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.
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.
Advanced metrics for Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and Lifetime Value (LTV)
What is the purpose of CAC, LTV and Payback Period?
Often entrepreneurs we meet have a list of their KPI’s, but as we dig deeper, it becomes clear that they don’t fully comprehend the purpose of the KPI or why we think that they are so critical in helping us understand the health of a business. I’m a believer in thoroughly understanding the economics of your business, and the metrics around Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), Customer Lifetime Revenue (LTR), Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) and Payback Period are important metrics to work on improving. In this post we use the word customer to mean a ‘buyer’, someone who actually orders product and will use customer and buyer interchangeably.
LTR (Customer Lifetime Revenue) is the total revenue from a customer over their estimated lifetime (we prefer using 5 years as representing lifetime)
MCA (Marketing Spend for Customer Acquisition) is the marketing cost directed towards new customer acquisition
CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) captures the cost of acquiring a new buyer
LTV (Customer Lifetime Value) is the estimated lifetime profits on new customers once they have been acquired
Net LTV is the estimated lifetime profits on a new customer taking acquisition cost into account or: LTV – CAC
Payback Period is the time for a new customer to generate profits that equals his or her CAC
When LTV is compared to CAC a measure of the future health of the business can be seen. Most VCs will be loath to invest in any company where the ratio of LTV/CAC is less than 3X and enthusiastic when it exceeds 5X. I also favor companies with a short payback period especially if the recovery is from the first transaction as this means almost no cash is consumed when acquiring a customer.
I have previously written about Contribution Margin (gross margin less marketing and sales spend) being one of the most important metrics for companies as it tells me how scaling revenue will help cover G&A and R&D costs. Once Contribution Margin exceeds these costs there is operating profit. A company with low Contribution Margin needs much greater scale to be able to reach profitability than one with high Contribution Margin. Both the LTV/CAC ratio and Payback Period are important predictors of future Contribution Margin levels. Table 1 shows two companies with the same revenue, R&D and G&A cost. Assuming R&D and G&A are fixed for both, at 5% Contribution Margin Company A would need to reach $50 million in revenue to break-even while Company B would be at break-even at under $4 million in revenue given its 65% Contribution Margin.
Break Even Revenue = (R&D + G&A)/ (Contribution Margin %)
For Company A = $2,500,000/ (5%) = $50,000,000
For Company B = $2,500,000/ (65%) = $3,846,154
The problem for Company A stems from the fact that for every $40 spent in acquiring a customer the total LTV (or subsequent profits on the customer) is only $76 making Net LTV $36. With such a low ratio of LTV/CAC, Contribution Margin is also quite low. I’ve chosen two extremes in gross margin to better illustrate the impact of gross margin on Contribution Margin.
Table 1: Illustrative Example on the Importance of Contribution Margin
In a second example, Table 2, we show the impact of much more efficient marketing and remarketing on a company’s results. We assume gross margin, R&D and G&A are the same for Company C and Company D, but that Company D is much more efficient at acquiring and retaining customers, resulting in a lower CAC and a higher LTR and LTV for Company D. This could be due to higher spending on branding and remarketing, but also because they are very focused on the metrics that help them optimize acquisition and LTR. The result is considerably higher LTV/CAC and significantly higher Contribution Margin.
Table 2: Impact of Efficient Marketing & Remarketing on a Company’s Results
A few rules regarding Contribution Margin
Higher Gross Margin means greater opportunity for high Contribution Margin – for example, Company A at 20% Gross Margin is severely limited in reaching a reasonable Contribution Margin while Company B at 80% Gross Margin has an opportunity for high Contribution Margin and can reach profitability at lower revenue levels
Companies with many new customers acquired through “free” methods like SEO, viral marketing, etc. have higher Contribution Margins than similar companies with a low proportion of free acquisitions. Notice Company D can spend less on marketing than Company C because it acquires half of its customers from free sources whereas Company C has none from free sources.
Returning buyers contribute heavily to Contribution Margin since they require little if any marketing cost. A high LTV/CAC ratio usually means customers return more often, which in turn should increase future Contribution Margin. Company D with its very high LTV/CAC likely has much lower churn than Company C and therefore most of its marketing spend is for adding incremental customers rather than just replacing those that churn. If a company simply stopped spending on marketing, its revenue would be from existing customers and new customers acquired from free methods making Contribution Margin roughly equal to Gross Margin. Of course, lack of marketing could have a major impact on future growth
All other things being equal, companies with short Payback Periods tend to have higher Contribution Margin than those with longer Payback Periods
Marketing Spend on Branding versus Customer Acquisition
Branding is the communication of characteristics, values and attributes of an organization and its products. What is the purpose of spending on branding? To create a strong image of the company and its products so that existing customers want to stay and spending on customer acquisition will be more efficient. Great brands should have a lower CAC and higher LTV than weak brands.
Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign worked well in establishing a brand message that resonated. Their more recent campaign centered around Colin Kaepernick was riskier as it had pictures of the quarterback and the slogan: “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything”. While Kaepernick is controversial, he appeals to a large part of the Nike existing and potential buying audience. The campaign helped lift sales by 27% in the first 4 days following the ad launch. Karen McFarlane, founder Kaye Media Partners summed up Nike’s strategy: “Nike’s mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. Colin Kaepernick, through his advocacy, conviction, and talent on and off the field, exemplifies those values in the strongest of terms. Couple that with Nike’s commitment to diversity and community, particularly against the backdrop of today’s America where politics have amplified cultural divisions, Nike took the opportunity to lean into their mission and values.”
