Finance

Kabam: An $800 Million Bid That Is Both Lifeline and Death Knell

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Kabam (Private:KABAM) is a mobile game startup based in San Francisco that had early success at developing games based on movie IP licensed from major studios like Disney’s Marvel studio, Warner Bros., and Lionsgate.

Beginning in 2014, Kabam started timing new releases to coincide with the releases of mega-hit movie sequels like Fast and Furious and the Hunger Games. The games had no long-term engagement value and “freemium” revenue plummeted within a few months after release. The result was a disastrous string of five failures and one success.

The one success was Marvel: Contest of Champions, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game developed by Kabam’s Vancouver studio. It is the only game currently producing significant revenue and has a reportedly generated revenue totaling $471 Million since its late 2014 release. In July 2016, we wrote an article for SA saying that ” Kabam would be dead today” had it not been for the Marvel game.

On October 18, 2016, Venturebeat reported that Kabam received an unsolicited offer of $800 Million for its Vancouver studio. A day later the Wall Street Journal reported that Kabam has received multiple bids between $700 Million and $800 Million from Asian and U.S. gaming and media companies.

The bids are an opportunity that Kabam’s Board of Directors cannot refuse and represents both a lifeline and death knell.

The $800 Million bid implies a special value for the Vancouver studio of 100+ developers because our estimated (see derivation below) value of the whole company is at $775 Million, which, in turn, is below the previous $1 Billion valuation attributed to it by Alibaba in August 2014 when it invested $120 Million in the company.

We would be comfortable with the argument, presented in more detail below, that this “cherry-picked” bid implies minimal value for the company’s founders and C-suite executives based in San Francisco and Beijing. We would be comfortable with the argument that the work-in-progress and underlying game platforms coming out of Kabam’s other studios in San Francisco and Beijing, but not Los Angeles, also have minimal value.

In terms of return on investment, we will argue below that the proceeds from $800 Million should be paid out to stockholders rather than reinvested in either the Beijing or San Francisco studios.

In the rest of the paper, we will provide detailed answers to the following questions:

(1) What is current valuation of Kabam as a whole?

(2) Why might it be hard for Kabam to peel off the Vancouver studio?

(3) Who the likely bidder?

(4) What is likely to happen to the rest of the company?

What Is The Current Valuation of Kabam as a Whole?

Compared to other tech companies, valuation and revenue forecasting of mobile game companies is an order of magnitude easier due to the fact that analysts have access to monthly download and revenue rank data provided by such app analytics companies as App Annie. It is equivalent to the 1970s era of pure play movie studios where analysts had access to weekend box office data published by Variety.

We have developed a methodology for valuing and revenue forecasting of pure play mobile game companies based on three pieces of data (1) IOS Apple USA app store game revenue rank published by App Annie; (2) an estimate of a power function relation between annualized global revenue run rate (NYSE:ARR) and IOS Apple USA revenue rank; and (3) “market-derived” valuations of pure play mobile game companies as a multiple their ARR.

We have used this methodology to publish a number of articles on SA:

Kabam: A Mobile Game Unicorn No More?, July 2016

Kabam’s IPO Plans are Kaput, January 2015

Machine Zone: IPO or What?, July 2014

Zynga Is A Dog Without A Top 10 Mobile Hit, June 2014

Klab: An Undervalued Japanese Mobile Gaming Stock, June 2014

Mixi: A Rare Undervalued Mobile Gaming Stock, May 2014

We start with a screenshot of the revenue rank trend for Kabam’s Marvel game since its release in late 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It shows 12 month run between mid-2015 and mid-2016 as a steady #5 to #10 revenue rank game. Based on an average #8 ranking, we estimate that this translates into a $350 Million ARR.

However, the graph reveals some slippage since mid-2016, possibly because of the Pokemon phenomenon. Because of the power function relation between revenue rank and revenue, a single digit slip to an average #9 ranking translates into a $250 Million ARR, which we use for our current valuation below.

This recent slippage is the kind of insight available to financial analysts of the mobile game industry that is unmatched elsewhere in the tech business world. Can you imagine having access to similar trend lines for Uber, Airbnb, Palantir, or Pinterest?

In terms of what multiple of ARR to use for valuing Kabam, we offer the latest “market driven” multiple for a pure play mobile game company. This is the June 2016 Tencent acquisition of Softbank’s 84.3% ownership of Supercell for $8.6 Billion. This put the full 100% valuation of Supercell at $10.2 Billion.

Even though Supercell is a private company based in Finland, it is required by law to report annual revenue to the government. In 2015, Supercell reported revenue of $2.326 Billion based largely on its hit games of Clash of Clans, Hay Day and Boom Beach. Now with the addition of #6 Clash Royale, we estimate that Supercell’s current ARR at $2.9 Billion, implying a valuation of 3.3 times ARR.

However, Supercell is a very profitable company with multiple hit games and an employee headcount reportedly less than 200. Kabam is currently a one hit game company with a current total ARR of around $310 Million and current employee headcount of around 689. Supercell’s ARR/employee is $14.5 Million, which is 32 times that of Kabam’s $.45 Million ARR/employee.

Since the mid-2016 slippage in the Marvel game ARR, we believe that Kabam is no longer profitable on a EBITDA basis and now is very likely running cash flow negative. With the IPO window closed, and tellingly, no new VC investments in two years, a $800 Million bid for the Vancouver studio is a lifeline that its Board cannot refuse.

There is no way you can value Kabam at Supercell’s 3.3 times ARR. We believe our often used 2.5 times ARR is appropriate here. We estimate Kabam’s current valuation at $775 Million, just below the reported top bid of $800 Million for the Vancouver studio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why might it be hard for Kabam to peel off the Vancouver studio?

The Vancouver studio started out as Exploding Barrel Games, which Kabam acquired in early 2013. The terms were not disclosed. The studio had 35 developers at the time and it was this core group that developed the gameplay engine for the Marvel game.

The CTO of Exploding Barrel Games was Jeff Howell. He is still with Kabam and has gone on to become Kabam’s first CTO. According to aKabam press release of his appointment in Nov 2, 2015, ” he also will continue to lead the development and implementation of Kabam’s proprietary technology engine “Fuse & Sparx.” (cute…Fuse & Sparx…then Kabam!!) Kabam also has announced that the Vancouver game engine would be deployed company-wide as the platform of all future MMO game development.

The bid obviously has to include CTO Jeff Howell and the game engine. Kabam has announced a planned 1Q17 release of a MMO game based on Transformer IP licensed from Hasbro. This game is currently in development at its Vancouver studio. The question is who gets the Transformer game? If Kabam retains the rights, how can it continue development at one of its other studios without the help of CTO Howell, the Vancouver team, and a copy of the game engine? These decisions will occupy Kabam’s Board as much as the actual bid amount.

