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Above the Crowd

Grubhub and Seamless: Effecting The Elusive Private-Private Merger

Today, Seamless and Grubhub announced the signing of a definitive agreement to merge two of the nation’s premier services for ordering takeout online. As Benchmark is a large institutional investor in Grubhub, we were actively involved in the merger process, and we are quite excited about the potential of the two companies coming together. There are many synergies – different geographic strengths, different core customer bases, and different product strengths. And of course, we are afforded the advantage of greater scale.

Despite that there may be many obvious reasons for any two companies to combine, most private-private mergers (where both companies are private entities) never come to fruition. Public-public, and public-private are actually much easier to consummate. There are many reasons why private-private is so difficult, but allow me to highlight three specific challenges that seem quite prevalent.

 1)    Structural Challenges

Private companies typically have capitalization structures that are very complex. There are common stock, common options, and as many as three to five different layers of preferred stock, each with a specific liquidation preference. Finding a way to meld two complex capital structures is non-trivial, and may require compromise from many parties involved. But institutional investors are loath to give up previously negotiated rights, and this can be especially true when the investor in a competitive company is the one bringing the request. Even melding two separate option programs can be challenging. There are numerous techniques for bringing together two such structures, but none of them are remotely elegant, and they all involve spending many, many hours with lawyers. At the end of the day, structure is not a show stopper, but it creates a very high bar for consideration – you have to really want to make it happen to be able to sit down and sort through the complexity.

 2)    People Challenges

Prior to a merger, you have two separate management teams (with two separate cultures), and in order to merge, you have to agree on who is going to do what, and what each executive’s new title will be. It should come as no surprise that executives are fairly sensitive when it comes to topics of reporting structure and titles. Plus, you have the natural tendency to view any discussion as an “us versus them” type argument, which is not a frame of mind that is conducive to collaboration. The bottom line is that it is very hard to merge two management teams, especially when you consider the contracted time window typically associated with such a discussion. It’s speed dating. As a result, only if you have two teams with a shared vision for the future, and minds that are open to compromise could you ever hope to be successful. Some pretty high-profile mergers have fallen apart because of this issue.

3)    Investor/Founder Mindset Challenges

Most founders and investors typically think about their personal stakes in a private company in terms of “ownership percentage.” An investor may say “we own 22% of the company”, or a founder may note, “I still own 31% of my company.” These same constituents think about the overall company value in terms of dollars. As an example you might hear someone say, “we closed the last round at $100 million post.” When two private companies began discussions on merging, these overall corporate values are often debated. I call this the “dueling blowfish” problem. Private company valuation techniques are particularly specious (this contrasts with a public company that every day has a definitive market capitalization). Anyone can create any number they want (within reason), as there is no one specific formula or metric for such work. Most models are also based on forward forecasts, which offers another avenue for inflation. Basically, everyone uses loose finance arguments to over-inflate their own company’s valuation so that they can demand a bigger slice of the pie of the new company.

The only way around this is to reverse your way of thinking. First, you have to focus on the dollar value of your new stake in the combined company instead of focusing on the specific percentage. Even in a 50/50 scenario, each ownership stake is half what it once was. Assuming the deal is accretive, this should be “no-brainer” math; your new stock in the combined company is worth more than it was before. However, the “ownership” focused mind has a real problem with their stake being reduced so dramatically. Second, you need to only negotiate in terms of percentages (versus dollar value). One company will get X% of the combined company, and one company will get 1-X%. Taking this approach is the only way around the dueling blowfish problem. Assuming both sides think the merger is a good idea (and accretive) the future value is obviously going to be higher. The real question is how do we split the company amongst the two players, and focusing on this out of the gate will save an incredible amount of time.

These are just the challenges that you meet on the way to the altar. Many mergers fail not in the deal process but in the implementation process, as integration is very difficult, especially when it’s a merger of equals. And the human and cultural issues outlined above continue to exist as you attempt to merge two companies into one. Getting the “deal done” is only the beginning.

Once again, I am quite excited about the Grubhub/Seamless merger, and tip my hat to Matt Maloney, Mike Evans, Jonathan Zabusky, and both the Grubhub and Seamless management teams. Had they not started from day one of our discussions with a partnership mindset, we would have never have reached this milestone. I look forward to working with them both, as well as the investors and independent directors from both sides to help take the merged company to new heights.

