Snap Inc, “the camera company” IPO’d on March 2, 2017. Snapchat is popular and useful to those who use it. It is a prominent player in the currently expanding market in visual media on social media. Therefore, admirers of Snap products might be attracted to the Snap Inc IPO as an investment.
Does Snap meet criteria of an Amateur Investor investment? Let’s go through them. The first criterion of an Amateur Investor investment is the presence of a sustainable competitive advantage, such that the company sells a product that is indispensable to its users. It is virtually certain that in 10 years the company will still be dominant in the market for its product.
Will Snap be dominant in its market in 10 years? Let’s back up and ask a simpler question. Will Snap exist in 10 years? Hmm… Why not back up again and ask a different question. Did Snap exist 10 years ago? Of course, the answer is no. How could we get an idea as to whether similar companies had sustainable competitive advantages? Oops, I guess the word “had” kind of gives it away. As chronicled in this lovely Wall Street Journal article (I recommend subscribing to and reading the Wall Street Journal, especially Business section, because its articles are simply narratives based on facts, unlike articles in some other high profile newspapers (I won’t mention the New York Times)), a number of social media wonder stocks have climbed to the height of stardom and then fizzled when least expected, not necessarily even going out with a bang. For example, Twitter has over 319 million users, but its market value has fallen by more than half since its 2013 IPO. Friendster back in the first decade of the 2000s had 75 million users before fading. Other somewhat less successful social networks are mentioned in the article. There is evidence that Snap does not dominate its market and is not indispensable, in that Instagram’s launch of Stories, a feature similar to snapchat, resulted in a significant slowing of Snapchat’s growth.
The second criterion for an Amateur Investor investment is that the company adapts by evolving its competitive advantage into evolving new markets. Since Snap does not have a competitive advantage, it does not meet this criterion.
The third criterion addresses devotion to shareholders, for instance by making sure shareholders have voting power commensurate with their stock ownership, obtaining a good return on investment in acquisitions, avoiding stock dilution and so on. In fact, the shares floated in the IPO on March 2nd do not have any voting power at all. They are Class A shares, with no voting power. After the IPO, close to 90% of the shareholder voting power is held by the two cofounders, Evan Spiegel and Robert Murphy. They hold all the Class C shares, which have 10 votes per share. I didn’t even bother to look up who owns the Class B shares, which have 1 vote per share. Because Amateur investors would not be able to get ahold of those anyway. Why does this matter? Say in a few years (or months?) Snap decides to acquire another asset, say another company. In order to raise the necessary cash, it floats a large amount of Class A shares (only about 25% of these were sold in the IPO), thereby diluting the shares in the market and causing the price to fall. Suppose many stock holders disagree with the wisdom of this acquisition. What can they do? Can they vote against it as in a normal company? No, there is nothing they can do. The founding company owners are already wealthy, they are not affected.
The fourth criterion for one of my investments is that the company must be at least 10 years old. The fifth, that the investment is worthwhile based on the company’s past achievements, not just its hoped for future attainments. The Sixth criterion addressed good return on investment, including low debt level, growing free cash flow, high gross margin, high ROI. Snap has no earnings, in fact its losses of over half a $ billion exceeded its revenue of about $400 million.
In a nutshell, it is not possible to be sure whether Snap will still be going strong in 10 years. It might, but then again, it might not. It has no earnings. Why take a chance speculating with your hard-earned money by buying this new company, when instead you could buy a company which you could be sure would grow and continue to be extremely strong and successful for the foreseeable future?
For inexperienced investors that feel they want to try buying something they like, I must agree that gaining some experience in the stock market, if it is with a very small amount of money that you can afford to lose, might be a way of stimulating and motivating the emotional learning process needed to learn about proper investing. There are people who say you should not invest at all except with money that you can afford to lose. But we Amateurs know that is nonsense. Investment, as Benjamin Graham stated, is a purchase that upon thorough analysis promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative. There are various approaches to investing that could satisfy this definition, depending chiefly on what you, the individual investor, judge to be an “adequate”, satisfactory return.
In the Amateur Investor approach to investing, you must simply learn several important realities about businesses, the most important having to do with competitive advantage, of a durable nature. You are looking for the company of which in 10 years it will be said “in 10 years this company will still be growing and dominating its market, and evolving and adapting to continue extending this dominance into the changing market.”