How Money-Losing Pandora Could Become Profitable ... If It Wanted To

tim westergrenPandora founder Tim Westergren

There are two ways to think about Pandora.The first is the way most people are familiar with (and the way founder Tim Westergren wants you to think about it): That it’s an enormously popular music streaming service with millions of users and a huge mobile ad business. It’s probably the third largest mobile ad seller behind Google and Facebook, and it takes in more than $100 million a year in mobile sales.

Impressive.

The other way is to regard it as a regulatory arbitrage gamble that’s entirely dependent on lobbying Congress to reduce its song royalty fees in 2015. If those fees aren’t reduced, the fundamentals of Pandora’s business model must change radically if it is to survive. The fact that it took in more money from the maturity of short-term investments ($73 million) in the first nine months of 2012 than it did in subscriptions, and would be cashflow negative in Q3 if it had not done so, doesn’t help the case for Pandora.

Not so impressive.

Pandora chief revenue officer John Trimble recently gave an interview in which he argued that profitability was “doable.” He didn’t give any details, however. For its part, CEO Joe Kennedy said in an email to BI that Pandora’s lobbying is not about its profitability:

“… this legislative process in not about whether Pandora – or any other internet radio service – is profitable or not. Even under the current, extraordinarily unfair rates, we are making strong progress financially. Rather, all of these efforts are focused on establishing a fair royalty rate structure to govern the compensation internet radio services pay to music creators and content owners, which we believe will ultimately be a win for all parties: artists, innovators and the American listening public.”

We decided to figure out how Pandora might actually achieve profitability, based on what we know already.

The following charts, drawn from Pandora’s own financials, show how the company could — in theory — actually start making real money if it wanted to.

This is Pandora's problem. Costs and revenues rise in lockstep because it can only air an ad if it plays a song, and for every song it plays, it must pay a royalty fee. On this basis, Pandora is ultimately doomed. But ...

Pandora has recently been able to generate more revenue per user than it used to. It's either playing more ads, or selling those ads at higher prices. This is a healthy trend. And ...

Pandora's ad revenue is growing at a faster percentage rate than its operating expenses. This is also good news for the long term.

The poison chalice is Pandora's sales and marketing costs, which only ever seem to go up. Sales/marketing is the easiest cost-centre for Pandora to cut. If it can trend down sales/marketing, Pandora has a shot at profitability even if it cannot get its royalties reduced. The next slide shows what that would look like ...

This chart shows Pandora's revenues versus its underlying general and admin expenses, and its royalty expenses. We've removed the sales and marketing expenses. Currently, the gap between the two lines is entirely filled with sales/marketing expenses. It were NOT, Pandora would reach operating profitability instantly, even on its current royalty structure. Note that Pandora is becoming MORE profitable over time on this basis. So ...

The question for founder Tim Westergren is, can he actually reduce those costs?

If those costs are driven by sales commissions -- in other words, if every sale Pandora makes is virtually unprofitable because the revenue is instantly paid out in commissions to its staff -- then Pandora is screwed.

On the other hand, if those are marketing costs which the company is deliberately burning in order to scale up and dominate the market, the Pandora can pull back.

And make money.

We hope it's the latter.

Now get the inside scoop on the big game ...

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