Rambler found his niche in the pocket of German Gref

The history of Rambler - from the largest company of the Russian Internet to the Sberbank showcase.
Origin source
Sberbank is preparing to buy from Alexander Mamut a 46.5% stake in Rambler Group, one of the first large Internet companies in Russia. The talks did not take too long: “Mamut has a special gift of conviction, and he really needed to avoid bankruptcy,” one of his acquaintances ironically. After the company lost the competition in the search, it did not find new areas for the development of technologies, many times changed owners and teams, now another reincarnation awaits it. This time Rambler should turn into a showcase for numerous services, invented or bought by the team of German Gref. The Bell found out what Sberbank’s interest was.

More than “Yandex”

In the summer of 2000 in the program “What? Where? When? ”There was a small technological revolution. Interactive was added to the spinning drum and the crystal owl - for the first time in the history of one of the most famous Russian TV games, not only experts but also a team of Internet users could take part in it. A thousand people, randomly selected by a computer, answered the question for the same time as the participants in the studio, and then the program chose the most common answer. This is a partnership with “What? Where? When? ”Was at that time almost the only advertising campaign of Rambler, but without any advertising the search engine was the most popular resource on the Russian-language Internet.

"The absolute leader of the Runet, more than" Yandex "three times and Mail.ru - ten times," - recalled in his book "Life inside the bubble" former development director Rambler Igor Ashmanov. The Rambler created in 1996 really turned into a market leader for three years - its share in runet among all sites was 24%, followed by the American AltaVista with 16%, Yandex had 14.5%.

But losing everything was even faster. Unlike the same “Yandex”, Rambler is too early to cease to be a founder company. The creator of the search engine Dmitry Kryukov was tied with all the development and development of the service, his first great successes were associated with his team - for example, turning the search into money through contextual advertising. The rapidly growing market could not fail to attract the attention of investors - in 1999, a controlling stake in Rambler for all of $ 6 million from the founders was bought by the investment company Russian Funds and Orion Capital Advisors. For comparison: at the IPO, which took place after six years, the company, which had lost its technological advantage by that time and yielded precedence in the search for Yandex, was valued at more than $ 150 million.

“The mistake of the very first financial investors was to take control of the company from the founders and quarrel with them,” venture investor Leonid Boguslavsky says in a conversation with The Bell. “In Yandex, the founding team was driven by friendly investors, this is the main difference” (Boguslavsky himself extremely successfully invested money in Yandex). The founders of Rambler left the company in 2001, having sold their share to the investment bank First Mercantile Capital Group (FMCG) of Yuri Lopatinsky.

“Rambler”, unfortunately, gave control to stock speculators who do not understand anything on the Internet, and they rushed to steer the portal, create new services, set the direction of development from the height of their ignorance, ”recalled Anton Nosik, who worked in the company in the early 2000s . Even then, "in the" Rambler "there was no one left who would play long," agrees one of the former top managers of "Poster Rambler".

“I left the Rambler, because the authorities there once again changed, started to invent a strategy from scratch, the new owners brought their people,” recalled Ashmanov, who in 2001 worked as executive director of the company and developed a new version of the search engine. After that, Rambler once again in several years changed managers, and with them the teams and development concepts.

Rambler lost the search market as soon as the founders left, first to Yandex, and in 2007, without a fight, gave second place to Google, which came to Russia. A few years after the departure of the Rambler founders, by inertia, it clung to its main direction - in 2008 the company announced that it was planning to create a new search engine and was preparing a portal redesign, and only in 2011 the defeat was recognized: Rambler just changed its engine to Yandex ". By that time, the company's share in the search did not exceed 1%, says its former top manager: “And this is normal: if in Yandex you have about 2,000 people working on a product, and you have 70, the result is predetermined.” Almost all the companies that were engaged in the search in the 1990s, in zero - died, he explains: the process of consolidation was going on all over the world. On a global scale, it was headed by Google, in Russia, with great difficulty and great losses, Yandex managed to keep the lead in the search.

