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Alphabet’s crazy moonshots cost it $3.5 billion last year

Ben Popper

As the founders of the Google search engine, Larry Page and Sergey Brin have almost unfettered control over an immense spigot of financial resources, money which they have plowed into ambitious projects like driverless cars, internet balloons, and eternal life. Over time, however, investors have grown tired of the lack of information around these investments, especially as the growth in the company's core business has slowed. So last year the company reorganized as Alphabet, a holding company that separated the core businesses — Search, Ads, Commerce, Maps, YouTube, Apps, Cloud, Android, Chrome, Google Play, and hardware sales — from its so called moonshots. The core business is now referred to as Google, while the wild projects are lumped together in a category labeled "Other Bets."

Today we got our first peek at exactly how much those moonshots cost, and how that expense compares to what core business is bringing in Alphabet's fourth quarter earnings report. Over the last three months, Alphabet spent $3.56 billion on its "Other Bets" over the course of 2015. That is a roughly 83 percent increase over the amount Alphabet lost on its moonshots the year before. Those losses compare with the $23.42 billion in profit on $75.54 billion in revenue generated by Google over the same period, an 18 percent rise in revenue from the year before.

This revenue growth was far better than analysts had predicted, an outcome Google contributed to growth in mobile search, with YouTube and programatic advertising also being highlighted. Investors responded positively to these numbers. Alphabet's stock rose nearly ten percent, driving it's market cap about Apple's and making it, for the time being, the most valuable company in the world. The increase in its revenue growth rate and the fact that mobile was a driver here were likely the key factors.


The group inside "Other Bets" currently consists of "Access/Google Fiber, Calico, Nest, Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences), GV (formerly Google Ventures), Google Capital, X (formerly Google [X]) and other initiatives." You can expect this to change dramatically over the next few years, with Alphabet reportedly eyeing its driverless car division as a key candidate for a new company minted under the Alphabet umbrella. Companies that spin out to stand alone will likely be the ones with the healthiest and most well-developed business models. Part of the strategy behind the holding company model is to attract strong executive talent by creating new companies which could potentially gather their own investment or complete their own public offering.

Revenue for this "Other Bets" group was $448 million, primarily from Nest, Fiber, and Verily.

And of course, while today's earnings report helps to offer some clarity around how much Alphabet is spending on its wilder R&D projects, it doesn't give investors another big puzzle piece they have been clamoring for: a better picture of exactly how much core Google divisions like YouTube and Android have been earning. We didn't get it, aside from a note that viewing of YouTube in the living room has doubled over the last year, as has the number of small and medium size businesses advertising on the video platform.


The trend for a long time in Google's business has been that the amount it makes per click on advertising is declining, but the overall number of clicks is rising even faster, making up for the drop in value. That trend continued, with cost-per-click down 13 percent in the last year, but the number of paid clicks rising 31 percent. On today's earnings call Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted that some of the more esoteric technologies that the company works on, like machine learning and natural language processing, are now beginning to pay dividends in its core advertising business.

Google reported $2.1 billion in "Other Revenues," a category which includes the Google Play app store and its cloud storage and services business. That's a growth rate of 24 percent year-over-year. Pichai said the average spend per customer in the Play Store was up 30 percent over the prior year. Capital expenditures were down, and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat said infrastructure investment made back in 2014 is allowing Google to now get three times more computing power for every dollar it spends.The company's global business, and it's savvy use of international tax laws, was also a boon to its bottom line.


While Alphabet has hinted that it would be more disciplined about reigning in or shutting down entirely moonshot projects that were not evolving into profitable businesses, with Porat repeating multiple times that Alphabet has already "made some tough calls." The reaction from investors to today's earnings, however, with the market completely shrugging off the new red ink, will likely give all those money losing ventures more breathing room, at least in the short term.

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