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 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.
Apple’s progress from a company in trouble
to becoming the first company to reach a trillion dollar market cap meant over
400X appreciation in Apple stock. The metamorphosis began when the company
hired Fred Anderson as an Executive VP and CFO in 1996. Tim Cook joined the
company as senior VP of worldwide operations in 1998. Fred and Tim improved the
company operationally, eliminating wasteful spending that preceded their
tenure. Of course, as most of you undoubtedly know, bringing back Steve Jobs by
acquiring his company, NeXT Computer in early 1997 added a strategic genius and
great marketer to an Apple that now had an improved business model. Virtually
every successful current Apple product was conceived while Steve was there.
After Fred retired in 2004, Tim Cook assumed even more of a leadership role
than before and eventually became CEO shortly before Jobs’ death in 2011.
Apple post Steve Jobs
Tim Cook is a great operator. In the years
following the death of Steve Jobs he squeezed every bit of profit that is possible
out of the iPad, iPod, iMacs, music content, app store sales and most of all
the iPhone. Because great products have a long life cycle they can increase in
sales for many years before flattening out and then declining.
Table 1: Illustrative Sales Lifecycle for Great Tech Product
Cook’s limit is that he cannot
conceptualize new products in the way Steve Jobs did. After all, who, besides
an Elon Musk, could? The problem for Apple is that if it is to return to double
digit growth, it needs a really large, successful new product as the iPhone is
flattening in sales and the Apple Watch and other new initiatives have not sufficiently
moved the needle to offset it. Assuming Q4 revenue growth in FY 2019 is
consistent with the first 9 months, then Apple’s compound growth over the 4
years from FY 15 to FY 19 will be 3.0% (see Table 2) including the benefit of
acquisitions like Beats.
iPhone sales have flattened
The problem for Apple is that the iPhone is
now in the mature part of its sales life cycle. In fact, unit sales appear to
be declining (Graph 1) but Apple’s near monopoly pricing power has allowed it
to defy the typical price cycle for technology products where average selling
prices decline over time. The iPhone has gone from a price range of $99 to $299
in June 2009 to $999 to $1449 for the iPhoneX, while the older iPhone 7 is
still available with minimal storage for $449. That’s a 4.5X price increase at
the bottom and nearly 5X at the high end! This defies gravity for technology
Graph 1: iPhone Unit Sales (2007-2018)
In the many years I followed the PC market,
it kept growing until reaching the following set of conditions (which the
iPhone now also faces):
Improvements in features were
no longer enough to drive rapid replacement cycles
Pricing was under pressure as
component costs declined and it became more difficult to convince buyers to add
capacity or capability sufficient to hold prices where they were
The number of first time users
available to buy product was no longer increasing each year
Competition from lower priced
suppliers created pricing pressure
Prior to that time PC pricing could be
maintained by convincing buyers that they needed one or more of:
The next generation of
A larger or thinner screen
Next generation storage
What is interesting when we contrast this
with iPhones is that PC manufacturers struggled to maintain average selling
prices (ASPs) until they finally began declining in the early 2000s. Similarly,
products like DVD players, VCRs, LCD TVs and almost every other technology
driven product had to drop dramatically in price to attract a mass market. In
contrast to that, Apple has been able to increase average prices at the same time that the iPhone became a mass
market product. This helped Apple postpone the inevitable revenue flattening
and subsequent decline due to lengthening replacement cycles and fewer first
time buyers. In the past few years, other then the bump in FY 2018 from the
launch of the high priced Model X early that fiscal year, iPhone revenue has
essentially been flat to down. Since it is well over 50% of Apple revenue, this
puts great pressure on overall revenue growth.
To get back to double digit growth Apple needs to enter a really large market
To be clear, Apple is likely to continue to
be a successful, highly profitable company for many years even if it does not
make any dramatic acquisitions. While its growth may be slow, its after tax
profits has been above 20% for each of the past 5 years. Strong cash flow has
enabled the company to buy back stock and to support increasing dividends every
year since August 2014.
Despite this, I think Apple would be well
served by using a portion of their cash to make an acquisition that enables
them to enter a very large market with a product that already has a great
brand, traction, and superior technology. This could protect them if the iPhone
enters the downside of its revenue generating cycle (and it is starting to feel
that will happen sometime in the next few years). Further, Apple would benefit
if the company they acquired had a visionary leader who could be the new “Steve
Jobs” for Apple.
There is no better opportunity than autos
If Apple laid out criteria for what sector
to target, they might want to:
Find a sector that is at least
hundreds of billions of dollars in size
Find a sector in the midst of major
Find a sector where market
share is widely spread
Find a sector ripe for
disruption where the vast majority of participants are “old school”
The Automobile industry matches every criterion:
Matching 1. It is well over $3 trillion in size
Matching 2. Cars are transitioning to
electric from gas and are becoming the next technology platform
Matching 3. Eight players have between 5%
and 11% market share and 7 more between 2% and 5%
Matching 4. The top ten manufacturers all
started well over 50 years ago
And no better fit for Apple than Tesla
Tesla reminds me of Apple in the late
1990s. Its advocates are passionate about the company and its products. It can
charge a premium versus others because it has the best battery technology
coupled with the smartest software technology. The company also designs its
cars from the ground up, rather than retrofitting older models, focusing on
what the modern buyer would most want. Like Jobs was at Apple, Musk cares about
every detail of the product and insists on ease of use wherever possible. The
business model includes owning distribution outlets much like Apple Stores have
done for Apple. By owning the outlets, Tesla can control its brand image much
better than any other auto manufacturer. While there has been much chatter
about Google and Uber in terms of self-driving cars, Tesla is the furthest
along at putting product into the market to test this technology.
Tesla may have many advantages over others,
but it takes time to build up market share and the company is still around 0.5%
of the market (in units). It takes several years to bring a new model to market
and Tesla has yet to enter several categories. It also takes time and
considerable capital to build out efficient manufacturing capability and Tesla
has struggled to keep up with demand. But, the two directions that the market
is moving towards are all electric cars and smart, autonomous vehicles. Tesla
appears to have a multi-year lead in both. What this means is that with enough
capital and strong operational direction Tesla seems poised to gain significant
Apple could accelerate Tesla’s growth
If Apple acquired Tesla it could:
Supply capital to accelerate
launch of new models
Supply capital for more
Increase distribution by
offering Tesla products in Apple Stores (this would be done virtually using
large computer screens). An extra benefit from this would be adding buzz to
Supply operational knowhow that
would increase Tesla efficiency
Add to the luster of the Tesla
brand by it being part of Apple
entertainment product (and add subscriptions) into Tesla cars
These steps would likely drive continued
high growth for Tesla. If, with this type of support, it could get to 5% share
in 3-5 years that would put it around $200 billion in revenue which would be
higher than the iPhone is currently. Additionally, Elon Musk is possibly the
greatest innovator since Steve Jobs. As a result, Tesla would bring to Apple the
best battery technology, the strongest power storage technology, and the
leading solar energy company. More importantly, Apple would also gain a great
The Cost of such an acquisition is well within Apple’s means
At the end of fiscal Q3, Apple had about
$95 billion in cash and equivalents plus another $116 billion in marketable
securities. It also has averaged over $50 billion in after tax profits annually
for the past 5 fiscal years (including the current one). Tesla market cap is
about $40 billion. I’m guessing Apple could potentially acquire it for less
than $60 billion (which would be a large premium over where it is trading).