Who the likely bidder?

The Wall Street Journal article mentioned that Kabam has multiple bids from Asian and U.S. gaming and media companies. The obvious guesses are the USA console gaming companies Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard looking for a $1 Billion MMO mobile game to rival those of Supercell and Machine Zone (Private:MZ). Softbank is an unlikely bidder as it has been raising cash by shedding mobile game assets to make up for the losses of its Sprint acquisition. China’s Tencent would be another guess, although we think that Alibaba would be uncomfortable selling to its arch rival.

We would like to offer another likely bidder that has “one degree of separation” from the Vancouver studio and could seamlessly step in and run the studio. That company is the Tokyo-based gaming company Nexon (OTC:NEXOF) listed on the Tokyo stock exchange (T:3659). Nexon, founded in Korea in 1994, moved to Japan 12 years ago, went public 5 years ago, and is growing 20-25% a year. It currently has 4 of the Top 10 mobile games on the South Korean app store charts.

Nexon’s CEO is Owen Mahoney who has been VP of Corporate Development at Electronic Arts from 2000-2009. Nexon’s estimated 2016 revenue is around $1.7 Billion USD. Mahoney has said that Nexon is focused on expanding its mobile presence in the West. While the $800 Million price tag for the Vancouver studio would be a stretch for Nexon, the acquisition would be good fit.

Here is where the “one degree of separation” comes in. Two co-founders of Exploding Barrel Games — its President Scott Blackwood and General Manager Heather Price — plus the Kabam VP that led the Exploding Barrel Games acquisition — Chris Ko –left Kabam in 2015 to start an independent mobile game studio called The Game Studio. The studio is based where? Vancouver. Their mission is what? AAA mobile game developer. And who has recently signed on to become its global publishing partner? Nexon.

It would make perfect sense, and be almost a fairy-tale ending, if Nexon purchased Kabam’s Vancouver studio and re-united it with its original leadership led by creative director Scott Blackwood.

What is likely to happen to the rest of the company?

Kabam’s website lists eight on its Board of Directors with the majority of five being VC partners of investing firms. The VCs are in control here so founder and C-Suite job security would not be the dominant factor in this decision. Given the dearth of tech IPOs generally in the past two years, there is pressure on the Kabam’s Board to accept a bid, regardless of the difficulties it might present for the future success of the remaining company.

As we said earlier, the bid price is the least of Kabam’s Board worries. We discussed earlier the thorny issue of how to peel off the Vancouver studio and its game engine without crippling development in the rest of the company going forward.

A more thorny issue is what to do with the $800 Million cash, assuming it is cash and not stock. The basic decision comes down to return on investment with the choices being stock repurchase versus reinvestment in the remaining three studios.

Crunchbase has reported that Kabam has received a total of $244.5 Million from investors — $120M from Alibaba, and the remaining $144.5 Million from venture capitalists. Given the hunger for realized returns by VCs these day, we believe Kabam’s Board has to return a minimum of 2X to investors or $489 Million sooner than later.

In our opinion, we don’t see much remaining at Kabam that merits an investment, (details below) assuming the Vancouver game engine and the rights to the Transformer game goes with the winning bid. A minimum 2X payout still leaves $311 Million, which is way too much to reinvest in the company. We could see the company keeping only $150 Million, and paying out another $150 Million.

The company has announced only one other game in development — a MMO game based on Avatar IP licensed from James Cameron, the film maker who gave us Avatar, Titanic, Alien, and Terminator. The game is being developed by Kabam’s LA studio. It is scheduled to be release in conjunction with the release of Avatar 2 movie. It is not clear what game engine is behind this development.

On the one hand, investing in any creative project based on James Cameron IP seems like a winner. But, Cameron is known for being very fickle. The release date for Avatar 2 has been in a constant state of flux and has been pushed back another year to December 2017.

Also, it is hard for us to conceive Avatar as a MMO battle game like the hit games from Supercell or MZ. Avatar seem better suited as MMO role playing game, which does well in Asia, but not so well in the West.

Also, who’s to say that Cameron might change his mind and want a VR game instead of a MMO mobile game? Still, saving the LA studio of 80+ developers and reserving plenty of cash for the Avatar game seems like a good investment.

We have no clue what Kabam’s Beijing studio of 200+ is doing these days. The spectacular failure to localize the Marvel game for the Chinese market puts it at the top of our list for closure. This includes exits for two of Kabam’s co-founders — long time studio head Michael Li andHolly Liu who moved to Beijing in 2015 to help manage the studio.

The Chinese Marvel game did hit #1 on the Apple iOS China download charts — for one day. And Kabam cajoled Dean Takahashi of Venturebeat into writing an article with this headline: “How Kabam Self-Published Its Marvel Mobile Game in China — and Hit #1”

But, the game never caught on and has been on a steady downtrend with a current revenue rank around #250 on Apple’s iOS China app store.(see chart below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The failure of Kabam to localize the Marvel game has reduced the likelihood that its leading investor Alibaba, or any other potential Chinese investor, to pour more money into the company.

Finally, what should Kabam’s Board do with its San Francisco HQ run by CEO and co-founder Kevin Chou and its studio numbering 279+ developers and support personnel?

The studio itself is responsible for three of the recent failed releases. Plus, we have argued that the cause of Kabam’s failure to release games with long-term engagement value has been a short-sighted, “talk the talk” culture coming out of its San Francisco HQ.

CEO Chou has admitted as much now saying that the company is focused on “bigger, bolder, fewer” game releases. But, in our opinion, he still doesn’t understand what it takes to create long-term player engagement. He thinks it is through mobile games with AAA console graphics including 3D. In our opinion, it is through “metagame” starting with a real-time, crowd-sourced chat translator similar to what MZ (formerly Machine Zone) developed three years ago.

For these reason, we could see the $800 Million bid as the death knell of Kabam’s San Francisco operations with a massive layoff numbering 250+ coupled with golden-parachute exits by CEO Kevin Chou and COO Kent Wakeford. Kabam could then downsize its HQ and relocate it in LA with the company headed by President of Studios and Chief Creative officer Mike Verdu.

The Bancorp: Oversold Says Richard Thaler’s Behavioral Finance Fund

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Summary

  • On September 29th, The Bancorp will hold a special meeting of stockholders to vote on a $74 Million secondary offering.
  • The terms and conditions are an insult to existing institutional investors and there is evidence that The Bancorp genuinely fears that a NO vote might win.
  • If a NO vote wins, the deciding votes will come from a hedge fund run by the famous behavioral finance theorist Richard Thaler.
  • If a NO vote wins, we predict that the stock will pop up 10% or more.

