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NYT vs Buzzfeed: Valuations Discrepancies – Part II

Disruptive Models, newspapers, online publishing By February 22, 2015 Tags: , , , , , , 6 Comments


by Frédéric Filloux

My last column about new valuations in digital media triggered an abundance of comments. Here are my responses and additions to the discussion. 

The most revealing part of argument used by those who tweeted (800 of them), commented or emailed me, is how many wished things to remain simple and segregated: legacy vs. native media, content producers vs. service providers, ancestral performances indicators and, of course, the self-granted permission to a certain category of people to decide what is worthy. Too bad for cartesian minds and simplifiers, the digital world is blurring known boundaries, mixing company purposes of and overhauling the competitive landscape.

Let’s start with one point of contention:

Why throw LinkedIn, Facebook and old companies such as the NYTimes or the Guardian into the equation? That’s the old apples and oranges point some commenters have real trouble seeing past. Here is why, precisely, the mix is relevant.

Last Tuesday February 17, LinkedIn announced it had hired a Fortune reporter as its business editor. Caroline Fairchild is the archetypal modern, young journalist: reporter, blogger with a cause (The Broadsheet is her newsletter on powerful women), mastering all necessary tools (video editing, SEO tactics, partnerships) as she went from Bloomberg to the HuffPo, among other gigs. Here is what she says about her new job:

 LinkedIn’s been around for 11 years and today publishes more than 50,000 posts a week (that’s roughly 10 NYTs per day) — but the publishing platform is still an infant, debuting widely less than a year ago. The rules and roles are being defined and redefined daily; experimenting is a constant.

Here we are: LinkedIn intends to morph into a major business news provider and a frontal competitor to established business media. Already, scores of guest columnists publish on a regular basis on LinkedIn, enjoying audiences many times larger than their DeLuxe appearances in legacy media. (For the record, I was invited to blend the Monday Note into LinkedIn, but the conditions didn’t quite make sense to us. Jean-Louis Gassée and I preferred preserving our independent franchise.)

For a $2.2bn revenue company such as LinkedIn, creating a newsroom aimed at the business community definitely makes sense and I simply wonder why it took them so long to go full throttle in that direction — not only with an avalanche of posts but with a more selective, quality-oriented approach. If it shows an ability to display properly value-added editorial, LinkedIn could be poised to become a potent publishing platform eventually competing with The Economist, Quartz, or Les Echos. All of it with a huge data analytics staff led by world-class engineers.

That’s why I think the comparison with established media makes sense.

As for Facebook, the argument is even more straightforward. Last October, I published a column titled How Facebook and Google Now Dominate Media Distribution; it exposed our growing dependence on social media, and the need to look more closely at the virtues of direct access as a generator of quality traffic. (A visit coming from social generates less than one page view versus 4 to 6 page views for direct access.) Facebook has become a dominant channel for accessing the news. Take a look at this table from Reuters Institute Report on Digital News Report (PDF here.)


There’s no doubt that these figures are now outdated as media’s quest to tap into the social reservoir has never been greater. (In passing, note the small delta between News Lovers and Casual Users.) It varies widely from one country to another, but about 40% of the age segment below 35 relies on social as its primary source for news… and when we say “social”, we mostly mean Facebook. Should we really ignore this behemoth when it comes to assess news economics? I don’t think so.

More than ever, Facebook deserves close monitoring. No one is eager to criticize their dope dealer, but Mark Zuckerberg’s construction is probably the most pernicious and the most unpredictable distributors the news industry ever faced.

For instance, even if you picked a given media for your FB newsfeed, the algorithm will decide how much you’ll see from it, based on your past navigation and profile. And numbers are terrible: as an example, only 16% of what the pushes on Facebook actually reaches its users, and that’s not a bad number when compared to the rest of the industry.

And still, the media sector continues to increase its dependence on social. Consider the recent change in the home page of NowThis,  a clever video provider specialized in  rapid-fire news clips:


No more home page! Implementing a rather bold idea floated years ago by BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith, NowThis recently decided to get rid of the traditional web access to, instead, propagate its content only via, from left to right: Tumbler, Kik, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat. We can assume that this strategy is based on careful analytics (more on this in a future Monday Note.)

Among other questions raised by Monday Note readers: Why focus solely on the New York Times and why not include the Gannetts or McClatchys? It’s simply because, along with The Guardian or the, the NYT is substantially more likely to become predominantly a digital brand than many others in the (old) league.

To be sure, as one reader rightly pointed out, recent history shows how printed media that chose to go full digital end up losing on both vectors. Indeed, given the size of its print advertising revenue, the Times would be foolish to switch to 100% online — at least for now. However, the trends is there: a shrinking print readership, fewer points of copy sale, consequently higher cost of delivery… Giving up the idea of a daily newspaper (while preserving a revamped end-of-the-week offering) its just a matter of time — I’ll give it five years, not more. And the more decisive the shift, the better the results will be: Keep in mind that only 7 (seven!) full-time positions are assigned to the making of the Financial Times’ print edition; how many in the vast herd of money-losing, newspaper-obsessed companies?

Again, this is not a matter of advocating the disappearance of print; it is about market relevancy such as addressing niches and the most solvent readerships. The narrower the better: if your target group is perfectly identified, affluent, geographically bound — e.g. the financial or administrative district in big capital — a print product still makes sense. (And of course, some magazines will continue to thrive.)

Finally, when it comes to assessing valuations, the biggest divide lies between the static and the dynamic appreciation of the future. Wall Street analysts see prospects for the NYT Co. in a rather static manner: readership evolution, in volumes and structures, ability to reduce production expenditures, cost of goods — all of the above feeding the usual Discounted Cash Flow model and its derivatives… But they don’t consider drastic changes in the environment, nor signs of disruption.