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  • NYC Needs More Iconic Companies, Fewer Early Exits, VC Says

    By Yuliya Chernova

    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    New York.

    Bill Gurley, partner at Benchmark Capital, leveled a number of serious charges at a ballroom full of New Yorkers this week–the city has yet to produce an iconic venture-backed company, he said. And, he added, people here are more likely to sell early rather than create a true home-run for a venture firm via an IPO.

    Out of the 50 venture-backed companies that raised the most money via sales or IPOs over the years, none were located in New York City and only five were based in the New York region–that is in New Jersey or Connecticut, according to data from Dow Jones VentureSource.

    “What New York needs is more iconic companies that last over a long time,” said Gurley, on stage at Disrupt NY 2013, a conference organized by TechCrunch. Gurley, who said that Benchmark has made two investments in New York recently, compared the city to Seattle, where the top four businesses, MicrosoftAmazonCostco and Starbucks, were all backed by venture capital.

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Above the Crowd

A Rake Too Far: Optimal Platform Pricing Strategy

In a casino, the term “rake” refers to the commission that the house earns for operating a poker game. With each hand, a small percentage of the pot is scraped off by the dealer, which in essence becomes the “revenue” for the casino. While casinos use the term “rake,” a plethora of interesting word choices exist which all describe the same thing – keeping a little bit of the revenue for the company that is running the service. Examples include “commission,” “fee,” “toll,” “tax,” “vig” or “vigorish,” “juice,” “the take”, and “graft” (although this last one is typically associated with corruption in politics).

Many Internet marketplaces also have a rake or vig. The percentage rake is the amount that the marketplace charges as a percentage of GMS (gross merchandise sales), which typically represents net revenues for the marketplace. As an example, eBay’s 2011 marketplace revenues were approximately $6.6B against GMS of approximately $68.6B for a rake percentage of just under 10%. It may seem tautological that a higher rake is always better – that charging more would be better than charging less. But in fact, the opposite may often be true. The most dangerous strategy for any platform company is to price too high – to charge a greedy and overzealous rake that could serve to undermine the whole point of having a platform in the first place.

Before discussing the merits of low rakes versus high rakes, let us first take a look at current examples of different rakes across the Internet. The table above shows estimated rakes for several online businesses as a percentage of GMS. Do not assume that these numbers are specifically accurate as some vendors make these very hard to deduce.*  There is also the added noise of kick-backs that are common in industries like ticketing. You can see very high rakes in the case of iTunes, Facebook, and GroupOn down to especially low rakes for the likes of OpenTable and HomeAway. Amazon marketplace fees are published on their website, and vary by category, but they basically range from 6-15%, so lets say the average is approximately 12%. eBay recently launched an aggressive campaign attacking Amazon’s rate table on a vertical-by-vertical basis (those percentages can be found here). One company with an astonishingly high rake is recently IPOed Shutterstock, a photo-purchasing marketplace where the content owner receives only 30% of gross receipts. As we will argue below, this could in fact be a very fragile situation.

When evaluating new marketplace investments, we are naturally biased towards entrepreneurs who understand the strategic rationale behind the argument for a lower rake. If your objective is to build a winner-take-all marketplace over a very long term, you want to build a platform that has the least amount of friction (both product and pricing). High rakes are a form of friction precisely because your rake becomes part of the landed price for the consumer. If you charge an excessive rake, the pricing of items in your marketplace are now unnaturally high (relative to anything outside your marketplace). In order for your platform to be the “definitive” place to transact, you want industry leading pricing – which is impossible if your rake is the de facto cause of excessive pricing. High rakes also create a natural impetus for suppliers to look elsewhere, which endangers sustainability. These reasons are likely behind the struggles in GroupOn’s core Daily Deals business (North America Third Party Revenue is down in Q4 both YOY and QOQ). With a rake of approximately 38% (and this is “after” asking the merchant to underwrite a 50% discount to the consumer) the recovery from each transaction for the supplier is only 30%, representing an “effective” rake of 70%.

