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Article from GigaOm.

Ross Levinsohn, appointed Sundayas interim CEO, doesn’t have to learn Yahoo — he’s spent the last 18 months immersed in it.

And he doesn’t have to learn digital media — from helping to create online sports powerhouses at CBS Sportsline and Fox, to building a $1 billion-plus digital portfolio for Rupert Murdoch, to launching and investing companies through his own private equity fund, he’s covered the digital media waterfront and then some.

He’s Hollywood and Santa Monica but he speaks fluent Silicon Valley.

Most important, he knows Yahoo is a media company — and he knows how to sell it that way. Of all the things he found when he joined Yahoo in late 2010, the most disconcerting was how much the company was doing right and how very bad it was at making that count. Here’s how he put it during an interview with paidContent last year as he emerged from a quiet period:

“I spent six months digging into the company making sure I’m not crazy — and I’m not crazy.

“Yahoo is the premier digital company in the world and embracing that isn’t a hard thing to do. That’s just fact-based. Tell me what other type of media can sit with you and say ‘I’ve got the top 19 #1 or #2 newspapers, I’ve got the top 20 shows, I’ve got the 19 of the top 20 radio stations, 19 of the top 20 magazines’?

“Duh. But you have to fully embrace that. You can’t half-ass that.”

Last fall, he took the stage at paidContent Advertising to pitch the company. The interview came just days after Carol Bartz, who hired him to head media and ad sales for The Americas, was fired. At the time, he was considered a leading internal candidate for CEO. He talked about Yahoo’s need for “a little bravado, a little swagger”:

“Yahoo is a huge, mature, gigantic business. Some of that is overlooked right now. Businesses grow at different rates. We’re 16 years old and we’ve been on top for 15 years. It’s hard to maintain that. When you think of entertainment and gossip, you think of TMZ, but OMG is twice as big with 30 million users a month and still growing. But no-one knows that.”

Levinsohn’s biggest coup at News Corp. was acquiring MySpace from under Viacom’s nose for $580 million in 2005. In hindsight, given how MySpace panned out, perhaps it was anything but a coup — but, at the time, it was transformative, and as big a statement as News Corp. could make about being in the digital game.

Here’s how Levinsohn described it when we talked about why MySpace wasn’t a fit for Yahoo in 2011:

“We bought a social networking site in 2005, before anyone knew what social networking was and now look at where social networking is — so if you look at the trendline we were way head of the game.

“When we bought it, it was doing about $1 million a month; 24 months later we were on a run rate to do $500 million a year. You’d have to say that was a pretty good trajectory.

“Users went from, when we bought it, to 70,000 signups a day (which I thought was astounding), to the month I left about 450,000 signups a day. So again, trajectory, unbelievable.”

Levinsohn was replaced at Fox Interactive when it switched from M&A to operating mode. He’s been battling against perceptions ever since that that he’s not an ops guy.

In addition to rebuilding the internal sales organization and partnering with AOL and Microsoft in a digital sales alliance, and with his top media exec Mickie Rosen setting up a series of high-profile original content deals, Levinsohn has been out telling that story. Not the one of the company that can’t shoot straight – the one about the media company at its core.

Since then, he’s interviewed Tom Hanks to promote a new Yahoo original, been on stage with Katie Couric at the Yahoo digital upfront last month and a few days later being photographed with Sophia Vergara during the White House Correspondents Dinner festivities. He upgraded and expanded an existing relationship with ABC News.

Levinsohn hasn’t left M&A behind but he insists Yahoo doesn’t need a big acquisition to fix its problems, although, if he could have found a way, Hulu would be a Yahoo property. Look at him to focus on making the pieces Yahoo already has fit better, pick up tuck-in acquisitions — and finally decide whether Yahoo should be in the ad tech business or sell it.

Until now, everything he’s done at Yahoo has been in the shadow of CEOs making the final decisions on resources and setting the overall tone. Now — at least for the interim — Yahoo is Levinsohn’s Pottery Barn. He told Yahoos in a lengthy internal e-mail Sunday:

“I know there is one thing we should definitely all be doing in light of this news, and that is to focus on the momentum we’ve created over the last few months.

“Many of you have heard me talk about the possibilities we have, and about the opportunities in front of us. In spite of the very bumpy road we’ve traveled, we are achieving genuine and meaningful successes in the marketplace every day and heading in the right direction.”

What he’ll have to decide now is whether to spend the next months acting as CEO or auditioning for it. Here’s Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt’s advice, following a Forbes piece by outspoken Yahoo shareholder and tech writer Eric Jackson:

I agree Ross run it like you are the permanent CEO not interim. Own it forbes.com/sites/ericjack…

And, yes, that is the same Richard Rosenblatt who was the CEO that sold MySpace to News Corp., then bought back some of the pieces that helped build Demand Media.

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Article from BusinessInsider

“You’re walking around blind without a cane, pal. A fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place.” – Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street”

A week before Groupon’s initial public offering, Henry Blodget was telling readers he wouldn’t touch it with a 50-foot pole for reasons that amounted to, “It’s an insider’s game.”