On September 29th, The Bancorp will hold a special meeting of stockholders to vote on a $74 Million secondary offering.

The terms and conditions are an insult to existing institutional investors and there is evidence that The Bancorp genuinely fears that a NO vote might win.

If a NO vote wins, the deciding votes will come from a hedge fund run by the famous behavioral financial theorist Richard Thaler.

If a NO vote wins, we predict that the stock will pop up 10% or more.

 In response to the subprime mortgage meltdown a decade ago, the US Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act of 2009-2010 which, among other things, required FDIC-insured banks to maintain a Tier 1 leverage ratio (capital / average assets) greater that 5%.

This means that a relatively small (e.g. 5%-10%) mark down of a major asset class — whether it be loans outright or collateralized debt obligations — could wipe out a third or more of a bank’s capital. This would almost always cause a bank to fall below the Dodd-Frank standard for a “well-capitalized bank”.

Falling below the Dodd-Frank standard would trigger an existential crisis for the bank, forcing a merger or a private placement, often coupled with a massive shake-up of management and the board.

The Bancorp (NASDAQ:TBBK) has a two and a half years running history of erratic mark-to-market accounting of troubled commercial loans, followed by a series of moves to avoid falling below the Dodd-Frank standard for a “well-capitalized bank.”

We have documented The Bancorp’s problems in three previous articles for Seeking Alpha: The Bancorp: Bad Moon Rising (January 2015); The Bancorp: Continuing Problems with a Discontinued Operation (March 2015); and The Bancorp: Why the Continuing Delays in Filing Its 10-K(May 2015).

We have also published a recent accounting article called The Bancorp: A Test for Post-Enron GAAP that analyzes its late 2014 decision not to consolidate an LLC formed to buy the most troubled portion of its discontinued commercial loan portfolio.

Even though approved by its outside auditor Grant Thornton LLP, we believe that this decision is not in compliance with GAAP and have requested another review by the FDIC and the Federal Reserve Bank.

On July 28, 2016, The Bancorp announced a $31 Million loss for 2Q16, largely due to an unexpected $32 Million in loan mark downs / note write-offs associated with its discontinued commercial loan operation. The Bancorp’s balance sheet had been spared of any hits since the bank first announced the discontinuation of commercial lending operations on October 30, 2014.

During the Conference Call, one analyst quipped, “.. maybe you guys ripped the Band-Aid off this quarter..” and went on to say he was unsure whether these losses were a one-time event or the beginning of a more forthright examination of the valuations of these troubled loan portfolios.

The 2Q16 surprise loss and follow-up conference call sent The Bancorp’s stock down 14% the next day.

Two weeks later on August 8, 2016, The Bancorp announced a $74 Million private placement of new stock with two new investors accompanied by terms and conditions suggesting that the bank was desperate to get a deal done. In particular, the new stock was priced below market at $4.50 a share and the two new investors each were offered a board seat.

We wrote in an SA article that this private placement was a defensive move motivated by a desire to reverse a downward spiral toward the Dodd-Frank standard rather than a positive move to acquire more capital to support more loan-making activity.

We also speculated that the bank’s existing institutional investors would be angered by the terms and conditions because they had invested comparable amounts over the past few years at prices in the $10 to $20 a share range with no offers of board seats.

On August 26th, The Bancorp issued a DEF 14A Proxy notice of a special meeting of shareholders to vote on this secondary offering. The date set was September 29, 2016 at company headquarters in Wilmington, DE with stockholders on record at the end of the day on August 15, 2015 eligible to vote.

In order to hold this meeting, a quorum of ½ of total outstanding shares — 18.9 Million of 37.8 Million total shares on record — must be cast in person or sent in by proxy. At its December 2015 annual meeting, a total of 29 Million votes were cast for the slate of Board members up for re-election. Average tally per Board Member was 25 Million YES, and 4 Million NO.

We think that the total votes in the upcoming special election will exceed 30 Million with 15 Million NO votes needed to stop this secondary offering from going through. The secondary offering can be stopped if at least 6 of the largest institutional investors (see list below) vote NO.

We think the “tipping point” votes will come from its newest and largest institutional investor, the behavioral finance fund Fuller & Thaler Asset Management. (more on them later)

A NO vote would mean that The Bancorp would have to look elsewhere for additional capital to shore up its status as a well-capitalized bank. Another private placement with new investors seems unlikely. A merger with another bank, possibly forced by the FDIC and Federal Reserve Bank, would appear to be the only option left.

In sum, The Bancorp’s Management and the Board would face an existential crisis with a NO vote on September 29, 2016.

While majority NO votes going against Management recommendations are rare, nevertheless there is evidence that The Bancorp’s Management and Board genuinely fear that a NO vote might win.

The evidence for this is an unprecedented flurry of positive PR announcements issued by the bank during the past month. This includes token open market purchases of shares by Directors and Officers, a “cherry-picked” sale of loans from the discontinued portfolio, a inconsequential deal with a Fintech startup, culminating in a vague cost-reduction and layoff announcement:

8/17 — 10,000 shares bought in open market by Director Bradley.

8/24 — 26,000 shared bought in open market by Chief Administrative Officer Leto.

8/26 — a “cherry-picked” new $65 Million sale of discontinued loans to First Priority Bank.

8/29 — 1,000 shares bought in open market by Chief Operating Officer McFadden.

8/29 — 20,000 shares bought in open market by Director Kozlov.

9/9 — 2,000 shared bought in open market by Chief Operating Officer McFadden.

9/14 — deal to front online banking startup VARO Money.

9/15 — a cost-reduction plan with no specific headcount or reserves booked for severance.

There is also evidence that institutional investors have a heightened interest in the outcome of this special election. First, on the August 15th cutoff date to be eligible to vote, an unprecedented 1.9 Million shares were traded suggesting a large institutional investor really wanted in. (see chart below)

ychart-of-tbbk

We are not sure, but the August 15th trading activity could have been based on inside information of the cutoff date, because we can find no prior public announcement of that August 15th date.

Second, a NASDAQ listing of The Bancorp’s institutional investors on record as of June 30, 2016 reveals an intriguing new, and now largest, investor. This new investor is Fuller & Thaler Asset Management– a hedge fund run by Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago professor now famous for theories on behavioral finance and “nudge”.

Thaler believes that behavioral economics can uncover cases where the “efficient-market” hypothesis is not working.

A Forbes article on Thaler’s investment strategy said that investing in companies with bad management accompanied by negative sentiment actually led to above average returns. The Bancorp would seem to be a perfect test for Thaler’s theories.