Venture Capital people see the context in a much more dynamic, chaotic perspective. For instance: the unabated rise of the smartphone; massive shifts in consumer behaviors and time allocation; the impact of Moore’s or Metcalfe’s Laws (tech improvements and network effects); or a new breed of corporations such as the Full Stack Startup concept exposed by Andreessen Horowitz’ Chris Dixon (the man behind BuzzFeed valuation):

Suppose you develop a new technology that is valuable to some industry. The old approach was to sell or license your technology to the existing companies in that industry. The new approach is to build a complete, end-to-end product or service that bypasses existing companies.
Prominent examples of this “full stack” approach include Tesla, Warby Parker, Uber, Harry’s, Nest, Buzzfeed, and Netflix.

All of it is far more enthralling than promising investors a new print section for 2016, two more tabs on the website all manned by a smaller but more productive staff.

One analysis looks at a continuously evolving environment, the other places bets on an uncertain, discontinuous future.

The problem for legacy media is their inability to propose disruptive or scalable perspectives. Wherever we turn — The NYT, The Guardian, Le Monde — we see only a sad narrative based on incremental gains and cost-cutting. No game changing perspective, no compelling storytelling, no conquering posture. Instead, in most cases, the scenario is one of quietly managing an inevitable decline.

By contrast, native digital players propose a much brighter (although riskier) future wrapped in high octane concepts, such as: Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone (Uber), or Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful (Google), or Redefining online advertising with social, content-driven publishing technology, [and providing] the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video across the social web (BuzzFeed).

No wonder why some are big money attractors while others aren’t.


How Facebook and Google Now Dominate Media Distribution

business models, social networks By October 19, 2014 Tags: , , , , , 13 Comments


The news media sector has become heavily dependent on traffic from Facebook and Google. A reliance now dangerously close to addiction. Maybe it’s time to refocus on direct access. 

Digital publishers pride themselves on their ability to funnel traffic from search and social, namely Google and Facebook (we’ll see that Twitter, contrary to its large public image, is in fact a minuscule traffic source.) In ly business, we hunt for the best Search Engine Optimization specialists, social strategists, community managers to expand the reach of our precious journalistic material; we train and retrain newsroom staff; we equip them with the best tools for analytics and A/B testing to see what headlines best fit the web’s volatile mood… And yet, when a competing story gets a better Google News score, the digital marketing staff gets a stern remark from the news floor. We also compare ourselves with the super giants of the internet whose traffic numbers coming from social reach double digit percentages. In short, we do our best to tap into the social and search reservoir of readers.


Illustration by Rafiq ElMansy DeviantArt

Consequences vary. Many great news brands today see their direct traffic — that is readers accessing deliberately the URL of the site — fall well below 50%. And the younger the media company (pure players, high-performing click machines such as BuzzFeed), the lower the proportion of direct access is – to the benefit of Facebook and Google for the most part. (As I write this, another window on my screen shows the internal report of a pure player news site: In August it only collected 11% in direct access, vs. 19% from Google and 24% from Facebook — and I’m told it wants to beef up it’s Facebook pipeline.)

Fact is, the two internet giants now control most of the news traffic. Even better, they collect on both ends of the system.

Consider BuzzFeed. In this story from Marketing Land, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti claims to get 75% of its traffic from social and to not paying much attention to Google anymore. According to last Summer ComScore data, a typical BuzzFeed viewer reads on average 2.3 articles and spends slightly more than 3 minutes per visit. And when she leaves BuzzFeed, she goes back to the social nest (or to Google-controlled sites) roughly in the same proportion. As for direct access, it amounts to only 6% and Twitter’s traffic is almost no existent (less than 1%). It clearly appears that Twitter’s position as a significant traffic contributor is vastly overstated: In real terms, it’s a tiny dot in the readers’ pool. None of this is accidental. BF has built a tremendous social/traffic machine that is at the core of its business.

Whether it is 75% of traffic coming from social for BuzzFeed or 30% to 40% for Mashable or others of the same kind, the growing reliance to social and search raises several questions.

The first concerns the intrinsic valuation of a media so dependent on a single distribution provider. After all, Google has a proven record of altering its search algorithm without warning. (In due fairness, most modifications are aimed at content farms and others who try to game Google’s search mechanism.) As for Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is unpredictable, he’s also known to do what he wants with his company, thanks to an absolute control on its Board of Directors (read this Quartz story).

None of the above is especially encouraging. Which company in the world wouldn’t be seen as fragile when depending so much on a small set of uncontrollable distributors?

The second question lies in the value of the incoming traffic. Roughly speaking, for a news, value-added type media, the number of page views by source goes like this:
Direct Access : 5 to 6 page views
Google Search: 2 to 3
Emailing: ~2
Google News: ~1
Social: ~1
These figures show how good you have to be in collecting readers from social sources to generate the same advertising ARPU as from a loyal reader coming to your brand because she likes it. Actually, you have to be at least six times better. And the situation is much, much worse if your business model relies a lot on subscriptions (for which social doesn’t bring much transformation when compared, for instance, to highly targeted emails.)

To be sure, I do not advocate we should altogether dump social media or search. Both are essential to attract new readers and expand a news brand’s footprint, to build the personal brand of writers and contributors. But when it comes to the true value of a visit, it’s a completely different story. And if we consider that the value of a single reader must be spread over several types of products and services (see my previous column Diversify or Die) then, the direct reader’s value becomes even more critical.