It was a variant following the example of competitors to find new niches, but Rambler didn’t work with that. The company tried to find itself in other areas, but since they wanted quick victories, the management and shareholders chose areas where others already had some success, which means there was high competition, says a former top manager of the “Afisha Rambler ":" Then the shareholder changed - and the direction of development changed again. In addition, shareholders were not from this business segment, and each of them at least took time to simply understand the market. ”

Oligarchs and the Internet

But one more time Rambler still managed to play the role of a pioneer. In early June 2005, the entire Russian Internet market was closely following the opening of trading on the London Stock Exchange: the first foreign IPO among Russian Internet companies was held there. Rambler received $ 40 million for 26% of its shares. He spent spending as a media company, and was going to spend the raised money on the purchase of new Internet portals and access to the online commerce sector. The first part of the Rambler was represented by its own radio station and TV channel, and most importantly - by the Lenta.ru portal, around which new media were formed - about real estate, travel, computers, cars, etc. Rambler added one of the first sites in runet for price comparison of Price.ru and a service for placing contextual advertising “Runner”. At the time of the IPO, the company's new shareholder was the Media First Mercantile New Ventures Fund with a 50.1% stake.

“It’s easy to explain the interest of so many generations of investors to the Rambler,” says one of the former top managers of the company. “For them, it was a“ HYIP story. ” “Rambler” for many people who are not familiar with the market is almost like Yandex, only cheaper. It seems like the Internet business too, older people are in the same row almost with Google. I think that is why it was so often sold and bought, ”he argues. But at the end of 2006, the holding seemed to have finally got a new strategic shareholder. Approximately the same package as now Sberbank, bought Vladimir Potanin.

The meaning of the transaction was the unification of disparate media assets. Profanmedia Potanin at that time had publishing houses Afisha, Komsomolskaya Pravda, TV channels 2 × 2 and TV-3. The capitalization of Rambler, which amounted to $ 440 million, after joining ProfMedia almost doubled. But the share of users simultaneously fell from 19% to 16.8%. When the company promised to restart the search and make a redesign, analysts on the Internet market commented - not bad that Rambler had a strategy.

In the fall of 2009, Interros began buying Rambler from minority shareholders, and by the end of the year the company had delisted. Potanin was going to return the money at the expense of Profmedia's IPO, but the crisis broke out and these plans had to be abandoned. By 2013, Potanin finally lost interest in the media business. One part of his holding company, Rambler-Poster, which included Rambler, Afisha, Lenta.ru, Price.ru and Runner, Interros, in the same year joined Alexander Mamut with the assets, immediately considering the option to exit . And the second — all the TV channels and radio stations — was sold to Gazprom-Media, headed by Mikhail Lesin, who consolidated media assets for Yuri Kovalchuk. The control of the Rambler shards was transferred to Mamut. “We didn’t see big business decisions in the media, and we didn’t consider ourselves experts on the Internet — the second Yandex from Rambler, we understood, it wasn’t done,” the source in Interros now explains.

For Mamut, the deal with Potanin turned out to be a strategic mistake: Interros, when combined with its Internet assets (Gazeta.ru, LiveJournal.com and Championat.com), received an option to sell its 50% of the group for $ 295 million. “Alexander is a keen person in a good sense of the word - our Richard Branson, creativity is about him, - says the interlocutor of The Bell in Interros. - Strelka, cinemas, big media business. He was very involved in all of this, spent a lot of time on Rambler. We in this process stayed aside and initially provided an exit strategy in the form of an option. Time passed, and we took advantage of it. ” In January 2017, Mamut was forced to buy back Interros’s share, although in rubles the value of the option doubled from 9.7 billion rubles to 18.1 billion. If you recalculate the amount of the current transaction in dollars, Sberbank will pay for 46.5% of Rambler shares $ 170 million

Formally, Rambler with an audience of 34.8 million people by that time remained the third player in the runet, but competitors were already out of reach: the Yandex capitalization exceeded $ 8.5 billion, Mail.ru Group - $ 4.8 billion. 2014 ranked only fifth after Mail.ru, Yandex, Google and VKontakte.

A large loan - 4.6 billion rubles - Rambler took back in 2014 at the Otkritie Bank, where Mamut was a minority shareholder. Even then, Expert RA agency assigned the company a pre-default rating. Mamut probably also had to look for money to exercise the option, because Rambler himself did not bring it.

