Back in early 2011, I predicted Facebook's $100 billion valuation. Here's what I think is coming next.
In January 2011, I wrote what was at the time an outlandish prediction: that Facebook Will Be the Next $100 Billion Company. While I was right about the outcome, I was wrong about was how it would get there; it turned out to be pure user growth—riding investor enthusiasm and pent-up Wall Street demand.
Trouble is, that's not a good recipe for Facebook out of the gates of its IPO; I expect rough waters ahead.
Here are my predictions for Facebook after this week's IPO, as a public company.
I want to make clear that as bearish as my predictions may be around valuation and expectation, I am equally confident that Facebook is not going to disappear any time soon. The network effect—i.e., the more people that use it, the better the utility for everyone—is past the point of no return. So expect it to be ingrained in more aspects of the products and services in our lives.
You already can see your Facebook friends' reviews rising to the top in Yelp and TripAdvisor, or your friends' song choices in Pandora and Spotify. This is just the beginning. Facebook is here to stay.
Understand this: Facebook shares are already overpriced. Google had 2011 revenue of $37 billion in 2011; Facebook had revenue of $3.7 billion. That's a whopping 10 times higher, and yet at $200 billion, Google's market cap is only double the roughly $100 billion Facebook is going to IPO at.
The takeaway with this enormous disparity is that Facebook's value (much to the delight of employees and early investors) has already created a bloated valuation. The flip side is that Facebook needs big revenue growth to play catch-up to its valuation—which in turn implies that buying at today's valuation is buying high.
Some IPO buyers may enjoy a quick profit while the euphoria of the IPO lasts, but it won't last until the next quarterly earnings, so I am a firm "sell" at today's valuation.
For Facebook to meet expectations (or even justify its valuation today), revenue needs to grow, a lot. But in the first quarter, its revenue growth slowed to 45% this year from 90% in 2011.
I believe that Facebook will look to increase revenue by growing its user base, showing more ads, creating more engaging ad units, monetizing mobile and launching an ad network. And without a doubt these will increase revenue.
But if the gold-medal barometer of success is to be the next Google, Facebook has to grow by 1,000%, and I do not believe these initiatives (even combined) can create anything near that sort of extraordinary growth rate.
One of the most lauded opportunities that Facebook bulls point to is that there are no ads on mobile--and half of all users use Facebook on mobile devices. While that is absolutely true, and adding ads will most definitely add revenue, this is in no way the silver bullet that some would lead you to believe.
The reason is alarmingly simple: There simply is not enough screen real estate on mobile devices like iPhones to add much in the way of ads without severely and adversely affecting the Facebook experience. That is the reason we do not yet see ads on mobile devices today.
In order to prevent ads from destroying the experience (or just driving users to use third-party apps that access Facebook with less invasive ads), ads need to be minimal and non-invasive—and, let's face it, non-invasive ads are less likely to drive significant revenue. So mobile advertising is not the answer.
Facebook launching an ad network was the thesis of my argument last year justifying an eventual $100 billion valuation. I still think this is the greatest asset and opportunity that Facebook has--and yet still nobody is talking about it.
The concept is simple. Google generates enormous amounts of revenue (some 30%, or more than $10 billion last year) from showing ads not on Google.com, but third-party sites—from mainstream news sites to blogs. Google shows ads related to the content on those sites.
If Facebook were to do the same, it wouldn't just be matching ads to content; rather it could tap into a truly enormous wealth of data based on everything they know about you—from demographic information to anything you have ever "Liked."
So why hasn't Facebook launched this yet? I think the answer is Zuckerberg himself, who in his IPO letter declared, "we don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services." This ad network would not be a service, but a vehicle to make money through and through.
If the company's priorities change or Zuckerberg bends to meet investor demands, I bet we see this product launched. But as it stands now, unequivocally...
Fundamentally, the Google experience is to let users search for products, services, and information—and then be connected directly to what they are seeking. The brilliance, and runaway success, of Google boils down to the fact that its "product" is directly intertwined with the way the company makes money.
Facebook is far more like, say, television, than Google. Granted, Facebook has amazing granular targeting and far more data to pull from. But it runs into the same wall: The value of its "product"—interacting, communicating, and posting pictures—is diminished and not enhanced by the advertising that drives the revenue model.
The fact that the user experience is not tightly linked to the advertising implies less relevant and effective advertising than Google; GM's decision to pull all of its Facebook advertising should send shivers down the spine of new Facebook investors.
All in all, have no doubt that Facebook is and will continue to be an integral and growing part of our lives, the way we communicate, share and explore. And as such, it will be a powerful and successful company in the long term.
However, in the relatively short-term "post-IPO" view, there are some sky-high expectations that will come back to haunt them—in the eyes of Wall Street and the average investor hungry to get in on the action.
That party ended before the rest of the world got the invitation.
Agree? Off-base? Now's the time to sound off and comment.
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