripIt and Top Tier.
I have always taken a research driven, multi-pronged approach to identifying attractive publicly traded equity investments, and after reflecting on this approach with a new fund that I am starting, I figured that it would make for an interesting blog post to share this with a broader audience. The companies that I have covered through previous blog posts have been identified through this process. As you likely know if you made some investments based off of my suggestions in the past, they have performed very well!
My Screening Process
I begin with a screening process as follows:
Discover trends that are disruptive to entrenched market participants, expected to continue for over five years, and relate to very large markets
Identify companies that are strong beneficiaries of these trends; and
Evaluate these companies’ competitive advantages that stem from one or more of:
superior technology often protected by patents,
strong emerging brand,
network effect of having built a massive connected audience,
high quality leadership,
products that are very difficult to replicate, and/or
advantageous business model
Companies are identified that pass the above screening. Then I apply a filter to reduce these matches to ones that also are already generating or have an ability to generate strong profits. I believe that the most important metric to evaluate companies that have yet to develop mature business models is contribution margin, i.e.: gross margin minus customer acquisition cost. We have covered contribution margin in past blog posts. Check our post in January 2020 which contains our discussion of sophisticated valuation methodology for more background on how I see this as a key metric for evaluating business models.
Companies passing the above screen are rare and, thus, are both difficult and time-consuming to identify. Each company selected from those that passed the screening will also need to have well above average revenue growth for their respective stages.
My experience indicates that great returns will be realized over a long period of time from companies that have the key attributes described above and, therefore, I expect, generally, to hold the core of each of my positions for an average period of five years or more. This doesn’t mean never selling any shares, but rather holding the majority of shares for that period. I augment my equity investments in portfolio companies by writing both call and put options or other derivatives (we covered an example of this recently with Zoom in my 2020 predictions). Doing this hedges risk of short-term market fluctuation and generates income from option premiums going to zero over the life of the option. Given my concentration on relatively few securities of high growth companies, it is expected that volatility in my portfolio could often exceed that of the overall market. Therefore, I believe it’s important to avoid margin borrowing as this would increase risk and volatility beyond what I think is an acceptable level.
Applying the Strategy to Investing
The first step in my strategy is to identify longer term trends that are disruptive to entrenched leaders of large markets. I believe the following qualify:
Growth of eCommerce: Online purchasing will gain share for another 10 years or more
Shift of services from physical, in-person to virtual: This reduces cost and adds convenience and should persist for many years
Use of video conferencing in place of older audio conferencing: Will continue to further penetrate businesses and also emerge as a “must have” for individual households
Online advertising: It will continue to gain share from other forms as it allows for more precise measurement of effectiveness and promotes immediate ability to purchase
Shift from old generation autos to eco-friendlier (i.e. electric) with software capabilities tightly integrated: It is in its early stages and will gain increasing traction for several decades to come
The entire online security industry will not only grow at an accelerated pace but also face an upheaval as more modern technology will be used to detect increased attacks from those deploying viruses, spam, intrusions and identity theft
Web Services will continue to experience double digit growth: Since its directly tied to Internet traffic driven by increased eCommerce, escalation of video, social and virtual services
Several companies that I have selected (and outlined in the past) benefit from more than one of the 7 identified trends and all are one of the dominant players in their particular arena. It should be noted that the arena may be more specific than the trend.
For example, Online advertising has distinct leaders in overall social (Facebook), search advertising (Google), Visual advertising (Pinterest), eCommerce ads (Amazon) and programmatic (The Trade Desk). So, while these 5 companies compete for advertising budget, they each are the dominant brands in their sub-sector with massive networks of users that are difficult to replicate.
Picking the winners
In the first section of this blog, I highlighted six different types of competitive advantages I look for. The companies that I have recently invested in have three or more of these advantages, and on average qualifies for roughly 4.5. On the leadership side not only do all have very strong leadership but virtually all are led by their founder who is an early innovator in their sector.
One other major consideration recently has been the impact of the pandemic. There are three companies that I have previously covered in the blog that I feel benefit strongly: Amazon, DocuSign, and Zoom. Both Peloton and Shopify would be major additional beneficiaries. When the pandemic ends there is widespread views on how such companies will be impacted. On the one hand, many analysts believe some or all of these will experience a reduction in revenue against strong comps. Others, including myself, think that behavior has changed, so while massive growth experienced during the pandemic won’t be replicated, most, if not all of them will continue to grow at a more “normal” rate. The four advertising companies I mentioned previously: Facebook, Google, Pinterest and The Trade Desk have all been impacted by the loss of advertising from major business segments like travel, live events (and associated ticket sellers) and brick and mortar retail. Since Amazon advertising revenue is limited to online sellers it is not affected by loss of ads from these sectors. My expectation is that when the Shelter-in-Place requirements are substantially eased, all four of these companies will experience a jump in advertising revenue. As we reach April of 2021 this jump will be compared to depressed comps and all four should experience above normal growth.
Of companies that are in my 2020 stock pics, surprisingly, Tesla has appreciated well over 600% despite its revenue being lower than pre-pandemic expectations. I believe this is mostly because of the certain shift taking place towards software enabled electronic cars but the stock has also been helped by inclusion in the S&P index. The other company negatively impacted by the pandemic is Stitch Fix. On the one hand, it has undoubtedly gained share as it offers a modern online method of shopping to its very large base of customers, but it is also obvious that people are just not buying that many items of clothes during the pandemic. I expected Stitch Fix to be a substantial beneficiary when Shelter-in-Place is eased, but the market is already anticipating this as we’ve seen it’s begin year value of $25.66, which fell dramatically earlier in the pandemic, rebound nicely to a price of $69 in December 2020…a 170% appreciation year-to-date.
