+ SaaS company with strong track-record of growth in number of customers, revenue and cash flow.
+ Providing services in a niche with strong tailwinds, companies need to find way to communicate with their customers online effectively.
+ Founder led with large shareholding from the founding team.
+ Operating out of Polish University city, young entrepreneurial city, with low staff costs.
+ Has invested in developing value adding services like ChatBot and Helpdesk, these are also sold as separate services.
+ Potential upside (if approved) in Polish preferential taxation of income generated by intellectual property rights.
+ / – Somewhat questionable that cash flow is shifted out as dividends instead of reinvested in such a nicely growing business. Current dividend yield is ~6%, which of course is attractive and it also significantly reduces risk that there is anything fraudulent going on in the company. It is after trading in Poland, a market I’m not so familiar with.
– Growth in number of customers have been on a downward trend.
– Competition increasing, both from freemium services and larger player with a wider offering.
– Reporting comes first in Polish which later is translated into English and some info only released in Polish (I thank google translate).
Background and Overview
The company has one prime product and three “add-on” services which also can be bought separately. As can be seen in the timeline above, the three add on services are fairly new products.
- LiveChat which is the main product of the company is a software used by businesses to communicate with customers browsing their website. They see the product as a simple chat window placed on the website. The business owner and his agents, on the other hand, have access to the sophisticated application designed for communication and quick customers service. The company operates its products through a SaaS (Software as a Service) model. Examples of the product’s use are very varied. LiveChat solution can facilitate sales processes in e-commerce, serve as a recruitment supporting tool in education and HR and as a contact channel in industries which require personalized communications, such as real estate.
- Knowledge Base platform lets companies create their own knowledge bases, which can be accessed by both their employees and clients
- ChatBot is a product which allows the creation of conversational chatbots to handle various business scenarios. Their main goal is to automate corporate communications and to improve the effectiveness of customer service teams by addressing repeatable customer inquiries. The solution, introduced to the market, fits into the Company’s strategy to develop the offering of products for text-based customer communications. At the same time it responds to the now popular trend towards automation of communications using AI-based mechanisms
- HelpDesk solution enables customers to leave a message for a company by using dedicated email addresses. It’s also possible for team members to create a ticket if a customer’s query came from other communication channels, such as LiveChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or a phone call.
The supervisory board seems to be a mix of company founders who are no longer active in the company and board professionals . The two founders who are still active are:
CEO – Mariusz Cieply has been with LiveChat since its founding in 2002 – first as software developer, later as project manager and now as its CEO. Mariusz is one of the main shareholders of LiveChat.
CFO – Urszula Jarzębowska has been working in LiveChat Software from 2002. She has 12 years of financial experience with both public and venture-backed companies.
The ownership proportions within the consortium which holds 47.1% is the following:
Marius Cieply (CEO) 15.57%, Maciej Jarzębowski 11.69% (who is a founder and (I guess) married to the companies current CFO), Jakub Sitarz 11.69% (Founder/programmer no longer active in the daily business of the company). The remaining ~8% of the consortium is not disclosed, but the CFO has a portion of that.
Business & Outlook
The company has a very impressive list of customers
The growth in number of paying customers can be shown in many ways, this is LiveChat’s own presentation:
Another way to describe this would be the following:
I think this gives a clearer picture of how customer growth has been on a steady downward trend for some time now. But it’s also quite clear in the MoM graph that it seems to have bottomed out, at least temporarily. Another aspect to this is the churn of customers, which LiveChat is not as generous with data on. But they do disclose that the churn has been stable around 3%. They also note that the leave ratio is much lower for larger customers (companies using the more expensive subscription plans and buying more licences).
We will come to competition soon, but obviously the customer growth is affected by strong competition which has entered the space. Livechat has previously been spoiled to with very little effort gain large traction, today they have to work harder. One channel they use are affiliate partners who get a kick-back for redirecting paying customers to LiveChat. I think you understand what kind of affiliates that is, you google for “best customer chat service” and you land on different homepages ranking providers, all with links to the providers. Overall LiveChat does not invest huge amounts of money trying to win customers, but is rather trying to use clever cheap ways. Like providing a very good blog/homepage of their services. This is if I grasped the competition correctly is more in line with how the freemium services/companies are acquiring customers. So judging from figures there seem to be a potential turn-around or at least flattening of a previous “nasty” trend, the stock market seems to think so too.
A big positive is the fantastic margins that LiveChat has historically held, which enabled the large dividend payments. It’s just a staggering generating such cash flows at the same time as the company has had yearly growth in the 20-40% range.
I think Poland instead of Silicon Valley is a big reason for this, wage levels are probably 20% of the Valley, but the quality of staff is definitely not 20%. In many ways it could be better, given this being one of few very attractive employers in the city. Historically many great companies were built in slightly off locations with staff that wanted to live there.
