Money-losing companies with interesting technology and a small, if rabid, customer base still frequently tend to sell for healthy chunks of change -- especially in the wireless space. We know Helio was burning cash like crazy, but that doesn't entirely explain why SK Telecom was so absurdly desperate to dump their $500m investment. At a $39m acquisition price, SK didn't just lose its shirt -- it lost that, the shoes, and then the pants. You know, the pants with a half-billion dollars in them.
Now, if you look at nothing other than the price per subscriber of some other, larger mobile acquisitions, Helio's numbers seem even crazier. Alltel's subscriber base is going to Verizon for about $2,100 per customer, and back when Nextel sold to Sprint, each sub went then for about $2,350. Helio's $39m sale to Virgin nets them $230 per subscriber. That's now what you're worth to Virgin, Helio subscriber -- $230 on an $80 ARPU. Clearly there's a lot more value in acquiring more than ten million subs than under 200k, but is that value ten fold?
And then to add insult to injury, the piddly $39m Helio did get from Virgin was an all-stock deal, which basically means SK won't be recouping material costs any time soon. Granted, that does amount to 17% of Virgin Mobile USA's market cap, and SK gets two seats on VM's board, but damned if Helio isn't like the reverse-Brewster's Millions of cellphone companies. Basically our pet theory right now is that either SK is playing the Korean tax system for the maximum possible write-off, or they literally didn't have another soul to turn to in this whole wide world. We know Helio wasn't in good shape, but a $39m all-stock deal means they basically stood on the corner and gave the company away to whomever was passing by at the time.
We wanted some more expert opinions, so we hit up a couple of old Engadget pals. Om Malik had this to say: Their losses are huge and there is no hope in sight. Why Virgin bought so few subscribers, I don't get. My best guess is that SK Telecom wants to do something with Virgin. Helio was one giant misexecution -- it is a micropennies on the dollar sale.
Michael Gartenberg offered this: I suspect there were not a whole lot of options... who else would have bought this thing? It's clear the MVNO model doesn't work for the most part. Virgin was probably the only buyer who had interest and it was probably the best chance for Helio's investors to get some of that money back.
Bottom line, it looks like Virgin and its shareholders should be pretty stoked today, because by all accounts they got a pretty killer deal.