The scoundrels and stars of Adam Schwab’s 2021 Business Awards

Twitter tesla bubble business awards

Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk. Source: AP/Robyn Beck.

If Crikey’s business awards lived in the United States, they’d be old enough to drive. In fact, these awards are older than the iPhone, Tesla, Snapchat and Amazon. So buckle up for the 16th consecutive awards, which pay tribute to the business world’s scoundrels, fools and even the occasional superstar.

Business Plan of the Year I

To the defunct (and miraculously reincarnated) Moviepass, which had had the slightly dubious business model involving charging $10 a month to watch as many movies as their customers wanted to (in actual cinemas), only to then pay cinemas the same amount ($10 a ticket).

If this seems dumb to you, you’d be right. The only way Moviepass could make any money was if its customers never used its product (which would mean it would likely soon churn). When Moviepass belatedly realised this, it came up with an ingenious solution: change users’ passwords so they couldn’t access the site (and hence, couldn’t use their subscription). This and other miseries inflicted on customers led to the totally unexpected result of its subscriber base dropping from 3 million to 225,000 before it finally gave up and declared bankruptcy. A few months later it was bought by founder Stacey Spikes and is expected to relaunch soon.

Business Plan of the Year II

To leading US real estate portal Zillow, which had briefly built the world’s most valuable real estate marketplace.

Founder and CEO the legendary Rich Barton (who also created travel giant Expedia) decided to get into the house flipping business, copying the model of the more successful (but not profitable) Opendoor. Zillow, which used complex algorithms to purchase properties around the US before flipping them for an intended profit, had initially been underpricing its purchases, leading to larger than expected profits (but lower throughput).

To overcome this, its executives overrode complex models and bid up the prices they paid for homes, which solved the volume problem but caused a far worse issue: it started losing money. When Zillow realised this in November, it decided to cut the business and sell its inventory at a massive loss. Barton told investors that “fundamentally we have been unable to predict the future pricing of homes to a level of accuracy that makes this a safe business to be in”. Investors didn’t take the news well. Zillow’s market value dropped from more than US$50 billion ($70 billion) in February to US$14 billion ($20 billion) in November.

Criminal Gang of the Year

To the Conti Ransomware Group, which showed that even hackers understand who’s really boss.

After Conti released thousands of files from Graf, one of the world’s most upmarket jewellers, it issued a quick apology, after realising it messed with the wrong guys — in this case Saudi Arabia’s ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman. In what was probably the most unusual press release of 2021, Conti stated that “we found that the sample data was not properly reviewed … Conti guarantees that any information pertaining to members of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar families will be deleted without any exposure. Our team apologises to his royal highness Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and any other members of royal families whose names were mentioned.”

Whatever you think about MBS, it doesn’t get any more gangster than getting a hacker to issue you a public apology.

Exquisite Timing of the Year

To former Redbubble CEO and co-founder Martin Hosking, who showed remarkable timing when he sold 5 million Redbubble shares for $4.20 a share in September, reaping a lavish $21 million.

Hosking claimed the sale was to repay a loan securitised by Redbubble shares. Regardless, the timing worked magnificently for the former Looksmart executive, with Redbubble shares dropping soon after the company announced a terrible earnings result with revenue down 28% and EBITDA slumping by 85%. Redbubble’s share price is now only $3.18 per share so Hosking’s handy timing saved him more than $5 million.

Redbubble

Redbubble’s Martin Hosking and former chief Barry Newstead. Source: supplied.

Values of the Year

To former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop, who once claimed that in her post-political business career she would involve herself only with businesses that “meet my interests and the values that I hold”. Perhaps JBish needs a values realignment given her largest and highest paid role was with disgraced financier Greensill, which collapsed in spectacular fashion costing billions of dollars and leaving potentially thousands of people out of work.

The collapse drew the ire even of the British Financial Conduct Authority, which said it would investigate potentially criminal transactions at the Lex Greensill-run debt factoring house. Bishop was paid $800,000 a year by Greensill (a fraction of what serial pest and former UK prime minister David Cameron was paid).

If that wasn’t enough, Bishop’s values alignment also stretched to an advisory board role with call centre business Affiniti. Affiniti’s values were also called into recently when the US House of Representatives was told that its founder and CEO, Zia Chishti, allegedly beat an employee after pressuring them into having sex with him.

Business Person of the Year (note: I wrote this before Time magazine did)

Elon Musk not only became the world’s richest person, but he did it in fine style.

In January he was able to cause the share price of a tiny medical devices company to rise by 11,000% in just three days after tweeting the words “Use Signal”. Alas, Musk was talking about a different company called Signal (he meant the encrypted message app rather than the medical device business). Such is the state of the markets in 2021 that Signal’s (the medical device one) share price briefly rose from 59c to $13.54, before eventually dropping back to 42c.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s share price rose from $700 January to hit $1229 in November, before Musk decided to sell billions of dollars of Tesla shares by way of Twitter poll (Tesla’s share price is now $932). Courtesy of Musk’s stakes in Tesla and SpaceX, he finished the year being worth $243 billion, almost 25%  higher than erstwhile space rival Jeff Bezos, who was way back on $195 billion.

Wealth of course doesn’t buy class; Musk also found time to move from California to Texas (to avoid income tax) and to make vulgar comments about US senators.

