Tag Archive Unicorns

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.

Kabam: What Causes A Unicorn To Stop Skating To Where The Puck Is Going

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

The growth in the numbers of technology startups valued over $1 Billion, so-called unicorns, has abruptly stopped and even reversed.

In the last several months, a number of unicorns have seen their valuations marked down by mutual funds. This has been accompanied by a number of titillating articles about frivolous spending — Dropbox’s Chrome Panda sculpture — and debauchery — Zenefits’ sex in the stairwells — claimed to be endemic to high flying unicorns.

Unlike stories of fallen unicorns, this article is about a company that “officially” is still on all unicorn lists. It is about the mobile game company Kabam, elevated to unicorn status by its last funding round in August 2014 of $120 Million by the Chinese platform company Alibaba.

Kabam 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 results have been a disastrous string of five failures and one success.

Kabam Timeline of Hits and Misses

Kabam Timeline of Hits and Misses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What caused this unicorn to stumble?

There is an inspiring YouTube video of a Keynote address given by Kabam co-founder Holly Liu at a Women 2.0 Conference in 2014.

She talks about key moments in the early history of Kabam when the founders decided to “Go Big” in her words. By this, she meant building products based on a vision of where a market was going rather where the market was at. Today, we use a hockey metaphor of “skating to where the puck is going” not “skating to where it is”

Kabam’s Downfall: “Skating to Where the Puck Is” after 2013

Specifically, for the Kabam founders it was deciding in 2007 to port their games to Facebook via its newly created API in a year when the dominant access to games was through the PC browser.

Then again, at the height of game company success on Facebook in 2010, Kabam founders were anticipating Facebook’s closure of its game API and made the visionary decision to develop only for the mobile phone.

Silicon Valley VCs have a bias toward supporting founders opinions over professional managers when startups periodically face existential choices.

This is because founders have vision (“skate to where the puck is going”) and want to build long-lasting companies. They have a Facebook “move fast and break things” mindset that is risky, but can result in outsized payouts in the end.

Whereas professional managers prefer risk-averse choices (“skate to where the puck is” ) that look to be the fastest path to cashing out via a buyout or an IPO.

Kabam stopped making visionary choices in 2013. What had happened was the emergence of a “talk the talk” culture championed by hired professional managers that favored strategies geared toward short-term revenue goals followed by an IPO.

In 2013, Kabam’s revenue grew 100% that year, fueled in part by the explosion of mobile phone purchases. Kabam had 3 hit games with greater than $100 Million in annualized revenue.

CEO Kevin Chou talked to the press about timetables for an IPO. He even announced publicly early April of 2014 that revenue was forecasted to grow 80+% or more and be in the range of $550 — $650 Million.

The safe bet to achieving these short term goals was to release as many games with $100 M in annualized revenue as possible. And that is what Kabam did, with disastrous results.

Visionary game founders in 2013 would have seen that only a company with multiple chart-topping $1 Billion games could ever have a chance at an IPO.

They would have known that another mobile game company Machine Zone (now MZ) was doing the visionary thing by building a ultra-low latency many-to-many game platform based on Erlang and investing in dedicated servers with field programmable gate arrays.

Visionary founders at Kabam would have stopped doing more of the same, and would have started building a new platform. They would have shut off all talk of IPO, stopped giving the press explicit financial numbers and revenue forecasts, and told investors that revenue would plummet in 2014.

In our opinion, the source of Kabam short-sighted culture was non-engineering managers brought in run Kabam’s operations. COO Kent Wakeford, a lawyer and former AOL executive, has been the face of Kabam to the press in matters of deals. To his credit, he consistently deflected any questions dealing with IPO specifics.

The real source of Kabam’s culture of “talk the talk” was former SVP of Corporate Communications Steve Swasey. The idea for making annual explicit financial disclosures can directly be traced Swasey.

The height of Kabam’s arrogance occurred in December 2013 when Kabam announced that it bought the naming rights for the Cal-Berkeley’s football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years. This idea had to be initiated by Steve Swasey. But, to be fair, this symbol of arriveste had to be approved by Kabam’s Board of Directors and founders.

One can understand the desire of Kabam’s co-founders — all three UC-Berkeley grads — to give back to their alma mater. But, founders should wait years after their IPO to give cash for University buildings. For example, buildings on the the Bay Area campus of Stanford and Berkeley include no less than Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, and Wozniak.

In our opinion, we do not think Kabam can recover. It is running out of cash. The IPO window is permanently closed to mobile game companies after the Zynga and King Digital IPO debacles. Kabam’s only hope for more funds is Alibaba, its prime investor to date.

The naming of the football field at UC-Berkeley in December 2013 looks to be Kabam’s symbolic “Kiss of Death.”

Former SVP of Corporate Communications Steve Swasey at Cal Football Field Naming

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 that 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.

