Tag Archive MZ

A Unicorn Startup’s Kiss of Death: Kabam Field

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

The year 2016 will be remembered as a year when titillating stories came out about Unicorn excesses — Dropbox’s Chrome Panda sculpture, Hampton Creek’s covert buy-backs of Just Mayo inventory, and Zenefits’ sex in the stairwell.

This is a story about Kabam, another fallen Unicorn, and its excesses. More than just descriptive, we analyze its history to locate the source of its downfall in the emergence of a “talk the talk” culture championed by hired professional managers who focused Kabam on short-term revenue goals and a quick IPO.

We even pinpoint a moment in time when Kabam’s fortunes first turned for the worse — a late December 2013 acquisition of the naming rights to the University of California at Berkeley (Cal or UCB) football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years.

In a March 2014 article, we first predicted that this conceit would be viewed in hindsight as Kabam’s “kiss of death” — a sign foreshadowing bad things about to happen. Sure enough, two and a half years later, the once high flying Kabam now is in the process of being dismantled and sold off.

Kabam’s most valuable asset, its Vancouver studio, has just been sold to the Korean gaming company Netmarble for a reported $800 Million. After this deal closes in 1Q17, the company has announced that the rest of the company’s remaining studios will be offered for sale as acqui-hires. Nothing has been said about the future of Kabam’s three co-founders, but their days as Unicorn executives are over.

Also, nothing has been said yet as to the disposition of the naming rights for the football field. While the future name of Cal’s football field might have low priority for those in charge of disposing of Kabam’s assets, its has enormous social-psychological value to the tens of thousands of people who care passionately about the Cal and its football team.

Where Did Kabam Go Wrong?

Kabam was founded in 2006 by Cal alumni Kevin Chou, Michael Li, and Holly Liu. The company had early success developing mobile “freemium” games based on movie IP licensed from major studios.

But, beginning in 2013. Kabam stopped making visionary choices. In our opinion, this was due to the emergence of a the “talk the talk” culture beginning with the hiring of Steve Swasey from Netflix to be head of Corporate Communications.

In January 2016, Swasey was hired away from Kabam by Lending Club CEO Renaud Laplanche, only to leave several months later after Laplanche was forced out by Lending Club’s Board when they discovered the CEO’s involvement in loan doctoring.

Our interest in Kabam began in 2013 when we discovered the app store analytics company App Annie. We saw a rich set of quantifiable financial data and developed a methodology for translating app store revenue ranking data into global annualized revenue dollars.

Based on comparable valuations for publicly-held companies as a multiple of their revenue, we were able to derive solid valuations for mobile game startups like Kabam and Machine Zone (now rebranded as MZ).

We were also able to make prescient buy recommendations in 2014 for two Japanese publicly-held pure play mobile game companies KLAB and Mixi.

While our focus has been on financial analysis of mobile game companies, in 2014, we starting writing about the differences between MZ and Kabam’s approach to publicity. Not only were the differences between the two extreme, but extreme for Unicorn startups in general.

MZ rarely talks to the press. Between 2013 and today, CEO Gabe Leydon has given two interviews a year and official MZ press releases happen about twice a year. There is no MZ employee chatter to be found on the internet other than anonymous comments on Glassdoor. This is shocking for a tech Unicorn, more extreme than the secretive Palantir, whose core competency is secrecy.

Kabam is the complete opposite of MZ when it comes to publicity. Forget about the number of times the tech press has interviewed CEO Kevin Chou or COO Kent Wakeford. Forget about the progressive “moussing” of CEO Chou’s hair that we have noted in photos and videos over the past five years.

What shocked us was the discovery that Kabam had a practice of issuing press releases every January between 2012 and 2015 giving specific numbers for revenue, headcount and cash in the bank: 2012 (for 2011), 2013 (for 2012), 2014 (for 2013), 2015 (for 2014).

This has allowed us to graph the rise and fall of Kabam’s revenue and headcount — a publicly available graphic that is rare for a tech startup.

The idea for this practice can directly be traced to Kabam’s former SVP of Corporate Communication Steve Swasey. Swasey was also key in pushing the naming rights deal with Cal.

In 2013, CEO Kevin Chou began talking to the press about timetables for an IPO. In early April of 2014, he announced publicly that revenue was forecasted to grow 80% or more and be in the range of $550 — $650 Million.

This public announcement of revenue projections — exceedingly rare for a Unicorn startup — solidified our view of Kabam as an extreme example of a “talk the talk” culture among Unicorn startups.