Taken to the extreme, some medias are doing quite well by relying solely on direct access. Netflix, for instance, entirely built its audience through its unique recommendation engine. Its size and scope are staggering. No less than 300 people are assigned to analyze, understand, and serve the preferences of the network’s 50 million subscribers (read Alex Madrigal’s excellent piece published in January in The Atlantic). Netflix’s data chief Neil Hunt, in this keynote of RecSys conference (go to time code 55:30), sums up his ambition by saying his challenge is “to create 50 million different channels“. In order to do so, he manages a €150m a year data unit. Hunt and his team concentrate their efforts on optimizing the 150 million choices Netflix offers every day to its viewers. He said that if only 10% of those choices end up better than they might have been without its recommendation system, and if just 1% of those choices are good enough to prevent the cancellation of a subscription, such efforts are worth €500m a year for the company (out of a $4.3bn revenue and a $228m operating income in 2013). While Netflix operates in a totally different area from news, such achievement is worth meditating upon.

Maybe it’s time to inject “direct” focus into the obligatory social obsession.


Science Fiction: Mining My Own Exhaust

Big Data By April 27, 2014 Tags: , 19 Comments


A few thoughts on Big Data, self-knowledge, and my hopes for the emergence of a new genre of services.

I’m about to fulfill an old fantasy — the Great American Road Trip. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be driving all the way from Key West, FL to Palo Alto. In that spirit, today I’ll luxuriate in another, more distant reverie: Mining my own data exhaust.

I’m spurred to this indulgence by the words of Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, at an April 15th event in San Francisco [emphasis mine]:

“The core evolution of silicon, software and hardware is putting computing everywhere humans are present,” Nadella said. “And it’s generating a massive data exhaust of server logs, sensor data and unstructured social stream information. We can use that exhaust to create ambient intelligence for our users.”

Nadella’s right. I leave a cloud of data exhaust with my Web browsing, credit card purchases, cell phone use, monthly blood tests, pharmacy purchases, and airline trips. Server logs detail the length and breadth of my social interactions on Facebook and Google+… And I don’t have to be on a computer to add to the cloud: I’m tracked by toll passes and license plate snapshots as I drive my car. The car itself monitors my driving habits with its black box recording of my speed and direction. This list, far from exhaustive [no pun intended], is sobering – or exciting, full of possibilities.

Today, we’ll skip the Orwellian paranoia and fantasize about an alternate universe where I can “turn the gratis around”, where I can buy my data back.

Google, Facebook, and the like provide their services for free to induce us to lead them to the mother lode: Our cache of product preferences, search history, and web habits. They forge magic ingots from our personal data, sell the bullion to advertisers, and thus fuel the server farms that mine even more data. I’m not here to throw a monkey wrench into this business model; au contraire, I offer a modest source of additional revenues: I’d like to buy my data back. And I’ll extend that offer to any and all entities that mine my activities: For you, at a special price today, I’m buying my data.

(We all understand that this fantasy must take place in an alternate universe. If our legislators and regulators were beholden to us and not to Google, Verizon, and “Concast” [a willful typo from Twitter wags], they would have long ago made it mandatory that companies provide us with our own data exhaust.)

Pursuing this train of thought, one can conceive of brokers scouring the world for my exhausts — after having secured the right permissions from me, of course. Once this becomes an established activity, no particular feat of imagination is required to see the emergence of Big Data processing companies capable of merging and massaging the disparate flumes obtained from cell carriers, e-merchants, search engines, financial services and other service providers.

So far, especially because it lacks numbers and other annoying implementation details, the theory sounds nice. But to what end?

The impulse can be viewed as a version of the old Delphic injunction: Know Thyself, now updated as Know Thine Quantified Self: Quantify what I do with my body, time, money, relationships, traveling, reading, corresponding, driving, eating… From there, many derivations come to mind, such as probabilistic diagnoses about my health, financial situation, career, and marriage. Or I could put my data in turnaround, mandate a broker to shop facets of my refined profile to the top agencies.

Even if we set aside mounds of unresolved implementation details, objections arise. A key member of my family pointedly asks how much do we really want to know about ourselves?

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a politely cynical Parisian tailor. I ventured that he could help his customers choose a suit by snapping a picture and displaying it on a 80” flat screen TV in portrait mode. My idea was that the large scale digital picture would offer a much more realistic, a more objective image than does a look in the mirror. The customer would be able to see himself as others see him, what effect the new suit would produce – which, after all, is the point of new duds.

“No way,” said the Parisian fashionista, “are you nuts? My customers, you included,” he tartly added, “really don’t want the cruel truth about their aging bodies…”

Still, I’m curious. And not just about the shape and color of the data exhaust that I leave in my wake, about the truths — pleasant or embarrassing — that might be revealed. I’m curious about the types of companies, services, and business models that would emerge from this arrangement. Even more fascinating: How would the ability to mine and sell our own data affect our cultural vocabulary and social genetics?

PS: As offered here, I recently downloaded my Facebook data set. The data doesn’t appear to be very revealing, but that could be the result of my low Facebook involvement — I’m not a very active user. I’d be curious to see the size and detail level associated with a more involved participant.

PPS: I’ll be on the road, literally, for the next three weeks and may or may not be able to post during that time.


