The 2008 economic crisis threw many businesses into bankruptcy. Websites based on an advertising model certainly had a hard time, but financial website Investing.com owes at least some of its success to that crisis. Market volatility and investors' preoccupation with their investment portfolios greatly increased the exposure of the website, which provides capital market-related data and content. The website's early success is attributable to those developments.
Today, over a decade since the crisis, Investing.com is in the top tier of capital market websites with 20 million unique users a month, according to figures from the company. This number is half of the unique users on Yahoo! Finance, the world's largest financial website. Investing.com says that it has three-to-four times as many hits as popular blogsite Seeking Alpha, with growth averaging 20% in the past two years, bringing its annual revenue to $60, according to the company.
Actually, since the financial crisis, which began a year after the company was founded, it has never lost money and never had to raise capital. On the other hand, the number of users on the website doubled in the past 18-24 months, but revenue did not keep pace; average revenue per customer actually fell.
"During the 2008 economic crisis, I sat with six screens and several systems and paid $3,000 for a rather mediocre product. From a perspective of 10 years after the crisis, there has been terrific global progress, and this is where we enter the picture," says Investing.com co-CEO Shlomi Biger. "We believe that financial information is a basic right, and that information should be provided in real time. Once upon a time, this was only for the wealthy. We're like Robin Hood. We want to be a one-stop shop for investors."
The website, which most capital market investors are familiar with, provides free access to data on stocks, indices, currency exchange rates, and relevant content.
The company's business model is simple. There are no paying customers; all of its revenue comes from advertisers. "We have 1.5 billion exposures a month. That's a segmented audience that attracts advertisers like banks, insurance companies, and auto companies. It's true that banners aren't always enough, and we're thinking about it," says Mickey Winitsky, 43, Investing.com's other CEO.
"We have several languages on which we lose money, but we believe it's important. The next language that we plan to launch is Filipino, and after that probably Nigerian. Facebook has 43 languages. We have one less, which is a little annoying," laughs Winitsky. Although the company has a version in Hebrew (and 41 other languages), most investors are unaware that Investing.com is an Israeli website (disclosure: in Israel, the website competes with the financial portal of "Globes," among other sites).
The company has employees in Israel, but up until a short time ago, its management was located in Madrid. It avoids publicity and does not highlight its Israeli identity for business reasons.
The company itself is registered in Cyprus, and has an Israeli subsidiary. After receiving preferred technology enterprise status, a relatively new tax definition that encourages companies to move their activity to Israel, last year it settled its tax liabilities payments for all its years of activity. This enabled the company to change its focus. It moved its management to Israel and expanded its center here. The company currently has 300 employees, 100 of whom joined the company in the past year (30 in technology and product). The company plans to hire 100 more employees in 2019, including 80 in Israel.
"Before I came, the company didn't think about money"
Investing.com was founded in 2007 by Dror Efrat and three others, who still hold shares in the company, but have no daily involvement with it and do not wish to be identified. Efrat, the company's CEO up until recently and its current chairperson, is originally from Kibbutz Urim. He moved to the US after completing his army service, and worked there on a fairly small trading platform and was exposed to the financial markets. When Efrat returned to Israel, he went on working in the capital market. He founded the business 12 years ago without realizing its latent potential.
Six months ago, Efrat decided to resign as CEO, and made the difficult decision to appoint both Biger and Winitsky CEOs. Biger, who has been with the company for 10 years, previously managed investments and was CTO in other companies.
Winitsky, who was born and grew up in Sweden, worked in online casino gambling and Internet monetization. He was CEO of forex and commodities company MarketPlus. He says that he kept track of Investing.com for many years as a customer and partner.
Biger and Winitsky say that their link to the capital market began in childhood. "In 1982, when I was seven, I told my father to sell all of his shares, and the stock market crash happened six months later," Biger says. Winitsky adds, "At age 13, I went to the post office to buy shares and bought a Nokia share. In order to find out what the shares did, you had to watch a telecast on television."
"Globes": How do you get along with joint management?
Biger: "We're glad that we have someone else to share dilemmas with, and what's happening here still far exceeds expectations. It really is one plus one equals 11. The ability to do things together and develop ideas is amazing. In the early months, we thought it was a honeymoon that would end, but it continued."
Winitsky: "Shlomi and I have one disagreement - whether and when we impair the user experience. Before I came, the company didn't think about money; it thought about creating the best product for the user. Recently, for example, we removed popup banners. It cost us a lot of money."
You are very familiar with the capital market. What about holding an offering for the company?
Biger: "I'm very opposed to an offering. It makes management focus on the quarter and be a slave to the way a public company is run. You can't manage that way. Our investors get their money through an annual dividend. Selling the company has also been on the table along the way, but I'm glad that no deal went through, because the value rises each year. Banks contact us constantly."
