Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Is Veoh the Next Big Video Site to Give Up?

veoh_1Now that Joost has given up the ghost and bailed out of the Web video portal business, who’s next?

A good bet: Veoh, one of the best-funded would-be YouTubes. Multiple sources tell me the company is aggressively marketing itself in hopes of finding a buyer.

And if a deal does go through, it will result in a loss for the company’s high-profile backers, who include former Disney (DIS) CEO Michael Eisner and Goldman Sachs (GS). I’m told that CEO Dmitry Shapiro has been shopping the company at prices below $70 million, which is the amount investors have sunk into the portal since 2005.

What happened to Veoh? The same thing that happened to almost every other Web video portal that isn’t Google’s (GOOG) YouTube or Hulu: Not enough audience, not enough ad revenue, too many costs.

Veoh claims an audience of about 25 million users, which is less than auditors like comScore (SCOR) report, and is, in any case, an order of magnitude smaller than YouTube’s. Sources tell me the company lost money on revenue of about $6 million last year. Sales are up and executives are optimistic it could break even this year, but the trajectory isn’t high enough to keep Veoh afloat as an independent company.

Complicating matters for Veoh is a costly court battle with Vivendi’s Universal Music Group, which accuses the company of copyright violations. That two-year-old fight has cost the start-up millions in legal fees.

The fact that Veoh’s backers include media-savvy players like Time Warner (TWX); former Viacom executives Tom Freston and Jonathan Dolgen; and Spark Capital, one of the primary investors in Twitter, hasn’t been enough to help the company extricate itself from the suit.

In April, Veoh laid off a good chunk of its staff, replaced CEO Steve Mitgang with Shapiro, the company’s founder, and focused its energy on a new “Video Compass” player that users are supposed to download and install in their Web browsers.

At the time, Shapiro said that the company’s Web portal business was a success but acknowledged that “quite frankly, there are a lot of things like that.”

So who would buy Veoh? Theoretically, at the right price, the company could be attractive to a large Web player like a Yahoo (YHOO), which used to be a big player in video back when video was a small market. Or the company could try marketing its technical expertise to a cable/telco company like Time Warner Cable (TWC) that hasn’t done much with online video but says it will soon.

But rival Web portal Joost tried making the same pitch to various buyers over the last few months and couldn’t get a deal done. Last week Joost laid off most of its staff and said it would try to go it alone as a services company.

This kind of flux is now par for the course among the big Web portals that thought they could rival YouTube, or at least secure second place. But Google’s lead over everyone else in video gets bigger every day, and its primary competitor is now Hulu, which has the advantage of premium content from its Hollywood owners–Disney, GE’s (GE) NBC Universal, and News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox.

In addition to Veoh and Joost, France’s DailyMotion has swapped out CEOs in recent months and is reportedly looking to raise money. Meanwhile, Metacafe, yet another video hub, has hired boutique investment bank Think Equity to look for “strategic investors to provide expansion capital.”

Metacafe CEO Erick Hachenburg says his company doesn’t need the money and can survive on its own if it doesn’t go ahead with a deal. “You would expect in this marketplace that you’re going to have a shakeout, and the stronger players are going to make it,” he says.

That sounds right. The question is whether we’ll have more than two players left when this is all over.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik