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.
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!
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.
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.
On June 13th, 2018, Azure held our 12th Annual CEO Summit, hosted at the Citrix Templeton Conference Center. Success for our companies is typically predicated on the breadth and depth of their networks in Silicon Valley and beyond. This event is a cornerstone of how we support this, providing a highly curated, facilitated opportunity to expand connections for business development, fund-raising, and strategic partner dialogue. It is also an opportunity for our portfolio companies to develop strong relationships with our investors, networks, and among each other, which provides business partnership opportunities, potential future investors and is a first step towards engaging with future acquirers. An incidental benefit to Azure is that the appeal of the event also leads to expansion of our own network.
Throughout the day, we had participation of nearly 70 corporate entities, venture funds and financial institutions, including Amazon, Google, Apple, P&G, Citrix, Ericsson, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Trinet, Arcserv, Citibank, SVB, and UBS, in addition to 28 of Azure’s portfolio companies, and six Canadian startups which were invited as part of Azure’s Canada-Bridge initiative. The Canadian companies were selected from a group of about 100 nominated by Canadian VCs. At the event, the six winners gained access to Azure’s Silicon Valley network not only through participation along with our portfolio CEOs in the approximately 370 one-on-one meetings we arranged but also through networking opportunities throughout the rest of the day and into the evening.
Nearly all the Azure portfolio companies participating gave demo-day style presentations to the full audience, which expanded the reach of their message beyond the more intimate one-on-one meetings.
Visionary Keynote Speakers
Azure was quite fortunate in once again having several visionary keynote speakers who provided inspiration and thought-provoking inputs from their experiences as highly successful entrepreneurs and investors.
The first was David Ko, currently President and COO, Rally Health, and formerly SVP, Yahoo and COO, Zynga (famous for Farmville which peaked at 34.5 million daily active users). David provided his vision for the consumer-focused future for managing health and shared lessons learned from his journeys both in taking Zynga public and in leading Rally Health as it has grown in eight years from a company with low single-digit millions in revenue to more than a billion in revenue. Rally works with more than 200,000 employers to help drive employee engagement in their health. Accessible to more than 35 million people, Rally’s digital platform and solutions help people adopt healthier lifestyles, select health benefits, and choose the best doctor at the right price for their needs. The company’s wellness solution focuses on four key areas to improve health: nutrition, exercise, stress reduction and preventive health. Given the astronomical increase in the portion of U.S. GDP spent on healthcare, David pointed out how critical it is to help individuals improve their “wellness” tactics. He believes this is one of the waves of the future to curb further acceleration of healthcare cost.
Shai Agassi, Former President, Product and Technology Group, SAP, and former CEO, Better Place responded to questions posed by me and the audience during a fireside chat. Shai first shared his experience of building a business that successfully became integrated into SAP, but the heart of his session revolved around his perspectives on the evolution of the electric car and the future emergence of (safe) automated vehicles. He painted a vivid picture of what the oncoming transition to a new generation of vehicles means for the future, where automated, electric cars will become the norm (in 5-10 years). As a result, he believes people will reduce their use of their own cars and instead, use an “automated Uber-like service” for much of their transportation. In such a world, many people won’t own a car and for those that do, their autos will have much longer useful lives thereby reducing the need to replace cars with the same frequency. If he proves correct, this would clearly have major ramifications for auto manufacturers and the oil industry.
Our final keynote speaker was Ron Suber, President Emeritus, Prosper Marketplace, who is referred to as “The Godfather of Fintech”. Ron shared with us his perspective that we’re at the beginning stages of the ‘Golden Age of Fintech’ which he believes will be a 20-year cycle. He expects to continue to see a migration to digital, accessible platforms driven by innovation by existing players and new entrants to the market that will disrupt the incumbents. What must be scary to incumbents is that the new entrants in fintech include tech behemoths like Paypal, Google, Amazon, Tencent (owner of WeChat), Facebook and Apple. While traditional banks may have access to several hundred million customers, these players can leverage their existing reach into relationships with billions of potential customers. For example, WeChat and Instagram have both recently surpassed one billion users. With digital/mobile purchasing continuing to gain market share, a player like Apple can nearly force its users to include Apple Pay as one of their apps giving Apple some unique competitive advantages. Amazon and WeChat (in China) are in a strong position to leverage their user bases.
