Yelp Inc. made some moves to stave off a battle with one of its top investors Wednesday, but it did not do much to alleviate concerns about its future and continued its pattern of asking investors to believe it will hit its shifting goals.
The online-reviews site reported fourth-quarter earnings Wednesday that were better than expected, while announcing that three current board members would step down in March. Yelp
shares initially surged about 10% in after-hours trading, but then fell back to gains of about 5.9%.
In December, SQN Investors — a hedge fund formed in 2014 that is one of Yelp’s top 10 institutional investors — said in a letter to the company’s board that it was deeply concerned about the “lack of urgency in addressing many of the issues facing Yelp.” The hedge fund contended that the board had failed to hold management accountable for Yelp’s strategic and operational missteps, repeated missed earnings, lost opportunities and poor corporate governance, and recommended that a refreshed board evaluate all aspects of the company, including a possible sale. A spokesman for the fund declined to comment on Yelp’s moves Wednesday.
Yelp tossed a bone to those investors with the new board members, as well as increasing its share-repurchase plans, another request from the fund. For other investors, the company promised stronger growth in the future, specifically a five-year forecast that calls for sales to grow in the mid-teens.
That sounds great, but Yelp showed nothing in its numbers Wednesday — which wrapped a year where revenue growth slightly exceeded 10% — that would lead one to believe it. Considering that Yelp has been promising to hit $1 billion in annual revenue for multiple years and failed to accomplish it yet again in 2018, Yelp’s forecasts should be taken with a huge grain of salt.
The worrisome numbers in Yelp’s results included the total number of paying advertisers, which fell sequentially to 191,000 from 194,000 in the holiday quarter. Last year, Yelp embarked on a new ad type aimed at small businesses, with short-term ad buys, called non-term ads. The move initially led to a jump in new accounts, but executives warned there could be more churn among customers, which seems to be happening.
Wedbush Securities analyst Ygal Arounian called that “a little concerning.”
“They blamed it on seasonal weakness in December ([Small and medium businesses] shut down end of year and go on vacation) and noted that they had really strong re-starts in January,” Arounian explained. “So it could balance back out, but it’s certainly been going in the wrong direction.” Arounian had also noted in a preview report that in Yelp’s third quarter, the company reported zero net paid advertiser adds, “for the first time in company history.”
The forecast for mid-teens sales growth also doesn’t even start until 2020, as Yelp called 2019 a “transition” year and said that its revenue for the full year will grow by 8% to 10%.
“We expect revenue growth in 2019 to be slower than in 2018 and our five-year average as we make this shift and we believe this is the right thing to do for long-term shareholder value,” Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman said on Wednesday’s conference call. “And we have confidence in our ability to return to strong double-digit revenue growth in succeeding years.”
So Yelp grew revenue 10.8% to $943 billion last year — just slightly above its revised target for 2018 revenue — and projects growth will slow this year, yet promises that growth will accelerate in future years based on a vague plan. It sounds suspiciously like that goal of $1 billion in annual revenue, which Yelp initially promised would happen in 2017; the company would need to grow revenue by more than 7% to finally reach that mark in 2019, which it may be able to do, though executives no longer seem to talk about that goal.
With goalposts that frequently change, investors should be cautious before buying into the latest predictions, especially after years of shifting forecasts.
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