Facebook Might Be Planning a Very Smart Pivot
Facebook wants to bank its financial future on more than online advertising. In fact, the company wants to become a bank.
According to the Financial Times, Facebook is awaiting authorization from Ireland's central bank to become an "e-money" institution, which would allow users in that country to store money on the site and make payments to individuals throughout Europe.
In addition, Facebook has allegedly been in discussions with some startups in the international money transfer business, including mobile solutions.
Is this a smart move or a desperate pivot à la Google Glass? Probably a bit of both, and that offers a lesson for entrepreneurs.
A Little Bit Desperate...
On one hand, things are going well for Facebook. Revenue in 2013 was up 55 percent over 2012; earnings climbed by more than two-thirds. By the end of the year, monthly active users were up by 16 percent.
And yet, all is not bright. Pressure on advertising rates continues to squeeze companies. Google got punished in its earnings call the other day, even with 19 percent year-over-year growth. Aside from questions about the wisdom of Google's acquiring and then selling Motorola, the true issue was the price of ads. Even as the number of paid ad clicks climbed last quarter compared to 2013, the average price per ad dropped by 9 percent.
This particular story has been ongoing for some time. Google is getting more thoroughly into mobile ads, where prices are lower because they don't seem to do as well for advertisers. And regular ads are getting less expensive, as smarter ad buying, alternatives, and other factors keep the pressure up.
Yahoo just saw a similar pattern. Even though Wall Street was delighted that revenue for display ads was finally up 1 percent instead of down single digit percentages or more, the story was volume was up 7 percent, while price per ad was down by 5 percent.
The people who run Facebook aren't stupid and they can see the industry trend. Sustaining the growth that its investors expect will only get tougher so long as the price for ads continues to drop. Plus, its user expansion comes in regions where the ad revenue per person is a fraction of what users in the U.S. and Europe generate.
But Also Pretty Darn Smart
That's the desperation. Now for the smart move. Facebook has continued to become stronger in mobile. The basic premise for a smart business pivot is the rough opposite of the "innovator's dilemma," Clayton Christensen's concept that when companies become big, they get too dependent on their once disruptive, now cash-cow products and services. Management goes into denial over potential new disruptions that could tear their business apart.
In the smart business pivot, management looks at disruptive forces and recognizes that it may have to cannibalize its current strategies to avoid being made irrelevant. Just as importantly, though, the company looks for new opportunities in the disruption.
Facebook sees the wave of disruption that mobile offers. It has undertaken various attempts to make its mobile software more attractive to both users and advertisers. Facebook even tried to push a software package that would effectively make it the top screen on Android phones, though it found little interest.
What Facebook does have is a massive number of mobile users. The question now becomes what else these users might want. Payment systems have become a standard answer. And payment card companies, banks, telecom carriers, electronic payment systems such as PayPal, online conglomerates including Google, and others are all trying to get into the game.
However, Facebook has an enormous advantage: relationships with well more than a billion consumers globally. It effectively overcomes the serial balkanization of hardware vendor, operating system, and wireless carrier.
And as Leonid Bershidsky writes at Bloomberg, it may be that Facebook is aiming at the developing world:
Facebook has about 100 million users in India. One can send the euro equivalent of $200 from Germany to India for $1 in a matter of days using a London startup called TransferWise, set up by Skype's first employee Taavet Hinrikus and another Estonian, Kristo Kaarmann. Facebook might be able to improve on that by guaranteeing instantaneous transfers, and perhaps by offering lower prices, because it is so huge. Facebook is reportedly talking to TransferWise and its peers about some kind of partnership.
Bershidsky argues that Facebook would have to enter the remittance business to get cash to people. Perhaps--though in the last quarter of 2013, the company had a total of 1.2 billion monthly active users, with 368 million of them in Asia. If you have enough people already using your banking service on smartphones, do you necessarily need remittance businesses to hand cash to people? (However, it likely would make the overall business more effective.)
The point for entrepreneurs is that no business lasts forever. What can continue to thrive are relationships with customers. Focus on them and keep asking how new technology might let you provide even more value. That's the way you keep a business going.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.