Friday, January 30, 2009

Fascinating Mint Stats

If you don't use Mint, the personal finance site (disclaimer: a Benchmark portfolio company), you should. It's a killer service. Mint provides a simple, powerful, web-based alternative to the bloat-ware that Quicken and Microsoft Money have become as a result of the "feature war" they commenced a decade ago. In this environment, where everybody is taking a second look at personal spending, Mint is a great tool for gaining insight into your finances and patterns of behavior.

Mint CEO Aaron Patzer wrote a guest column for TechCrunch today, providing some recession stats derived from Mint's 900,000 users. It contains some really fascinating data from real people, a counterpoint to the data we're getting about the recession from politicians, TV talking heads, and bankers.

Aaron sees the data revealing a recession that's less dramatic than the "Great Depression 2.0" news reports would have us believe (i.e., 10% spending declines across the board). But it looked pretty bad to me. A couple of grim numbers for consumer companies:

  • Entertainment spending down 22%
  • Home (services, furnishings, etc.) down 21%
  • Travel down 24%
  • Cash savings cut in half
  • Debt up 10%

The gas/fuel decline of 32% isn't as meaningful to me, because it's likely driven more by the decline in gas prices since August than by changes in consumer behavior.

The decline in cash savings -- from roughly $11,200 to $5,500 augurs a much more troubling first half of '09. That number suggests that consumers have been deficit spending to the tune of $700 per month since the recession hit. Once that cash cushion is effectively gone, we could see the current average spending declines of $400-500 per month drop to over $1,000, or closer to 25% across the board. Since expenses like rent, utilities, and food are less susceptible to cuts, that extra $500 or so of reduced spending is going to hit discretionary categories -- entertainment, shopping, travel, dining out.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Whither Open

PocketGamer reported today that Apple will create a "premium" area of the iPhone app store for games priced at $19.99, and will restrict distribution to a "number of large publishers, rather than the thousands of smaller developers currently selling their titles on the main App Store." The move is reportedly to help combat the race to the bottom that I wrote about last summer. To me, it suggests recognition by Apple that there is some benefit to a managed platform.

This is something that the console manufacturers learned after the tidal wave of bad content killed the market in the '80's, resulting in the famous "ET in a landfill" period of the video game business. Nintendo brought the market back with tight gatekeeping of 3rd party publishers and the quality of the content they distributed. Since then, the symbiosis of platform management and marketing combined with publisher quality and standardized economics, produced an order of magnitude greater business opportunity than the more "open" PC gaming platform.

There is an article of faith in the venture community that open eco-systems create more valuable companies, and the example of the internet certainly gives credit to that viewpoint. But, as I've said before, the App Store itself is the "killer app" for iPhone -- the 15,000 apps available on the App Store primarily benefit Apple, rather than any single publisher or developer. It is extremely difficult to build sufficient market share to create enterprise value for a company when there are 20 free, me-too products in every competitive category.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Value Creation & Distribution

I read this interesting piece on Gamasutra today and it motivated me to write about the keynote I gave at the SMU-Guildhall conference on video game law and business earlier this month.

My topic was, broadly, the fallacy in the video game business that content innovation creates enterprise value. By enterprise value, I mean a return on equity for shareholders, usually at some multiple of revenue or earnings. Instead, I argued that while content innovation expands audiences and generates revenues, distribution innovation has historically driven outsized enterprise value creation in the video game business.

Here are my slides -- you can get the idea:

Ok, not that remarkable. I've spoken on this subject twice before -- once to an internal EA audience at their Vancouver online summit a couple of years ago, and I talked at some length on this topic on a panel that Dean Takahashi led at UC Berkeley last year.

But it's amazing how many people didn't get it. One person from a well-known market research firm challenged my thesis, arguing that "shiny disks are still a multi-billion dollar business." Well, so is the grocery business. So is the automobile business. But investors don't ascribe high multiples to those revenues.

Don't believe me? Do the math. THQ is currently trading at a $270MM market cap, despite $1B in trailing twelve month revenues -- .27X. Take Two is at .37X. Even EA is down to 1.22X.

The current valuation multiples in the video game business are predicated on earnings or revenue growth, and that's the context in which content innovation is linked to value creation. Activision gets a bump from Guitar Hero because that franchise supports Wall Street's revenue growth estimates, and because hit titles produce economies of scale that drive better margins and thus earnings growth.

But content innovation rarely produces long-term, defensible competitive advantages in the way that distribution innovation does. When EA created their global direct retail distribution platform in the early 90's -- highly innovative at a time when most of their competitors were still working through aggregators -- they created sales leverage that lasted for a decade, and created a market share and earnings multiple advantage that none of their competitors could match. It wasn't that EA had Madden & FIFA, it was that EA had those titles and could sell them in the four corners of the planet.

Meanwhile, the companies that have recently built innovative digital distribution platforms, often based on virtual goods sales or subscription revenues, are thriving, maintaining buoyant revenue multiples despite the downturn. Shanda, the Chinese MMO company, is trading at a 4X revenue multiple.

Content innovation is sexy. It's spectacular. It's what every editor wants to write about and what every gamer wants to play. But as an investor, you are better served looking for companies that are innovating on distribution.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Americans Abroad

Texan Clint Dempsey has been getting a lot of headlines in England for his good run of form at Fulham, particularly his double against Chelsea which allowed the Cottagers to steal a point in the west London derby. While he didn't seem to be particularly in favor with Fulham's dour coach Roy Hodgson early in the season, now he's a consistent starter and co-leads the team in goals.

However, the big news over the Christmas break was LA Galaxy star Landon Donovan's loan to my favorite team in Germany, Bayern Munich. Donovan joined the team on a tour of the Middle East where they played a few friendlies against local club teams. He scored a goal on the trip and seemed to get a fair amount of playing time.

With the winter break coming to a close, Bayern returned to Germany and played a couple of friendlies against top 2nd division Bundesliga teams Kaiserslautern and Mainz. On Monday against Kaiserslautern, Donovan came on as a sub for Toni after 60 minutes and promptly scored a terrific header (and performed a much subdued celebration from his Galaxy standard):

Then, yesterday against Mainz, Donovan scored the third and fifth goals in a 5-0 Bayern route. Here's his first goal, another superb header:

Bayern starts up the Bundesliga campaign again next Friday against Hamburg. Should be fun to see if Donovan can play at this level. He famously left Germany at the beginning of his career for MLS, seeking the chilled lifestyle of LA, more playing time, and the company of his actress girlfriend over freezing weather and bad food. Interesting to see if he's tempted to stay in Europe this time.