To achieve its announced short term revenue goals, 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.

What Should Become of Kabam Field?

The height of Kabam’s “talk the talk” culture occurred in December 2013 when Kabam announced that it bought the naming rights to the Cal’s football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years. One can understand the desire of Kabam’s co-founders, all three Cal grads, to give back to their alma mater.

But, tech founders should wait years after their IPO to consider funding the construction of new university buildings named after them. For example, buildings names on the the Bay Area campus of Stanford and Berkeley include no less than Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, and Wozniak.

Now that Kabam is in the process of being dismantled and sold off, the question is what should become of the naming rights to the Cal’s football field?

As we said in the introduction, the name of a university football field has high social-psychological value to the tens of thousands of people who care passionately about Cal and its football team.

The need for the Cal’s administration to address the field renaming issue could not have come at a worse time as they have just fired their football coach Sonny Dykes and Bloomberg has just written an article on university athletics finances naming Cal as the most debt-ridden program in the country. This is largely due to a $400 Million seismic retrofit of the football stadium after the discovery of a fault line running through it.

To begin cleansing Cal football of its recent bout of bad karma, one solution would be for Kabam and its Cal alumni co-founders to pay off the amount due the University from proceeds of the sale of other Kabam assets. The co-founders could also stipulate that the field renaming be crowd-sourced to University alumni and students.

But, one problem with this suggestion is that there is no obvious Cal sports hero or accomplished coach to rename the field after. Marshawn Lynch Field, Pappy Waldorf Field, Joe Kapp Field. All good, but none as obvious as Bryant-Denny Stadium at the University of Alabama or Amos Alonzo Stagg Field at the University of Chicago.

The other problem is that the naming rights to a Division I football field is an appreciating asset. For example, in September, 2015 the University of Washington received a whopping $4.1 Million per year over 10 year for “Alaska Airlines Field” at Husky Stadium. This is over three times Cal’s 2013 deal of $1.2 Million per year over 15 years for “Kabam Field” at California Memorial.

Given that the naming rights are far more valuable today than in 2013, and given the debt-ridden state of Cal’s athletic program, the University would surely prefer a solution involving a cancellation of the Kabam contract and the tendering of fresh bids from corporations.

The University can be expected to derail quietly any populist solution like a crowdsourcing of a new name. No, the University would much prefer Chase Field or PowerBar Field at $4 Million a year than any other solution.

It’s In the Metagame: A Monetization Opportunity for Twitter

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

broadcasts during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament between the Colorado Buffaloes and the Oregon Ducks at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Color Commentator Bill Walton (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“A Twitter feed of a college basketball game is like being in a room with 20 stoned Bill Waltons”

“A Twitter feed of an NFL game has become shoutcasting without the noise.”

In July 2016, Twitter announced a pair of deals with the National Football League and the National Hockey League to live stream a select number of games side-by-side with the Twitter feed of the game.  

In term of business model, Bloomberg said that “the company will share revenue on ads that are sold alongside the content.”

However, Patently Apple was less enthusiastic, saying that  ”Twitter recently beat out Facebook for live NFL streaming by conceding most of the TV ad revenue to the NFL in contrast to Facebook demanding total control over advertising.”

These deals are moves in the right direction for Twitter.  Twitter at its best is a platform for real-time shared commentary of live TV events, especially sporting events, games if you will.

Real-time game commentary on Twitter is outside the game itself.  The general term for this is “metagame” (after the Greek prefix meta- for  “after” or “beyond.”

A college basketball game can be boring. But, it is never boring if Bill Walton is the color commentator.  Bill Walton is metagame.

Insightful analysts of the now mature mobile game industry see the metagame as more engaging, and monetizing, than the games themselves.

For example, it is chat room strategizing among alliances ahead of battles (called “progressions” ) that is more engaging for players than the battles themselves.  

It is watching and listening to esport live-streams of games on Twitch, with commentary by “shoutcasters”,  that is far more interesting than playing the games themselves.   

Jon Jordan, co-founder of pocketgamer.biz has written the most insightful stuff on the rising importance of metagame in the monetary success of mobile games.

Gabe Leydon, co-founder of MZ, credits the success of its top ranking games to metagame, especially an internal real-time, crowd-sourced chat translator build using the messaging language Erlang.

Here is a quote from a re/code video interview (5:14 – 5:48) with Gabe Leydon,

…”We really care about player-to-player interactions. From a content perspective, I don’t believe that I’m creative enough to come up with something that everyone will love.  So, I create scenarios that people will play with each other.  So, whatever they do with each other is far more interesting than what I could come up with.

