Facebook Inc. filed for an initial public offering... that could value the social network between $75 billion and $100 billion, putting the company on track for one of the biggest U.S. stock-market debuts of all time. The company that has redefined the way millions of people worldwide interact and share information on the Internet may command a valuation more than five times higher than Google Inc. as it seeks to raise $5 billion.
Depending on who you ask, Facebook is either the best company to go public since Google or the hallmark of another tech bubble. Facebook's IPO could be a bellwether for the entire social networking world; it could help generate interest and money for other big Internet players, like Twitter while a huge influx of cash could enable the social networking company to topple Google from its dominant position in the online world.
Just about everyone in Silicon Valley has dreamed of striking it rich with a well-timed investment… Facebook's biggest shareholder and chief executive owns 533.8 million shares, or a roughly 28 percent stake, worth around $28 billion. That would make the 27-year-old the fourth-richest American, according to Forbes' 2011 rankings, surpassed only by Microsoft Corp's Bill Gates, legendary investor Warren Buffett and Oracle Corp's Larry Ellison. Zuckerberg has 56.9 percent of the voting shares, followed by Accel Partners with 11.4 percent, James Breyer with 11.4 percent, co-founder Dustin Moskovitz with 7.6 percent, DST Global with 5.5 percent and entrepreneur Peter Thiel with 2.4 percent. The company's board of directors—including Washington Post Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Don Graham—were also listed as stakeholders. Former Google executive Sheryl Sandberg, now Facebook's chief operating officer, has a smaller Class B share allocation, as does Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, a member of the Facebook board since 2008.
With approximately a third of Facebook's roughly 3,000 employees becoming millionaires overnight, thousands of new "millionerds" will have vast amounts of disposable income, and the local economy hopes to reap the benefits. Some vendors are already experiencing the "Facebook Effect." Two brand-new Porsches, price tags still stuck to windows, were seen leaving the Facebook campus yesterday. The graffiti artist who took Facebook stock instead of cash for painting the walls of the social network's first headquarters made a smart bet. The shares owned by the artist, David Choe, are expected to be worth upward of $200 million when Facebook stock trades publicly later this year.
One of the biggest challenges Facebook will face is the gulf between the have's and have-not's within Facebook. It can create tremendous internal stress and can result in people leaving to follow their own entrepreneurial dreams. The Facebook IPO will make some people very rich, but social-media experts suggest that it could force Facebook to put profits over user experience—and that could cause problems.
Investors will be clamoring to get ahold of Facebook stock, with many hoping to get in before the company figures things out and the stock takes off. Actually, those wanting to get in on the Facebook IPO might soon find out what it feels like to get "unfriended." When it comes to the initial public offering of Facebook, the world's largest social network, there's ironically very little for the masses. Facebook's IPO, as with most IPOs, will only be sold at the offering price to privileged investors.
The investing world certainly seems to be working itself into a frenzy over the looming Facebook IPO. But before you jump in thinking you finally have a way to make real money from FarmVille and Words With Friends, you had better know your history… 1999 was a spectacular one for IPOs with 555 companies raising a record $73.6 billion, [yet] half of all issues lost money. Even more amazing, nearly 75 percent of all U.S. Internet-related IPOs since mid-1995 were trading below their offering price at the time of publication.
Let's do the math. Microsoft is trading at only 11 times its net income for fiscal 2011. Google is valued at about 20 times its 2011 profits. If Facebook were to fetch a $100 billion market value, that would give it a price-to-earnings ratio of 100.
The numbers in Facebook's IPO filing on Wednesday give us the picture of a juggernaut, but not an unstoppable one. What could go wrong on Facebook's march to one of the biggest IPOs in history? Let Facebook tell you—a fall-off in growth of users, a clash between Facebook's culture and the expectations of public investors, and advertiser resistance to the company's advances. [Its] revenue total disappointed some people who pored through the documents. One reason: The company generates about $4.39 in revenue per user.
Every service Facebook offers, from photo sharing to music streaming to virtual animal husbandry, is designed to gather information about users in the hope that online advertisers will pay a premium for specific targeting. So far, enthusiasm for the idea has reportedly generated modest annual profits for Facebook of around $1 billion, or just over $1 per user per year. But the biggest opportunity may yet lay in getting users to participate in and distribute to their friends ad campaigns that are part of their social experience may yet hold greater promise. It is a long way from there, however. The precise ad targeting enabled by that information is why Facebook now claims nearly 30 percent of online display advertising, having long since blasted past the runner-up in the category, Yahoo, according to ComScore… But when you get down to it, as a colleague of mine said, "It's a thin coat of paint over a massive data-mining operation."
Despite money generated from advertising accounting for 85 per cent of Facebook's revenues last year, and its net income in 2011 reaching $1billion, the company will have to radically change the way it cashes in on its users' data to make good on its valuation. In its IPO filing Facebook mentions the word "mobile" 123 times, which, given the term's buzz-worthy status, is hardly surprising. But in most cases Facebook doesn't use the word "mobile" in positive ways. They make no money from mobile. What's worse, the more people use Facebook's mobile services, the more money it loses. As Facebook states in its list of risk factors, "if users continue to increasingly access Facebook mobile products as a substitute for access through personal computers, and if we are unable to successfully implement monetization strategies for our mobile users, our revenue and financial results may be negatively affected."
Why? No ads. 85% of Facebook's $3.7 billion revenues in 2011 came from advertising, and those ads were all on its website. Facebook's advertising strategy has, as yet, not made the leap from web to mobile.
Among the more colorful details of Facebook's 150-page S-1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission is a letter from founder Mark Zuckerberg setting out the social network's "mission." In the letter, the 27-year-old Harvard University graduate grandly draws comparisons between Facebook and the invention of the printing press for changing the way the world communicates. "Facebook was not originally created to be a company," Zuckerberg wrote. "It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected." He added: "Facebook aspires to build the services that give people the power to share and help them once again transform many of our core institutions and industries."
Critics say users don't need friends like Facebook. "Facebook is incredibly greedy with our personal information. It wants to own us and our online identity," said Andrew Keen, author of the upcoming book "Digital Vertigo," who calls himself the founding member of what he calls the "Facebook resistance." "There is nothing altruistic about it. This is a pure financial play. Tech workers and investors are going to become obscenely rich."
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg
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[Image: Flickr user ssoosay]