All That Plus a Great Dinner
After an action packed daytime agenda, the Summit concluded with a casual cocktail hour and outdoor dinner in Atherton. Most attendees joined, and additional members of the Azure network were invited as well. The dinner enabled significant networking to continue and provided an additional forum for some who were not able to be at the daytime event to meet some of our portfolio executives.
The Bottom Line – It’s About Results
How do we measure the success of the Summit? We consider it successful if several of our companies garner potential investors, strike business development deals, etc. As I write this, only nine days after the event, we already know of a number of investment follow-ups, more than ten business-development deals being discussed, and multiple debt financing conversations. Investment banks and corporate players have increased awareness of the quality of numerous companies who presented. Needless to say, Azure is pleased with the bottom line.
This post is part 2 of our valuation discussion (see this post for part 1). As I write this post Tesla’s market cap is about $56 billion. I thought it would be interesting to show how the rules discussed in the first post apply to Tesla, and then to take it a step further for startups.
Revenue and Revenue Growth
Revenue for Tesla in 2017 was $11.8 billion, about 68% higher than 2016, and it is likely to grow faster this year given the over $20 billion in pre-orders (and growing) for the model 3 coupled with continued strong demand for the model S and model X. Since it is unclear when the new sports car or truck will ship, I assume no revenue in those categories. As long as Tesla can increase production at the pace they expect, I estimate 2018 revenue will be up 80% – 120% over 2017, with Q4 year over year growth at or above 120%.
If I’m correct on Tesla revenue growth, its 2018 revenue will exceed $20 billion. So, Rule Number 1 from the prior post indicates that Tesla’s high growth rates should merit a higher “theoretical PE” than the S&P (by at least 4X if one believes that growth will continue at elevated rates).
Tesla gross margins have varied a bit while ramping production for each new model, but in the 16 quarters from Q1, 2014 to Q4, 2017 gross margin averaged 23% and was above 25%, 6 of the 16 quarters. Given that Tesla is still a relatively young company it appears likely margins will increase with scale, leading me to believe that long term gross margins are very likely to be above 25%. While it will dip during the early production ramp of the model 3, 25% seems like the lowest percent to use for long term modeling and I expect it to rise to between 27% and 30% with higher production volumes and newer factory technology.
Tesla recognizes substantial cost based on stock-based compensation (which partly occurs due to the steep rise in the stock). Most professional investors ignore artificial expenses like stock-based compensation, as I will for modeling purposes, and refer to the actual cost as net SG&A and net R&D. Given that Tesla does not pay commissions and has increased its sales footprint substantially in advance of the roll-out of the model 3, I believe Net SG&A and Net R&D will each increase at a much slower pace than revenue. If they each rise 20% by Q4 of this year and revenue is at or exceeds $20 billion, this would put their total at below 20% of revenue by Q4. Since they should decline further as a percent of revenue as the company matures, I am assuming 27% gross margin and 18% operating cost as the base case for long term operating profit. While this gross margin level is well above traditional auto manufacturers, it seems in line as Tesla does not have independent dealerships (who buy vehicles at a discount) and does not discount its cars at the end of each model year.