Religion is a safer bet than Facebook

business models, social networks By April 6, 2014 Tags: , 20 Comments


Facebook’s incredible global reach and success appear to forestall challenges. In the long run, though, the social network’s growth and its frantic quest for new revenue sources raise questions. (First of two articles)    

Casting doubt on Facebook’s future is like going to Rome and questioning the existence of God. It’s not the right venue to do so. First, you can’t argue with figures, they’re overwhelming. Each institution features about the same number of devotees: 1.2 billion across the world. As for financials, Facebook’s annual report shows strong growth and wealth: $7.8bn in revenue for 2013 (+ 55% vs 2012), net income at $1.5bn and a $11bn cash pile. As for the Catholic Church, since it doesn’t not issue financial statements, we are left to guesstimates. Two years ago, a story in the Economist provided a back-of-the-envelope calculation putting the operating budget of the American Catholic Church alone to $170bn, the bulk being health and educational institutions, with $11bn for parishes where hardcore users are – which, for that part, is much better than Facebook.

Why, then, question Facebook’s future? Mainly for two reasons: ARPU evolution and diversification.

Let’s look at a few metrics. The most spectacular is the Monthly Active Users (MAUs) base: 1.23 billion people for the entire world. An interesting way to look at that number is to break down the global MAUs into geographic zones and combine those with ARPU numbers (calculated from the quarterly figures stated in the annual report). The results look like this:


Facebook’s long term challenge comes from these two factors: North American growth will be flat this year, and the rest of the world doesn’t bring much. The company is heavily and increasingly dependent on advertising: from 85% of its revenue in 2012 to 89% last year. Logically, its only option is to squeeze more money per user — which it steadily managed to do thus far. But, in the Facebook ecosystem, making more money from ads means milking more cash from users’ data. This, in turn, will lead to a greater invasion of privacy. It certainly doesn’t seem to bother Mark Zuckerberg, who is a transparency apologist.

Actually: Is he or was he?

As author David Kirkpatrick pointed out in his excellent opus, The Facebook Effect, Zuckerberg once said that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (and judging by FB’s content policy, anyone can wonder if putting a breast-feeding pictures a sign of depravation?)

That was then.

Now, to address privacy concerns, Facebook is said to consider anonymous logins. It’s probably a good idea to back off a bit on the totalitarian pitch quoted above, but since the extensive data-mining performed by the network is made much more valuable by its use of real user names, anonymous logins are sure to impact the ARPU in the more mature markets. Along that line of thought, in Europe, Facebook’s ARPU is less than half of what it is in the US & Canada: $8.04 vs. $18.70. This significantly lower number stems from privacy concerns that are much more developed in European countries. There, the 20-25 segment seems especially worried about the consequences of spending too much time on Facebook.

A remaining lever is what I’ll call the Big Tobacco strategy: Do elsewhere what you can no longer do on your home playing field. Facebook might not be as cynical as Philip Morris (reborn as Altria as an attempt to erase the stain), but it is undoubtedly bound to try and replicate its successful collect-and-milk consumer data mechanism.

This might take a while to achieve.

First because of the ultra-slim ARPU generated by emerging markets users. You might object that the Indian market, as an example, currently enjoys growth along two dimensions: more users, with growing incomes. Granted. But the more sophisticated the India market becomes, the more inclined it will be to create a social network much more attuned to its own culture than a Menlo Park-based system manned by geeks in hoodies. Never underestimate the power, nor the determination of locals. And, let’s not dream too much about a huge Chinese version of Facebook.

Also, for Facebook, the cost of operating its service will make the ARPU question one of growing urgency. Again, based on the 2013 annual report, FB’s Cost of Revenue — mostly infrastructure —  amounts to $1.9bn. Divided by the 757 million DAUs, it costs $2.5 per year to serve a single daily user, that is connecting to his/er pals, hosting photos, videos, etc. If we aggregate all the cost structure components (networking, giant data centers and also R&D, sales & marketing, administrative), the cost of taking care of a single daily user rise to $6.69 per year and $4.12 for a monthly user. It’s still fine for an American and a European, much less so for an Asian who brings a yearly ARPU of $3.15, or an African who brings a mere $2.64 (in theory, the strain on the infrastructure is roughly the same, regardless of user location).

But some will argue Facebook is doing quite well on mobile. Out of its 1.23 billion monthly users, FB says 945 million reach its service via a mobile each month and 556 million do so on a daily basis. And, as stated in its 10-K, mobile is at the core of Facebook’s future:

There are more than 1.5 billion internet users on personal computers, and more than three billion mobile users worldwide according to GSMA Wireless Intelligence, and we aspire to someday connect all of these people. 

Fine, but once again, the ARPU weakens the ambition. While a mobile subscriber in the US and Europe brings respectively $69 and $38 each year (source: GSMA), according to the Cellular Operator Association of India, a Indian mobile subscriber yields only $1.72 per year. This makes advertising projections a tricky exercise.

As it expands, Facebook’s current model will inevitably yield less and less money per user. Hence, its frenetic quest for diversification and service extensions — a topic we’ll address in a future Monday Note.

As for the Church, it certainly is a safer bet than Facebook: The user base is less volatile, the interface blends much better into local cultures, barriers to competitive entries are stronger (and much older), and believers have long sacrificed their privacy to articles of faith.



Facebook Home: Another Android Lock Pick

mobile internet, social networks By April 7, 2013 Tags: , 18 Comments


Facebook’s new Home on Android smartphone is an audacious attempt to demote the OS to a utility role, to keep to itself user data Android was supposed to feed into Google’s advertising business. Google’s reaction will be worth watching.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire, announced late September 2011, is viewed as a clever “Android lock pick“. Notwithstanding the term’s illicit flavor, Amazon’s burglary is entirely legal, an intended consequence of Google’s decision to Open Source their Android mobile operating system. Download the Android source code here, modify it to your heart’s — or business needs’ — content, load it onto a device and sell as many as you’d like.

