When it comes to operating a business, it seems reasonable to hope it will turn a profit. After all, the name of the game is to make money, right? And that's why, when evaluating stocks, so many investors look first at easy-to-calculate, profit-centric valuation metrics like the price to earnings ratio or net margin.
But for some companies, near-term profits are not of primary importance. Instead, they create shareholder value by quickly growing the size of their respective businesses while simultaneously generating massive losses -- at least, based on generally accepted accounting principles. Here are five such companies which have each happily "lost" hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year alone:
|Company||Net Loss (TTM)||YOY Revenue Growth||Revenue (TTM)||Market Cap|
|Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN)||$215.0 million||21.5%||$85.25 billion||$137.3 billion|
|Splunk (NASDAQ:SPLK)||$160.7 million||51.6%||$366 million||$7.77 billion|
|FireEye (NASDAQ:FEYE)||$340.6 million||150%||$339.9 million||$4.52 billion|
|Salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM)||$399.1 million||37.3%||$4.77 billion||$39.1 billion|
Together, these five companies have generated nearly $92 billion in revenue over the past 12 months, but lost over $2 billion in the process. Incredible.
But how can this actually be a good thing for shareholders?
The strategy behind shedding billions
Amazon.com is arguably the most prominent purveyor of this approach. But Amazon also isn't consistently unprofitable; the vast majority of its recent losses came last quarter, when Amazon grew sales by 20% year-over-year and generated a whopping net loss of $437 million. At the same time, TTM cash flow from operations jumped 15% to $5.71 billion, while free cash flow nearly tripled to $1.08 billion. And perhaps most telling, Amazon's cash used in investing activities over the previous three months alone totaled nearly $1 billion.
The gravity of that loss is notable, but it was really nothing new. Since founding the company in 1994, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has always shunned GAAP profits in favor of offering low-priced products, taking retail market share, and opting to maximize cash flow. Amazon then invests its cash back into growing its various businesses. If this sounds strange, note Bezos was recently named the world's best-performing CEO by Harvard Business Review in a study objectively based on shareholder returns from the start of his tenure.
Then there's Twitter, which has a much smaller operating scope, but more than makes up for it with its nearly $1 billion loss over the past year. That includes a net loss of $175 million last quarter alone, as Twitter more than doubled its revenue stream to $361 million. Even so, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo called it "another very strong financial quarter," and insisted he is "confident in our ability to build the largest daily audience in the world, over time, by strengthening the core, reducing barriers to consumption and building new apps and services."[emphasis mine] Over the long-term, as Twitter continues to invest in building new apps, growing its users, and improving monetization, it'll come out a significantly larger, stronger company once its GAAP losses finally subside.
Next up is Splunk, which may not be a familiar name, but is growing revenue extraordinarily fast as it carves out a new niche in operational intelligence software for other businesses. Last quarter, Splunk added an impressive 500 names to its now 7,900-customer base, including the likes of Dell, Adobe, and even the U.S. Department of Defense. At the same time, Splunk expects operating cash flow margin to be 20% total 2014 revenue, and consistently pours large amounts into research & development (over $34 million last quarter) and sales & marketing (almost $80 million) to seize what management describes as a continually expanding market opportunity.
Meanwhile, cyber-security specialist FireEye -- which incidentally introduced a new app for Splunk Enterprise just last month -- is growing revenue even more quickly. And similar to Splunk, for 2014 FireEye has told investors to expect R&D expenses in the range of 41% to 44% of total revenue, and sales and marketing to range from 76% to 79% of total revenue. It doesn't take a math genius to realize no company can turn a profit given the sum of those expenses alone. But that's exactly what investors should love to hear as FireEye shuffles for as much market share as possible in its own burgeoning, high-tech industry.
Finally, there's Salesforce.com, which has consistently focused on achieving top-line growth to secure its position as the world's leading CRM platform provider. Again, it might seem counter-intuitive that to do so required incurring losses of almost $400 million over the past year. But astute investors realize Salesforce has also grown cash flow from operations for each year since 2010, and generated over $1.1 billion in cash flow from operations over the past 12 months alone, according to S&P Capital IQ. Better yet, last quarter Salesforce management gave investors a light at the end of the tunnel by promising reaching sustained profitability remains a priority.
Of course, at a certain point that should be the case for each of these businesses. But in the end, the pattern and takeaway remains the same: Sometimes a company's conscious decision to lose money is a great way to ensure long-term oriented investors ultimately end up with more of it.