By Sarah Lacy Buy.com may be the gift that keeps on giving to Scott Blum. He founded the Internet retailer in 1997 and made a mint selling his stake to venture-capital firm SoftBank before a $195 million initial public offering in early 2000, just prior to the tech bust. Then Blum retired, presumably to enjoy the fruits of his labors.
But just a year later, he found Buy.com a shadow of its former self, hammered by the dot-com bust, losing more than $100 million a year, and delisted from the Nasdaq Stock Market for failing to maintain a stock price above $1 per share. He snapped it up again for $23.6 million, about 17 cents a share. Since then, he has rebuilt the company.
Now he'll see how savvy his investment was. Buy.com filed a prospectus with the Securities & Exchange Commission on Jan. 25, signaling its intent to go public -- again. It is expecting to raise just $85 million this time. With a 98% ownership stake, Blum stands to win big if investors bite. It could prove a masterful lesson in buying low and selling high. Because of the mandatory quiet period, Blum declined comment for this story.
QUEST FOR PROFITS. Will investors bite? Probably, but not at the dizzying prices of the dot-com boom. Buy.com's 2004 sales were $291 million, up 22% on the year before. It has been smart about expanding beyond its niche of selling computers and consumer electronics at discount prices, says Patti Freeman Evans, a retail analyst for Jupiter Research. "They've expanded in ways that made sense -- like moving into books, through books about computers," she says. "They're not going off into fashion or anything." Other new categories include sports, music sales, and toys, but consumer electronics is still clearly the company's bread and butter.
The timing for the offering is good, since Buy.com can bask in the results of its seasonally strongest quarter. Fourth-quarter sales were up 30%, at $88 million, according to the SEC filing. And Internet IPOs have been hot for much of the last year. Google (GOOG) is up 77% from its Aug. 19 offering, and smaller Internet companies such as comparison-shopping site Shopping.com (SHOP) and jewelry e-tailer Blue Nile (NILE) have managed successful offerings, although their stocks are down 26% and 5%, respectively, since going public in May and October.
But those outfits all had something Buy.com lacks: profits. The company lost $15.4 million in 2004. That's down from a loss of $25.6 million in 2003 and a fraction of the $133 million in losses in 2000. But Buy.com has yet to prove it can make money, since it has never seen a profitable quarter as a public company.
BUBBLE DOUBLE? It also has about $22 million in debt, and repaying it will be the top priority with the IPO's proceeds. That's "always a red flag," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at research firm The Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. "Ideally, you want no debt and profits, so each of those is a warning sign. It'll show us how much risk investors are willing to take."
If investors are to sign on, Buy.com will have to do a good job explaining how it aims to swing into the black and stay there. Even with a compelling case, the market reception will be an important litmus test, indicating just how frothy are Internet outfits on Wall Street, analysts say. If Buy.com shares double in price, as they did in 2000, Wall Street may well have another little Internet bubble brewing. Lacy is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in the Silicon Valley bureau