Because it doesn’t fully meet the terms of the Android Compatibility Program, Amazon’s proprietary version isn’t allowed to use the Android trademark and the company had to open its own App Store. In industry argot, Amazon “forked” Android; they spawned an incompatible branch in the Android Source Tree.

The result of this heretic version of Android is a platform that’s tuned to Amazon’s own needs: Promoting its e-commerce without feeding Google’s advertising money pump.

And that brings us to Facebook’s new Home.

(The company’s slick presentation is here. Business Insider’s also provides a helpful gallery.)

Zuckerberg’s new creation is the latest instance of the noble pursuit of making the user’s life easier by wrapping a shell around existing software. Creating a shell isn’t a shallow endeavor; Windows started its life as a GUI shell wrapped around MS-DOS.  Even venerable Unix command line interfaces such as C shell, Bourne, and Bash (which can be found inside OS X) are user-friendly — or “somewhat friendlier” — wrappers around the Unix kernel. (Sometimes this noble pursuit is taken too far — remember Microsoft’s Bob? It was the source of many jokes.)

Facebook Home is a shell wrapped around Android; it’s a software layer that sits on top of everything else on your smartphone. Your Facebook friends, your timeline, conversations, everything is in one place. It also gives you a simple, clean way to get to other applications should you feel the need to leave the Facebook corral… but the intent is clear: Why would you ever want to leave Home?

This is audacious and clever, everything we’ve come to expect from the company’s founder.

To start with, and contrary to the speculation leading up to the announcement, Facebook didn’t unveil a piece of hardware. Why bother with design, manufacture, distribution and support, only to sell a few million devices — a tiny fraction of your one billion users — when you can sneak in and take over a much larger number of Android smartphones at a much smaller cost?

Second, Home is not only well-aligned with Facebook’s real business, advertising revenue, it’s even more aligned with an important part of the company’s business strategy: keeping that revenue out of Google’s hands. Android’s only raison d’être is to attract a captive audience, to offer free services (search, email, maps…) in order to gain access to the users’ actions and data, which Google then cashes in by selling eyeballs to advertisers. By “floating” above Android, Home can keep these actions and data to itself, out of Google’s reach.

Facebook, like Amazon, wants to keep control of its core business. But unlike Amazon, Facebook didn’t “fork” Android, it merely demoted it to an OS layer that sits underneath the Home shell.

On paper and in the demos, it sounds like Zuckerberg has run the table… but moving from concept to reality complicates matters.

First, Facebook Home isn’t the only Android shell. An important example is Samsung, the leading Android player: it provides its own TouchWiz UI. Given that the Korean giant is obviously determined to stay in control of its own core business, one wonders how the company will welcome Facebook Home into the family of Galaxy phones and phablets. Will it be a warm embrace, or will Samsung continually modify its software in order to keep Home one step behind?

More generally, Facebook has admitted that differences in Android implementations prevent the first release of Home from working on all Android phones. In order to achieve the coverage they’ll need to keep Google (and its Google+ social networking effort) at bay, Facebook could be sucked into a quagmire of development and support.

Last but not least, there’s Google’s reaction.

So far, we’ve heard little but mellifluous pablum from Google in response to Home. (Microsoft, on the other hand, quickly attempted to point out that they were first with an all-your-activities-friends-communications shell in Windows Phone but, in this game, Android is the new Windows and Microsoft is the Apple of the early 90’s.)

Google has shown that it can play nice with its competitors — as long as they aren’t actually competing on the same turf. The Mountain View company doesn’t mind making substantial ($1B or more) Traffic Acquisition payments to Apple because the two don’t compete in the Search and Advertising business. Facebook taking over an Android smartphone is another matter entirely. Google and Facebook are in the same game; they both crave access to user data.

Google could sit back and observe for a while, quantify Facebook’s actual takeover of Android phones, keep tabs on users’ reactions. Perhaps Home will be perceived as yet another walled garden with a massive handover of private data to Facebook.

But Google already sees trouble for its Android strategy.

Many Asian handset makers now adopt Android without including services such as Google Search, Gmail, and Google Maps, the all-important user data pumps. Samsung still uses many of these services but, having gained a leading role on the Android platform, it might demand more money for the user data it feeds to Google, or even fork the code.

In this context, Facebook Home could be perceived as yet another threat to the Android business model.

A number of possible responses come to mind.

In the computer industry, being annoyed or worse by “compatible” hardware or software isn’t new. As a result, the responses are well honed. You can keep changing the interface, thus making it difficult for the parasitic product to bite into its host and suck its blood (data, in this case), or you change the licensing terms.

Google could change or hide its APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) in order to limit Home’s functionality, or even prevent it from running at all (at least until a particularly nasty “bug” is fixed). Worse, Google could makes changes that cause the Facebook shell to still run, but poorly.

I’ll hasten to say that I doubt Google would do any of this deliberately — it would violate the company’s Don’t Be Evil ethos. But… accidents could happen, such as when a hapless Google engineer mistakenly captured Wifi data.

Seriously, FaceBook Home is yet another pick of the Android lock, a threat against Google’s core strategy that will have to be addressed, either with specific countermeasures or with more global changes in the platform’s monetization.


Facebook: The Collective Hallucination

mobile internet, Uncategorized By May 27, 2012 Tags: 13 Comments

Facebook’s bumpy IPO debut could signal the end of a collective hallucination. Most of it pertains to the company’s ability to deliver an effective advertising machine.

Pre-IPO numbers looked nice, especially when compared to Google at this critical stage of their respective business lives:

Based on such numbers, and on the prospect for a billion users by the end of 2012, everyone began to extrapolate and predict Facebook’s dominance of the global advertising market.