This would be easy for Apple to afford and would create zero dilution for Apple
If the Fit is so strong and the means are there, why won’t it happen?
I can sum up the answer in one word – ego. I’m not sure Tim Cook is willing to admit that
Elon would be a far better strategist for Apple than him. I’m not sure he would
be willing to give Elon the role of guiding Apple on the product side. I’m not
sure Elon Musk is willing to admit he is not the operator that Tim Cook is
(remember Steve Jobs had to find out he needed the right operating/financial
partners by getting fired by Apple and essentially failing at NeXT). I’m not
sure Elon is willing to give up being the CEO and controlling decision-maker
for his companies.
So, this probably will never happen but if
it did, I believe it would be the greatest business powerhouse in history!
Applying Private Investment Analysis to the Rash of Mega-IPOs Occurring
first half of 2019 saw a steady stream of technology IPOs. First Lyft, then
Uber, then Zoom, all with different business models and revenue structures. As
an early investor in technology companies, I spend a lot of time evaluating
models for Venture Capital, but as a (recovering) investment analyst, I also
like to take a view around how to structure a probability weighted investment once
these companies have hit the public markets. The following post outlines a
recent approach that I took to manage the volatility and return in these growth
Question: Which of the Recent technology IPOs Stands out as a Winning
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
appears to have slightly better contribution margin than Lyft, possibly even as
high as 5%. I expect 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. Zoom Video, on the other hand, had
contribution margin of roughly 25% coupled with over 100% revenue growth. It also
seems on the verge of moving to profitability, especially if the company is
willing to lower its growth target a bit.
Zoom has a Strong Combination of Winning Attributes
There is certainly risk in Zoom but based
on the momentum we’re seeing in its usage (including an increasing number of
startups who use Zoom for video pitches to Azure), the company looks to be in
the midst of a multi-year escalation of revenue. Users have said that it is the
easiest product to work with and I believe the quality of its video is best in
class. The reasons for Zoom’s high growth include:
Revenue retention of a cohort is currently 140% – meaning that the same set of customers (including those who churn) spend 40% more a year later. While this growth is probably not sustainable over the long term, its subscription model, based on plans that increase with usage, could keep the retention at over 100% for several years.
It is very efficient in acquiring customers – with a payback period of 7 months, which is highly unusual for a SaaS software company. This is partly because of the viral nature of the product – the host of the Zoom call invites various people to participate (who may not be previous Zoom users). When you participate, you download Zoom software and are now in their network at no cost to Zoom. They then offer you a free service while attempting to upgrade you to paid.
Gross Margins (GMs) are Software GMs – about 82% and increasing, making the long-term model likely to be quite profitable
Currently the product has the reputation of being best in class (see here) for a comparison to Webex.
Zoom’s compression technology is well ahead of any competitor according to my friend Mark Leslie (a superb technologist and former CEO of Veritas).
The Fly in the Ointment: My Valuation Technique shows it to be Over
My valuation technique, published in one of our blog posts, provides a method of valuing companies based on revenue growth and gross margin. It helps parse which sub-scale companies are likely to be good investments before they reach the revenue levels needed to achieve long term profitability. For Zoom Video, the method shows that it is currently ahead of itself on valuation, but if it grows close to 100% (in the January quarter it was up 108%) this year it will catch up to the valuation suggested by my method. What this means is that the revenue multiple of the company is likely to compress over time.
Forward Pricing: Constructing a Way of Winning Big on Appreciation of
So instead of just buying the stock, I constructed
a complex transaction on May 29. Using it, I only required the stock to
appreciate 10% in 20 months for me to earn 140% on my investment. I essentially
“pre-bought” the stock for January 2021 (or will have the stock called at a
large profit). Here is what I did:
Bought shares of stock at $76.92
Sold the same number of shares of call options at $85 strike price for $19.84/share
Sold the same number of shares of put options at $70 strike for $22.08/share
Both sets of options expire in Jan 2021 (20 months)
Net out of pocket was $35/share
Given the momentum I think there is a high
probability (75% or so) that the revenue run rate in January 2021 (when options
mature) will be over 2.5x where it was in Q1 2019. If that is the case, it seems
unlikely that the stock would be at a lower price per share than the day I made
the purchase despite a potential for substantial contraction of Price/Revenue.
In January 2021, when the options expire, I will either own the same shares, or double the number of shares or I will have had my shares “called” at $85/share.
The possibilities are:
If the stock is $85 or more at the call date, the stock would be called, and my profit would be roughly 140% of the net $35 invested
If the stock is between $70 and $85, I would net $42 from the options expiring worthless plus or minus the change in value from my purchase price of $76.92. The gain would exceed 100%
If the stock is below $70, I’ll own 2x shares at an average price of $52.50/share – which should be a reasonably good price to be at 20 months out.
Of course, the options can be repurchased, and new options sold during the time period resulting in different outcomes.
Break-Even Point for the Transaction Is a 32% Decline in Zoom Video Stock
Portfolio Managers that are “Value
Oriented” will undoubtedly have a problem with this, but I view this
transaction as the equivalent of a value stock purchase (of a high flyer) since
the break-even of $52/share should be a great buy in January 2021. Part of my
reasoning is the downside protection offered: where my being forced to honor
the put option would mean that in January 2021, I would own twice the number of
shares at an average price of $52.50/share. If I’m right about the likelihood
of 150% revenue growth during the period, it would mean price/revenue had
declined about 73% or more. Is there some flaw in my logic or are the premiums
on the options so high that the risk reward appears to favor this transaction?
I started writing this before Zoom reported
their April quarter earnings, which again showed over 100% revenue growth
year/year. As a result, the stock jumped and was about $100/share. I decided to
do a similar transaction where my upside is 130% of net dollars invested…but
that’s a story for another day.