Thaler’s 2.2 Million share accumulation of The Bancorp stock during 2016 suggest that Thaler believe that negative sentiment has gone too far (led by us!) and that TBBK is in an oversold position.

The question is how will Thaler vote his 2.2 Million shares in the upcoming special election? And will the stock pop or drop with a majority NO vote? (We would love your take on these questions in the comments section.)

We think that Thaler will voting NO on the private placement. Also, we believe that the existential crisis caused by a NO vote will be overlooked by the stock market as it will be the first step in getting rid of bad management (fundamentally, the Chairman Daniel G. Cohen) and reversing the negative sentiment.

We predict that TBBK will pop 10% or more IF a NO vote wins. With Management and Board on the way out, the stock become a buy because its current price of $6.00+ a share is 15% below its current tangible book value of about $7.00 a share.

The Bancorp is not the only one facing an existential crisis here. As a financial analyst inclined toward exposing badly managed and overvalued companies, is our mission in life to create opportunities for outsized returns by behavioral finance investors like Richard Thaler?

The Bancorp: A Test for Post-Enron GAAP

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Summary

Based on details presented below, we believe that The Bancorp is not in compliance with Post-Enron GAAP (specifically FASB 46R amended by SFAS 167, also know today as FASB ASC Topic 810-10) 

Introduction

Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) relating to consolidation of subsidiaries have changed dramatically in response to the Enron scandal of the late 90s. Pre-Enron, GAAP for consolidation was specified in ARB No. 51. It said to the effect that an enterprise must consolidate all subsidiaries in which it had a controlling financial interest as defined quantitatively by a majority voting interest.

Between 1998 and 2001,  Enron’s CFO Jeffrey Fastow exploited that rule mercilessly by creating a number of minority equity interest LLCs  to buy Enron oil and gas assets that had not been fully marked down to market.  Enron did not consolidate these LLCs citing ARB No. 51.  

Nevermind if Enron had total power to direct the activity of the LLC with Fastow himself as managing director paid millions of dollars a year.  Nevermind if Enron had a majority financial interest when debt was considered due to loans from banks secretly secured by Enron common stock.  

Post-Enron in 2003, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) issued FIN 46R – an interpretation ARB No. 51. The simple majority interest rule was complete scraped.  

Instead, FASB said that an enterprise must consolidate a variable interest entity (VIE)  — variable shares of equity and debt   — when it had a controlling financial interest as defined quantitatively by the obligation to absorb the major share of losses or the right to receive the major share of benefits.

In 2009, FASB amended FIN 46R to take into account the valid criticism from lenders to VIEs who had to consolidate because they had a majority financial interest but absolute no power to direct the activities that affected the financials.

FASB 46R – amended by SFAS 167 (today called FASB ASC Topic 810-10) added a qualitative stipulation that a corporation must consolidate a VIE if it had most of the power to direct the activities as well as a majority interest in the resulting financial gains and losses.

Majority financial interest can be determined quantitatively and has been relatively easy to evaluate for compliance.   But, as PwC lamented in a bulletin, the qualitative question of who has the most decision-making power  “will require considerable judgment.”

The purpose of this paper is to review a late 2014 non-consolidation decision of The Bancorp (NASDAQ:TBBK),  a Philadelphia area bank regulated both by the FDIC and the Federal Reserve with a diversified loan portfolio, but also known for being one of largest issuers of reloadable prepaid debit and gift cards in the country.  

The non-consolidation decision has been reviewed and approved by its outside auditor Grant Thornton LLP.  

We are not sure if the FDIC or Federal Reserve has reviewed this particular non-consolidation decision.  However, the SEC is currently reviewing The Bancorp’s financials for the years 2010-4 in conjunction with the bank’s handling of mark-to-market accounting of the now discontinued commercial loan portfolio.  

The Bancorp case is important for two reasons, one general and one specific:

First, banks are highly leveraged entities (low capital / asset ratios) subject to strict mark-to-market accounting principles for their loan and asset portfolios.   In response to the subprime mortgage meltdown a decade ago, the US Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act of 2009-2010 which, among other things, required  FDIC-insured banks to maintain a Tier 1 leverage ratio (capital / average assets) greater that 5%.

This means that a relatively small (e.g. 5%-10%) mark down of a major asset class — whether it be loans outright or collateralized debt obligations — could wipe out a third or more of a bank’s capital. This would almost always cause a bank to fall below the Dodd-Frank standard for a “well-capitalized bank”.

Falling below the Dodd-Frank standard would trigger an existential crisis for any bank, forcing a merger or a private placement, often coupled with a massive shake-up of management and the board.

Because of Dodd-Frank, the temptation is greater than ever for a bank to offload troubled assets not fully marked to market to a non-consolidated VIE. 

Second, The Bancorp in particular has a two and a half years running history of erratic mark-to-market accounting of troubled loans, followed by a series of moves to avoid falling below the Dodd-Frank standard.

In August, 2016, The Bancorp reversed a downward spiral toward the Dodd-Frank standard by securing an additional $74 Million in capital from two new investors with terms and conditions suggesting that the bank was desperate to get a deal done.

The Bancorp’s 2 ½ year history of dealing with its troubled loan portfolio has been documented by us in four previous articles for SeekingAlpha:  The Bancorp: Bad Moon Rising (January 2015); The Bancorp: Continuing Problems with a Discontinued Operation (March 2015); The Bancorp: Why the Continuing Delays in Filing Its 10-K (May 2015); and The Bancorp: Private Placement Needed to Shore Status as Well-Capitalized Bank (August 2016).

Finally, The Bancorp case study has an interesting human interest angle as there is a single mastermind behind the dealings and questionable accounting.  For Enron, it was CFO Jeffrey Fastow, “the smartest guy in the room”, who began his career at a big bank in the 1980s working in the nascent market for CDOs.

The Bancorp’s  “smartest guy in the room” with a history of  testing the limits of GAAP is its long-standing Chairman of the Board, Daniel G. Cohen.  The Bancorp was founded by his mother, the legendary Betsy Z. Cohen, but it is her son that controls the bank.

A majority of the bank’s Board has worked directly for Cohen or served on Boards of financial intermediaries he has created over the years.  This includes 6 of the 9 bank Board Members —  Chairman Daniel Cohen along with Beach, Bradley, Kozlov, Lamb, and McEntee III.  

In researching articles we have written about The Bancorp, we discovered that Cohen has been the CEO of a number of companies that create and trade CDOs, most of which imploded in the financial crisis of 2008-10.

