Venture capitalists always say that the biggest factor they consider when funding a company is the quality of the management team. Well, public investors all fancy themselves venture capitalists now, and solid talent at the top is often trotted out as the reason the public should consider a hot start-up that's going public before it's fully cooked. The stellar duo of
, for example, is one of the best attributes of the upcoming initial public offering of
, a company that has sold its consumer-focused product device during only one holiday season.
Well, it turns out there's another, less risky way to bet on the management team that made Palm a success.
, the fellow who rescued Palm when it was a private company in search of cash by purchasing it for
(later purchased by
) is piloting something of a start-up himself these days.
It goes by the decidedly unsexy name
. (Memo to J.Z.: Lose the name.) But the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based start-up is in the potentially red-hot field of broadband wireless access, equipment that allows cellular carriers and big businesses to set up high-speed networks without digging holes and planting poles. And wouldn't you know, Western Multiplex is attempting an IPO of its own, one with markedly less fanfare than Handspring's (and Palm's before it), but with similar potential.
For a lesson in IPO sex appeal, consider the following: Handspring, backed by
and banked by
Credit Suisse First Boston
, aims to offer itself to the public at a valuation of about $2.3 billion. Its most recent quarterly revenue, which more than doubled sequentially, was $34 million and generated gross margins of 32%. It isn't yet profitable. Western Multiplex, bankrolled by Zakin and an obscure group of merchant bankers, is valued at about $525 million, is profitable and recorded first-quarter revenue of $17 million (up 9% sequentially) and gross margins of 55%.
Fixed wireless systems have been around for a while, but haven't really taken off. Their main disadvantages are that the equipment must have a clear line of sight between components (sometimes requiring installers to use third-party roofs or poles) and that bad weather can foul things up.
Still, like everything else having to do with the Internet, fixed wireless offers a badly needed solution to moving data quickly from end users to the network. According to Western Multiplex's securities filings, its systems are cheaper to install than other services, require less time and can take advantage of unlicensed radio spectrum.
International Data Corp.
guesses that the U.S. market for services delivered by broadband wireless will skyrocket from $767 million in 1999 to $7.4 billion by 2003.
If that's the case, Western Multiplex would benefit because its customers -- which include established players like
and upstarts like
-- would benefit. The company also plans, through the recent acquisition of a seven-person (six-engineer) firm in Petaluma, Calf., to offer equipment that will help businesses establish wireless networks within corporate campuses.
Western Multiplex is in registration with the
Securities and Exchange Commission
, so it can't publicly discuss its plans. But in a February interview, Zakin made it clear that he intended to make Western Multiplex something of a roll-up for the fixed wireless industry. A big reason for going public now is to create a currency for acquisitions. (Of the nearly $79 million the company hopes to raise, $22 million will go to pay back bank loans.) The competition is fierce but fragmented as fixed wireless is a small part of the business of giants
as well as a focus of smaller companies, including
(formerly California Microwave),
What's more, plenty can go wrong with this business. It suffers from declining prices and periodic component shortages. And Western Multiplex's so-called point-to-multipoint product to create a hub-and-spoke wireless network is still in development.
So the bet here is on fixed wireless being big and, of course, on Zakin. Together with partners at
in New York (best known for taking control of the
Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan
), Zakin controls 94% of Western Multiplex, formerly an orphan unit of wireless services company
Zakin has kept much of the previous management but packed the board with a combination of cronies and financial big shots, including former U.S. Robotics executive Michael Seedman, former
administration economics adviser Michael Boskin, investment banker Stanley Shuman of
Allen & Co.
and Peter Crisp, formerly a venture capitalist with
, the pet venture-capital firm of the Rockefeller family.
Because of its relatively slow growth to date, Western Multiplex isn't being positioned as a go-go IPO. But for investors who want proven management and promising technology, give this under-the-radar-screen company a look.
Come see Adam face off with
Gary B. Smith
, in the first RealMoney Conference, live in New York, June 28. The challenge: technical analysis vs. fundamental research.
"Because I research *facts* about companies, I almost never agree with Gary B., who practices a form of voodoo called technical analysis. But when we get into the ring together, innocent bystanders generally enjoy themselves." --Adam Lashinsky
"Technical Analysis rules, especially when my adversary is the pitiful Adam Lashinsky. Don't believe me? Then come watch me square off with him." -- Gary B. Smith.
Surviving and Profiting in Treacherous Markets
June 28, 2000, Marriott World Trade Center, New York City
For information and registration, go to
Adam Lashinsky's column appears Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Lashinsky writes a column for Fortune called the Wired Investor, and is a frequent commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. He welcomes your feedback at