Is TheStreet.com (NASDAQ:TST) uniquely qualified as the perfect vehicle for investing in the financial media space? I think so and will explain why after describing the current landscape.
For all the dot-com hype in the 90s and the latest high flyers Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), LinkedIn (LNKD) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), or what I consider dot-com part deux, only two types of content driven websites make a reasonable return on investment.
Financial and sports related websites are the last two remaining genres of sites that command premium advertising dollars. For most other types of websites the advertising rates have fallen over the years to the point that without massive amounts of traffic and/or a marquee name, profits if there are any are quite small.
Even financial and sports sites depend on premium content (i.e. subscriptions) for the lion's share of profit. As with so many things, the 80/20 rule applies to revenue generation. 80% of revenue comes from subscriptions and the remainder from ad sales.
Outside of spending millions to develop a site and compete with the best of the best, there are few methods of entry into the finance space. The number one financial website is Yahoo (YHOO). Yahoo is a reasonable investment in its own right. After removing cash and investments, the earnings multiple falls to single digits.
Yahoo's new CEO Marissa Mayer is attempting to buy her way into wider relevance with mixed results. With slightly over a year under her belt, the market isn't impressed. Sure the stock is on a tear and at first glance it may appear the market is assigning a higher multiple or at least Yahoo is executing with shares up over 100% since Mayer took the helm.
However, almost all of Yahoo's gains are directly related to its Alibaba investment. Alibaba is the Chinese commerce giant with greater sales revenue generated than eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) combined. Yahoo owns about 24% of Alibaba and valuation estimates are as high as $130 billion. Add in a sizable investment with Yahoo Japan (surprisingly considering the name, Yahoo is a minority owner) and cash and Yahoo's core site has an incredibly low valuation.
With that said, I maintain a bullish outlook, but it's beyond the scope of this article. Yahoo isn't a pure financial media play because it's so diversified. Another premier site is WallStreetJournal.com (WSJ.com) owned by News Corp (NASDAQ:NWS) (NASDAQ:NWSA) and all else being equal, it's difficult to name another site more respected and known as WSJ.com.
Similar to Yahoo, News Corp. has so many tentacles that there is no direct play with WSJ.com. Seeking Alpha is a pure financial media play, but it isn't publicly traded. The same holds true for Motley Fool.
There is one uniquely qualified pure financial media play, and this is an especially noteworthy time to take a look under the hood. TheStreet.com is a well-known and respected financial news provider with multiple divisions and sites, but all within the scope of money and finance.
TheStreet started as a forward thinking finance destination started by Jim Cramer. Cramer describes the beginning days and challenges in his book Confessions of a Street Addict, so I won't bore you with details, albeit it's safe to say some of the management hired didn't live up to expectations.
And that's being generous because at the time TheStreet had first mover advantage and everything a website could possibly want. Granted it's easy to point out mistakes now with the advantage of cookie cutter turn-key site availability, but it takes a whole new level of ineptitude to lose money when you have Cramer as your drawing card.
At its peak during May 1999 (same month it IPOd) the shares traded for over $70. During the dot-com crash, the same shares could be picked up for under a buck. Since then, the shares moved higher and lower with a revival during the market boom before the financial crisis. From bottom to top, the shares were a 15 banger.
My previous TheStreet article's title Buy Sirius XM Radio Or Become Cramer's Boss For $2, The Choice Is Yours clues you in on the then share price. Currently trading near $3, the stock gained almost 50%. Part of that gain comes from the board authorizing a dividend, and the other comes from the CEO Elisabeth DeMarse execution of strategy returning the company back into profitability. DeMarse announced the fantastic news last week along with impressive metrics that can only lead an investor to a conclusion that TheStreet is now performing with a significant tailwind.
According to last week's conference call, revenue for 2013 was above guidance at $54.5 million, and the company produced quarterly year-over-year growth of 7% at $14.8 million. Also, notable for potential investors is TheStreet posted its first quarterly profit in 18 quarters.
I'm not the only one to take notice the company's increasing traction since DeMarse entered the building. The shares are not only at 52-week highs representing almost a 100% gain from 2013 lows, but are also at the highest price since 2011.
DeMarse could have shot signal flares over Manhattan at midnight to alert Wall Street the best is yet to come, albeit, it wouldn't have been more clear than the recent results and actions. Instituting a 10 cent annual dividend is the board's way of letting you know they believe last quarter's profit isn't an anomaly and 2014 should produce another significant year-over-year gain.
TheStreet bought TheDeal.com in 2013 and DeMarse stated TheStreet is in the market to buy more properties. Keep in mind TheStreet isn't just TheStreet.com, it's a collection of financial related properties creating a unique synergy as well as investment proposition. More to the point, companies don't take the time and resources away from operations when their own house requires undivided attention.
I would be amiss if I didn't discuss TheStreet's activist investor and a few preferred series B impacting the common share price. If you're following the company's article on SeekingAlpha you can't help but take notice of Spear Point's pieces.
I wouldn't become overly excited from Spear Point's desire for a change of structure, or thesis for doing so. It's a fair assessment to characterize Spear Point's historical ability to forecast TheStreet's share price prospects as less than oracle. The latest demonstration happening September 2013, when Spear Point suggested shareholders agree to a buyout of $2.80 (plus a haircut for owners of the series B preferred shares outstanding).
With that said, don't confuse Spear Point's interests with other shareholder's interests. Spear Point could see the handwriting on the wall that TheStreet is returning to profitability, and they took a shot in the dark that others would throw in the towel at the worst possible time.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, and the investing public is taking notice, Spear Point executed a 180 degree turn of opinion. There's only one reason why the investment firm isn't selling at the recent highs and it's because they believe the shares will continue to appreciate.
In November 2007, TheStreet sold 5,500 preferred shares to Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV) for $10,000 per share, or $55 million total. TCV received among other considerations (including warrants that have since expired) the right to convert their preferred shares into 3,856,942 shares of common stock at a price of $14.26.
From TheStreet's point of view and for current shareholders it was a brilliant move. TheStreet sold $55 million worth of stock at the most opportune time. The net impact so far for shareholders is an (almost) interest free loan. The preferred shareholders are entitled to a dividend equal to the number of conversion shares. However, outside of creating price resistance near $14.26 and a de facto poison pill hindrance for a takeover, it's a lot of money for nothing.
Given an opportunity to gain direct exposure to Cramer's and TheStreet's success for less than $3, are you seriously concerned the stock will have headwinds as it moves into double digits? I'm not and with each dividend I receive, I will become less so.
Disclosure: I am long TST. 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.
Additional disclosure: Robert Weinstein is a contributor to SeekingAlpha, TheStreet, Motley Fool, StockSaints and other financial sites.