“ We we have is a highly structured chat room.”

So Twitter gets that metagame has become as exciting and engaging as the games themselves.  And that Twitter is in a better position than its arch rival Facebook to provide a REAL-TIME metagame platform.

But, in our opinion, what’s missing is the business model. It’s recent deals with the NFL and NHL suggest that it will get a very minor share of the native ads.

We have another idea: position itself to offer real-time, peer-to-peer sports betting — like overseas companies Betfair and BET365’s “Live Play.”

These are known as peer-to-peer betting exchanges with a real-time many-to-many messaging system as the platform. The business model is strictly fee-for-service.  Both buy bets (bet to win) and lay bets (bet to lose) are allowed.

Betting exchanges are different from Las Vegas style bookmaking operations based on a traditional many-to-one client server platform.  The business model is profit and you can only bet to win.

Interesting enough, the real-time messaging platform underlying MZ’s mobile games and chat translator is similar to the real-time, peer-to-peer betting exchange platform of Bet365, as both are based on  Erlang,  the programming language optimized for many-to-many “high fan-out” messaging.

Also, Twitter has a history with problems in scaling over the years with platforms based first on Ruby on Rails then moving to Scala.  Maybe now is the time to look at what MZ and Bet365 has.

Twitter gets the metagame trend.  Monetizing a metagame platform by linking it with peer-to-peer gambling would be amazing.

 

Machine Zone (MZ): A $10 Billion Dollar Unicorn in the Making

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

congestion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Our suggested “moonshot” for MZ: ending urban traffic congestion via a real-time pricing platform + “connected car”)

(Our suggested new tagline for MZ: “put a price on it.”  Shoutout to Portlandia for its “put a bird on it” tagline for a hand-crafted gift store capturing its big picture strategy)

In a year when valuations of so-called Unicorns — startups valued at $1+ Billion — are being marked down by investors, we will present the case that Machine Zone, recently rebranded as MZ, is a $10 Billion Unicorn in the making.

This is audacious claim. A January 2016 Unicorn list compiled by Fortune Magazine assigned a $3 Billion valuation to Machine Zone based on a WSJ report in June 2014 of a funding round of $250 Million led by JPMorgan Chase. There was second hand confirmation of this in Pitchbook.

Machine Zone was not even listed on any Unicorn list a year ago simply because such lists required that valuations be based on reported equity financing with implied valuations of $1+ Billion. Machine Zone’s last reported funding round listed in Crunchbase was a Series B done a full four years ago when Machine Zone was just beginning.

We found Machine Zone’s absence from 2014 Unicorn lists both perverse and ironic. It was perverse in that Machine Zone didn’t need financing so it was excluded from successful startup lists. It was ironic because, unlike most other Unicorns, Machine Zone’s revenue levels and revenue trends are observable daily via app store data reported by analytics companies such as App Annie or Thinkgaming.

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. Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat also reported rumours of this new funding round. But, he reported that Machine Zone was seeking $500 Million at an unstated valuation — not the Bloomberg figures. Takahashi’s source also said that “the pitch has met with skepticism.”

Machine Zone has refused to comment on any venture capital interest or funding. As we blogged at the time, compared to most startups who would relish disclosing funding rounds that would confer Unicorn status, Machine Zone “walks the walk, not talks the talk”.

The Evolution of Machine Zone’s Identity

Until this year, Machine Zone’s CEO Gabe Leydon averaged about two interviews a year and never talked about revenue, valuation or IPO plans. He never talked about the state of the mobile game industry. In fact, he rarely talked about Machine Zone’s two hit successes Game of War: Fire Age or Mobile Strike.

Instead, he used rare interviews to advance the theme that Machine Zone was a technology company with software platforms whose applicability and marketability extended beyond games.

In a 2013 interview, Leydon said that Machine Zone had developed a “game engine” that could be “re-skinned” to create other genres of games with the same underlying play and communications innovations. This comment was designed to counter the perception that Machine Zone was a one-hit wonder deserving less of a valuation than mobile game rival Kabam with multiple Top 10 hits at the time.

In 2016, Machine Zone has done just what Leydon predicted in 2013. It had “re-skinned” their top revenue rank Game of War: Fire Age to release another Top 5 revenue rank game Mobile Strike, published by their downtown Palo Alto studio Epic War LLC. What is remarkable to us is that there does not seem to be much cannibalization going on between the two games.

