VANCOUVER — Shopify Inc. reported a solid revenue increase, reached a crucial milestone a quarter earlier than anticipated and mounted a defence against "preposterous claims" by a "short-selling troll", but failed to ease investor concerns Thursday as shares fell more than eight per cent.
The Ottawa-based online store platform (TSX:SHOP) posted its first adjusted operating profit as a public company in its third quarter ended Sept. 30 as its revenue grew 72 per cent compared with the same period last year.
Revenue for the company, which keeps its books in US dollars, totalled $171.5 million, up from $99.6 million. Shopify said it lost $9.4 million in its third quarter, amounting to nine cents per share. That compared with a loss of $9.1 million or 11 cents per share a year ago when it had fewer shares outstanding.
In a call, CEO Tobias Lutke publicly addressed allegations by high-profile short-seller Andrew Left of Citron Research published earlier this month.
"This is going to be a fun one," Lutke said, explaining the company waited nearly a month to address the allegations because it does not engage in short-term stock management. Rather, he said, Shopify reserves time each quarter to update analysts on any news.
However, Lutke's remarks failed to reassure investors, who were looking for information on acquisition costs and "churn rate" that would contradict Left's hypothesis that the company is overvalued. Shares plunged C$11.96 or 8.53 per cent to close at C$128.26.
On Oct. 4, Left published a video alleging the company, which provides businesses with online checkout services, doesn't comply with Federal Trade Commission guidelines and suggesting the stock's value is closer to US$60 before any potential FTC involvement.
He compared the company's practices, which he called a "good ol' get-rich-quick scheme," to Herbalife, a direct-marketing company that a short-seller alleged was a pyramid scheme. The FTC investigated Herbalife and the company recently had to pay a US$200-million settlement and make structural changes.
During the call, the CEO asserted the company sells an e-commerce platform — not business opportunities — and complies with FTC regulations.
Much of their content shows how hard entrepreneurship is, he said.
"Implying that these businesses are somehow illegitimate is an insult to their hard work," said Lutke.
Harley Finkelstein, the company's chief operating officer, addressed concerns around the company's affiliate partner program. In his video, Left identified several alleged Shopify partners attempting to woo future merchants with promises of self employment and million-dollar incomes.
Shopify has a team that approves individual affiliate partners who sign an agreement outlining their disclosure responsibilities, Finkelstein said.
"Those that don't comply we simply kick out of the program," he said, adding some of the alleged affiliates Left's report alluded to are not partnered with Shopify.
Lutke added that Shopify consulted with outside legal counsel, who also believe the claims are unsubstantiated, and has not been contacted by the FTC.
Citron Research is "unimpressed" by the company's response, it said in a statement, adding that it has forwarded a comprehensive folder of its allegations to the FTC.
"It's impossible to understand the real strength of Shopify's core business without getting specifics of their true customer acquisition cost."
The company needs to release its churn figures — which indicate how many entrepreneurs stop using the platform — Citron Research claims, "so investors can discount or strip out the dirty/illegal part of their business that will inevitably be curbed by regulators."
For Shopify, "unit churn misrepresents the value of our business model," said its chief financial officer Russ Jones. "We actually release our revenue retention number, which is just the other side of churn. It's above 100 per cent per year."
Shopify's stock is likely to experience about 90 to 100 days of choppy price action until the company provides 2018 guidance in about three months, wrote Richard Davis, an analyst with Canaccord Genuity Inc.
Until then, Shopify shares "will likely drift with the winds of the overall market and whatever nonsense the shorts can conjure," he said.
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