The Bancorp Case

In its  3Q14 10-K, The Bancorp announced that it was discontinuing its $1.2 Billion commercial lending operation.  It set aside this portfolio on its balance sheet,  claimed it was marked-to-market, and that the bank was actively seeking buyers.  Since that announcement,  the bank has had considerable trouble selling off the most troubled segments to third-parties.  

As we have said in earlier papers, “fairly marked assets sell fairly quickly”.  A corollary is that failure to sell fairly marked assets is an indicator that the assets are not marked-to-market.

On the next to the last trading day of 2014 when most of us are making New Year’s plans, The Bancorp issued a terse 8-K saying it had made the first sale to a partnership called Walnut Street 2014-1 Issuer, LLC.  

Nine months later when it finally issued its 2014 10-K (another bank debacle detailed by us elsewhere), the bank revealed that it did not consolidate this LLC into its balance sheet despite the fact that the overwhelming proportion of the LLC’s financing came from the sale of notes back to The Bancorp itself.  

What caught our eye initially in early 2015 was NOT the financing structure.  That came out nine months later.  What caught our eye initially was the stark contrast in markdown between the sale portion and the remaining portion of the discontinued loan portfolio. (see table below) (click to enlarge)

markdown-comparison

We speculated in an January 2015 article The Bancorp: Bad Moon Rising that the remaining portion might not be fully “marked to market” and fairly valued.  Our speculation was validated 1 ½ years later in 2Q16  when the The Bancorp was forced by independent auditors to take an additional $32 Million in combined market-downs of the remaining portfolio on its books and write-offs of the notes received from the LLC to pay for the portfolio segment bought.

In electing not to consolidate, The Bancorp cited almost verbatim in Note H of its 2014 10-K (filed 9 months late), and in its 2015 10-K,  the criteria for consolidation specified in FASB 46R – Statement 167:

“(1) the power to direct the activities of the VIE that most significantly impact the VIE’s economic performance; and

(2) through its interests in the VIE, the obligation to absorb losses or the right to receive benefits from the VIE that could potentially be significant to the VIE.”

The table below is our presentation of the variable interests in the LLC as detailed in Note H of the bank’s 10-Ks: (click to enlarge)

The Bancorp VIE: Walnut Street 2014-1

The fact that bank waited until the day before New Year’s to disclose this sale in a terse 8-K plus the fact that the structure of the deal was so convoluted,  giving its partner 51% of the voting stock despite practically no “skin in the game”, alone suggests right from beginning that The Bancorp is testing the limits of Post-Enron GAAP.  

The Bancorp’s partner here  is Angelo, Gordon & Co (AG & Co.)  out of New York City.  According to its website, AG & Co. is a large $26 Billion manager of  “alternative investments” including commercial real estate mortgage-backed securities (CDOs).  

Legally speaking, AG & Co. is an unrelated, third party to The Bancorp and its the Chairman Daniel G. Cohen.  But, AG & Co. is listed as a “banner investor” of a firm that merged into Cohen’s latest concoction — a “blank check” IPO called Fintech Acquisition Corp, which we have written about in our paper Fintech Acquisition “Blank Check” IPO: Buzzy Name Fuzzy Aim.

Also, the founders of  AG & Co. — Michael Gordon and the late John M. Angelo — must have had direct meetings with Cohen over the years as both AG & Co. and various Cohen controlled companies —IFMI, Cohen & Co., Alesco Financial, Taberna Realty Finance, and RAIT Financial Trust  —  create and trade CDOs.

The fact that AG & Co has practically no “skin in the game” plus the fact that its founders had prior dealings with Cohen suggest that the bank’s sale to the LLC was barely an arm’s length sale to an unrelated third-party.

In Note H of its 10-K, the bank at least acknowledges that it has the most exposure to LLC losses:  “The Company’s maximum exposure to loss is equal to the balance of the Company’s loans, or $178.5 million.”

In terms of criteria (2) alone, the bank should have consolidated.  But what about criteria (1) above?

In Note H of its 10-K, the bank has nothing to say about who has the most power to make decisions that affect the performance of the LLC.  It just ends the note abruptly with this conclusion:  “The company is not the primary beneficiary, as it does not have the controlling financial interest in WS 2014 (the LLC)  and therefore does not consolidate.”

The purpose of the rest of the paper is provide evidence in support of our contention that it is high level executives at The Bancorp who make the key operating decisions that affect the LLCs financial performance and therefore The Bancorp should have consolidated.

Before we start, we just want to mention first that the very name for the LLC — Walnut Street 2014-1 Issuer, LLC. — marks its as The Bancorp’s venture, not some true partnership.

The Bancorp’s founder, Betsy Z. Cohen, the mother of Bancorp Chairman Daniel G. Cohen, was instrumental  reviving the Walnut Street area of downtown Philadelphia in the 1970s by making risky loans to startup restaurants in the area.  It is ironic that the same Walnut Street name that was associated with a civic-minded banker/mother in the 1970’s is now associated with a rule-bending banker/son now.

Officers and Directors

When trying to determine who controls the operations of an LLC, the usual place to start is a listing of the officers.  Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly,  Walnut Street LLC was formed in Delaware where such information is not publicly available.

Fortunately, we have found on-line a copy of the Purchase Agreement between The Bancorp and the LLC.  It yielded two names associated with the LLC.

The  LLC’s “Directing Holder”  is Jonathan Lieberman, head of AG & Co’s considerable commercial and real estate loan trading operations.  He is based in New York City.  One has to wonder how much time Lieberman puts into an LLC where AG & Co.’s investment is mere $16 Million, or less than .5%  of the Billions of real estate  investments he must be managing.

The LLC’s  “Designated Manager”  is Kenneth L. Tepper, head of Kildare Financial Group, an independent contractor that has been used by the FDIC to sort bankruptcy messes.  The initial address for the LLC was his office address in Gladwyne, PA.

It turns out Tepper has close ties to The Bancorp. According to a Bloomberg bio, Tepper has served as Managing Director of Financial Institutions Group at Cohen & Co, a firm founded by the family of Chairman Daniel G. Cohen.

Also, there is a 2012 article that says Tepper has worked on bankruptcy cases with Hersh Kozlov, a managing partner of the Philadelphia area law firm Duane Morris LLP.   It turns out that Hersh Kozlov has been a  Board Member of The Bancorp since 2014 and The Bancorp uses his law firm Duane Morris LLP.

In short, Kenneth L. Tepper was a front for The Bancorp when it set up the LLC in 2014.

Legal Activity

In trying to answer the question of who makes the key decisions that affect the LLCs financials, we start by asking what are the activities of this LLC that most significantly affects its performance?