After the merger, the company announced that it would become technological again. The technology was planned to attract from the outside - for this, even two accelerators for startups were created. But in 2014, another CEO left the group - Peter Zakharov came from Apple. The reason was that Zakharov allegedly did not form a new strategy for the company, Vedomosti wrote: he had been preparing for more than a year, and in the end offered to bet on video content, mobile applications and native advertising, which Mamut did not like.

Instead of a hired manager, the billionaire himself decided to run the company. In an interview with Rambler Lenta.ru, Mamut explained that the Internet business had always seemed to him "the most interesting and promising" and "the year that had passed since the merger only strengthened" him in this opinion. “I was quite involved in the integration processes in Rambler & Co. Apparently, I got carried away, and now I feel a great desire to invest maximum effort in the development of the company, ”he said in April 2014.

A month before, an appeal to the readers from the editorial board appeared on the same portal. It said that Mamut, for unnamed reasons, dismissed Galina Timchenko, editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru, and Alexey Goreslavsky was appointed new editor-in-chief. “We believe that this appointment is a direct pressure on the Lenta.ru editorial board. The dismissal of an independent editor-in-chief and the appointment of a person controlled, including directly from the Kremlin offices, is a violation of the law on the media, which says that censorship is unacceptable, ”the editorial office reported. 84 people subscribed to this text.

Timchenko herself in an interview with the publication Colta.ru a week later told me that she felt “the clouds are gathering” even three months before her dismissal, watching the “narrowing of the information field” in other Rambler media projects: “Your colleagues, despite the obvious processes on the Ukraine, sharply reduce the Ukrainian agenda. There are only two or three sites that give a complete picture of the information, and the rest do not give it to the air. After all, I have been living in this world for years and I understand perfectly well what a block of information is. ”

One of the reasons for Timchenko’s dismissal in the editorial office itself was the name given to Roskomnadzor’s warning, which Lenta received in the morning of the same day. In an interview with the special correspondent of Ilya Azar’s publication with one of the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalist movement Right Sector, there was a link to third-party material, “Dmytro Yarosh: Sooner or later, we are doomed to fight the Moscow Empire,” which Roskomnadzor considered extremist. The editors removed the link, but Mamut was not satisfied with this decision: along with Timchenko, according to the information of the editorial journalists, he demanded that Azar, who at the time was reporting from Ukraine, be dismissed.

Loans and Debts

Since 2013, Lenta.ru has been one of two profitable assets of Rambler - in 2015 it earned 8.5 million rubles, in 2017 - 19.8 million rubles. The second was Gazeta.ru (47 million and 23 million rubles of profit in 2015–2016). But the holding remained unprofitable: in 2015, the loss across the entire group amounted to 49 million rubles, and in 2016 its main legal entity Rambler Internet Holding was pledged to Otkrytie.

A year later, after the bank was reorganized, together with other bad debts, Rambler went to Trust Bank. His current financial results and size of liabilities are not disclosed, but the head of the bank, Alexander Sokolov, said that the group’s debts are billions of rubles. There is no task to restructure loans from “Trust” - at the beginning of this year the bank, which itself is being reorganized, asked even those customers who serviced loans and paid them off on time to pay in advance.

Attempts to sell an asset or merge with one of the stronger players did not take place before Mamut’s deal with Sberbank. “The problem is that the media assets on the Russian Internet market in recent years have risen sharply in price, and everyone counted in advance the money they earn,” argued in 2014 about the joint venture of Mamut and Potanin, former press minister and ex-head Gazprom-Media Mikhail Lesin. - But in my opinion, it was completely inadequate. It is clear that now the owners of these assets go and offer them at the price that they had already decided for themselves. But they are faced with the fact that we do not perceive these assets and do not believe that they are worth so much. ” Potanin’s repeat of success and the integration of Rambler’s Internet assets into Gazprom-Media Mamut failed.

Insignificant deal

Sberbank buys a stake in Rambler, repaying all its debts. “All the funds that we invest,” the shareholders do not leave a penny, they will all be directed to repay the debt, ”German Gref explained to journalists. “After the transaction, the company will have no debt at all, and most of the funds will be directed to the technological modernization of the platform and the purchase of content.”

