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No. 333: Food52 and Linear Commerce

There have been few meaningful exits over 13 years. As such, questions surrounding the direct-to-consumer industry’s lack of exits have reached fever pitch. Investors have long questioned the viability of marketplaces and DTC brands. Initially pitched as technology companies, platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce streamlined the technical requirements for many go-to-market strategies. This left many investors questioning defensibility, proprietary advantages, or the value of a brand’s intellectual property – if any.  With many DTC companies raising capital with the intention of growing like software companies, it begs the question: do they understand their true value? The short answer is no.

When venture capitalist Fred Wilson published his thoughts on the Great Public Market Reckoning, he set the stage for an important discussion on the valuations venture-backed companies. WeWork’s 2018 revenue was $1.8 billion on $1.9 billion in losses. In August 2019, America’s finest investment banks were selling consumer investors the story that the company’s discounted cash flows (DCF) justified a $47 billion valuation at IPO.

If the product is software and thus can produce software gross margins (75% or greater), then it should be valued as a software company. If the product is something else and cannot produce software gross margins then it needs to be valued like other similar businesses with similar margins, but maybe at some premium to recognize the leverage it can get through software.

Softbank, WeWork’s latest investor, believed that the company could eventually exceed $100 billion in value. As of today, that IPO filing has been shelved indefinitely; the IPO prospectus that once valued the company at nearly $50 billion has been rescinded. WeWork is back to the drawing board and on a hunt for a healthy EBITDA, as its likely that a company like that will be judged by a different standard. This may be a difficult path. The coworking company maintains 20% gross margins. Until recently, the cognitive dissonance between value and valuation continued to widen.

Peloton is trading at 6x revenues, rather than the 7-8 that underwriters intended. Based on their gross margins (46%), it’s likely that the multiple will 5x. Lyft maintains a 39% gross margin; Lyft is trading at 4-5x and may eventually fall to somewhere between 3-4x. The commonality shared by Lyft, Uber, and Peloton is the software leverage that they share. Each of the three maintains a software angle that places a premium on their respective valuations.

For many DTC brands,  that same leverage rarely exists.  For every StitchFix, there are dozens of retailers that fall witin that range. These are companies without much technical IP, if any at all. This is a gift and a curse. Shopify has streamlined many of the requirements that would have required a technical cofounder just a decade ago. It’s for this reason that tech’s multiples of revenue shouldn’t be the measure at all. Online retailers are EBITDA businesses. And it’s time that the category optimizes for improved gross margins and sustainability. This may mean less venture capital raised and slower growth over a longer time horizon.

Venture capital isn’t right for many business but if you do want to raise from a VC at some point you need to understand that often investors care more about growth than profits. They don’t want high burn rates but they will never fund slow growth. [1]

The public market’s rebuke of WeWork is just one of the latest hits to the private market’s penchant for marketing overestimated valuations. In online retail, there is a key adjustment that can be made to better position the DTC industry for exit optionality. The first of which is to learn community building from digital media publishers.

A common DTC multiple of revenue is 1.5-2x. The Steve Madden acquisition of Greats Brand was reportedly within this range. A $13 million revenue year resulted in a sale for $20-25 million. A common marketplace multiple of revenue is 2-4x, this is a company like Chewy.com or StitchFix.com. A common multiple of revenue for a commerce-first media brand is 3-7x. Glossier has been valued at over $1 billion with a revenue total ranging between $100 – $150 million. For tech companies, SaaS has a premium. In some cases, 10x revenue multiples.  For retailers, valuation multiples are influenced by organic audiences.

Linear Commerce and Revenue Multiples

Food52 is a member of a new breed of digital platform, one that combines commerce and media operations. This aids diversificaton of revenue channels while minimizing the rising costs of traditional customer acquisition. It is not easy but it can be rewarding. There are a number of publishers in this category, to include: Barstool Sports, Uncrate, Highsnobiety, Hypebeast, and Hodinkee. And remember, Glossier began as a blog called  Into The Gloss.


No. 314 Linear Commerce:  for the brands that are most suited to the modern retail economy, media and commerce operations combine to optimize for audience and conversion. This is the efficient path for sustained growth, retention, and profitability.

Food52 is a ‘Version 4’ retailer. Most DTC brands maintain a ‘Version 1’ structure.

Each of these publishers attracts a niche, passionate audience. Their audiences fuel several revenue operations: affiliate marketing, display advertising, native advertising, and DTC retail. Commerce is prioritized and traditional advertising is minimized.

The deal does fit in with the direction The Chernin Group has been headed: The company, which once had plans to put together a very big internet conglomerate after acquiring an big anchor like Hulu, has instead been buying and building a stable of internet companies aimed at distinct audiences, all of which rely on revenue streams beyond internet advertising. [2]

In early September, 25 operators spanning digital media, traditional media, and commerce were seated in a Manhattan dining room. Of them were the founders of Food52, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. The venture firm and host of the evening’s festivities let the cat out of the bag. In a surprise announcement, The Chernin Group mentioned that they were set on acquiring a majority of Food52. The room applauded the founders. It was a rare exit in an industry that has struggled to gain its footing.

TCG owns a controlling stake in MeatEater Inc., a digital media company aimed at hunters, fishermen and home cooks, and has also invested in Action Network, a sports-betting analytics startup. [3]

The attendees brushed the impromptu announcement aside and allowed the natural public relations cycle run its course. And that it did. Yesterday, a number of outlets reported the sale. Here are the numbers:

Mike Kerns, President

A Fund 1 investment by Lerer Hippeau, the Food52 acquisition was a positive outcome for investors and founders alike. It’s also a glimpse into the methods that more digital-first companies employ to improve their exit optionality. Those methods? Building brand equity, fostering community, and owning their audience. In a 2PM conversation with Mike Kerns, President of The Chernin Group stated:

We love to invest in entrepreneurs who are building enduring brands that have engaged audiences.  Food52 has built a growing commerce business with very little marketing spend.  Their marketing is building their enterprise value and defensibility which is the investment in to their content and community.

Kerns continues:

For TCG we like businesses that can build businesses with their audience established versus trying to purchase the audience from someone else.

In Kerns short statement lies a bit of truth that many in the DTC space fail to recognize. The stronger the organic audience, the higher the premium on a company’s valuation. All revenue is not equal. If a retailer can earn a sale without buying an audience each time, this becomes attractive to potential investors. So why the resistance towards this approach? In short, it isn’t easy to do.

The most viable companies across the digital ecosystem will share a common trait: established, organic audiences. Content and community are core to that outcome. For the well-executed linear commerce brands, retention rates will be high and CAC will be low. The road map is there for the brands looking for a sustainable advantage and improved optionality. Perhaps, the public and private markets will reward more of them.

Read the No. 333 curation here.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM