SNOWBIRD, Utah --
CEO Naveen Jain lives in a world somewhere between being tightly wound and having a screw loose. If nothing else, he can be counted on to deliver a pulpit-thumping presentation.
"There are two kinds of people in this world, right? Nonbelievers and believers," the animated Jain said to his audience at the
Chase H&Q plaNET.wall.street
Internet conference last week. "In other words, those who don't believe in God, and those who believe in God and InfoSpace. That's OK -- the nonbelievers will be converted when we become a trillion-dollar company."
The Redmond, Wash.-based InfoSpace.com has seen its share price rise more than 16 times in the last year, 136% this year alone, bucking the downward trend of so many e-commerce companies.
, for example, is off 16% this millennium.
, once as beloved as a Furby to Net investors, has fallen 49% this year.
But after the
deal -- and the
merger -- investors are looking for some new math to value companies. E-tailers, suddenly, are not delivering. Specifically, investors are interested in InfoSpace.com as a cash-flow machine.
Jain's company isn't the easiest to understand. Too often, it's been dismissed with the description "the Internet Yellow Pages." But it's a lot more than that.
Essentially, InfoSpace.com is something like an e-commerce tax. At the heart of it, InfoSpace.com matches likely buyers with likely sellers and takes its cut in many ways. For example, if a consumer sees an online ad, then later buys from the advertiser, InfoSpace.com gets a fee -- anywhere from 2% to 25% of the purchase. If a consumer performs a search on a site affiliated with InfoSpace.com -- 87% of the Web, according to the company -- InfoSpace.com gets a cut.
"Every time you go to
looking for a plumber, we get paid. Every time you go to
looking for a phone number, we get paid. We have 2,500 paying partners," says Jain. "We are probably the only partner to both
at the same time."
And its business isn't just with online merchants. InfoSpace.com is focused on the much bigger offline services economy as well. InfoSpace.com is the bridge between online listings and offline service merchants. Services, it's important to remember, represent two-thirds of U.S. gross domestic product.
"Nine months ago, I said that most e-tailers will go out of business, and I still say that," says Jain. "E-tailers will never have more than 10% of commerce. E-tailing is nothing but a glorified catalog. And catalogs have never had more than 6% of the market. So how do you help the bricks-and-mortar companies drive their businesses online? What about the dry cleaners, the plumbers, the people who cannot put their businesses on the Internet? That's what we're doing."
The InfoSpace-Time Continuum
Source: Securities and Exchange Commission
But most intriguing is InfoSpace.com's rapid move into wireless. On Dec. 6, the company announced the acquisition of two wireless technology companies,
, acquired for some $760 million in stock. Suddenly, InfoSpace.com has a robust wireless e-commerce capability and deals with all of the five regional Bell operating carriers.
Globally, 25 companies use InfoSpace's wireless services, including
U S West
British Telecom Cellnet
One of InfoSpace.com's largest shareholders is F. Quint Slattery, a fund manager whose
New Opportunities fund is up 829% (!) in the last year, and whose
Select Equity fund is up 357%. Slattery has loaded up on the stock, with 722,200 shares in his two funds. But despite his sizable gains, he says he's holding on for a wireless payoff, seeing InfoSpace.com as the killer application for wireless.
"Imagine I'm on my way to Joni's house to take her out on a date, but I forgot to get flowers," says Slattery, referencing Joni Hanson, InfoSpace.com's investor-relations vice president. "If I show up without flowers, I'm out. So I dial up flowers on my phone, and it points me to Joe's Store near her house in Redmond.
"Now this is the
killer, because if Joe's doesn't have 'flowers' in its name, Yahoo! won't find it. But InfoSpace.com will. InfoSpace gets paid for that search. When I buy the flowers, InfoSpace gets a piece of that sale. And InfoSpace might tell me that the store next door to Joe's will give me a 10% discount, which would mean that InfoSpace gets a bigger cut, and I save some money. That's the power of this thing -- revenue every step of the way and convenience for the customer. I get the flowers, go to Joni's and -- bam! -- I'm in!"
Leaving Joni aside, the pitch is persuasive. And the transformation to wireless has been dramatic. According to Jain, more than 300,000 people already are using InfoSpace's wireless services. This year, he says, 40% of the company's revenue will come from wireless.
To be sure, by any traditional metrics, the stock is a holy terror. The company did not turn a profit last quarter. It's trading at 659 times trailing annual revenue. By comparison, the
average is trading at five times revenue.
And yet some of the wiser money managers on the Street can't get enough of this story -- or this guy. By the time Jain's presentation ended Tuesday, the room was packed, and as soon as he finished speaking, a mob of fund managers flocked to the stage to glean more investable information. He spent the rest of the day in one-on-one meetings with big-time money managers.
From the looks of things, a few may have found a new religion.
Cory Johnson files weekly from TheStreet.com's San Francisco Bureau. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he neither owns nor shorts individual stocks, although he owns shares of TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Johnson welcomes your feedback at
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