Table 1 provides the above as the base case for long term operating profit. To provide perspective on the Tesla opportunity, Table 1 also shows a low-end case (25% GM and 20% operating cost) and a high-end profit case (30% GM and 16% operating cost). Recall, theoretic earnings are derived from applying the mature operating profit level to trailing and to forward revenue. For calculating theoretic earnings, I will ignore interest payments and net tax loss carry forwards as they appear to be a wash over the next 5 years. Finally, to derive the Theoretic Net Earnings Percent a potential mature tax rate needs to be applied. I am using 20% for each model case which gives little credit for tax optimization techniques that could be deployed. That would make theoretic earnings for 2017 and 2018 $0.85 billion and $1.51 billion, respectively and leads to:
2017 TPE=$ 56.1 billion/$0.85 = 66.0
2018 TPE= $ 56.1 billion/1.51 = 37.1
The S&P trailing P/E is 25.5 and forward P/E is about 19X. Based on our analysis of the correlation between growth and P/E provided in the prior post, Tesla should be trading at a minimum of 4X the trailing S&P ratio (or 102 TP/E) and at least 3.5X S&P forward P/E (or 66.5 TP/E). To me that shows that the current valuation of Tesla does not appear out of market. If the market stays at current P/E levels and Tesla reaches $21B in revenue in 2018 this indicates that there is strong upside for the stock.
Table 1: Tesla TPE 2017 & 2018
The question is whether Tesla can continue to grow revenue at high rates for several years. Currently Tesla has about 2.4% share of the luxury car market giving it ample room to grow that share. At the same time, it is entering the much larger medium-priced market with the launch of the Model 3 and expects to produce vehicles in other categories over the next few years. Worldwide sales of new cars for the auto market is about 90 million in 2017 and growing about 5% a year. Tesla is the leader in several forward trends: electric vehicles, automated vehicles and technology within a car. Plus, it has a superior business model as well. If it reaches $21 billion in revenue in 2018, its share of the worldwide market would be about 0.3%. It appears poised to continue to gain share over the next 3-5 years, especially as it fills out its line of product. Given that it has achieved a 2.4% share of the market it currently plays in, one could speculate that it could get to a similar share in other categories. Even achieving a 1% share of the worldwide market in 5 years would mean about 40% compound growth between 2018 and 2022 and imply a 75X-90X TP/E at the end of this year.
The Bear Case
I would be remiss if I omitted the risks that those negative on the stock point out. Tesla is a very controversial stock for a variety of reasons:
Gross Margin has been volatile as it adds new production facilities so ‘Bears’ argue that even my 25% low case is optimistic, especially as tax rebate subsidies go away
It has consistently lost money so some say it will never reach the mature case I have outlined
As others produce better electric cars Tesla’s market share of electric vehicles will decline so high revenue growth is not sustainable
Companies like Google have better automated technology that they will license to other manufacturers leading to a leap frog of Tesla
As they say, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” and I believe my base case is realistic…but not without risk. In response to the bear case that Tesla revenue growth can’t continue, it is important to recognize that Tesla already has the backlog and order momentum to drive very high growth for the next two years. Past that, growing market share over the 4 subsequent years to 1% (a fraction of their current share of the luxury market) would generate compound annual growth of 40% for that 4-year period. In my opinion, the biggest risk is Tesla’s own execution in ramping production. Bears will also argue that Tesla will never reach the operating margins of my base case for a variety of reasons. This is the weakness of the TPE approach: it depends on assumptions that have yet to be proven. I’m comfortable when my assumptions depend on momentum that is already there, gross margin proof points and likelihood that scale will drive operating margin improvements without any radical change to the business model.
Applying the rules to Startups
As a VC I am often in the position of helping advise companies regarding valuation. This occurs when they are negotiating a round of financing or in an M&A situation. Because the companies are even earlier than Tesla, theoretic earnings are a bit more difficult to establish. Some investors ignore the growth rates of companies and look for comps in the same business. The problem with the comparable approach is that by selecting companies in the same business, the comps are often very slow growth companies that do not merit a high multiple. For example, comparing Tesla to GM or Ford to me seems a bit ludicrous when Tesla’s revenue grew 68% last year and is expected to grow even faster this year while Ford and GM are growing their revenue at rates below 5%. It would be similar if investors compared Apple (in the early days of the iPhone) to Nokia, a company it was obsoleting.
