The Motley Fool

Why Shopify Inc. Will Never Be Another BlackBerry Ltd. or Nortel Networks

In late May Globe and Mail columnist Barrie McKenna wrote that flocking to Shopify Inc. (TSX:SH)(NYSE:SHOP) shares may just be “wishful thinking.”

In defending his position, Mr. McKenna made some good points. The company is poised to lose money for the fourth straight year, and losses have been growing faster than revenues. There’s always the prospect of stronger competition down the line. And as Mr. McKenna pointed out, Canada’s had its share of high-tech failures, such as BlackBerry Ltd. (TSX:BB)(NASDAQ:BBRY) and Nortel Networks.

But there are some important differences between Shopify and those two companies. We take a closer look below.

What separates Shopify from BlackBerry

Back in early 2009 BlackBerry was seemingly on top of the world. The company had just completed another stellar fiscal year, one in which revenues grew to US$11.5 billion. Just two years earlier, revenue had stood at barely US$3 billion. Better yet, BlackBerry was consistently posting profits, something we’ve yet to see from Shopify.

So, what makes Shopify so different from BlackBerry in its heyday? Well, to answer that question, let’s look at what led to BlackBerry’s downfall.

It started, of course, with the release of the iPhone. BlackBerry responded with the Storm, which was an incredibly unpopular and buggy device. From there customers fled. Wireless carriers stopped pushing BlackBerry phones. Android made BlackBerry’s life even more difficult. The brand was sunk and developers left. It was a snowball that just couldn’t be stopped.

Do you see the problem? BlackBerry had to continually innovate and do a better job than competitors just to keep its existing customers. And as soon as the company slipped up, it was game over.

Shopify is very different. Its customers pay consistent subscription-based fees, and switching to a competitor would be a major hassle. For this reason, Shopify can afford a few slip-ups without losing any customers. So, we’re very unlikely to see the company decline. The worst-case scenario I can imagine—at least in the next 5-10 years—is a slower growth rate.

What separates Shopify from Nortel

Nortel has even less in common with Shopify. The telecommunications equipment manufacturer traded primarily on pure speculation, and, as a result, reached absurd valuations.

To be more specific, Nortel’s valuation peaked at nearly $400 billion in September 2000. This meant the company accounted for more than a third of the total valuation of all TSX-listed companies. Revenue growth hadn’t even been that spectacular, averaging 20% the previous two years. And the company had just reported two straight years of net losses.

In addition, Nortel had some serious accounting problems, making its fall from grace that much more painful. Eventually the company declared bankruptcy, wiping out common shareholders completely.

This scenario is next to impossible for a company like Shopify. As mentioned, Shopify has loyal, subscription-based customers. The company has no debt and an asset-light business model. Its growth rate is stronger than Nortel’s was. And there’s no evidence of accounting shenanigans.

Should you buy Shopify?

I’m not saying you should jump on the Shopify bandwagon. The company is very expensive, so you’ll need it to keep up its massive growth rate to make any money. But it’s safe to say the company’s a better investment than BlackBerry and Nortel were at their peaks.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium service or advisor. We’re Motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer, so we sometimes publish articles that may not be in line with recommendations, rankings or other content.

Fool contributor Benjamin Sinclair has no position in any stocks mentioned.

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