Estimating the “Probabilistic” Return Using My Performance Estimates
Because I was uncomfortable with the
valuation, I created the transaction described above. I believe going almost 2
years out provides protection against volatility and lowers risk. This can
apply to other companies that are expected to grow at a high rate. As to my
guess at probabilities:
75% that revenue
run rate is 2.5x January 2019 (base) quarter in the quarter ending in January
2021. A 60% compound annual growth (CAG) for 2 years puts the revenue higher
(they grew over 100% in the January 2019 quarter to revenue of $105.8M)
95% that revenue
run rate is over 2.0X the base 2 years later (options expire in January of that
year). This requires revenue CAG of 42%. Given that the existing customer
revenue retention rate averaged 140% last year, this appears highly likely.
99% that revenue
is over 1.5X the base in the January 2021 quarter (requires slightly over 22% CAG)
1% that revenue is
less than 1.5X
Assuming the above is true, I believe that
when I did the initial transaction the probabilities for the stock were (they
are better today due to a strong April quarter):
50% that the stock
trades over 1.5X today by January 2021 (it is almost there today, but could hit
a speed bump)
80% that the stock
is over $85/share (up 10% from when I did the trade) in January 2021
10% that the stock
is between $70 and $85/share in January 2021
5% that the stock
is between $52 and $70 in January 2021
5% that the stock is
Obviously, probabilities are guesses since
they heavily depend on market sentiment, whereas my revenue estimates are more
solid as they are based upon analysis, I’m more comfortable with. Putting the
guesses on probability together this meant:
80% probability of
140% profit = 2.4X
10% probability of
100% profit = 2.0X
5% probability of
50% profit (this assumes the stock is in the middle at $61/share) = 1.5X
5% probability of
a loss assuming I don’t roll the options and don’t buy them back early. At
$35/share, loss would be 100% = (1.0X)
If I’m right on these estimates, then the
weighted probability is 120% profit. I’ve been doing something similar with Amazon
for almost 2 years and have had great results to date. I also did part of my DocuSign
buy this way in early January. Since then, the stock is up 27% and my trade is
ahead over 50%. Clearly if DocuSign (or Amazon or Zoom) stock runs I won’t make
the same money as a straight stock purchase would yield given that I’m capped
out on those DocuSign shares at slightly under 100% profit, but the trade also
provides substantial downside protection.
Conclusion: Investing in Newly Minted IPOs of High Growth Companies with
Solid Contribution Margins Can be Done in a “Value Oriented” Way
When deciding whether to invest in a
company that IPOs, first consider the business model:
Are they growing at a high rate
of at least 30%?
contribution margins already at 20% or more?
Is there visibility to profitability
without a landscape change?
Next, try to get the stock on the IPO if
possible. If you can’t, is there a way of pseudo buying it at a lower price? The
transaction I constructed may be to complex for you to try and carries the
additional risk that you might wind up owning twice the number of shares. If
you decide to do it make sure you are comfortable with the potential future
The 2018 December selloff provides buying opportunity
One person’s loss is another’s gain. The market contraction in the last quarter of the year means that most stocks are at much lower prices than they were in Q3 of 2018. The 5 stocks that I’m recommending (and already own) were down considerably from their Q3 2018 highs. While this may be wishful thinking, returning to those highs by the end of 2019 would provide an average gain of 78%. Each of the 5 had revenue growth of 25% or more last year (and 3 were over 35%) and each is poised for another strong year in 2019.
For the 4 continued recommendations (all of which I mentioned I would recommend again in my last post), I’ll compare closing price on December 31, 2019 to the close on December 31, 2018 for calculating performance. For the new add to my list, I’ll use the stock price as I write this post. I won’t attempt to predict the overall market again (I’m just not that good at it) but feel that the 14% drop in Q4 means there is a better chance that it won’t take a nosedive. However, since stock picks are always relative to the market, success is based on whether my picks, on average, outperform the market.
I’ll start the post with stock picks and then follow with the remaining 5 predictions.
Tesla stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $333/share and is essentially the same as I write this)
In Q3, 2018 the Tesla model 3 was the bestselling car in the U.S. in terms of revenue and 5th highest by volume. This drove a 129% revenue increase versus a year earlier and $1.75 in earnings per share versus a loss of $4.22 in the prior quarter. I expect Q4 revenue to increase sequentially and growth year/year to exceed 100%. In Q3, Tesla reported that nearly half of vehicles traded in for the Model 3 were originally priced below $35,000. As Tesla begins offering sub-$40,000 versions of it, demand should include many buyers from this high-volume price range. Since the backlog for the Model 3 is about 300,000 units I expect 2019 sales to remain supply constrained if Tesla can offer lower price points (it already has announced a $2,000 price reduction). The important caveat to demand is that tax credits will be cut in H1 2019, from $7500 to $3750 and then cut again to $1875 in the second half of the year. Part of Tesla’s rationale for a $2000 price drop is to substantially offset the initial reduction of these tax credits.
Tesla began taking orders for its Q1 launch in Europe where demand over time could replicate that in the U.S. The average price of a Model 3 will initially be about $10,000 higher than in the U.S. Tesla is also building a major manufacturing facility in China (where Model 3 prices are currently over $20,000 higher than the U.S.). This Giga-Factory is expected to begin production in the latter half of 2019. While moving production to China for vehicles sold there should eliminate trade war issues, Tesla still expects to begin delivering Model 3s to Chinese customers in March.
The combination of a large backlog, reducing prices within the U.S. and launches in Europe and China should generate strong growth in 2019. Some investors fear price reductions might lead to lower gross margins. When I followed PC stocks on Wall Street, this was a constant question. My answer is the same as what proved true there: strong opportunity for continuous cost reduction should enable gross margins to remain in the 20-25% range in any location that is at volume production. So, perhaps the Chinese Giga-Factory and a future European factory will start at lower margins while volume ramps but expect margins in the U.S. (the bulk of revenue in 2019) to remain in the targeted range. Higher prices in Europe and China due to massive initial demand allows premium pricing which may keep margins close to 20%+ in each.
Facebook stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $131/share).
Facebook underperformed in 2018, closing the year down 28% despite revenue growth that should be 35% to 40% and EPS tracking to about 36% growth (despite a massive increase in SG&A to spur future results). The stock reacted to the plethora of criticism regarding privacy of user information coupled with the continuing charges of Russian use of Facebook to impact the election. Before the wave of negative publicity, Facebook reached a high of $218/share in July. Facebook is likely to continue to increase its spending to address privacy issues and to burnish its image. However, scaling revenue could mean it keeps operating margins at a comparable level to 2018 rather than increasing them. Rumors of Facebook’s demise seem highly exaggerated! According to a December 2018 JP Morgan survey of U.S. Internet users, the three most used social media products were Facebook (88% of participants), Facebook Messenger (61%) and Instagram (47%). Also, 82% of those surveyed picked a Facebook-owned platform as being the most important to them. Finally, the average Facebook user reported checking Facebook roughly 5 times per day with 56% of users spending 15 minutes to an hour or more on the platform on an average day. While Facebook has experienced a minor decrease in overall usage, Instagram usage has increased dramatically. Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp together give the company a growing and dominant position.
