WarnerMedia shuts investment arm that backed Mic, Mashable and other digital media startups
Prior to becoming WarnerMedia, Time Warner was one of the most prominent investors in digital media and technology companies. But with a new corporate parent and a digital publishing industry that’s in the midst of dramatic turmoil, WarnerMedia is moving on from its investment arm, putting companies in the fund on uncertain footing.
WarnerMedia Investments, formerly known as Time Warner Investments, is no longer its own corporate entity as of the end of 2018, according to six sources familiar with the matter. Allison Goldberg, the executive in charge of the investment group, has also left the company. The portfolio, which sources speculate might be sold off to some other investment group, is being managed by Priya Dogra, evp of strategy and corporate development for WarnerMedia. Sources said Time Warner Investments stopped functioning as a venture arm over the past several months of 2018. The fund’s last public investment, with workplace communications startup Dynamic Signal, was announced in February 2018.
WarnerMedia did not provide a comment by press time.
Over the past decade, Time Warner Investments has been a major investor in digital publishing, video, advertising and technology companies. Prominent investments have included Mic, Mashable, Maker Studios, Vessel, Bustle Digital Group, FanDuel, Discord and Tremor Video. One source at a company within Time Warner Investments’ portfolio estimated that the company made anywhere from $50 million to $100 million in annual investments over the years.
And Time Warner Investments was a successful fund, sources said. Top exits included Maker Studios, which sold to Disney for $500 million (and ended up paying $675 million), and Adaptly, which sold to Accenture. There were duds, of course. Mic, which raised close to $60 million from Time Warner Investments and other investors, sold for less than $5 million to Bustle Digital Group. Mashable sold to Ziff Davis at a fire-sale price of $50 million.
“It was run by people who were experienced VCs,” said a source familiar with Time Warner Investments’ investment history. “And from a financial performance basis, the fund was consistently performing well; even with its digital publishing assets, it was in the top quintile.”
But with AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, priorities have changed, sources said. The phone company is prioritizing its biggest media assets such as HBO, Turner and Warner Bros., and is streamlining other areas of the business. Just as AT&T and WarnerMedia shut down assets such as DramaFever, Super Deluxe and FilmStruck, the company elected to wind down WarnerMedia Investments.
If WarnerMedia is to make new investments or acquisitions going forward, it’s more likely to come directly from AT&T, which has AT&T Foundry as a tech incubator, or through different media groups within the corporate family, sources said. And AT&T and WarnerMedia have different priorities than Time Warner Investments, which was largely operating as an independent investment unit.
For the media industry, with the investment group shutting down, one of the biggest backers of digital media companies over the past decade has backed out.
“What are the bets being made in publishing and content companies and ad tech right now?” said a former executive at a company that was invested in by Time Warner Investments. “There’s zero. It’s just not happening.”
“Time Warner [Investments] was one of the bigger players in the space and was actively investing for strategic purposes — and they were a smart player,” said the founder at a company that was invested in by Time Warner Investments. “It’s not good for the sector; not having them around means one less place for companies in the media companies looking for new capital.”
Time Warner Investments’ existing portfolio, meanwhile, is likely to be sold off, sources said.
“There is a massive focus on generating cash and liquidating assets, which is why I suspect they will sell the portfolio,” added the aforementioned founder. “They want to pay down debt.”
“There are some entities within the portfolio that they won’t sell,” added the founder of another Time Warner Investments-backed company. “Some of these companies still have strategic value to AT&T and WarnerMedia.”
WarnerMedia’s decision to move on from its venture arm comes at a time when investors are cooling off on digital publishing. Even executives at WarnerMedia-owned Turner, which put strategic money into Refinery29 and Mashable in 2016, have privately expressed second thoughts on its digital media investments.
“Some of the bravado that you see at the NewFronts, some of those companies are no longer around, and a lot more have been humbled and are now fighting for their own existence,” said a Turner executive.
Turner remains invested in Refinery29, confirmed a Turner spokesperson.
Digital publishing is in a precarious position right now. Earlier this week, BuzzFeed announced that it would lay off 15 percent of its workforce — more than 200 employees — in an effort to strengthen the company’s business. In a memo to employees, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said that while the company saw double-digit revenue growth over the past year, it wasn’t enough. Other prominent digital publishers including Refinery29, Vox Media and Verizon Media Group/Oath have gone through layoffs in the past year.
The recent BuzzFeed news prompted a new round of speculation among media observers on whether a merger or roll-up of sorts between top digital media companies is the answer. Peretti proposed the idea in an interview with The New York Times last year, and executives at BuzzFeed, Refinery29 and Group Nine Media have discussed the idea of banding together. But as top execs within each organization continue to reiterate, while these talks are constant — often over drinks — there is no deal coming in the immediate future. As one digital publishing chief executive said, “It’s not an uninteresting idea, but I imagine it would be almost impossible to pull off with so many investors and egos.”
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