High volume combined with a modest rake is the perfect formula for a true organic marketplace and a sustainable competitive advantage. A sustainable platform or marketplace is one where the value of being in the network clearly outshines the transactional costs charged for being in the network. This way, suppliers will feel obliged to stay on the platform, and consumers will not see prices that are overly burdened by the network provider. Everyone wins in this scenario, but particularly the platform provider. A high rake will allow you to achieve larger revenues faster, but it will eventually represent a strategic red flag – a pricing umbrella that can be exploited by others in the ecosystem, perhaps by someone with a more disruptive business model. As Jeff Bezos is fond of saying, “your margin is my opportunity.”

Many people do not know this, but one of the most amazing Internet success stories is the European division of The Priceline Group, which operates under the brand Booking.com. Booking.com is the unquestioned leader in online travel in Europe, and represents a substantial portion of TPG’s astounding $35B market capitalization. Booking.com was not always the online leader in Europe – in fact they were a disrupter stealing the flag from other large incumbents. In the late 1990’s companies like Expedia and Travelocity had become enamored with what is known as the “merchant model.” Basically, these companies would “package” vacation offerings for the consumer and sell them as a bundled offering. The merchant model could produce a rake of well over 30%, and was therefore attractive to companies like Expedia. Booking.com took a much more aggressive approach (perhaps because it was the only one available) . They started with a 10% “agency model,” which not only represented a lower rake, but also provided better cash flow terms to the supplier. As such, they were able to signup nearly every small hotel in Europe. This resulted in more selection for the consumer and more support from the supplier base. Dennis Schall at  Skift.com has a wonderfully detailed account of how Booking.com came to dominate Europe, along with a more recent article addressing the lingering ramifications of the industry’s natural shift to the lower friction (lower rake) agency model.

It turns out that the average rake at Priceline Group  is even higher today, as they allow merchants to voluntarily bid up their rake for better placement in the network (you can see this in the table above). This is one of my favorite marketplace business model “tweaks.” You start with a low rake to get broad-based supplier adoption, and you add in a market-driven pricing dynamic that allows those suppliers who want more volume or exposure to pay more on an opt-in basis. This way no one leaves the network due to excessive fees, yet you end up with a higher average rake over time due to the competitive dynamic. And when prices go up due to bidding and competition, the suppliers blame their competition not the platform (part of the genius of the Google AdWords business model). This also allows you to extract more dollars from those suppliers who desire to spend more to promote themselves (without raising the tax on those that don’t).

Here is another interesting story related to rakes. In 2006, Benchmark started spending time with Gary Swart and the team at oDesk. We were quite enamored with their marketplace for skilled global talent, and were amazed at how the tools in their online workplace allowed customers to hire, manage, and pay for work from distributed teams. Combined with a bidding and reputation system, oDesk had built an “ebay for work.” At the same time, there were several larger players in the market such as Freelancer and Rent-a-coder. After discussing competition at length, the team came upon the idea of lowering the commission from 30% (which was standard in the industry) to 10% of overall costs. We were excited to hear such aggressive strategic thinking from the team, and they were excited to hear from an investor with a long-term perspective (this change obviously reduced current period revenue to 1/3 of its current level).  The rest is history. By 2009 oDesk surpassed the nearest competitor, and they are now the clear leader (larger than their top competitors combined) in the rapidly emerging “online work” industry.

All of which leads us to two very interesting rake examples that are front and center in today’s Internet – Facebook and Apple. Both of these companies charge a hefty 30% fee for transactions on their platform. Because most of the developers building on these platforms make software, the developers do not experience immediate pain when they share 30% of top-line revenue. After all, marginal costs are near zero, and therefore the fee is tolerable. But the real question is: Does the 30% marketplace on top of the platform help to reinforce the strategic positioning of the platform itself? Or is it merely a revenue extraction exercise? And if so, is there a risk that a “rake too far” could be a net-negative from a strategic standpoint?
Let’s start with Facebook. For the first several years, Facebook’s application platform was a smashing success. The distribution power of their pervasive platform proved a remarkable vehicle for many companies; particularly games companies. The platform was so successful so quickly that many early adopters of the platform rocketed to hundreds of millions in sales. Zynga, which was particularly adept at surfing the Facebook wave, catapulted to $1 billion in revenue in its sixth year of existence! Everything looked incredible. Fast-forward to today (only a few years later), and games companies are no longer betting their whole company on Facebook. Oddly, they are aggressively and strategically looking to expand non-FB distribution.

