You can learn a lot about a public company by reading its risk factors.
These are the portions of companies' financial filings that require them to put on a show of honesty and humility. Risk factors are the challenges a company sees for itself, the threats it believes could sink it.
Twitter lists more than 40 risk factors in its most recent quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Many of them are obvious challenges that apply to any company (currency fluctuations could hurt, taxes might go up, God forbid a natural disaster destroy our headquarters, etc.). So far, it has navigated those successfully enough. It's on the risk factors unique to Twitter it has foundered.
Here are a dozen areas where Twitter has foreseen risks -- but still failed to avoid them.
We Need to Grow Our User Base -- Failing
Twitter's first listed factor is the need to grow its user base and user engagement, because if it does not, "our revenue, business, and operating results may be harmed." Since going public in 2013, this has been the main issue for the company.
Twitter's user base has grown at a snail's pace. Growth for the last quarter was better than previous periods, but benchmarked against comparable social media services such as Facebook and Snapchat, it has been consistently disappointing.
We Need Content -- Failing
Key to any social network is the creation and sharing of content. You can't generate revenue without advertisements, you won't sell advertisements if users aren't staying on your service, and users won't stay on your service if there's no content for them.
On Twitter, lack of content is not the issue, but finding interesting content is tough. That's why the company released Moments in 2015 as a way of bringing popular topics and tweets into one space. The feature is a step up from what users had before (pretty much nothing), but there is a lot left to be desired.
Twitter has also tried tackling the content problem by adding a selection of live streaming programming. Most recently, it announced a 24/7 partnership with Bloomberg, which is great if you're an investment junkie, and pretty much irrelevant if you are not. More notably, Twitter this year failed to maintain its partnership with the NFL to broadcast Thursday night games, losing out to Amazon.
We Need Advertising Revenue -- Failing
As mentioned above, social networks need users to secure advertising, and Twitter's lack of users has finally had an impact on this front.
Revenue from advertisers has declined year over year in each of Twitter's past two financial quarters. Twitter makes money other ways, but advertising is by far the most important of its revenue streams. If this decline continues, Twitter will be in grave trouble. That's why this quarter the company saw its first year over year decline in total revenue.
We Need to Compete Effectively for Users and Advertisers -- Failing
This risk is all about how Twitter competes with its online and social network rivals. To summarize, things aren't going well.
Not only does Facebook runs circles around Twitter each quarter when it comes to attracting new users, but Twitter's user base was also reportedly surpassed last year by Snapchat, a social service half its age.
It was once thought Twitter could go toe to toe with Facebook or at least be the Pepsi of social networks. Now, Twitter is struggling just to stay in the conversation.
We Need Talented Personnel -- Failing
Like any successful company, Twitter relies on talented individuals. If it fails to attract and retain those people, it will struggle. Twitter has never really struggled in recruiting engineers, designers, and other key talents, but keeping them is a different story.
There is a perpetual talent exodus at Twitter. People joke that the company's head of product position "continues to have the life expectancy of a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts" because people are always quitting the job. In the past year alone, the company has lost its COO, Adam Bain, its head of diversity, its head of human resources, and several key personnel in its communications department.
It's tough to build a good product with a staff that's constantly playing musical chairs.
We Must Monetize Internationally -- Passing
Silicon Valley companies draw their eye-popping valuations from their ability to build products that can appeal to consumers on a global scale. That's why it is important for Twitter to appeal to international users. On that front, the company has done a good job.
Domestic user growth has been poor, but global growth has been slightly better -- kudos to Twitter. Of course, the problem here is that American consumers have more per-capita spending power than those abroad, meaning that in the eyes of advertisers, an American user is worth more.
We Must Show New Users Twitter's Value -- Failing
Growing a user base is contingent not just on attracting new users but making sure that those users stick around. Here, Twitter has done terribly.
Power users love Twitter because they have curated and customized their accounts over years, finding friends, following people they find interesting, and setting up mobile notifications for their favorite accounts. It takes time, but once you put in the work, it's worth it.
However, if you are a new user, more likely than not your first experience with the service will leave you unsatisfied. Twitter still does a poor job giving these users reasons to hang around. Finding people to follow, content to enjoy, and figuring out how to use the service is still too complicated. If Twitter ever wants to jump-start its growth again, it must figure out an innovative way to make its service delightful from the get-go.
