One of the recurring themes in analysis of tech businesses is the role of profit, and most often, the apparent lack of it – or at the very least, the way in which it plays second fiddle to growth. Amazon, one of the most successful global businesses in today’s global economy, famously sacrificed profit for much of its existence in order to focus on long-term growth and expansion. Similarly, Spotify remains laser-focused on growth and market share, almost apologizing when it generated a net profit for the first time in Q4 2018. The logical way to interpret this worldview is that it points to a lack of sustainability in the underlying business models of such tech companies, and that profit is a scarce commodity in the world of tech business. In actual fact, profit is still being made right across the value chain. It is simply not appearing on the balance sheets of tech companies.
Profit, an ‘old world metric’
Back the early 2000s, at Jupiter Communications in my early days as an internet analyst (back when you could actually have that job title), I used to tire of hearing the same line from dotcom start-ups when asked about profitability: “Profit is an old world metric. We measure ourselves by internet-era metrics.” When the dotcom bubble burst and VCs started pulling their money out of the dotcom space, virtually all of those business quickly learned that profit really did matter when the investment dried up. Most of those companies folded very quickly (Amazon being one of a few strong exceptions to the rule). Fast forward nearly two decades and that ‘new world’ mentality is more in evidence than ever before. So, what gives?
The development of finance is one of the most important 21st century events
One of the most important developments in capitalism in the 21st century has been the development of the financial sector, both in terms of the sophistication of products and services and in terms of the sheer scale of value that flows through it. For tech businesses, this has manifested as unprecedented access to finance at all stages of business. Historically, traditional businesses had some access to start-up capital, though it was often debt-based such as taking a bank loan. Fewer new businesses came to market, but those that did had a stronger profit imperative as they needed to service their start-up debt. Tech start-ups now most often have ready access to equity-based finance (i.e. selling a share of their business in return for investment) long before they go to market, and then have the further ability to raise more investment as they build their businesses. This enables companies to focus on growth, product development and brand building at a much faster rate than if they were relying upon organic revenue growth for funding. We wouldn’t have most of the big successful tech companies we do today without this model. The question still remains, however: when and where does profit fit in?
When looking at the financial reports of many tech businesses, net profit is conspicuous by its absence. For example, Uber has warned that it ‘may never be profitable’. This does not mean that profit is not being made, however – it is just found in different places. Take the example of Spotify. It is generating enough gross margin to be able to invest heavily in its business and to pay salaries that are competitive enough to ensure it can build an A-class team. It also generated enough money at its DPO to ensure its founders, investors and record labels all profited from the sale. Meanwhile, Spotify and other streaming services are driving revenue and profit for rightsholders, delivering nearly $10 billion of record label revenue in 2018 alone. Profit is being made by Spotify; it has simply moved across the value chain.
A new commercial ecosystem
The Spotify example illustrates how profit has shifted across the value chain in tech businesses, delivering profit for investors, suppliers and founders. In effect a new ecosystem has evolved in which the new profit centres can support the distribution part of value chain indefinitely. With growth valued over profitability by shareholders, the markets provide further sustenance to the ecosystem.
This model works, until it doesn’t. The big risk factor here is availability of credit. My colleague Tim Mulligan argues that the current availability of credit is the result of an abnormal macro credit cycle rather than a new model of economic sustainability, with interest rates at historical lows. As soon as interest rates go up, VC funding will significantly decrease due to institutional money leaving the VC funds for the equity markets. The corporate debt market will then start to dramatically contract, reducing the working capital available to unprofitable public businesses. On top of this, the cost of holding leveraged positions funded through the short-term money markets will start to become too expensive for many of the existing hedge funds to maintain their positions. An interest-rate driven, financial domino effect could happen very quickly.
Every time we have a bubble we are told that this time it’s different, and it never actually is. The financial component of the value chain can only generate profit as long as its primary cost base – i.e. interest rates – remain low. When they stop making profit, the whole ecosystem crumbles. At which point, tech companies will be well placed to consider the old maxim: revenue is vanity, profit is sanity.