Kabam’s Downfall: Talking the Talk

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

The growth in the numbers of technology startups valued over $1 Billion, so-called unicorns, has abruptly stopped and even reversed.

In the last several months, a number of unicorns have seen their valuations marked down by mutual funds. This has been accompanied by a number of titillating articles about frivolous spending — Dropbox’s Chrome Panda sculpture — and debauchery — Zenefits’ sex in the stairwells — claimed to be endemic to high flying unicorns.

Unlike stories of fallen unicorns, this article is about a company that “officially” is still on all unicorn lists. It is about the mobile game company Kabam, elevated to unicorn status by its last funding round in August 2014 of $120 Million by the Chinese platform company Alibaba.

Kabam 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 results have been a disastrous string of five failures and one success.

Kabam Timeline of Hits and Misses

Kabam Timeline of Hits and Misses

What caused this unicorn to stumble?

There is an inspiring YouTube video of a Keynote address given by Kabam co-founder Holly Liu at a Women 2.0 Conference in 2014.

She talks about key moments in the early history of Kabam when the founders decided to “Go Big” in her words. By this, she meant building products based on a vision of where a market was going rather where the market was at. Today, we use a hockey metaphor of “skating to where the puck is going” not “skating to where it is”

Kabam’s Downfall: “Skating to Where the Puck Is” after 2013

Specifically, for the Kabam founders it was deciding in 2007 to port their games to Facebook via its newly created API in a year when the dominant access to games was through the PC browser.

Then again, at the height of game company success on Facebook in 2010, Kabam founders were anticipating Facebook’s closure of its game API and made the visionary decision to develop only for the mobile phone.

Silicon Valley VCs have a bias toward supporting founders opinions over professional managers when startups periodically face existential choices.

This is because founders have vision (“skate to where the puck is going”) and want to build long-lasting companies. They have a Facebook “move fast and break things” mindset that is risky, but can result in outsized payouts in the end.

Whereas professional managers prefer risk-averse choices (“skate to where the puck is” ) that look to be the fastest path to cashing out via a buyout or an IPO.

Kabam stopped making visionary choices in 2013. What had happened was the emergence of a “talk the talk” culture championed by hired professional managers that favored strategies geared toward short-term revenue goals followed by an IPO.

In 2013, Kabam’s revenue grew 100% that year, fueled in part by the explosion of mobile phone purchases. Kabam had 3 hit games with greater than $100 Million in annualized revenue.

CEO Kevin Chou talked to the press about timetables for an IPO. He even announced publicly early April of 2014 that revenue was forecasted to grow 80+% or more and be in the range of $550 — $650 Million.

The safe bet to achieving these short term goals was to release as many games with $100 M in annualized revenue as possible. And that is what Kabam did, with disastrous results.

Visionary game founders in 2013 would have seen that only a company with multiple chart-topping $1 Billion games could ever have a chance at an IPO.

They would have known that another mobile game company Machine Zone (now MZ) was doing the visionary thing by building a ultra-low latency many-to-many game platform based on Erlang and investing in dedicated servers with field programmable gate arrays.

Visionary founders at Kabam would have stopped doing more of the same, and would have started building a new platform. They would have shut off all talk of IPO, stopped giving the press explicit financial numbers and revenue forecasts, and told investors that revenue would plummet in 2014.

In our opinion, the source of Kabam short-sighted culture was non-engineering managers brought in run Kabam’s operations. COO Kent Wakeford, a lawyer and former AOL executive, has been the face of Kabam to the press in matters of deals. To his credit, he consistently deflected any questions dealing with IPO specifics.

The real source of Kabam’s culture of “talk the talk” was former SVP of Corporate Communications Steve Swasey. The idea for making annual explicit financial disclosures can directly be traced Swasey.

The height of Kabam’s arrogance occurred in December 2013 when Kabam announced that it bought the naming rights for the Cal-Berkeley’s football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years. This idea had to be initiated by Steve Swasey. But, to be fair, this symbol of arriveste had to be approved by Kabam’s Board of Directors and founders.

One can understand the desire of Kabam’s co-founders — all three UC-Berkeley grads — to give back to their alma mater. But, founders should wait years after their IPO to give cash for University buildings. For example, buildings on the the Bay Area campus of Stanford and Berkeley include no less than Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, and Wozniak.

In our opinion, we do not think Kabam can recover. It is running out of cash. The IPO window is permanently closed to mobile game companies after the Zynga and King Digital IPO debacles. Kabam’s only hope for more funds is Alibaba, its prime investor to date.

The naming of the football field at UC-Berkeley in December 2013 looks to be Kabam’s symbolic “Kiss of Death.”

Former SVP of Corporate Communications Steve Swasey at Cal Football Field Naming

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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