Fender Benders on TheStreet.com

Financial guru TheStreet.com (Nasdaq: TSCM  ) reported its Q1 earnings on Thursday. No, last Thursday. So why am I writing about them a week later? Because I've spent the past seven days slogging through the laundry list of "Recent Company Highlights" that took up half the report.

(In writing circles, we call that last bit of snarkiness "hyperbole," but still.)

Buy the numbers
When I encounter a report that spends most of its time regaling readers with a list of "greatest hits" from PR puff pieces past, two things happen: First, my eyes begin to glaze over, and then my internal red herring alarm starts sounding. It's not that a company's business initiatives are irrelevant. But for business initiatives to reward investors, they need to translate into results that can be described in numbers.

In part, that was the case for TheStreet.com last week, as we saw:

  • quarterly revenue rise 30% to $14.5 million, led by
  • a 152% increase in syndication revenue,
  • 56% growth in advertising sales, and
  • 15% in subscription revenue.

That shows real, quantifiable progress toward TheStreet.com's goal of bringing in half its revenues from advertising by the end of next year -- a goal that, as we've previously mentioned, runs opposite to that which Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN  ) is pursuing. Also real, good, and quantifiable was the firm's ability to get one-third of its advertising revenues from customers other than the banks, mortgage brokers, and stockbrokers you'd normally expect to find congregating around a financial website. In this regard, I note that fully 10% of TheStreet.com's whole business comes from non-financial-advertising streams.

And sell these numbers
Unfortunately, it wasn't all green lights and cruise control on TheStreet last quarter. Notably, gross margins fell 160 basis points year over year, operating margins plunged 360 basis points, and the net was down a full 240. These are the numbers TheStreet.com studiously avoided in its press release, holding back the explanation for its conference call -- knowing full well that most investors don't have the time to listen in on these things.

For investors who have -- what do you call them again ... lives? -- here's the story between the lines. The reason that sales and marketing expenditures leapt nearly twice as high as the sales they were supposed to create, and the reason that advertising sales grew so impressively, are one and the same. The company spent heavily to beef up its ad-sales force, bringing in four more worker bees (40% staff growth) here, along with "additional editorial and video staff to increase production of stories and videos in areas where we see additional advertising demand."

That's the reason why TheStreet.com missed analyst guidance last week, why its margins eroded, and why its profits consequently rose only half as fast as its sales. Pretty simple, when you think about it. The only question remaining is why management decided to spend its time regurgitating stale press release headlines rather than explain why its costs ran amok.

For more on TheStreet.com and its peers, read:

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of TheStreet.com. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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