Yahoo: hunted, but still in the hunt

Contact: Brenon Daly

Amid all the speculation that Yahoo would sell itself (or not), the search engine operator swung to the other side of the table on Tuesday, announcing the $270m all-cash purchase of interclick. The planned acquisition, which is expected to close early next year, is the first time Yahoo has reached for a fellow public company in more than eight years. Yahoo has picked up more than 45 privately held companies and one Bulletin Board-listed company since it acquired Overture Services in 2003 for $1.6bn, its largest-ever acquisition. (Another interesting side note on the interclick deal: Boutique advisory firm GCA Savvian has now advised the past two companies that Yahoo has acquired.)

And in its purchase of interclick, Yahoo is getting a relative bargain, at least on one key measure. (Interclick only generates a few million dollars of cash flow each year, so calculating an EBITDA multiple doesn’t make much sense.) At a $270m equity value, interclick is valued at roughly two times projected 2011 revenue. Even with the takeout premium, that’s less than half of Yahoo’s corresponding valuation. The search engine operator currently garners an equity value of about $19bn, or 4.2 times projected sales of $4.5bn this year.

Yahoo: glad for the greenbacks

Contact: Brenon Daly

Completing its second divestiture in less than a month, Yahoo said Wednesday that it was selling its online help-wanted site HotJobs to Monster Worldwide. Yahoo will get $225m in cash for HotJobs, roughly half the $436m the search engine paid for the job-listing site back in December 2001. The original acquisition called for Yahoo to cover the purchase with half cash and half stock. On the divestiture, we’re pretty sure Yahoo is glad terms called for straight cash.

We understand that at various points during the process, which played out over the past 15 months, Yahoo considered taking a mix of cash and Monster equity or even Monster shares outright for HotJobs. That would have been a kick in the gut to Yahoo, which has had enough problems with its own equity in recent times. The reason? Monster stock dropped 12% on Thursday after the company came up short of Wall Street earnings expectations for the fourth quarter amid a 27% decline in revenue. Had Yahoo taken Monster shares, the $225m deal would be worth just $198m at the end of its first day.

Cadbury gets sweet deal; Yahoo sours

Contact: Brenon Daly

When Kraft Foods first launched its bid for Cadbury four months ago, we termed the offer ‘an Old Economy rendition’ of Microsoft’s reach for Yahoo in early 2008. And while it wasn’t a direct parallel, there were a number of similarities: A diversified, dividend-paying company makes an unsolicited play for a target that’s only just into a restructuring program, with a goal of bolstering a business where it’s currently an also-ran.

The parallels diverged even wider on Tuesday, as the British confectioner agreed to a raised bid from Kraft. Cadbury shareholders will pocket $19.5bn in cash and Kraft stock for their company, about 11% higher than Kraft initially offered. It represents the highest-ever price for Cadbury stock on the London Stock Exchange.

So that’s the reward to shareholders from a selling company. What about on the other side? What’s happened to the owners of Yahoo since the Internet giant spurned the advances of Microsoft (as Cadbury once dismissed the interest of Kraft)? Shares of Yahoo currently trade at just half the level that Microsoft bid for them. And it isn’t just the fact that shares got hit by the biggest economic upheaval since the Great Depression since Yahoo turned down Microsoft’s interest. In the nearly two years since that decision, the Nasdaq has basically flat-lined while Yahoo stock has dropped by one-third.

Is mobile advertising back?

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen

In a clear sign that mobile advertising has grown up, Google spent a whopping $750m in stock on Monday to pick up San Mateo, California-based AdMob in what we hear was a contested process. This transaction goes a long way toward securing control of mobile display advertising for Google and comes just days after the launch of Android 2.0. Although we’ve been projecting dealmaking in the mobile advertising market for quite some time, we’re nonetheless floored by the rich valuation for AdMob, a three-year-old startup that’s raised just shy of $50m. We estimate that the 140-person firm pulled in about $20m in gross revenue in 2008 and was on track to double that figure this year (we surmise that this translates to roughly $20m on a net revenue basis).

