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As a confession, I started this post intending to write about Peloton, the next big new offering hitting markets, but I got distracted along the way. As I read the Peloton prospectus, with the descriptions of its business, its measure of total market size and its success at scaling up revenues accompanied by large losses, I had a feeling of déjà vu, since other prospectuses that I had read this year from Lyft, Uber, Slack, Pinterest and, most recently, WeWorks, not only shared many of the same characteristics, but also used much of the same language. I briefly considered the possibility that these companies were using a common prospectus app, where given a bare bones description, a 250-page prospectus would be generated, complete with the requisite buzz words and corporate governance details. Setting aside that cynical thought, I think it is far more likely that these companies are emphasizing those features that allowed them to get to where they are today, and that examining these shared features should give us insight into how venture capitalists price companies, and the dangers of basing what you pay on VC pricing. To keep my write up from becoming too long (and I don't think I succeeded), I will use only Uber, WeWork and Peloton to illustrate what I see as the commonalities in their investment pitches, when I could have spread my net wider to include all IPOs this year.
1. Unbounded Potential Markets
It is natural that companies, especially early in their lives, puff up their business descriptions and inflate their potential markets, but the companies that have gone public this year seem to have taken it to an art form. Lyft, which went public before Uber, described themselves as a transportation company, a little over-the-top for a car service company, but Uber topped this easily, with their identification as a personal mobility company. WeWork, in its prospectus, steers clear of ever describing itself as being in real estate, framing itself instead as a community company, whatever that means. Peloton, in perhaps the widest stretch of all, calls itself a technology, media, software, product, experience, fitness, design, retail, apparel and logistics company, and names itself Peloton Interactive for emphasis. In conjunction with these grandiose business descriptions, each of the company's IPOs also lists a total addressable or accessible market (TAM) that it is targeting. While this is a measure, initiated with good sense , it has become a buzzword that means close to nothing for these young companies. In the picture below, I have taken the total market descriptions given in the Uber, WeWork and Peloton prospectuses:
If you believe these companies, Uber's TAM is $5.71 trillion spread across 175 countries, and obtained by adding together all passenger vehicle and public transport spending, WeWork is looking at $3 trillion in office space opportunities and Peloton believes that it can sell its expensive exercise bikes and subscriptions to 45 million people in the US and 67 million globally.
It is no secret that my initial valuation of Uber used far too cramped a definition of its total market, and Bill Gurley rightly pointed to the potential that these companies have to expand markets, but defining the market as broadly as these companies makes a mockery of the concept. In fact, I will draw on a 3P test that I developed in the context of converting stories to numbers, to put these TAM claims to the test;
With Uber, for instance, my initial estimate of the car service market in June 2014, while defining the magnitude of the car services market then, was a constrained TAM and, in hindsight, it proved far too limited, as Uber's pricing and convenience drew new customers into the market, expanding the market significantly. It is a lesson that I have taken to heart, and I do try to give disruptive companies the benefit of the doubt in estimating TAM, erring more towards the expanded TAM definition. That said, the total market claims that I see outlined in the prospectuses of the companies that have gone public this year, while perhaps meeting the possible test, fail the plausible and probable tests. That TAM overreach makes the cases for these companies weaker, rather than stronger, by making them less credible.
2. All about Scaling (in dollars and units)
All of the companies that have gone, or are planning to go, public this year are telling scaling up stories, with explosive growth in revenues and talk of acceleration in that growth. On this count, the companies are entitled to crow, since they have grown revenues at unprecedented rates coming into their public offerings.
In short periods, these companies have grown from nothing to becoming among the largest players in their markets, at least in terms of revenues. While this focus on revenue growth is not surprising, since it is at the heart of their stories, it is revealing that all of the companies spend as much, if not, more time talking about growth in their revenue units (Uber riders, WeWork members and Peloton subscribers).