In 2014, Leydon talked about Machine Zone’s real time, crowd-sourced chat translation engine. We wrote several papers speculating that this chat translator would be a valuable addition to Slack as it would open doors to large multi-national corporations.

In a March 2015 interview with Bloomberg’s Robert Kolker, Leydon identified what he thought was the “Wow” factor of its hit game Game of War: Fire Age — the low latency of the game play.

“…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.”

He also hinted at the marketability of this technology outside of gaming.

Shortly after than interview, we wrote a paper speculating that Machine Zone’s game engine must be a NewSQL database. This was based on job requirements posted on its website and a Michael Stonebraker YouTube video in which Stonebraker said that database requirements for today’s massively mobile multi-user online (MMO) games are the same as modern, cloud-based online transaction processing (OLTP) databases required by banks, airline reservations, order entry systems, real-time ad auctions.

It turns out that Machine Zone’s MMO game “purpose” shaved years of the development of a modern OLTP database compared to development path taken by Google and Facebook. 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.

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. In 2012, Google made the 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 morphed its “NoSQL” BigTable into Spanner, a “NewSQL”, which it now uses for its mission-critical sell-side ad platform.

An additional signal of Machine Zone’’s intent on being a fundamental technology company was a report in Las Vegas Sun that the data center builder Switch would be expanding its Southern Nevada facility to house an additional 4,000 servers paid for and managed by Machine Zone . This announcement came in the very month in which Zynga announced that it would begin selling off its own dedicated data centers and return to Amazon AWS as a cost savings move.

On February 18, 2016, Machine Zone and CEO Leydon had a “coming out party”. He broke out of his pattern of infrequent print interviews to give a full blown 39 minute video interview at the important Code/Media 2016 Conference.

In our opinion, it was here that Leydon first demonstrated his charm and ease at speaking as he mixed in fond memories of 90s skateboard videos with big picture views of the state of ad-tech. The interview was convincing evidence to us that Leydon was capable of leading an IPO and being the spokesperson for a publicly-held company.

Within the first minute of the interview, Leydon articulated a more focused view of Machine Zone as “real time” technology company. However, because the audience were media and ad-tech people, Leydon did not mention its database technology at all.

Instead Leydon startled the crowd with sharp criticism of 3rd party buy-side ad-tech platforms and the state of ad-tech in general. He casually revealed that Machine Zone had developed it own ad-buy platform specifically tailored to the acquisition and retention of freemium game players aka “whale targeting and retention”.

This platform was an alternative to relying on outside platforms like Chartboost and Tapjoy, used by Machine Zone’s rival Supercell and other top mobile game companies. According to Crunchbase, Tapjoy has received a total of $2.47 Billion in VC funding over the years.

Once again, by building its own buy-side ad-tech platform, Machine Zone has set itself apart from other mobile app Unicorns. Supercell, its chief rival in the mobile game industry, uses Amazon AWS for infrastructure and Tapjoy for ad-tech. Supercell does not have any internal chat function for players to communicate.

On April 4, 2016, Machine Zone issued a press release stating that it had changed its name from Machine Zone to MZ to underscore its new identity as a “real time” technology company. It also announced that it would begin licensing its real time transactional database, branded as RTplatform™. Leyton suggested in a follow-up conversation with Venturebeat that RTplatform ™ had wide-spread applicability ”from financial service companies to connected car companies to government institutions”

Valuing MZ’s Mobile Game Business

What follows is an estimate of MZ’s current valuation based solely on its mobile game business. There are three pieces of data required: (1) App Annie revenue ranks for MZ’s games; (2) an estimate of a power function relation between annualized revenue run rate (ARR) and app store revenue rank; and (3) “market-derived” valuations of pure play mobile game companies as a multiple their ARR.

For example, Activision Blizzard recently bought King Digital for 3.08 times ARR. Using that as a comparable and an estimate of MZ’s mobile game ARR of $2.0 Billion, we would arrive at a valuation for MZ of 3.08 * $2.0 Billion = $6 Billion.

We have used this methodology to value MZ over the past 2 years: Machine Zone: The $4 Billion Unicorn that Walks the Walk ; Machine Zone and the Perversity of Unicorn Lists and Machine Zone: IPO or What? (for Seeking Alpha).

We used the same methodology in articles to value other publicly-held mobile game companies — King Digital, Zynga and GLU Mobile — and the start-up Kabam. Finally, we have used the methodology to make prescient buy recommendations for two undervalued Japanese mobile game companies — Mixi and KLAB.

