When I first started Stock Gumshoe, the teaser ads from the Motley Fool were part of the inspiration — I saw those pitches (at the time it was buying the stock that looks like the “next Dell” or buying the “New American Superbrand” that’s shaking up the retail landscape), and I wanted to know what they were talking about. So I started writing about it. It wasn’t just the Fool, obviously — Louis Navellier and Porter Stansberry and many others were doing these same heavy-handed pitches about “secret” stocks, but I probably wrote about more Motley Fool stocks in those first couple years than any other. And a lot of them turned out pretty well — those two examples are Netflix (NFLX) and Whole Foods (WFM now, was WFMI then), from 2007… NFLX has been the best teaser pick ever ID’d here, with a 3,500% gain (so of course, it’s a stock I’ve never owned), WFM was much more tepid but now stands at about a 100% gain from that first “New American Superbrand” teaser push in late 2006.
But their teaser production has died down quite a bit, it seems to me — they’ve been re-running the same ads for such long periods of time that I rarely get a new one to sink my teeth into. The pitches about the “mobile phone that will kill Visa and Mastercard” for NXPI and the “Death of Cable” for a few content producers and the “Death of the Internet” or “Time Machine” spiels for the “Internet of Things” stocks like SWIR have all been running, off and on, for at least a couple years with little change.
So while today’s teaser comes with but one fairly innocuous hint, I felt compelled to dive in… and yes, they are making plenty of big picture promises about just how awesome this stock might be.
The service they’re advertising is one of their expensive portfolio-direction services, which has been the wave for the Motley Fool for a while — they use the lower-priced stock picking newsletters, like their flagship Stock Advisor, to bring folks in the door… then, once you’re on board, they push the much more expensive services like Supernova or Million Dollar Portfolio that provide model portfolios and specific allocation advice (like, put 5% of your portfolio into Netflix, 3% into Tesla, 5% into Disney, etc.), or Motley Fool One that I think includes actual financial advisor consultations and Tom Gardner’s “Everlasting Portfolio,” or lifetime access to research, or other premium stuff. To a large extent this is just the Motley Fool making the step to join the other newsletter publishers, who have long realized that the real money is made by “funneling” customers through a basic membership level and up to the top tiers, and that the best customer for a $5,000 service is the one who just got a great stock pick from your $49 service.
Which is why I have launched the Stock Gumshoe Super-Irregular Gold Alliance Club, whereby you get not only the work of our guest columnists and everything I write, including copies of my personal emails to friends and family and my periodic musings about the fate of the Detroit Lions or the Cornell hockey team, but you also get to stop by for a beer on every ninth Thursday. Possibly including some crackers and cheese, or peanuts (though those aren’t guaranteed, you understand). And depending on my shopping habits that week, you might have to bring the beer.
This is obviously a $50,000 value, but is currently available for a limited time for only $38,999.00 a year. And, of course, I wouldn’t be so crass as to accept US dollars, which we all know are irrelevant paper and will be defunct by October of 2015 (or December 2005, or January of 2011, or March of 2013, or… well, it depends on who you ask, and whether their memory is very good), so you can make your annual payment via a personal delivery of 32 ounces of gold. Actually, better have some disinterested party deliver the gold for you. Miranda Kerr is probably a good choice.
Sorry, back on point (and yes, for the humor-impaired, I’m joking)… so, what’s the Fool pitching now?
Well, they’re selling Supernova, which costs $1,999 a year, and the headline spiel is:
“Led by legendary stock picker David Gardner (who’s identified 19 stocks that have gone up 10x or more in value since 2002), you’re invited to:
“See the “next big thing” with the eyes of a venture capitalist and invest in it before it happens…
“Manage your portfolio with the skill and confidence of a world-class money manager…
“Have a blast inside one of the most successful and fun-loving networks of committed growth investors on the planet; and at long last…
“Climb aboard Motley Fool Supernova before it closes to new members for the year!”
And what’s the bit about this being like buying Apple years ago? They at least imply that they’re comparing the current opportunity to their suggestion that you buy AAPL a couple times….
“First, let’s consider Apple. Many of us own it in our personal portfolios. And all of us know it’s been one of the best-performing stocks over the past several years…
“But what if you knew the best times to add to your position along the way? And just how large of a position to own in your portfolio?
“The Phoenix team knew. They manage one of our real-money portfolios in Supernova — a portfolio that could be particularly well suited to you if you’re closer to retirement…
“They bought and added to their Apple position four times. At one point recommending it as a 10% position in members’ portfolios. And while the first position was profitable for investors, it was the back-to-back “double downs” that delivered the big returns.”
Those purchases were around $70-80ish back in 2012 (split adjusted) and then the “double downs” were when it was in the $60 neighborhood in 2013. Not much to argue about with those, it obviously worked out well and I also owned Apple through those buys (and bought more at similar prices), though I have paid more and less for my position (I first bought around $50, at the short-term peak I paid around $90).
The other examples they use are Netflix (NFLX), which apparently the first “launch” of Supernova picked in early 2012 (both Gardners picked and teased it many times before that, for the Stock Advisor newsletter)… and Tesla (TSLA), which provides the lead-in to the “secret” Supernova stock they’re hinting at today….
