InfoSpace's search business benefits from smartphone boom
InfoSpace changes name to Blucora, adds online tax-prep business.
Seattle Times business reporter
InfoSpace at a glance
Founded: 1996; has changed name to Blucora
Major operations: Bellevue; Cedar Rapids, Iowa
CEO: William Ruckelshaus
What they do: Internet search, online tax preparation
What sets them apart: $785 million in accumulated net operating loss carry forwards, which means the company likely won't have to pay cash federal income taxes for the rest of this decade.
The Bellevue-based technology company that has spent much of its 16-year corporate life reinventing itself, is in the midst of one more transformation: into Blucora, a holding company for two profitable businesses.
Even by tech-world standards, where business models are created, destroyed and recreated at a head-spinning pace, InfoSpace has had more lives than a cat.
"It's taken InfoSpace awhile to figure out its identity," deadpanned Clayton Moran, an analyst with The Benchmark Co.
"There's a lot of negative connotation among Wall Street investors around the InfoSpace name," Moran said. "They want to get rid of that lingering reputation of speculation and fraud, and build a new reputation — of a growing, profitable business with a steady, disciplined investment approach."
Its performance in 2011 was strong enough to rank second in The Seattle Times' 21st annual ranking of publicly traded companies based in the Northwest.
Steadiness and discipline weren't qualities much associated with InfoSpace 1.0, the epitome of Seattle's boom-and-bust dot-conomy.
Naveen Jain started the company in 1996 as an online directory of email addresses and phone numbers. Before long it added horoscopes, stock quotes, weather reports and more, then began providing the same sort of content to mobile phones.
At its peak, InfoSpace was running more than a dozen separate businesses and, at least on paper, was worth more than Boeing. But subsequent investigations, including one by The Seattle Times, showed that the company's successful image was largely built on accounting gimmickry.
After Jain was ousted in 2002, new CEO Jim Voelker sold off most of the business lines InfoSpace had piled up and refocused the company on its Web search sites and mobile content and platform business. That version, InfoSpace 2.0, seemed to be on the right track.
But after losing a big carrier contract in late 2006, InfoSpace began winding down its mobile-content business, including ringtones, wallpaper, games. It sold what was left in 2007 for $3.8 million.
Later that year, InfoSpace sold its online phone-directory service, Switchboard.com, for $225 million, and its mobile-phone platform business for $135 million.
By the time current CEO William Ruckelshaus took over in November 2010, the company had three major assets: a modest but profitable Internet search business, nearly $156 million in cash, and $788 million in tax losses that could be used to offset profits from elsewhere in the company.
The search business blends results from Google, Bing and other search engines. Along with InfoSpace's own search sites (Dogpile, WebCrawler, et al.), the company provides search capability to more than 100 partners. Many of those partners are mobile-app developers, analyst Eric Martinuzzi, of Craig-Hallum Capital, said; InfoSpace's search business has benefited from the boom in smartphones.
While the search business is profitable, Ruckelhaus said, its growth potential is limited given the dominance of the big search engines (on which InfoSpace relies for its search results). That being the case, it would have taken many years for InfoSpace to use all its tax losses.
So in January, InfoSpace bought TaxACT, an online tax-preparation company. Analysts were delighted by the deal, as TaxACT not only is profitable and growing rapidly but owning it means InfoSpace can tap more of its tax losses (Moran says the company likely won't pay federal cash income taxes for many years). There's also the potential to use InfoSpace's search expertise to drive more business to TaxACT.
"The goal all along had been, 'Let's do something large that leverages our online-advertising chops and is already profitable,' " Martinuzzi said. "For the foreseeable future, I expect them to focus on getting their arms around this new business."
Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org