It’s undisputed by now, how businesses and consumers are moving online, the clothing industry being one of the ones most affected by this. Another example could be retail banking, which used to be a very personalized face to face experience. Today most people want to avoid visiting a bank branch. Overall all companies today have a challenge in communicating with their customers. This has obviously spurred growth in multiple new channels where companies tries to find new ways to connect with their customers. LiveChat has been riding on that wave and I think it’s a wave that still has a lot of runway left, giving this investment idea a nice tailwind. On the other hand the LiveChat growth figures are telling a story of slowing growth, that I account more to competition than that the actual market itself has entered a lower growth stage. According to the available market data and the company’s own estimates, the current value of the market for live chat type solutions may exceed USD 700m, with LiveChat having some USD 35m of that.
Zendesk has a nice graph showing how new ways of interacting with companies comes naturally for younger generations:
The market got a scare a few years ago, believing Facebook and Apple wanting to step into this space in a bigger way. Facebook would make it possible for customers to chat with companies on their homepage through Facebook messenger. Given that Facebook messenger is a well established channel it would not be strange that more and more companies moved more of their customer communication to that channel. LiveChat’s comment on this is: The company is developing a business ecosystem around its products, LiveChat and Chatbot, in order to be able to better address users’ needs. Thanks to these developments, they will be able to communicate with their clients via multiple platforms, not just using their website, but also via text message, Apple products, mobile devices, Facebook Messenger, social media communicators and platforms. For the interested reader a longer comment from around that time: LiveChat comments on Facebook chat.
Group’s growth strategy
This is taken from the company presentation:
The company’s development strategy is based on making continuous, balanced investments into further development of the LiveChat product, including in particular:
a) functional development of the app;
b) new communications channels;
• development of the ticket system
• mobile systems;
• social media;
• an integrated communications tool
c) data-driven tools for larger corporations
Much of the above is based on the new services like Helpdesk, which recently launched. Overall LiveChat is mimicking much of what the market leader Zendesk is doing, which leads us into the Competition. I also learned from reading around on their blog that they have deployed clever tactics in the past to improve their LiveChat product. The company used a stand alone service called chat.io to play around and test new functionality without disturbing existing user-base. When a lot of new ideas had developed within the chat.io product, they merged them into the new LiveChat 3.0 version and started to roll it out to existing customers (Blog reference)
In interviews the CEO states that they are not afraid to charge properly for their product. It’s a premium product and they do not go for free versions (except a short free trial), since their experience is that it’s hard to convert a non-paying customer into a paying one. So they are confident they have a product which stand out in the competition. What does the landscape then look like in such a niche as chat-related services on company homepages?
I will focus on the two companies larger than LiveChat (tawk.to & Zendesk), which are at two extremes in their strategy of offering this product.
Visiting their homepage the first message is: “You never have to pay for live chat software again”. This is the largest freemium service of chat. Given it’s free it’s not surprising they have a huge number of customers, 2.2 million. As we know today, free always comes at a cost, like usage of customer data. There are also some other costs, like a monthly fee if you want to remove the tawk.to logo from the chat. Also they sell services of agents that talk in your chat for US$1 an hour. This obviously attracts a big set of smaller companies without the budget shelving out every month for a chat system and perhaps do not even have the staff to man such a chat. It is on one hand worrisome that such an attractive product is offered as a freemium/fully free service. On the other hand, as long as LiveChat can offer something significantly better, these companies might be door-openers to new customers. Tawk.to is not the only provider of such a freemium service, some of the smaller players in the above picture follow the same strategy. At the other end of the spectrum we have:
Zendesk is a US listed company with 10bn USD in Market Cap. They come from a different background, having customer support as their main product and later adding on chat. Another difference is that the company did not organically grow these new product offerings, but bought several companies. For example the Chat functionality was bought from Singapore based Zopim. Later they also acquired BIME Analytics which became their data analytics (BI-tool) platform. Zendesk currently have some 145 000 paying customers for all their products and some 45 000 chat paying customers. The company has expected revenues of some 181m USD the previous quarter, so they clearly charge their customers. Just focusing on the chat side of Zendesk, the pricing levels are very similar to LiveChat.
When you start to look into Zendesk and seeing the changes LiveChat done over the past few years, one realizes that they are playing catch-up on services Zendesk has already launched. In LiveChat’s investor presentation they mention that Helpdesk is to challenge Zendesk and other competitors with an attractive alternative. This product was just launched in May 2019, so it’s to early to tell how it has been received. Also in their presentation they compare number of paying chat customers for Zendesk vs themselves. Zendesk has over the last year lost customers each quarter, whereas LiveChat is (as you have seen) still adds customers.
Here it’s worthwhile to stop for a second, just how much is a Zendesk customer paying? (181million*4)/145000 = 4993 USD per year, per paying customer. Given that a lot of that revenue is not chat related, it still shows the income potential per customer with a wider offering (which LiveChat is building up currently).
