What Happens When Instagram Success Meets a Market Meltdown

What Happens When Instagram Success Meets a Market Meltdown


(Bloomberg) — THG Plc Founder Matthew Moulding had reason to boast in February when he declared on Instagram that he had logged “500 consecutive days of making it into the gym.”

He had plenty of other milestones to celebrate, too, including becoming a billionaire thanks to THG’s initial public offering in 2020. The company’s shares were trading near a recent record high, with customers and investors alike impressed by THG’s focus on products — such as makeup and fitness supplements — which have become wildly popular with social media users.

The good times didn’t last. THG shares soon began a steady decline, which turned into a collapse in October his year. The stock fell 78% from its January high after the company failed to convince shareholders that it wasn’t just an e-commerce firm, but also a high-tech software platform.

THG is now trading well below its IPO level, and is considering options including selling its prize assets — the beauty and nutrition units that bring in the lion’s share of revenue — according to people familiar with internal discussions, who asked not to be named as the talks are private. THG has also discussed whether to take the company private again, the people added, declining to comment on the record about ongoing plans.

No decision has been made on whether to go ahead with any sale, the people said. But a disposal would mark a decisive end to a period of hyperactive growth that made THG one of the most talked-about companies in Britain, a poster-child for the kind of growth-oriented, tech-focused outfit that could help revive London’s moribund stock exchange.

“THG is not considering or exploring a sale of either its beauty or its nutrition business,” a spokesman for the company said in an emailed statement. No executive was made available for comment.

In 2019, THG held its annual summer party at a company-owned members club close to its Manchester airport headquarters. The event celebrated THG’s 15 years in business. By the end of 2019 headcount would double, to 7,000, and sales would pass $1 billion for the first time. For THG’s new staff, often young graduates, mid-year and Christmas parties offered a much-needed break from THG’s relentless startup culture.

Staff worked long hours but enjoyed plenty of celebrations, according to over a dozen interviews with current and former employees. In THG’s beauty division bottles of prosecco were opened at breakfast every other Friday to celebrate hitting targets, with a DJ brought into the office at the end of the week, people said. 

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THG’s evolution to a multibillion-pound company is inextricably linked with Moulding, 49. A former accountant, he and co-founder John Gallemore started out in 2004 with an e-commerce business selling CDs and DVDs. They moved into personal care with the acquisition of Lookfantastic in 2010, followed by Myprotein in 2011, just as social media supercharged Britain’s interest in glamour and wellness.

By 2014, THG (then known as The Hut Group) was recording revenue of 244 million pounds and producing glossy annual reports with dramatic taglines, such as: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.” Key international investors KKR & Co. and BlackRock Inc. got on board, as THG embarked on an acquisition spree that supercharged its growth and made the company an attractive IPO prospect. 

THG’s growth was built around doing deals and expanding its beauty business, which now boasts a portfolio including e-commerce site Cult Beauty and subscription-box service Glossybox. The business had sales of 461 million pounds in the first half of 2021, up 56% from a year earlier. Its second-largest unit includes Myprotein, which has an audience of more than 800,000 on Instagram following its mix of nutrition, fitness training and wellness-based lifestyle tips.

Between 2017 and the end of June 2021, THG spent over under 1 billion pounds on deals. The 275 million-pound purchase of Cult Beauty was announced in early August. Over the same period as it expanded through acquisitions THG posted cumulative losses of about 550 million pounds, with revenues of 5.4 billion pounds, according to an analysis of company filings. 

But THG also wanted to become a tech company, built around its Ingenuity platform. Ingenuity manages over 200 websites for clients, as well as handling e-commerce functions for its own brands. THG had ambitions for Ingenuity to rival the ubiquitous Amazon Web Services, according to two former employees. People who built and use the platform call it variously an unrivaled digital service, a hodge-podge of bolted-together acquisitions, or a combination of the two. 

In 2017 THG bought UK2 Group, a web-hosting business, for 58 million pounds, part of an effort to scale the Ingenuity business. In its 2017 annual report, THG said the deal gave it 29 global data centers “situated in strategic locations.” In fact, UK2 Group only owned two data centers: one in Canning Town, London, and another in Logan, Salt Lake City, according to people familiar with the deal, who declined to comment on the record because the information was private. For the rest of its global business, covering Europe and Japan, UK2 Group rented from other providers. While the deal did increase THG’s ability to host third-party websites, renting data centers did not secure those assets for the long-term. 

As THG invested, Ingenuity attracted the attention of one of the world’s largest tech investors. In May THG raised $1 billion, with SoftBank Group Corp. becoming a cornerstone investor and striking an option for a 20% stake in Ingenuity. The deal valued the platform at 4.5 billion pounds, far more than its parent company. According to THG’s most recent half-yearly results, Ingenuity generated just 9% of THG’s total revenue, while Beauty brought in 48% and Nutrition 34%

Before it began internal discussions over a potential sell-off of its beauty unit, THG publicly discussed spinning it off in an IPO in 2022 and suggested that its nutrition business could follow too, leaving Ingenuity as a standalone operation. But after a presentation in October meant to explain exactly how Ingenuity makes money, THG shares fell 35%. While the company said it saw no reason for the decline, analysts criticized the lack of disclosures regarding Ingenuity’s revenues, “which failed to reassure investors” according to a report from RBC Capital Markets. 

One analyst at Numis said that while Ingenuity is critical in many ways, it “feels increasingly nascent, opaque and lacking sufficient proof points to justify a significant valuation.” A report from Bloomberg Intelligence in November said Ingenuity was “poorly monetized”, and “is falling short of expectations of becoming the company’s sales- and profit-growth driver.” 

At present, SoftBank won’t exercise its option to take a stake in Ingenuity, one person said. A spokesman for SoftBank declined to comment on its plans.

It’s not just investors who remain unconvinced about THG’s future. Moulding has also questioned his recent decisions. In an interview with GQ magazine in November, Moulding said the time since the firm went public in September 2020 had been “the worst period ever” and that, with hindsight, he wouldn’t have gone ahead with the offering.

“There are scenarios where if you’re not an individual leading a big company, then I think the U.K. market can work really well,” Moulding said. “But there aren’t any examples, I don’t believe, where an individual brings a big company to a public market and it can go well, certainly as you get to a certain scale anyway.”

With the omicron variant spreading rapidly, a THG spokesperson said the Christmas party had been canceled for 2021.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.


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