|Shopify fires back after short-seller’s attack|
The Shopify sign is seen at its Toronto offices.
FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
15 MINUTES AGO OCTOBER 5, 2017
Shopify Inc. has fired back a day after an American short-seller attacked the Ottawa e-commerce software company's business model and marketing practices and said the stock was vastly overvalued, causing the stock to plunge.
"We vigorously defend our business model and stand resolutely behind our mission and the success of our merchants," the company said in a brief statement on its website that did not directly address the accusations in a note and video posted Wednesday by Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Citron Research.
Shopify stock was trading down about 4 per cent on the New York Stock Exchange just before noon. The shares fell 11 per cent the day before.
Citron's managing editor Andrew Left, who is shorting Shopify stock, alleged Shopify's business was "dirtier than Herbalife" and said the Ottawa-based company had "mastered the good ol' get-rich-quick scheme." Herbalife is a multilevel marketing company that sells nutritional and weight-loss products, and which agreed to pay $200-million (U.S.) in a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after being accused of pyramid-scheme practices.
Mr. Left – who has been called the "the shock jock of short -sellers" because of his incendiary attacks on publicly traded companies whose stocks he has shorted – commended Shopify's technology, which enables merchants to set up and run online stores over the Internet. But he said Shopify's "dirty little secret" is an affiliate marketing program that allows third-party promoters to earn commissions for persuading new merchant customers to sign up.
Affiliate marketing is a common online selling practice, giving individuals and businesses a cut of money made from online purchases if they've helped direct the buyer to that product, typically through reviews or blogs. Some affiliate marketers are mainstream celebrities or social-media personalities and established companies including Amazon also use the practice
However, affiliate marketing has drawn recent scrutiny from the FTC, which warned in a blog post last month that many such marketers put out "exaggerated claims or misleading information to get people to click. They may say anything to get you to click on their ad because they have an incentive – getting paid."
Shopify offers its 13,000 affiliate partners the equivalent of the first two months of a new customer's monthly fee once new merchants they refer sign on to its platform. Customers pay monthly subscription fees starting at $29 to use Shopify's cloud-based software .
Mr. Left, whose note was long on accusations but short on detail, also alleged that Shopify improperly promotes the notion that its merchants can become millionaires, that third-party affiliates do not disclose they are compensated by Shopify and that most of Shopify's customers are not true merchants but "people who are buying a system" to make money online. He argued those and other practices would face FTC scrutiny.
Mr. Left also claimed Shopify stock was worth just over half of its value as of Tuesday. Shopify has been a top performer on both the Toronto Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange, nearly tripling in value in the past year and trades at a substantial premium to other subscription software providers.
In its statement, Shopify said it is helping to enable the growth of entrepreneurship by making it as easy as possible "to enable anyone, anywhere, to build, grow and scale a business." It noted more than 131 million consumers have made purchases from a Shopify store in the past year. But Shopify did not otherwise address the allegations raised by Citron and Mr. Left.
National Bank of Canada analyst Richard Tse said in a research note "we can't unequivocally rule out that this negative report will not surface some regulatory scrutiny even if we think it's remote." He said any issues would stem from a group of "transient subscribers who do not represent a meaningful portion of value for Shopify."
However, he said "in the short-term, there's little doubt it will weigh on the stock despite what we believe to be an unchanged fundamental outlook," noting Shopify's annualized revenue per merchant customer has been rising and that the business appears to be on track to meet its target of becoming profitable by the fourth quarter. The weakness in the stock "opens up a window for long term investors" to buy, he said.
Mr. Left has made a name for himself targeting publicly traded firms he accused of engaging in fraudulent tactics, being overvalued or both. His best-known target was Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., which he compared to Enron Corp. in 2015 before its rapid descent.