Until some cracks began to appear.

The first one was General Motors’ decision to pull its ads off Facebook. This was due to poor click-through performance compared to other ads vectors such as Google. No big deal in terms of revenue: according to Advertising Age, GM had spent a mere $10 million in FB ads and a total $30 million maintaining its presence on the social network. But Facebook watchers saw it a major red flag.

The next bad signal came during the roadshow, when Facebook issued a rather stern warning about its advertising performance among mobile users.

“We believe this increased usage of Facebook on mobile devices has contributed to the recent trend of our daily active users (DAUs) increasing more rapidly than the increase in the number of ads delivered.”

If Facebook can’t effectively monetize its mobile users, it is in serious trouble. Numbers compiled by ComScore are staggering: last March, the average American user spent 7hrs 21 minutes on mobile versions of Facebook (80% on applications, 20% on the mobile site). This represents a reach of more than 80% of mobile users and three times that of the next social media competitor (Twitter), see below:

(source : ComScore)

More broadly, Facebook experiences the unlimited supply of the internet in which users create inventory much faster than advertising can fill it. This trend is known to push ads prices further down as scarcity no longer contains them. The reason why the TV ad market is holding pretty well is its lasting ability to create a tension on prices thanks to the fixed numbers of ad slots available over a given period of time.

Unfortunately for its investors, in many ways, Facebook is not Google. First of all, it has no advertising “killer format ” comparable to Google’s AdWords. The search engine text ads check all the boxes that make a success: they are ultra-simple, efficient, supported by a scalable technology that makes them well-suited for the smallest advertisers as well as for the biggest ones; the system is almost friction-free thanks to an automated market place; and its efficiency doesn’t depend on the quality of creation (there is no room for that). One cent a time, Google churns its enormous revenue stream, without any competition in its field.

By contrast, Facebook’s ad system looks more traditional. For instance, it relies more on creativity than Google does. Although the term sounds a bit overstated considering the level of tactics Facebook uses to collect fans and raise “engagement” of any kind. For example, Tums, the anti-acid drug, developed a game encouraging users to throw virtual tomatoes at pictures of their friends. On a similar level of sophistication, while doing research for this column, I landed on the Facebook Studio Awards site showcasing the best ads and promotional campaigns. My vote goes to the French chicken producer Saint Sever, whose agency devised this elegantly uncomplicated concept: “1 ami = 1poulet” (one friend, one chicken):

If this is the kind of concept Facebook is proud to promote, it becomes a matter of concern for the company’s ARPU.

Speaking of Average Revenue Per User, last year, Facebook made $4.34 per user in overall advertising revenue. A closer look shows differences from one market to another: North America, the most valuable market, yielded $9.51 per user vs. $4.86 for the European market, $1.79 in Asia and only $1.42 for the rest of the world. Facebook’s problem lies exactly there: the most profitable markets are the most saturated ones while the potential for growth resides mostly in the low-yield tier. In the meantime, infrastructure costs are roughly identical: it costs the same to serve a page, or to synchronize a photo album located in Pennsylvania or in Kazakhstan (it could even cost more per user in remote countries, and some say that FB’s infrastructure running costs are likely to grow exponentially as more users generate more interactions between themselves).

Facebook might be tempted to mimic a rather questionable Google trait, that is “The Theory Of Everything”. Over the last years, we’ve seen Google jumping on almost everything (including Motorola’s mobile business), trying a large, confusing array of products and services in order to see what sticks on the wall. The end result is an impressive list of services that became very valuable to users (mail, maps, docs). But more than 90% of Google revenue still come from a single stream of business, search ads.

As for Facebook, we had a glimpse already with the Instagram acquisition (see a recent Monday Note), which looked more like a decision triggered by short-term agitation than by long-term strategic thought. We might see other moves like this as Mark Zuckerberg retains 57% of the voting shares and as the company sits on a big (more than $6 billion) pile of cash. Each month brings up a new business Facebook might be tempted to enter, from mobile phones, to search.

All ideas that fit Facebook’s vital need for growth.


Decoding Share Prices: Amazon, Apple and Facebook

Uncategorized By May 27, 2012 Tags: , , 42 Comments

There are many religions when it comes to calculating the “right” price for the shares of a publicly traded company. At a basic level, buying a share is an act of faith in the company’s future earnings. The strength of this belief manifests itself in the company’s P/E (Price/Earnings) ratio. The stronger the faith, the higher the P/E, an expectation of increased profit.

Sometimes, an extreme P/E number beggars belief, it invites a deeper look into the thoughts and emotions that drive prices.

One such example is Amazon. On the Nasdaq stock market, AMZN trades at more than 174 times its most recent earnings. By comparison, Google’s P/E hovers around 17, Apple and Walmart are a mere 14, Microsoft is a measly 11.

This is so spectacular that many think it doesn’t make sense, especially when looking at Amazon’s falling profit margin (from this Seeking Alpha post):

Why do traders bid AMZN so high in the face of a declining .5% profit margin?

In his May 5th PandoDaily piece, “Nobody Seems to Understand What Jeff Bezos is Doing. Does He?”, Farhad Manjoo questions Jeff Bezos’s strategy and Amazon’s taste for obfuscating statements:

“Amazon is not merely “willing” to be misunderstood, it often tries to actively sow widespread misunderstanding. This works [to] its advantage; if competitors don’t know what Amazon is up to, if they can’t even figure out where and how it aims to make money, they’ll have a harder time beating it.”

…and he concludes:

“Is Bezos crazy like a fox? Or is he just plain crazy? We have no idea.”

