Spotify’s deals with the music labels have long been a barrier to achieving profitability and therefore also a major barrier to an eventual IPO, especially because many of its relationships have been operating on a very short-term basis rather than being locked in longer term. It sounds like there might finally be light at the end of the tunnel, mostly because Spotify is finally caving on perhaps the single biggest sticking point in its relationship with the labels: the differences between the paid and free versions of its service. Spotify has, in fact, steadily eroded those differences, which used to be more significant but now amount mostly to a lack of ads, while the labels have long wanted Spotify to increase the differentiation between the two as a way to push users to the paid their and therefore compensate artists at a higher rate for their music. As I argue in the Streaming is Saving Music narrative, it’s not really streaming as a whole but more narrowly paid streaming which is helping the music industry thrive at present, and so those labels have every incentive to push that tier of service. On the other hand, Spotify has used that free tier very effectively as a funnel to create eventual paid subscribers, and the labels also want Spotify to IPO so they can get a return on their investments, which is why they’re finally showing some willingness to compromise too.
via Financial Times
Snap’s shares pop after $3.4 billion IPO – Reuters (Mar 2, 2017)
Snap’s IPO was widely expected to come today, and it ended up being a great debut for the stock, which rose 44% by the time the market closed, though it’s lost a little since and seems to be fairly volatile. As I’ve argued, the IPO itself comes at an extremely risky time for Snap and its investors, because there has been slowing growth but not enough time to see whether that growth will rebound, making future growth uncertain. The pop today wasn’t a surprise – the market has been so hungry for a major tech IPO for such a long time, and Snapchat is such a hot property, that retail investors chasing the next big thing were always going to jump in in a big way. At this point, Snapchat’s growth could still recover and it could go on to become one of the big success stories of the 2010s, or it could become another Twitter – there’s really no way to know at this point.
Snapchat Parent Snap Inc. Sets Valuation at $19.5 Billion to $22.2 Billion as IPO Approaches – WSJ (Feb 16, 2017)
It’s hard to avoid the sense that this valuation coming in at the low end of the previous target range is a sign of dampening excitement in the Snap IPO following the release of the S-1 and other worrying signs. That’s a sign of a certain amount of humility and realism from the company, which is a good thing. It’s still a massive valuation for a company at Snap’s stage of maturity, and it’s always possible the valuation will come down still further (or go up) following the roadshow, as investors get to kick the tires a little more. I’m more curious than ever what happens when the IPO finally kicks off because – as I wrote the other day – Snap is debuting at a terrible time in its history.
It’s not just Google — Snap has a $1 billion cloud services deal with Amazon, too – Recode (Feb 9, 2017)
Snap has filed an amended version of its S-1 IPO filing, and it’s added a few extra tidbits here and there. This Recode piece picks up on the most notable: earlier this month, Snap signed a deal with Amazon’s AWS which is worth at least $1 billion over 5 years, for redundant infrastructure (i.e. as a backup to its primary reliance on Google’s Cloud). Unlike the Google commitment, which requires a steady minimum of $400m spent per year, this deal ramps from a minimum of $50m in 2017 to $350m in 2021 (which is probably about how much Snap spent with Google in 2016). That’s a rapid growth rate, and implies that this level of redundancy may be new for Snap, perhaps triggered by investor concerns over its sole reliance on Google. Combined, that’s a minimum $3 billion commitment for just these two infrastructure companies over the next five years, which is about seven times its 2016 revenue – that’s a big commitment and increases the risks associated with slowing growth. Also new in the S-1/A are a couple of paragraphs intended to reassure investors about the multi-class stock structure and the disclosure they will receive with their Class A shares, as well as some expansion on its slowing user growth and the lower engagement levels its Rest of World users exhibit relative to its US and European users.
The long-awaited Snap S-1 was released this afternoon just as Amazon and GoPro were reporting earnings, so it’s been busy. I tweeted some of the most interesting tidbits I saw at first glance earlier, but will do a deep dive for a blog post at some point in the next 24 hours too. Some highlights: the company is growing very rapidly in revenue terms, as it ramps ARPU fast, but still makes 88% of its revenue from North America, even though a majority of users are overseas. User growth has been decent, ending 2016 with 160 million daily active user (its only user base measure), but has slowed in recent months, which Snap blames on both a poor Android update and competitive moves (such as Instagram Stories, though it’s not mentioned by name). It loses money in massive amounts – there’s no clear path to profitability here any time soon, even with rapid growth, as cost of revenues alone outweigh revenues. Engagement is mentioned 103 times in the filing, as was widely anticipated, but the only measure mentioned beyond DAUs is time spent, and it’s not provided on a consistent basis. That’s a worrying sign at a time when Snap needs to be demonstrating that its users are not just using the app daily but spending more time in it. Other tidbits: Apple is mentioned in a list of competitors, and Google is Snap’s cloud provider, with a massive commitment to future spending with the company. This blog post goes into a lot more depth on the filing.