At the beginning of 2018 Facebook stock was trading at 34 times trailing EPS. By the end of the year the multiple of trailing EPS was below 18. If I assume EPS can grow 20%+ in 2019 (which is below my expectation but higher than the consensus forecast) than a multiple of 20 would put the stock at about $180/share by December 31. If it grew EPS, more in line with revenue and/or returned to a multiple closer to 34 it could reach well over 200.
Two key factors:
A 20% increase in revenue (I expect the increase to be about 30%) adds over $11 billion in revenue. A comparable 20% increase in SG&A would provide over $4 billion in additional money to spend, affording the company ample dollars to devote to incremental marketing without impacting operating margins.
Given the “low” stock price, Facebook increased its buyback program by $9 billion to $15 billion. Since it generates $6B – $7B in cash per quarter from operations (before capex) and has roughly $40 billion in cash and equivalents it could easily increase this further if the stock remains weak. The $15 billion could reduce the share count by as much as 3% in turn increasing EPS by a similar amount.
Amazon stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $1502/share).
While its stock dropped from its September high of $2050, Amazon remained one of the best market performers in 2018 closing the year at $1502/share. At its 2018 high of $2050, It may have gotten ahead of itself, but at year end it was up less than 2018 revenue growth. Leveraging increased scale meant net income grew faster than revenue and is likely to triple from 2017. Growth will be lower in Q4 then Q3 as Q4 2017 was the first quarter that included all revenue from Whole Foods. Still, I would not be surprised if Amazon beat expectations in Q4 since this is already factored into analyst forecasts. Amazon trades on revenue coupled with the prospect of increasingly mining the revenue into higher profits. But the company will always prioritize making long term investments over maximizing near term earnings. Growth in the core ecommerce business is likely to gradually slow, but Amazon has created numerous revenue streams like its cloud and echo/Alexa businesses that I expect to result in maintaining revenue growth in the 20% plus range in 2019. The prospect of competing with an efficient new brick and mortar offering (see prediction 6 in this post) could drive new excitement around the stock.
Profitability in 2019 could be reduced by: announced salary increases to low end workers; increasing the number of physical store locations; and greater marketing incentives for customers. Offsets to this include higher growth in stronger margin businesses like AWS and subscription services. The stock may gyrate a bit, but I expect it to continue to outperform.
Stitch Fix stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $17/share).
In my 2018 forecast I called this my riskiest pick and it was the most volatile which is saying a lot given the turbulence experience by Facebook, Tesla, and Amazon. I was feeling pretty smug when the stock reached a high of $52/share in September! I’m not sure how much of the subsequent drop was due to VCs and other early investors reducing their positions but this can have an impact on newly minted public companies. Whatever the case, the stock dropped from September’s high to a low point of $17.09 by year’s end. The drop was despite the company doing a good job balancing growth and profitability with October quarter revenue up 24% and earnings at $10.7 million up from $1.3 million in the prior year. Both beat analyst expectations. The stock was impacted because the number of users grew 22% (1-2% less than expected) despite revenue exceeding expectations at 24% growth. I’m not sure why this was an issue.
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. I believe the company can grow by roughly 20% or more in 2019. If it does and achieves anything close to the revenue multiple that it started with in 2018 (before the multiple doubled in mid-year), there would be a sizeable stock gain this year. But it is a thinly traded stock and likely to be quite volatile.
Docusign Stock will outpace the market in 2019 (it is currently at $43/share).
Docusign is a new recommendation. Like Stitch Fix, it is a recent IPO and could be volatile. Docusign is the runaway leader in e-signatures, facilitating multiple parties signing documents in a secure, reliable way on board resolutions, mortgages, investment documents, etc. Strong positives include:
A high value for a reasonable price – I am increasingly annoyed when I need to deal with manual signatures for documents.
As of October 31, 2018, Docusign had over 450,000 customers up from 350,000 customers one year earlier. Of which 50,000 are Enterprise/Commercial accounts;
There are hundreds of millions of users whose e-signatures are stored by the company making the network effect quite large;
Roughly 95% of revenue is from its SaaS product which has 80% gross margin with the rest from services where margins have improved and are now positive;
As a SaaS company with a stable revenue base growth is more predictable. The company exceeded revenue guidance each quarter with the October 31, 2018 quarter revenue up 37%;
Most customers pay annually in advance. This means cash flow from operations is positive despite the company recording an operating loss;
Customers expand their use resulting in retained customers growing revenue faster than decreases from churned customers making net revenue retention over 100%;
International expansion remains a large opportunity as international is only 18% of revenue.
Picks 6 – 10: Major Trends that will surface in 2019
I developed my primary method of stock picking at my first Wall Street firm, Stanford Bernstein. The head of research there, Chuck Cahn, emphasized that you could get small wins by correctly determining that a stock would trade up on certain news like a new product, a big customer win, and beating consensus forecasts. But larger and more predictable wins of 5X or more were possible if one identified a long-term winner riding a major trend and stuck with it for multiple years. All 5 of my stock picks fall into the latter category. I’ve been recommending Facebook, Tesla, and Amazon for 4 years or more. All 3 are now over 5X from when I first targeted them as I bought Tesla at $46 and Facebook at $24 in 2013 (before this blog) and they have been in my top 10 since. Amazon was first included in 2015 when it was at $288/share. Stitch Fix and DocuSign are riskier but if successful have substantial upside since both are early in their run of leveraging their key trends.
The next 4 picks are in early stages of trends that could lead to current and next generation companies experiencing benefits for many years. The first two go hand in hand as each describes transformation of physical retail/restaurants, namely, replacing staff with technology in a way that improves the customer experience. This is possible because we are getting closer to the tipping point where the front-end investment in technology can have a solid ROI from subsequent cost savings.
Replacing Cashiers with technology will be proven out in 2019
In October 2015 I predicted that Amazon (and others like Warby Parker) would move into physical retail between then and 2020. This has occurred with Amazon first opening bookstores and then buying Whole Foods, and Warby Parker expanding its number of physical locations to about 100 by the end of 2018. My reasoning then was simple: over 92% of purchases in the U.S. were made offline. Since Amazon had substantial share of e-commerce it would begin to have its growth limited if it didn’t create an off-line presence.
