Pop Goes the IPO

Lending Club, which is a peer-to-peer online lender, had an IPO this Thursday, December 11. After a full day of trading, shares closed at 56% above the initial IPO price. As often happens, many vociferous investment banking haters called this an IPO "pop", in which the banks stole millions of dollars from the company.

The truth is IPO's are a messy ordeal, and are full of estimations and guesswork by the bankers. Perhaps nobody can better explain what really goes on during an IPO than the notorious Epicurean Dealmaker. Here's an excerpt from the fabled Wall Street philosopher:

Now, you can see that this exercise is an art, not a science. Investment bank IPO pricing is the epitome of (very) highly educated guessing. We often get it wrong, but, on average, IPO pricing is normally pretty accurate. After all, it's our job, and we do it well. The picture gets complicated, however, when the company in question, like LinkedIn, does not have any comparable peers among listed public companies. Our guesses become much less educated and much more finger-in-the-air type things. There is no cure for this but to go to market and see what investors themselves tell you they are willing to pay.

For a thorough explanation of this sensitive topic, I recommend you read his full post on LinkedIn's IPO pop. The very same logic could be applied to last weeks Lending Club offering. Occam's razor taught this concept to us hundreds of years ago, so let's not blame the banks for the behavior of the market.

Robo Advisors

Personally, I dislike the term "robo advisor" - it's cold and unappealing. If you haven't yet heard of them, robo advisors are the recent crop of companies that manage your portfolio with minimal work on your part. They're basically financial advisors in the form of software. Some you might be familiar with include Betterment, Wealthfront, and SigFig.

If you follow VC funding, you'll know that many of these financial startups are getting many rounds of venture funding. It's obvious that these VC investors believe robo advisor's are the future of consumer investment spending, and have a high growth potential. While I agree that huge growth will come from these algorithmic portfolio management techniques, traditional investment banks will not pass this opportunity up. Thus, these startups will face heavy competition from traditional banks as they start to catch up.

Charles Schwab has already announced the launch their robo advisor next quarter, which will be free for Charles Schwab customers with $5,000 or more to invest (which is a measly amount, considering what other robo advisors require). You can be sure that similar financial services companies will follow suite, and offer identical services for very cheaply, or even free. The additional overhead to launch such a robo advisor service is relatively inexpensive, as it only requires creating and maintaining an algorithm that covers many customers (the costs are grossly simplified, but the point remains). And since nearly all of these financial services companies already have more customers than startups like Betterment and Wealthfront, they can spread their costs over more people, and pass those lower costs through lower service fees. This will put the financial startups in a very bad place.

Of course, VC's aren't vacuous and know this, but they have a greater tolerance for risk than you and I. I would wait before investing money with the startups to see the fees charged by the traditional companies. It's the fees that will get you, since the returns will be practically the same for everybody. Overall, I'm bullish on robo advisors, since they will make investing much more accessible to the average investor. And if the algorithms are good, they'll make the risk low too, which will be a clear win for consumers.  

The Intelligent VC

If you read this blog, you’re either well-versed in consumer technology, or you accidentally stumbled into it, in which case please stay. This post was spurred as I was reading a classical investing book, the very same that taught Warren Buffet how to make his $58 billion. I’m referring to The Intelligent Investor. As history has taught us, we’re not very good at remembering history. What this book does is point out, in retrospect, poor investment decisions made during the last century, and how to avoid, or at least mitigate, further bad decisions. As the title of the book suggests, it’s aimed at investors (even unintelligent ones). This post is aimed at VC’s and technology stock speculators. 

Below is a direct quote from the book (emphasis mine):

Air-transport stocks, of course, generated as much excitement in the late 1940s and early 1950s as Internet stocks did a half century later. Among the hottest mutual funds of that era were Aeronautical Securities and the Missiles-Rockets-Jets & Automation Fund. They, like the stocks they owned, turned out to be an investing disaster. It is commonly accepted today that the cumulative earnings of the airline industry over its entire history have been negative. The lesson Graham is driving at is not that you should avoid buying airline stocks, but that you should never succumb to the “certainty” that any industry will outperform all others in the future. 

The pitfalls have proved particularly dangerous in the industry we mentioned. It was, of course, easy to forecast that the volume of air traffic would grow spectacularly over the years. Because of this factor their shares became a favorite choice of the investment funds. But despite the expansion of revenues—at a pace even greater than in the computer industry—a combination of techno- logical problems and overexpansion of capacity made for fluctuating and even disastrous profit figures. In the year 1970, despite a new high in traffic figures, the airlines sustained a loss of some $200 million for their shareholders. (They had shown losses also in 1945 and 1961.) The stocks of these companies once again showed a greater decline in 1969–70 than did the general market. The record shows that even the highly paid full-time experts of the mutual funds were completely wrong about the fairly short-term future of a major and nonesoteric industry.

Growth, expansion, disruption - these are words that VC’s throw around to describe blossoming companies that will take over the world. Not now, but in the future. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo are just some of the largest tech companies that are built upon this growth factor. They need it to thrive, since revenues are predominately built upon advertising.

Another quote, from Maciej Cegłowsk, the creator of Pinboard:

Advertising is like the flu. If it’s not constantly changing, people develop immunity.

Keep the above quotes in your head as you read the things below. 

VC’s invest in tech startups for one reason, and one reason only: to get a return on their investment. They invest a few million into a startup for a certain percentage of the company > if the company is lucky it goes public > VC firm profits and reinvests in a new startup. Rinse and repeat. Guess how most of these companies get paid? That’s right. It’s internet advertising. Sponsored search results, promoted tweets, trending topics, you’ve seen all these things before. 

Companies that are dependent on advertising make revenues and profits only if their user base grows. Their stock price is directly correlated to growth as well. Once growth levels off, reality kicks in, and Wall Street penalizes low performers. Twitter knows this problem all too well. Their growth has halted (with no doubt due to that bewilderingly mystifying homepage). And look what has happened to their stock (spoiler: you wouldn’t want to have your life savings invested in $TWTR). 

Twitter Stock Price

Twitter Stock Price

Google and Facebook are still managing to grow their user base, but believe me, it won’t last forever. Facebook is already trying to diversify its sources of income, first with the comically huge purchase of Whatsapp for $19 billion, and then Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Whatsapp is dependent entirely on advertising. Oculus Rift is an investment for the future, and currently unprofitable. Neither acquisition brings with it tangible resources (equipment, land, inventory, accounts receivable), only potential growth. There’s that word again, growth. 

These companies are doing the only thing that they know how to do, which is to grow their users. More eyeballs, more advertising revenue. From early in the companies life, VC’s have always pushed for growth, and then after becoming public companies, Wall Street urges for the same thing. This investment mentality won’t end well.

Growth isn’t bad, but when the business model is advertising, there is an inherent limit. It might takes years to reach, but it will be reached. VC’s should stop preaching growth and start encouraging profitability early in the startups life. Not that your startup needs a VC to begin with. There are plenty of successful startups that did it all alone without advertising, unnatural growth, and rather, just by a desirable product and hard sweaty work (for example, Basecamp).