The Complexities of building a payments processing business in the digital age.
Square (NYSE:SQ) reported its first quarter as a public company about a month ago on March 9. In the wake of what was considered to be a successful quarter with meaningful beats on both the topline and the EPS line, the shares have rallied significantly to new highs. The shares are up 36% since the company reported earnings and while some of that was the result of general market appreciation, the performance indicates investor pleasure with the results and guidance. (Just to be clear, when I write that the actual results for SQ were a significant beat, I do so because the Thomson/First Call numbers are not what analysts are basically tracking for this company when they look at reported earnings.). Although Square is just six-years-old, the company has already had to reinvent itself. What Square is today, with multiple revenue sources and a business model that is hard to classify, is perhaps quite a bit removed from what many readers and investors might imagine the company to be. It is, I believe, worthwhile to take a look at what Square has become in order to determine its potential investment merits.
Square likes to measure itself on something it calls "adjusted revenue", which is a non-GAAP number that relates to the gross margin the company generates on purchases. Adjusted revenue is an unusual measure by any standard as it is quite a bit lower than the company's nominal revenues. But adjusted revenue growth was just short of 50% last quarter and was actually a bit higher in year-to-year growth than the prior quarter.
Square saw 49% growth in revenues measured the traditional way and 64% growth in adjusted revenue for the quarter. Some pieces of total revenue are growing far faster for Square than its payment processing business. What the company calls software and data products grew by 52% sequentially and 272% year to year. The opportunities in software over the longer term are probably significantly greater than the revenues from payment processing
Square is lots of things to different people. Some might describe it as a POS company with some slick and cool hardware and far less complexity and much lower upfront prices. But SQ wants to be a company that offers entry level business analytics in its market space - it is actively engaged in building a small loan business based on its transaction processing customer base, and the company even offers payroll software and other SMB accounting solutions at some very basic level. It is not particularly easy to classify this company and to develop long-term projections by looking at market data and competitive data from third-party researchers.
The company's CEO Jack Dorsey is well known and not particularly well liked as the CEO of Twitter (NYSE:TWTR). He is an entrepreneur and certainly has not hidden from either the spotlight or from using IPOs to generate lots of net worth. Some readers on this site do not like that but it is not all that different from most Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. There does not appear to be much commonality between what Twitter does and what Square is trying to do. The Sydney Herald described him as "the American hipster billionaire." He is actually a reasonably well versed developer as well as an entrepreneur who happens to have covered his body with numerous tattoos. He may have political aspirations to be the mayor of New York, but for now, he seems to have his hands full trying to manage Twitter and Square. While Twitter's share price history has not been admirable (understatement of the day), the company is still growing at 30%/year and is reasonably non-GAAP profitable. I do not think that Jack Dorsey's management is any particular reason to avoid looking at SQ's shares.
SQ has a customer count of about 2 million users these days and probably most readers have seen its hardware. Users can buy the hardware from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) directly, and the company has far lower sales and marketing expenses than many other high tech start-ups. It does not employ traditional "feet on the street" sales tactics.
I will try to describe the various pieces of a typical Square solution below. It is thought by some to be cool and hip. Whether or not that is true, I have to leave to others far better versed in determining coolness and hipness than this writer. Sometimes high-tech companies get carried away with their obeisance to contemporary culture - in one SQ publication I found a comment to the effect that it is now fun to pay for things and to pay friends using Square. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I never like to pay, and regardless of the solution offered, it will never be fun for me. I can say that the setup is small and very cheap to acquire compared to most other POS systems.
The company's major business drivers are the transaction volumes that the company processes through its technology. The revenues derived from selling hardware, particularly new technology card readers, the amount of software and data products that it sells and the amount of loan volume that it can generate. A strange animal to say the least.
Square's largest current customer is Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) which uses what is called the Stand (The Stand is really just that - a stand into which users plug iPads that then with Square software becomes a POS terminal) in conjunction with other pieces of Square hardware and its POS application to take in-store payments at venues other than check-out lines. Whole Foods does sell lots of prepared food that many customers eat in cafes that are in the larger stores, including sandwiches, coffee, pizza and in some stores beer and wine. It has been a high visibility win for Square and could potentially pave the way for other, more complex applications for Stand and the company's POS solution.