Now, for Amazon to maintain a 20% or greater revenue growth rate it’s even more important for it to increase its attack on offline commerce (now about 90% of U.S. retail) I’m not saying it won’t continue to try to increase its 50% share of online but at its current size offline offers a greater opportunity for growth.
A key to Amazon’s success has been its ability to attack new markets in ways that give it a competitive advantage. Examples of this are numerous but three of the most striking are Amazon Cloud Services (where it is the industry leader), the Kindle (allowing it to own 70% share of eBook sales) and Prime (converting millions of customers to a subscription which in turn incentivized buying more from Amazon due to free shipping).
Now the company is testing an effort to transform brick and mortar retail by replacing staff with technology and in doing so improving the buying experience. The format is called Go stores and there are currently 5 test locations. Downloading the Amazon Go App enables the user to use it to open the automated doors. The store is stocked (I think by actual people) with many of the same categories of products as a 7-Eleven, in a more modern way. Food items include La Boulangerie pastries, sushi, salads, an assortment of sandwiches and even meal kits. Like a 7-Eleven, it also has convenience items like cold medicine, aspirins, etc. The store uses cameras and sensors to track your movements, items you remove from the shelves and even whether you put an item back. When you leave, the app provides you with a digital receipt. Not only does the removal of cashiers save Amazon money but the system improves customer service by eliminating any need to wait in line. I expect Amazon to open thousands of these stores over the next 3-5 years as it perfects the concept. In the future I believe it will have locations that offer different types of inventory. While Amazon may be an early experimenter here, there is opportunity for others to offer similar locations relying on third party technology.
Replacing Cooks, Baristas and Waitstaff with robots will begin to be proven in 2019
The second step in reducing physical location staff will accelerate in 2019. There are already:
Robotic coffee bars: CafeX opened in San Francisco last year, and in them one orders drip coffee, cappuccino, latte, or hot chocolate using an app on your phone or an iPad available at a kiosk. The coffee is made and served by a robot “barista” with the charge automatically put on your credit card. Ordering, billing, and preparation are automatic, but there is still one staff member in the shop to make sure things go smoothly.
The first robotic burger restaurant: Creator opened in San Francisco last June. It was in beta mode through September before opening to the general public. While a “robot” makes the burgers, Creator is not as automated as CafeX as humans prepare the sauces and prep the items that go into the machine. Creator also hasn’t automated ordering/payment. Startup Momentum Machines expects to open a robotic burger restaurant and has gotten substantial backing from well-known VCs.
Robots replacing waitstaff: For example, at Robo Sushi in Toronto, a “Butlertron” escorts you to your table, you order via an iPad and a second robot delivers your meal. Unlike the robots in the coffee bar and burger restaurant these are made into cute characters rather than a machine. Several Japanese companies are investing in robotic machines that make several of the items offered at a sushi restaurant.
Robotic Pizza restaurants: The furthest along in automation is the Pizza industry. Zume Pizza, a startup that uses robots to make pizzas, has recently received a $375 million investment from Softbank. Zume currently uses a mix of humans and robots to create and deliver their pizzas and is operational in the Bay Area. Pizza Hut and Dominos are working on drones and/or self-driving vehicles to deliver pizzas. And Little Caesars was just issued a patent for a robotic arm and other automated mechanisms used to create a pizza.
At CES, a robot that makes breads was announced. What all these have in common is replacing low end high turnover employees with technology for repetitive tasks. The cost of labor continues to rise while the cost of technology shrinks a la Moore’s Law. It is just a matter of time before these early experiments turn into a flood of change. I expect many of these experiments will turn into “proof points” in 2019. Successful experiments will generate substantial adoption in subsequent years. Opportunities exist to invest in both suppliers and users of many robotic technologies.
“Influencers” will be increasingly utilized to directly drive Commerce
Companies have long employed Influencers as spokespersons for products and in some cases even as brands (a la Michael Jordon and Stephan Curry basketball shoes or George Forman Grills). They appear on TV ads for products and sometimes used their social reach to tout them. Blogger, a prior Azure investment, understood how to use popular bloggers in advertising campaigns. But Blogger ads, like most TV ads did not directly offer the products to potential customers. Now we are on the verge of two major changes: tech players creating structured ways to enable fans of major influencers (with millions of followers) to use one-click to directly buy products; and technology companies that can economically harness the cumulative power of hundreds of micro-influencers (tens of thousands of fans) to replicate the reach of a major influencer. I expect to see strong growth in this method of Social Commerce this year.
The Cannabis Sector should show substantial gains in 2019
In my last post I said about the Cannabis Sector: “The industry remains at a very early stage, but numerous companies are now public, and the recent market correction has the shares of most of these at more reasonable levels. While I urge great care in stock selection, it appears that the industry has emerged as one to consider investing in.” Earlier in this post, I mentioned that riding a multi-year wave with a winning company in that segment is a way to have strong returns. I’m not knowledgeable enough regarding public Cannabis companies, so I haven’t included any among my stock recommendations. However, I expect industry wide revenue to grow exponentially. The 12 largest public Cannabis companies by descending market cap are: Canopy Growth Corp (the largest at over $11B), Tilray, Aurora Cannabis, GW Pharmaceuticals, Curealeaf Holdings, Aphria, Green Thumb Industries, Cronos Group, Medmen Enterprises, Acreage Holdings, Charlotte’s Web Holdings and Trulieve Cannabis.
I believe one or more of these will deliver major returns over the next 5 years. Last year I felt we would see good fundamentals from the industry but that stocks were inflated. Given that the North American Cannabis Index opened this year at 208 well down from its 2018 high of 386 investing now seems timely. I’ll use this index as the measure of performance of this pick.
2019 will be the Year of the Unicorn IPO
Many Unicorns went public in 2018, but this year is poised to be considerably larger and could drive the largest IPO market fund raising in at least 5 years. Disbelievers will say: “the market is way down so companies should wait longer.” The reality is the Nasdaq is off from its all-time high in August by about 15% but is higher than its highest level at any time before 2018. Investment funds are looking for new high growth companies to invest in. It appears very likely that as many as 5 mega-players will go public this year if the market doesn’t trade off from here. Each of them is a huge brand that should have very strong individual support. Institutional investors may not be as optimistic if they are priced too high due to the prices private investors have previously paid. They are: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Slack. Each is one of the dominant participants in a major wave, foreshadowing substantial future revenue growth. Because information has been relatively private, I have less knowledge of their business models so can’t comment on whether I would be a buyer. Assuming several of these have successful IPOs many of the other 300 or so Unicorns may rush to follow.