I have also been examining several companies that had recently IPO’d as younger public companies tend to have higher growth rates which in turn creates greater potential future appreciation. So, I considered the various companies that had come public in 2019 to see which ones met my screens. Investing in Lyft and Uber, post IPO, had little interest for me. On the positive side, Lyft revenue growth was 95% in Q1, 2019, but it had a negative contribution margin in 2018 and Q1 2019. Uber’s growth was a much lower 20% in Q1, but it appeared to have slightly better contribution margin than Lyft, possibly even as high as 5%. I expected Uber and Lyft to improve their contribution margin, but it is difficult to see either of them delivering a reasonable level of profitability in the near term as scaling revenue does not help profitability until contribution margin improves. So, I passed on both which proved the right decision as Lyft is still well below the first day’s closing price of $78.29 post-IPO. Uber is now up 27% vs its first day closing price (roughly the same as the S&P index) as food delivery has proven a great business for them during the pandemic. The first of the 2019 IPO class that I bought was Zoom Video, which had a contribution margin of roughly 25% coupled with over 100% revenue growth. It also seemed on the verge of moving to profitability. Four others piqued my interest: Pinterest, Peloton, Slack and CrowdStrike. All of these were growing revenue at a 40% or higher rate, had solid business models and met my other criteria. I’ll discuss these in more detail in my following posts but, on average, they are up well over 300% this year …stay tuned for my 2021 predictions!
Consumers have more money available to spend – not less
Much of the public dialogue concerning the economic effect of Covid19 has centered around the large number of people who have lost income, with the conclusion that the US will potentially experience a continued recession going forward. What seems to be lost in the discussion is that the 90% of the labor force that is employed is saving money at an unprecedented rate. This has occurred partly through fear of future loss of income but mostly by a reduction in spending caused by the virus. For myself and my family, our spending has been involuntarily reduced in the following areas:
Personal care: haircuts, beauty parlor, nail treatments, massages, etc.
Cleaning services: we are wearing very casual clothes that get washed instead of going to the cleaner (who has mostly been unavailable anyway).
Vacations: our last vacation was in December. We haven’t been on a plane since the pandemic started and cancelled two vacation trips.
Purchasing clothes: I have bought some items online for future use (because they were at major discounts) but being at home means I don’t really need any new clothes.
Restaurants: before the pandemic I was eating breakfast and lunch out every weekday at or near my office and my wife and I ate out lunch and dinner on weekends. Additionally, I normally have additional business dinners several times a month. Instead, we are ordering food in on weekends from local restaurants we wish to support, but the cost is much lower than when we ate at the restaurant. Many of the people we know haven’t even ordered in from a restaurant.
Transportation: these expenses have been virtually eliminated as I am not commuting to my office, take no Ubers and rarely drive anywhere other than to pick up local takeout food.
Entertainment: such expenses have been close to eliminated other than occasionally purchasing a movie for home consumption.
Medical/Dental/Optical Services: In my case medical and dental expenses have remained the same but many others have seen them reduced as access to doctors and dentists has been curtailed.
The only expenses that have increased are paying for delivery of food instead of picking it up ourselves at a supermarket and our new Zoom subscription…but at $12/month that hardly counts. I believe my family is representative of the 90% of people who still have their jobs at no reduction of pay. In fact, according to Statista, the savings rate in March through June increased to an average of 22% versus 7.9% in 2019. Using this data, I estimate that by the end of August this amounted to approximately $1.2 trillion in above normal savings as compared to last year’s “normal” savings rate. Since stay at home is unlikely to end in many places by the end of August, this number is likely to grow.
Post Pandemic: will some areas of savings persist?
Survey data of companies indicates that there is likely to be an increase in the number of people who work from home once the pandemic ends A recent survey by Global Workplace Analytics estimates that the U.S. will see between 25-30% of the workforce working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021, up from less than 5% who were working from home at least half-time or more before the pandemic. Since working from home will continue to offer some savings in spending this could add to the “pot” of available dollars to be redeployed. There also may be some people who remain reluctant to fly or go on a cruise. We don’t expect these incremental cost savings to be removed from commerce but rather to be redeployed.
What I believe will occur post-pandemic
While some people will take advantage of their lower cost during the pandemic to pad their savings, it seems likely to me that a substantial portion of the “above normal” accumulated savings will be spent. I believe that such spending will be divided between satisfying pent up demand for items like clothing and vacations and new demand for luxury items. The pent-up demand will start with numerous parties as people are able to once again have human contact, but it also is likely to consist of increased purchases of clothes, more visits to restaurants and rescheduling of missed vacations.
I think that some portion of these savings will also be used on furniture (and perhaps even full remodels), art, and increased purchases of luxury items. After all, people can easily feel they deserve a reward for all these months of suffering. It is apparent that many people are already adding to their online budgets for furniture, décor and art as Wayfair has seen a large spike in revenue. While Wayfair results may be due to increased marketing spend, Azure portfolio company Chairish, has also had a very large spike in revenue without such an increase in marketing.
Has the pandemic caused temporary changes in buying habits or merely accelerated trends that were already in place?
The pandemic caused a number of radical changes in behavior, including:
Most people working from home and rarely, if ever, going to their office.
The vast majority of people ordering almost everything online instead of visiting a store.
Shifting to video calls with coworkers, friends and relatives as opposed to regular phone calls or face to face interactions.
Working out at home instead of at a gym, where possible.
Education moving to at home via Zoom.