The Square's Stand is perhaps the company's best known device since it is the heart of the company's overall retail solution. Customers use the Stand in conjunction with custom POS kits, magstripe readers and contactless and chip readers to design their own counters. The setup is remarkably inexpensive. You can buy a Square Stand from either Google or Amazon for $99. You can buy a Square Stand bundle for just $169 which includes the Stand itself, coupled with the Square reader and its dock. Depending on the specific application, users can buy cash drawers similar to the ones used in cash registers, bar code scanners and receipt printers. Most users will buy an iPad Air for the system for $399. The company is trying to become a leader in "embedded chip" and contactless card readers and, of course, it has options that let customers of its users pay through their phones. There were many reasons, of course, why Whole Foods wants to partner with Square, but total cost of ownership, coupled with extreme ease of use and no training requirements, were significant factors. To a certain extent, Square uses its low-priced hardware as the basis to sell more profitable software and to win processing volumes.
Back in 2012, when Square was first marketing its products and services, it made a payment processing deal with Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX). As with all such deals, Starbucks received very low prices in exchange for providing Square some street cred. In all, Square believes it lost $71 million in processing payments for Starbucks mainly because while Starbucks contributed 11% of Square's revenues, it accounted for 21% of the company's transaction costs. As mentioned below, I have stripped the Starbucks revenue from any quantitative analysis in the balance of this article.
Does Square Have Nosebleed Valuation?
As these things go, probably not. The company currently has about 335 million shares outstanding. At current prices, that represents a market capitalization of around $5 billion. Valuing a company such as this is simply not an easy exercise. It isn't so much that Square sells things that are unique. POS terminals, business analytics, small business loans and CRM solutions with targeted e-mail have been around for many years. But Square has taken a set of features and solutions that appeal primarily to the SMB market and packaged them together and that really is unique. In most articles that I write, I prefer to refer to industry consultants as supporting my growth estimates. There simply is no way that can be done with Square. Needless to say, neither Gartner or anyone else really has a MQ that defines the scope of the family of Square's solutions.
Apparently, the difficulty in defining Square in conventional, easy to analyze terms has attracted lots of short sellers. Almost the entire float of 14 million shares is sold short as of 3/15. The company has almost $500 million of cash and no debt, but that really doesn't matter all that much given the current market capitalization. The enterprise value is $4.5 billion or more than 4X 2015 net revenues of $1.125 billion (excluding Starbucks transaction revenue which is, in essence, a discontinued operation as Starbucks has announced it will soon be using another payment processor). It would be quite a bit higher using the company's favorite metric of adjusted revenue, but as that is not used by most outside observers, I will also not use it for this calculation. But as the company gives guidance in terms of adjusted revenues, that most analysts then translate into net sales, it is important to have some feel for the trend of that metric. The company has forecast that adjusted revenues will be about $600 million-plus this year which is a growth of 33%-34% from 2015 adjusted revenues. The company artfully evaded answering a question on the conference call as to why adjusted revenue growth would be down from the 48% just reported for Q4. Other than the law of large numbers, which seems to be in the future for this company, I really am not sure why the growth rate decline would happen. Square processed $10 billion of payments last year, and although that may sound like a large number, it is trivial in the context of retail sales generated by SMB market participants in this country, let alone internationally. The company's solution is getting lots more traction with larger users who represented more than 39% of its business last quarter, up significantly from 33% in the year earlier quarter. I think simple math would suggest that the company needs to attract larger merchants to its platform simply to be able to achieve reasonable growth in the absence of an expensive field sales force.
In any event, of the dozen or so analysts who cover this name, the consensus forecast growth for 2016 is just 23%. I find myself more than a bit baffled as to why that should be given overall company guidance and its likely conservatism, but to the extent the 23% growth actually is what the market is looking for, it presents a favorable setup for investors. This year the consensus analyst estimate for reported revenues is currently $1.56 billion which represents an EV/S of about 3X. Not to make too fine a point here, but self evidently, if the analyst consensus for revenues is too low as appears to be the case for reasons mentioned above, the EV/S calculation would come close to value levels.