It is really hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. One might question Facebook’s commitment to being a game platform. Some might also highlight the lack of breadth in its success, and argue that Zynga had it “too good” versus other players in the field. And some might point to the rise of mobile which created a difficult platform transition for Facebook (which we will address shortly). In addition to these issues, there is also a strong argument that 30% was simply an excessive rake.

When you consider that many of these same game companies were also large buyers of Facebook’s ad products, it suggests that the “actual” rake, the real cost of being competitive on the platform, was much higher than 30%. Given Facebook’s position as the leading global social network with high barriers to entry, there was no need to maximize revenue on day one. It was far more important to prove the platform as a viable and efficient distribution mechanism for a broad range of products and services, and to convince all partners of the unquestioned efficacy of the platform itself.

Last November, Zynga and Facebook together renegotiated their previous long-term business agreement. According to the old agreement, Zynga was required to shell out 30% of their revenue even if they generated revenue “off Facebook”.  That is a very aggressive rake. Now Zynga is freed from many commitments it had made to the Facebook platform, and is allowed to build independent revenue streams outside of Facebook. The reality is that Zynga is still highly dependent on Facebook. However, Zynga shareholders are now tracking Zynga’s percentage of revenue tied to Facebook and consider it a positive if they can reduce this dependency. The bottom line is that the entire gaming industry has lost some of its enthusiasm for the Facebook platform, and it will be difficult for Facebook to recreate the magic and momentum they once had.

The Apple case is more extreme as the impact is more consequential. Despite the fact that Apple had/has industry leading hardware margins on its incredible computing products, Apple felt the need to take 30% of the revenue that was created by its app ecosystem as well as 30% of the revenue from media rentals and sales. In retrospect, demanding to be paid on both sides was a sign of overconfidence. However, the truth is they made this work for a very long time. Many companies, thriving on the Apple platform, didn’t exist and wouldn’t exist were it not for iOS. For itself, Apple has created billions and billions of high margin revenue and corresponding bottom line profits as a result of the amazing success of its 30% rake. All of which helped catapult Apple to the very top of the business hierarchy – the largest market capitalization company in the world.

The single-biggest problem with Apple’s aggressively high rake was its impact on potential long-term strategic partnerships. Specifically, two companies that potentially could have helped to reinforce the success of the iOS platform blinked, paused, and then went on to support a competitive platform. Both Amazon and Facebook could have been and should have been BFFs with Apple. And if Apple could go back in time, they would surely opt to be BFFs also. The most threatening company for all three players was clearly Google. However, Amazon owns a digital media business built around Kindle. And Facebook, as discussed, has a 30% rake business helping game developers distribute and monetize games throughout its network. When Facebook and Amazon read the terms of service of the iOS platform, and came to grips with the reality of the 30% rake, they saw an instant road-block – a show-stopper to their potential success on that platform. It was very hard to imagine their business model and Apple’s business model coexisting, and so they eventually punted on a full commitment to iOS.

The bottom line is they could have been amazing partners. If Apple had a lower rake, or even had they been less obstinate about their existing rake, a partnership could have formed (ask anyone in Hollywood – “splits” can solve any problem). iOS could have been both the definitive Facebook mobile device, AND the definitive Amazon shopping device. They could have been integrated from the beginning at a deep level: your social network in contacts; your Amazon 1-click credentials a fingertip away. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerburg, and Steve Jobs on a stage together talking about the truly amazing things these companies have done together. It could have been awesome. But it didn’t play out that way.

Instead, as you are aware, Facebook’s new Home mobile application is available only on Google’s Android, Apple’s key nemesis of the past decade. There are currently no plans to offer Home on iOS, and Eric Schmidt, Google’s esteemed Chairman, cheered along in appreciation at the recent Dive Into Mobile Conference, “I think it’s fantastic — I love it,” Schmidt said. Instead of becoming a platform differentiator for Apple, Facebook is now aiding and abetting Apple’s only real competition.