These shifts favored eCommerce sites, delivery services, providers of video conferencing, home equipment providers, Telemedicine, web services providers, and many others. They devastated physical stores, especially large department stores, restaurants, local transportation services (like subway systems, busses, ride services), service providers like cleaners, beauty parlors, spas, and gyms, airlines, hotels, theaters and arenas, and sports leagues (including college sports). There was also a lesser negative secondary impact on the advertising and marketing sectors as companies with major demand losses curtailed their spend.
How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?
This was a song in the aftermath of World War I highlighting the fact that farm boys, once experiencing a more sophisticated life and culture would find it hard to return to their old way of life. It could not be more appropriate for the current situation. The leap in how much nearly everyone in society is using eCommerce, video conferencing, schooling and working at home is accelerating trends that were already in place. In fact, for me:
Phone calls to friends that used to be audio calls are often Zoom video calls;
While my wife and I already were buying a great deal online, its now pretty much everything and when the pandemic ends our portion of purchases online will remain at an elevated level given the convenience and the availability of a larger choice of items
While I already had a home gym, many others are now substituting this for a gym membership
In the 25+ weeks I’ve been “sheltering in place” I visited my Menlo office for 2-3 hours on about 5 separate occasions. While I look forward to more in person meetings once we are back to normal, working at home is an option that I expect to continue to use with some frequency once the pandemic ends. I also believe that several Azure portfolio companies can reduce the number of in-person board meetings by alternating them with Zoom board meetings.
I honestly find it hard to believe that our society will not shift behavior in the same way as my wife, myself and companies in the Azure portfolio. After all, while most of us have suffered from lack of interaction with others, the pandemic has introduced many shifts that people find positive. With this, and keeping the larger available funds mentioned earlier in mind, here are some of my post pandemic predictions:
Ecommerce share of the consumer wallet will be much higher than before Covid, but not as high as currently.
Consumer spending for the near term will grow to a much larger amount than pre-pandemic days (by perhaps as much as 15-20%).
Online Advertising Companies will have a banner year in 2021 as Ad spending resumes for industries that were impacted by Stay at Home. These include airlines, cruise lines, hotels, live events (sports, concerts, etc.), ticket sellers, physical retailers. As their spend resumes, players like Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter and Snapchat will have elevated revenue versus comps from the depressed 2020 numbers.
Video calls will INCREASE SHARE even compared to during the pandemic as the people who have experienced its benefits will find it hard to go back to plain audio, companies will see the economics of reducing travel by increasing the number of video meetings and about 25-30% of the workforce will continue to spend 2 or more days working at home. Additionally, companies will be more comfortable hiring IT staff in less expensive locations as they have seen the effectiveness of video vs in-person communication, and some colleges that previously only offered in-person education will augment their income by adding students that are taught remotely using video conferencing.
Home remodels will have a renaissance from simply buying a new couch to completely redoing rooms or even the entire house.
Suburban homes will increase in value (this appears to be already happening) as people value having outside space in case of a pandemic recurrence.
Working from home will be at an elevated level vs pre-Covid but demand for office space will resume as workplaces will require more space per employee.
More shopping malls will close as Big Box retailers close more stores (or in some cases cease to exist).
The ability to sign and even notarize documents using the web will continue to see high growth in demand
Vacations will resume, but for about a year or more there will be an increase in driving vacations
More people than pre-Covid will take to wearing masks on a regular basis
There will be a one year above normal bump in purchasing of luxury items like more expensive cars, expensive watches, new state of the art TVs
The Stock Market is already at Least Partly Discounting a Number of the Above Items
Many have been surprised at the resilience of the stock market during this crisis. It is important to remember that the Market discounts future results rather than past ones. So, I believe, many investors are looking at some of the above and factoring it into how to value stocks. The trickier issues involve stocks that have been beneficiaries of the pandemic but I’ll leave that for another time.
In our January post of the top ten for the year we included Zoom as a stock buy in 2 ways. One was to simply buy the stock and the other was to buy the stock and sell both calls and puts. By June 30 the stock was at $253.54 per share and the call options (with a strike price of $80) was at $175 per share. Since the option premium was down to sub $2, I would have bought back the stock and the call options as there was little benefit to letting them ride as the IRR could not increase. But since I didn’t publish that then we can just assume I did that on September 1 where the premium was down to about $0.50. I can also buy back the puts at $0.40. That would mean I initially spent a net of $50.70 and received back $79.10, 8 months later. This translates to an annualized IRR of about 100% (on June 30 it would have been over 120%). Make no mistake, if you bought the stock and did not sell calls, I would continue to hold it as I expect another very strong (above analyst consensus forecast) quarter in Q3 which will be reported in early December.
As hard as it would have been to believe back in the olden days (like in February) my wife and I are now in the 7th week of “Sheltering in Place” and it has just been extended another 4 weeks. The questions constantly being discussed among my colleagues, friends and family are:
How long will this last?
What will life be like at the beginning of the end of this initiative?
When will things go back to normal?
Who will the Warriors draft with their high pick this year (OK not everyone brings this one up)?
I’m not going to try to answer any of these as I’m sure you are all bombarded with potential answers and there are many who know more than I do regarding a pandemic. In this post I’ll try to grapple with 3 different questions, each of which deserves a section below.
Question 1: How will the long-term ramifications of Covid-19 impact success for companies and what can they do to enhance their opportunity?
This is a long-winded question and will get a long-winded answer. To begin, I believe this will only accelerate several trends that are already in place: online commerce gaining share, the use of video conferencing and the virtual workplace, as well as increased emphasis of companies being economically efficient. The pandemic has forced most people to be much more cautious at venturing out to accomplish such everyday tasks as shopping, eating in restaurants and going to the movies. Instead, they are learning that almost everything can be bought online (including food from some top restaurants), conferencing with Zoom provides a great experience at a low cost, and business efficiency will be correlated with survival.
