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投资理财

这个行业正在大爆发,但大数多人并不了解

Robert Hackett 2019年03月29日

云计算行业的繁荣培育出一大波满足软件编程者需求的快速增长公司。投资者如何从对API的需求中获利。

插图:Chris Gash

亚马逊因颠覆零售业而得到了诸多赞誉,也受到了很多批评;作为云计算行业先锋,它同样赢得了喝彩。与此同时,亚马逊给IT界带来的巨变催生出了一个全新业务类别,那就是应用程序编程接口(API)提供商。虽然此项业务仍然处在发展阶段,但它已经开始为一些有先见之明的投资者带来了收益。

这家大型科技企业的云计算业务Amazon Web Services已经成为推动联盟营销和为电子商务网站赋能的途径。而近几年这项业务又孕育出了一个宏大愿景。亚马逊正确地预见到通过向各种各样的公司提供基本IT功能可以让它大赚一笔。它是这么宣传的:不用担心所有那些乏味的基础设施维保工作,也不用担心计算、存储或者带宽。我们将为您处理这一切。

这个点子成了亚马逊的主要增长动力之一,在上一财年为它贡献了256亿美元收入,增幅高达47%,而且对微软和谷歌等亚马逊竞争对手来说也成了一门赚钱的生意。与此同时,火爆的云计算也引发了大规模连锁反应,从而出现了API“大爆炸”。

API是应用软件之间的桥梁,它让连接成为可能——就像电线上的插座,是数据流通和互动的渠道。投资管理公司D.A. Davidson & Co.的分析师瑞什·贾卢瑞尔说:“软件正在吃掉这个世界是流传最久的一种说法,而API正在吃掉软件。”

对企业用户来说,API提供商将SAP、甲骨文和IBM等提供的第一代笨重软件包拆解开来。他们把这些软件包变成了最简单的“零部件”,或者说像乐高积木那样的模块,分别用于通信、支付、内容管理、电子签名等方面。客户获得的同样主张也让云计算变得非常有吸引力。乏味的任务由别人承担,这样客户就可以把精力集中在重要事务上。举例来说,Uber和Lyft实现飞速增长的很大一部分原因就是他们可以通过API来导航、签约和交易。

这实现了双向繁荣。随着他们服务的科技公司不断扩张,API提供商也搭上了便车。目前,API型公司几乎都没有盈利,但随着他们数据通道和工具的流行,龙头提供商将获得“网络效应”,成为自身领域中的主导者和客户首选目标。由于API提供商服务的是软件开发商,所以他们可以在任何规模的公司内部打造追随者群体,他们的营销成本可以忽略,还能实现明显的规模效益。同时,随着他们的API得到更多的应用,这些提供商的收入也将上升。

初创公司Plaid用API将银行账号和金融科技应用连接在一起,比如支付软件Venmo和投资经纪软件Robinhood。该公司业务发展和策略负责人西玛·甘地说:“人们经常把我们称为水暖工。”尽管大多数消费者都没有听说过它的名字,但Plaid表示它的业务牵涉到美国四分之一的银行账户。甘地说:“我们把脏活都干了。”

Amazon gets lots of credit and flak for turning retail upside down; it also earns plaudits for its pioneering cloud-computing business. But in a still-unfurling development, the seismic shift that Amazon wrought in the IT world has spawned a whole new business category—providers of “APIs”—that has already begun paying off for a few prescient investors.

Amazon Web Services, the tech giant’s cloud-computing business, began as a way to boost affiliate marketing and power e-commerce sites. But within a few years, the project had incubated a grander vision. Amazon bet—correctly—that it could make a killing providing basic IT functions to all kinds of businesses. The pitch: Don’t worry about all that tedious infrastructure upkeep, or about computation, storage, or bandwidth. We’ll manage it for you.

The idea became one of Amazon’s primary growth drivers, contributing revenues of $25.6 billion in its most recent fiscal year and growing at a healthy 47% clip—and has become lucrative for rivals like Microsoft and Google too. But the cloud-computing boom has also generated a powerful knock-on ¬effect: an API-related Big Bang.

APIs, or application programming interfaces, are pieces of technology that act as bridges between software applications. APIs enable connection, like electrical outlets porting to power grids: They’re the conduits through which data flows and interacts. “There’s been this saying for the longest time that software is eating the world,” says Rishi Jaluria, an analyst at D.A. Davidson & Co. Now, he says, “APIs are eating software.”

For corporate customers, API providers are paring down the hulking software packages that characterized the first generation of enterprise tech sold by the likes of SAP, Oracle, and IBM. Purveyors of APIs reduce these packages to their simplest component parts: Lego-like modules for communications, payments, content management, electronic signatures, and more. Customers get the same proposition that made cloud computing so attractive. Someone else handles the humdrum tasks, so they can focus on what matters. Uber and Lyft, for instance, owe much of their breakneck growth to the fact that they could turn to APIs for navigation, sign-up, and transactions.

The prosperity flows both ways. As the tech companies they serve expand, API providers get to hitch along for the ride. Right now, few API-oriented companies are profitable, but as their data pipes and tools catch on, the leading providers are likely to enjoy “network effects,” becoming the dominant, go-to choices in their categories. Because API providers cater to developers, they’re able to build followings inside and across organizations of all sizes, with negligible marketing costs and powerful economies of scale. And as their APIs get used more, the providers will get paid more.

“People often call us plumbers,” says Sima Gandhi, who heads business development and strategy at Plaid, which uses APIs to connect bank accounts to fintech applications such as payments app Venmo and investment brokerage Robinhood. The startup claims to have hooks in one out of four bank accounts in the U.S., despite most consumers never having heard of it. “We do the dirty work,” Gandhi says.