The business of the LLC is managing an existing, troubled commercial loan portfolio already marked down 28% from principal. There is no need for loan officers to drum of new business,  get appraisals, or to create new loan documents.  

There is a need for servicing existing loans — posting remittances, checking certificates of insurance, sending out routine delinquency notices. etc. The Bancorp discloses in Note H of its 10-Ks that it has a contract to service the LLC’s loans.  But, servicing existing loans does not have material impact on financial performance.

The really important decisions of the LLC involve the handling of delinquent accounts.   This involves face-to-face meeting with borrowers who are mostly in the Philadelphia area.  It involves facilitating refinancing with other banks.  It involves directing lawyers to file documents in area courts to recover from borrowers who have defaulted on their loans.

Here is an a quantitative estimate of how many loans are involved in the LLC portfolio. The Bancorp’s CFO Paul Frenkiel gave some detail in a 2Q16 conference call regarding the concentration ratio in the discontinued operations portfolio.   By applying the same ratios to the LLC loan portfolio, (see below) we can get some idea of the number of large loans in the LLC portfolio: (click to enlarge)

The Bancorp: Walnut Street LLC Loan Portfolio

The core of the LLC activity is working with approximately 29 total customers, concentrating on about 5 customers with outstanding loans principals averaging $20 Million.  Losing one to default would be impactful. Losing two would be disastrous.

Below are links to two 2016 filings by lawyers on behalf of the LLC to recover from borrowers who have defaulted.  The total claims amount to $28.2 Million, or 14.6% of the total loan portfolio.  In both cases, the lawyers are based in the Philadelphia area and have close ties to The Bancorp.

In June 2016, a suburban Philadelphia paper reported a sheriff’s sale of a suburban shopping center where the owners were in default of loans held by the LLC. “According to a schedule of the Schuylkill County Sheriff’s Sale of Real Estate, the mall has been listed for sale based on a judgment of $27,428,876.”  This single default represented 13% of the LLC’s total portfolio.

The article mentioned that the LLC’s claim for damages was filed by Dana B. Klinges.

It turn out that Klinges is with the law firm Duane & Morris LLP. where Hersh Kozlov, a Board Member of  The Bancorp’s is a managing partner.

In May, 2016, a lawyer for the LLC filed in Pennsylvania court a plea to recover $822,053 in loan principal plus interest from owners of another Philadelphia area shopping center.  The lawyer was with the law firm  Spector, Gadon & Rosen P.C.

It turns out that  Spector, Gadon & Rosen P.C. was co-founded 35 years ago by Betsy Z. Cohen, founder of  The Bancorp and mother of Chairman Daniel G. Cohen.

Finally,  the LLC’s corporate attorney  — Dechert LLP — has close ties  to The Bancorp as Dechert LLP is listed as one of the Bancorp’s corporate attorneys and defended them in an investor lawsuit.

While we have evidence that all of these outside lawyers have close ties to The Bancorp, we have no hard evidence as who specifically gives them high-level direction.  Who do these lawyers discuss strategy with in face-to-face meetings in the Philadelphia area?  Who reviews their invoices? Who signs their checks?   

Based on court documents in connection with the shopping center case cited above, The Bancorp executive that lawyers report to is Daniel Sacho, current Executive Vice President of Commercial Lending and Real Estate.

The Bancorp’s Headquarters is in Wilmington, Delaware.  The Bancorp maintains a large office at 1818 Market Street, 28th Floor  in downtown Philadelphia. Of note, several other companies controlled by Daniel G. Cohen — Rait Financial Trust and Cohen Bros. & Company —  also maintain offices on the same 28th floor.  

A high level bank executive based in Wilmington at The Bancorp’s HQ is only 37 miles and a 40 minute ride by train or car away from their downtown Philadelphia office.

Finally, here is an example of an  assignment document transferring a loan from The Bancorp to the LLC.  The address used for the LLC was ℅ The Bancorp Bank, 712 Fifth Avenue 8th Floor, New York, NY 10019.  This is the same address used by Chairman Daniel G. Cohen for his Fintech Acquisition Corporation.

Accounting Activity

By selling a segment of its discontinued operation’s loan portfolio to an unconsolidated LLC, The Bancorp escaped rigorous, transparent, and periodic examination of mark-to-market GAAP for its troubled commercial loans.

But, those troubled loans were largely replaced on the bank’s balance sheet by $193.6 Million in notes issued by the LLC.  The Bancorp has chosen to label these notes an “investment in unconsolidated entity.”  While not subject to the same rigorous and periodic examination as direct loans, nevertheless this investment is subject to review as to value.

Normally, mark-to-market accounting of loan portfolios and investments are reviewed by a bank’s independent auditor, in this case, Grant Thornton LLP.  

However, on July 28, 2016 in its 2Q16 conference call, The Bancorp disclosed that it had engaged several independent auditors to review both the on-balance sheet portfolio and the off-balance sheet portfolio of the LLC.  Per their recommendation, the bank took a total of $32 Million in combined mark-downs of its on-balance sheet portfolio and write-off of its on-balance sheet investment in the LLC.

This surprised Wall Street and sent the bank’s stock down for a 14% one-day loss. This was the first time The Bancorp’s financials took a hit from its commercial loan operations since it declared it a discontinued operation nearly 2 years ago.

The bank must have known ahead of time that this disclosure would would cause  investors to worry about how close the bank was to the Dodd-Frank standard.  Two weeks later, on Monday August 8, 2016, The Bancorp announced a private placement of combined common and convertible preferred stock for a total gross consideration of $74 Million.

The Bancorp’s 2Q16 conference call revealed how deeply it was involved in its non-consolidated LLC.  Here is an exchange revealing that The Bancorp had hired  independent auditors for both portfolios and that, in particular, it had hired one independent auditor to work on both:

        William Wallace (Analyst, Raymond James & Assoc.)

         Okay. And do you have the same person or firm or company that’s valuing the value of those loans  versus the         ones that are in your discontinued ops.

        Paul Frenkiel (CFO, The Bancorp)

       We actually use multiple companies, but our primary loan review company, we have one loan review company         for discontinued ops and we have another one that also does work on that, but it is more specific to the one             that’s [doing] the investment in that [un]consolidated entity.

Conclusion

Investors eventually sense when a publicly-held company pushes GAAP to the limit. It’s stock price begins to fall long before any outside auditor or the SEC steps in to question its accounting publicly.  

The stock market has already punished The Bancorp for its handling of mark-to-market accounting and its painfully slow disposition of its discontinued commercial loan operations.  Between March, 2014 when it first announced an unexpected additional mark-down of its loan portfolio and June 12, 2016, the stock has fallen 69.3%  from $19.98 a share to $6.12 a share.