As Blodget expected, insiders were indeed the big winners. Investors who bought at the peak that opening day are now down about 20 percent since then. The only good news for investors: at least they’re not in the territory of Demand Media, which now trades about 70 percent below its first day of trading back in January.

Investing in IPOs today screams “caveat emptor.” But do we listen? The prospect of investing in something that all our friends are using seems to be as irresistible as super-sizing a fast-food meal — and can be equally bad for our (fiscal) health.

There’s also the view that if people are buying things they don’t understand, they should lose their money. It’s called capitalism, redeploying money to smarter people so it can be invested more intelligently.

Better Ways To Invest?

I agree that capitalism should not reward stupidity but we also should make it a little safer for non-insiders to invest. Why not increase transparency and let outsiders see what’s really going on in a company?

Perhaps it’s time for the equivalent of nutritional content labels on investments that outline, in plain language, just how much risk we’re taking. And maybe it’s time we also start asking if there are better ways to invest, not just for us but the health of our planet. That’s happening now with a growing trend called “impact investing,” defined as for-profit investment made to solve social and environment problems.

TonyGreenbergImg“Impact investing will need to scale to an enormous level for these solutions to be achievable,” said Eric Kessler, founder and principal at Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors, which advises philanthropies like Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation and touches nearly $1 billion in grant and impact investment portfolios a year for. “Profitable, socially-driven businesses are the only sustainable solution. Philanthropists are awakening to that now and transforming themselves into impact investors.”

As things currently stand, it’s turned into a bit of the Wild West for investors. In an era of Occupy Wall Street and too many investing scandals, the impulse is to blame fraud or at least insiders who take liberties at the expense of the rest of us.

True, neither Groupon nor its underwriters held a gun to anyone’s head to buy a single share. Key information, from insiders taking money out to decelerating revenue growth, was thoroughly and publicly documented, as per all SEC regulations and rules.

But months before Groupon went public, breathless news stories were estimating a $25 billion valuation for the site. By the time the IPO put real numbers on those estimates, Groupon was valued at $13 billion instead, but even that seems optimistic for an unprofitable company founded three years ago.

Sky-High Valuations

Groupon is not the only example of misplaced “IPO-ptimism.” Zynga, the online game company, was reportedly seeking a $20 billion valuation. It now expects to go public with an estimated value of about $14 billion, though some seasoned analysts think $5 billion is more realistic. Facebook valuations currently range from $60 billion to $80 billion, up from $500 million just four years ago, though the social media behemoth has yet to announce when in 2012 it may actually go public.

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Ask a venture capitalist about these sky-high valuations and their response ranges from a shrug of their shoulders to a gleam in their eye. The bottom line, though, is they don’t know what to think. This is uncharted territory, with companies only a few years old riding huge valuations to ridiculous riches, at least for a few.

“The biggest risk I see in today’s extraordinary Internet company valuations is the short length of time these companies have been in business,” said William Edward Quigley, co-founder and managing director of Clearstone Venture Partners.  “The longer a company has been operating, the more secure its competitive position in the market and the more predictable its revenues.  Predictability is a core ingredient in successful public companies.”

Quigley points to LinkedIn, which went public after a full decade of operations, with a seasoned executive team, strong internal and financial systems and a proven business model. Groupon, by contrast, has had none of those advantages.

“A pubic investor should be more cautious when investing in companies that are still figuring out their business.” Quigley says.

IPOs Hit The Skids

This brings us back to what we are investing in and whether those investments are wise. One recent report looked at the dismal performance of new companies in the IPO market. During the past 15 years, the number of young companies entering capital markets through IPOs has plummeted relative to historic patterns, hobbling job creation.

The report, “Rebuilding the IPO On-Ramp,” also had a number of recommendations, including the need “to improve the availability and flow of information for investors.”

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Regulations have driven up costs for young companies looking to go public, the report says. At the same time, institutional investors are leery of buying stock in startups because their risk levels are much higher.

“Right now, there is very little capital available to these emerging companies,” said Wall Street investor Terren Peizer, chairman of Socius Capital Group. Peizer said more than 4,000 publicly traded companies have market capitalizations of less than $300 million each. Companies that small just aren’t attractive to choosy institutional investors.

“These companies are unable to attract capital on viable terms, if at all,” said Peizer. “Increased regulatory pressure has had the unintended consequence of choking off capital access for the small companies.”

“In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules … and this is something that the public really doesn’t understand. It’s impossible for a violation to go undetected.” – Bernard Madoff

All of this leads me to hope there will be a greater emphasis on impact investing, which may be help resolve these problems.

The Rockefeller Foundation started looking at these issues in 2008 when it developed a set of guidelines for “Impact Investing and Investment Standards,” or IRIS. As part of the process, the foundation developed a common reporting language for impact-related terms and metrics.

Out of IRIS came the Global Impact Investing Network Investors’ Council. GIIN was set up to identify how investor funds define, track, and report the social and environmental performance of their capital, in a way that’s transparent and credible.