Investors look for proxies to use that best correlate to what future earnings will be and often settle on a multiple of revenue. As Table 2 shows, there is a correlation between valuation as a multiple of revenue and revenue growth regardless of what industry the companies are in. This correlation is closer than one would find by comparing high growth companies to their older industry peers.
Table 2: Multiple of Revenue and Revenue Growth
However, using revenue as the proxy for future earnings suffers from a wide variety of issues. Some companies have 90% or greater gross margins like our portfolio company Education.com, while others have very low gross margins of 10% – 20%, like Spotify. It is very likely that the former will generate much higher earnings as a percent of revenue than the latter. In fact, Education.com is already cash flow positive at a relatively modest revenue level (in the low double-digit millions) while Spotify continues to lose a considerable amount of money at billions of dollars in revenue. Notice, this method also implies that Tesla should be valued about 60% higher than its current market price.
This leads me to believe a better proxy for earnings is gross margin as it is more closely correlated with earnings levels. It also removes the issue of how revenue is recognized and is much easier to analyze than TPE. For example, Uber recognizing gross revenue or net revenue has no impact on gross margin dollars but would radically change its price to revenue. Table 3 uses the same companies as Table 2 but shows their multiple of gross margin dollars relative to revenue growth. Looking at the two graphs, one can see how much more closely this correlates to the valuation of public companies. The correlation coefficient improves from 0.36 for the revenue multiple to 0.62 for the gross margin multiple.
Table 3: Multiple of Gross Margin vs. Revenue Growth
So, when evaluating a round of financing for a pre-profit company the gross margin multiple as it relates to growth should be considered. For example, while there are many other factors to consider, the formula implies that a 40% revenue growth company should have a valuation of about 14X trailing gross margin dollars. Typically, I would expect that an earlier stage company’s mature gross margin percent would likely increase. But they also should receive some discount from this analysis as its risk profile is higher than the public companies shown here.
Notice that the price to sales graph indicates Tesla should be selling at 60% more than its multiple of 5X revenue. On the other hand, our low-end case for Tesla Gross Margin, 25%, puts Tesla at 20X Gross Margin dollars, just slightly undervalued based on where the least square line in Table 3 indicates it should be valued.
Search Engine Optimization: A step by step process recommended by experts
Azure just completed its annual ecommerce marketing day. It was attended by 15 of our portfolio companies, two high level executives at major corporations, a very strong SEO consultant and the Azure team. The purpose of the day is to help the CMOs in the Azure portfolio gain a broader perspective on hot marketing topics and share ideas and best practices. This year’s agenda included the following sessions:
Working with QVC/HSN
Using TV, radio and/or podcasts for marketing
Techniques to improve email marketing
Measuring and improving email marketing effectiveness
Storytelling to build your brand and drive marketing success
Working with celebrities, brands, popular YouTube personalities, etc.
Product Listing Ads (PLAs) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
One pleasant aspect of the day is that it generated quite a few interesting ideas for blog posts! In other words, I learned a lot regarding the topics covered. This post is on an area many of you may believe you know well, Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I thought I knew it well too… before being exposed to a superstar consultant, Allison Lantz, who provided a cutting-edge presentation on the topic. With her permission, this post borrows freely from her content. Of course, I’ve added my own ideas in places and may have introduced some errors in thinking, and a short post can only touch on a few areas and is not a substitute for true expertise.