Below are two “market-derived” valuations of pure play mobile game companies as a multiple of ARR. The first is a valuation of 3.08 * ARR that Activision Blizzard paid to acquire publicly-held King Digital in late 2015. Using King’s ARR, as reported in 10-Qs to the SEC as a checksum, we present below an estimate of the distribution of King’s ARR by individual game revenue and associated revenue rank as reported by App Appie.

 

king-valuation

 

The second is a market-derived valuation for Finland-based Supercell. While the company is not listed on a stock exchange, it is required by Finnish law to report financials once a year. In 2015, Supercell reported revenue of $2.326 Billion. We coupled that with a reported $5.5 Billion valuation that Softbank placed on Supercell when it bought an additional 22 percent stake in Supercell (bringing its ownership to 73 percent) in mid-2015.

As with the King valuation, we use Supercell’s reported 2015 revenue as a checksum when estimating the distribution of Supercell’s ARR by individual game revenue and related revenue rank.

supercell-valuation

 

For our valuation of MZ here, we chose the lower, more conservative, Supercell valuation of 2.36 * ARR. The higher 3.08 * ARR that Activision-Blizzard paid for King Digital was 20% higher that the market value of King at the time. Plus, most financial pundits felt that Activision-Blizzard paid too much for King.

In past valuation of MZ, we chose 2.5 * ARR based on market-derived valuations of publicly-held Japanese gaming companies. Given, the general downward drift in Unicorn valuations, the use of the lowest multiple of 2.36 * ARR seems appropriate today.

Based on the estimates above of individual game revenue associated with various iOS Apple USA revenue rank as reported by App Annie, we derive an estimate below of a 2016 power function of global ARR vs iOS USA revenue rank.

power-function-2016

 

We now present a current valuation of MZ based on its two hit games alone which rank #2 and #3 on the App Annie iOS USA revenue charts.

mz-valuation-april-2016

 

Note: during the writing of this paper in April 2016, Supercell’s Clash Royale and MZ’s Game of War have traded #1 and #2 positions multiple times. We are being conservative in our valuation here by using the lower #2 ranking for Game of War. Had we chosen #1 for Game of War with an associated ARR of $2.1 Billion, our valuation for MZ’s game business would have come in at $7.3 Billion instead of $5.7 Billion

Using “top-line” metrics like sales or monthly active users to value Unicorns has become suspect today. Observers of the startup scene have come to the realization of the futility of growing the top line if unit margins are negative and not likely to turn positive with scale. A freemium mobile game company has zero value if the advertising costs of acquiring a new user are greater than a user’s long term value (LTV), as measured by the discounted present value of money spent. Valuations based on solid top-line data have a greater validity if they are supplemented with some rough estimates of what a Unicorn’s full P&L looks like.

So, to add weight to our $5.7 Billion dollar valuation, we present below a rough estimate of MZ’s full operating P&L. First, our estimates shows that MZ has been responsible in growing headcount consistent with revenue.

headcount-comparisions

 

 

mz-pl

 

Our estimates for MZ’s contribution margin (sales — advertising cost) is a healthy positive number. It is likely that MZ has THE highest contribution margin in the mobile game industry given an estimated average annual in-app game spend of $550 per MZ game player.

It is likely that MZ currently is showing a small operating loss as measured by GAAP, but it would be positive if non-cash, stock-based compensation were backed out. The company is likely cash flow positive from operations. Because MZ as a mobile game company has no inventory or material accounts receivable, it does not need cash for working capital.

As CEO Leydon has observed, mobile games are the most efficient cash conversion operation in the history of modern business. At the Code/Media  2016 Conference, he observed that there can be a 120 second turn-around from cash out for an “call to download” ad to a new user download of a game to the first payment for in-app boosts posted to MZs cash account at the app stores.

MZ does not need cash for working capital or to cover operating losses. It has been reported that their new data center in Nevada is costing them $50 Million, and we could see them needing $100 Million per year for the next 5 years to expand data centers globally.

