As of this writing, LinkedIn (LNKD.DL) shares remain about 25% below pre-Q1 earnings levels, which in the near-term is fairly telling. It's no secret many investors trade based on short-term momentum swings, exacerbating good or bad news. However, clearer heads will generally take over in the ensuing days and weeks, particularly if investors feel a stock's been over-sold.
Unfortunately for shareholders, that hasn't been the case with LinkedIn. But that's where LinkedIn management and its plans for future growth enter the picture. CEO Jeff Weiner and CFO Steve Sordello were clearly becoming frustrated answering several negative questions during LinkedIn's earnings call, but they also shared why the near-term isn't as rosy as they had hoped, along with several upsides that bode well for future growth.
A year of transition
LinkedIn management's outlook for the year wasn't all bad: revenues should be between $670 million and $675 million in Q2, well above the year-ago quarter's $534 million. For the year, LinkedIn expects a 30% increase in sales to $2.9 billion. Now the bad news. The bottom fell out of Sordello's revised annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) and non-GAAP (excluding one-time items) earnings-per-share.
Instead of EBITDA of $785 million this year and non-GAAP earnings per share of $2.95 -- the previous forecast -- LinkedIn now expects EBITDA of $630 million, and non-GAAP earnings of just $1.90 per share. Expenses are largely to blame for the dismal EBITDA and earnings outlook. Hiring doubled in Q1, assimilating the $1.5 billion acquisition of Lynda.com, and underestimated expenses associated associated with new customer acquisition will all take a toll.
Adding insult to injury
While overhead remains the elephant in the room, the 60% of customers who had a new LinkedIn account rep in Q1 didn't help. As per Sordello, the bevy of new reps negatively affected churn rate and resulted in fewer up-sells than expected.
The impact of the new customer reps should be mitigated over time, and will prove to be a growth driver as the new relationships deepen -- eventually. Why LinkedIn chose Q1 -- a period Sordello described as a "transition time" for renewals -- to introduce so many new reps is a bit baffling, but it should be a relatively short-term hiccup.
The not-so-bad news
Display ads, a key component of LinkedIn's Marketing Solutions unit, will continue to decline following its 10% drop last quarter. The problem is a common one -- the strong dollar's impact on foreign revenues -- and that negative trend is expected to continue for the balance of 2015.
Based on Marketing's expectations, it doesn't appear the $175 million LinkedIn spent on business-to-business marketing solution provider Bizo last summer is paying dividends as yet. Over the long-haul, Weiner still thinks Marketing will rebound, taking some of the revenue pressure off its Talent Solutions unit, easily its biggest revenue driver.
Some better news
The $1.5 billion spent on online learning and training service Lynda.com will add appreciably to overhead this year -- including stock compensation expense -- and only generate about $20 million to $25 million to LinkedIn's topline. However, management is genuinely excited about the possibilities that Lynda.com's 300 million plus members represent.
Long-term, LinkedIn believes the online training market could grow to as much as $30 billion, and Lynda.com will help it garner a big part of that exploding market in the coming years. Weiner also expects Lynda.com will become a force in China, a market LinkedIn worked hard to enter and is expecting big things from going forward.
More good news
In large part due to price increases related to its Talent Solutions offerings, LinkedIn's customer spend was up nearly 30% in Q1, with little to no negative feedback. Generating additional revenue from existing customers is always a good thing, and it should be easier for LinkedIn reps to sell the higher prices to new customers than it was to its existing base.
LinkedIn also shared its renewed focus on sales to the huge small- and medium-sized business (SMBs) segment. As large as Facebook (META 1.13%) is -- it boasts 1.44 billion monthly average users (MAUs), compared to LinkedIn's 364 million members -- it still covets SMBs. If SMBs are a key target market for a social media behemoth like Facebook, it obviously represents a huge sales opportunity.
Near-term, LinkedIn is likely to disappoint: it simply has too many irons in the fire right now to generate the bottomline results short-sighted investors crave. For patient investors who believe in LinkedIn management, it's a sound long-term value with plenty of upside.