Alhough the company turned in solid results, including a 42 percent increase in revenue, a slowdown in growth of its key license business was a cause of investor concern.
Tableau’s stock plunged as much as 50 percent in after-hours trading Thursday after the company reported slowing sales growth in its North American business.
The Seattle business-intelligence company beat analysts’ expectations for both revenue and earnings in the fourth quarter, but license revenue lagged expectations.
Overall, Tableau reported $202.8 million in revenue, a 42 percent increase from the same period in 2014, and a loss of $41.3 million.
During the full year, Tableau posted revenue of $653.6 million, a 58 percent increase over 2014; it reported a $83.7 million loss for the year.
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At the end of the regular-trading day Thursday, Tableau shares were up $2.14, or 2.7 percent, to $81.75. Then, after the fourth-quarter results were released, the stock nose-dived in after-hours trading to about $40. It recovered somewhat to $52.41, down $29.34, or 35.9 percent.
Tableau provides software to help businesses make charts and graphs from data. Businesses can pay more to expand the services and make the software available to more employees.
Brent Thill, a UBS analyst, called the dramatic stock drop “a shocker for everyone.”
“This is a classic great run that everyone just perpetually thought was going to continue, and then the airbrakes came on in the U.S.,” he said.
Tableau said that license revenue grew 31 percent during the quarter, a sharp drop from the 57 percent growth it posted in the third quarter. The company reported $133.1 million in license revenue for the quarter, slightly lower than the $135 million analysts expected.
Tableau does not break out its license revenue results by region.
On a conference call with analysts, Tableau executives said the company is continuing to attract new customers quickly, but existing U.S. customers were not expanding their licenses as fast as expected.
Tableau added 3,600 customers during the quarter, up from 2,600 added in the fourth quarter of 2014.
“Customers were expanding in Q4; we just saw it in smaller buckets,” Chief Financial Officer Tom Walker said on the call. “…We don’t think we’re anywhere near that (saturation) point with customers.”
Walker also pointed to Tableau’s rapid hiring as part of the slowdown. The company brought on 1,061 employees during the year, and finding and training them costs time.
Thill was quick to point out this is a hiccup for Tableau, not a sign of worse things to come.
“We still believe the company has an incredible foundation and technology that is way ahead of their competition,” he said. “We think this is more of a growing pain than a sign of any issue that’s wrong with the company.”
Many, if not all, large software companies experience similar growing pains, he said. Still, Thill said he had “rarely seen great companies like this have their stocks cut in half.”
Tableau’s stock continued to fall during the company’s conference call with analysts when it announced guidance for the current quarter.
Tableau said it is being “cautious” in projecting $160 million to $165 million in revenue for the first quarter, below the $179.5 million analysts were expecting.
Another signal of the cautious outlook is a $34.1 million income-tax expense in the fourth quarter because the company does not expect to make enough that all its deferred tax assets will be realized.
The company also called 2016 an “investment year,” which usually indicates it expects low profits or losses.
Tableau has been amassing real estate in Seattle and Kirkland as it rapidly expands its head count. The company expects to hire 1,000 more people this year.
Wall Street is also likely concerned because Tableau’s longtime sales chief, Kelly Wright, announced she planned to retire at the end of the year. Tableau executives assured analysts that the transition would be smooth, especially since Wright will stay on to see the transition through.
A new sales chief has not been announced.
Tableau has nearly always beat Wall Street expectations, so it was a surprise when licensing revenue was off this quarter, said Abhey Lamba, a senior technology analyst with Mizuho Securities.
Tableau’s overall revenue continues to climb year over year, but at a slowing rate. Revenue increased more than 100 percent in 2012, and more than 58 percent in 2015. The average annual growth rate since 2011 is 81 percent.
Tableau’s slower growth also comes as the software giant across Lake Washington, Microsoft, refocuses on the market for data crunching and analytics software.
Technology researcher Gartner says Microsoft and other established software companies were initially slow to respond to the rapid inroads Tableau was making in the business-intelligence market.
Microsoft’s renewed effort, Power BI (short for business intelligence), was launched in 2013 and competes directly with Tableau. Gartner this month, for the first time, named Microsoft its leading “visionary” in the realm of business intelligence and analytics.
Tableau CEO Christian Chabot on Thursday addressed the growing number of competitors but said “we’re very confident in the situation there.”
The company expects to release the 10th version of its flagship product soon, he said, and it expects that product to boost sales.
UBS’ Thill said it all comes down to execution.
“I don’t think this is a company fundamental issue, I don’t think it is a leadership issue. I think it comes down to they had a hiccup in North America and it’s just how long will it take to work out,” he said.