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Putting Numbers to Alphabet's Moonshots

By Andrew Tonner - Feb 13, 2016 at 10:20AM

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In its first report under its new corporate structure, Alphabet's "Other Bets" segment was a sinkhole. However, understanding its moonshots requires digging beyond the superficial results.


Source: Alphabet.

Search giant Alphabet (GOOG 0.45%) (GOOGL 0.52%) made history when it reported earnings last week, though maybe not in the way you're thinking.

True, Alphabet again produced enviable quarterly and annual revenues as part of its Q4 and full-year 2015 performance. However, perhaps more importantly for long-term investors, Alphabet also presented the new financial breakdown for its revamped corporate structure.

So as investors finally gain some insight into Alphabet's multifaceted financial structure, the numbers connected to its oft-discussed moonshots left plenty to be desired.

Shoot for the moon(shot)
Though no discussion I've seen expected Alphabet's non-Google businesses -- which it recently consolidated under the official reporting segment "Other Bets" -- to produce a profit today, the extent of the chasm between the division's sales and spending was a surprise. Here's how Other Bets performed during the full year of 2015. . 

Metric

2014

2015

Other Bets revenue

$327

$448

Operating loss, excluding SBC expense

($1,585)

($3,069)

SBC expense

($347)

($498)

Operating loss

($1,942)

($3,567)

Source: Alphabet investor relations. Figures in millions. SBC = stock-based compensation.  

Alphabet consolidates the results from eight different moonshots into Other Bets. Some of these, such as Google Fiber and its Nest smart thermostat business, have had products on the market for several years. Many of the businesses in Other Bets, like Project Loon or Calico, are commonly referred to as moonshots because they seek to create entirely new technologies and business models that could create transformational impacts on entire industries or even mankind. Think "shoot for the moon" and hopefully this makes sense.

On the company's conference call, new Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat disclosed that the bulk of Other Bets revenue stemmed from three main areas: Fiber, Nest, and Verily. Fiber is the company's ultra high-speed Internet initiative, which has been fully operational in three relatively large U.S. cities for some time now. Nest is its smart-thermostat division. Verily, formerly Google Life Sciences, is home to the company's various projects that seek to leverage Alphabet's technological prowess to improve human health.

The surprise to me, and others in the analyst community, is how little revenue Alphabet's Other Bets generate in aggregate. Alphabet reiterated that it has created a disciplined set of business targets for each business within Other Bets. However, the general consensus that emerged in the wake of its report was that Other Bets' businesses in general are far more juvenile than many thought. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Alphabet clearly signaled it prioritizes growth over profits among its Other Bets, but it's certainly worth noting.

Source: Alphabet.

Playing the long game
Still, it's important to put the relatively diminutive Other Bets segment in perspective. Thanks to its lucrative online advertising businesses, Alphabet can afford to plow money into nascent technologies. Even after it lost billions by nurturing Other Bets last year, Alphabet still managed to generate GAAP profits of $16.3 billion for 2015.

What's more, Alphabet's roughly $78 billion in cash and investments reflects, if anything, a relative dearth of interesting investment opportunities for the company. Given some of its moonshots' transformational potential, and the big-ticket profits a winning bet could produce, the investments seem worthwhile.

What's more, the moonshots are unlikely to cease. Alphabet operates under a three-class share structure that concentrates the majority of the company's voting power into the hands of its three most significant executives -- co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and former CEO and current Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. So whether investors like it or not, their opinion on Alphabet's use of investor funds on moonshots, or on any other matter of corporate governance, really doesn't matter much. And, as Porat noted in the conference call, "some of Alphabet's biggest moonshots are in Google itself..."

While it will take years to truly determine whether Alphabet's Other Bets strategy is visionary or quixotic, such endeavors come with the turf as part of investing alongside one of the most successful companies in tech history.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Andrew Tonner has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares) and Alphabet (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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