Oh, what a difference a month or 3 makes! If only 2018 had ended earlier…
I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have liked 2018 results to have been as of November 30th (or even better, October 1st). My stock forecasts were looking a lot better on those dates (and if I were smarter, perhaps I would have taken some of the gains at that point). My average gain was over 34% on October 1st (versus the S&P being up 8.5%) and was still holding at +10% as of November 30th with the S&P ahead 2.4%. Unfortunately, the year includes a disastrous December and my 4 stock picks ended the year at a 6.6% average loss. Since stock picks are always relative to the market, I take some solace in minutely beating the performance of the S&P which was down 7.0% for the year, especially since I favor very high beta stocks.
Before reviewing each of my picks from last year, I would like to provide a longer term view of my performance as it has now been 5 years that I’ve published my blog’s stock picks. Even with a down year in 2018 my compound gain is 310% versus an S&P gain of 38% over the same period. This translates to an average annual gain of 25% per year which coincidently is the target I set in my book (published years ago and now out of print).
Table 1: Mike’s Annual Blog Stock Pick Performance (5 Years)
Unlike last year, I certainly cannot take a victory lap for my 10 forecasts as I missed on 3 of the 10 and barely beat the S&P for my average among my 4 stock picks (all of which will be included again in my 2019 top ten). I’ve listed in bold each of my 2018 stock picks and trend forecasts below and give a personal, and only modestly biased, evaluation of how I fared on each.
Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market (it opened the year at $312/share)
Tesla had an extraordinary Q3, 2018 as the model 3 launch showed how potent a player the company is becoming. In the quarter the Model 3 was the best selling car in the U.S. in terms of revenue and 5th highest by volume. This drove a greater than 100% revenue increase versus a year earlier and $1.75 in earnings per share versus a loss of $4.22 in the prior quarter. Given that the starting price for a model 3 was at $49,000, it is rather amazing that it could generate that volume of sales. Since the backlog for the Model 3 appears to remain at well over 300,000 cars and Tesla is closing in on a launch in Europe, Tesla seems assured of continued strong revenue through 2019 and likely beyond. However, much of the backlog is awaiting the lower priced (sub $40,000) version of the car which I believe will be available in Q2, 2019. As I had predicted, the Model 3 ramp up in production volume led to improved gross margins which exceeded 20% in the quarter. Despite the down market, Tesla stock was up about 7% in 2018. While we will continue recommending the stock, the phaseout of tax credits for buying an electric car has already begun. In its Q3 update Tesla stated that “better than expected Model 3 cost reductions is allowing us to bring more affordable options to the market sooner.” Yet, despite this forecast, the recently announced price decreases drove the stock down.
Facebook stock appreciation will continue to outpace the market (it opened the year at $182/share).
Facebook stock did not perform well in 2018, closing the year down 28%, making this pick a losing proposition last year. This comes despite revenue growth that should be between 35% and 40%, and net income that is tracking towards about 35% growth (despite a massive increase in SG&A to spur future results). What impacted the stock heavily was the plethora of criticism regarding privacy of user information coupled with the continuing charges of Russian usage to impact the election. Before the wave after wave of negative publicity the stock had reached a new high of $218/share in July. Because of the need to improve its reputation, Facebook is likely to continue to increase its spending to address privacy issues and to burnish its image. In summary, the fundamentals of the company remained quite sound in 2018 but the barrage of issues torpedoed the stock.
Amazon stock appreciation will outpace the market (it opened the year at $1188/share).
While its stock dropped considerably from its September high of $2050, Amazon remained one of the best market performers in 2018 closing the year at over $1500/share. The company continued to execute well, growing every part of its business. It also began to leverage its scale as net income grew considerably faster than revenue and is likely to be well over triple that of 2017. Growth should be lower in Q4 2018 than earlier in the year as Q4 2017 was the first quarter that included all revenue from the acquisition of Whole Foods. Since the analyst consensus forecast already reflects Whole Foods revenue being in Q4 last year, as well as concerns over Amazon maintaining strong performance in Q4, I would not be surprised if Amazon was able to beat expectations in Q4.
Stitch Fix stock appreciation will outpace the market (it opened the year at $25/share).
In my forecast I stated that this was my riskiest pick and it certainly proved the most volatile (which is saying a lot given the turbulence experience by Facebook, Tesla, and Amazon). I was feeling pretty smug when the stock reached a high of $52/share in September with a little over 3 months left in the year! Obviously, I was less sanguine as it dropped precipitously from September’s high to a low point of $17.09 by year’s end. I’m hoping that those of you who followed my advice trimmed back when the stock soared (I confess that I didn’t). The company continued to balance growth and profitability throughout the calendar year with October quarter revenue (up 24%) and earnings ($10.7 million up from $1.3 million in the prior year) both beating analyst expectations. Yet, concerns over user growth severely impacted the stock. I’m somewhat surprised by this as the users grew 22% and revenue 24% – since revenue beat expectations this means that analysts did not forecast an increase in average revenue per user. But the bottom line is, despite solid fundamentals the stock did not perform well.
The stock market will rise in 2018 (the S&P opened the year at 2,696 on January 2).
When I made this forecast, I pointed out that I’m not particularly good at forecasting the overall market. My belief was based on the fact that the tax cut for corporations would mean a rise in earnings that exceeded the norm. I felt stronger earnings growth would be enough to offset the risk of the longest bull market in history turning negative. I sited the likelihood of higher interest rates being an additional risk. The market almost made it through the year as it was still up heading into December, but the combination of 4 interest rate hikes in the year coupled with considerable criticism of President Trumps behavior was just too much for the market by December. I view this as a partial victory as I had all the fundamentals right and came within less than a month of being right for the year when many felt the bears would gain control in early 2018.
Battles between the federal government and states will continue over marijuana use but the cannabis industry will emerge as one to invest in.
During the year the legalization of marijuana for recreational use continued to increase on a state by state basis with the number increasing from 6 at the start of the year to 10 by years end. Use of medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states. Several other states, while not formally legalizing it have lowered restrictions on individual use. The industry remains at a very early stage, but numerous companies are now public, and the recent market correction has the shares of most of these at more reasonable levels. While I would urge great care in stock selection, it appears that the industry has emerged as one to consider investing in.
At least one city will announce a new approach to urban transport.
In this prediction I cited the likelihood that at least one city would commit to testing a system of small footprint automated cars on a dedicated route (as discussed in our post on December 14, 2017) as this appears to be a more cost effective solution than rail, bus, Uber, etc. Kyoto has now announced that it signed an agreement to test the system offered by Wayfarer and the company is now out of stealth mode. Wayfarer expects to provide substantial capacity at a fraction of the cost of other alternatives: both in the initial cost of the infrastructure/equipment and the annual cost of running the system. Of course, once there is a live installation in Kyoto or one of their other prospective customers, the validity of this system will be authenticated (or not).