The Amazon situation vis-a-vis Apple is more severe. In stiff-arming Amazon over its “30%” Apple not only alienated a key partner but launched a competitor. Amazon has obviously designed its Kindle Fire system on top of an Android variant. But that is only half the problem. Amazon, in true Amazon fashion, is now attacking Apple’s exposed business underbelly: the fat margins they receive by charging both high hardware margins and a high rake on content. As outlined in its recent Letter to Shareholders, Amazon does not believe that its customer should have to pay fat margins on hardware AND content. “Our business approach is to sell premium hardware at roughly breakeven prices. We want to make money when people use our devices – not when people buy our devices.” Amazon plans to subsidize the hardware platform and live solely on the content margin. The 30% rake basically launched a nasty competitor with a disruptive pricing model.

Number one on the list of Peter Drucker’s Five Deadly Business Sins is “Worship of high profit margins and premium pricing.” As Drucker notes: “The worship of premium pricing always creates a market for the competitor. And high profit margins do not equal maximum profits. Total profit is profit margin multiplied by turnover. Maximum profit is thus obtained by the profit margin that yields the largest total profit flow…” Most venture capitalists encourage entrepreneurs to price-maximize, to extract as much rent as they possibly can from their ecosystem on each transaction. This is likely short-sighted. There is a big difference between what you can extract versus what you should extract. Water runs downhill.

*Please let us know if you have other names you would add to the table, or if there are numbers you think need correcting. I will update the table and put the rolling updates in the answer to this quora post on the same topic.

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Above the Crowd

By Bill Gurley

The Dangerous Seduction of the Lifetime Value (LTV) Formula

September 4, 2012: Many consumer Internet business executives are loyalists of the Lifetime Value model, often referred to as the LTV model or formula. Lifetime value is the net present value of the profit stream of a customer. This concept, which appears on the surface to be quite benign, is typically used to compare the costs of acquiring a customer (often referred to as SAC, which stands for Subscriber Acquisition Costs) with the discounted positive cash flows that will come from that customer over time. As long as the sum of the discounted future cash flows are significantly higher than the SAC, then people will argue it is warranted to “push the accelerator,” which typically means burning capital by aggressively spending on marketing.

This is a simplified version of the formula:

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The key statistics are as follows:

  • ARPU (average revenue per user)
  • Avg. Cust. Lifetime, n (This is the inverse of the churn, n=1/[annual churn])
  • WACC (weighted average cost of capital)
  • Costs (annual costs to support the user in a given period)
  • SAC (subscriber acquisition costs, sometimes refereed to as CAC = customer acquisition costs)

The LTV formula, when used correctly, can be a good tactical tool for monitoring and comparing like-minded variable market programs, especially across channels. But like any model, its proper use is entirely dependent on the assumptions used in that model. Also, people who have a hidden agenda or who confuse a model with reality can misuse it. For many companies that subscribe to its wisdom, the formula slowly takes on more importance than it should. Seduced by the model, its practitioners often lose sight of the more important elements of corporate strategy, and become narrowly fixated on the dogmatic execution of the formula. In these cases, the formula can be confused, misused, and abused, much to the detriment of the business, and in many cases the customer as well.

Here are ten reasons to avoid worshiping at the LTV altar:

