The digital economy is rewriting the book on business operations. Not only is technology reshaping the world in which we live, intangible businesses scale like no other business model before. As a result, technology is creating some of the largest and most profitable businesses that have ever existed.
Today, a company's having already reached epic proportions doesn't mean its stock will be a slow grower in the future. On the contrary, some large-cap businesses still have the potential to provide the kind of huge upside that small, but promising, ones usually do.
1. Salesforce: Gunning for the biggest names in tech
Salesforce is a perfect place to start in illustrating the incredible power of intangible asset scaling. The customer relationship management specialist-turned-cloud computing giant has a market cap of $212 billion as of this writing. Salesforce has gotten to this point via its own internal growth and a constant and steady stream of acquisitions over the years -- and it now has an incredible track record of making those acquisitions equate to far more than the sum of their individual parts. Despite issuing lots of new shares to make these purchases over the years, Salesforce's free cash flow per share has ballooned by an even greater amount.
Many investors are uncomfortable with an acquisition-happy strategy like this (Salesforce's latest headline-grabbing pickup was remote work outfit Slack (NYSE: WORK)). To be sure, not all mergers work out. But one rooted in intangible software makes far more sense than physical asset mergers and acquisitions used to back in the day.
Here's a simple example: A factory can only scale to the point its space, equipment output, and workforce efficiency can handle. And merging two factories into one business doesn't really unlock any output gains, except maybe saving on some administrative expenses. But software is different. Once the code is written, its scale is basically only limited by the number of users it can acquire. Adding additional software can unlock more users for both programs, and the supporting hardware infrastructure is often easy to upgrade to support both applications. This explains Salesforce's (and other software companies') ability to generate so much additional profit from only incremental sales gains.
Looking at the bigger picture, Salesforce's steady expansion has turned it into a full-blown cloud platform -- one that is growing in its ability to challenge the likes of Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS. In fact, co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff isn't shy about wanting Salesforce to become one of the largest tech companies on the planet, and he sees the Slack tie-up as creating a future-of-work software ecosystem. Microsoft has been put on notice.
Up for grabs is the estimated $2.4 trillion tech researcher IDC expects to be spent on cloud and related "digital transformation" initiatives in 2024 (which is over and above the $1.8 trillion in global spending on traditional information technology). Put in this light, Salesforce is still a pretty small company with all sorts of potential ahead.
2. NVIDIA: The AI boom is just beginning
It isn't unusual for industry leaders to be valued for greater sums than total industry sales. Why? A business is valued based on its future cash-flow-generating potential. Take Apple as an example. Its market cap of over $2.2 trillion far exceeds expected 2021 smartphone sales of over $400 billion (more than 1.5 billion units sold at a global average selling price of $300). The reason for Apple's tremendous size in excess of the total industry it operates in is because Apple shareholders believe the company will be selling iPhones for a very long time, and it's expected to keep growing its sales and profits along the way.
This is why I think investors should ponder NVIDIA for a moment. With a market cap of $380 billion, this is already the second-largest semiconductor company by market cap, valuing NVIDIA stock at over 20-times trailing 12-month revenue. And the company is already the dominant player among GPU (graphics processing unit) designers. GPUs are still a high-growth chip type, though, and NVIDIA is building on its leadership in this department. It acquired networking company Mellanox last year. It's announced new chip designs aimed at expanding its share of data center construction. And NVIDIA is building new cloud computing platforms to support things like remote work, video conferencing, autonomous vehicles and robotics, and healthcare research.
AI applications in particular hold tremendous promise. NVIDIA co-founder and CEO Jensen Huang thinks AI will completely rewrite the script on multiple massive industries, like cars. And AI (which could encompass $1 trillion a year in spending alone by the end of this decade) is just one of the company's end markets, and an area of heavy research and development by the GPU leader. Add in all the other chip types out there -- including the $80 billion in annual revenue "chipzilla" Intel hauls in and that NVIDIA is gunning for -- and you hit nearly $500 billion in global sales in 2021. So NVIDIA's current valuation isn't so crazy.
Put simply, it isn't hard to imagine NVIDIA joining the trillion-dollar-valuation club along with Apple and other tech giants. Though it carries a lofty valuation, this chip company is growing by leaps and bounds, and it has a fast-expanding total addressable market.
3. PayPal: The incredible potential for digitized financial services
A new generation of consumers born and raised with electronic devices is demanding new tools to manage their finances. Digital payments have been an area of rapid development over the last couple of decades, but the global war on cash is far from over. PayPal and its various subsidiaries like digital wallet Venmo are literally cashing in on these trends.
Though paying with a card or online is a daily affair for millions here in the U.S., cash is still a preferred method of payment for many people around the globe. Lack of access to basic banking services is one reason why. PayPal and Venmo are helping many of these consumers leapfrog traditional banks to go straight to app-based money management.
The same goes for many young people. Their first bank account is oftentimes a money movement app like Venmo. And effects from the pandemic are accelerating adoption of digital mobile finance among older consumers and businesses. To wit, PayPal reported 377 million active user accounts at the end of 2020, a 24% annual increase.
But there's even more working in PayPal's long-term favor besides a growing number of customers and rising transaction volume. PayPal is building out a suite of services accessible from a single mobile application, like e-commerce search and shopping tools, an installment payment option, and the recent addition of cryptocurrency trading through Venmo. In fact, in an increasingly digital world, currency built on blockchain technology could continue to expand at a rapid pace. More than just virtual money, cryptos that utilize blockchain are finding a growing list of uses, like digital asset tracking and security.
The global financial industry is massive, and it's ripe for disruption. With a market cap of just over $313 billion, PayPal has a healthy head of steam behind its growth and is increasingly profitable (free cash flow grew 48% in 2020) -- giving it a steady stream of cash to invest in further expansion. There's no need to worry you missed the boat on this fintech leader. This is still a very long growth story in the making.