My wife and I have long been online shoppers but as we shelter at home, we have increased the volume of purchases quite significantly. Department stores that were previously experiencing loss of share to online merchants but were resistant to devoting sufficient effort to their own online stores are in deep trouble. It appears likely that a number of well-known and not so well-known retailers will file for bankruptcy within the next few months. The combination of people becoming more comfortable with buying just about everything online and a major reduction in the number of physical outlets will open up more share for online players and for the online stores of multi-channel merchants.
During the current environment my board meetings (as well as everyone else’s) are being held as Zoom conference calls. For many companies, having such a meeting eliminates travel and hotel expenses for employees, board members and advisors. Replacing this with a Zoom conference call can mean lowering the cost to hundreds of dollars, from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, per meeting. While I am a big fan of the value of face to face, many companies will be re-evaluating whether having more of their meetings through video conferencing makes sense in an era when the technology has emerged as very viable and extremely cost effective. I’m not suggesting that all board meeting will be executed as video conference calls as face-face remains important, but perhaps companies will decide to do half of their meetings as a Zoom call. An interesting example is the NFL draft, where it was conducted through use of Zoom instead of renting a large stadium and paying for travel expenses. Reviews have suggested that it was actually a better event than the prior year. I suspect the cost savings between all parties involved ran into the millions of dollars.
For many companies the pandemic has weakened revenue, putting pressure on survival. The government “bailout” PPP program helps, but by itself can prove insufficient to prop up companies with weak business models unless they have a very large cash reserve. The investment community was already shifting to focus more on efficient business models prior to Covid-19 but its disruption has helped to highlight the importance of building a profitable business.
Question 2: What should Companies do in the current environment?
What Azure has been suggesting for its portfolio companies is the following series of steps:
If you are eligible, apply for government assistance through the PPP, SBA emergency loan or other programs.
Create multiple models for your business under different scenarios (different dates that people will be back to normal, whether consumer spending will be reduced even after being back, whether customers will delay payments, etc.)
If one or more of credible scenarios indicate that you will run out of cash, then cut costs as quickly as possible. For employees making over $100,000 per year (including founders) cutting them back to some amount that is still at $100,000 or more will have no impact on the forgiveness offered on the PPP loan.
Make every attempt to extend any bank lines coming due as banks have been asked to cooperate with their customers.
If you can afford it, be as kind as possible to your customers by extending terms, etc. Not all, but many, will remember your help and repay you with increased loyalty.
While advertising seems an easy area to cut costs, make sure you evaluate the payback period for customer acquisition marketing as costs may be lower and online conversion may be higher (we have seen that with a number of our companies). In fact, if the payback is reasonably quick it may pay to play offense by being aggressive!
If you have a strong cash position it may be a time to consider acquisitions as many companies will be struggling.
If you have a product that customers are opting to purchase in this environment, think about trying to convert as many as possible to a subscription so that you can extend the relationship beyond the current situation. This can be done by offering attractive discounts for signing up for one or more years rather than month to month. For example, Zoom offers 2 months free if you opt for an annual plan versus a monthly plan. My wife and I decided the cost savings made it worth signing up for a full year.
Question 3: Who are the current and longer-term winners and losers as a result of Covid-19?
The biggest winners appear to be those that can leverage working at home, educating at home, buying at home, supplying infrastructure for increased online usage, and supplying products for increased cleanliness of surfaces and one’s self. In the public markets, I fortunately have 3 of my annual Blog recommendations included in these categories:
Zoom is the most obvious example of a beneficiary of people working and educating at home. It has reported that daily usage is up an astounding 30X between December and April. Its stock performance is just as astounding, up well over 100% year to date from the time of my pick in early January. The question for the company is whether they can harness this to make us permanently change how we communicate. For my wife and I, the number of Zoom calls we are on is now running between 5 and 10 per week. When I add my business calls the number is quite a bit higher. As they say: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” That is, we are permanent customers as are many of our friends and colleagues.
DocuSign is another of my blog picks that should benefit in both the near term and longer term from the impact of the virus and sheltering at home. Its stock reflects higher expectation as it has increased in value by 41% year-to-date. If more meetings are going to be virtual then more documents will require esignatures and DocuSign is the runaway leader in the category
There are many other pure play beneficiaries of a future where more people entertain themselves, work and educate at home. This includes Netflix (stock up over 25%) who has seen a large spike in usage, Slack (stock up 30% since January 27), and online educational plays (our former company Education.com has seen a large spike in traffic and revenue as has our existing portfolio company Showbie)
Amazon is the poster child for purchasing online. It has announced hiring of 175,000 employees for increased warehouse and logistics operations which Wall Street interpreted as a massive increase in demand driving the stock to new highs (its currently up over 25% YTD). It should also benefit from increased purchases of eBooks and increased online usage of its Web Services (I haven’t seen much chatter about AWS benefit but it should be very large and is highly profitable). Azure portfolio company, Open Road is seeing a significant increase in its sales of eBooks since sheltering-at-home began.
Infrastructure Companies whose revenue varies with web usage should also benefit as volumes are increasing massively: Zoom announced that daily usage is up 3,000%; many others I’ve heard have ranged from 50% to 700% or more. Schools are converting to online classes with student usage increasing to 4-7 hours per day. Gaming companies are also beneficiaries and users. I believe that total web traffic is up at least 50% and perhaps a lot more versus where it would have been.