The Bancorp Stock Performance

Even though The Bancorp has moved a segment of its troubled loans off its balance sheet,  its balance sheet  eventually took a hit anyway.  Pressure from investors eventually forced the bank to accept an independent auditor’s recommendation to write-off a portion of the notes it took back from the LLC.

The problem is “eventually”  is not good enough.

In July, 2016, The Bancorp announced that it had settled a class action suit brought by investors who had lost $100+ Million during the past two year.  The settlement was for a paltry $17. 5 Million, of which the bank said that 100% was covered by insurance.

The Bancorp’s outside auditor Grant Thornton LLC needs to force the bank to explain in greater detail in its Note H why it believes it is in compliance with both criteria specified in  FASB 46R – Statement 167.  The SEC, FDIC, and the Federal Reserve need to review this case of non-consolidation.  

Allowing The Bancorp to get away with this non-consolidation sends a signal to banks that they can avoid falling below the Dodd-Frank standard by setting up blatantly convoluted VIE’s similar to Walnut Street 2014-1.

 

An Alternative Business Model for Product Hunt

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Product Hunt Logo

Below is a comment I first published on Medium in response to an article by Ryan Hoover called Introducing Product Hunt 2.0

It is the process of PH that is world-class and of great value, not the PH 2.0 website itself.

Seeking a wider audience by expanding PH beyond curating new software to books and sneakers suggests strongly a business model based on advertising.

While PH may have been early to sense the maker’s movement and the need to expand its site to physical products, Amazon has also been quick to sense this with their new Launchpad offering. While PH 2.0 might offer maker’s better feedback, maker’s first choice for launch will be Amazon not PH.

I would like to offer an alternative roadmap for PH. Stay focused on software to deepen the skills of the team’s, and top contributor’s, ability to evaluate and suggest improvements to developers.

What has been so exhilarating to observe is the PH process — the speed, the collaboration, the crowd-sourcing of feedback, the cloud-based team communication and project management tools, the iterative way PH does product-market fit. This is great stuff.

Instead of advertising, the business model should be to brand and sell the team and the PH 2.0 world-class process to others — start-ups and even Fortune 500 companies.

Charge the likes of AT&T or United Heathcare $1+M to apply the PH 2.0 process to all UI/UX of their consumer-facing software. Offer the PH 2.0 process pro bono to all Obamacare ACA websites. Become the first and best VAR of Slack to the enterprise.

PH should set it sights on disrupting the consulting business. At the same time, keep running PH 1.0 to sharpen team’s skills to evaluate new software offerings.

But, the work that will pay the bills will be to take share from the 20th century dinosaurs of McKinsey and Bain. There is enough revenue and profit to be had there to satisfy PH’s venture capital backers.

In short, become the McKinsey of the “Software Eats World” world not the Reddit for sneakerheads.

Machine Zone (MZ): Game Unicorn with Marketable NewSQL Database?

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Summary: This paper speculates that the startup Machine Zone intends to market a NewSQL database as a service and merits a $6 Billion valuation.

Written: July 25, 2015

Zone (MZ) is a Palo Alto-based  startup with a Top 2 iOS USA app store hit called “Game of War: Fire Age.” (GoW).

MZ describes Game of War: Fire Age as:

“.. a real-time mobile massively-multiplayer online game and parallel chatspeak translation application that translates over 40 languages for its players in real-time, connecting game players around the globe at the same time in a single virtual universe.”

We have written three other articles about this startup in the past year:

Machine Zone: IPO or What?   July 6, 2014 published by SeekingAlpha

Machine Zone: The $4 Billion Unicorn that Walks the Walk  March 24, 2015 published on our own blog http://glomoinvesting.com

Machine Zone and the Perversity of Unicorn Lists  March 26, 2015 published on Medium and our own blog

The theme running through prior articles is that the MZ’s status as a multi-billion dollar “Unicorn”  is not well known. This is because:

  1. The last company-confirmed VC funding round and implied valuation was made years ago before GoW was released. (The WSJ reported in June 2014 a funding round led by J.P.Morgan Chase valuing the company at $3 Billion, but this has never been confirmed.)
  2. The CEO Gabe Leydon has averaged about one interview a year for the past three years. Official press releases are even rarer.
  3. Even in rare interviews, the CEO shuns financial and game metrics, which have to be impressive. Instead Leydon uses these occasions to assert that MZ’s technology has applicability and marketability outside of gaming.

On July 15, 2015, Bloomberg reported  that the company was in discussions with investors for an additional $200 Million in funding at an implied valuation of $6 Billion.  Bloomberg noted that new valuation, double that reported a year ago,  hinged on investors being convinced of the marketability of MZ technology beyond mobile games. The article referenced an earlier Bloomberg interview with Robert Kolker where Leydon first made public statements about the marketability of its technology.

Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat also reported rumours of a new funding round.  But, he reported that MZ was seeking $500 Million at an unstated valuation — not the Bloomberg figures.  Takahashi’s source also said that  “the pitch has met with skepticism.”  Takahashi emailed Leydon for a comment and received this response:

“We do not comment on rumors and speculation about fundraising or valuation, but [Machine Zone] does not need additional investment. We are 100 percent focused on [Game of War] and expanding on the technology that powers it.”

What struck a chord with Takahashi was Leydon’s explicit statement about no need for additional funding.  For us, it was his explicit separation of gaming from technology as two distinct areas of focus.  For us, we see Leydon suggesting that MZ’s future includes a technology business separate from a mobile games business.

What follows is our attempt to flesh out where Machine Zone is headed. It is obviously speculative given the dearth of official pronouncement from the company.  (BTW, we have had no contact, received no remuneration, no free meal, etc. from the company or anyone remotely related to MZ.)

But, it is clear to us that there is concrete evidence of these intentions — pitch decks, written strategic plans, lists of customer inquiries, etc.  After all,  VC investors must have seen something beyond gaming to value the company at a reportedly $6 Billion in 2015 and $3 billion in 2014 versus what we think are our methodical valuations for their gaming business alone of $2.75 Billion in 2015 and $2 Billion in 2014.

We start our effort to flesh out where MZ is headed with Leydon’s March 2015 Bloomberg interview.  Here is quote in which he identifies the “Wow”  factor of their hit game  — its the low latency.

“…Game of War accommodates about 3 million users in simultaneous play, with what the company clocked as a 0.2-second response time…. This is the largest real-time concurrent interactive application ever built. There’s nothing even close to it.”