Marketing campaigns that are for direct customer acquisition differ from branding campaigns as their goal is to directly acquire customers. It is not always clear whether marketing dollars should be classified as acquisition or branding. The key point is that branding is building for the future, whereas acquisition campaigns are measured by how efficiently they deliver current customers. This brings us back to measuring CAC, as the question becomes whether branding campaigns are part of the calculation of CAC. I believe they are not, as CAC should represent the direct cost of acquiring a customer so that increasing that spend will allow us to estimate how many more customers will result. So, I conclude that marketing for branding should be excluded from the calculation of CAC but can be an important strategy to improve efficiency in acquiring customers and maximizing their value. It should be part of the Contribution Margin calculation.
Paid CAC vs Blended CAC
If CAC represents what it costs to acquire a customer, what about those customers that are acquired through SEO, viral marketing, or some other free method? If one simply divides the spend on Marketing for Customer Acquisition (or MCA) by the total number of new customers, the result will be deceptive if it is used to estimate how many more customers will be acquired if MCA spend is increased. Instead companies should calculate CAC in two ways:
Blended CAC = MCA/ (total number of new customers)
Acquisition CAC = MCA/ (number of new customers generated from acquisition marketing only)
Attribution Models and how they help understand CAC by Channel
CAC helps predict the impact of different levels of spending on marketing. Companies also need to know where spending has the best impact, and therefore need to calculate a CAC (and LTV) for each channel of marketing. If a company uses multiple channels like Facebook, Google, and Snap they need to assign credit to each channel for the customers generated from that channel as compared to the spend for that channel to determine the channel CAC. The most simplistic way of doing this is to say, for example, that Google advertising gets credit for the customer if the purchase by the customer occurs after clicking to the site from Google. But what if a consumer sees a Facebook ad, goes to the site to look at products, then a week later comes back to the site from a Snap ad, and then visits the site again because the company sent them an email that they click on, and finally buys something after clicking on a Google ad? Should Google get the entire credit for the customer?
Attribution models from companies like Amplitude and Hive attempt to appropriately credit each channel touchpoint for the role it played in acquiring a customer. For example, a company might assign 50% of the credit to the last touchpoint and divide the other 50% equally among prior touchpoints or use some other formula that is believed to capture how each channel participated in driving that consumer towards a purchase. Attribution models attempt to help companies understand how scaling spend in each channel will impact customer acquisition. For example:
Google CAC = (Google marketing spend)/ (number of customers attributed to Google ads)
One question that arises when using attribution models to credit each channel is whether “free” areas should share the credit when both paid and free touchpoints occur before converting a consumer into a buyer. The issue is whether the free touchpoints would have occurred had the company not spent on paid marketing. In my prior example the customer would never have received an email from the company had they not first seen the Facebook and Snap ads so eliminating these ads would also eliminate the email which in turn probably means they never would have become a customer. In a similar way, someone who clicked on a Google ad but did not buy, might later do a search for the product, and go to the site from SEO and then buy. So, one method of assigning attribution would be to divide the entire attribution among paid channels if a consumer touched both paid and free ones before becoming a customer. If the consumer only went to free channels, then they would count in blended CAC but not as a customer in calculating paid CAC or CAC by paid channel.
Where does Marketing to an existing customer fit in?
CAC is meant to measure new customer acquisition. So, marketing to an existing customer to get them to buy more should not be part of CAC but rather should be subtracted from MCA. I view it as a cost that reduces Lifetime Value (LTV). Many startups ignore the possibility of “reactivating” churned customers through marketing spend. Several Azure portfolio companies have seen success in deploying a reactivation strategy. I consider this spend as marketing to an existing customer and resulting profits an increase in LTV. Revising the definition of LTV (see Table 1):
MCA (Marketing Cost for Customer Acquisition) = Marketing Costs – branding costs – marketing to existing customers
In Table 1, remarketing expense is 1% of Lifetime revenue for both Company A and Company B or:
Company A LTV = (GM% – remarketing%) X LTR = (20% – 1%) X $400 = $76
Company B LTV = (80%– 1%) X $400 = $316
What about new customers that return the product?
This is a thorny issue. If a consumer buys their first product from a company and then returns it, is she a customer? I think it would not be wrong with interpreting this either way. But I prefer considering her a customer as she was a buyer, and while the return zeros out the revenue from that purchase, she did become a customer. There is ample opportunity for marketing to her again. Considering her a customer lowers CAC as there are more customers for the spend, but it also lowers LTV for the same reason. So, if the interpretation is applied consistently over both CAC and LTV, I believe it would be correct.
More mature companies should apply the methods shown here to better understand their business
By better understanding acquisition CAC and LTV of each channel of customer acquisition a company can direct more spending to the most efficient ones (those with the highest LTV/CAC). By experimenting with “reactivation” spending a company can determine if this improves LTV/CAC. Companies that improve LTV/CAC will likely generate higher Contribution Margin. Those that increase the proportion of customers acquired for “free” can also improve Contribution Margin. Improving CAC and LTV can be accomplished in several ways as described in prior posts:
In a past life, while on Wall Street, one of my favorite calls was: “Buy Dell Short Kellogg”. My reasoning behind the call was that while Dell’s revenue and earnings growth was more than 10X that of Kellogg, somehow Kellogg had a much higher PE than Dell. Portfolio managers gave me various reasons they claimed were logical to explain the un-logical situation like: “Kellogg is more reliable at meeting earnings expectations” …. when in truth they had missed estimates 20 straight quarters. What I later came to believe was that the explanation was their overall comfort level with Kellogg because they understood cereal better than they understood a direct marketing PC hardware company at the time. My call worked out well as Dell not only had a revenue CAGR of nearly 50% from January 1995 (FY 95) through January of 2000 (and a 69% EPS CAGR) but also experienced significant multiple expansion while Kellogg revenue grew at just over 1% annually during the ensuing period and its earnings shrunk (as spend was against missed revenue expectations). The success of Dell was a major reason I was subsequently selected as the number one stock picker across Wall Street analysts for 2 years in a row.