Offline retailers will increase the velocity of moving towards omnichannel.
This forecast discussed both acquisitions of e-commerce companies by offline retailers (with Walmart leading the way) and introducing more online technology in physical stores. Walmart did continue its online buying spree in 2018 with major acquisitions of Art.com, Bare Necessities, Eloquii, Cornershop and Flipkart (the largest at $16 billion). In the case of the acquisitions that are online brands, Walmart intends to introduce these into their physical stores and continue to sell them online. Nordstrom has also moved further to integrate its online and offline business by taking valuable floor space in stores and repurposing it for online buyers to pick up and try on clothes they have purchased online. By placing the location in a very prominent spot, I’m sure Nordstrom is thinking it will help spur more customers to buy online. By having in store locations for picking up and trying on, Nordstrom should reduce returns, lower the cost of shipping, and bring additional customers into their stores (who otherwise might not visit them).
Social Commerce will begin to emerge as a new category
Recall that social commerce involves the integration of social media with commerce through tactics like:
A feed-based user experience
Having friends’ actions impact one’s feed
Following trend setters to see what they are buying, wearing, and/or favoring
One click to buy
Now, about 25% – 30% of shoppers say that social platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have influence over their purchases. On June 28, 2018 Snapchat began a program for its influencers to use Social Commerce through a tool that allows users to view a video from the influencer and then to swipe up on a product shown in the video to buy it. In September, The Verge reported that Instagram is developing a new app for social commerce. Pinterest and Facebook have been in the social commerce fray longer and have increasing success. It appears that 2018 was the year the social commerce wars accelerated.
“The Empire Strikes Back”: automobile manufacturers will begin to take steps to reclaim use of its GPS.
Carmakers face a serious problem regarding their built-in navigation systems. Consumers are forced to pay hundreds of dollars for them and then use free apps on their phones like Waze or Google maps instead. This does not endear them to consumers. The problem is that carmakers are not great at software design but have been reluctant to use third party providers for their GPS and entertainment. Now, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance has agreed to design Google’s Android OS, including Google navigation, into their next generation cars expected starting in 2021. This is a win for users as that will provide a competent GPS that utilizes the existing screen in cars as opposed to having to rely on your phone app for navigation.
In another win for consumers, Amazon and Telenav (a connected car and location based services provider) announced a significant partnership today, January 7, 2019. As part of it, Amazon’s voice assistant will now be part of Telenavs in-car navigation systems. With this included, Telenav’s next generation system will enable its customers, like General Motors, to provide a “smart assistant” thereby making the system included with cars the one to use rather than one’s phone apps.
Stay tuned for my top ten predictions for 2019…but remember that I have already said the 4 stocks recommended for 2018 will remain on the list.
In working with early stage businesses, I often get the question as to what metrics should management and the board use to help understand a company’s progress. It is important for every company to establish a set of consistent KPIs that are used to objectively track progress. While these need to be a part of each board package, it is even more important for the executive team to utilize this for managing their company. While this post focuses on SaaS/Subscription companies, the majority of it applies to most other types of businesses.
Areas KPIs Should Cover
MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) and LTR (Lifetime Revenue)
CAC (Cost of Customer Acquisition)
Marketing to create leads
Customers acquired electronically
Customers acquired using sales professionals
Gross Margin and LTV (Life Time Value of a customer)
Many companies will also need KPIs regarding inventory in addition to the ones above.
While there may be very complex analysis behind some of these numbers, it’s important to try to keep KPIs to 2-5 pages of a board package. Use of the right KPIs will give a solid, objective, consistent top-down view of the company’s progress. The P&L portion of the package is obviously critical, but I have a possibly unique view on how this should be included in the body of a board package.
P&L Trends: Less is More
One mistake many companies make is confusing detail with better analysis. I often see models that have 50-100 line items for expenses and show this by month for 3 or more years out… but show one or no years of history. What this does is waste a great deal of time on predicting things that are inconsequential and controllable (by month), while eliminating all perspective. Things like seasonality are lost if one is unable to view 3 years of revenue at a time without scrolling from page to page. Of course, for the current year’s budget it is appropriate for management to establish monthly expectations in detail, but for any long-term planning, success revolves around revenue, gross margins, marketing/sales spend and the number of employees. For some companies that are deep technology players there may be significant costs in R&D other than payroll, but this is the exception. By using a simple formula for G&A based on the number of employees, the board can apply a sanity check on whether cost estimates in the long-term model will be on target assuming revenue is on target. So why spend excessive time on nits? Aggregating cost frees up time for better understanding how and why revenue will ramp, the relationship between revenue types and gross margin, the cost of acquiring a customer, the lifetime value of a customer and the average spend per employee.
In a similar way, the board is well served by viewing a simple P&L by quarter for 2 prior years plus the current one (with a forecast of remaining quarters). The lines could be:
Table1: P&L by Quarter
A second version of the P&L should be produced for budget comparison purposes. It should have the same rows but have the columns be current period actual, current period budget, year to date (YTD) actual, year to date budget, current full year forecast, budget for the full year.
Table 2: P&L Actual / Budget Comparison
Tracking MRR and LTR
For any SaaS/Subscription company (I’ll simply refer to this as SaaS going forward) MRR growth is the lifeblood of the company with two caveats: excessive churn makes MRR less valuable and excessive cost in growing MRR also leads to deceptive prosperity. More about that further on. MRR should be viewed on a rolling basis. It can be done by quarter for the board but by month for the management team. Doing it by quarter for the board enables seeing a 3-year trend on one page and gives the board sufficient perspective for oversight. Management needs to track this monthly to better manage the business. A relatively simple set of KPIs for each of 12 quarterly periods would be:
Table 3: MRR and Retention
Calculating Life Time Revenue through Cohort Analysis
The detailed method of calculating LTR does not need to be shown in every board package but should be included at least once per year, but calculated monthly for management.
The LTR calculation uses a grid where the columns would be the various Quarterly cohorts, that is all customers that first purchased that quarter (management might also do this using monthly instead of quarterly). This analysis can be applied to non-SaaS companies as well as SaaS entities. The first row would be the number of customers in the cohort. The next row would be the first month’s revenue for the cohort, the next the second months revenue, and so on until reaching 36 months (or whatever number the board prefers for B2B…I prefer 60 months). The next row would be the total for the full period and the final row would be the average Lifetime Revenue, LTR, per member of the cohort.
Table 4: Customer Lifetime Revenue
A second table would replicate the grid but show average per member of the cohort for each month (row). That table allows comparisons of cohorts to see if the average revenue of a newer cohort is getting better or worse than older ones for month 2 or month 6 or month 36, etc.