Decent Business Person of the Year

To Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who in February, during Houston’s week of freezing temperatures, threw open the doors to his furniture store, turning it into a makeshift shelter for thousands of people. He later sold the used mattresses at a discount.

This wasn’t the first time McIngvale helped those in need; he did the same during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Short-seller of the Year

It was a memorable year for legendary short-seller Andrew Left of Citron Research.

Left was caught in the Gamestop share price explosion (he’d shorted Gamestop before its share price rose from $18 to $347 in January in the first of the Reddit inspired meme explosions). But the year ended far better for Left after he was vindicated in his long-running battle with Chinese property debacle Evergrande. Left had spent years accusing Evergrande of being insolvent and presenting fraudulent financial information. For his trouble, he was, remarkably, found guilty of publishing false or misleading claims by the Hong Kong Market Misconduct Tribunal. In 2020 the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal refused to hear Left’s arguments.

In October, as the true disaster of Evergrande was becoming apparent to the investing world, with its share price having fallen by 91%, Left said: “Could anyone have expected it? Yeah I could have expected it.” Evergrande has since defaulted on its debt.

Comeuppance of the Year

To the disastrous GetSwift, which was flying high in 2017 after announcing a series of ground-breaking deals with the likes of Amazon and CBA. Alas, the deals were about as kosher as a Berkshire pig; in many cases the unpaid trials were quickly and quietly terminated. GetSwift founders, former copywriter Bane Hunter and former AFL footballer Joel McDonald, were found guilty by the Federal Court in November of misleading and deceiving investors.

GetSwift has since fled Australia and is listed on an obscure Canadian exchange, with the less glamorous market capitalisation of about $20 million, which is a fraction of the $100 million it raised in 2017.

One hero who emerged from the wreckage: former GetSwift independent director Jamila Gordon. The judge noted that Gordon, who escaped Somalia after civil war broke out and learnt English at a TAFE college, was a critical prosecution witness. Since leaving the smouldering ruins of GetSwift, Gordon has since become CEO of Lumachain, a platform that used computer vision-based AI to disrupt global food chains. Proving that success is the best form of revenge, Gordon raised $3.5 million for Lumachain from leading venture capital firm Main Sequence Ventures in 2019, probably making it far more valuable than GetSwift.

Lumachain

Lumachain founder and chief Jamila Gordon. Source: Supplied.

Prediction Reflection of the Year

To Hamish Douglass, Australia’s (former) celebrity superstar fund manager who’s had a torrid few years. While judging stock pickers on a short-term basis is notoriously fickle (see hordes of fools criticising Warren Buffett in 1999), Douglass has not merely struggled this year, but also over three-, five- and 10-year periods.

Perhaps Douglass’ most famous prediction was back in 2017, while at the peak of his powers, he said: “I see Uber as one of the stupidest businesses in history … The probability of this business not going bankrupt in a decade is like 1%.” Alas, almost halfway there and Uber is travelling pretty well. While off its COVID-19 highs, it’s valued by the market at a respectable US$77 billion (higher than at the time of Douglass’ downcast prognostication).

As for Magellan itself, well it hasn’t fared too well of late, with its share price down by than 71% from its peak, with a market value of less than $4 billion.

CEO of the Year

To the founder and CEO of Softbank backed online lender Better.com, Vishal Garg, who thought it was a good idea to fire 900 people via Zoom.

During the call, Garg tactfully told soon-to-be-fired team members that “if you’re on this call you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off … Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.” He then went a step further, creating an anonymous account on the company’s chat (which didn’t stay anonymous for long) claiming that “you guys know that at least 250 of the people terminated were working an average of two hours a day while clocking in eight hours+ a day in the payroll system? … They were stealing from you and stealing from our customers who pay the bills that pay our bills. Get educated.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Garg’s methods weren’t embraced. A few days later Better.com’s head of marketing Melanie Hahn, head of public relations Tanya Hayre Gillogley and vice president of communications Patrick Lenihan all promptly quit.

Garg’s reasons for the mass firing appeared somewhat misplaced as well, claiming that the company “had to slim down to remain nimble enough to adapt to the evolving housing market, which appears to be cooling after a pandemic-boosted boom”. He neglected to mention that a few days before the terminations, the business raised US$750 million in fresh funding.

Postscript: Garg has since taken “time off” (presumably to holiday in St Barts) after acknowledging he failed “to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation to laid-off staff”.

SPAC of the Year

SPACs (or special purpose acquisition vehicles) are a living, breathing embodiment of the bubble epoque and there is none better than Digital World, which bought Donald Trump’s Trump Media & Technology Group last month. Given his penchant for imposing tariffs on Chinese goods (to the detriment of American consumers), it was slightly incongruous that the main funder of Digital World was a business called ARC Group, which happens to be based in Shanghai.

Alas, Trump’s SPAC appears about as well run as the Oval Office, with the business appointing congressman and Trump acolyte Devin Nunes as CEO. Nunes once boasted of being a dairy farmer and doesn’t appear to have worked in the tech sector or as an executive at any company. As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine noted, Nune once unsuccessfully sued Twitter for making fun of him, which makes him a strange choice to run a business whose “missions is to fight for the First Amendment protections and freedoms for all Americans … and to encourage open, free, and honest global conversation”.

Until next year!

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TMH
TMH
22 days ago

Nice one MBS! Great article Schwabie.

Ellie Vaisman
Ellie Vaisman
15 days ago

These are honestly so entertaining, thanks Adam!