I bring up history because history repeats. One of the reasons for my success in investing is that I look at metrics as a basis of long-term valuation. This means ignoring story lines of why the future is much brighter for those with weak metrics or rationales of why disaster will befall a company that has strong results. Of course, I also consider the strength of management, competitive advantages and market size. But one key thesis that comes after studying hundreds of “growth” companies over time is that momentum tends to persist, and strong business models will show solid contribution margin as an indicator of future profitability.
Given this preamble I’ll be comparing two
companies that have recently IPO’d. Much like those that supported Kellogg, the
supporters of the one with the weaker metrics will have many reasons why it
trades at a much higher multiple (of revenue and gross margin dollars) than the
one with stronger metrics.
Based on financial theory, companies should be valued based on future cash flows. When a company is at a relatively mature stage, earnings and earnings growth will tend to be the proxy used and a company with higher growth usually trades at a higher multiple of earnings. Since many companies that IPO have little or no earnings, many investors use a multiple of revenue to value them but I prefer to use gross margin or contribution margin (where marketing cost is broken out clearly) as a proxy for potential earnings as they are much better indicators of what portion of revenue can potentially translate to future earnings (see our previous post for valuation methodology).
I would like to hold off on naming the
companies so readers can look at the metrics with an unbiased view (which is
what I try to do). So, let’s refer to them as Company A and Company B. Table 1 shows
their recent metrics.
Growth for Company B included an extra week in the quarter. I estimate growth would have been about 27% year/year without the extra week
Disclosures on marketing seem inexact so these are estimates I believe to be materially correct
Pre-tax income for Company A is from prior quarter as the June quarter had considerable one-time expenses that would make it appear much worse
Company B is:
Growing 2 -2 ½ times faster
Has over 3X the gross margin
Over 28% contribution margin
whereas Company A contribution margin is roughly at 0
Company B is bordering on
profitability already whereas Company A appears years away
Yet, Company A is trading at roughly 3.5X
the multiple of revenue and almost 11X the multiple of gross margin dollars (I
could not use multiple of contribution margin as Company A was too close to
zero). In fairness to Company A, its gross margin was much higher in the prior
quarter (at 27%). But even giving it the benefit of this higher number, Company
B gross margins were still about 65% higher than Company A.
The apparent illogic in this comparison is
much like what we saw when comparing Kellogg to Dell many years ago. The
reasons for it are similar: investors, in general, feel more comfortable with
Company A than they do with Company B. Additionally, Company A has a “story” on
why things will change radically in the future. You may have guessed already that
Company A is Uber. Company B is Stitchfix, and despite its moving to an
industry leading position for buying clothing at home (using data science to
customize each offering) there continues to be fear that Amazon will overwhelm
it sometime in the future. While Uber stock has declined about 35% since it
peaked in late June it still appears out of sync compared to Stitchfix.
I am a believer that, in general,
performance should drive valuation, and have profited greatly by investing in
companies that are growing at a healthy rate, appear to have a likelihood of
continuing to do so in the near future and have metrics that indicate they are
It appears that many others are now beginning to focus more closely on gross margins which we have been doing for years. I would encourage a shift to contribution margin, where possible, as this considers the variable cost needed to acquire customers.
A few notes about Tesla following our 2019 predictions: My household is about to become a two Tesla family. My wife has owned her second Tesla, a Model S, for over 4 years and I just placed an order to buy a Model 3 as a replacement for my Mercedes 550S. Besides the obvious benefits to the environment, I’m also tired of having to go to gas stations every week. The Model 3 can go 310 miles on a charge, is extremely fast, has a great user interface and has autopilot. I looked at several other cars but found it hard to justify paying twice as much (or more) for a car with less pickup, inferior electronics, etc.
If you were wondering why Tesla stock has gone on a run it is because the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has added Tesla to its list of approved auto manufacturers (the news of the possibility broke over a week ago). It appears likely that Tesla will begin producing Model 3s out of the new Giga Factory in China some time in Q4. This not only adds capacity for Tesla to increase its unit sales substantially in 2020 but also will save the Company considerable money as it won’t need to ship cars from its US factory. Remember Tesla also is planning on a Giga Factory in Europe to service strong demand there. The company has said that it will choose the location by the end of 2019. Given the intense competition to be the selected location, it is likely that the site chosen will involve substantial incentives to Tesla. While I would not want to predict when it will be in production, Elon Musk expects the date to be sometime in 2021. Various announcements along the way could be positive for Tesla stock.
This post is the third in my series on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), with a heavy emphasis on contribution margin (CM). Previously, I analyzed why CM is such a strong predictor of success. Given that, companies should consistently look at ways of improving it while still maintaining sufficient growth in their business.
