Updated from Feb. 21 with additional information.
Snap, the parent company of millennial app favorite Snapchat, recently began describing itself as a camera company, and while it may or may not become that eventually, the company does need to show investors it's more than just a platform for young people to share disappearing photos and videos.
Snap held a meeting with investors in New York City on Tuesday after kicking off its roadshow in London on Monday, with other events scheduled around the country leading up to its planned and highly-anticipated IPO on March 1. The company said it plans to list 200 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker SNAP, in the range of $14 to $16 per share, which would value the entire company between $20 billion and $23 billion.
It's expected to be the largest U.S.-listed technology offering since Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba (BABA) - Get Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Sponsored ADR Report went public at $168 billion in 2014. But before the burgeoning social media platform debuts on the NYSE, Snapchat is being met with a number of growing concerns surrounding its long-term profitability, user growth and controversial corporate structure.
Co-founder Evan Spiegel and a handful of Snapchat executives held a question and answer session with investors on Tuesday that lasted just under an hour, discussing the company's spending, user monetization and how it plans to fend off growing competition from Facebook (FB) - Get Facebook, Inc. Class A Report .
Snapchat's finances pose some risks: The company's net loss widened year-over-year to $514.6 million in 2016, while it had a negative free cash flow of $678 million. Snapchat is also locked into at least $3.5 billion worth of contractual commitments.
"They need to bring their financials up above water," said David Menlow, president of IPOfinancial.com. "The burn rate and the cost of doing business is extraordinarily noteworthy."
Snapchat is burning through a lot of cash, but those costs could just be growing pains as the company works to establish profitability through advertising and other revenue streams. The IPO will be the first step to help Snapchat establish its financial footing, said analysts at venture capitalist firm Goodwater Capital.
"This IPO is necessary to fund the company's near-term cash burn and contract commitments to Alphabet's (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report Google Cloud ($2 billion), Amazon's (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report Amazon Web Services ($1 billion) and others ($547 million) over five years," the firm said in a recent note.
Spiegel attempted to justify those cloud costs by saying the contracts may look pricey, but that building an internal data center would be a "race to the bottom" as cloud storage becomes commoditized, CNBCreported, citing sources familiar with the meetings.
But the "8000ton gorilla in the room" for investors is how Snapchat plans to maintain user growth on the platform, Menlow noted. Snapchat currently has 161 million daily active users (DAUs), mostly between the ages of 13 to 24, that spend an average of 25 to 30 minutes per day on the platform.
Snapchat has seen a recent slowdown in its user growth, which many attribute to the creation of Facebook's Instagram Stories, which mimics Snapchat's Stories feature by allowing users to post a series of photos or videos that last for 24 hours. Facebook and Twitter's (TWTR) - Get Twitter, Inc. Report daily user growth were modestly higher than Snapchat's at the time of their respective IPOs, Goodwater noted.
Facebook's WhatsApp also rolled out a Stories-like feature on Monday, which could potentially impact Snapchat's international growth.
"User growth is the biggest challenge facing Snapchat," said Goodwater co-founder Chi-Hua Chien, who has invested in Twitter (TWTR) - Get Twitter, Inc. Report, Spotify and several other tech companies. "The company will need to persuade investors that it can re-accelerate growth through a combination of new products and solid execution on the core business."
While Snapchat Spectacles could become a new avenue for growth beyond messaging, that value probably won't materialize for a while, Chien added. But if Snapchat's recent decision to open the camera-enabled sunglasses up to wide release indicates anything, it shows that Snapchat could have other plans for them in the future.
Spectacles were first only available in limited quantities at pop-up locations around the U.S., but Snapchat has now since created a dedicated website where users can purchase the glasses for $130.
The glasses could eventually integrate augmented reality lenses and filters, providing an extra platform for Snapchat's advertising and media partnerships. Atlantic Equities analyst James Cordwell estimates that hardware will generate around $90 million in gross profit in fiscal 2020, showing that it wouldn't be a "meaningful near-term profit driver."
"But any 'mixed reality'-related excitement could support the stock's multiple," Cordwell added.
Another source of excitement could be any M&A opportunities in Snapchat's near-term future, but that's another area that touches on investors' concerns, Menlow said. Snapchat plans to have a three-class share structure, but will only be listing its class A shares, which don't provide shareholders with any voting rights.
Anyone who invests in Snapchat will be putting their faith in the ability of co-founders Spiegel and Bobby Murphy to make smart acquisitions and execute their vision for the company, Menlow added.
"You have to know these are brilliant people, and if you believe that, study their habits to be able to respond to their audience," Menlow explained. "If they're going to make innovative features that make the site stickier, then you've got a platform that could conceivably continue to grow."
Investors are Tuesday's meeting were reportedly disappointed when Snapchat executives didn't answer a question asking where they see the company going in five years, according to Reuters.
The share structure issue has raised concerns among institutional investors who argue that Spiegel, Murphy and other executives will control much of the decision-making process, giving shareholders little room for input. The Council of Institutional Investors wrote a letter to Snapchat's founders urging them to switch to a single class voting system, but so far the organization hasn't received a response from Snapchat, a CII spokesperson said.
The CII contends that multi-class companies generate significantly less returns to shareholders.
Chien noted that tech companies including Facebook and Google have a similar voting structure and that it doesn't necessarily dictate what the stock's performance will be.
"Both [Facebook and Google] have performed very well since going public," Chien added. "While shareholder input is important, companies controlled by their founders possess a unique ability to think extremely long-term about their strategy and investments, seen most recently in the form of aggressive M&A by Facebook."
Facebook's acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were heavily scrutinized at first, Chien said, but were later realized as worthwhile opportunities.
"This type of long-term thinking is unique to founder controlled companies and should benefit all shareholders if deployed wisely," Chien added.