In fact, each of these companies, in addition to providing user/subscriber members, also provide other eye-popping numbers on relevant units, Uber on drivers and rides taken, WeWork on cities and locations and Peloton on bikes sold. I understand the allure of user numbers, since the platform that they inhabit can be used to generate more revenues. That is implicitly the message that all these companies are sending, and I did estimate a lifetime value of an Uber rider at close to $500 and I could use the model (described in this paper) to derive values for a WeWork member or a Peloton subscriber. After all, the most successful user-based companies, such as Facebook and Amazon Prime, have shown how having a large user base can provide a foundation for new products and profits. However, there are companies that focus just on adding users, using badly constructed business models and pricing products/services much too cheaply, hoping to raise prices once the users are acquired. MoviePass is an extreme example of user pursuit gone berserk, but it had no trouble attracting venture capital money, and I fear that there are far more young user-based companies following the MoviePass script than the Facebook one.
3. Blurry Business Models and Flaky Earnings Measures
Most of the companies that have gone public this year have entered the public markets with large losses, even after you correct for what they spend to acquire new users or subscribers. For some investors, this, by itself, is sufficient to turn away from these companies, but since these are young companies, pursuing ambitious growth targets, neither the negative earnings, nor the negative cash flows, is enough to scare me away. However, there are two characteristics that these companies share that I find off putting:
- Pathways to Profitability: As money losing companies, I had hoped that Uber, WeWork and Peloton would all spend more time talking, in their investor pitches, about their existing business models, current weaknesses in these models and how they planned to reduce their vulnerabilities. With Uber and Lyft, the question of how the companies planned to deal with the transition of drivers from independent contractors to employees should have been dealt with front and center (in their prospectuses), rather than be viewed as a surprise that no one saw coming, a few months later. With WeWork, their vulnerability, stemming from a duration mismatch, begged for a response, and plan, from the company in its prospectus, but none was provided. In fact, Peloton may have done the best job, of the three companies, of positioning themselves on this front, with an (implicit) argument that as subscriptions rise, with higher contribution margins, profits would show up.
- Earnings Adjustments: As has become standard practice across many publicly traded companies, these IPOs do the adjusted EBITDA dance, adding back stock-based compensation and a variety of other expenses. I have made my case against adding back stock-based compensation here and here, but I would state a more general proposition that adding back any expense that will persist as part of regular operations is bad practice. That is why WeWork's attempt to add back most of its operating expenses, arguing that they were community related, to get to community EBITDA did not pass the smell test.
In summary, it is not the losses that these companies made in the most recent year that are the primary concern, it is that there seems to be no tangible plan, other than growth and hand waving on economies of scale, to put these companies into the plus column on profits.
4. Founder Worship and Corporate Dictatorships
Some time in the last two decades, newly public companies and many of their institutional investors seem to have lost faith in the quid quo pro that has characterized public companies over much of their history, where in return for providing capital, public market investors are at least given the semblance of a say in how the company is run, voting at annual meetings for board directors and substantive changes to the corporate charter. The most charitable characterization of the corporate governance arrangement at most newly minted public companies is that they are benevolent dictatorships, with a founder/CEO at the helm, controlling their destiny, and with no threat of loss of power, largely through super-voting right shares. In fact, most of the IPO companies this year have had:
- Shares with different voting classes: With the exception of Uber, every high profile IPO that has hit the market has had multiple classes of shares, with the low-voting right shares being the ones offered to the market in the public offering and the high voting right shares held by insiders and the founder/CEO. It is also revealing that Uber was also one of the few companies in the mix where the founder was not the CEO at the time of the IPO, after the board, pressured by large VC investors, removed Travis Kalanick from atop the company in June 2017, in the aftermath of personal and corporate scandals.
- Captive boards of directors: I am sure that the directors on the boards of newly public companies are there to represent the interests of investors in the company and and that many are well qualified, but they seem to do the bidding of the founder/CEO. The WeWork board seems to have been particularly lacking in its oversight of Adam Neumann, especially leading up to the IPO, but it is probably not an outlier.