SEO is Not Free if You Want to Optimize
I have sometimes labeled SEO as a free source of visitors to a site, but Allison correctly points out that if you want to focus on Optimization (the O in SEO) with the search engines, then it isn’t free, but rather an ongoing process (and investment) that should be part of company culture. The good news is that SEO likely will generate high quality traffic that lasts for years and leads to a high ROI against the cost of striving to optimize. All content creators should be trained to write in a manner that optimizes generating traffic by using targeted key words in their content and ensuring these words appear in the places that are optimal for search. To be clear, it’s also best if the content is relevant, well written and user-friendly. If you were planning to create the content anyway, then the cost of doing this is relatively minor. However, if the content is incremental to achieve higher SEO rankings, then the cost will be greater. But I’m getting ahead of myself and need to review the step by step process Allison recommends to move towards optimization.
The first thing to know when developing an SEO Strategy is what you are targeting to optimize. Anyone doing a search enters a word or phrase they are searching for. Each such word or phrase is called a ‘keyword’. If you want to gain more users through SEO, it’s critical to identify thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of keywords that are relevant to your site. For a fashion site, these could be brands, styles, and designers. For an educational site like Education.com (an Azure portfolio company that is quite strong in SEO and ranks on over 600,000 keywords) keywords might be math, english, multiplication, etc. The broader the keywords, the greater the likelihood of higher volume. But along with that comes more competition for search rankings and a higher cost per keyword. The first step in the process is spending time brainstorming what combinations of words are relevant to your site – in other words if someone searched for that specific combination would your site be very relevant to them? To give you an idea of why the number gets very high, consider again Education.com. Going beyond searching on “math”, one can divide math into arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, etc. Each of these can then be divided further. For example, arithmetic can include multiplication, addition, division, subtraction, exponentiation, fractions and more. Each of these can be subdivided further with multiplication covering multiplication games, multiplication lesson plans, multiplication worksheets, multiplication quizzes and more.
Once keywords are identified the next step is deciding which ones to focus on. The concept leads to ranking keywords based upon the likely number of clicks to your site that could be generated from each one and the expected value of potential users obtained through these clicks. Doing this requires determining for each keyword:
Competition for the keyword
Effort (and possible cost) required to achieve a certain ranking
Existing tools report the monthly volume of searches for each keyword (remember to add searches on Bing to those on Google). Estimating the strength of competition requires doing a search using the keyword and learning who the top-ranking sites are currently (given the volume of keywords to analyze, this is very labor intensive). If Amazon is a top site they may be difficult to surpass but if the competition includes relatively minor players, they would be easier to outrank.
The next question to answer for each keyword is: “What is the likelihood of converting someone who is searching on the keyword if they do come to my site”. For example, for Education.com, someone searching on ‘sesame street math games’ might not convert well since they don’t have the license to use Sesame Street characters in their math games. But someone searching on ‘1st grade multiplication worksheets’ would have a high probability of converting since the company is world-class in that area. The other consideration mentioned above is the effort required to achieve a degree of success. If you already have a lot of content relevant to a keyword, then search optimizing that content for the keyword might not be very costly. But, if you currently don’t have any content that is relevant or the keyword is very broad, then a great deal more work might be required.
Example of Keyword Ranking Analysis
Comparing Effort Required to Estimated Value of Keywords
Once you have produced the first table, you can make a very educated guess on your possible ranking after about 12 months (the time it may take Google/Bing to recognize your new status for that keyword).
There are known statistics on what the likely click-through rates (share of searches against the keyword) will be if you rank 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. Multiplying that by the average search volume for that keyword gives a reasonable estimate of the monthly traffic that this would generate to your site. The next step is to estimate the rate at which you will convert that traffic to members (where they register so you get their email) and/or customers (I’ll assume customers for the rest of this post but the same method would apply to members). Since you already know your existing conversion rate, in general, this could be your estimate. But, if you have been buying clicks on that keyword from Google or Bing, you may already have a better estimate of conversion. Multiplying the number of customers obtained by the LTV (Life Time Value) of a customer yields the $ value generated if the keyword obtains the estimated rank. Subtract from this the current value being obtained from the keyword (based on its current ranking) to see the incremental benefit.