“Like when we scooped up shares of Tesla Motors in early 2012. Before the Model S had a full production run. Then, in 2013, after the Model S began winning awards and Tesla reported its first quarter of profitability, Odyssey bought Tesla AGAIN:
“Supernova Members Invest Like Venture Capitalists — Which Sometimes Means Backing an Innovative Leader
“And if you think that sounds pretty darn interesting, here’s something else I expect will float your boat: David Gardner has just advised the Odyssey 1 team to DOUBLE the position in one small company…
“A little dynamo deftly staking its claim in an exploding industry, operating lucrative websites in 30 countries and 21 languages…
“And I’d like nothing more than to tell you all the details. Including how much of your portfolio to dedicate to this position, and how much you could expect to make if it takes off!”
So who is that “little dynamo?” You won’t get any more clues, I’m afraid… but I’m pretty sure the Thinkolator is up to the task, and when I revved it a little extra this morning it gave us a solid answer: This is very likely TripAdvisor (TRIP).
TripAdvisor now operates in 45 countries and in 28 languages, so that hint is no longer accurate — but for a while the “30 countries and 21 languages” was their PR tagline on press releases, back in 2012 or so when those numbers were accurate, and I suspect the Fool is still using those numbers in their ads… whether to be misleading or just because that was in their initial recommendation of the stock, I don’t know.
You probably know TripAdvisor, and may have even used it. I know I have — it’s the world’s largest travel site (collection of travel sites, really), with a phenomenal store of information that has essentially replaced the well-work Fodor’s guides that many of us would have consulted a decade ago before embarking on a trip, and it is both the blessing and bane of anyone who operates a tourist business… it’s where you’ll find the rankings of hotels and attractions for any city, and the reviews from travelers who visited those places or stayed in those hotels, including those hotel stays or restaurant meals that were not happy and successful. While Priceline is probably the dominant merchant for travel, TripAdvisor is the dominant advertising spot and social media hub for travelers… and they also do provide bookings on the site for travel both directly and through a variety of partners.
TRIP is an interesting company — they have a phenomenal “network effect” propelling their traffic growth, since they have by far the most reviews and the most thoroughly vetted collection of reviews about thousands of hotels, vacation spots and other attractions, people use them the most… and since people use them the most, that’s the only place to submit a review if you want other travelers to actually see it. That network effect is their “special sauce”, and it’s all based on the utility and convenience of their site in researching travel and on the community that has been created. And that, in turn, is the base of their profitability, since you have hundreds of millions of people visiting the site who are planning to spend a substantial amount of money on travel in the near future — indeed, who are actively shopping for or booking travel. Those people are, it’s no leap to assert, the most valuable people for a hotel chain, or an airline, or a vacation destination, to reach, and they pay up for that and make TripAdvisor’s advertising business quite lucrative.
It’s also an expensive stock — you have to be able to look out into the future and see them continuing to build the business at a rapid pace to be able to convince yourself to pay 25X 2016 earnings estimates for your little slice of this company, particularly since trailing earnings growth has only been in the 10-15% area annually and TRIP does not have a history of “blowing out” the earnings estimates. There’s a lot to like even aside from the obviously valuable business relationships and irreplaceable review data they own, particularly the substantial insider ownership (including by John Malone through part of his Liberty octopus of companies, as well as by real insiders and the founders of the company), and they’ve certainly done a good job of improving and personalizing the site over the years.
And while there’s certainly ample space for them to grow as they increase their direct bookings business and grow into more countries, and as more consumers find and fall in love with their products, there’s also plenty of risk — they rely on their biggest advertising partners, like Priceline and Expedia, for a huge portion of their revenue; they’re an advertising business that’s doing a good job with the transition from desktop to mobile, but mobile ads are still substantially less lucrative than desktop ones; and though their big database of reviews is almost impossible to replace, there is plenty of competition for organic “travel” keyword traffic (incoming traffic that they don’t pay for through Google search ads)… particularly with Google making noises about getting more directly involved in travel information…. so they may end up having to pay more for traffic to get new customers in the door, which could depress margins. That may already be happening, with profit margins dipping down to the 16-17% neighborhood as costs have come up in general over the years — several years ago that number approached 30%.
I’ve actually considered buying TRIP on this recent dip, both a few months ago and more recently, as the trailing PE came down from 75 to 50 and the share price has come down from well over $100 at the peak to about $75 now (it dipped even lower before the last earnings release), but I haven’t ever actually made the buy. It’s a phenomenally valuable brand with very solid growth, and a great “network effect” social advertising business, it’s still fairly small relative to the global travel industry with a market cap of about $10 billion, and I probably should own it for many of the same reasons that I own Facebook shares (data is valuable, the more personal the better), but the valuation is certainly sobering and the growth is not quite high enough to make me want to jump without lots of hemming and hawing… at this valuation, you don’t get a lot of margin for error.
The risks of large customer relationships with partial competitors in Priceline and Expedia make me more nervous than anything else, but the value of their collected review database and their deep reservoir of “big data” about traveler preferences is probably enough to swing me over to the “thumbs up” side on this one… even if the trailing numbers (ie, the “real” numbers, not the analysts forecasts of the future) — 50X earnings for a company growing their earnings at only 13% a year — makes me grind my teeth a little bit. At the same time, there’s a great comfort in the huge top-line growth — in an era of manufactured earnings and cost cutting they’ve just about doubled sales in two years. I don’t own it, but maybe I will someday — I’ll let you know if I jump in (it wouldn’t be for at least three days, per my trading restrictions).
(And for disclosure’s sake, as long as I’m mentioning what I own, I should clarify that I do own Apple, Facebook and Google shares, I don’t own any of the other stocks mentioned above — and won’t trade any of them for at least three days).