Last Friday, the media industry toasted BuzzFeed for successfully drawing the attention of nearly 800,000 Facebook users to a livestream of two employees wrapping hundreds of rubber bands around a watermelon until the fruit exploded. The gambit capped another quarter of widespread confidence in BuzzFeed’s business model, which sells native advertising against a mix of silly listicles and enterprise reporting published on an ever-increasing number of third-party platforms, with everything heavily underwritten by periodic injections of venture capital.
BuzzFeed missed its revenue target for 2015 and has slashed its internal projections for 2016 by about half [...] The company, known for its lists, irreverent content and fast-growing editorial operation, had projected about $250m in revenues for 2015 but generated less than $170m, according to three people with knowledge of the situation. The company has halved its internal revenue target for 2016 from $500m to $250m, the people said.
The paper notes that BuzzFeed challenged the quoted figures but refused to clarify what its actual revenue numbers were. Instead the company provided F.T. with a statement which reads, in part, “We are very comfortable with where the digital content world is going and think we are well-positioned.”
$170 million, give or take, is still a staggering amount of revenue, so it’s not as if BuzzFeed is suddenly closing down. Following NBCUniversal’s $200 million investment in the company last year, BuzzFeed’s valuation reached an estimated $1.5 billion, so revenues of $170 mm would produce a revenue-to-valuation multiple of 8.82x for 2015. Assuming the underlying numbers are correct, the resulting metric would represent only a slight aberration from the prior year, at least as judged by CB Insights analyst Michael Dempsey, who spoke to Gawker last August when we published several quarters’ worth of BuzzFeed’s confidential financial statements. Under Dempsey’s (conservative) estimate, BuzzFeed’s revenue-to-valuation multiple likely fell somewhere around 9.2x for 2014:
Their revenue to valuation multiples are pretty high compared to public comparables like New York Times (NYT is currently trading around 1.38x 2014’s revenue, vs. BuzzFeed which you can peg somewhere south of 9.2x if you very conservatively pro-rate 1H [first half] 2014 revenue ($46.16M) to $92.32M and use the $850M valuation from their August 2014 $50M financing.
There are still a number of lingering questions about BuzzFeed’s future health, such as the long-term viability of investing in platform-specific content, which, despite being created by BuzzFeed (or any other publisher), is by definition beholden to its respective platform and the corporation that owns and operates it. It’s unclear, too, whether BuzzFeed’s cash cow—custom BuzzFeed-style content created on behalf of brands—will endure. One source told F.T., “It takes too long to do each campaign, and you can only do so many.”
If BuzzFeed did indeed fall $80 million short of its internal revenue projections, you have to wonder how many other media organizations of the same species—your Vocativs and Voxes and Mics and Mashables—committed the same error, too. And if this aberration turns out to be a long-term trend, the era of the Millennial-focused, growth-obsessed, venture capital-funded media organization may be ending sooner than we think.
A spokesperson for BuzzFeed did not immediately respond to our request for comment regarding F.T.’s report; we will update this post if we hear back.