One important step to improve rankings is to use keywords in titles of articles. While the words to use may seem intuitive, it’s important to test variations to see how each may improve results. Will “free online multiplication games” outperform “free times table games”. The way to test this is by trying each for a different 2-week (or month) time period and see which gives a higher CTR (Click Through Rate). As discussed earlier, it’s also important to optimize the body copy against keywords. Many of our companies create a guide for writing copy that provides rules that result in better CTR.
The Importance of Links
Google views links from other sites to yours as an indication of your level of authority. The more important the site linking to you, the more it impacts Google’s view. Having a larger number of sites linking to you can drive up your Domain Authority (a search engine ranking score) which in turn will benefit rankings across all keywords. However, it’s important to be restrained in acquiring links as those from “Black Hats” (sites Google regards as somewhat bogus) can actually result in getting penalized. While getting another site to link to you will typically require some motivation for them, Allison warns that paying cash for a link is likely to result in obtaining some of them from black hat sites. Instead, motivation can be your featuring an article from the other site, selling goods from a partner, etc.
I won’t review it here but site architecture is also a relevant factor in optimizing SEO benefits. For a product company with tens of thousands of products, it can be extremely important to have the right titles and structure in how you list products. If you have duplicative content on your site, removing it may help your rankings, even if there was a valid reason to have such duplication. Changing the wording of content on a regular basis will help you maintain rankings.
SEO requires a well-thought-out strategy and consistent, continued execution to produce results. This is not a short-term fix, as an SEO investment will likely only start to show improvements four to six months after implementation with ongoing management. But as many of our portfolio companies can attest, it’s well worth the effort.
It’s a new basketball season so I can’t resist a few comments. First, as much as I am a fan of the Warriors, it’s pretty foolish to view them as a lock to win as winning is very tenuous. For example, in game 5 of the finals last year, had Durant missed his late game three point shot the Warriors may have been facing the threat of a repeat of the 2016 finals – going back to Cleveland for a potential tying game.
Now that Russell Westbrook has two star players to accompany him we can see if I am correct that he is less valuable than Curry, who has repeatedly shown the ability to elevate all teammates. This is why I believe that, despite his two MVPs, Curry is under-rated!
With Stitchfix filing for an IPO, we are seeing the first of several next generation fashion companies emerging. In the filing, I noted the emphasis they place on SEO as a key component of their success. I believe new fashion startups will continue to exert pressure on traditional players. One Azure company moving towards scale in this domain is Le Tote – keep an eye on them!
A key marketing tool for companies is to hold an event like a user’s conference or a topical forum to build relationships with their customers and partners, drive additional revenue and/or generate business development opportunities. Azure held its 11th annual CEO Summit last week, and as we’re getting great feedback on the success of the conference, I thought it might be helpful to dig deeply into what makes a conference effective. I will use the Azure event as the example but try to abstract rules and lessons to be learned, as I have been asked for my advice on this topic by other firms and companies.
Step 1. Have a clear set of objectives
For the Azure CEO Summit, our primary objectives are to help our portfolio companies connect with:
Corporate and Business Development executives from relevant companies
Potential investors (VCs and Family Offices)
Investment banks so the companies are on the radar and can get invited to their conferences
Debt providers for those that can use debt as part of their capital structure
A secondary objective of the conference is to build Azure’s brand thereby increasing our deal flow and helping existing and potential investors in Azure understand some of the value we bring to the table.
When I created a Wall Street tech conference in the late 90’s, the objectives were quite different. They still included brand building, but I also wanted our firm to own trading in tech stocks for that week, have our sell side analysts gain reputation and following, help our bankers expand their influence among public companies, and generate a profit for the firm at the same time. We didn’t charge directly for attending but monetized through attendees increasing use of our trading desk and more companies using our firm for investment banking.
When Fortune began creating conferences, their primary objective was to monetize their brand in a new way. This meant charging a hefty price for attending. If people were being asked to pay, the program had to be very strong, which they market quite effectively.