Twitter Loses Money, and It Might Never Be Profitable -- Failing
In its entire existence, Twitter has never once posted a profit.
In Silicon Valley, making money isn't doesn't matter so long as you're still growing and maintaining the promise that one day you'll make bucketloads of cash. At this point, Twitter is doing neither. Twitter still has more than $1 billion in cash on hand and even more in assets, so it's got time to turn things around. But it'd be nice if someday this 11-year-old company generated a dime that didn't cost a dollar.
Our Service Needs to Stay Online -- Passing
For years, Twitter suffered from its infamous "fail whale" outages. The problem was so bad that it led to the original ouster of co-founder Jack Dorsey as CEO in 2008. Now, Dorsey is back, and those outages are a thing of the past.
New Products Could Fail to Attract Users -- Failing
The reason Snapchat is the hip social network of the moment is because the company doesn't stop innovating. Every few months, there's a cool new product to try out. The opposite is true for Twitter.
The micro-messaging social network rarely has new products to share with users, which is nice if you hate change but not good if you're a company in need of attracting new users. Much of Twitter's 2016 product development was focused on building tools to combat abuse and harassment. These features were desperately needed, but they hardly excite.
We Focus on Innovation, Not Short-Term Results -- Passing (for terrible reasons)
In its filings, Twitter warns investors that its focus is on long-term innovation, warning that this will likely come at the cost of short-term results. This is not the case, but it's no cause for investors to celebrate.
It's been a long time since Twitter came out with any exciting innovations. Instead, the company has been playing catch-up to rivals Snapchat and Facebook while experimenting with news ways to generate more revenue (such as a subscription-based version of TweetDeck for power users). As a result of this strategy, Twitter reduced its expenses in its latest quarter, which is nice even if it hasn't helped the company turn a profit.
Twitter is technically not failing at this risk factor, but if there was a risk factor a tech company would probably want to fail at, it would be the one about focusing on long-term innovation at the expense of short-term results.
We Must Maintain Our Brand; Negative Press Could Hurt Us -- Failing on both
These are two separate risks, but they go hand in hand. Twitter's iconic blue bird is the face of a pretty great brand that stands for many positive things, such as free speech. But in the past couple of years, the company has come under such harsh criticism for its impotence in the face of hate speech and harassment that the Twitter brand is becoming synonymous with failure.
We Must Keep Our Service Secure -- Passing
Unlike Yahoo, which suffered the biggest security breach of all time, Twitter has done a relatively solid job keeping its users' information secure. When hacks happen, it's usually because the victim failed to make use of easy account tools like two-factor authentication. Good job, Twitter, and knock on wood.
We Might Need More Money and Might Not Be Able to Get It -- Failing
In late 2016, Twitter went into acquisition talks with Salesforce, Google, and the Walt Disney Company. All three companies ultimately decided against making a bid. The main reason was Twitter's rampant abuse and harassment. A lack of potential acquirers suggests Twitter will have a hard time raising or borrowing a large amount of capital if it's ever in dire need.
Spam Hurts Our Service -- Failing
Twitter now claims 328 million active users, but a big asterisk hangs on that figure. That's because nearly 50 million of those users might not actually be humans. A study released in March found that 15 percent of the service's users are bots, meaning they are of no use to advertisers.
For Twitter, this is a problem that must be handled in a delicate manner. Certainly, the company does not want bots spamming its actual users and diluting the user base, but if the company decided to take down every bot, it would not only be a gargantuan effort but it would cut the service's user count in humiliating fashion.
Acquisitions Are Key to Our Growth -- Passing (with room for improvement)
Tech giants must be good at two things: developing their own innovations and knowing when to buy others' technology. Twitter isn't too good at the former, but the company has fared well with the latter.
In 2012, the company bought Vine before the release of the app, and in 2015, Twitter did the same with Periscope. Both acquisitions were wise moves. Each app became a hit after its launch. However, Twitter bungled the postlaunch development each time.
Earlier this year, Twitter shut down Vine after the app was crushed by rival Instagram, and similarly, Periscope has struggled to compete with live streaming features on both Facebook and Instagram. Periscope isn't dead yet, but if Twitter wants to make something out of its investment, it needs to improve the development of the app.
Twitter is a better service now than it was a year ago, but just because you've patched up a few holes doesn't mean the Titanic is no longer sinking.