Boxed In

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The oft-repeated explanation for Box’s failure to IPO is that they somehow filed at a bad time and “missed the window”.

As usual with Box, the sound bites are better than the substance. They filed on March 24th of this year, a year that has seen the most IPOs since 2000. Since Box’s filing date there have been over 40 technology IPOs (with at least one in every month). These have included various software, SaaS and subscription companies like Hubspot, Yodlee and ZenDesk as well as HortonWorks and New Relic this week. What window exactly is closed?

Meanwhile, the stock market is not far off all-time highs, even as oil plunges, China slows, Russia invades and retrogrades, the Middle East burns, Europe self-immolates, and Ebola spreads, so it isn’t a macro problem.

The “Wall Street just doesn’t get it” argument is that because Box is a subscription business, they should get a free pass for their huge losses, because “lifetime customer value” means it will all turn out fine in the long run (this is of course counter to the Keynesian orthodoxy that in the long run we are all dead).

The people who generously have taken the time to educate us all on this topic (who coincidently often happen to be investors in Box) never seem to want to use Box’s own numbers to illustrate the virtues of a subscription business. Instead, they walk us through companies like Workday and imply that Box is somehow comparable in its subscription economics. They’re not.

There are good subscription businesses and bad subscription businesses. The spreadsheet-wielding denizens of Wall Street, despite their innumerable flaws, understand this quite well. They’ve been running the numbers on Salesforce, Workday and others for years, as well as subscription businesses in other industries.

High customer acquisition costs (traditional top-down enterprise sales model) combined with low revenue per customer (commodity file storage) doesn’t make for a good business. Add seemingly moderate churn and it can get ugly. There are some really crummy subscription businesses out there (TiVo and Vonage come to mind though it has been a while since I looked at their financials).

Add the very real cost of goods sold for petabytes of storage and the overhead of a freemium model (90% of Box customers don’t pay), and it gets even worse (I’ve wallowed in the storage economics and it can be ugly). To own Box stock, you have to believe they will retain their customers for a really long time to pay back the acquisition costs and/or significantly increase their revenue per customer. It is hard to make this case and Box notably doesn’t make much of an effort.

How will Box extract significantly more revenue per customer? They have neither moat nor unique technology (unless you count their “which one of these things isn’t like the others” participation in the Linux Foundation’s Dronecode Project). They don’t have an operations at scale cost advantage. Their “platform ecosystem” is superficial at best. They face giant competitors like Apple, Google and Microsoft with untold billions in the bank who are happily giving cloud-based storage away as a complement to their other services, as well as Dropbox which continues to ooze into the enterprise with a bottoms-up strategy which has dramatically lower customer acquisition costs. Box is still doing the same thing it always has, even as the market has evolved. They no longer have the luxury of just highlighting SharePoint’s inadequacies. Some argue Microsoft’s refusal to support Android and iOS has been the singular Box value proposition – obviously, that is a window that has closed.

The implicit financial bet/hope is Box will find a new and better business soon. But if you read the S-1, you discover Box doesn’t really know who they are or where they are going (though they do claim they’ll be really agile getting there). They’re happy to make a few jokes and compare themselves to all of Apple, Facebook, Zappos and Salesforce with a straight face, yet can’t describe their own raison d’etre (beyond giving good soundbite which I yield to no one in my respect for but tragically that competence is not a foundation for spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year):

We design our software with the passion and attention to detail that you’d expect from leading consumer companies like Apple. Similar to Facebook, we release updates to our product continuously, which allows us to act on user feedback to improve the Box experience and respond to opportunities with agility. We support our customers with the greatest care and attention, delivering Zappos-like support. And we’ve created an open ecosystem much like salesforce.com [sic], leveraging the talents and skills of tens of thousands of developers outside of our corporation to build value on Box.

What would it mean for someone to describe their company as “like Box” in a positive way?

Which brings us to their updated S-1. The good news is Box has reduced their burn, but with it their growth. Box has been a poster child for the recent “excessive burn rate” startup critique. But this is not entirely fair, as Box’s massive spending is not sumptuous employee benefits or other discretionary items, but rather is baked into the business model for customer acquisition.

Then there are the details of the Series F (as in “F#&ked”) financing Box raised this summer when it became clear an IPO was not in the cards while they were still burning mountains of cash. The private equity investors dictated stark terms and will get “theirs” well before any other investor.

Given the Series F investor preferences ratchet up even further if Box doesn’t IPO by July 7, expect an all-out push to get this turkey over the finish line. Amid that push to ring the bell, I hope Box’s fans will explain to us how the company will become a viable and even decent business in the future as opposed to just chanting “LTV FTW” because they really want to get it out of their portfolios. Customers and investors beware.