Clorox is one of the major beneficiaries of our new emphasis on cleanliness through disinfecting our environment and washing our hands many times a day, as recommended by the new folk hero Dr. Fauci. While its stock is up 20% year-to-date, the question is whether the increased demand for disinfectants is a permanent change. I’m guessing that increased usage is permanent… but not to the extent we are seeing today.
Losers span several industries and the question for many of the companies in these industries is how permanent the loss of demand will be. Let’s look at them sector by sector.
Department Stores are currently shut down in most of the United States. Companies already struggling are now experiencing substantial losses every week. Those that have a pharmacy or grocery area (like Walmart) can stay open, but the real key to reducing the losses is the effectiveness of their online offering. In most cases this is pretty weak, both in percentage of the retailer’s sales and the level of profitability given inefficient distribution and high levels of returns. I expect multiple brand name players to file for bankruptcy before the year is over.
The Travel Industry is being hit very hard by the shelter-in-place requirements. Airlines are flying planes that are nearly empty but trying to maintain their cash by not cancelling flights until close to the date of departure so that passengers cancelling will get credits rather than rebates. One hotel I spoke to when cancelling my reservation told me that occupancy was down 90%. Many have already closed their properties. While I expect business to improve greatly for both of these arenas when we are back to normal, they are both accumulating massive losses which might pressure viability. Further, when we are back to normal (whatever that becomes) I suspect that airline traffic will be down through at least mid-2021 as fears are elevated and will take some time to subside. Cruise lines may be in worse shape as the publicity around the various ships that had large portions of passengers and crew get Covid-19 has definitely caused many to reconsider vacationing this way. I expect this sector to be impacted at least through the end of 2021. Also, cruises have had to refund most fares as opposed to providing a credit for future travel.
Arena Entertainment providers and entertainers have been hurt badly by the closure of their venues during this time period. This includes movie theaters as well as complexes like the Chase Center and other arenas. The question becomes when will they be able to be open for full occupancy? And when they are will people stay away for some time. I expect many of them to be at full occupancy by early 2021 as younger people (who make up the majority who attend concerts) will drive renewal of demand for concerts.
Short-term Losers that can Return to Success
Advertising Platforms (TV, Web, etc) have seen demand drop as the travel industry, live events and brick and mortar retailers have little reason to maintain prior spending. Additionally, those companies looking to cut cost view advertising (especially brand building advertising) as a prime candidate for cuts. However, I believe that demand will return to normal as stores reopen and travel is permitted. As of now this appears to be sometime in Q3. While many companies in sectors that take longer to return to normal will still have reduced budgets, online players will likely increase spend, as will those seeing this as an opportunity to gain share.
The Sports Industry consists of teams, leagues, arenas, ticket sellers (like Stubhub), equipment providers and betting. All of these are experiencing close to zero revenue (with the exception of some equipment being sold for home use). Leagues (and teams) with large TV contracts are likely to reinitiate games without live audiences by July as participants can be restricted to those having tested for no virus immediately before a game. Even without an audience the TV money will make this profitable to do. Once these are back in play, betting will resume. Equipment providers can still sell T-shirts and other paraphernalia online, but once games resume their sales will increase. By as early as the fall, but no later than early 2021, I expect that many states will allow live audiences for games and that arenas will be back to normal capacity for them. This would allow ticket sellers and sports betting to be at normal capacity. Equipment suppliers also depend on school purchases as well as little league, etc. So, while revenue will begin growing in the fall it may not be back to normal before early 2021. A noted exception will be providers of at home equipment, like Peloton, which will lose business from gyms in the short run but should see a large increase in at-home purchases.
Non-Internet Service Providers (other than delivery services) have a particularly hard time as physical services cannot be provided online. Things like the Geek Squad, physician checkups and procedures, elective surgeries, automotive services, personal care like haircuts and manicures, massages, and more have been suspended. But as long as the entities survive this period, I believe there will be no permanent impairment of their businesses.
Coming back to where this post began, I’m still wondering who the Warriors will draft! But more importantly, I hope all of you and your families are safe and healthy. We will get through this!
This post will be more of a stream of consciousness rather than one of focus on a topic.
Sheltering in Place
My wife, Michelle, and I have obeyed the order to “shelter in place” by staying at home except for walks outside (avoiding going within 6 feet of anyone). The order started in San Mateo County at 12:01 AM on March 17. Our last time being in close proximity with anyone was Friday March 13, so we’re getting close to knowing we are virus free. We stocked up on food a day before the order began and have already had one “Instacart” delivery as well. Not sure what you are all doing but we have called a number of family members and friends to make sure they are ok – times like this make you want to verify the health of others! We also had to cancel vacation plans – which happened in steps as fear of the virus increased. We had scheduled a trip that included visiting Cabo followed by some time with good friends/cousins in Arizona.
I was scheduled to have my annual checkup before the trip, but 2 days before my doctor called to tell me not to come. It seems that the building he is located in is a center for virus testing and he thought it made no sense to have unneeded exposure. During the course of the conversation I mentioned we would be leaving for Cabo on Thursday, March 19 and he immediately warned me not to go. While I don’t want to be compared to the premier of Italy who initially told people to ignore the risk, at the time I felt the risk was overblown (as long as I was careful in Cabo). My doctor made an impossible to refute point saying: “What if you couldn’t get back because of a lockdown. Wouldn’t you rather be in the vicinity of Stanford Hospital if anything happened instead of in Mexico?” Hard to argue with that, so we decided to fly directly to Arizona instead. As flying became a risky option, we next thought we might drive to Arizona. Finally, we decided it was best to postpone the vacation. I’m guessing some of you went through a similar gradual awakening to the degree of risk.