In Azure’s recent full day marketing seminar for our consumer (B2C) focused companies, my session highlighted 6 methods of improving CM:
Increase follow-on sales from existing customers
Raise the average invoice value of the initial and subsequent sales to a customer
Increase GM (Gross Margin) through price increases
Increase GM by reducing cost of goods sold (COGs)
Reduce Blended CAC (cost of customer acquisition) by increasing free or very low cost traffic
Decrease marketing spend as a % of revenue
Before drilling down on each of these I want to define several key terms that will be used throughout the discussion:
Contribution Margin = GM – Marketing/Sales Costs – other cost that vary with sales
Paid CAC = Market Spend/New Customers acquired through this spend
Blended CAC = Market Spend/All new customers
CAC Recovery Time (CAC RT) = the number of months until variable profit on a customer equals CAC
LTV/CAC = Life Time Value (LTV) of a customer/CAC
I will now review each of these strategies and provide some thoughts on how to activate these in consumer-facing businesses:
1. Increase Follow-On sales from existing customers
Since existing customers have little or no cost associated with getting them to buy, this will decrease blended CAC, increasing CM.
Increasing customer retention through improvements in customer care, more interesting and more targeted emails to a customer, or launching a subscription of one kind or another can all help.
On the first point here is an email I received shortly after subscribing to Harry’s, that I thought did an excellent job at engaging me with their customer support, increasing my likelihood to keep my subscription active:
My name is Katie, and I’m a member of the Harry’s team. I wanted to reach out and say thanks for supporting Harry’s.
You are important to us, and I am here to personally help you however I can to make your Harry’s experience as smooth as possible – both literally and figuratively. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any thoughts or questions about your Harry’s products or Shave Plan, or just life in general. (And just a reminder that your next box is scheduled to ship on October 27th.) Thanks again for your support, and I hope to speak soon!
All the best, Katie
On the subscription concept, think about Amazon Prime. How many of you buy more frequently from Amazon because of being a prime member?
Add to product portfolio. By giving your customers more options of what to buy (all within the concept of your brand) customers are given the opportunity to spend more often.
Make sure your emails are interesting. This will increase the open rate and drive more follow on sales. If all your emails are about discounting your product, then customers will have less interest in opening them and your brand will be devalued. I’ve received emails from numerous sites that say an X% discount is available until a certain date, and then when that date passes, I receive a new offer that is the same or sometimes better. The most frequently opened emails have headers and content that creates interest beyond whatever products you sell. A/B test different headers and different content. It doesn’t matter how small or large you are or how many emails you send, it always pays to try different variations to increase open rates and conversion. Experiment with different messaging to different customer segments like those who purchased recently, those who “liked” an item, those that have never purchased, etc.
Build a Community of your customers. The more you can get customers engaged with you and with each other, the more committed to you they become and the longer they are retained. Think through how you can build an active community among your users through shared photos, videos, chatting, podcasts or events. Most of this should not involve trying to push new purchases but engaging your community to interact with you and each other.
2. Raise the average invoice value of the initial and subsequent sales to a customer
Since shipping costs will not increase proportionately, this will raise GM dollars and therefore CM.
Increase pricing. Most startups underprice their product thinking that will increase market adoption. Even some of the largest companies in the world have found there was ample room to increase prices. Thinking differently, Apple upped prices to over $1,000 for an iPhone. And then increased it again to $1,349 for the top of the line product. Five years ago, how many of you thought people would pay over $1,000 for a cell phone? This shows that unless you A/B test different price points you have no idea whether a price increase is the right strategy.
Upsell logical add-on products. While trying to get a customer to add to their shopping cart may seem obvious, many companies do not do this on a consistent basis. Some examples of ones that have: a flower company added vases to the offer, a mattress company added pillows and sheets; a subscription razor company added shaving gel; a cell phone company added a case. All of these led to reasonable attach rates of the add-on product and higher average invoice value. Testing what you could add to generate upsell should be a constant process.
“Selling” value added services is another form of upsell. This could include things like concierge customer service, service contacts, premier membership with benefits like: invites to special events, early access to new products, reduced shipping cost, preferred discounts on products, etc. If you get your customers to engage in one or more services, you will significantly increase their connection to your product and likely increase retention.
3. Increase Gross Margin through price Increases
Surprisingly, sometimes higher prices position a product as premium (having more value) and generate increased unit sales. Often higher prices generate more revenue even when fewer unit sales result. What may be counter intuitive is that GM$ can increase even if revenue declines. For example, suppose a company has COGs of $50 for a product and is currently pricing it at $100. If a price increase of 20% causes 20% lower unit sales, revenue would decline by 4% while GM$ would increase 12%. Higher gross margin dollars provide more ability to spend on marketing.
4. Improving GM by reducing COGs
Better Pricing: When your volume increases, ask for better pricing from suppliers. Just as its important to price test regularly, its also important to talk to multiple potential suppliers of your parts/product. An existing supplier may not be eager to voluntarily offer a price discount that goes with increased volume but is more likely to do so if it knows you are checking with others.
Changing Packaging: Packaging should be re-examined regularly as improvements may help customer retention. But it also may be possible to lower the cost of the packaging or to change it in a way that lowers shipping costs since that may be based on the size of the box rather than weight.
Shipping Costs: Lower shipping cost per $ of revenue (increasing GM and CM) by generating larger orders. In addition to upsell, this can be done by offering better discounts if the order size is larger. One site I have purchased from offers 10% discount if your net spend (after discount) is over $100, 15% if over $150 and 20% if over $200. Getting to the highest discount lowers the price of the product by enough to motivate buyers (including me) to try to buy over $200 in merchandise. The extra revenue creates incremental product margin dollars and decreases shipping cost as a percentage of revenue. This in turn increases GM$.
For a subscription company this can be done by scheduling less frequent (larger) deliveries. The shipping cost of the larger order will be a much smaller percent of revenue, raising GM.