In my company, which deals with similar issues of managing risk in an opaque environment, I’ve learned that it’s not about making a single right decision. Instead, it’s about hedging, diversifying, and understanding your risk vs. reward. It’s also about doing what’s right.

So much of what’s wrong with the investing picture today stems from the basic human impulses of fear and greed. People are afraid they will miss out on something big, which is the attitude that helped puff up the housing bubble. And that fear leads to greed, as people pay big bucks now, hoping to reap huge returns later.

Perhaps it’s time we put fear and greed back into the bottle and focus on how to invest for a better tomorrow that makes all of us winners.”

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Article from SFGate.

In recent years, LinkedIn, Groupon and Demand Media all suggested they were profitable while privately held. But when the businesses were forced to file audited financial statements as they prepared to go public, those years or quarters in the black mysteriously vanished.

That’s just one of many reasons why it’s disturbing to see legislators hard at work on laws that would actually make it easier for companies to seek investments without also providing thorough and transparent financial data. And it’s why the proposals demand serious scrutiny.

This week, Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Tom Carper, D-Del., introduced a bill that would raise the number of shareholders that companies are allowed to have before being forced to routinely disclose finances. Under the proposal, the threshold would rise from 500 to 2,000, minus employees.

Companies often feel compelled to go public when they near the 500 mark, because the disclosure requirements are nearly the same as those for a public company. Observers were quick to note that the law could ease IPO pressure on businesses like Facebook, which is bumping up against that threshold, further inflating private trading markets without adding any financial clarity.

“Lots of companies with fairly substantial market capitalizations would avoid the transparency of being reporting companies,” said John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University.

Crowd funding

Separately this week, the House approved legislation proposed by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., that would allow small businesses to raise capital through what is called crowd funding. That would mean startups could solicit investments from a pool of small investors, not just high-net-worth investors.

Individuals could invest the lesser of $10,000 or 10 percent of their annual income. As long as the firms raise less than $1 million a year, they could provide scant if any financial disclosures (though they would have to highlight the risky nature of the offerings).

Meanwhile, the private-equity and investment-banking industries are pushing for even bigger changes. Last month, a group calling itself the IPO Task Force – including representatives from Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati – submitted an audacious wish list for policymakers.

Complaining about the paucity of IPOs in recent years, it recommended a looser set of rules for “emerging growth companies” with less than $1 billion in annual gross revenue.

These companies would be able to take advantage of a five-year “on-ramp” period that would reduce requirements for disclosures of historical financial data. The bill would also exempt companies from regulations concerning shareholder voting rights on executive compensation and loosen rules regarding analyst conflicts of interests.

Some corporate governance experts think the very premise of an on-ramp is flawed.

The first five years “is exactly when you would need to have the best disclosures,” said Charles Elson, director of the center for corporate governance at the University of Delaware.

The argument in favor of these proposals is that freeing companies from onerous regulations put in place in recent years would allow them to more easily build capital, accelerate innovation and create jobs.

Advocates for the task force recommendations contend that the rules are directly responsible for the decline in IPOs in recent years. Without that potential payday, venture capitalists and other investors have less incentive to take chances on young companies.

“Given the urgency to get America back on the path to economic growth, we need to get capital back in the hands of companies that create jobs,” said Kate Mitchell, chair of the task force and managing director of Scale Venture Partners, in a statement.

These are all tantalizing promises in the current economic climate. But we’ve seen again and again why transparent information is critical for the investing public..

Shareholders of Enron lost $11 billion and employees saw their life savings evaporate when it turned out the company was hiding billions in shell firms and fudging its balance sheet.

More recently, Lehman Bros., Bear Stearns and AIG crashed and nearly took the global financial system with them after losing highly leveraged, complicated and opaque bets on toxic mortgages.

These economic crises prompted laws like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which required more thorough disclosures of things like off-balance-sheet transitions. Similarly, the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, granted greater oversight of complex instruments like credit default swaps.

Watering down

But political memories are short, and the instinct to enact reforms to prevent future catastrophes fades as constituents shift their frustrations to stubborn unemployment rates. And so now, we see proposals to water down the protections that were just passed.

From the moments these rules went into effect, industry has lamented how the burdensome and expensive regulations harm business and discourage IPOs. But maybe these things should be burdensome and expensive.

There’s a great responsibility that goes along with accepting millions of dollars from college endowments, pension funds, mom-and-pop stock pickers and, yes, even accredited investors.

I’d submit that the decline in IPOs had at least as much to do with the market crashes brought about by dot-com pump-and-dump schemes and the subprime mortgage and derivatives fiasco.

In other words, the private-equity and investment-banking industries haven’t exactly proven themselves worthy of lighter regulations. On the contrary, they’ve repeatedly demonstrated an unconscionable eagerness to get away with exactly as much as they can, even at immense cost to the broader economy.

Obviously, this isn’t universally true, and not all startups, venture capitalists or investment banks should be tarnished by the acts of a few. But the best way for the rest of us to know the difference is through crystal-clear transparency.”

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