Michelle and I truly enjoy the company of others. Staying at home precludes that, at least in the normal way…but then Zoom came to the rescue! We have had two “Zoom cocktail parties.” The first was more formal so everyone dressed up (I wore a wild Shinesty tuxedo and Michelle a matching outfit). Each couple at this virtual party had their drink of choice in front of them as well as appetizers. A few days later, Michelle and I hosted a similar party after becoming paying subscribers for Zoom. At our party we asked people to dress business casual. The benefit of requiring some higher level of dress than jeans is that it makes one feel (almost) like they are out partying. Each party lasted a little over one hour and the conversation was pretty lively. Of course, the first 10-15 minutes were all about the impact of the virus, but then the conversation rotated through a number of less depressing subjects.
We now have been invited to a virtual dinner party by the first group host and we are planning a winery hosted party for the second group. Not sure, but in all likelihood, we’ll also work on setting up a third group. If we are still in this situation when Passover arrives, we will have our traditional seder (for 20 people) via Zoom.
Our Crossword Puzzle Tradition Continues
My family has been jointly solving the NY Times crossword puzzles for many years. More recently our grandson has not only joined in but become pretty prolific. On a typical Sunday we meet our daughter, son-in-law and their two kids for brunch and do the famous NY Times Sunday puzzle. If our son is in town, he also joins us. The only difficulty is that we each have our own copy, either on an iPhone or physical printout, so coordinating is a bit more difficult. This past weekend that tradition was replaced by doing it together over brunch at each of our homes. Once again, a Zoom conference call was the method of joining together. An added benefit was that, using Zoom, the puzzle was up on each of our large screens for all of us to share one version, and we actually finished in one of our fastest times ever!
The Wild Stock Market
As you know, at the beginning of each year I select stocks to invest in. One point I continue to make is that my picks tend to be high beta stocks so they might depreciate disproportionately in a down market. With the S&P down about 25%, this is certainly bear territory, but this is not your ordinary down market as the virus impacts different companies in different ways. I have been most fortunate in that 3 of my 6 selections, Zoom, Amazon and Docusign, should benefit from the virus. Zoom is the most obvious and this has not been lost on investors, as the stock as of this writing (March 24) is up almost 90% year to date. Of course, given the substantial day to day fluctuations this might not be the case by the time this blog is posted. Docusign should also be a major beneficiary of an increase in the number of people who work at home as its electronic document signing technology increases in importance (I’ve already had a major increase in e-signing in this past week at home). Amazon is having trouble keeping up with demand since most people have decided to rely on home delivery for fulfilling their needs. A fourth stock, Tesla is also ahead 21% year to date, but its stock has been impacted by the virus as it was up over 100% before the virus impact was felt. The other 2 stocks in my picks, Facebook and Stitch Fix, are down quite a bit but I still expect them to recover by year end despite the fact that Facebook should have lower revenue than previously forecast (advertising budgets will be cut) and Stitch Fix likely will also miss prior forecasts since people not leaving their homes are less likely to be buying a lot of new clothes – but whatever they do buy will be online (partly offsetting a reduction of total spending on new clothes).
Is it a good time to be buying stocks and/or munis?
In my last post I reminded you that the best strategy for making money in the stock market is to “Buy Low Sell High”. While this seems silly to even say, people have difficulty buying low as that is when the most fear exists (or the market wouldn’t be low). While there is danger that the impact of the virus could trigger a weak economy for at least this year, I still believe this is now mostly factored into the market and have been buying after days of large market declines. Don’t do this indiscriminately, as some companies (think physical retailers for example) may be permanently impaired, but others may also benefit from what is taking place. Still others will recover and their stocks are now trading at attractive prices. What has surprised me is there has also been an opportunity to buy munis at good rates of return (3.8% to over 4% for A or better rated bonds with 8 or more years to call/maturity). But this was only available to me on Schwab (not on several large well-known brokerage houses I use). It seems the panic for liquidity has led to better than expected returns despite 10-year Treasuries dropping to 1.02% from 2.41% a year ago. However, it also seems that several of the larger brokerage firms are not passing these returns through to their customers. Once the current “panic” situation passes (say 3 months from now) tax-free bonds with 10 years or less to call should be yielding under 2% annualized return to call leading to substantial appreciation of munis acquired at a much higher rate.
We need a Sports Interlude
Since sports are at a standstill my usual analysis of performance seems out of context. Instead I wanted to suggest something I have been thinking about for the last few months – how to punish the Houston Astros for their cheating. Given the mounting disapproval of the Baseball Commissioners lack of action perhaps he will even adopt my suggestion (of course he may never even hear of it). It’s a simple one that is the mirror image of the advantage the Astros created by stealing signs (through use of technology) in their home playoff games for about 3 years. My answer is to take away at least one home game from them in every playoff series they are in (including the World Series) for the next 3 years. If it’s a one game series, they would always play at the other team’s park. If it’s a 5-game series, they would at most have one home game, and in a 7-game series at most 2 home games. While this would not totally make up for what they did, it would at least somewhat even the playing field (no pun intended).
Back to the Virus
Given all the sacrifices many are making by sheltering in place, it should be easy to expect an immediate decline in the number of new cases. Unfortunately, the incubation period for the virus is estimated to be up to 14 days. We also have under-tested so there are more people who have it than the statistics show. With increased testing more of the actual cases will be detected. When these two factoids are combined, even if there was zero spread of the virus once the stringent asks were put in place, we would still continue to see many new cases during the 14-day period and the number would be further increased by improved testing. Unfortunately, not everyone is behaving perfectly so while I would expect (hope) that in each geography we would see substantial reduction in the number of new cases after 2 weeks of sheltering in place, the number won’t get to zero. It should take a drop but getting to zero could take much longer especially considering that part of the process to fix things still exposes medical professionals, delivery people, and more to becoming carriers of the virus.