Biger and Winitsky say that they are taking comprehensive steps to increase the company's activity, so they believe that there is no reason to sell in the next two or three years. Winitsky: "We gave a great deal of thought over the past year to what we want to be when we are a big company, and we're spending a lot of money on it. A large proportion of our revenue is invested in developing products from which we'll see money in 2020-2021, so selling now doesn't appear smart to me. We're focused on our vision of creating the world's biggest financial community."
Winitsky adds, "The current website appeals to people interested in the capital market. That's about 1% of the population, but no one knows exactly what it is. In the past year, we decided to go mainstream and aim at people's personal investment decisions, such as mortgages and loans. There will be more guides on the website tailored to the users, and we will contact relevant providers, such as the credit card companies. We get a certain percentage of the money paid by the customer."
Winitsky admits that there is no synergy between the two activities. Biger and Winitsky say that in the past year, they spent a lot on developing the technology and introducing machine learning into the company's activity, for which they recruited data experts. "The Turkish lira was very interesting in August 2018. A week before, we already saw increasing interest in CDS (a contract used as insurance against a country going bankrupt, O.Z.). We knew that this would happen - that the currency would crash," Biger says to demonstrate the potential of his concept of the information possessed by the company. "Sometimes programmers come here who don't realize the scale of our website. We're just beginning to realize how many golden eggs we have in information," he says.
The kibbutznik who founded the website: Founding a company is like a kid in a candy store
"I didn't think that this business could be on such a large scale. I thought it was something that could earn $20,000-30,000 a month and be nice. I didn't think about working on it full time; I just wanted to help found it and then go on to other things," says Efrat, who resigned as CEO after 11 years in the job. "As in any large business, I felt that I was having trouble coping with the workload. You have to deal with marketing and all of the branches around the world. I encounter more and more companies that are switching to a two-CEOs model, and I decided it was also right for us.
"When you're the entrepreneur and the CEO, certainly when you build something from scratch and make it important, you feel like a kid in a candy store. It's also not like building a spaceship; you see results here in a matter of months," he adds. "On the one hand, it's challenging, and on the other hand, it's satisfying. It was a great pleasure, but it exacts a price on the personal level, on the family level, and after 11 years, I decided to reduce the burden."
Efrat, who served in the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (sayeret matkal), left Kibbutz Urim in southern Israel for the US in the late 1980s, where he worked in dealing rooms. After returning to Israel, he founded a company with Menorah Gaon investment House that gave traders access to trading on high-speed communication lines before the ADSL era. The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the second intifada made business difficult, and the company closed down. Efrat moved to Menorah Gaon and managed its international trading rooms, followed by a stint as CEO of a forex website, where he built the platform for three years. "There was no regulation in the sector, and I didn't realize what it meant for working with the customers when they lose money and the broker makes a profit. When I began to realize the consequences, I saw that it wasn't something that I wanted to do," he says.
Efrat explains the decision of the leading figures behind the website to avoid exposure for years: "We're not seeking exposure. We don't think it will help us and our children. Some people like it, or need it for their business. We don't." Efrat lived in Madrid for six years, from where he managed the company, and moved back to Israel two years ago. "We thought that managing the company from Europe was the right thing to do, both because there are all sorts of business contracts that it's easier to run from Europe, and because the most important thing was to find professional people with completely native fluency in the language, background, and experience in financial writing.
"In many languages, it's very difficult or impossible to recruit such professionals in Israel, such as in Swedish, German, Polish, Greek, and so on. If you do find writers and editors in those languages, they are very expensive, and it's hard to keep them for a long time because of fierce competition for speakers of these languages in the online sector."
He attributes the website's success to decisions by the founders at the beginning. "In retrospect, I can say that the fact that we worked in several languages from the beginning, something that was fairly new in the industry at the time, made us grow much, much faster. Once we built the technology platforms, we realized that we didn't have to confine ourselves to foreign currency. It took a few years, but the combination of languages with all of our assets and our specialization in search engine optimization (SEO), which enables us to attract traffic from surfers without paying for the media, made it possible for us to grow organically. A lot of people were looking for a high-quality online product."
You hold shares in the company. Don't you want to cash in?
"We're a profitable company, so we're making money. We're more interested in bringing in a concern that can help us become bigger, so that we can sell the company later and get a lot more money for it, and also help employees who own fewer shares to make money. We think that selling the company now is premature, because our value can grow to three or four times the current value within five years, when we take into account our growth rate and the fields of activity that we're upgrading and creating.
"I assume that at some stage, we'll bring in a fund that can bring know-how and expertise in acquisitions, for example. At some stage, we'll reach a point at which we make acquisitions in certain niches in certain countries in order to accelerate our growth, and that requires knowledge and expertise. It will help to bring in outside groups with extensive knowledge, so that we don't make mistakes and pay for them. I assume that this will happen in the next two or three years. We'll bring in a professional concern that will take a proportion of the shares."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 5, 2019
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