  1. It’s a Tool, Not a Strategy.  Heavy LTV companies forget that the LTV model does not create sustainable competitive advantage. You shouldn’t’ confuse output with input. The LTV formula is a measurement tool to be used by marketing to test the effectiveness of their marketing spend – nothing more and nothing less. If one asserts that buying customers below what they charge them is a corporate strategy, this is in essence an arbitrage game, and arbitrage games rarely last. Too many of the variables (specifically ARPU and SAC) are outside of your control, and nothing would prevent another player from executing the exact same strategy. It’s not rocket science; it’s a formula that any business school graduate can calculate. Do not fool yourself into believing it creates a proprietary advantage.
  2. The LTV Model Is Used To Rationalize Marketing Spending.  Marketing executives like big budgets, as big budgets make it easier to grow the top line.  The LTV formula “relaxes” the need for near term profitability and “justifies” the ability to play it forward – to spend today for benefits that are postponed into the future. It is no coincidence that companies that put a heavy emphasis on LTV are also the ones that have massive losses as they scale, frequently even through an IPO. Consider that most companies limit any “affiliate fee” they would be willing to spend to 5-10% of sales. Yet when they are marketing, they use different math. They use LTV math, and all the sudden it’s acceptable to spend 30-50% of revenue on customer acquisition. Find the most boisterous executive recommending excessive spending, and you will usually find a loyal servant of the LTV religion.
  3. The Model is Confused and Misused. Frequently the same group that is arguing for more spending is the same one that “owns” the LTV calculation. (This is a mistake – finance should monitor LTV).  As a result, it is not uncommon for one to see shortcuts taken that allow for greater freedom. As an example, marketers often divide spend by total customers to calculate SAC rather than just those customers that were “purchased.” If you have organic customers, they shouldn’t be included in the spend calculus. They would have arrived regardless of spend. Also, many people discount “revenues” rather than marginal cash contribution. It is critical to bundle all future variable costs of supporting the customer in order to fairly estimate the future contribution. As an example of the sloppiness that exists around the formula, consider this blog post (http://blog.kissmetrics.com/how-to-calculate-lifetime-value/) from KISS metrics, a company whose aim is to “help you make smarter business decisions.” Not only do they include a version of the model that specifically ignores future costs, but also they recommend taking an average of three different results, two of which are clearly flawed. This voodoo-math has no place as part of a multi-million dollar marketing exercise.
  4. Business Isn’t Physics – The Formula Is Not Absolute. LTV zealots often hold an overly confident view of the predictive nature of the formula. It’s not “hard science” like say predicting gravity. It’s at best a “good guess” about how the future will unfold. Businesses are complex adaptive systems that cannot be modeled with certainty. The future LTV results are simply predictions based on many assumptions that may or may not hold. Yet the LTV practitioner often moves forward with a brazen naiveté, evocative of the first time stock buyer who just found out about the price/earnings ratio, or the newcomer to Vegas who has just been taught the basics of twenty-one. LTV models win arguments because executives perceive them to be grounded in science. Just because its math, doesn’t mean its good math.
  5. The LTV Variables “Tug” at One Another. This may be the single most important issue and it lies at the heart of why the LTV model eventually breaks down and fails to scale ad infinitum. Tren Griffin, a close friend that has worked for both Craig McCaw and Bill Gates refers to the five variables of the LTV formula as the five horsemen. What he envisions is that a rope connects them all, and they are all facing different directions. When one horse pulls one way, it makes it more difficult for the other horse to go his direction. Tren’s view is that the variables of the LTV formula are interdependent not independent, and are an overly simplified abstraction of reality. If you try to raise ARPU (price) you will naturally increase churn. If you try to grow faster by spending more on marketing, your SAC will rise (assuming a finite amount of opportunities to buy customers, which is true). Churn may rise also, as a more aggressive program will likely capture customers of a lower quality. As another example, if you beef up customer service to improve churn, you directly impact future costs, and therefore deteriorate the potential cash flow contribution. Ironically, many company presentations show all metrics improving as you head into the future. This is unlikely to play out in reality.
  6. Growing Becomes a Grind. Let’s say you have a company that estimates it will do $100mm in revenue this year, $200mm the next, and $400mm the year after that. In order to accomplish those goals it is going to invest heavily in marketing – say 50% of revenues. So the budget for the next three years is $50mm, $100mm, and $200mm. How realistic is it to assume that your SAC will drop as you 4X your spend? Supply and demand analysis suggests the exact opposite outcome. As you try to buy more and more of a limited good, the price will inherently increase. The number one place on the planet for marketing spend is Google Adwords, and make no mistake about it, this is an increasingly finite resource. Click-outs are not growing at a meaningful pace, and key word purchases are highly contested. Assuming you will “get better” at buying while trying to buy more is a daunting assumption. The game will likely get tougher not easier.
  7. Purchased Customers Underperform Organic on Almost Every Metric. Organic users typically have a higher NPV, a higher conversion rate, a lower churn, and more satisfied than customers acquired through marketing spend. LTV heavy companies are in denial about this point. In fact, many of them will argue until they are blue in the face that the customer dynamics are the same while this is rarely the case. A customer that “chooses” your firm’s services will be much more staisfied than one that is persuaded to buy your product through spend. Find any high-marketing spend consumer subscription company, and I will show you a company with numerous complaints at the Better Business Bureau. These are companies that make it almost impossible to terminate your subscription. When you are scheming on how to trap the customer from finding the exit you are not building a long-term brand.
  8. The Money Could Go to the Customer.Think about this. If you are a company that spends millions and millions of dollars on marketing, wouldn’t you be better off handing that money to the customer versus handing it to a third-party who has nothing to do with the future life-time value of the customer? Providing a better value-proposition to the customer is much more likely to endure goodwill than spending on marketing. A heavy marketing spend necessitates a higher margin (to cover the spend), and therefore a higher end user price to the customer! So the customer is negatively impacted by the presence or “need” of the marketing program. Plus, a margin umbrella now exists for competition that chooses to undercut your margin model with a more efficient customer acquisition strategy (such as giving the customer the money).“More and more money will go into making a great customer experience, and less will go into shouting about the service. Word of mouth is becoming more powerful. If you offer a great service, people find out.” – Jeff Bezos
  9. LTV Obsession Creates Blinders. Many companies that obsess over LTV, become overwhelmed by LTV. In essence, the formula becomes a blinder that restricts creativity and open-mindedness. Some of the most efficient forms of marketing are viral, social, and effective PR (public relations). Most companies that obsess about LTV are less skilled at these more leveraged techniques. Ironically, it’s the scrappy and capital starved startup with absolutely no marketing budget that typically finds a clever way to scale growth organically.  I love this historic slide from Skype comparing their SAC with that of Vonage, an iconic disciple of LTV analysis.
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10. Tomorrow Never Arrives.  The Utopian destination imagined by the LTV formula is a mirage. It almost never works out as planned in the long run. Either growth begins to slow, or you run out of capital to continue to fund losses, or Wall Street cries uncle and asks to see profitability. When this happens the frailty of the model begins to appear. SAC is a little higher than expected. You met your growth target, but the projected loss was bigger than expected. Wall Street is hounding you for churn numbers, but you are reluctant to give them out. The lack of transparency then leads to cynicism, and everyone assumes the worse. It turns out that the excessive marketing spend was also propping up repeat purchase, and pulling back to achieve profitability is increasing churn. Moreover, a negative PR cycle has ensued as a result of your stock decline, and the press’ new doubts about your model. This also impacts results, and customer perception of your brand. The bottom line is that “one day we can stop spending and be remarkably profitable” rarely comes to fruition.