Opening a Second distribution center to reduce shipping cost. Orders shipped from a west coast distribution center to an east coast customer will have 5 zone pricing. By having a second distribution center in a place like Columbus, Ohio (a frequently used location) those same orders will usually be 1 zone, sometimes 2 zone pricing, resulting in substantial savings per order. The caveat here is that a company needs enough volume for the total savings on orders to exceed the fixed cost of a second distribution center.
5. Improving CM by driving “free” or “nearly free” traffic
The higher the proportion of free or inexpensive traffic to total traffic, the lower the blended CAC.
Improving SEO (search engine optimization). I’ve learned from SEO experts that optimizing SEO is not free, but rather very low cost compared to paid traffic. Our previous post walks through some of the science involved in making improvements. I would suggest using an SEO consultant as it is likely to lead to far better results.
Convert a visitor not ready to buy to an email recipient. If you do that than you will have subsequent opportunities to market to her or him. A slightly costlier version of this is to use remarketing to woo visitors who came to your site but didn’t buy. While using remarketing (advertising) has a cost, it is usually much lower CAC than other methods.
Produce emails that get forwarded and go viral. Such emails need to motivate recipients to forward them due to being very funny, of human interest, etc. While there is typically a product offering embedded in them, the header emphasizes the reason to read it. One Azure portfolio company, Shinesty, recently had an email that was opened by about 7X the number of people it was initially sent to. That generated a lot of potential customers without spending extra marketing dollars. Engaging emails has enabled Shinesty to maintain high CM and high growth.
Use social networking to generate incremental customers. Having the right posts on a social network like Instagram can lead to new potential customers finding out about you and lead to additional sales.
Optimize Customer Retention. Or as my good friend Chris Bruzzo (CMO of EA) spoke about at the Azure Marketing conference: “Love the ones you’re with.” Existing customers are usually the largest source of “free” buyers in a period. The longer you retain a customer, the more repeat buyers you have, increasing contribution margin. So, it’s imperative to take great care of your existing customers.
Drive PR. Like SEO, there is some cost involved in this but if you are judicious in any agency spend and thoughtful in creating news worthy press releases this can be a great source of traffic at a modest cost. However, I recommend you try to understand what you are getting from PR because I have seen situations where the spend did not produce meaningful results.
6. Decrease Marketing Spend as a % of Revenue.
The CAC Recovery Time plays a major role in how to manage your market spend to balance growth and burn. For example, if CAC Recovery Time is one month, spending more will not drive up burn appreciably. If it takes more than a year to recover your CAC, moderating market spend is critical to achieving a reasonable CM. If you recoup CAC faster, you can invest more quickly in the next round of customers. In the consumer space, I won’t invest in a company that has a long (a year or more) CAC Recovery Time as customers are likely to churn in an average of 2-3 years, making it difficult to achieve a reasonable business model. For B2B company’s customer longevity tends to be much longer, and the LTV/CAC can be 5X or more even if CAC Recovery Time is a year.
When a company decreases its market spend as a % of revenue it may experience lower growth but better CM. However, many companies have waste in their marketing spend so it’s important to measure the efficacy of each area of spend separately and to eliminate programs with a low return. This will allow you to reduce the spend with minimal impact on growth rates. There is a balance needed to try to optimize the relationship between CM and revenue growth as higher burn requires raising money more frequently and can put your company at risk. On the other hand, a company generating $1M in revenue needs to be growing at 100% or more to warrant most VCs to consider investing. Since CM should improve with scale, spending more on marketing may be a viable strategy for early stage companies. Once a company reaches $10M in revenue, annual growth of 50% will get it to $76M in revenue in 5 years so such a company should consider better CM rather than driving much higher growth rates and continuing to burn excessive cash.
In summary, Contribution Margin is the lifeblood of a company. If it is weak, the company is likely to fail over time. If it is strong and revenue growth is high, success seems likely. Improving CM is an ongoing process. I realize many of you probably feel much of what I’ve said is obvious, but my question is:“How many of these suggestions are you already doing on a regular basis?”
While you may be using several of the suggestions in this post, I encourage you to try more and to also double down where you can on the ones you already are trying. The results will make your company more valuable!
I just want to remind readers that my collaborator on my blog posts, Andrea Drager, doesn’t typically take a bow for her significant contributions. Also, in this post, Chris Bruzzo added several improvements that have been incorporated. So many thanks to Andrea and Chris.
Can’t help but comment on the start to the NBA season. Not surprisingly, the Warriors are off to a great start with Curry and Durant leading the way. Greene and Thompson now have moved close to their usual contribution so I’m hopeful that the team can keep up its current pace.
What surprised me early on was the lack of recognition that both Toronto and San Antonio would be greatly improved. Remember, while San Antonio lost Kawhi, he only played a few games last year so with the addition of DeRozan should improve and once again reach the playoffs. For Toronto the change to Kawhi is a marked improvement placing them very competitive with the Celtics for eastern leadership.
I also feel it necessary to comment on the “Las Vegas” Raiders. I call them that already as they have shown zero regard for Oakland fans. While commentators have criticized their trading of all-star level players for draft choices, this is precisely on-strategy. When they get to Vegas they want a brand-new set of rising stars that the new fan base can identify with (using the numerous first round draft choices they traded for), and they don’t mind having the worst record in the league while still in Oakland. I believe Oakland fans should stop attending games as a response. I also think the NFL continues to shoot itself in the foot, allowing one of the most loyal and visible fan bases in the league to once again be abandoned
In the last post I concluded with a brief discussion of Contribution Margin as a key KPI. Recall:
Contribution Margin = Variable Profits – Sales and Marketing Cost
The higher the contribution margin, the more dollars available towards covering G&A. Once contribution margin exceeds G&A, a company reaches operating profits. For simplicity in this post, I’ll use gross margin (GM) as the definition of variable profits even though there may be other costs that vary directly with revenue.