Needless to say, the company generates losses but not as large as might be imagined. Last year, the operating loss was $174 million and that was up by more than 15% from the prior year. The company does generate lots of reported sales at $1.125 billion last year, up 55% from $$727 million in 2014. (excluding Starbucks transaction revenues of $123 million and $142 million, respectively). There was a bit of operating leverage last year as gross margins increased to 29% from 26.5% and operating expenses declined from 44% of revenues to 43% The company suggested on the conference call that it would be EBITDA positive after Q2 of this year. It said that it is focused on driving significant improvements in SG&A as well as R&D. The company's CFO is Sarah Friar, a well-known analyst at Goldman Sachs in the software sector. She then went to Salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM) as VP of plans and strategies before joining this company in 2012. She knows exactly what investors expect in terms of metrics for this type of company.
The company did achieve a non-GAAP operating cash flow of $28 million last year and that is up from an operating cash loss of $109 million in 2014. Although the cash flow statement has many puts and takes, as many readers might anticipate, a significant part of the improvement was the increase in share-based compensation from $36 million to $82 million. At around 7% of revenues, share based compensation is not really excessive, but it was a significant factor in driving last year's cash flow last year. Although Twitter is known as one of the big sinners with regard to stock-based comp, at least at the moment, and perhaps because of the presence of Sarah Friar, this company has been far more circumspect in its use of non-GAAP compensation measures. While at this point Square is very far from being able to justify its valuation on cash flow, this is not a particularly capital intensive business model. In essence, Square's business model is based on subscription transactions and inherently that is a model that can generate large cash flows over time.
Square - typical controversies surrounding valuation and the company's long-term business model
Not terribly surprisingly, I imagine, these shares have been more than a little controversial since the IPO back at the end of November 2015. The shares started trading at $9, a far cry from the expected $9-$13 range. They closed the first day a bit above $13, but descended along with most other tech stocks at the start of the year. They made their low on February, a couple of days before most tech shares found their bottom at $8.37 and have since appreciated by more than 84% to current levels of $15.50.
Of the 15 analysts who current cover Square, opinion is pretty evenly split. Eight rate the shares a hold, four rate it the equivalent of buy and three rate it the equivalent of strong buy. Of the last four analysts to initiate on the name, two ranked it a hold and another two ranked it as buy or equivalent. Interestingly, the mean price target is just $14/share and the high price target is $16. Obviously, the share price performance has outstripped the expectations of most analysts in the past couple of months.
More than is usually the case, analyst estimates are more or less worthless at this point - really. Analysts have the company reducing its loss per share by 80% this year and growing at 23%. I think that if the company actually had only 23% after growing 55% last year, the shares would collapse and rightfully so. And I think it is also likely that if the company grew by 23%, it would never be able to decrease its non-GAAP net loss per share by 80%. The mean sales growth is projected by analysts is $300 million from the level reported this year or a bit more excluding revenues from Starbucks. But regardless of that, to eliminate 80% of the total losses would require operating expenses to show no increase and perhaps decline. Not a particularly likely scenario. I think a better set of expectations would be for revenue growth to be in the low 30% range or $370 million. That growth would generate about $39 million in additional gross margin. If opex were to grow by say 18%, that would probably wipe out the operating loss for 2016 as a whole. There is significant seasonality for a company like this - its revenues are based on mainly on the sales of its own customers which are far higher in Q4s and lower in Q1s. So, some time by the middle of this year, the company should start to generate non-GAAP earnings.
At this point, it might be nice if I could just take some growth rate and market share estimates from a selection of third-party consultants and try to write how much it was all worth. No luck in doing that here.
Selling credit card terminals, even sexy looking credit card terminals, is not considered to be one of the high growth opportunities of all time. No doubt, the SMB community and the mobile community has been underserved with regard to payment devices. Square has a first mover advantage in the space. But I don't imagine anyone thinks that the secular growth in that business is 50% or more for any significant duration. While I'm never really going to call the kind of growth that Square has been enjoying as shabby, what the company calls adjusted revenue which is really the gross profit it earns on payments through its platform has actually slowed down a bit and most analysts have percentage growth declining further over the next two years. If all Square did was to simply generate payment processing fees from its customers, its growth really might slow down to 20% rather quickly and that would really not make for a very interesting stock to most readers.
