People crave stories, poems, plays on words. Analysts crave data. Investors deal in both. Investors in startups have so little data to pick from that investing becomes speculating. When words are the main source of information, it is best to get the words without filters and that means hearing them in person so body language can be read as well. I attend stockholders meetings when convenient. Lately the only one that’s been convenient has been for MicroVision (MVIS), which provides lessons in deciphering critical content from nuance and inference. Investing in companies that have a lot of secrets isn’t preferred, but sometimes it is one of the best of a short list of options.
MicroVision is a tiny company, only about 60-70 employees, that makes tiny mirrors that may have a major impact. The longer story is carried in my various posts, but the short version is simply – imagine having projectors become as ubiquitous as embedded cameras, and imagine them dramatically changing two of the main features of a laptop: the keyboard and the display. The potential impact is huge societally, environmentally, and financially.
For about fifteen years I’ve regularly attended the stockholders meetings. Their size hasn’t changed much. The stock price has varied widely, from a peak of over $500 to today’s less than $2 quote. The technology, the market, and industry have changed. The story hasn’t. Success is only a few months, quarters, or years away. Yet, with all the progress being made, maybe it really is about to happen.
Information is valuable, which is why the SEC made sure that no one had an advantage by getting news early. Individual investors and financial institutions would have equal access to information. As usual, instead of the intent creating better access for the individual investor, it meant that everyone heard less. The corporate motto became, “when in doubt, shut up”.
Information is also valuable to competitors and suppliers. Companies guard competitive advantage by saying as little as possible, while trying to learn as much as possible about each other. Less information for all.
Information becomes incredibly valuable when companies have little more than an idea. To survive they have to tell about the idea, but to survive they must also say as little as possible, and if they do say anything they have to tell everyone the same thing simultaneously.
With proper information protection a company can move forward balanced between telling too much and too little. The unfortunate corollary is that a company that has something to hide can hide behind SEC rules, competitive sensitivities, and NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements.) Which is it? Is the quiet company being wise, or deceitful?
A stockholders meeting is the SEC mandated event at which the owners of the company, the stockholders, can learn about and question the people they’ve voted to run their company (the board of directors). Usually, the meeting is actually run by the management that was hired by the board, the Chief Executive officer, et al.
The reality we’ve become accustomed to is different. The Directors and Officers run, manage, and control the meeting as authority figures, not designees or employees. This is frequently because they acquire enough shares to acquire enough power to make the combined effect of the remaining shareholders into a minority position. Strengthened by the control over information via SEC, NDA, and other official constraints they can say as little as possible, which is the wisest course for them. Hearing as little as possible isn’t the wisest course for the shareholders, but most have become accustomed to the arrangement and try to become more astute at asking carefully crafted questions.
The most optimistic stories about MicroVision include profitable relationships with Apple, Microsoft, Google, Sony, dozens more electronics manufacturers and numerous car manufacturers. They might be right. Even a few of them being right is more than enough to make the company profitable and the investors richer. But, even at the stockholders meeting, the CEO wasn’t allowed to say the name Sony even though Sony mentioned MicroVision in one of its product development announcements. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, we all knew what he was talking about; but he wasn’t allowed to say more. We also heard of a Tier One company, a major auto manufacturer, and other “household names” and “impressive” companies.
Q: How many people are working in Sales? A: I can’t tell you.
Q: How many units have you shipped to the test facility? A: I can’t tell you.
Q: Do you have any unsold inventory of the previous product? A: I can’t tell you.
What I could tell was when someone hesitated with concern, when someone held back enthusiasm, when I asked a question they wanted an answer to too.
We communicate more than ever, thanks to mobile electronics and social medial; but sources are more circumspect the closer we get to useful data.
Information’s value continues to grow though, so even with circumspection, caution, and occasional inevitable misinformation, it makes sense to show up, shake some hands, read some body language as they try to frame responses to your questions, and maybe come away with at least one thing we crave, those stories. Oh yeah, and maybe by showing up enough they’ll remember that we stockholders own the company too. When they recognize that it will definitely be a story.