The Drivers of Contribution Margin (CM)
There is an absolute correlation between GM percent and CM. Very high gross margin companies will, in general, get to strong contribution margins and low gross margin companies will struggle to get there. But the sales and marketing needed to drive growth is just as important. There are several underlying factors in how much needs to be spent on sales and marketing to drive growth:
The profits on a new customer relative to the cost of acquiring her (or him). That is, the CAC (customer acquisition cost) for customers derived from paid advertising compared to the profits on those customers’ first purchase
The portion of new traffic that is “free” from SEO (search engine optimization), PR, existing customers recommending your products, etc.
The portion of revenue that comes from repeat customers
The Relationship Between CAC and First Purchase Profits Has a Dramatic Impact on CM
Suppose Company A spends $60 to acquire a customer and has GM of $90 on the initial purchase by that customer. The contribution margin will already be positive $30 without accounting for customers that are organic or those that are repeat customers; in other words, this tends to be extremely positive! Of course, the startups I see in eCommerce are rarely in this situation but those that are can get to profitability fairly quickly if this relationship holds as they scale.
It would be more typical for companies to find that the initial purchase GM only covers a portion of CAC but that subsequent purchases lead to a positive relationship between the LTV (life time value) of the customer and CAC. If I assume the spend to acquire a customer is $60 and the GM is $30 then the CM on the first purchase would be negative (-$30), and it would take a second purchase with the same GM dollars to cover that initial cost. Most startups require several purchases before recovering CAC which in turn means requiring investment dollars to cover the outlay.
Free Traffic and Contribution Margin
If a company can generate a high proportion of free/organic traffic, there is a benefit to contribution margin. CAC is defined as the marketing spend divided by the number of new customers derived from this spend. Blended CAC is defined as the marketing spend divided by all customers who purchased in the period. The more organically generated and return customers, the lower the “blended CAC”. Using the above example, suppose 50% of the new customers for Company A come from organic (free) traffic. Then the “blended CAC“ would be 50% of the paid CAC. In the above example that would be $30 instead of $60 and if the GM was only $30 the initial purchase would cover blended CAC.
Of course, in addition to obtaining customers for free from organic traffic, companies, as they build their customer base, have an increasing opportunity to obtain free traffic by getting existing customers to buy again. So, a company should never forget that maintaining a persistent relationship with customers leads to improved Contribution Margin.
Spending to Drive Higher Growth Can Mean Lower Contribution Margin
Unless the GM on the first purchase a new customer makes exceeds their CAC, there is an inverse relationship between expanding growth and achieving high contribution margin. Think of it this way: suppose that going into a month the likely organic traffic and repeat buyers are somewhat set. Boosting that month’s growth means increasing the number of new paid customers, which in turn makes paid customers a higher proportion of blended CAC and therefore increases CAC. For an example consider the following assumptions for Company B:
The GM is $60 on an average order of $100
Paid CAC is $150
The company will have 1,000 new customers through organic means and 2,000 repeat buyers or $300,000 in revenue with 60% GM ($180,000) from these customers before spending on paid customers
G&A besides marketing for the month will be $150,000
Last year Company B had $400,000 in revenue in the same month
The company is considering the ramifications of targeting 25%, 50% or 100% year-over-year growth
Table 1: The Relationship Between Contribution Margin & Growth
Since the paid CAC is $150 while Gross Margin is only $60 per new customer, each acquired customer generates negative $90 in contribution margin in the period. As can be seen in Table 1, the company would shrink 25% if there is no acquisition spend but would have $180,000 in contribution margin and positive operating profit. On the other end of the spectrum, driving 100% growth requires spending $750,000 to acquire 5,000 new customers and results in a negative $270,000 in contribution margin and an Operating Loss of $420,000 in the period. Of course, if new customers are expected to make multiple future purchases than the number of repeat customers would rise in future periods.
Subscription Models Create More Consistency but are not a Panacea
When a company’s customers are monthly subscribers, each month starts with the prior month’s base less churn. To put it another way, if churn from the prior month is modest (for example 5%) then that month already has 95% of the prior months revenue from repeat customers. Additionally, if the company increases the average invoice value from these customers, it might even have a starting point where return customers account for as much revenue as the prior month. For B-to-B companies, high revenue retention is the norm, where an average customer will pay them for 10 years or more.
Consumer ecommerce subscriptions typically have much more substantial churn, with an average life of two years being closer to the norm. Additionally, the highest level of churn (which can be as much as 30% or more) occurs in the second month, and the next highest, the third month before tapering off. What this means is that companies trying to drive high sequential growth will have a higher % churn rate than those that target more modest growth. Part of a company’s acquisition spend is needed just to stay even. For example, if we assume all new customers come from paid acquisition, the CAC is $200, and that 15% of 10,000 customers churn then the first $300,000 in marketing spend would just serve to replace the churned customers and additional spend would be needed to drive sequential growth.
Investing in Companies with High Contribution Margin
As a VC, I tend to appreciate strong business models and like to invest after some baseline proof points are in place. In my last post I outlined a number of metrics that were important ways to track a company’s health with the ratio of LTV (life time value) to CAC being one of the most important. When a company has a high contribution margin they have the time to build that ratio by adding more products or establishing subscriptions without burning through a lot of capital. Further, companies that have a high LTV/CAC ratio should have a high contribution margin as they mature since this usually means customers buy many times – leading to an expansion in repeat business as part of each month’s total revenue.