He’s not alone: Year after year, critics have challenged Bezos’ business acumen, criticizing his grandiose views and worrying about the company’s bottom line. But the top line, revenue, keeps rising. See this chart from a Seeking Alpha article by Richard Bloch:

The answer to Farhad’s question, the cold logic behind the seemingly irrational share price is clear: Amazon sacrifices profits in order to gain size and, in the process, kill competitors.

That’s step one.

Step two: After having cleared the field, Amazon will take advantage of what is delicately called “pricing power”. As the Last Man Standing, they will raise prices at will and regain profitability. This isn’t Amazon’s only game. The breadth of their offering, their superior customer service and awesome logistics, make life difficult for poorly managed competitors such as Best Buy, or the undead Circuit City, to name but a few companies whose weaknesses where exposed by Amazon’s superbly efficient machine.

But traders recognize the wink and the nod behind today’s numbers, they are willing to pay a high price for a share of Amazon’s future dominant position.

Apple’s share price sits at the other end of the P/E spectrum. Revenue and profits grow rapidly: + 58% profit year-to-year, + 94% net income. “Normal” companies in their league are supposed to fall to the Law of Large Numbers: High percentage growth becomes well-nigh impossible when a company achieves Apple’s gigantic size. A $100B business needs to dig up $25B in new business to grow 25%. $25B is roughly half the size of Dell. When Apple’s revenue grows 58%, that’s more than one Dell on top of last year’s business.

Apple is the nonpareil of fast-growing, prosperous companies. They’re in a young market: smartphones and tablets. They can easily break the Law. With only 8% of the mobile phone market, the iPhone enjoys considerable headroom. And the iPad’s +151% year/year unit growth shows even greater potential.

So why isn’t Wall Street buying? Why do they think Apple has so much less room to grow than Amazon?

First, a big difference: Apple’s founder is no longer with us while Bezos is very much in command. This is no criticism of Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO. A long-time Jobs lieutenant, the architect of Apple’s supremely effective Supply Chain, a soberly determined man, well liked, respected and healthily feared inside the company, Tim Cook is eminently credible. But traders are cautious; they want to see if the Cook regime will be as innovative, as uncompromisingly focused on style and substance as before.

Second, the much talked-about iPhone subsidy “problem”. The accepted notion is that Apple has strong-armed carriers into paying “excessive” subsidies for the iPhone, some say as much as $200 more than carriers pay other handset makers. (See “Carriers Whine: We Wuz Robbed!” of March 11, 2012.) Carriers rattle their sabers, they let everyone know they’re looking forward to the day when they will no longer be fleeced by the Cupertino boys.

The numbers are impressive. Take about 150 million iPhones this calendar year (37M units in the last quarter of 2011); assume that 80% of these iPhones are subsidized by carriers…that’s $24B in subsidies. For people who are betting on Apple’s future profits, these are big numbers that could go either way: Straight to Apple’s bottom line as they do today, or back to the carriers’ coffers “where they belong”. For Apple, with today’s P/E of 14, a swing of $24B in profits would result in a change of $336B in market cap. (Today Wall Street pegs AAPL at $525B.)

I’m not saying such a shift is likely, or that it would happen in one fell swoop. I use this admittedly caricatural computation to make a point: Carrier subsidies have a huge impact on Apple’s bottom line, and the perceived uncertainty over their future gives traders pause.

I’ll now take the opposite tack with this Horace Dediu tweet:

In my venture investing experience, it sometimes happens that the top salesperson makes more money than the CEO. In most instances the exec is happy to see big revenue come in and doesn’t begrudge the correspondingly large commissions. But, in the rare case of the CEO turning purple because a lowly peddler makes more money than him (it’s a male problem), we take the gent aside and gently let him know what will happen to him if he does it again.

Carriers sound like the bad CEO complaining about excessive sales commissions racked up by their star revenue maker. Carriers are contractually obligated to keep iPhone figures confidential so we can’t make a direct ARPU comparison — but we have anonymous leaks and research-for-hire firms, they’re curiously silent on the question of actual ARPU by handset. In the absence of a clear case made to the contrary, we’ll have to assume that the iPhone is the carriers’ top revenue generator, and that the subsidies will continue.

This said, if Apple comes out with a mediocre iPhone, or if Samsung produces a distinctly more attractive handset, the salesman’s commission will disappear, Apple’s revenue per iPhone (about $650 in Q1 2012) will drop precipitously, and so will profits.

That’s the scenario that makes traders cautious: Large amounts of profit are at risk, tied to carrier subsidies. They wonder if Apple’s lofty premium is sustainable and, as a result, they assign AAPL a lower P/E.

But “caution” may be too weak a word. In a May 7th 2012 Asymco post, Horace Dediu plots Apple’s share price as a function of cash:

This is troubling. It implies that cash is the only determinant of Apple’s share price.

Put another way, and recalling that share prices are supposed to reflect earnings expectations, it appears Wall Street puts little faith in the future of Apple’s earnings [emphasis mine]:

“Given this disconnect from the income statement, the pricing by balance sheet multiple seems to be a symptom of something deeper. Reasons vary with the seasons, but the company is not perceived to have sustainable growth.

Fascinating. The collective wisdom of Wall Street is that one of the most successful high-tech companies of all times, with three healthy product lines, strong management, generally happy customers and employees is not perceived to have sustainable growth.

We’ll see.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll repeat something I’ve stated here before: I don’t own publicly-traded stocks, Google, Microsoft, Apple or any other. I consider the stock market a dangerous place where, across the table, I see people with bigger brains, bigger computers, and bigger wallets than mine. I can’t win. The casino always does…unless you don’t trade but, instead, invest–that is buy shares and keep them for years, the way Warren Buffet does.)