Conferences that have clear objectives, and focus the activities on those objectives, are the most successful.
Step 2. Determine invitees based on who will help achieve those objectives
For our Summit, most of the invitees are a direct fallout from the objectives listed above. If we want to help our portfolio companies connect with the above-mentioned constituencies, we need to invite both our portfolio CEOs and the right players from corporations, VCs, family offices, investment banks and debt providers. To help our brand, inviting our LPs and potential LPs is important. To insure the Summit is at the quality level needed to attract the right attendees we also target getting great speakers. As suggested by my partners and Andrea Drager, Azure VP (and my collaborator on Soundbytes) we invited several non-Azure Canadian startups. In advance of the summit, we asked Canadian VCs to nominate candidates they thought would be interesting for us and we picked the best 6 to participate in the summit. This led to over 70 interesting companies nominated and added to our deal flow pipeline.
Step 3. Create a program that will attract target attendees to come
This is especially true in the first few years of a conference while you build its reputation. It’s important to realize that your target attendees have many conflicting pulls on their time. You won’t get them to attend just because you want them there! Driving attendance from the right people is a marketing exercise. The first step is understanding what would be attractive to them. In Azure’s case, they might not understand the benefit of meeting our portfolio companies, but they could be very attracted by the right keynotes.
Over the years we have had the heads of technology investment banking from Qatalyst, Morgan Stanley, Goldman, JP Morgan and Jeffries as one of our keynote speakers. From the corporate world, we also typically have a CEO, former CEO or chairman of notable companies like Microsoft, Veritas, Citrix, Concur and Audible as a second keynote. Added to these were CEOs of important startups like Stance and Magento and terrific technologists like the head of Microsoft Labs.
Finding the right balance of content, interaction and engagement is challenging, but it should be explicitly tied to meeting the core objectives of the conference.
Step 4. Make sure the program facilitates meeting your objectives
Since Azure’s primary objective is creating connections between our portfolio (and this year, the 6 Canadian companies) with the various other constituencies we invite, we start the day with speed dating one-on-ones of 10 minutes each. Each attendee participating in one-on-ones can be scheduled to meet up to 10 entities between 8:00AM and 9:40. Following that time, we schedule our first keynote.
In addition to participating in the one-on-ones, which start the day, 26 of our portfolio companies had speaking slots at the Summit, intermixed with three compelling keynote speakers. Company slots are scheduled between keynotes to maximize continued participation. This schedule takes us to about 5:00pm. We then invite the participants and additional VCs, lawyers and other important network connections to join us for dinner. The dinner increases everyone’s networking opportunity in a very relaxed environment.
These diverse types of interaction phases throughout the conference (one-on-ones, presentations, discussions, and networking) all facilitate a different type of connection between attendees, focused on maximizing the opportunity for our portfolio companies to build strong connections.
Step 5. Market the program you create to the target attendees
I get invited to about 30 conferences each year plus another 20-30 events. It’s safe to assume that most of the invitees to the Azure conference get a similar (or greater) number of invitations. What this means is that it’s unlikely that people will attend if you send an invitation but then don’t effectively market the event (especially in the first few years). It is important to make sure every key invitee gets a personal call, email, or other message from an executive walking them through the agenda and highlighting the value to them (link to fortune could also go here). For the Azure event, we highlight the great speakers but also the value of meeting selected portfolio companies. Additionally, one of my partners or I connect with every attendee we want to do one-on-ones with portfolio companies to stress why this benefits them and to give them the chance to alter their one-on-one schedule. This year we managed over 320 such meetings.
When I created the first “Quattrone team” conference on Wall Street, we marketed it as an exclusive event to portfolio managers. While the information exchanged was all public, the portfolio managers still felt they would have an investment edge by being at a smaller event (and we knew the first year’s attendance would be relatively small) where all the important tech companies spoke and did one-on-one meetings. For user conferences, it can help to land a great speaker from one of your customers or from the industry. For example, if General Electric, Google, Microsoft or some similar important entity is a customer, getting them to speak will likely increase attendance. It also may help to have an industry guru as a speaker. If you have the budget, adding an entertainer or other star personality can also add to the attraction, as long as the core agenda is relevant to attendees.