This thought process also applies to public companies. One of the most extreme is Facebook, which I’ve owned and recommended for five years. Even after the recent pullback its stock price is about 7x what it was five years ago (or has appreciated at a compound rate of nearly 50% per year since I’ve been recommending it). Not a surprise as Facebook’s contribution margin runs over 70% and revenue was up year/year 42% in Q2. These are extraordinary numbers for a company its size.
To give the reader some idea of how this method can be used as one screen for public companies, Table 2 shows gross margin, contribution margin, revenue growth and this year’s stock market performance for seven public companies.
Table 2: Public Company Contribution Margin Analysis
Two of the seven companies shown stand out as having both high Contribution Margin and strong revenue growth: Etsy and Stitch Fix. Each had year/year revenue growth of around 30% in Q2 coupled with 44% and 29% contribution margins, respectively. This likely has been a factor in Stitch Fix stock appreciating 53% and Etsy 135% since the beginning of the year.
Three of the seven have weak models and are struggling to balance revenue growth and contribution margin: Blue Apron, Overstock, and Groupon. Both Blue Apron and Groupon have been attempting to reduce their losses by dropping their marketing spend. While this increased their CM by 10% and 20% respectively, it also meant that they both have negative growth while still losing money. The losses for Blue Apron were over 16% of revenue. This coupled with shrinking revenue feels like a lethal combination. Blue Apron stock is only down a marginal amount year-to-date but is 59% lower than one year ago. Groupon, because of much higher gross margins than Blue Apron (52% vs 35%), still seems to have a chance to turn things around, but does have a lot of work to do. Overstock went in the other direction, increasing marketing spend to drive modest revenue growth of 12%. But this led to a negative CM and substantially increased losses. That strategy did not seem to benefit shareholders as the stock has declined 53% since the beginning of the year.
eBay is a healthy company from a contribution margin point of view but has sub 10% revenue growth. I can’t tell if increasing their market spend by a substantial amount (at the cost of lower CM) would be a better balance for them.
For me, Spotify is the one anomaly in the table as its stock has appreciated 46% since the IPO despite weak contribution margins which was one reason for my negative view expressed in a prior post. I think that is driven by three reasons: its product is an iconic brand; there is not a lot of float in the stock creating some scarcity; and contribution margin has been improving giving bulls on the stock a belief that it can get to profitability eventually. I say it is an anomaly, as comparing it to Facebook, it is hard to justify the relative valuations. Facebook grew 42% in Q2, Spotify 26%; Facebook is trading at a P/E of 24 whereas even if we assume Spotify can eventually get to generating 6% net profit (it currently is at a 7% loss before finance charges and 31% loss after finance charges, so this feels optimistic) Spotify would be trading at 112 times this theoretic future earnings.
I found the recent controversy over Elon Musk’s sharing his thoughts on taking Tesla private interesting. On the one hand, people want transparency from companies and Elon certainly provides that! On the other hand, it clearly impacted the stock price for a few days and the SEC abhors anything that can be construed as stock manipulation. Of course, Elon may not have been as careful as he should have been when he sent out his tweet regarding whether financing was lined up…but like most entrepreneurs he was optimistic.
Applying the Gross Margin Multiple Method to Public Company Valuation
In my last two posts I’ve laid out a method to value companies not yet at their mature business models. The method provides a way to value unprofitable growth companies and those that are profitable but not yet at what could be their mature business model. This often occurs when a company is heavily investing in growth at the expense of near-term profits. In the last post, I showed how I would estimate what I believed the long-term model would be for Tesla, calling the result “Potential Earnings” or “PE”. Since this method requires multiple assumptions, some of which might not find agreement among investors, I provided a second, simplified method that only involved gross margin and revenue growth.
The first step was taking about 20 public companies and calculating how they were valued as a multiple of gross margin (GM) dollars. The second step was to determine a “least square line” and formula based on revenue growth and the gross margin multiple for these companies. The coefficient of 0.62 shows that there is a good correlation between Gross Margin and Revenue Growth, and one significantly better than the one between Revenue Growth and a company’s Revenue Multiple (that had a coefficient of 0.36 which is considered very modest).
Where’s the Beef?
The least square formula derived in my post for relating revenue growth to an implied multiple of Gross Margin dollars is:
GM Multiple = (24.773 x Revenue growth percent) + 4.1083
Implied Company Market Value = GM Multiple x GM Dollars
Now comes the controversial part. I am going to apply this formula to 10 companies using their data (with small adjustments) and compare the Implied Market Value (Implied MKT Cap) to their existing market Cap as of several days ago. I’ll than calculate the Implied Over (under) Valuation based on the comparison. If the two values are within 20% I view it as normal statistical variation.
Table 1: Valuation Analysis of 10 Tech Companies
* Includes net cash included in expected market cap
** Uses adjusted GM%
*** Uses 1/31/18 year end
**** Growth rate used in the model is q4 2017 vs q4 2016. See text
This method suggests that 5 companies are over-valued by 100% or more and a fifth, Workday, by 25%. Since Workday is close to a normal variation, I won’t discuss it further. I have added net cash for Facebook, Snap, Workday and Twitter to the implied market cap as it was material in each case but did not do so for the six others as the impact was not as material.