And Facebook?

I’ll wait for the dust of this botched IPO to settle before I try to figure out what Facebook’s share price reflects. I agree with Ronal Barusch in his WSJ blog piece: I’m not convinced that Facebook or its bankers will suffer irreparable damage.

Still, rumors and accusations are flying. Following Nasdaq’s disastrous handling of Facebook’s opening trades, we hear that the New York Stock Exchange is discreetly suggesting that the company move to a more sophisticated trading platform. This is a great opportunity for Facebook to change its FB stock trading symbol and adopt one that more accurately reflects its opinion of Wall Street.

I have a suggestion: FU.


Facebook in Frantic Mode

Uncategorized By April 15, 2012 Tags: , 15 Comments

Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram — for one billion dollars — tells a lot about Mark Zuckerberg’s state of mind. Which is at least as interesting as other business considerations and was best captured by cartoonist Ingram Pinn in last week’s Financial Times comic. To illustrate John Gapper’s excellent Facebook is scared of the Internet column, Ingram Pinn draws an agitated Mark Zuckerberg frantically walking through a hatchery, collecting just hatched startup-chicks as fast as he can, while, in the background, AOL and Yahoo collect older chickens in larger carts.

In last week’s Monday Note, I hinted that I’d never put my savings in Facebook’s stock. (For that matter, I see writing on business and owning stocks as incompatible). When I read the news of the Instagram acquisition, I wondered: Imagine Facebook already trading on the Nasdaq; how would the market react? Would analysts and pundits send the stock upward, praising Zuckerberg’s swiftness at securing FB’s position? Or, to the contrary, would someone loudly complain: What? Did Facebook just burn the entire 2011 free cash-flow to buy an app with no revenue in sight, and manned by a dozen of geeks? Is this a red-flag symptom of Zuckerberg’s mental state?

Four things come to mind.

1/ Because he retains 57% of Facebook voting rights, Zuckerberg rules its board and can make any decision in a blink of an eye, no debate allowed. This can be a great asset in Silicon Valley’s high speed tempo, or it can stir up shoot-from-the-hip impulsiveness.

2/ Facebook’s founder attitude reminds one of Bill Gates during Microsoft’s heydays: no crack allowed in the wall of its dominance. The smallest threat must be eliminated at any cost. Where Microsoft used legally dubious tactics, Facebook unsheathes its wallet and fires a billion dollars round. In the startup world, this will have two side effects: For one, Facebook is likely to become the exit of choice Google once was. Two, the size of the Instagram transaction (some of it in stock) is likely to act as a beacon for any startup harvesting users by the millions. It sets an inflationary precedent.

3/ By opting for such a deal, Facebook’s management reveals its own feelings of insecurity. It might sounds crazy for a company approaching the billion users mark and providing an array of services that became a substitute to the internet’s basic functions. But, with this transaction, the ultra-dominant social network acted like an elephant scared of a mice. Instagram has 35 million users? Fine. But how many are using the service more than occasionally? Half of it? How many are likely to switch overnight to a better app? Most likely many will. Especially since Instagram is not a community per se, but a gateway to larger ones such as Twitter and Facebook.

4/ From a feature-set perspective, Facebook might find itself in a quandary. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger designed the ultimate stripped-down application: a bunch of filters and a few basic sharing features. That’s it. It is both Instagram strength and main weakness. Such simplicity is easy to replicate. At the same time, if Facebook-Instagram wants to raise the feature-set bar, it might lose some of its users base and find itself competing with much better photo-sharing applications already populating Apple or Android app stores.
To put it differently, Facebook photo-sharing model had been leaking for a while. Zuckerberg just put  a serious plug on it, but other holes will appear. A couple of questions in passing: Will Facebook continue to accept and encourage loads of third parties photo-sharing apps that connect to its network? Some are excellent — starting with Apple’s iPhoto, especially the iDevice version that will always benefit of an optimized hardware/software integration. How does Facebook plan to deal with that? And if it chooses to grant some level of exclusivity to the Instagram app, how will the audience react (especially when you read comments saying “We liked IG because it wasn’t FB”)?

Lastly, the bubble question. Again, three things.

First, let’s be fair. If indeed there is a new internet bubble, Facebook isn’t the only player to fuel it; investors who lined up at Instagram’s doorstep did it too. A few days before the deal, IG raised $50 million at a half billion valuation; Zuckerberg snatched the company by simply doubling the bet.

Two, comparing the FB/IG deal to Google’s in 2006 acquisition of YouTube for $1.65 billion doesn’t fly either. From the outset, everyone knew internet video was destined to be huge; it was a medium of choice to carry advertising. Therefore, the takeover by Google’s fantastic ad-machine was likely to yield great results. YouTube became a natural extension of Google services — just look at how competing services such as DailyMotion in France, or Vimeo are doing without the ad rocket-engine.

Three, the metrics used in an attempt to relativize the deal are dubious at best. Instagram had no monetization strategy–other that a lottery-like exit. This says applying any kind of cost per user ($33 for the theory in vogue) is bogus. Being unable to project any sustainable revenue mechanism makes such a valuation process completely pointless. In Instagram’s case, the only way to come up with a price tag was guessing the amount of money a small group of suitors–Facebook, Google and Twitter–might be willing to cough up for Instagram’s eyeballs.

If this deal shows one thing, it is the frenzied, cutthroat competition these three players are now locked in. Mark Zuckerberg is not through with collecting hatching eggs. He won’t be alone either.