Use Cases for RTplatform™

We place the MZ’s valuation today at $9.1 Billion as a fundamental technology company. We think the valuation for its ad-tech platform is fair at $1.0 Billion, give that VC’s have poured over $2.7 Billion so far into Tapjoy, a comparable platform. We think the licensing value of its chat translator is fair at $400 Million, given the doors it might open for Slack. There might even be interest in the chat translator from Facebook or Microsoft, given the current interest in text messaging as a replacement for apps and mobile OS.

valuation-of-mz-as-a-tech-co

Admittedly, our $2.0 Billion valuation for RTplatform™ is the most speculative component as no comparable market-derived valuations are offered. One factor that caused us to value it so highly was the very fact that MZ hyped it. Here was a Unicorn company and CEO who had “walked the walk” for years and never made comparisons. Suddenly, it started “talking the talk.” as in “our specs crush your specs” and “ our new specs crush our old specs.” We believe the company can make good on the hype, given their amazing string of accomplishments.

According to the Venturebeat interview on the day of the launch, the company said its platform was “much more scalable than what is currently available in the market from rivals like Amazon or Google…” Leydon said PTplatform™ was “100 times bigger” than its current platform running Game of War.

The other factor underlying our high valuation was the use cases and market potential we were envisioning for a platform described by the company as a

  • massive platform for doing high-fanout data processing,”
  • many-to-many applications
  • an infrastructure that allows you to do some extremely large things in real time at scale.”
  • “unique ability to interconnect ‘billions’ of endpoints worldwide and transmit data at low latency”

In the Venturebeat interview, the company hinted at use cases “from financial service companies to connected car companies to government institutions”. In earlier interviews, Leydon hinted that its game engine was transactional with ultra low latency, which we speculated as meaning NewSQL. He compared it to platforms required for high frequency trading.

We present the following broad use cases for a real-time pricing or auction platform coupled with the “connected self” or the “connected car”:

  1. eliminate information asymmetry and “moral hazard” between insurers and customers;
  2. eliminate the “tragedy of the commons” like urban traffic congestion or overfishing;
  3. eliminate transactions costs causing “sticky prices” for services whose performance over time is uncertain;

A specific use case for (1) would be real time auto insurance pricing. In 2014, consumer auto insurance had been estimated to be a $190 Billion market. MZ should be targeting one of the top 4 auto insurers — State Farm, Geico, Allstate, and Progressive — as an exclusive licensee. They should aim for an announcement within the next three months, with a roll-out and initial monetization within a year.

This “early win” will shock the auto insurance industry, impress the VC investment community, and finally clue tech writers that MZ should listed along with handful of unicorns — Uber, Airbnb, Palantir and Slack — as having the greatest upside potential.

A specific use case for (2) would be a real-time auction for peak commute time on urban freeways. There is an article in Forbes citing a report which estimated the direct and indirect costs of traffic congestion at $124 Billion in 2013.

There was also something called the Millennium Project out of UC-Berkeley in the mid-2000 which used (then novel) mobile phones to gather data on drive times and traffic congestion in the Bay Area. In 2011, there was a report which presented in detail the problems in ”scaling up the Mobile Millennium traffic information system using cloud computing and the Spark cluster computing framework”.

Surely, the 2016 RTplatform™ would be a prime candidate to underpin any solution to urban traffic congestion. Needless to say, solving this problem would require government sponsorship so monetization by MZ for this use case might be a 5+ years off. But, announcing that it would be involved in a project to end urban traffic congestion would place MZ alongside only a handful of companies undertaking a “moonshot” and “make a difference in the world” type of project.

A specific use case for (3) would be dynamic pricing for sporting and entertainment events. Many Major League Baseball team are setting aside bleacher sections with individual game day tickets that vary by day of week, opponent, and weather. The National Football League is also starting to set aside individual game day tickets that vary over the course of the season by attractiveness of the matchup.

We could envision MZ’s platform taking this dynamic pricing of sporting events to a “real time” level by allowing both baseball and football fans to bid on game day seats inning by inning or quarter by quarter. Obviously, this use case seems ludicrous, but it does emphasize widespread instances of “sticky prices” due to transaction costs for a steam of services with uncertain, highly variable quality.

Machine Zone (MZ): A $4 Billion Unicorn That Walks the Walk

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Machine Zone [MZ] is a Palo Alto-based, mobile gaming startup with a massively popular 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 multi-player online game and parallel chat-speak 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.

This is how the New York Times described the real-time chat translator embedded in GoW:

The game’s most impressive feature is an instantaneous translation of text-based online chat. If someone writes “MDR” in French (for “mort de rire,” or “dying of laughter”), an English-speaking player sees it as “LOL”

GoW is MZ’s only published game to date. We wrote first about MZ in a Seeking Alpha article eight months ago, estimating then that its annualized revenue run rate [ARR] was at $831 Million with a 2.5x valuation of $2.04 Billion. We were the first to establish MZ as a $1+ Billion startup, aka a Unicorn.