Later, the Bloomberg interviewer relays Leydon’s comments on the marketability of MZ’s technology outside of gaming:

“Leydon, meanwhile, intends to focus on what his new networking technology can accomplish outside the gaming world. He says dozens of companies have asked to license Machine Zone’s translation engine. Its applications, he says, span beyond gaming and into finance, logistics, social networking, and data analysis.”

In our prior 2015 papers, we focused on the marketability of MZ’s real time chat translator. We identified two well known, highly successful companies where chat is core — Facebook’s WhatsApp and Slack, the fastest growing SaaS startup of all time.  We mentioned that both companies would benefit greatly by adding real time translation to their chat.  But, we offered no insight then as to the business model MZ might adopt.

The market for a chat translator is a vertical market limited to a handful of social / business communication companies like Facebook and Slack, and come to think of it, Microsoft.  Given the limited list of potential customers and the fact that MZ doesn’t need cash, a SaaS model doesn’t seem right. What feels right is that MZ should offer a single exclusive perpetual license in return for stock.

In an earlier article, we “slapped” an addition $1.25 Billion valuation for the chat translator business on top of a methodical estimate of $2.75 Billion for the gaming business to arrive at a nice round valuation of $4 Billion for MZ in mid-2015.

Facebook could pay this amount. Slack probably cannot afford the dilution at this time. But, the more intriguing choice would be Slack because MZ’s history is a inversion of Slack’s.

Slack started out as Tiny Speck, a startup attempting to build a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game. The game was never completed, but a better way for a team to communicate became the motivation to start Slack as a side project.

MZ produced the hit MMO game that Slack could not complete. As a side-project, MZ built a chat translation engine that would make Slack invaluable as a communication platform for multinational companies. You could argue that MZ is a doppelgänger of Slack and so a union (reunion?) between these doppelgängers would be intriguing to say the least.

We now turn our attention to fleshing out the rest of Leydon’s comment about the  marketability of MZ’s technology outside of gaming.

Unlike us, it would be obvious to most software engineers what marketable technology MZ might have considering the description of their game: a real-time mobile massively-multiplayer online game accommodating about 3 million users in simultaneous play with 0.2-second response time.

It would have to be a cloud-based DATABASE.

And, unlike us, those familiar with databases and real-time MMO games would know instantly that it would have to be a particular type of database, as MMO games essentially are about transactions, defined as logical operations on structured data.

Making that connection only occurred to us after viewing a Michael Stonebraker YouTube video when he mentioned that the database requirements for real time MMO games are the same as modern, cloud-based online transaction processing (OLTP) databases required by banks, airline reservations, order entry systems, etc.

What MZ has is what banks, airlines reservations systems and real-time ad auction exchanges require in a database today.  Behind a game with annoying Kate Upton ads is a state-of the-art scalable, globally distributed online transaction processing (OLTP) database.

The rest of the database development world is coming around to what MZ set out to do from day one.

The original “purpose built” databases of the likes of Facebook, Google, and Yahoo were designed to be massively scalable and globally distributed. They did not have to handle transactions.  Requirements were relaxed for structure and consistency, defined as “all nodes see the same data at the same time”.

As a result, semi-structured “NoSQL” databases like Yahoo’s Hadoop, and Google’s BigTable, now open-sourced as HBase, became state-of the art.  Startups like MongoHQ and now publicly traded Hortonworks arose to offer NoSQL databases as a service (DBaaS).  IBM bought Cloudant and Apple bought FoundationDB to gain access to NoSQL technology.

Database design involves tradeoffs. As the online world’s need for monetization increased, especially real-time ad auction exchanges, a reversal in trade-offs has occurred.

The database world follows Google.   In 2012, Google made the now often quoted declaration that if it had to choose between a NoSQL and a “NewSQL” database to handle OLTP, it would choose the latter:

“We believe it is better to have application programmers deal with performance problems due to overuse of transactions as bottlenecks arise, rather than always coding around the lack of transactions”

So, Google has scrapped its “NoSQL” BigTable in favor of a “NewSQL” Spanner, which it now uses for its mission-critical Ad platform.

MZ’s focus has been “NewSQL” from day one.  It didn’t waste 4-5 year before coming around to what Google finally concluded in 2012.  Obviously, there are questions about the specifics of MZ’s stack and the degree of ACID compliancy.

We can only offer a non-scientific sample of job requirements posted on its website: a combination of MySQL, HBase, Hadoop and Vertica where Verica is now a Hewlett-Packard piece of software allowing SQL-like queries of NoSQL databases like Cloudera’s Impala.

Other than hiring and retaining world class database talent, the DBaaS industry has low barriers to entry.  The basic software components — MySQL, HBase, etc. —  are open sourced.  The computer power needed to scale this service offering can be incrementally purchased from Amazon’s AWS.

We think that MZ has significant competitive advantages over other NewSQL competitors. First, is the location of its new HQ in Palo Alto which is the epicenter of U.S.’s database talent pool.   The HQ is located on Page Mill Road across the street from Stanford University in the storied Stanford Research Park that used to be Facebook’s old headquarters.  There would be little relocation friction for new MZ hires from Stanford, nearby Facebook in Palo Alto, or Google in Mountain View.

We also think it was fortuitous that MZ never considered moving to some trendy area of San Francisco city like some of the largest mobile game companies in the U.S. — Zynga,  GLU Mobile, and Kabam.  Our view is that the gentrified, more cerebral San Francisco peninsula is better suited for enterprise software developers and their families than the manic, hipster environment of the city, which is better suited for consumer and e-commerce startups.

The San Jose Business Journal reported in September 2014 that MZ had leased an estimated 140,000 square foot space for this new HQ. Furthermore, there is an adjacent 140,000 square foot space now leased short term by Nest, now owned by Google, that may be available to MZ later.  At 250 square feet / employee, this new HQ could accommodate up to 1,000 employees, plenty of room to expand considering MZ’s current headcount is reportedly only 300.

It has also been reported that MZ will  be spending $50 Million to configure a dedicated 4,000 server data center within a larger server farm complex south of Las Vegas. This investment also might set itself apart from less well-funded competitors as it will provide MZ with a dedicated server farm to experiment with various software/hardware configurations.

But, the most important advantage MZ has over other NewSQL competitors is that its database is literally “battle tested.”  Remember Leydon’s claim in the Bloomberg interview  — 3 million globally distributed users in simultaneous play with a 0.2 second response time.

MZ’s pitch deck to prospective investors now probably includes more references to Google and its Spanner AdTech platform than Supercell and Clash of Clans.

Will VCs now fork over cash at an implied $6 Billion valuation for a recognized (finally) Unicorn comfortably feeding off a $1.1 Billion game cash cow and who is positioning itself to offer a Google-like Spanner-as-a-Service?

You bet they will.

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