But the company, just to make things a bit more complex than they already are, says that in order to make estimates for transaction volumes on its platform, one must use an analysis by cohort by which it means that volumes from existing users rise the longer the Square solutions are installed. There simply aren't the tools available to do a cohort analysis, but it is clearly adding significantly to growth. So, perhaps the reasonable estimate for adjusted revenue growth ought to be higher than 20%, although how much higher is really impossible to determine at this point.
Square's own market research suggests that 20 million out of 30 million US businesses do not currently accept credit cards. The Square solution is far cheaper and probably more effective in solving that problem than anything else that is on the market today. Whether that really means it can sell its solution to 20 million businesses and whether those 20 million businesses will generate sufficient payment processing fees to facilitate the company's growth are probably unknowable at this point. I think that a reasonably prudent model for estimating the growth in transaction revenues for the next several years might be 25%.
OK, so can Square's shares be justified as a long-term investment outside of the transaction revenue segment?
I actually think they can. There are several major potential growth sources for this company which are probably not well modeled by anyone at this point. The first of these is the company's line called software and data products. Software at Square includes Square Payroll which is basically designed to be a functional, but limited payroll package that can be used to pay employees and calculate withholding taxes. It is geared to enterprises that pay by the hour but it can be used for salaried staff as well. It is no doubt a very basic payroll product, but then again, given the target market and the fact that it is essentially part of the payments system inherent in Square, it probably has a significant market potential. Square also sells a CRM/e-mail marketing system to its users. Many people these days think of e-mail marketing as extinct as the dodo. But Square's customer set, concentrated as it is in the SMB space, is happy to have any affordable tool to enhance their ability to use targeted marketing. Square Cash allows person to person money transfer in a fashion similar to that of PayPal and it recently facilitated the service for business to business payments. Square acquired a company called Caviar in the summer of 2014. Caviar essentially replaced Square Order which was shut down. It is a high-end restaurant delivery service for popular restaurants who otherwise could not offer delivery on an economic basis.
Probably the most important software product that Square currently offers is its POS system. I do not propose to bore readers by attempting to evaluate the feature/function set of the Square solution and compare it specifically to market leaders. Square really doesn't sell that way. Its customers are acquired through the web and they are looking for cost effective, easy to use systems and can give up lots of functionality for that kind of product. Square POS does come with typical POS functionality including payments, digital receipts, open tickets inventory reports. It runs on both Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Android devices. Again, Square POS features are probably somewhat limited compared to some of the more powerful systems out there but since it essentially uses other Square hardware the total cost to users is going to be very low. Absolutely no training is necessary - I know that since it is how I pay for my morning coffee. Current software allows for open tickets and split tender and it has an inventory management feature as well. It even does payables.
I imagine that the furthest afield that Square gets from what most investors think about in evaluating the company is Square Capital. Square Capital is perhaps unique in the SMB financing world. The company basically offers loans to its users that are based on the volume of transactions that Square is processing. The loans are often secured by the amount of revenues generated by a typical borrower. These are really tiny loans that could never be profitably made in any traditional fashion. The company made 70,000 advances and loaned $400 million in 2015 which works out to an average cash advance of less than $6,000. The business seems to be growing rapidly as Square advanced more than $150 million in Q4, a run rate in excess of $600 million. At this point, the company does not disclose the spread it makes on the loans so it is basically impossible to determine profitability of the unit. Square funds some of the loans through its own cash balances. In addition, it has third-party investors who sometimes fund loans. Again, at some point, Square is going to have disclose spreads and origination costs and all the normal metrics that are expected of a financial services vendor but that hasn't happened just yet.
It is hardly surprising that the service has been well received by users who doubtless are always capital starved and find using Square a much easier process than trying to secure a credit line from a traditional financial outlet. If anyone thinks that this writer has a crystal ball to determine just how large Square Capital can be, think again. Seriously, other than using the credit line on your credit card where can a small business go to get a line secured only by their sales or even nothing more than an assignment of future sale revenues? How large can Square Capital get and how profitable can it be? Without some projections from the company all I can do is guess. I just do not know of a comparable service that is readily available to users at a reasonable cost.
