Death of a unicorn: Inside one of the biggest startup failures of all time - and Powa Technologies boss Dan Wagner's surprise statement

 
Lynsey Barber
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Powa's unicorn status was indeed a myth (Source: Getty)

Powa Technologies, once valued at more than $1bn making it one of Britain's rare breed of so-called unicorns, collapsed into tech myth earlier this year.

In fact, it was one of the most well funded startups in the world to ever fail, according to tech data gurus at CB Insights, after raising multi-millions of pounds worth of investment.

Now, the administrator's report reveals all the in-depth finances of the fallen fintech star - although Powa boss Dan Wagner has contested the collapse was "random".

"It’s the business equivalent of walking across the street and being hit by a car. It is one of those things which sometimes happens which is completely random," said Wagner, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 In Business show and for the first time publicly since the collapse.

"It doesn’t necessarily reflect on what we were building, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on the capability or the experience or the management capacity to deliver value. It doesn’t necessarily reflect whether or not the valuation was right or wrong. Certainly in this case I can tell you it was just one of those extraordinary things that should never have happened."

He also claimed Wellington - the investment firm that appointed Deloitte as administrator of Powa - did not inform him or the board of the administration. Wellington had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

How much does it cost to home a unicorn?

We always knew that prestigious position inside the City's Heron Tower skyscraper would cost a lot. And it did. £2.3m was spent on "accrued rent" in 2015 alone.

After the collapse, Knight Frank advised that a sale of the leases for floor 34 and 35 were "unlikely to generate any premium value" for creditors, while the deposit on the lease for both floors covered arrears under the terms of the lease.

The figures

Powa in the UK, where its three main businesses PowaTag, PowaWeb and PowaPOS were run, counted losses of £31.8m in 2015, on revenue of £4.9m.

Money was coming in principally from just two of the three businesses, and while revenue increased from £667,000 in 2013, Deloitte notes the rising costs of staff, property and other overheads resulted in material losses for the business.

Those losses last year were lower than the previous year's £38.5m loss, but were almost twice as much as 2013. In addition to the rent, the cost of salaries was the largest outlay - £24m for its 90-odd UK staff.

The Powa holding company acted solely as an investment vehicle for the rest of the group, the report notes, and included a single director's salary and contractor costs of £221,000.

Cash in the bank upon administration for the combined businesses stood at just £277,800 and £1,600 in petty cash.

How much do unicorn remains go for?

Despite the failure, there were 45 expressions of interest in the business. That resulted in two offers for PowaTag and PowaWeb.

Bidco, a consortium of former Powa director and Notion Capital co-founder Ben White and Powa's original backer Wellington Capital, snapped up PowaTag in the form of £42.8m in debt release.

PowaWeb went to digital agency Greenlight for £200k.

City A.M. understands a buyer for PowaPOS has been found and a deal is expected to be finalised this week.​

How much does it cost to grow a unicorn?

2013

£53m equity investment

2014

£14m equity investment

£42m of debt financing

£6m in short term funding

2015

£29m of debt financing

Failed to repay £42m, leading eventually to administration after payment renegotiations failed.

Total = £143m

Investment at the time of administration totalled £143m and that's unlikely to be returned to secured creditors - Wellington - apart from the debt release for PowaTag. Unsecured creditors will not see any of their £74m returned.

Yale lecturer Vikram Mansharamani told the BBC: "Clearly the business was not succeeding. There was a fundamental breakdown in this model. It was not able to produce returns for the invested capital."

"When the company was sent into administration, supposedly through the actions from Wellington management, I think that was because Wellington had realised, the company was likely not going to succeed and suddenly thought it was best to turn towards recovery rather than stay focused on the upside. And so it was a very rapid shift from this fear of missing out to this fear of capturing losses. And that's what happens when bubbles burst, people shift their sentiment very rapidly."

When asked about the effect of Powa's collapse on the UK's fintech boom shortly after it went into administration, Silicon Valley Bank's Europe chief Phil Cox said it's a part of the market for professional investors.

"When you invest in companies it's risky, it reminds us all. Some investments make big returns, others don’t deliver," he told City A.M..

"It’s a natural thing. Venture capital is that, otherwise it would be called a sure bet."

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