Exclusive: The Billion-Dollar Inside Story of How Demand Media Almost Went Private Last Week (And Then Didn’t)

Published on April 28, 2012
by Kara Swisher

According to sources close to the situation, Demand Media was deep into discussions with a private equity firm to complete a deal that would have taken the online content company private, nearing a price that was double its current value.

But Demand abandoned the effort this past week — which was born from an aggressive attempt by Boston-based Thomas H. Lee Partners to purchase the company for a price of up to $1.2 billion. That was due to a number of challenges, including complications related to its financing and the ability to retain executives in its aftermath.

The move on Demand by private investors is perhaps no surprise, and is part of a wider trend related to some Internet companies whose stocks have a depressed value relative to the worth of their assets.

Among companies having been and also being evaluated by private equity firms, whose business it is to turned the undervalued into a goldmine: Yahoo and AOL.

And also Demand, which is now worth only $605 million, a market cap that is off 65 percent since it went public in February 2011. Shares now trade at $7.25 each.

That depressed share price has been due to a number of issues, most especially changes to Google’s search algorithm to improve results. Called Panda, the changes at the search giant — a critical partner of Demand’s — has cut traffic to its major content sites and also called into question its ability to monetize its scaled editorial efforts.

Such a situation is nearly irresistible to PE firms — in this case, Lee, which approached Demand.

Several sources said that the board threw out a hefty number that it assumed would shut down any interest and the pair began talking with an initial offer to take the company private at $11.28 a share.

That equals close to $1 billion for Demand, which also has more than $100 million in cash. But sources said Lee and Demand also discussed the addition of a large loan as part of the ongoing discussions, for possible acquisitions related to a content roll-up strategy it had, which would bring the total up to $1.2 billion.

One source underscored that the board of the Santa Monica, Calif., company had no interest or intention to sell the business, but that the premium was large enough that it engaged.

The deal from Lee, which also included a strategy of splitting up the content arm from Demand’s lucrative domain-registar business.

There were also large cash-out provisions for major shareholders, as well as for CEO and co-founder Richard Rosenblatt.

Thus, the two sides engaged intensely in the last several weeks in crafting an agreement, although the devil would prove to be in the details.

One big issue is that taking Demand private was still a big financial commitment for Lee — which tried to engage some of its limited partners in the transaction — as well as other investors, including Silicon Valley’s Marc Andreessen.

That proved harder than Lee thought, said sources, with some balking at the firm’s ability to make a big enough score on the possible turnaround.

“It was hoped it would be a Skype situation, but there were worries,” said one source, referring to the blockbuster sale of the Internet telephony company by private investors to Microsoft for $8.5 billion last year. That deal was widely considered a PE home run, given the excessive premium paid for it.

Demand’s challenges increasingly worried the firm as it moved forward, sources said, causing it to reevaluate its earlier bid several times.

Also a worry: Retaining major talent, including Rosenblatt and others, after they sold large chunks of their equity.

After Lee asked for more time to complete the financing, Demand ended the talks last week.

Another source, as is typical in these endings, said it was the Lee that walked away (who knows and, really, who cares — both sides were engaged seriously).

One thing was true: “Demand was definitely at the altar, but it did not get to the vows,” said one source.

Another source noted that the board also determined that Demand’s situation was improving, and that new trends are showing that the bottom might be been reached. The company reports its first-quarter earnings on May 8, which is expected to show some traction related to its many challenges.

“There is nothing Lee could do that Demand could not do for itself,” said one person. “So throwing in the towel seemed premature for now.”

Lee declined to comment, as did Demand.

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