I decided to include the four companies I recommended, in this year’s top ten list, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla and Stitchfix, in the analysis. To my relief, they all show as under-valued with Stitchfix, (the only one below the Jan 2 price) having an implied valuation more than 100% above where it currently trades. The other three are up year to date, and while trading below what is suggested by this method, are within a normal range. For additional discussion of these four see our 2018 top Ten List.
Digging into the “Overvalued” Five
Why is there such a large discrepancy between actual market cap and that implied by this method for 5 companies? There are three possibilities:
The method is inaccurate
The method is a valid screen but I’m missing some adjustment for these companies
The companies are over-valued and at some point, will adjust, making them risky investments
While the method is a good screen on valuation, it can be off for any given company for three reasons: the revenue growth rate I’m using will radically change; a particular company has an ability to dramatically increase gross margins, and/or a particular company can generate much higher profit margins than their gross margin suggests. Each of these may be reflected in the company’s actual valuation but isn’t captured by this method.
To help understand what might make the stock attractive to an advocate, I’ll go into a lot of detail in analyzing Snap. Since similar arguments apply to the other 4, I’ll go into less detail for each but still point out what is implicit in their valuations.
Snap’s gross margin (GM) is well below its peers and hurts its potential profitability and implied valuation. Last year, GM was about 15%, excluding depreciation and amortization, but it was much higher in the seasonally strong Q4. It’s most direct competitor, Facebook, has a gross margin of 87%. The difference is that Facebook monetizes its users at a much higher level and has invested billions of dollars and executed quite well in creating its own low-cost infrastructure, while Snap has outsourced its backend to cloud providers Google and Amazon. Snap has recently signed 5-year contracts with each of them to extend the relationships. Committing to lengthy contracts will likely lower the cost of goods sold. Additionally, increasing revenue per user should also improve GM. But, continuing to outsource puts a cap on how high margins can reach. Using our model, Snap would need 79% gross margin to justify its current valuation. If I assume that scale and the longer-term contracts will enable Snap to double its gross margins to 30%, the model still shows it as being over-valued by 128% (as opposed to the 276% shown in our table). The other reason bulls on Snap may justify its high valuation is that they expect it to continue to grow revenue at 100% or more in 2018 and beyond. What is built into most forecasts is an assumed decline in revenue growth rates over time… as that is what typically occurs. The model shows that growing revenue 100% a year for two more years without burning cash would leave it only 32% over-valued in 2 years. But as a company scales, keeping revenue growth at that high a level is a daunting task. In fact, Snap already saw revenue growth decline to 75% in Q4 of 2017.
Twitter is not profitable. Revenue declined in 2017 after growing a modest 15% in 2016, and yet it trades at a valuation that implies that it is a growth company of about 50%. While it has achieved such levels in the past, it may be difficult to even get back to 15% growth in the future given increased competition for advertising.
I recommended Netflix in January 2015 as one of my stock picks for the year, and it proved a strong recommendation as the stock went up about 140% that year. However, between January 2015 and January 2018, the stock was up over 550% while trailing revenue only increased 112%. I continue to like the fundamentals of Netflix, but my GM model indicates that the stock may have gotten ahead of itself by a fair amount, and it is unlikely to dramatically increase revenue growth rates from last year’s 32%.
Square has followed what I believe to be the average pattern of revenue growth rate decline as it went from 49% growth in 2015, down to 35% growth in 2016, to under 30% growth in 2017. There is no reason to think this will radically change, but the stock is trading as if its revenue is expected to grow at a nearly 90% rate. On the GM side, Square has been improving GM each year and advocates will point out that it could go higher than the 38% it was in 2017. But, even if I use 45% for GM, assuming it can reach that, the model still implies it is 90% over-valued.
I don’t want to beat up on a struggling Blue Apron and thought it might have reached its nadir, but the model still implies it is considerably over-valued. One problem that the company is facing is that investors are negative when a company has slow growth and keeps losing money. Such companies find it difficult to raise additional capital. So, before running out of cash, Blue Apron began cutting expenses to try to reach profitability. Unfortunately, given their customer churn, cutting marketing spend resulted in shrinking revenue in each sequential quarter of 2017. In Q4 the burn was down to $30 million but the company was now at a 13% decline in revenue versus Q4 of 2016 (which is what we used in our model). I assume the solution probably needs to be a sale of the company. There could be buyers who would like to acquire the customer base, supplier relationships and Blue Apron’s understanding of process. But given that it has very thin technology, considerable churn and strong competition, I’m not sure if a buyer would be willing to pay a substantial premium to its market cap.
An Alternative Theory on the Over Valued Five
I have to emphasize that I am no longer a Wall Street analyst and don’t have detailed knowledge of the companies discussed in this post, so I easily could be missing some important factors that drive their valuation. However, if the GM multiple model is an accurate way of determining valuation, then why are they trading at such lofty premiums to implied value? One very noticeable common characteristic of all 5 companies in question is that they are well known brands used by millions (or even tens of millions) of people. Years ago, one of the most successful fund managers ever wrote a book where he told readers to rely on their judgement of what products they thought were great in deciding what stocks to own. I believe there is some large subset of personal and professional investors who do exactly that. So, the stories go:
“The younger generation is using Snap instead of Facebook and my son or daughter loves it”
“I use Twitter every day and really depend on it”
“Netflix is my go-to provider for video content and I’m even thinking of getting rid of my cable subscription”
Once investors substitute such inclinations for hard analysis, valuations can vary widely from those suggested by analytics. I’m not saying that such thoughts can’t prove correct, but I believe that investors need to be very wary of relying on such intuition in the face of evidence that contradicts it.