A JULY 7 ARTICLE MISSTATED THE MOTLEY FOOL ONLINE INVESTMENT FORUM'S FINANCIAL POSITION. MOST OF ITS REVENUE COMES FROM ONLINE ADVERTISING, AND TOTAL EXPENSES--NOT JUST MARKETING EXPENSES--EXCEED THAT. ALSO, THE FIGURE OF 655,000 UNIQUE VISITS TO ITS WEB SITE IN MAY DOES NOT INCLUDE TRAFFIC FROM ITS AMERICA ONLINE SITE. (PUBLISHED 07/17/99)
"Why buy a stock if it's not a lock? Why pay that price if you're just tossin' dice? Why take such risk? Tsk tsk tsk. These are the rules by which the game is won, Fool."
Such is the advice David Gardner, co-founder of online investment forum Motley Fool, gives to first-time investors. The company he runs is avoiding risk in its own way, resisting the allure of selling shares to the public.
Motley Fool was one of the first online personal finance sites and is now one of the few that haven't gone public. Earlier this year, CBS Marketwatch.com raised $48 million and TheStreet.com collected $97 million from their initial public offerings. In addition to enriching their founders and others, all that IPO moola has bankrolled substantial marketing campaigns that try to reach users like those who are currently spending time on Fool.com.
Marketwatch spent $7 million in advertising, sales and marketing in the first quarter of this year alone. TheStreet.com spent $3 million on ads and product development in the same time frame. Although Motley Fool has been around for five years, it spent its first dime on brand marketing only last October.
What's holding it back? Although Fool officials declined to discuss details of the site's revenue or funding sources, they did acknowledge that the group doesn't yet have a business model that's scalable, meaning one that would balloon profitably with the growth of the Internet. And Gardner said the timing of a public offering must be "aligned with when our business produces consistent, sustained success."
Currently, a sizable chunk of the company's revenue comes from sales of its bestseller investment books as well as a FoolMart site that sells mugs and T-shirts. Online advertising is beginning to contribute an increasing amount of the company's annual revenue.
"When we started out, we were not sure what we were doing," said Erik Rydholm, another Motley Fool founder and now its chief operating officer. "We started with a product idea, not a business plan, which most companies start with. In the last two years we had to fill in a lot of the blanks. Now we're turning into a lot of the things we made fun of before," he added, only half-jokingly.
Gardner and his fellow muses of do-it-yourself investing say it's prudent to stay private and let the Internet gold rush pass them by for now. Gardner has often discussed the benefits of staying private on Fool.com. "If you can raise as much money in private as in public without hindering your power over your own company, then you should be private as long as possible," he said.
Even without IPO bucks, Fool.com has expanded. The staff almost doubled in the past year, from 95 to 165 employees. Expenses for marketing -- primarily radio ads and online banners -- have escalated since October.
Despite the rising expenses, Rydholm said the company is in good financial shape, with consistent revenue rolling in from its publishing sector. But marketing expenses have exceeded the business's revenue, Rydholm said, although he added the expenses are manageable. "We would never spend more money than we make without knowing that we can eventually make it back," he said.
Marketwatch, with its horde of cash from its stock offering, doesn't have to be so careful with its money. It lost $6 million in the first quarter and still has plenty of cash to burn.
Marketwatch CEO Larry Kramer said going public not only provided capital but also gave Marketwatch more credibility. "That's what counts," he said, when it comes to maintaining a following among fickle Web surfers. In May, Marketwatch.com attracted more than 1.5 million unique visits to its site, 655,000 more than Motley Fool's number, according to Media Metrix, which measures Internet traffic.
But Motley Fool executives say they are not threatened by the competition from Marketwatch. Gardner said Marketwatch is a "complementary news service" to the Fool's investment advice.
Fool.com's motto, "advice with an attitude," gave the online forum its prominence, but it learned a long time ago that prominence doesn't necessarily bring in the big bucks.
When Tom Gardner founded the company in August 1994 with his brother David and college friend Rydholm, Motley Fool was a printed newsletter that gave investment advice. Described as a "disastrous failure" by its founders, the newsletter only had 37 "token" subscribers, out of 1,100 acquaintances, friends and family members from whom the Gardners solicited subscriptions.
"When depression set in, David and Tom started posting notes on AOL," soliciting readers to buy their newsletter, Rydholm recalled. Such commercial pleas were a big cyberspace no-no at the time.
Still, the Gardners soon realized the immense and far-reaching power of computer communications. More than 400 America Online users responded to their postings with investment and personal finance questions. AOL, the nation's largest online service provider, invited the Motley Fool aboard as a content provider and bought a 20 percent stake in the business.
AOL was "the answer" to Motley Fool's prayers to make the company successful, Rydholm said.
For almost three years, Motley Fool ran exclusively as a service on AOL, which gave Motley Fool free and aggressive promotion as well as technical support. It also paid Motley Fool 20 percent of the $2.95 hourly rate that AOL charged its customers for traffic to the site, Rydholm said.
That revenue was the most significant source of Motley Fool's income until three years ago, when AOL decided to charge its subscribers a flat fee for unlimited use. Motley Fool expanded its reach by also putting Fool.com onto the World Wide Web, something Rydholm said helped draw a wider base of users.
But the move to the Web also meant the loss of marketing perks that went along with exclusivity on AOL. The business had to survive without riding on AOL's coattails. Fool.com had very few technicians, virtually no marketing and sales representatives, and little infrastructure. So, it's been building.
While Gardner does not dismiss options like debt financing or a private stock offering to sophisticated investors, he said the decision not to go public now is a demonstration of Motley Fool's financial stability. But he is mindful that his well-heeled competitors, if given the chance, "will nibble away at our jurisdiction."
The Motley Fool
Business: Online site offering advice on personal finance.
Founded: In 1994 by Tom Gardner, David Gardner and Erik Rydholm; started as a newsletter.
Number of visitors to its site in May: 851,000
Revenue: Undisclosed, but about 70 percent comes from its investment books and online advertising.
Web address: www.fool.com
SOURCES: Motley Fool, MediaMetrix
Although the stock prices of two of Motley Fool's competitors escalated on their first day of trading, they have not fared so well since.
SOURCE: Bloomberg News
CAPTION: Motley Foolers Tom Gardner, Erik Rydholm and David Gardner. As the business grows up, "we're turning into a lot of the things we made fun of before," says Rydholm. He doesn't mean the Austin Powers cutout.