The double-digit valuation for AdMob reminds us more than a little bit of the high-multiple online advertising deals that we saw in 2007. Viewed in that context, Google’s purchase of AdMob stands as the third-largest ‘new media’ advertising purchase since 2002. Of course, like many of those transactions, this was not based on revenue, but instead on technology and market extension, which is consistent with Google’s strategy of acquiring big into core adjacencies.

Looking forward, AdMob’s top-dollar exit is sure to have a number of rival mobile advertising startups excited. One competitor that’s preparing to raise an additional sizable round of funding quipped at the near-perfect timing of this transaction. This is an industry that has seen its ups and downs over the past few years. When we first wrote about AdMob back in May it was in the backdrop of fire sales and failed rounds of funding. If nothing else, this deal will dramatically change that.

Microsoft has been actively playing catch-up to Google in advertising and search, and is sure to follow it onto the mobile device. As are many other niche advertising shoppers such as Yahoo, Nokia, AdKnowledge, Adobe-Omniture and traditional media conglomerates such as Cox. AOL has already made its move, reaching for Third Screen Media two years ago. (We would note that AOL’s $105m purchase of Third Screen is a rare case of that company actually being ahead of the market.)

Startups that could benefit from this increasing focus on the sector include AdMarvel, Amobee, InMobi, and Velti’s Ad Infuse. However, we suspect that some of the major advances – and consequently the most promising targets – are likely to come from players that are just now getting started, with fresh and profitable approaches to location-based mobile advertising.

Some recent mobile advertising deals

Date announced Acquirer Target Deal value Target TTM revenue
November 9, 2009 Google AdMob $750m $20m*
September 14, 2009 Nokia Acuity Mobile Not disclosed Not disclosed
August 27, 2009 AdMob AdWhirl Not disclosed Not disclosed
May 21, 2009 Limelight Networks Kiptronic $1m $2m*
May 12, 2009 Velti Ad Infuse <$1m* $1.3m*
March 11, 2008 Qualcomm Xiam Technologies $32m Not disclosed
August 21, 2007 Yahoo Actionality Not disclosed Not disclosed
May 15, 2007 AOL Third Screen Media $105m $3m*

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase *451 Group estimate

What’s next for billionaire Twitter?

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen

At a time when the social networking bubble is quickly deflating, micro-blogging startup Twitter seems to be living in an alternative universe. We are, of course, referring to the much-publicized $1bn valuation the San Francisco-based company received in a recent round of funding. The rich funding dwarfs even the kinds of valuations we saw during the height of the short-lived social networking bubble last year. And it’s pretty difficult to justify Twitter’s valuation based on its financial performance, since the money-burning startup has absolutely no revenue to speak of, nor a clear plan of how to change that. It seems the entire valuation is predicated on the impressive user growth it has experienced over the past year, as well as the charismatic founders’ wild dreams of ‘changing the way the world communicates.’ That’s pretty thin, particularly when compared to LinkedIn’s funding last year at a similar valuation. That round, which was done at a time when the social networking fad was near its peak, nonetheless had some financial results to support it. Reid Hoffman’s startup was profitable on what we understand was about $100m in revenue and a proven and lucrative business model.

The interesting development from this latest funding is that it makes a sale of Twitter less likely, we would argue. This may be fine with the founders, who have drawn in some $150m for the company and will (presumably) look to the public market to repay those investments at some point in the future. But without any revenue to speak of at this point, any offering from Twitter is a long way off. Also, an IPO by Twitter in the future hangs on successful offerings from Facebook and LinkedIn, which are far more likely to go public before Twitter. If both of those social media bellwethers enjoy strong offerings, and Twitter actually starts to make money off its fast-growing base of users, then a multibillion-dollar exit – in the form of an IPO – might not be farfetched. But we should add that there are a lot of ‘ifs’ included in that scenario.

