Looking past the losses at Carbonite

Contact: Brenon Daly

Is Wall Street ready to buy into a company that spends $1 on advertising to bring in just $2 in bookings? That’s one of the key questions around Carbonite, a fast-growing online backup vendor that just filed for its IPO. (We looked at Carbonite’s planned offering in an in-depth report, including projecting its likely valuation when it does hit the Nasdaq later this year.) Carbonite has more than doubled revenue in each of the past two years. And while that is an eye-popping growth rate, it has been fueled by an equally eye-popping spending on advertising.

Consider this: Carbonite shelled out $24m on advertising last year on its way to recording $54m in bookings. (For those of you who like old-fashioned, by-the-book accounting, the $54m in bookings in 2010 equaled a scant $39m in actual revenue for the six-year-old startup.) And to be clear, that $24m was straight advertising spending, which is just a portion of the $33m in sales and marketing spending that it rang up last year. Obviously, that’s not a sustainable ratio, at least not for a technology company that also needs to spend a few million dollars on servers and other equipment each quarter and hopes to run profitably. (For its part, Carbonite hasn’t posted anything close to black numbers.)

That’s not to say that Carbonite won’t be a hit with investors when it does go public. Bulls can point to the fact that the service has attracted more than one million paying users, and those that use it tend to stick with it. (Carbonite puts its retention rate at 97%.) And on the buyside of the IPO, Wall Street has been willing to look past red-stained income statements if the growth rates are high enough. As evidence, we might point to the mid-March offering of Cornerstone OnDemand, a company that has a similar financial profile to Carbonite, though it competes in a vastly different market. After pricing its offering above range and soaring onto the market, Cornerstone currently trades at about 18 times trailing revenue