- Complex ownership and corporate structures: When private companies go public, there is a transition period where shares of one class are being converted to another, some options have forced exercises and there are restricted share offerings that ripen, all of which make it difficult to estimate value per share. It does not help when the company going public takes this confusion and adds to it, as WeWork did, with additional layers of complex organizational structure.
In many of the companies that have gone public this year, it is quite clear that the company's current owners (founder and VCs) view the public equity market as a place to raise capital but not one to defend or debate how their companies should be run. Put simply, if you are public market investor, these companies want your money but they don't want your input. When faced with that choice with Alibaba, I characterized this as Jack Ma charging me five-star hotel prices, when I check in as an investor in his company, but then directing me to stay in the outhouse, because I was not one of the insiders.
Reverse Engineering the VC Game
Every company that has come down the IPO pipeline this year has been able to raise ample capital from venture capitalists on its journey, with contributions coming from some public investor names (Fidelity and T.Rowe Price, to name just two). The fact that almost every company that went public this year framed its total market as implausibly big, emphasized how quickly it has scaled itself up, both in terms of revenues and users/subscribers, glossed over the flaws and weaknesses in its business model, and had shares with different voting rights suggests to me that this is behavior that was learned, because venture capitalists encouraged and rewarded it. Bluntly put, the pricing offered by venture capitalists for private companies must place scaling success over sound business models, over-the-top total addressable markets over plausible ones and founder entrenchment over good corporate governance.
In almost every IPO this year, the basis for at least the initial estimate of what the company would get from the market was the pricing at the most recent VC round, about $66 billion for Uber, $47 billion for WeWorks on the Softbank investment and about $4.2 billion at Peloton. The strongest sales pitch that the company and its bankers seem to be making is that venture capitalists are smart people who know a great deal about the company, and that you should be willing to base your pricing on theirs. This is not very persuasive, because, as I noted in this post, VCs price companies, they don't value them, and the pricing ladder, while it can lead price up, up and away, can also bring price down, when the momentum shifts.
This is not meant to be a broadside against all of venture capital. As with other investor groups, I am sure that there are venture capitalists who are sensible and unwilling to go along with these bad practices. Unfortunately, though, they risk being priced out of this market, as a version of Gresham's law kicks in, where bad players drive out good ones. In fact, since VC pricing takes its cues from public markets, it will interesting to see if the WeWork fiasco works its way through the VC price chain, leading to a repricing of companies that emphasize revenue scaling over all else.
A Peloton Valuation
Since I started this post intending to value Peloton, I might as sell include my valuation of the company, especially since the company has released an updated prospectus with an estimated offering price of $26 to $30 per share. The company posits that there will 277.76 million shares outstanding (across voting share classes), but it also very clearly states that this does not include the 64.6 million options outstanding.
Business Model and Accessible Market
The Peloton product offerings started with an upscale exercise bike, but has since expanded to include an even more expensive treadmill; the bike currently sells for about $2,250 and the treadmill for more than $4,000. In fact, if that is all that the company sold, it would have been competing in a constrained fitness product market with other exercise equipment manufacturers (Nautilus, Bowflex, NordicTrack, Life, Precor etc.). The company's innovation is two fold, first focusing on the upper end of the market with a very limited product offering and then offering a monthly subscription to those who bought, where you can take online classes and access other fitness-related services, with a monthly subscription fee of $40/month. In 2018, Peloton expanded its subscription service to non-Peloton fitness product owners, charging about $20 a month, with a membership count of 100,000 in 2018. The growth in the subscription portion of the business can be seen in the graphs below:
The fitness market that Peloton is going after is large, but splintered, currently with gyms, both local and franchised, and fitness product companies all competing for the pie. In 2019, it was estimated that the total market for fitness products was $30 billion in the United States and close to $90 billion globally. That said, harking back to our discussion of probable and plausible markets, Peloton is trying to draw people into this market who may otherwise have stayed away and getting existing customers to pay more, hoping to expand the market further.