An offering looks all the more likely for Twitter because the field of potential acquirers has gotten significantly slimmer, since not many would-be acquirers have deep-enough pockets to pay for a premium on the startups’ already premium valuation. As we know from Twitter’s own embarrassing leak of some internal documents, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook have all shown an interest in the startup at one point or another. But we’re not sure any of those companies would really be ready to do a 10-digit deal for a firm that’s still promising – rather than posting – financial results. Moreover, we wonder if any of the four would-be buyers even need Twitter. Yahoo and Microsoft seem focused on other parts of their business. Meanwhile, Google is hard at work on Google Wave, and Facebook appears to have moved on already with its much-cheaper acquisition of Twitter competitor FriendFeed in August.

Recent high-profile social networking valuations (based on last known valuation event)

Date Company Valuation/exit value Revenue Revenue to value multiple
September 2009 Twitter $1bn $0* N/A
Summer 2009 Facebook $8bn $500m* 16x*
June 2008 LinkedIn $1bn $100m* 10x*
May 2008 Plaxo $150m* (acquisition by Comcast) $10m* 15x*
March 2008 Bebo $850m (acquisition by AOL) $20m* 42.5x*
July 2005 MySpace/Intermix $580m (acquisition by NewsCorp) $90m 6.5x
December 2005 FriendsReunited $208m (acquisition by ITV; divested to Brightsolid in $42m fire sale in August 2009) $20* 10x*

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase *451 Group estimate

An Old Economy version of Microsoft-Yahoo?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Where have we heard this before? A diversified, dividend-paying company makes an unsolicited approach to a target that’s only just into a restructuring program, with a goal of bolstering a business where it’s currently an also-ran. Add to that, the would-be acquirer isn’t particularly known for its brass-knuckle M&A tactics, while the would-be acquiree is busy dealing with an activist shareholder. No, Microsoft isn’t reheating its offer for Yahoo from early 2008. Instead, it looks to us like Kraft Foods has borrowed that play in its reach for candy company Cadbury.

Actually, the Old Economy rendition of Microsoft-Yahoo appears to be simply a cheaper version. For starters, there’s deal size. Microsoft’s bid of some $45bn for Yahoo is nearly three times the amount that Kraft has initially put forward for Cadbury. (We say ‘initially’ because Cadbury is trading above Kraft’s current cash-and-stock offer.)

Also, Microsoft offered a substantially richer premium for Yahoo than Kraft has indicated for Cadbury, roughly twice the level. And, Microsoft’s bid valued Yahoo at roughly 32 times trailing EBITDA, about twice the multiple that Kraft is planning to hand over for its reluctant partner. Of course, none of the largess flowing from Microsoft was enough to sway Yahoo’s board or executives, much to the dismay of shareholders in the search company. Yahoo shares currently change hands at less than half the amount Microsoft offered for them some 18 months ago.

Reality check for mobile ad networks?

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen

Mobile advertising startup Ad Infuse received an infusion of reality last week. The vendor, which has raised $18m in venture backing, had to put itself up for sale after it was unable to secure follow-on funding this year. After being shopped around since last summer, Ad Infuse sold for scraps to UK-based mobile advertiser Velti. We estimate that Velti paid less than $1m for Ad Infuse, which we understand generated just $1.3m in revenue in 2008.

The distressed sale of Ad Infuse comes on the heels of SmartReply’s tiny all-equity purchase of mSnap, as well as several deals involving other niche advertising networks this year. Where does this leave the remaining mobile ad networks that we were bullish on last year as the logical next step of growth for online ad startups?

We suspect there is more VC portfolio cleanout coming, since there are still too many mobile ad startups. That’s not to say there aren’t a few firms that haven’t had some success. For instance, three-year-old mobile ad network AdMob, which has successfully ridden the coattails of Apple’s iPhone AppStore’s rise by providing a way for iPhone developers to monetize their users through ads, is currently at an estimated $30m run-rate. (AdMob has raised nearly $50m to date from Sequoia Capital, Accel Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Northgate Capital.) And on a smaller scale, AdMarvel is just getting started with what we can best describe as a mobile version of the popular video ad startup It has raised just $8m to date and is in the process of closing a $10m follow-on round, something its competitor Ad Infuse was unable to accomplish.

Much like what we anticipate will eventually happen in the online video ad space, there will soon come a time when ad giants such as Google and Yahoo will have to buy their way into the mobile sector. In a rare sign of foresight, AOL is the only media behemoth with a sizable presence in the mobile ad vertical following its $105m acquisition of Third Screen Media in 2007.

