There are a lot of louts on this list.
Once upon a time, a ruby-encrusted marketing connection with
guaranteed nobility and pulchritude in the market. My, how fair your business plan looks now that your piddling little site is an anchor tenant/content partner/heavy advertiser on AOL! Divine!
Lest we forget, AOL is king when it comes to Main Street America. And only the most regal and charming stocks get to go to court and rub AOL's bunions through wads of thousand-dollar bills, right? Witness Wednesday's royal-treasury-breaking deal with
allowing cross-promotion with the carbonated ecstasy for a mere $64 million over two years. Tax the deflated empire for the money! Let them drink Sprite!
If you think lordly Coke has somehow joined the Internet elite, however, take a gander at a few of AOL's other strategic alliance partners (a.k.a. Our Dear Friends, the Revenue Streams). AOL's A list includes
and now most infamously,
When DrKoop.com couldn't pay the $64 million left on its $89 million, four-year deal, AOL swallowed a 10% stake in the company and lopped two years off the term of the deal. Yes, there are more rogues and rapscallions than lords and ladies filling AOL's coffers. Many onlookers shuddered at the DrKoop.com deal.
"My concern is that if there is a loss of advertising dollars in the next two quarters or next year, it will have a damaging effect on the valuation of AOL -- if they can't get these contracts to go to fruition," argues Barry Hyman, chief market strategist at
Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum
. Hyman has scaled back his AOL holdings, but could be swayed a bit by more Coke-like deals. "You know Coke's always gonna pay them."
promised AOL $200 million, $20 million in cash and 3.9 million shares, for a five-year deal this week. At least the real-estate network had a rotund $430.7 million of cash and equivalents in the bank at the end of the first quarter. Many of AOL's partners aren't so fortunate.
While little iTurf has only a paltry $9 million, two-year anchor tenancy deal with AOL in the teen realm, it also reported a laughable $19 million in the bank at the end of the fourth quarter of 1999 (though it had $32.9 million in short-term investments and a total of $56.6 million in total current assets). Medical professional site Medscape is on the hook for $33 million in a three-year deal, but only had $28.5 million in cash during the recently closed quarter. VarsityBooks.com fell asleep drooling on a novella of a deal that has it paying AOL $9 million over three years and lets AOL purchase around a half million shares of the company, even though VarsityBooks.com's report card showed only $29 million in cash, equivalents and short-term investments at the end of the first quarter of 2000.
Ah, the demands of aristocratic living. Let's invade France!
"It raises a couple of different issues. What does AOL get out of a relationship with a company with a less-certain future?" poses Susan Walker White, Internet and new media analyst at
, which hasn't done any banking for AOL recently. "Is the company going to be around in three years to honor that arrangement? The same goes for
These deals have been signed with dot-com companies that are in a more difficult financial position than when they signed those deals. It raises issues with how viable that revenue stream is." (
went on an
expedition last month into DrKoop.com's AOL payments and AOL's future finances.)
Admit it, there was a time when you looked up from your humble curtsy and thought a partnership with AOL was a sign of strength for a smaller company. Companies gained exposure and ... hey, did I mention exposure? Of course, many of the deals involved co-branded sites and split revenue streams for the little guys, putting money in their pockets as well.
As once upper-crust and now salt of the earth
CEO Charles Johnson insisted after a big e-commerce deal with AOL, AOL doesn't get to buy 2 million shares of PurchasePro.com until real commerce-based cash (not advertising revenue) starts rolling in. PurchasePro.com also had $136 million in cash and equivalents at the end of 2000's first quarter.
Johnson's company stands with other well-off AOL partners such as
, which has a two-year, $18.2 million deal that seems reasonable given its $244 million in the bank at the close of the first quarter;
, with a $60 million, five-year deal and $257 million to work with;
, with a three-year, $56 million deal and $368 million in reserve -- although it allowed AOL to buy $11 million in Stamps.com stock; and belabored eToys, which has lost some fiefdoms but still has $139.6 million to its name after the fourth quarter of 1999 to pay its $18 million AOL commitment.
But there's a lot of squalor amid the decadence.
has $84 million in the bank, but is ringing up a five-year tab that could cost as much as $200 million. MusicMaker.com's $48.8 million in the bank must be weighed against its commitment to pay AOL $20 million over three years.
You get the point.
Don't forget most of these companies are also dwelling in the
dungeon. (Coke, for its part, is in its own
hole with its stock languishing around 50, the level it was at in 1996.) That risky wager during the market's upward thrust -- betting the castle on a double or nothing with AOL -- may lead to more paupers than princes. And for AOL, its many stakes in Internet partners could wind up worth nothing more than bragging rights in portfolio purgatory. Take TheKnot, which became AOL's wedding content partner early on after dangling about 3.5 million shares in front of the online power. TheKnot's stock is now in the $5 range, below the $7.20-a-share price on some of the warrants AOL holds in the company.
Lucky for AOL, White believes more biggies like Coke are on the way. "Like with the
/AOL deal, big companies can validate their online strategies with AOL.
did it with Yahoo!
signed up with AOL. If you want an online presence, you need a relationship," she says. Sears vs. iTurf. It looks like those coffers won't empty out soon.
As for many AOL-allied dot-coms, it looks like time to go begging.
As originally published, this story contained an error. Please see
Corrections and Clarifications.
Tish Williams' column takes at look at the people who make Silicon Valley tick. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, she doesn't own or short individual stocks, although she does own stock options in TheStreet.com. She also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. She breathlessly awaits your feedback at