Based on Seeking Alpha supplied page view metrics, our first article on MZ for Seeking Alpha has become slowly over time our top viewed article among the 21 we have written for SA in the past year.

This article is a follow-up. We update our estimates of MZ’s annualized revenue run rate and valuation. We also cite a recent interview given by the CEO where he mentions interest in licensing MZ’s chat translation engine.

We have identified two well known, highly successful companies where chat is core — Facebook’s WhatsApp and Slack, the fastest growing SaaS startup of all time. Both companies would benefit greatly by adding real-time translation to their chat core.

Eight months ago, we derived a $2.04 Billion dollar valuation for MZ. Shortly thereafter, the Wall Street Journal reported that MZ was in talks with VCs for funding that would place a $3 Billion valuation on the company. Nothing materialized.

Based on increased ARR for GoW plus interest in licensing its real-time chat translation engine, we now place a $4 Billion valuation on the company.

Yet, MZ’s name still cannot be found on any Unicorn list such as the Fortune magazine list. This is due to the perverse qualifier that the valuation must be come from a financial press article or blog post referencing a VC funding round and a whispered valuation.

No matter if that valuation came from funding with “liquidation preferences”. No matter if a startup is so profitable, as is the case with MZ, that no additional funding is required after a Series B round done years ago.

Besides the perversity of MZ being excluded from Unicorn lists, the exclusion is also ironic. Unlike other Unicorns, the public has access to mobile game company “cash register” data supplied for free by analytics companies like App Annie or Think Gaming who record “freemium” game in-app purchases bought through iOS Apple Store or Google Play. Can you imagine discussion if we had access to “cash register” trend data of Uber, AirBnB and Drop Box?

The availability to the public of game revenue rankings has not been recognized for its place in the democratization of financial investing data. This trend was first recognized by famed fund manager Peter Lynch some 40 years ago.

The trend line goes from Lynch’s observation that anyone could see the financial implications of the L’eggs hosiery racks in grocery stores, to weekend box office receipts published by Variety, to near real time stock prices made available for free by Yahoo and Google Finance.

The line continues with real time audio of quarterly conference calls to transcriptions of these calls on SA (thank you SA!) to App Annie daily revenue ranking charts of mobile games by country.

App Annie even has revenue ranking data of games in “geo-lock” test releases in locations like Canada and New Zealand.

Freely available pre-release data of a game’s revenue potential is a step up from other well know pre-release indicators like out of town reviews of a Broadway-bound musical or reports of the reception of a test item on McDonald’s menus in Australia.

In addition to MZ’s absence from Unicorn lists, there are only a handful of published interviews with CEO Gabriel Leydon. You cannot find an interview where the CEO mentions revenue, valuation or IPO.

MZ is a rare Unicorn that walks the walk, not talks the talk.

This is in contrast to Kabam, the other mobile game startup identified as a Unicorn (no longer) who has talked the talk, and not walked the walk lately.

Based on our close observation of Kabam’s press over the past two years, we offer this Letterman-like list of the top 5 signs a Unicorn is talking the talk too much:

5.  Company still has a booth at SXSW five years after first showing.

4. SVPs give more interviews than CEO.

3. CEO quantifies to press revenue and money in bank.

2. CEO’s company pays for naming right to football field of alma mater.

1. CEO now spikes hair with mousse for video interviews.

Now back to how we derive a current valuation for MZ.

The table below presents our derivation of a current ARR of $1.1 Billion for GoW, up from our $831 Million estimate made eight months ago.

Estimate of ARR --Game of War

From this you have to subtract the loss of people disgusted by the Upton ads as evidenced by massive amounts of derisive tweeting going on in the last 4 months. The ads themselves, not the ad campaign, has been the only questionable move by MZ since inception. The source of MZ’s revenue growth in the past year has been the combination of organic growth in spending by dedicated players plus new downloads resulting from a $40+ Million ad campaign featuring the busty Kate Upton.

Indeed, we believe that MZ and its flood of Upton ads embedded in other free mobile games was the cause of an unprecedented, simultaneous #1 ranking of the free (ad supported) and paid versions of the same game, Trivia Crack. This was due to millions of freeloading players willingly forking over $2.99 just to avoid the Upton ads.

