Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at the 2016 Code Conference.
Still courtesy Vox Media
By Mathew Ingram
June 14, 2016

Despite repeated attempts to rejuvenate the service with new features and user-interface tweaks, Twitter’s share price has continued to slide towards all-time lows over the past year. In that context, the news that Twitter has invested $70 million in audio file-sharing service SoundCloud feels like another Hail Mary pass.

According to a report from Recode, the company made the investment—which was confirmed by CEO Jack Dorsey and by a SoundCloud spokesperson—some time earlier this year, as part of a $100-million financing round that is likely to value the audio service at about $700 million. As Recode notes, that’s the same valuation SoundCloud had in 2014.

That’s about the point at which Twitter reportedly considered acquiring SoundCloud outright, for as much as $1 billion in a deal that ultimately fell through. At the time, Twitter (TWTR) was worth about $35 billion, more than three times what it’s worth right now.

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Dorsey didn’t provide any reason for investing in a service that has not increased in value for almost two years, but it’s probably safe to assume that he’s hoping SoundCloud will help boost user engagement on Twitter. With user growth at the service having slowed to a crawl, Twitter needs to squeeze more value out of the same number of users.

In the past year—since CEO Dick Costolo left and Dorsey returned to the chief executive position (while also serving in the same position at Square, the online payment provider)—Twitter’s market capitalization has cratered. The company’s share price has fallen by more than 60% over that time, extinguishing about $14 billion worth of market value.

The only thing that has pushed Twitter’s stock price up even briefly over the past month or two is speculation about whether it is a potential takeover candidate. Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn has convinced some analysts and investors that an acquisition of Twitter is likely before the end of the year. But who would want to undertake such a deal?

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The potential acquirer list is more or less the same as it was the last time we wrote about it: Google is seen by many as a front-runner, if only because it needs the real-time data that Twitter specializes in. (But it already gets all of that through a partnership, and Larry Page is said to have no interest in buying it.) The other top candidates are telecom companies such as Verizon, or possibly an Asian investment vehicle like Softbank.

From a financial point of view, one factor that could help push Twitter towards a sale is the same one that the New York Times singled out in a piece about why LinkedIn sold. Much like LinkedIn, Twitter pays out an extremely high proportion of its annual compensation in the form of stock—equivalent to 27% of its annual revenue last year.

That’s a large deferred cost weighing on Twitter’s balance sheet, and one of the main factors that has caused the company to lose about $100 million a year over the past couple of years (although Twitter and other tech companies dismiss the expense as theoretical, and exclude it when reporting their results). In addition, it also makes it difficult to retain key members of the staff when the stock they received instead of a salary is so far under water.

That kind of financial and operational pressure is likely to force Twitter to accept a takeover offer sooner rather than later, assuming it can find someone who wants to make one at a respectable price. And an investment in SoundCloud isn’t going to change that much.

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