j2 Global anxious for growth

Contact: Ben Kolada

Cloud communications vendor j2 Global has acquired 85-year-old media firm Ziff Davis Media for $167m, undoubtedly the biggest strategic stretch of the 40 acquisitions it has done. The announcement comes just two months after j2 was rejected in its attempt to buy online backup firm Carbonite. The rapid-fire M&A attempts, and the oddball pairing with Ziff Davis, give the impression that j2 will eagerly spend its cash to buy top-line growth.

Founded in 1927, Ziff Davis is a technology media firm, operating the websites PCMag.com, Geek.com, ExtremeTech.com, ComputerShopper.com and Toolbox.com (the latter two sites were acquired this year). It has been sliced and diced throughout its lifetime. According to The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase, in just the past three years Ziff Davis has done five divestitures.

Although j2 didn’t provide a clear rationale for the deal, it notes that the company has years of experience in digital media and online marketing and that this acquisition would expand that experience. It claims that its experience in this market comes from its own spending on advertising, as well as from its email marketing product, Campaigner, which j2 obtained only in December 2010 as part of its Protus IP Solutions purchase.

Reading deeper into the announcement, however, the primary rationale for this transaction seems simply to add to j2’s top line. With this acquisition, j2 expects its total revenue this year to exceed the top of its previously guided $345-365m range. Ziff Davis is expected to contribute $60m in revenue next year.

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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

Captive deal

For many startups, the deeper a partnership is, the shallower the pool of potential acquirers. Consider the case of SwapDrive and this week’s quiet sale to Symantec. The two sides inked an OEM agreement nearly two years ago – a bit of paperwork that turned out to be a precursor to an M&A contract. With Symantec likely accounting for a majority of sales at SwapDrive, a trade sale seemed the realistic exit for SwapDrive. That became even more likely as sales of Norton 360, which is based on the technology supplied by SwapDrive, outstripped Symantec’s early projections, according to our understanding. The Norton 360/SwapDrive offering targets the consumer market, which complements the company’s enterprise-focused Symantec Protection Network.

However, perhaps because it was essentially a captive deal, SwapDrive ended up getting taken out at a significant discount to its rival Berkeley Data Systems. Just half a year ago EMC shelled out $76m for Berkeley Data, which runs the Mozy service. We understand Mozy generated about $8m in sales in the year leading up to the sale, meaning EMC paid 9.5 times sales for the online backup startup. In contrast, SwapDrive went for 5.6 times trailing sales. According to reports, Symantec paid $123m for SwapDrive, which was running at $22m.

Symantec’s purchase of SwapDrive continues a run of larger storage players snagging online backup vendors. The earlier deals – inked by Iron Mountain and Seagate Technology – got done at multiples closer to Symantec-SwapDrive, although the market has heated up a bit since those first combinations. We wonder what that will mean for the last remaining online backup vendor of note: Carbonite Inc. The company took in $20m in its series B in February and has indicated it’s looking for an IPO late next year. Who knows, maybe the window will be open by then. 

Selected online backup deals

Acquirer Target Date Price Target revenue
Symantec SwapDrive June 2008 $123m* $22m*
EMC Berkeley Data Systems [Mozy] Oct. 2007 $76m* $8m*
Seagate EVault Dec. 2006 $185m $35m*
Iron Mountain LiveVault Dec. 2005 $42m $10m

*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase