A BuzzFeed IPO could threaten the innovation that helped it grow
The possibility of a BuzzFeed IPO has the media business, well, buzzing lately. While the viral digital publisher insists the speculation that the company will go public in 2018 is premature, CEO Jonah Peretti has left the door open to it, saying he’s committed to keeping BuzzFeed independent and that an IPO or staying private are ways of doing that.
Beyond the question of whether it will go public, a larger one is what being public will do to BuzzFeed and a handful of other media companies that are considering IPOs, including Vice Media. Since its founding in 2006, BuzzFeed has paved the way for other publishers in mastering the art of social media distribution, helping advertisers reach the coveted millennial demographic that traditional media companies were missing; eschewing display ads in favor of advertising that resembled its editorial content; and establishing itself as an entertainment company.
Many fear that going public could slow innovation, though, said Darren Herman, a former Mozilla executive who’s now in the private equity practice at Bain Capital. Wall Street is learning to appreciate innovation, but BuzzFeed would have to educate Wall Street on what being a modern media company means.
“They have their work cut out for them on educating Wall Street on this new world of being a modern media company, but there will be receptive ears, as all industries are in the state of flux,” Herman said.
Going public means being beholden to quarter-to-quarter earnings, which is less hospitable to taking risks that may not pay off. (There are always exceptions, Amazon probably being the most obvious, where Jeff Bezos has convinced investors to let him play the long game without having to provide regular returns.)
BuzzFeed’s push into native advertising might be seen as prescient, but investors might see other investments as less wise. For publishers, video is labor-intensive, time-consuming and hard to make profitable.
BuzzFeed has rapidly expanded overseas mostly by taking an owned-and-operated approach rather than licensing its brand to local operators or striking joint ventures with locals. The O&O route brings potentially higher returns because the publisher isn’t splitting the revenue with a partner, but the model is generally more expensive because of the fixed costs involved. On the other hand, a news publisher could make the case that it’s safer to own its overseas operation rather than give control to a partner, which could risk diluting or mistranslating the brand,
The publisher’s news arm also might come under scrutiny as a public company, even if it’s not required to break out news as a separate business line. The news operation, which it started building in 2011 with the hire of star reporter Ben Smith, and addition of an investigative arm under Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Schoofs, have been something of a head-scratcher. News has always been hard to monetize, and it’s even harder now in the Trump era, which has some advertisers fleeing all but the safest content. There has reportedly been tension between news and the fluffier but more lucrative entertainment side over how to allocate resources. In 2016, BuzzFeed split its news and entertainment arms as it made a big push into video.
Indeed, the company has only just begun thinking about monetizing the news business, which it’s doing by exploring nontraditional avenues, including selling a long-form series to Oxygen and producing a morning show for Twitter.
Often, founders’ talents aren’t well-suited to a company when it goes from being a rapidly growing startup to a steadier and more mature business, said longtime media adviser Peter Kreisky of the Kreisky Media Consultancy. “A lot hang on too long,” he said. “That’s where a lot get into trouble because they’re still trying to run the company as if it were a go-go startup.” At its worst, frenetic early-stage growth pace can lead to cultural problems that may be tolerated in a private company but not a public one, as evidenced by Uber’s recent meltdown.
When asked if he was the right person to run a public company, Peretti said he believes that the thinking has changed. “The conventional wisdom has become that founding CEOs can learn what they need to be public company CEOs. But it’s harder for professional CEOs to learn the cultural and entrepreneurial instincts of a founder. Maybe 15 years ago, that was reversed.”
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