Would you buy Facebook shares? A few weeks ahead of its mammoth IPO, millions of people probably dream of getting a slice of it. Spreadsheet jockeys have done their job and demonstrated with unanimous conclusiveness that, indeed, Facebook deserves its expected $100 billion valuation -- or that gravity's law will inevitably apply.
Facebook numbers are both fascinating and frightening. The social network will pass the 1 billion members mark this year and the capillarity of its services is creating an alternate internet before our very eyes. It has already become a credible substitute for email; it soon will be the dominant news channel for millions. At the same time, it is hugely profitable: Facebook's margin reaches 62% and its $3.5 billion cash pile will allow occasional mistakes or, if you prefer, bold experiments.
Then, what could go wrong for the ultra-dominant digital rhizome? Two things: its contempt of privacy and Wall Street frothy expectations.
Two years ago, I interviewed David Kirkpatrick for Le Monde Magazine. He's the author of the Facebook Effect, a book that remains a must-read if you want to understand the company and its founder. In our conversation, he described a Mark Zuckerberg perfectly aware of the sensitivity of privacy issues, but at the same time deeply convinced social norms would evolve towards nearly-total transparency. According to Kirkpatrick, Zuckerberg felt that, as long as users where given the proper tools to control it, privacy should not be an issue for his empire’s future. Put another way, Zuckerberg deeply believes in Facebook’s Grand Bargain: its core followers will accept full openness as a default setting and trade personal data in exchange of its features-rich service. He actually lived by this belief. And monetized it brilliantly.
Facebook's most valuable currency is not the "Credits" used in its games, but its huge trove of consumer data.
The efficiency of this system comes form the "platform effect", from Facebook’s federation of millions of sites that embed the "Like" button or allow their own users to register with their Facebook ID. Trying to protect one’s privacy while using Facebook is a hard Protean task as the company constantly changes its rules. Applications hosted by Facebook only make things worse as user personal data are allowed to leak to third party developers in a sneaky and overly abundant ways.
Last week, as a part of its remarkable What They Know series, the Wall Street Journal published a compelling story titled Selling You on Facebook:
A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person's religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. The popular Skype service for making online phone calls seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.
You might ask: What’s the connection between these privacy concerns and the upcoming IPO? Well, Facebook derives most of its revenue from advertising. And said advertising revenue stems from its ability to profile its users like no one else in the business. Still, in spite of its ability to serve an ad targeted to a South Texas single mother who likes Bob Dylan and Taco Bell, Facebook yields little revenue per capita. Where Yahoo makes $7 per user and per year and Google $30, Facebook’s ARPU actually amounts to a mere $4.39.
A further problem: Facebook does so after saturating its most solvent markets.
Now, let's turn to Wall Street expectations. A $100 billion valuation would mean Facebook being traded at 27 times its 2011 revenue. For comparison, Google, Apple and Microsoft, all highly profitable, are valued between 4 or 5 times their respective revenue for their last fiscal year.
Hence the math: In a recent story published in Fast Company, Farhad Manjoo quotes a Dartmouth finance professor who said "[to justify Wall Street expectations] Facebook will need to see $70 billion in annual revenue by 2021, up from just $3.7 billion in 2011", which translates into a 25% to 30% growth over the next decade... in the context of an advertising market growing at 4% per year, as Manjoo points out.
To meet these goals--even by going way beyond the one billion members mark--Facebook will have to extract more bucks from each one of its users. This means making an even better use of the data users traded for services.
This brings us to the biggest risk for the Facebook economics. If Facebook doesn't play the privacy game well, two things are likely to happen. One, members will pressure the social network to limit its use (meaning the sale) of user data. Two, legislators will enter the fray. We already see early signs of political challenges with movements such as the Do Not Track initiative, one that is laying the ground work for legislations all over the world. This concern was reflected in the Risk Factor section of Facebook's S-1 filing :
Our business is subject to complex and evolving U.S. and foreign laws and regulations regarding privacy, data protection, and other matters. Many of these laws and regulations are subject to change and uncertain interpretation, and could result in claims, changes to our business practices, increased cost of operations, or declines in user growth or engagement, or otherwise harm our business.
Facebook's future relies in great part on its ability to wisely adjust the privacy dials. Even at the expense of its shareholders’ dreams.