As I’ve argued for some time now, it doesn’t bode well that Spotify, despite being the largest paid streaming music service in the world, doesn’t seem to be able to turn a profit. A big part of the problem is that its relationships with labels dictate sharing a very high percentage of revenue with them, which leaves Spotify with very little margin to cover all its other costs. It sounds like Spotify is now considering postponing what was to have been a 2017 IPO by another year while it goes back to the labels to renegotiate those problematic deals. The TechCrunch piece linked here suggests than appetites for IPOs of companies without profits has diminished, but that isn’t really the problem here – Spotify’s real problem has been that there hasn’t been an obvious route to profitability even if all its current growth trends continue – unlike a SaaS business with no profits, there’s no obvious growth lever that turns things around eventually. It’s Spotify’s fundamental business model that’s the problem here, and absent renegotiated contracts with the labels it’s hard to see how that changes.
Yet more signs that Snapchat is suffering both as a result of Instagram’s recent feature additions and perhaps because of broader cloning of its feature set by local alternatives in Asia. We’ll hear from the horse’s mouth shortly how Snap sees these changes, and it’ll have to work hard to refute these negative signals about engagement and growth in its app when it releases its public IPO filing shortly. The narrative around Snap is quickly turning negative, and it’ll have to intervene quickly to reset it (if it’s able to do so).
Instagram Stories is stealing Snapchat’s users – TechCrunch (Jan 30, 2017)
This would be very bad news if it turns out to be true – celebrities and those who manage celebrity and other accounts on Snapchat claim they’re seeing a significant reduction in views of their Stories on Snapchat as a result of both Instagram’s launch of its own Stories feature and Snapchat’s move to kill the Auto-Advance feature for Stories in its own app. This kind of thing is always worth taking with a pinch of salt – the ranges discussed here are very broad, and some of the data might be outliers – but the trend seems to be consistently downward, and is backed up by some app download data as well. The positive spin from Snap here would be that it’s actually focusing engagement more by only showing users the Stories they actually choose to see, but I’m not sure investors will buy that. Again, any day now we should have some real data from Snap to go on to evaluate engagement and usage, but this is another specific concern they’ll need to address in the S-1 filing. In the meantime, more evidence that Facebook and Instagram’s strategy here is paying off, and that when Facebook broadly launches its own Stories feature the impact could be even more severe.
I’m so looking forward to this filing being made public – it’s always a lot of fun to suddenly be able to dive deep into a formerly private companies finances and metrics. I’m very curious as to what they show and I’ll certainly write an in-depth analysis when I’m done investigating. The things I’m most interested in are revenue run rate and profitability. Snap has been trying to get commitments from media buyers to spend more in 2017, but I’m not sure there will be any evidence of that in the filing, which will typically be backward- rather than forward-looking. I’m assuming Snap isn’t profitable, but just how profitable and what the trajectory looks like there are big questions – Twitter famously still isn’t profitable several years after its IPO, while Facebook is one of the most profitable tech companies out there, so this is another area where Snap will want to demonstrate it’s more like the latter than the former.
Snapchat Is in Talks for Big Ad Deals Ahead of IPO – WSJ (Jan 25, 2017)
Another day, another story about Snap trying to grow its ad revenue, this time focusing on getting up front commitments from major ad agencies’ ad buying arms. Given how nascent Snap’s ad business is, convincing potential investors that it has a predictable run rate for ad spend is critical to a successful IPO, so getting some promises from major buyers to increase spending in 2017 would be a useful first step. But of course that increased spend will only come if the ROI is there, which has been the other piece of this puzzle for Snap over recent months, trying to demonstrate that advertising on Snapchat can be more than just speculative.
Snapchat Is Justifying Its $20 Billion Valuation by Emphasizing User Engagement – Bloomberg (Jan 20, 2017)
This is in some ways part of the same story we heard a while back about Snap positioning itself as another Facebook rather than another Twitter. Facebook is all about engagement, providing numbers on not just monthly but daily active users, and talking up time spent as well. Though Twitter briefly dabbled with metrics like timeline views as an indicator of engagement, it quickly abandoned that metric and has steadfastly refused to provide daily active user numbers, focusing instead on MAUs and directional rather than absolute measures of engagement. Snap clearly wants to avoid those associations with Twitter and so has provided to investors data on engagement across several dimensions, which will hopefully be made available in its S-1 filing when that’s made public too. A key part of the Snapchat value proposition is that its users spend a lot of time on the service, so proving that to investors will be critical.
It’s an interesting change to see a story like this written about a company other than Apple, which is usually the focus of articles about obsessive secrecy. Snap is of course a private company at this point, and so has had to share very little about its business with very few people, but that will all change with its IPO, so it’s going to have to get better at divulging at least some things to its investors. On the other hand, I always feel like the media likes stories about how secrecy makes things harder for companies – perhaps because it makes things harder for reporters – and yet there’s very little evidence to back up the claim. Some of the best companies are the best at keeping secrets about their products, precisely because they want to control the narrative when the products are ready for release, rather than have others write the narrative for them based on leaks and rumors.
One of the most interesting questions Snap has to answer as it approaches a possible IPO is which company will serve as a better benchmark for its potential – Twitter or Facebook. Part of making the pitch for the latter is demonstrating that Snap is more than just a messaging app, which means focusing on its content offerings and partnerships and the potential ad revenue they might drive. Snap’s recent rebranding and launch of Spectacles are all part of a significant evolution of the company and its identity.