Here I have plotted the trend in how much an average LiveChat customer is paying:
Although the slope of the trend is not extremely strong, I’m still happy to see that this is a positive trend. It tells quite a lot, that while the market has been flooded with good freemium options that LiveChat has increased income per customer. This is such an important point and one of the main reasons I see LiveChat as investable. Some observations around this:
- LiveChat is now building up their product offering, with cross selling there is potential to reach closer to Zendesk earnings per customer.
- LiveChat has been able to historically, at least slightly, up-sell their products to each customer (meaning more agents per customer, or adding chatbot services etc).
- LiveChat is still adding paying customers, when Zendesk (with their strong overall offering is losing paying customers).
The company paid out almost 100% of profits during 2018 and during previous years paid out a large portion of profits as dividends. Over the last six years the company has paid out some 200 million PLN or 55m USD to shareholders (current market cap ~220m USD). My guess is that this was partly done because the founders wants to “cash out” without selling their shares and losing the company. So since the company was growing so nicely without massively reinvesting profits, they reasoned that they could shift out profits through dividends. In my view this has been a mistake, looking at how Zendesk has reinvested all of its cash-flow (and then some) they have grown much stronger over these years. If they can reinvest the capital at a higher rate of return than what investors can find elsewhere that should be preferred. At the same time Zendesk runs a totally different model of acquiring companies for growth. Whereas LiveChat grows organically with a strong local Polish team, which is a model I prefer. They have increased number of staff from some 84 to 145 in 1.5 year, so it’s not LiveChat is not investing at all. Many of these people are deployed to work on the chatbot if I have understood things correctly from my communication with the company. They also bought the domains chatbot.com and helpdesk.com last summer. So clearly they are stepping up things and deploying some of that nice cash flow back into growing the business.
But it’s still a fact that the company is paying out a very high dividend, currently at a 6% yield. So here I am complaining that you get a 6% dividend yield owning the company. Well, repeating myself, I think the ROI had been even better if they managed to deploy that capital for further growth. So given that LiveChat do continue to shift out capital to it’s investors and probably will not see the same high growth numbers as Zendesk, is the company worth buying?
Maybe we should deal with this question directly. Zendesk seems to be the market leader, why don’t I just buy that company if I like this niche? Short answer, because it generates losses and is at nosebleed valuation levels. I do think Zendesk is an impressive company, but for an investor like me, who cares about valuation, it’s a no go. A quick comparison table:
So with that out of the way, let’s move over to trying to value LiveChat.
- Equity Risk Premium: Being a company listed in Poland I would normally warrant a higher risk premium, but given that all revenue is generated in USD from customers worldwide and the high dividend yield basically putting the accounting fraud risk at zero I’m going to go with my standard rate of 10% discount rate.
- Growth: As we have seen, customer acquisition growth has stopped around 10% lately, whereas revenue growth has been somewhat stronger than that. My assumption here is that customer growth rate probably over time will drop to low single digits, but the growth will rather come from up-selling to existing customers.
- Revenue Growth Bull: 20% first 5 years, dropping to 10% over the coming 5 years
- Revenue Growth Base: 10% for the coming 10 years.
- Revenue Growth Bear: Dropping to 5% over the first 5 years and then 0% growth.
- Margins: Track-record is fantastic and I see no major reason that this should deteriorate significantly.
- Margin Bull: 65% EBITDA margin, increasing to 68% over the next 5 years.
- Margin Base: 65% EBITDA margin constant over time.
- Margin Bear: 65% EBITDA margin, decreasing to 60% over the next 5 years.
- Taxation: Here I have left the tax rate in all scenarios at the current corporate tax rate. But there is a kicker in all scenarios that the tax rate would drop under a new legislation interpretation where intellectual property revenues could be taxed at a much lower rate (IP Box tax)
Valuation Bull: 74 PLN per share – Probability 20%
Valuation Base: 48 PLN per share – Probability 50%
Valuation Bear: 30 PLN per share – Probability 30%
Which gives me a weighted target price of: 47.8 PLN per share, in line with my base case valuation. With the share currently trading at 33 PLN, I see enough upside (45%) with limited downside to enter a position at these levels. I will start with a position which is 4% of my portfolio and see how this develops.
Key Metrics to follow
This will be something I want to introduce for all of my holdings, some very brief key metrics that I will keep up to date, to follow the company over time.
LiveChat Key metrics:
- Month over Month Added customers.
- Quarterly Revenue per Customer.
- Changes in capital allocation strategy.
Excess Cash Adding to Swedish Match and Irisity
The excess cash I have left after buying into LiveChat I distribute equally to my positions in Swedish Match and Irisity. Both companies in my view have a very nice risk/reward profile from here. Swedish Match Zyn product seem to be doing great and I don’t understand why the share is trading so weak when the Swedish Krona is losing even more to the USD lately. Irisity is reporting Q2 results soon and it will be interesting to see how the roll-out of their products to security companies have been going.