由于上述API趋势是如此之新,以至于大多数投资活动仍限于私募市场。但对有见地的投资者来说,为他们提供介入方案的上市公司越来越多。

Twilio公司(TWLO)的首席执行官杰夫·劳森曾长期供职于亚马逊云计算部门。这家公司的大多数收入都来自通信API,后者帮助其他公司通过短信和电话和客户联系。这是一个增长稳定的领域,随着自家产品的腾飞,Twilio的股价去年增长了两倍以上。JMP Securities的分析师帕特里克·沃尔瑞文斯向打算投资估值水平较低的通信API概念股的人士推荐Bandwidth公司(BAND),因为市场“还没有特别透彻地理解”这家电信公司的业务基本面。Twilio去年实现收入6.50亿美元,股价约为收入水平的18倍;而收入2.04亿美元的Bandwidth的估值仅为5倍。

API还在影响着支付过程,因为它们帮助商家、银行和消费者进行联系。这个市场中最成熟的API提供商是非上市公司Stripe。但股市投资者可以通过正在快速赶上来的Adyen公司(AYDEN)介入这一领域。Adyen是一家荷兰支付处理公司,上一财年的收入规模为19.5亿美元,Uber和Spotify都是它的客户。

另一家正在崛起的企业是Okta公司(OKTA),它推出的“ID管理”技术可以让人们摆脱麻烦的密码。该公司的首席执行官托德·麦金农说,他们最初只销售用于工作场所的ID产品,但他们很快就发现自己的企业客户急需辨识用户身份的方法。麦金农认为后一个市场的规模有可能超过源于工作场所的ID产品市场。除了原有产品,Okta现在还向Adobe和美高梅国际酒店集团等公司销售以客户为中心的API类产品。2017年上市以来,Okta的股价已上涨260%以上,但JMP Securities的沃尔瑞文斯最近在报告中指出,Okta的估值“刚好体现出它引人注目的增长速度”。

位于澳大利亚的企业Atlassian公司(TEAM)的业务不是提供API,而是向软件开发商提供工具,以便后者运用其他公司的API产品。比如,它的产品Jira可以帮助编程人员和项目经理追踪软件开发进度和软件漏洞等问题,另一款工具Confluence则可以帮助开发商协同编程(就像Twilio的劳森所说,如果把编程人员比作饼干加工厂的员工,那么Atlassian提供的就是烘烤盘)。Atlassian的“粉丝群”正在壮大。2018财年该公司收入同比上涨41%,达到8.74亿美元,再加上IT运营和服务市场,它的收入上升空间非常大,可以达到200亿美元。

这些API公司很小也很新,投机色彩较大。但风投公司Bessemer Venture Partners的投资人拜伦·迪特尔相信他们的“增压”业务模式就要结出硕果。迪特尔是Twilio和SendGrid的早期投资者。SendGrid则是一家以API为主的电子邮件公司,最近被Twilio收购。迪特尔说:“今后几年股市上将会出现一大批这样的公司。”(财富中文网)

本文另一版本刊登在2019年4月出版的《财富》杂志上,标题为《押宝科技积木》。

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

Because the API trend is so new, most of the action remains in the private markets. But a growing field of publicly traded companies offers options for savvy investors.

Twilio (twlo), whose CEO, Jeff Lawson, is a veteran of Amazon’s cloud business, derives most of its revenue from communications APIs—linkages that help businesses contact customers through text messages and phone calls. It’s a steadily growing category, and Twilio’s stock more than tripled over the past year as the product took off. For those seeking to invest in the communications API trend at a lower valuation, Patrick Walravens, an analyst at JMP Securities, recommends Bandwidth (BAND), a telecom concern whose business fundamentals are “not particularly well understood yet” by the market. Twilio trades at a multiple of around 18 times last year’s revenue of $650 million; Bandwidth trades at just five times its $204 million in revenue.

APIs are also making an impact in payment processing, where they help connect merchants, banks, and consumers. The most mature API player in this market is Stripe, which is privately held. But public-market investors can get exposure to a fast follower, Adyen (AYDEN), a ¬Netherlands-based payment processor that brought in $1.95 billion last fiscal year and counts Uber and Spotify among its customers.

Another up-and-comer is Okta (okta), which sells “identity management” tech that eliminates the hassle of passwords. The company originally sold identity products for use just in the workplace, says Todd McKinnon, Okta’s CEO, but soon found its corporate customers clamoring for a way to verify the identities of their customers—a market McKinnon believes could grow to be bigger than the workplace one. In addition to the initial product, Okta now sells a customer-focused, API-powered product to companies ranging from Adobe to MGM Resorts. The company’s share price has zoomed more than 260% since its 2017 IPO, but JMP’s Walravens recently wrote that its valuation “fairly captures the company’s impressive growth.”

Atlassian (team), an Australian outfit, specializes not in providing APIs but rather in offering developers the tools they need to work with the APIs other companies supply. Its Jira product, for instance, helps coders and project managers track software progress, bugs, and other issues, while its Confluence tool enables developers to collaborate on coding. (As Twilio’s Lawson puts it: If your coders ran a cookie factory, Atlassian would supply the baking sheets.) Its fan base is growing; in its 2018 fiscal year, revenue rose 41% over the year prior, to $874 million, and it has plenty of room to expand in the $20 billion–plus market for IT operations and service.

Small and new as they are, these API-first businesses are relatively speculative bets. But Byron Deeter, an investor at Bessemer Venture Partners and an early backer of both Twilio and SendGrid, an API-focused email business that Twilio recently acquired, believes their turbocharged business models are only now coming to fruition. “You’re going to see a lot more of these companies in the public markets in the years ahead,” he says.

A version of this article appears in the April 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Betting on Tech’s Building Blocks.”

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