Demand Media is the biggest pure-play SEO company in existence. And SEO is one of the fastest-growing marketing channels. So if you want to know what the marketing industry as a whole will look like, the best way to do it would be to take a look at Demand Media’s financial data. That information was available to investors and executives at the firm, but not to everyone else—until now.
From the outside, a talent acquisition looks a little bit like a failure: a founding team got together, launched a product—and couldn’t get traction. The company was liquidated, and its most valuable asset turned out to be the founders’ resumes.
Every career has an “efficient frontier” of compensation. On one end, there’s a job that pays you what you’re worth; on the other end, there’s a job that you know will pay for next month’s rent. In some sectors, you can switch from one to the other at the same company (being a full-commission salesperson instead of a salaried “account manager”). In the technology industry, there’s not a strong tradition of pure incentive-based compensation; I don’t know any designers who will get 10% of the extra revenue from a successful A/B test.
“Good afternoon, sir. I’m a broker with Churnham & Burnham, and I’d like a few moments of your time to discuss an extraordinary investment opportunity. It’s an asset that everyone is buying—your friends, your neighbors, teachers, firemen, doctors, lawyers, and even your humble broker.
“Not only that, but it’s an exceptionally long-lived asset. Once you own it, you’ll be getting dividends for your entire working life.
“While it’s not as cheap as it used to be—in fact, it’s going up in price at about twice the rate of inflation—it’s never been easier to get government-subsidized loans to purchase it. In fact, third parties may pay for some or all of it for you!
“The asset is, of course, a college education. Now, wouldn’t you like to review the prospectus?”
VCs throw money at startups because they’re scalable. With the right model, the thinking goes, you can double your revenue while your expenses rise 10%. Then, you can do it again.
This works pretty well for some companies. Facebook, for example, hit 100 million users in mid 2008, with “more than 600″ employees. Now they have 500 million users, and 1400+ employees. 400% growth in users; 130% growth in employees. That’s exactly the kind of math VCs like to see, and it’s why they were willing to fund Facebook generously in the early stages. Facebook will run into scalability barriers after a while. At some point, the limiting factor is not engineers (a scalable resource) but customer service reps and servers.
For many of the current crop of hot companies, the end of scalability is coming much faster.
In the future, historians will stop using the word “bubble,” because it refers to two opposite phenomena:
• In an equity bubble, investors have limitless optimism about the future. They expect many of the companies they invest in to fail, but believe that the 95th- or 99th-percentile performers will more than make up for this.
• In a credit bubble, investors have limitless faith in the status quo. They expect volatility to decrease, and they believe they can estimate returns with increasing accuracy. If they want higher returns, they know they can use leverage—but for the most part, investors celebrate the middle of the bell curve, and expect the tails to cancel each other out.
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Barrons is a startlingly good magazine. The first year I subscribed, they panned Actrade, a stock I liked (it dropped 50% that day, and was bankrupt within the year), and touted M&F Worldwide, which is now five times higher.
So I tend to pay attention to them.
That Actrade story spoiled me, though. There was a lot of conjecture about the company’s fast growth and low cash flow, which I’d heard before. What was new was that company executives had bought their auditor a fancy Rolex; that’s what drove the stock down. Since then, I’ve paid much closer attention to the incentives people have to tell a story that doesn’t quite correspond with reality. And that’s why the recent Barrons article suggesting that the Washington Post Co. is 50% undervalued made me do a double-take.
The Economics of Advertising: Why Advertising Agencies Used to Be the Best Business in the World (And Why They Never Will Be Again)
There’s only one notably successful business personality who made his money in the ad agency business. He’s an accountant, and that should tell you something. The ad business is simply not a great place for making money.
What makes a company “too big to fail”? The traditional answer is “size”: if a company as big as Bear Stearns or AIG suddenly needs to liquidate, the market will miss their unique role in clearing transactions or making a market. Then, as they dump their extra-special assets, it will cause widespread panic and needless disruption.
I believe that this is entirely wrong. A company becomes too big to fail when it’s a leveraged bet on a universally agreed-upon belief that happens to be false. Read the rest of this entry »