What should Companies do to Protect their Futures?
There are a number of steps every company needs to consider in reacting to the threat posed by the virus to both health and the economy. At Azure we have been advising our portfolio companies to consider all of them. They include:
First and foremost, make sure you protect your employee’s health by having them work remotely if at all possible.
Draw down bank lines completely to increase liquidity in the face of potential reduced revenue and earnings.
Create new forecast models based on at least 3 scenarios of reduced revenue for varying periods of time. If you were anticipating a fundraise assume it will take longer to close.
If modeling indicates additional risk, consider cutting whatever costs you possibly can including:
A potential reduction in workforce – while this is unpleasant you need to think about insuring survival which means the remaining employees will have jobs
Reduced compensation for founders and top executives possibly in exchange for additional options
Negotiating with your landlord (for reduced or delayed rent) as well as other vendors
Eliminating any unnecessary discretionary spending
Evaluating the near-term ROAS (return on advertising spend). On the one hand, preserving capital may mean the need to cut if the payback period is more than a few months. On the other hand, since advertising cost is likely to be lower given reduced demand (for example the travel industry likely will completely shut down advertising as will physical retail) it is possible you may find that increasing marketing adds to cash flow!
Think about how you might play offense – are there things you can offer new and/or existing customers to induce them to spend more time on your site or app (and perhaps increase buying) in this environment?
While I was a sceptic regarding how pandemic this pandemic would be, I eventually realized that there was little downside in being more cautious. So please follow the guidelines in your area. It is easy to order just about anything online so going out to shop is an unnecessary risk. As they said in the Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor!” But, unlike the Hunger Games you can improve the odds.
Each year, Azure hosts a marketing day for CMOs and CEOs of its consumer-facing portfolio companies. This year, on February 27th, we had sessions on the following topics:
Refreshing Your Brand as the Business Grows
Metrics for Evaluating Successful Marketing
Leveraging Comedy to Lower Customer Acquisition Cost
Know the Next Generation: An introduction to Gen Z
The Benefits and Drawbacks of a Multi-Channel Strategy
I presented the one on Metrics, but the other sessions are conducted by a combination of portfolio executives and outside speakers, each a leading thinker on the topic. Since I invariably learn quite a lot from other speakers, it seems only fair to borrow from their talks for a few blog posts so that I can share these benefits.
Much of this post will be based on concepts that I found especially enlightening from the session by Chris Bruzzo, the current CMO of Electronic Arts, on knowing Generation Z. I won’t cite each place I am using something from Chris versus my own thoughts; but you can assume much of the content emanates from Chris. Since Chris is one of the most creative thinkers in marketing, I’m hoping this will make me look good!
Marketers have Defined Generational Characteristics
Marketers often use personas to help understand what they need to do to address different types of customers. A persona may be:
A married woman 35 years old with a job and 2 children aged 6 and 9;
A 16-year-old male who is a sophomore in high school;
A non-working woman aged 50
A great deal of research has been done on the characteristics of particular “personas” to better enable a company to create and market products that meet their needs. One categorization of people is by age, with 5 different generations being profiled. The youngest group to emerge as important is Gen Z, roughly defined as those born between 1995 and 2012. Currently the U.S. population over 12 years old is distributed as follows:
What this means is that Gen Z has become a significant portion of the population to consider when creating and marketing products. With that in mind, let’s compare several characteristics of the youngest three of these groups.
Gen Z is the first generation that are digital natives. They are profiled as having cautious optimism, wanting to be connected, seeking community and wanting to create and control things. Earlier generations, including Millennials, watched TV an increasing number of hours, often multi-tasking while they did. Gen Z has replaced much of TV watching with device “screen time”, including visiting YouTube (72% of Gen Z visit it daily). When asked “What device would you pick if you could have only one?”, GenZers chose the TV less than 5% of the time. Prior generations respond well to email marketing while Gen Z needs to be reached through social media. Gen Z has little tolerance for barriers of entry for reaching a site and will just move on (I feel the same way and think many members of other generations do as well). So, when targeting new customers (especially Gen Z) remove barriers to entry like requiring registration before a user becomes a customer. It is important to demonstrate value to them first.
Gen Z grew up in an era where the Internet was part of life and smart phones were viewed as essential… rather than a luxury. On average they spend 40% of their free time on screens. What is even more eye opening is that 91% go to bed with their devices. Advertisers have responded to these trends by gradually shifting more of their spend online. This has been difficult for newspapers and magazines for quite a while, but now it is also having a major impact on flattening out the use of TV as an advertising medium.
There are several implications from the numbers shown in the above chart. First, it is very clear to see that newspapers and magazines as we know them are not viable. This has led to iconic players like the New York Times and Fortune monetizing their brands through conferences, trips, wine clubs, and more. Lesser known brands have simply disappeared. In 2018, TV revenue continued to grow slightly despite losing share as the smaller share was of a larger pie. But in 2019, TV advertising dollars declined, and the decline is forecast to continue going forward. Several factors can be attributed to this but certainly one is that brands targeting Gen Z are aware that TV is not their medium of choice. One unintended consequence of major brands shifting spend to the Internet is that because they are less price sensitive to cost than eCommerce companies, this has led to higher pricing by Facebook and Google.
Personalization is Becoming “Table Stakes” and Offering Co-Creation is a Major Plus
Consumers, in general, and especially Gen Z, are demanding that brands do more to personalize products to their needs and interests. In fact, Gen Z even wants to participate in product creation. One example involves Azure portfolio company Le Tote. The company, much like Stitch Fix, uses algorithms to personalize the clothing it sends based on specifics about each customer. When the company added the ability for consumers to personalize their box (from the already personalized box suggested by the algorithm) there was a sizeable spike in satisfaction…despite the fact that the items the consumer substituted led to a decline in how well the clothes fit! This example shows that using customer data to select new items is only a first step in personalization. Letting the customer have more of a say (be a co-creator) is even more important.