Valuation Story and Numbers
I am way too cheap to own a Peloton, but my conversations with Peloton owners/subscribers suggests to me that they have created a loyal customer base, perhaps unfairly likened to a cult. They rave about the online classes and how they keep them motivated to exercise, and while I take their praise with a grain of salt, it is quite clear that the company's online presence is not only polished but looks amazing on the high resolution TV screens that are built into their bikes and treadmills. In my story, I assume that the total accessible market will grow as Peloton and other new entrants into the subscription model draw in new customers, and that Peloton's allure will last, allowing it to grow its revenues over time to make it one of the bigger players in the fitness game. In my base case valuation, I see Peloton's subscription model as their ticket for future growth, pushing revenues by year 10 for the company to just above $10 billion, a lofty goal, given that the largest US fitness companies (gyms and equipment makers) have revenues of $2-$3 billion. I also believe that the shift towards subscriptions will continue, allowing for higher margins and lower capital investment than at the typical fitness company. My valuation is pictured below:
My equity value is $6.65 billion, but in computing value per share, I have to consider the overhang of past option issuances at the company; there are 64.6 million options, with an average strike price of $6.71, outstanding in addition to the 277.76 million shares that the company puts forward as its share count. Valuing the options and netting them out yields a value per share of $19.35, about 20% below the low end of the IPO offering. That does bring me closer to the initial offering price than I got with either my Uber or WeWork valuations, though that is damning Peloton with faint praise. The magnitude of options outstanding at Peloton make it an outlier, even among the IPO companies, and I would caution investors to take these options into account, when computing market capitalizations or per share numbers. For instance, this Wall Street Journal report this morning, after the offering price was set at $26-$29/share, used the actual share count of 277.76 million shares to extrapolate to a market capitalization of $8 billion, at the upper end of the pricing range. That is not true. In fact, if you pay $29/share, you are valuing the equity in this company at more $9.5-$10 billion, with the options counted in.
Is there a great deal of uncertainty embedded in this valuation? Of course! While some argue that this is reason enough to either not invest in the company, or to not do a discounted cash flow valuation, I disagree.
- First, at the right price, you should be willing to expose yourself to uncertainty, and while I would not buy Peloton at $26/share, I certainly would be interested at a price lower than $19.35.
- Second, the notion that the value of a business is a function of its capacity to generate cash flows is not repealed, just because you have a young, high growth company. If your critique is that my assumptions could be very wrong, I completely agree, but I can still estimate value, facing up to that uncertainty. In fact, that is what I have done in the simulation below:
In terms of base numbers, the simulation does not change my view of Peloton. My median value is $18.30, with the tenth percentile at close to zero and the ninetieth percentile at $38.42, making it still over valued, if it is priced at $26/share. The long tail on the positive end of the distribution implies that I would buy Peloton with a smaller margin of safety than a more mature company, because of the potential of significant upside. (I have a limit buy, at $15/share. Given the offering price of $26-$29, there is little chance that it will execute soon, but I can play the long game).
The flood of companies going public, and their diverse businesses, has made for interesting valuations, but there are also more general lessons to be learned, even for those not interested in investing in these companies. First, our experiences with these IPOs should make it clear that it is the pricing game that dominates how numbers get attached to companies, and that is especially true for IPOs, not just on the offering day, but in the VC rounds leading up to the offering, and in the post-offering trading. Second, to the extent that the pricing game becomes centered on intermediate metrics, say revenue growth or on users or subscribers, it can lead companies astray, as they strive to deliver on those metrics, often at the expense of creating viable business models, and the pricing players (VCs and public investors) can get blindsided when the game changes. As I noted in my long-ago post on Twitter, these companies will face their bar mitzvah moments, when markets shift, often abruptly, from the intermediate users to the end game of profits, and many of these companies will be found wanting.
Posts on IPOs this year
Posts on Venture Capital
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