Step 6. Decide on the metrics you will use to measure success
It is important to set targets for what you want to accomplish and then to measure whether you’ve achieved those targets. For Azure, the number of entities that attend (besides our portfolio), the number of one-on-one meetings and the number of follow-ups post the conference that emanate from one-on-one are three of the metrics we measure. One week after the conference, I already know that we had over 320 one-on-ones which, so far, has led to about 50 follow ups that we are aware of including three investments in our portfolio. We expect to learn of additional follow up meetings but this has already exceeded our targets.
Step 7. Make sure the value obtained from the conference exceeds its cost
It is easy to spend money but harder to make sure the benefit of that spend exceeds its cost. On one end of the spectrum, some conferences have profits as one of the objectives. But in many cases, the determination of success is not based on profits, but rather on meeting objectives at a reasonable cost. I’ve already discussed Azure’s objectives but most of you are not VCs. For those of you dealing with customers, your objectives can include:
Signing new customers
Reducing churn of existing customers
Developing a better understanding of how to evolve your product
Strong press pickup / PR opportunity
Spending money on a conference should always be compared to other uses of those marketing dollars. To the degree you can be efficient in managing it, the conference can become a solid way to utilize marketing dollars. Some of the things we do for the Azure conference to control cost which may apply to you include:
Partnering with a technology company to host our conference instead of holding it at a hotel. This only works if there is value to your partner. Cost savings is about 60-70%.
Making sure our keynotes are very relevant but are at no cost. You can succeed at this with keynotes from your customers and/or the industry. Cost savings is whatever you might have paid someone.
Having the dinner for 150 people at my house. This has two benefits: it is a much better experience for those attending and the cost is about 70% less than having it at a venue.
I have focused on using the Azure CEO Summit as the primary example but the rules laid out apply in general. They not only will help you create a successful conference but following them means only holding it if its value to you exceeds its cost.
If you look at that post, you’ll see that my logic appears to have been born out, as my main reason was that Durant was likely to win a championship and this would be very instrumental in helping his reputation/legacy.
Not mentioned in that post was the fact that he would also increase his enjoyment of playing, because playing with Curry, Thompson, Green and the rest of the Warriors is optimizing how the game should be played
Now it’s up to both Durant and Curry to agree to less than cap salaries so the core of the team can be kept intact for many years. If they do, and win multiple championships, they’ll probably increase endorsement revenue. But even without that offset my question is “How much is enough?” I believe one can survive nicely on $30-$32 million a year (Why not both agree to identical deals for 4 years, not two?). Trying for the maximum is an illusion that can be self-defeating. The difference will have zero impact on their lives, but will keep players like Iguodala and Livingston with the Warriors, which could have a very positive impact. I’m hoping they can also keep West, Pachulia and McGee as well.
It would also be nice if Durant and Curry got Thompson and Green to provide a handshake agreement that they would follow the Durant/Curry lead on this and sign for the same amount per year when their contracts came up. Or, if Thompson and Green can extend now, to do the extension at equal pay to what Curry and Durant make in the extension years. By having all four at the same salary at the end of the period, the Warriors would be making a powerful statement of how they feel about each other.
Amazon & Whole Foods…
Amazon’s announced acquisition of Whole Foods is very interesting. In a previous post, we predicted that Amazon would open physical stores. Our reasoning was that over 90% of retail revenue still occurs offline and Amazon would want to attack that. I had expected these to be Guide Stores (not carrying inventory but having samples of products). Clearly this acquisition shows that, at least in food, Amazon wants to go even further. I will discuss this in more detail in a future post.