Table 5: Average Revenue per Cohort
Cohorts that have a full 36 months of data need to be at least 36 months old. What this means is that more recent cohorts will not have a full set of information but still can be used to see what trends have occurred. For example, is the second months average revenue for a current cohort much less than it was for a cohort one year ago? While newer cohorts do not have full sets of monthly revenue data, they still are very relevant in calculating more recent LTR. This can be done by using average monthly declines in sequential months and applying them to cohorts with fewer months of data.
Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)
Calculating CAC is done in a variety of ways and is quite different for customers acquired electronically versus those obtained by a sales force. Many companies I’ve seen have a combination of the two.
Marketing used to generate leads should always be considered part of CAC. The marketing cost in a month first is divided by the number of leads to generate a cost/lead. The next step is to estimate the conversion rate of leads to customers. A simple table would be as follows:
Table 6: Customer Acquisition Costs
For an eCommerce company, the additional cost to convert might be one free month of product or a heavily subsidized price for the first month. If the customer is getting the item before becoming a regular paying customer than the CAC would be:
CAC = MCTC / the percent that converts from the promotional trial to a paying customer.
CAC when a Sales Force is Involved
For many eCommerce companies and B2B companies that sell electronically, marketing is the primary cost involved in acquiring a paying customer. For those utilizing a sales force, the marketing expense plus the sales expense must be accumulated to determine CAC.
Typically, what this means is steps 1 through 3 above would still be used to determine CPL, but step 1 above might include marketing personnel used to generate leads plus external marketing spend:
CPL (cost per lead) as above
Sales Cost = current month’s cost of the sales force including T&E
New Customers in the month = NC
Conversion Rate to Customer = NC/number of leads= Y%
CAC = CPL/Y% + (Sales Cost)/NC
There are many nuances ignored in the simple method shown. For example, some leads may take many months to close. Some may go through a pilot before closing. Therefore, there are more sophisticated methods of calculating CAC but using this method would begin the process of understanding an important indicator of efficiency of customer acquisition.
Gross Margin (GM) is a Critical Part of the Equation
While revenue is obviously an important measure of success, not all revenue is the same. Revenue that generates 90% gross margin is a lot more valuable per dollar than revenue that generates 15% gross margin. When measuring a company’s potential for future success it’s important to understand what level of revenue is required to reach profitability. A first step is understanding how gross margin may evolve. When a business scales there are many opportunities to improve margins:
Larger volumes may lead to larger discounts from suppliers
Larger volumes for products that are software/content may lower the hosting cost as a percent of revenue
Shipping to a larger number of customers may allow opening additional distribution centers (DCs) to facilitate serving customers from a DC closer to their location lowering shipping cost
Larger volumes may mean improved efficiency in the warehouse. For example, it may make more automation cost effective
When forecasting gross margin, it is important to be cautious in predicting some of these savings. The board should question radical changes in GM in the forecast. Certain efficiencies should be seen in a quarterly trend, and a marked improvement from the trend needs to be justified. The more significant jump in GM from a second DC can be calculated by looking at the change in shipping rates for customers that will be serviced from the new DC vs what rates are for these customers from the existing one.
Calculating LTV (Lifetime Value)
Gross Margin, by itself may be off as a measure of variable profits of a customer. If payment is by credit card, then the credit card cost per customer is part of variable costs. Some companies do not include shipping charges as part of cost of goods, but they should always be part of variable cost. Customer service cost is typically another cost that rises in proportion to the number of customers. So:
Variable cost = Cost of Goods sold plus any cost that varies directly with sales
The calculation of VP% should be based on current numbers as they will apply going forward. Determining a company’s marketing efficiency requires comparing LTV to the cost of customer acquisition. As mentioned earlier in the post, if the CAC is too large a proportion of LTV, a company may be showing deceptive (profitless) growth. So, the next set of KPIs address marketing efficiency.
It does not make sense to invest in an inefficient company as they will burn through capital at a rapid rate and will find it difficult to become profitable. A key measure of efficiency is the relationship between LTV and CAC or LTV/CAC. Essentially this is how many dollars of variable profit the company will make for every dollar it spends on marketing and sales. A ratio of 5 or more usually means the company is efficient. The period used for calculating LTR will influence this number. Since churn tends to be much lower for B2B companies, 5 years is often used to calculate LTR and LTV. But, using 5 years means waiting longer to receive resulting profits and can obscure cash flow implications of slower recovery of CAC. So, a second metric important to understand burn is how long it takes to recover CAC:
CAC Recovery Time = number of months until variable profit equals the CAC
The longer the CAC recovery time, the more capital required to finance growth. Of course, existing customers are also contributing to the month’s revenue alongside new customers. So, another interesting KPI is contribution margin which measures the current state of balance between marketing/sales and Variable Profits:
Contribution Margin = Variable Profits – Sales and Marketing Cost
Early on this number will be negative as there aren’t enough older customers to cover the investment in new ones. But eventually the contribution margin in a month needs to turn positive. To reach profitability it needs to exceed all other costs of the business (G&A, R&D, etc.). By reducing a month’s marketing cost, a company can improve contribution margin that month at the expense of sequential growth… which is why this is a balancing act.
I realize this post is long but wanted to include a substantial portion of KPIs in one post. However, I’ll leave more detailed measurement of sales force productivity and deeper analysis of several of the KPIs discussed here for one or more future posts.
I’ll begin by apologizing for a midyear brag, but I always tell others to enjoy success and therefore am about to do that myself. In my top ten predictions for 2018 I included a market prediction and 4 stock predictions. I was feeling pretty good that they were all working well when I started to create this post. However, the stock prices for high growth stocks can experience serious shifts in very short periods. Facebook and Tesla both had (what I consider) minor shortfalls against expectations in the 10 days since and have subsequently declined quite a bit in that period. But given the strength of my other two recommendations, Amazon and Stitchfix, the four still have an average gain of 15% as of July 27. Since I’ve only felt comfortable predicting the market when it was easy (after 9/11 and after the 2008 mortgage blowup), I was nervous about predicting the S&P would be up this year as it was a closer call and was somewhat controversial given the length of the bull market prior to this year. But it seemed obvious that the new tax law would be very positive for corporate earnings. So, I thought the S&P would be up despite the likelihood of rising interest rates. So far, it is ahead 4.4% year to date driven by stronger earnings. Since I always fear that my record of annual wins can’t continue I wanted to take a midyear victory lap just in case everything collapses in the second half of the year (which I don’t expect but always fear). So I continue to hold all 4 stocks and in fact bought a bit more Facebook today.
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.