It is not impossible to create permanent equity value with the LTV approach, but it’s a dangerous game of timing – you don’t want to be the peak investor. Let’s say a new business starts with an early market capitalization of A (see graph below). Through aggressive marketing techniques, and aggressive fund raising, the company is able to achieve amazing revenue growth (and corresponding losses), but nonetheless creates a rather sizable organization. At this point, the company is value at point B. Eventually, however, gravity ensues and the constraints outlined herein raise their head, resulting in a collapse to point C.  For early founders and investors at point A, they may do OK (as long as C>A), but it will be accomplished on the backs of later stage investors that helped fund the unsustainable push to point B. This is the story of many a telecom and cable provider expansion history, as well as a few recent Internet companies.

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This should not be misconstrued as a eulogy for the LTV formula. It has a very important place in business as a way to contrast and compare alternative marketing programs and channels. It is a tactical marketing tool that requires candor and thoroughness in its implementation. The fundamental reason that it is so amazingly dangerous and seductive is its simplicity and certainty. Generic marketing is conceptual. LTV marketing is specific. Building a plan to grow to a million users organically is an order of magnitude more difficult than doing it with the aid of the LTV formula. There is comfort in its determinism, and it is simply easier to do.

Some people wield the LTV model as if they were Yoda with a light saber; “Look at this amazing weapon I know how to use!” Unfortunately, it is not that amazing, it’s not that unique to understand, and it is not a weapon, it’s a tool. Companies need a sustainable competitive advantage that is independent of their variable marketing campaigns. You can’t win a fight with a measuring tape.

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