An adjunct service that Square offers is called Instant Deposit. One of Square's major selling points is that it turns around invoices far more rapidly than traditional credit card processors. It will almost invariably make funds available to its customers the next day and it doesn't impose holds on larger transactions that are standard for typical "Merchant Acquirers." But some users need their money even more quickly and Square will send funds from a sale immediately to a seller's bank account 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The seller pays an additional 1% fee for the service in order to get his money a day early. That is a better interest rate than my bank pays these days. The service was launched in August 2015 and by the end of the year 58,000 sellers had completed more than 600,000 transactions, instantly.
Square's POS, Financial and Marketing Service revenues appear very small but they really offer explosive growth and data products look to be a very small percentage of revenue. They were 5% of total reported revenue less Starbucks this year compared to 1.6% last year. Last quarter software revenues reached 6.9% of the total excluding Starbucks, compared to 4.9% in the prior quarter. Software revenues grew by almost 5X last year and increased by no less than 52% sequentially. Square looks at adjusted revenues in tracking its software business. Software revenues tracked that way have gone from 1% of revenues at the start of 2014 to 17% of revenues last quarter. Regardless of how one defines percentages, the kind of growth that the company is achieving on the software line is really quite explosive and has the potential to significantly alter the business model over time. Needless to say, software revenues have far greater gross margins than transaction revenues. Transaction costs had what I describe as gross margins of 36% last year while software revenues had gross margins of a bit over 61%.
So, I think another key question in trying to arrive at some realistic valuation for this company is the size of the target market for its software and data products. And therein lies a significant problem for many analysts and writers like myself. The Square solution does have some significant differences that go far beyond its ability to deliver a sexy looking POS system for very little money. Even Square's distribution model which is based on retail/self-service distribution is significantly different than how most other POS terminals are sold. The pricing for Square's services is easy to understand for customers, the approval process to become a Square customer takes minutes and is far less cumbersome than the approval process of traditional merchant acquirers. But probably of greatest interest to the company's customers is that settlement of charges is either next day or instant and there are no holds for larger transactions.
There is no really reliable way to assess Square's potential growth rate. High - surely. Above 30% - seems likely. How much above 30% - really hard to imagine. I really haven't a clue about how anyone might go about creating a TAM estimate for all of things that this company does which is the only way I have ever seen the third-party consultants make their estimates. If you are going to invest in this company, and I certainly think that it has a more than decent risk/reward profile, you are going to have to do so without real long-term growth projections which are more or less unknowable at this point.
Why no analysts like to make projections about the future - mainly because it hasn't happened yet!
President Lincoln in an interview with two Wisconsin newspaper editors given in August 1864 was asked about the possibility of returning the freed African-Americans to bondage in exchange for the southern states rejoining the Union. He said to the editors that if he were to do so "I would be damned in time and in eternity for so doing." Nothing as seminal as that here, but the fact is that anyone trying to make a projection regarding some potential growth rate scenarios ought to realize that they too will be damned in time... if they try to be too precise. Forecasting the growth of disruptive technologies at a level of precision necessary to try to make detailed financial projections is simply not possible. I think, but I don't know, that the growth in transaction volumes over the Square platform is likely to be around or over 25% for some years to come. I think but I know with even less conviction that the growth in the company's software and data product offering might be well over 30% for some years to come. Just to look at one of the few analogs available. Constant Contact, probably the leading e-mail advertising company for the SMB space and which was recently acquired by Endurance International, was able to reach 650k customers after 15 years of extreme effort. Square, as of this writing, has more than 2 million users who are paying it regularly. Almost certainly these customers can use some form of targeted marketing. It is really lots easier to acquire targeted e-mail customers from a cohort that is paying for a processing service every month than it is to spend enormous sums on radio and TV ads, hire a significant cohort of salespeople and run all kinds of social media promotions. In its last year as a public company, CTCT had revenues of a bit greater than $300 million with decent margins. Again, the details about how the Square e-mail marketing service is to be run haven't been provided, but one can speculate that it might build up to a $50 million stream of revenues with high profitability over time. For the full year 2015, Square's software business was $58 million. I think that it is eminently reasonable to believe that Square's software component outside of its financial services group can grow at 30%-plus for several years to come.
