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Investors are valuing Roku more like Google than Apple

Key Points
  • For now, investors are far more excited about Roku than they are about Fitbit or GoPro.
  • Roku is getting a price-to-sales multiple much higher than hardware companies, but not as high as Alphabet.
  • IPO debuts are not necessarily indicative of where a stock will trade in a year or two.
Roku skyrockets on opening day of trading

With Roku's 50 percent surge in its market debut, investors are valuing the company more like an internet software and services provider than a maker of a consumer device.

Roku's $2 billion stock market value, following its opening-day pop, gives the company a price-to-sales ratio of 5.2, according to FactSet. That's a big premium over out-of-favor hardware companies Fitbit and GoPro, which have revenue multiples of 0.9 and 1.2, respectively. Even Apple, the maker of so many iconic devices, is only valued at 3.6 times revenue.

It's taken Roku 15 years and a controversial breakup with Netflix to get to this point, but CEO Anthony Wood finally has investors buying the story that Roku has a unique position in the market. Far beyond a manufacturer of boxes to watch Netflix and Amazon shows, Roku has become a platform for advertisers to reach a large, engaged audience on over 5,000 channels, as well as an operating system that gets built into smart televisions.

Here's an excerpt from Wood's letter to investors in the IPO prospectus:

"I believe that just like mainframe operating systems didn't transition to PCs, and just like PC operating systems didn't make the transition to phones (is your phone powered by Windows?), TVs will be powered by a purpose-built operating system optimized for streaming."

The company expects that this year over 150 models of Roku-powered TVs will be available to in North America, an increase from 100 in 2016. Roku is counting on deriving ad revenue tied to content on the platform as well as a cut of subscriptions when consumers sign up for various channels.

All of Roku's growth is in those types of services. In the second quarter, platform sales -- which includes advertising and subscriptions -- almost doubled to $46 million, while sales of Roku streaming players fell 11 percent to $53.7 million.

With that mix of business, Roku is being valued as a hardware and services hybrid, but with optimism that the latter piece will keep expanding. By comparison, Alphabet (which has its own streaming device) is valued at 6.8 times revenue, and Netflix has a price-to-sales multiple of 7.9. Facebook, a pure internet advertising company, trades for 15 times revenue. (All data is from FactSet.)

There's no guarantee that Roku can sustain this valuation. GoPro surged in its market debut in 2014, as did Fitbit the following year. Both are now trading at less than half their IPO price as they struggle to compete with Apple and a host of companies building on Google's Android platform.

In the risk factors section of its prospectus, the second point Roku makes is that the TV streaming market is highly competitive and includes "large technology companies." The company can't succeed if it's just another maker of a popular low-margin device.

"If we fail to differentiate ourselves and compete successfully with these companies," the filing says, "it will be difficult for us to attract users and our business will be harmed."

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