Below is a table of calculated price-sales ratios, specifically market valuation / annualized run rates, for the three pure play mobile game companies with substantial sales in the USA: Glu Mobile (NYSEMKT:GLU), King Digital (NYSE:KING), and Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA). The range is from a low of 1.83 for GLU to a high of 3.19 for ZNGA.

Price Sales Ratio of Mobile Game Companies

It should be noted that both KING and ZNGA sported 6+ price-sales ratios at the time of their IPOs.

We think that the midpoint of the figures above — 2.5x current ARR — is the appropriate figure to use in valuing MZ. This would place its current valuation at $1.1 Billion * 2.5 = $2.75 Billion.

But MZ has value beyond the ARR of a single game. MZ is not a one hit wonder.

First, MZ is amazingly “lean” in terms of its operations as measured by ARR / employee. This translates into profitability, something rare among Unicorns.

Below is a table that compares MZ’s head count with two big mobile game companies based in San Francisco — the troubled dog of a company, Zynga, and the stumbling startup Kabam.

Headcount Comparison of Mobile Game Companies

Both Zynga and Kabam had a string of failed game releases in 2014. Unless the fortunes of these companies change in 2015, there could 1,000+ unemployed mobile game people walking the streets of San Francisco this fall.

While we are on the subject of headcount, the San Jose Business Journal reported that MZ has leased an estimated 140,000 square foot space on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto that used to be Facebook’s old headquarters.

Furthermore, there is an adjacent 140,000 square foot space now leased short term to Nest and Google that may be available to MZ later.

At 250 square feet / employee, this new MZ facility could accommodate an additional 560 employees now with another 560 employees being housed in the adjacent space once Google completes its futuristic new HQ in the Shoreline area of Mountain View.

The other metric of MZ that is amazing is its ratio of current valuation to total VC funding. CrunchBase reports a total of $13.3 Million in VC funding with the last round being a Series B done a full three years ago.VentureBeat reported a total of $16 Million so there could be some $3 Million in angel money not captured by CrunchBase.

At a $2.5 Billion valuation, the VC return would be 156x. At a $4 Billion valuation, the VC return would be 250x. MZ’s return compares favorably to the 100x return that VC’s looks for every couple of years to make up for all of the other failed investments in their portfolios.

We now turn to the case that MZ has value beyond the ARR generated by a single published game.

CEO Gabriel Leydon recently gave a revealing interview to Robert Kolker of Bloomberg Business Week. For us, this was the first interview of any substance that Leydon has given since GoW was released for iOS two years ago.

Leydon may have been asked about revenue, scale, venture capital, and IPO, but evidently he declined to comment. He also did not talk much about the specifics of GoW itself.

Basically, Leydon relishes talking about two things: (1) how hardcore GoW’s fans are; (2) how hardcore MZ’s engineering is.

A Leydon supplied metric on the hardcore GoW fan:

The average player…plays for two hours per day, in 12-minute sessions, 10 a day.

A Leydon supplied metric on MZ’s engineering prowess:

…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.

For us, the most interesting section of the interview was Leydon’s belief that the MZ’s chat translation technology would be of value to the likes of Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). (specifically,we presume Facebook’s $19 Billion acquisition WhatsApp)

From the interview,

It’s closer to a social network than it is a video game,” Leydon says. “Facebook has pokes and messages and things like that. In Game of War, you have attacks and friends and chats.” Leydon argues that Game of War’s social interplay is far more complex; among other things, Facebook interactions across language borders are limited.

He goes on

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.

A more intriguing partner for MZ than WhatsApp would be Slack, the fast-growing collaboration and chat startup.

MZ’s history is a inversion of Slack’s. MZ completes what Slack starts. You could argue that MZ is a doppelgänger of Slack.

Slack started out as Tiny Speck, a startup attempting to build a massive multi-player game. The game was never completed, but a side-project piece of software developed for collaboration morphed into the fastest growing SaaS in history.

MZ produced the hit game that Slack could not complete. As a side-project, MZ built a chat translation engine that fills in critical gaps in Slack’s wild success.

Slack has already invaded software R&D and content creation departments, both requiring close digital collaboration. Slack is now moving horizontally throughout enterprises where these departments are core.

By adding a real time chat translation engine to its offering, Slack could make in roads into globally distributed enterprises that service other globally distributed enterprises.

For example, this might include global insurance companies like AXA and Zurich Insurance that handle insurance needs globally of a company like Exxon Mobil. It might include global banks like Citibank and Deutsche Bank that handle the banking globally for a company like GE or Siemens.

MZ’s chat translation engine could be a global enterprise door-opener for Slack.