I simply have nothing substantive on which to base any projection with regards to the company's financing operations. It would seem to me that the company has many built-in advantages in attempting to develop a significant loan portfolio within its customer base. It appears to have pricing advantages and other advantages as well that go through borrower acquisition cost, security and speed of approval. We really do not know what the company earned in gross spreads on the $400 million that it advanced or even if there were any significant charge-offs. But for a company that is processing something more than $10 billion of payments across its network, I have to think that there is significant growth available in the sector. Just to take a couple of final examples.
Caviar, the company's restaurant delivery service (this company sells its basic POS/payment service to numerous restaurants so it has been relatively easy to get its existing customers to sign up for a delivery service) grew by 4.5X year over year. And the company's hardware revenues, which these days comes primarily from the company's contactless and chip reader, grew to a Q4 run rate of $25 million/year, up by 215% from prior year revenues.
There are some signs that the company's scale is already enabling some operating leverage. The company's S&M spend was up 25% last year, significantly below the growth in adjusted and net revenues. The company had high G&A spending in Q4 as a consequence of its public offering. It seems reasonable to anticipate that G&A spend will flatten out substantially during the course of the current year.
Some Final thoughts
Putting together a cogent thesis regarding the outlook for Square is far tougher than might be expected. It isn't really just about mobile payment processing for small and mid-sized businesses. The company has acquired and continues to acquire some rather substantial customers, most notably Whole Foods, and it has driven the percentage of revenue coming from customers who process more than $125k/month in total sales to 39%, up from 33% at the start of 2015, which should be a margin driver going forward. While the percentage growth in processing revenues will probably moderate over time, the company has huge market opportunities both in the US and abroad to capture the 20 million establishments that do not currently take cards.
But beyond the company processing business lie the opportunities for the company in the POS space with a far lower cost solution than anything else available. The company has begun to offer a payroll service to its customers and it now offers some kind of CRM/targeted e-mail capability as well. These are all substantial markets that have never been accessible to most software vendors because the cost of distribution is far too high as a percentage of potential revenue. The Square model potentially solves those problems since what they will be selling are add-ons to the company's installed base.
Probably the company's single greatest marketing opportunity will be the loan generation of its capital operation. Again, the company has millions of small retailers who do not have ready access to capital except through their personal credit cards. Square Capital is relatively cheap, the approval process is far easier than it is for personal lines of credit other than those secured by home equity lines and at $6,000/average loan Square is able to access capital demands that cannot be meant elsewhere on an economic basis.
This is, to be sure, a SaaS business in that the processing revenues will most likely go on almost forever. But unlike many other SaaS businesses, the company has a comparatively quick payback when it sells new customers since marketing expense is not nearly as high as is the marketing expense of a SaaS software vendor who has to pay substantial sales commissions and actually has some costs in building out a network with appropriate redundancy.
This company has loads of growth opportunities and some of them are almost certainly going to fail or blow up along the way. I think the biggest risk this company has is trying to manage a large portfolio of so many potential opportunities with a CEO who is engaged 50% in trying to deal with another company, Twitter, that seemingly has material problems. It is reasonable to believe that the CFO is most likely responsible for a significant percentage of this company's innovations and he will, perhaps, need to revisit his dual role at some point in the near future.
Overall, however, I think it isn't off the wall to project that this company might deliver revenues of greater than $4 billion by 2020 with operating margins above 20% non-GAAP. It is certainly credible to me that the company could earn well above $2/share by that time.
Forecasts for a company doing so many things in so many markets where nothing at the price point that Square charges has ever existed is extremely hard to forecast. It is not a matter of taking a standard degradation curve and superimposing it on some estimates of TAM. There is no TAM to be seen here because there is no easily defined space. But at the end of the day, that is really a good thing - this company is trying to disrupt lots of spaces and if they were easy to define then they could not easily be disrupted.
What's it worth? My guess is that it will be worth far more than current quotations.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.