Not ad(d)ing up

-Email Thomas Rasmussen

Contrary to our pronouncement last year, the online advertising industry is in a tough spot at the moment. Venture funding for these companies has been shut off as the slumping demand for Web-based advertising has hit the sector harder than it anticipated. (At least it’s not as bad as the regular advertising market. As one VC quipped recently, “While the online ad market has caught a cold, the offline ad market has caught pneumonia.”) Still, the decline in the space has created numerous opportunities for buyers looking to pick up scraps.

One such company having a field day in the current environment is Adknowledge. Just this week, the company picked up the advertising business of struggling MIVA for the bargain price of $11.6m. The division has estimated trailing 12-month revenue of about $75m, down sharply from $100m a year ago. The acquisition came after Adknowledge tucked in two small social networking ad networks for less than $2m, much less than the more than $4m the two raised in venture capital. Furthermore, Adknowledge, which has raised an estimated $45m, tells us that it is still shopping.

Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom for the online ad market. One area where there’s actual growth – and at least the promise of rising valuations – is in online video advertising. VCs have put hundreds of millions of dollars into this sector. Their bet: More Web surfers will increasingly look to online videos for information and entertainment. Granted, it’s still a small space. (Consider the fact that YouTube probably contributed only a few hundred million dollars of revenue to Google’s total revenue of $21.8bn in 2008.) Still, the promise is there. Also encouraging VCs in this market is that the online ad giants (Google, Microsoft, AOL and so on) may well need to go shopping to get video ad technology. We recently published a more-thorough report on that, matching potential buyers and sellers.

Dealing with a legacy

Justly or not, acquisitions go a long way toward shaping a CEO’s legacy. (If you don’t believe us, just ask Jerry Levin, who sold Time Inc for what turned out to be a pile of wampum, in the form of overinflated AOL equity.) With Monday’s announcements that two major tech CEOs are on their way out, we pause to look at how deals – or lack of deals – will shape their respective legacies.

Let’s start with Symantec’s John Thompson, who will leave the storage and security giant by the end of its current fiscal year next April. Under his nearly decade-long leadership, Symantec shares rose some 500%, compared to a flat performance over the same period in shares of rival McAfee and a 40% decline in the Nasdaq. However, the one blemish on his record is Symantec’s largest-ever deal, its $13.5bn purchase of Veritas. (Thompson guided Symantec through more than 40 other acquisitions during his tenure.) Symantec shares peaked at about the time the company announced the deal, and have given back most of the gains they had piled up since mid-2003.

And then there’s Yahoo’s once-and-future king, Jerry Yang. We’re guessing history will be less kind to the man who turned down Microsoft’s offer of at least $31 for each share of Yahoo. Shares of the foundering search giant briefly dipped into the single digits earlier this month. However, they jumped almost 10% on Tuesday as Wall Street applauded the imminent departure of Yang, who has overseen the incineration of some $20bn of shareholder value since he reassumed the top spot at Yahoo in June 2007.

Aside from the ‘relief rally’ for Yang’s move, Yahoo shares also got a boost from speculation that the turnover in the corner office makes a deal with Microsoft more likely. We have our doubts about that. Instead, we’d focus on what the CEO change at Symantec means for deal activity. Our bet: Incoming CEO Enrique Salem will unwind several large chunks of the Veritas business, perhaps starting with NetBackup. As recently as last summer, Thompson said ‘nothing’ from the under-performing Veritas portfolio was for sale. Salem will set the company’s line on that in the future, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see NetBackup or other storage assets find their way onto the block.

Google and Yahoo break up

-by Thomas Rasmussen

The Department of Justice announced this morning that it would file suit to block the planned advertising pact between Google and Yahoo. Google followed quickly by axing the deal. YHOO is up 8% in mid-day trading while the overall market is down sharply. The Google/Yahoo breakup has sparked renewed hope among shareholders that Microsoft could return to the table. It also opens up the possibility of a long rumored partnership between Time Warner’s AOL and Yahoo.