This week, Internet radio company, Pandora, filed its application to sell stock to the public. If you read between the lines, the application may be more of a publicity move than a financial milestone.
There is no doubt that Pandora could use the $100 million it hopes to raise. The company is still struggling to become profitable. And therein lies the conundrum. Investing in a losing venture only makes sense when the capital infusion will turn the company around. But I don't think Pandora is struggling because it lacks money. The problem seems to be its business model.
I'm not even going to argue whether the software works. I'm willing to assume that it does -- at least to some degree. If they work that hard to analyze the music I like, they can probably find some more songs that will appeal to me. The issue is whether anyone will ever pay for that service. Unfortunately, I don't think so.
I think all of us like to discover new music in a more organic way. We ask our friends or simply stumble across it. In fact, I think we enjoy the process of listening to something and deciding whether we like it or not. We don't need the pressure of software telling us that this is music that is scientifically matched to our tastes. I personally don't like to think of myself as being that predictable -- even to a computer.
And even if I like the idea of getting a bunch of new music chosen (if computers actually "choose") just for me, I can't see paying for it. I'll subscribe to Netflix for 8 bucks a month, but not to Internet radio -- no matter how smart it is. And that's why Pandora is free, and why it will probably continue to be free.
That means that its only likely real revenue source is some version of an ad-based model. It might find its way to profitability by selling ads, but I don't think it will enjoy explosive growth. And with music royalties and other costs likely to increase, the road to profit will only get steeper. (In fact, Pandora is apparently no longer available in Canada because the music license fees were too high.)
Pandora is certainly getting a lot of buzz. It now has over 80 million users and is constantly mentioned as one of the hottest companies on the Internet. By filing for an IPO, it is trying to tell the world that its momentum will eventually lead to riches. Personally, I just don't see it.
Without a huge upside, there is probably not a lot of incentive for investors to jump on board. The idea of investing in an Internet stock is to bet on the home run, and Pandora doesn't seem to have enough power to hit it out of the park.
I'm open to other points of view. Let me know if you think I'm missing something on this one.