'It's a buyer's market': Mic's fire sale has the media business buzzing with rumors of potential deals

  • Digital media companies all over are said to be in various stages of selling, according to people close to these companies.
  • The fire sale for Mic, which raised $60 million, for a reported $5 million adds to an already tough environment for sellers.
  • The deal could have implications for another sale in the process, for Gizmodo Media Group.

A lot of digital media companies are said to be looking for buyers, facing the same pressures that forced Mic to sell at a fire sale. But the Mic sale, combined with overall business pressures, suggest they won’t get the price they hope for.

Once high-flying Mic raised $60 million to build a media company to target millennials, but it sold to Bustle Media Group for a reported $5 million. The deal struck resemblance to another new-media darling Mashable that sold at this time a year ago for about $40 million, one fifth of its onetime value.

Now, the buzz is that other investor-backed companies such as Refinery29, Vox Media, and Vice Media might look for an exit. Refinery29 and Vice said they’re not for sale. Vox said it would evaluate opportunities to “acquire or partner” with companies in 2019.

Digital advertising hasn’t grown fast enough

Once, venture capital flowed freely to millennial-aimed digital media upstarts, which scaled quickly, enabled by Facebook’s distribution firehose. But the digital advertising hasn’t grown fast enough, most of it going to Facebook and Google, and the media companies have struggled to diversify their revenue into areas like direct consumer payments, commerce, and events.

So with many digital media companies still not profitable and venture capital losing interest, the onetime rule of thumb that said venture-funded digital media companies would sell for a multiple of 2.5 to 5 times their past 12 months’ revenue is no longer the case, according to Rafat Ali, founder of travel media company Skift.

Ali, who’s been vocal on the subject of valuations and sustainable media models, said buyers have sobered up and are going to look at companies based on actual earnings, the way hard-nosed private-equity firms do.

“Everyone’s for sale. But if there’s no current growth, they’ll be bought based on EBITDA. And these companies aren’t making any money right now,” he said.

The big deal underway right now is for Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group, which is in the final stages of the bidding process for those verticals including Gizmodo, Lifehacker, and Jezebel, according to people close to the process.

Separately, it’s accepted industry wisdom at this point that practically every other venture-funded digital media property is in some stage of seeking to be bought if not informally discussing mergers.

Buzzfeed chief Jonah Peretti floated the idea of media companies combining forces

The merger talk got stirred up after BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti recently floated the idea of various companies like Refinery29, BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and Vice Media combining forces to gain leverage over Facebook and other distributors.

That scenario has been shot down for various reasons. It’s difficult to combine different company cultures; it’s questionable whether even a combination of several of them would result in improved leverage over the distributors; and all the participating companies would have to agree on the value their respective company would have in the merged entity.

“There is definitely an opportunity for the leading companies to come together but it’s a tough hurdle to clear chemistry, culture and valuations,” said Philippe von Borries, Refinery29’s CEO and co-founder.

The Mic sale makes it tougher for sellers, since buyers are guided by recent prices paid for media, observers said. Univision paid $135 million for Gizmodo Media Group in 2016. But Bustle paid $1.35 million for the group’s onetime flagship, Gawker, and other recent fire sales could have a depressing effect on the rest of the group.

Read more: Mic’s shutdown offers a lesson on the risks of relying on Facebook

But Mic’s fire sale had a sobering effect on valuations

“Deals like this can have a sobering effect and reset valuation expectations,” said Vivek Shah, CEO of J2 Global, which owns Ziff Davis, Everyday Health, IGN, and Mashable, and is said to be a potential buyer of the Gizmodo properties. “It’s certainly feeling like a buyer’s market right now for certain types of digital media assets.”

To be sure, as a buyer, Shah has a vested interest in keeping prices low. But his view is shared by many.

“Multiples for all businesses are suppressed because of the larger sentiment informed by so many failing businesses in the sector,” another operator said.

Not all media is in the same situation. As the recent sales of Forbes and Time and funding of sports upstart The Athletic have shown, prestige brands and ones that rely on subscriptions, are still highly valued.

But for unprofitable digital newbies that trade in consumer media and are ad-reliant, the question is who will buy them. The consensus is, it’s a terrible time to be a seller.

“There’s no strategic buyers,” Ali said. “There are private equity buyers. They’re the most disciplined investors and they have to flip it in three to five years. And they will not pay the multiples.” Yet, he said, “I don’t think they’re interested in any consumer media, and historically they haven’t been a buyer of consumer media.”

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