Startups need to diversify their marketing spend away from Facebook and Google as the ROI on these channels has contracted. At the Azure marketing day, we highlighted testing whether Pinterest, influencers, brick and mortar distribution and/or comedy might be sources that drive a higher ROI.
If Gen Zers are being targeted, YouTube, Snap, Instagram, and Twitch are likely better places to market
When targeting new customers (especially Gen Z) remove barriers to entry like requiring registration before a user becomes a customer. It is important to demonstrate value to them first.
Build great apps for iPhones and Android phones but what is becoming most important is making sure that smart phones work well on your site without requiring an app, as most Gen Zers will use their phones for access. When they do, the mobile web version needs to be strong so that they don’t need to download your app before discovering the value you offer.
Involve customers as much as possible in the design/selection/creation of your products as this extends personalization to “co-creation” and will increase satisfaction.
Readers are aware that I invest in growth stocks (some of which I suggest to you) to achieve superior performance. What you may not be aware of is that over the past 25 years my strategy for investing has been to put the majority of capital in A or better rated municipal bonds (Munis) to generate income in a relatively safe way (and I believe everyone should diversify how they apportion capital). I use a complex strategy to generate superior returns and in the past 25 years I have earned, on average, between 4% and 5% tax free annually. But in the current environment new investments in Munis will have much lower yields so I have started to look at “safe” alternatives to generate income. This type of investment is for income generation and involves a different category of stocks than the growth stocks I target for high returns through stock appreciation.
Given the recent downturn in the stock market I did my first “bond alternative” investment earlier this week. My goal is to generate income of over 5% on an after-tax basis in stocks that are “safe” investments from the point of view of continuing to deliver dividends at or above current levels.
My first set of transactions was in Bristol Myers Squibb:
I bought the stock at $56.48 where the dividend is 3.2% per year
I sold Jan 21 calls at a strike price of 60 and received $4.95
If the stock is not called my cash yield, including $1.80 in dividends, would be $6.75 over less than one year which would equal 12% before taxes
I also sold Jan 21 puts at a strike price of $55 and received $6.46. If the stock is not put to me and is not called that would increase my one-year yield to over 23% of the $56.48 stock price and I would repeat the sale of calls and puts next year. Since my net cost was $43.27 the percentage yield would be over 30% of my cash outlay.
If the stock was called my net gain would equal the profit on the stock, the dividends for one year plus the premiums on the options and would exceed 30%
If the stock went below $55 and was put to me at that price I would be ok with that as the new shares would have a net cost of just over $49 with a dividend yield of close to 4.0% (assuming the company follows past practice of raising dividends each year) and I could sell new puts at a lower strike price.
The second stock I invested in for income is AT&T.
I bought the stock at $34.60 where the dividend is 6.0% per year
I sold Jan 21 calls at a strike price of $37 and received $2.05 per share
If the stock is not called my year 1 cash yield would be $4.13 per share over less than a year or about 12% before taxes
I also sold Jan 21 puts with a strike of $32 and received $3.30 per share. If the stock is not put to me and is not called, that would increase my one-year yield to over 20% of the stock price and over 25% of the net cash outlay
If the stock was called, I would only have 3 quarters of dividends, but the gain would be over 30% of my net original cash outlay
If the stock was put to me my cost of the new shares, after subtracting the put premium would be $28.70 and the dividend alone would provide a 7.2% pre-tax yield and I could sell new puts at a lower price.
We shall see how this works out but unless they cut the dividends, I won’t worry if the stock is lower a year from now as that would only increase my yield on new stock purchased due to the puts. The chance of either company cutting dividends seems quite low which is why I view this as a “safe” alternative to generate income as I won’t sell either stock unless they are called at the higher strike price.
I also began reserving capital starting about a month ago as I expected the virus to impact the market. These purchases used about 10% of what I had put aside. I put another 15% to work on Friday, March 13 as the market had fallen further and valuations have become quite attractive – remember the secret is to “buy low, sell high”. When the market is low its always scary or it wouldn’t be low! I do confess that I didn’t sell much when it was high as I tend to be a long-term holder of stocks I view as game changers…so I missed the opportunity to sell high and then repurchase low.
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:
Sell physical goods which are not their own brands
Sell physical goods that are their own brands
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Start with companies growing revenue 20% or more, where those closer to 20% also have opportunity to expand income faster than revenue
Make sure the market they are attacking is large enough to support continued high growth for at least 5 years forward
Stay away from companies that don’t have profitability in sight as companies eventually should trade at a multiple of earnings.
Only choose companies with competitive advantages in their space
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:
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:
Buy X shares of the stock (or keep the ones you have)
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
So, net out of pocket cost would be reduced to $1722
A 20% increase in the stock price (roughly Amazon’s growth rate) would mean 29% growth in value since the puts would expire worthless
If the stock declined 226 points the option sale would be a break-even. Any decline beyond that and you would lose additional dollars.
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:
Revenue retention of a cohort was about 140%
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
Gross Margins are over 80% and could increase
The product has been rated best in class numerous times
Its compression technology (the key ingredient in making video high quality) appears to have a multi-year lead over the competition
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):
Buy X shares of the stock at $72.20 (today’s price)
Sell Calls for X shares expiring January 15, 2021 at a strike of $80/share for $11.50 (same as last price it traded)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.