What amount is involved, the parties did not disclose, but referring to sources, RBC wrote that we are talking about 9–11 billion (the exact size of the debt, like consolidated financial indicators, Rambler has not disclosed for several years). “I can only say that this is an insignificant part of our net profit,” commented Gref on the amount of the transaction and future investments. In the first quarter alone, Sberbank earned almost a quarter of 1 trillion rubles - the bank plans to receive as much per year by 2020. In the future, Sberbank may increase its stake in Rambler, “but today we have enough,” said Gref.

The transaction was not supported by all top managers of Sberbank - the bulk of the team was against it, a source close to the bank told Reuters. But Gref himself and his first deputy chief operating officer Lev Khasis were convinced of its necessity. “It is not very clear yet what the company's complementarity is for the bank and the ecosystem it has been building for several years. The team also has questions about why we need related businesses in the form of media and a cinema, ”he said. Khasis last year was the author of the idea that Sberbank should increase its share and influence in Yandex, sources told The Bell. But “Yandex” had its own opinion on this matter, the negotiations did not lead to anything.

Sberbank itself, according to its strategy, should turn from a bank into a technology company, and the end of the “bank” thinks to donate even in its name. Whether a Rambler is necessary for this is a moot point. But an important part of Sberbank’s strategy is to create an ecosystem that works as a full-service supermarket, explains Boguslavsky, who, at the invitation of Gref, in 2017 entered the supervisory board of Sberbank. This is achieved by a single client identification for all services of this system: “A person who today uses only one specific service, the same online cinema, gets access to many other services, including financial ones, through the mechanisms of cross-benefits. In fact, he is offered mutual loyalty and convenience in a large field of services so that he does not need to go outside the system. This will allow Sberbank to continue to develop dynamically and delight shareholders. ”

Now the Sberbank ecosystem includes about two dozen very different companies, among which is the Beru marketplace with Yandex (the project started and went very hard, said The Bell interviewees close to the companies), DocDoc medical service, VisionLabs face recognition system other.

A year ago, Sberbank, together with Rambler, announced plans to create a service for restaurants “Foodplex” - this will be a “revolution in the restaurant market,” wrote Vedomosti. It was assumed that users will be able to book tables and order food home, and also make an order on the way to the restaurant, pay the bill without waiting for the waiter, and leave a tip with a card. All this was also called an ecosystem, and the plans were to capture up to 70% of restaurants. The Rambler in the project should provide an online service of user recommendations “Poster.Restarans”, Sberbank is a service for paying the bill without the participation of a Plazius waiter, and the R-Keeper restaurant automation system should also be included in a single platform. The idea was to combine the competencies of several companies at once on a single platform, but so far this platform has not worked. At the same time, separately there are already alternative projects on the market: in the food delivery, fierce competition is unfolding between Yandex and Mail.ru Group, there are services for booking tables and alternative suppliers of restaurant management systems.

Sberbank has been working outside the traditional banking sector for a long time: they work with start-ups, are looking for new technologies - albeit with reference to fintech, but not directly connected with banking services, says Sergey Polovnikov, head of the agency Content Review. The assets of Rambler can be useful to Sberbank not so much to promote financial services, but to try out other technologies, he says: something like a second-tier football team: while the younger players are not yet ready to play in the Premier League, they need a platform for workouts.

Most of all in the purchase of Rambler Sberbank was interested in the online cinema Rambler Okko - the second largest player in the Russian market after ivi.ru. The video service will be an important component for bank customers, a source close to him told The Bell. “This is probably the most interesting asset in this deal - if Gref wants to build a digital ecosystem, then video consumption is what people spend almost the most time on,” argues a former top manager, Rambler. In addition, Okko is a strong team that can manage rights and build streaming services, “this is a good asset,” he adds.

Sberbank spends a lot of manpower and money on its technological transformation, but the introduction of purchased or created technologies in the very ecosystem of the bank is not working very efficiently, according to Polovnikov. “German Gref is very focused on innovation, but completely divorced from reality - this is the reason that Sberbank now has a huge pile of services and services that are absolutely not intertwined with each other. For example, they have a virtual operator that has been renamed several times already, but it still does not take off at all, ”he adds.

Sberbank itself is ready to wait - in the next five years, it does not expect from its technological projects "some kind of return in the form of high profits," Gref admitted, but later - he hopes that they will make a big contribution to the "total financial result."